The Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofía make up Madrid's very own "museum mile," an internationally renowned part of the capital that draws long lines of both Spanish and foreign visitors. Certainly, this concentration of world-class art is a source of pride for the city. But at the same time, you also have to ask: can you find a trepanated cranium there? Or a wax figure of Pope Francis? Or the story of the Tooth Fairy? How about African masks, old train engines, Romantic poets and early 20th-century airplanes that still fly? The answer is, probably not. But there are other museums in Madrid that offer visitors these and other off-the-beaten-path experiences.
From mummies to magic
The Reverte Coma Museum (Complejo Ciudad Universitaria, s/n) could well be one of the most bizarre and spine-chilling museums in existence. What is it that makes it so peculiar? Chiefly, its medieval trepanated craniums, its murder weapons, its poisonous plant and animal specimens, its amulets, its 2,000-year-old mummies, and its special sections on terrorism and drug trafficking. There is even a display case dedicated to white and black magic, Shamanism and witchcraft. As its website dutifully explains, in this place visitors will "penetrate into the deep chasms of the human soul and personality when they are in an altered state, and witness the ensuing barbarity, destruction and crimes resulting from a lack of culture, a bad education and a vicious organization of society." The museum's holdings comprise items received by Professor Reverte Coma, director of the Anthropology Laboratory, from various parts of the world. Given the exotic nature of many of its pieces, in 1980 he decided to turn his collection into a museum. In 2009, this gallery of horrors, which is also known as the (take a deep breath) Museum of Medical-Forensic Anthropology, Paleopathology and Criminology of the Legal Medicine School at Madrid's Complutense University, was restored and reopened to the public, although at the present time it is temporarily closed again.
A touching experience
Your eyes are not much use around here. At the Museo Tiflológico (C/ La Coruña, 18), run by Spain's national blind people's organization, ONCE, everything is touchable to ensure that individuals with impaired sight can enjoy the displays. These include scale models of architectural landmarks such as Burgos cathedral, the Sagrada Família Basilica in Barcelona and the Eiffel Tower; work by artists with visual disabilities; a history of the famous ONCE lottery tickets; and tools such as Braille typewriters and adapted calculators.
A penny for your teeth
On the wall at Calle Arenal, 8 is a plaque that reads: "This is where Ratón Pérez [Pérez the Mouse, Spain's equivalent of the Tooth Fairy] lived, inside a biscuit tin in the Prast bakery, according to the story that Father Coloma wrote for the child king Alfonso XIII." The building houses the Casa Museo del Ratón Pérez, a place where visitors can learn about the origin of the popular story about the mouse that leaves a coin under children's pillows in exchange for their baby teeth. There is even a small sample of teeth (false, mind you) from illustrious figures such as Mozart and Beethoven.
Turning back the clock
The venerable old watchmaker's shop Grassy, located on the ground floor of the building of the same name at Gran Vía, 1, also contains a venerable display of old clocks. Founded in 1953 by Alejandro Grassy, the Museo de Relojes Antiguos only opens by appointment, and constitutes a journey through the history of mechanical watchmaking, in which art and technical prowess come together seamlessly. The collection includes early artifacts from the 14th century and Empire-style clocks from the 1800s. And they all still work.
Alaska and Pope Francis
Now here is a real classic for lovers of all things odd. While it might have something of an old-fashioned atmosphere, Madrid's wax museum, the Museo de Cera (Paseo de Recoletos, 41), remains at the forefront of change: its next additions are set to be 1980s pop singer Alaska and the recently elected new head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Not long ago, the museum incorporated wax figures of George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Barack Obama and Mario Vargas Llosa. There is also a likeness of "Johnny Deep" (website spelling) as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Of course, the chamber of horrors — with its little train — is still intact, as is its Crime Gallery, which has fired the imagination of generations of visitors.
A not-so-ghostly ghost station
Chamberí metro station, located on Line 1 between Iglesia and Bilbao, was a ghost stop until it became a museum in 2008. Together with the Nave de Motores engine warehouse in Pacífico, it now comprises Metro de Madrid's interactive center (Plaza de Chamberí, s/n). The Chamberí station has been restored and left exactly the way it was on the day of its closure in 1966 — even down to the same posters. Meanwhile, the Nave de Motores, a good example of industrial archeology, shows how the huge machines it houses supplied energy to the subway system from when they were built in 1923 to 1972, when they became obsolete.
Africa in a nutshell
The enormity and diversity of Africa is almost impossible to represent. But the Museo Africano Mundo Negro (C/ Arturo Soria, 101) provides a good approximation of the continent's mysteries. The museum displays items from various countries south of the Sahara Desert, from dresses and necklaces to helmets, weapons, hunting tools, musical instruments, sculptures and masks.
The 19th century was a time of poetry, black clothing, suicidal tendencies and stormy passions — a time of pure life and pure death. The Museo del Romanticismo (C/ San Mateo, 13) explores the Spanish manifestation of the Romantic movement through paintings, photographs, prints, drawings, furniture and decoration, so visitors can get a comprehensive view of the way people lived back then.
Land, sea and air
Once upon a time, intrepid aviators explored the skies inside colorful contraptions. Up to 40 of these aircraft, built between 1925 and 1955, are on display at the Museo de Aviones Históricos en Vuelo (Historical Airplanes in Flight Museum), run by the Infante de Orleans Foundation at Cuatro Vientos airfield. What's more, on the first Sunday of every month, the planes take to the sky for a demonstration. Also to be found at Cuatro Vientos, the birthplace of Spanish aviation, is the Museo del Aire, which focuses on military aircraft. Meanwhile, the Museo Naval (Paseo del Prado, 5) preserves and disseminates information on Spain's naval history. The museum holds around 10,500 sea-related items, including King Philip II's astronomical compendium and a scale model of a Flemish galleon. Similarly, the Museo del Ferrocarril railway museum (Paseo de de las Delicias, 61), housed in the Modernist-style former station of Delicias, features a collection of historic engines and carriages.
A museum with really good taste
Perhaps one of the best-appreciated "museums" in town. OK, the Museo del Jamón, is really a popular and inexpensive eating establishment where a profusion of legs of cured ham hang from the ceiling and walls. Now with branches across the city, the first outlet opened across from the Museo del Prado, which was provided the inspiration for the name.