Claire and I arrived in Madrid late at night. We waited for a train to our hostel, watched by police with sniffer dogs, listening to the murmur of news and advertising emitted from wide screen televisions placed between the tracks.
We stayed at Pop Hostel, in a small, two bunk bed dorm. The room was quiet but sometimes too intimate and often awkward. The hostel was full of Brazilians, so full that Portuguese had replaced English as the language of first recourse. I was often addressed in Portuguese by strangers, then laughed at when I stammered back in confusion.
The building’s bottom floor was occupied by a small shop, selling basic foodstuffs. It was one of what would be referred to by every local I met as a “Chinese shop”. Open from early until late, it was busiest during the siesta hours when Spanish run supermarkets would close. These shops could be found everywhere. The attendants sat behind small, dark counters, closed in by the cluttered shelves, watching Chinese movies on nearby televisions. An agreement apparently exists between China’s government and Spain’s, which allows people to come over as self employed shop keepers, and sell, among other things, the cheap wares mass produced in China.
The next day I woke up with a cold, probably because I had slept on a damp beach towel in Barcelona. Claire had yet to fully recover from a stomach bug, so we agreed to stay in bed, resting. It’s a guilty thing, being sick while travelling. I felt wasteful. The train to Madrid and my bunk bed seemed to have been paid for in vain and I hankered half heartedly for the private self pity of home.
Madrid is, by the standards of most European capitals, a new city. Although inhabited since the stone age it was not the capital of Castilla, the kingdom that was united with Aragon to form Spain. And it was not until 1561 that the royal court was moved to the city. Even then it was a humble city, economically dependent on the crown. During the reign of Carlos III (1716 – 1788), described at the time as “the best mayor, the king”, modern Madrid began to develop.
The next day, feeling stronger, we walked through the city to find our bearings. Walking through a new place, intent on no particular destination, getting happily lost, has become a habit.
We had lunch at Las Bravas, a chain of fast food outlets with a patented salsa. Their creamy, bright orange and spicy sauce was served with everything. Claire asked for ketchup and mayonnaise, but they had been banished. We ate standing at a high table, because there were no chairs. People casually discarded cigarette butts and napkins as they left, adding to the piles of debris on the floor.
The afternoon brought its familiar heat. The air seemed warmest where it left the pavement and swirled around my feet, slowing my steps. People retired to shuttered rooms for a siesta, slowly emptying the streets. We made our way to the shade of the Parque del Retiro, a large expanse of green near the city centre, thick with trees, and strolled for a while, along the gravel tracks that spread confusingly in all directions. We walked past people rowing old fashioned boats on a monument adorned pond, settled down next to a small canal and fell asleep. It was our first siesta.
Ever wary South Africans are not familiar with the pleasure of sleeping in a city’s open spaces. It’s not safe and not done, except by those with very little to lose. But, when you are able to enjoy a quiet corner of an enormous park in the much same way as you would your own garden, the urban environment becomes less threatening, and the inner city becomes a much easier home.
Madrid has excellent art galleries, mostly because Spain has produced excellent artists. Velázquez and Goya are well represented at the Museo del Prado, Picasso and Dali at the Centro de Arte Reina Sophia. Claire and I visited both, our visit luckily coinciding with free weekend entrance.
We attempted a night out only once. I still felt sick and only felt worse after a few drinks. After two tapas bars and one humming square, I conceded defeat. Our guidebook brags about the city’s 4am traffic jams, but I only noticed the unhurried attitude of Madrileños. And why hurry, I suppose, when you have all night?
I had hoped to meet someone from Madrid who could speak English. Chance discussions at bars, with half drunk and half interested locals are too rare, and sometimes disappointing. A few messages on ecademy, normally a business networking website, put me in touch with Eduardo Martínez. He agreed to meet us, at quite short notice, for what I thought might be a drink or two.
On our last night in Madrid, Eduardo picked us up from our hostel and drove us through the city. In a few minutes he was showing us places that were, quite literally, although strangely, off the tourist map. None of the maps or travel guides we consulted mentioned the huge stretch of Madrid’s CBD, which lay only a few minutes outside the historical centre. They failed to mention the enormous bullring, the world’s second largest, and the scale of Spain’s largest city. It is perhaps because Madrid is so easily modern, and growing so quickly, that these blind spots exist. It confuses the standard approach to European tourism, which stresses the quaint and historical, glossing over the present.
Eduardo drove us around for over an hour, pointing out and describing more than we could absorb. Our final stop was at Plaza Mayor, once again on the tourist map, for a few drinks and some tapas. Eduardo advised us on the menu, ordered for us, and politely demanded good service from a waiter seemingly unaccustomed to giving it. Our seafood salad, pickled octopus and Serrano ham came out one at a time, at confusing intervals.
The Spanish, as a whole, eat an enormous amount of seafood. Only the Japanese eat more, and they have a far larger population. Eduardo told us this, and the conversation turned to the utter lack of sushi restaurants in Spain. The Spanish apparently fear the existence of a bacteria found in raw fish, however fresh.
At the end of the meal Eduardo got up and went into the restaurant. I quickly realised that he intended to pay and gave chase. Our offer to pay, as insistent as I thought polite, was categorically refused. Claire and I both battled to thank Eduardo enough. Claire said, trying her best, said that it was very kind of him. Eduardo responded, “No, it is very Spanish of me.”
If you enjoyed Madrid, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.