Good Morning From Madrid



I love mornings in Madrid – there’s no-one about until relatively late, then the city slowly comes to life; the owners of market stalls, cafés, fruit and vegetable stores commence the ritual washing of pavements, and awnings are put up against the sun. The fierce invading light washes over everything, but can’t reach far into the narrow backstreets.

 It’s absurd to form an opinion of a city on the basis of a weekend trip, which, I imagine, is why we all come away with different opinions about the same place. I’ve been to Madrid maybe half a dozen times and never see the same face of it twice.

Admittedly, one trip involved a sidebar taking in Franco’s tomb (before they moved him), a truly bizarre experience equivalent to taking tea with Bolsonaro. This time we’re here for dinner with my oldest friend in a restaurant near the city’s still very active bullring. The corrida is alive and thriving here. 

Madrid is the city of inclusion, the only one I know with a gay metro station and a huge poster as you arise on the escalator asking, ‘Do you want a bigger penis?’ accompanied by a photo of a man peering at his erection. Sexuality in all its forms has been confronted full-on since the Franco years.

I’m staying in a stunning stripped-brick AirB&B apartment in the city centre that works out at €100 a night, the rental price halved by the recent loss of revenue from tourists. Much has changed since I was last in the city; more public art, electric transport, more greenery, pedestrianised zones and an even greater social mix, so that it’s common now to see Muslim women enjoying themselves in Chueca, the gay neighbourhood.

The commercialisation and homogenisation of its best streets is part of an international problem, and means the usual losses of shops and restaurants to chains. Store closures have risen sharply in the pandemic. The long-term effects of the 2008 crash and subsequent economic woes have left a shocking number of people queuing at food banks. As in most European cities, the wealth gap is ever-expanding.

I always forget how bone-cold it can be in winter, below freezing this week, yet burning when seated beneath a dazzling cyan sky. Madrid is the city in the plain, subject to extremes of temperature, unbearable in July.

I also forget how much the residents live outdoors. When you have five specifically named mealtimes punctuating the day, as sacred as calls to the muezzin, you have to adjust how to spend your time. Attempts to get rid of the siesta have only partially worked.

There are several major exhibitions to catch on a flying visit – what to see in a weekend? Food is central to Spanish wellbeing, and quite a few restaurants have been operating for over a hundred years. And how much more sophisticated they are than in London; the waiters more professional, the dishes more stylishly presented, the experience more attentive. My home town has lately become complacent and overpriced. And  in such a meat-based city a new wave of vegetarian restaurants is welcome.

Expect plenty of fusion menus in Madrid from the Latin world, especially a new understanding of Peruvian cooking. One meal, at Sala de Epieces, turned out (unfortunately for me) to consist mainly of raw dishes torched at the table, but even I could appreciate the ingenuity of the menu.

We’ll next be catching a fast train to Barcelona (journey time; 2.5 hours) and spending a few days there. I’ll be editing ‘Hot Water’, then returning to London for more treatment. Hasta luego.


26 comments on “Good Morning From Madrid”

  1. Jo W says:

    Oh,Chris, the colour of that sky! Wow. Oh and you don’t look too bad as well. Enjoy yourselves.

  2. Roger Allen says:

    A friend of mine who died a few years ago in his nineties used to do the national lottery. I pointed out that there wasn’t much point unless – dropping a hint – he was going to put me in his will. He explained that as a former member of the International Brigade if he won a fortune he was going to set up an organisation to pay people to go and piss on Franco’s grave. The grave remains undefiled, even if it’s been moved.
    I remember a couple of propaganda films made for Franco just after the Civil War ended. What was really chilling was the gloating commentary. It wasn’t just a matter of Franco’s supporters celebrating their victory but of rubbing the losers’ faces in their defeat.

  3. Bernard says:

    We spent just a few days in Madrid several years ago. The Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza were exceptional but we left feeling we did not wish to return. We were probably poorly advised as we did not have a single decent meal there. Also, we arrived during a series of protests resulting from the 2008 financial debacle. The protesters spray painted the screens of all the ATMs in central Madrid making them unusable. This did not seem to be a productive way to encourage one to sympathize with their point of view.

    Barcelona was far more appealing and we would happily return.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    I always enjoyed Madrid’s don’t ‘give a rat’s arse’ approach to daily life. Whether it’s because the weather there apparently feels the same way, the relative lack of tourists to be indulged compared to Barcelona, for example, because it’s simply the third largest metro area in Europe after London and Berlin — or some combination thereof — I found the Madrileños to be invariably welcoming but with a definite ‘tómelo o déjelo’ (‘take it or leave it’) attitude. Funky, gritty and sophisticated from centuries of embracing immigrants and outsiders. What’s not to like ?

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    Btw — You and ‘Julia’ look terrific!

  6. Paul+C says:

    Curiously few comments here (we’re all obviously jealous) so I may as well mention an excellent book I stumbled across in a charity shop : The Devil’s Own Work by Alan Judd (1991) which seems to have been a celebrated book at the time : it won the Guardian Fiction Prize but has fallen into obscurity – an absolute masterpiece which I’d never heard of. Has anyone read this ? A new edition is available from Valancourt Books whose website is well worth a visit for revivals of lost books.

  7. Roger says:

    I agree about The Devil’s Own Work, Paul C. Of the books I’ve read by Alan Judd, it’s much the best I’ve come across. He wrote a biography of Ford Madox Ford, who strongly influenced the book. I think he’s another of the MI5/6 novelists.

  8. Andrea says:

    Glad to see you having adventures!

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Paul & Roger. Thanks for the headsup. I’ve read Judd before with pleasure but missed this one.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin About those new trainers… Was it something (or more like several things) you ate which violently didn’t agree with you ? Or were they designed by committee ?

  11. admin says:

    Bernard –
    To counter your food experience we had incredible meals there – better than in Barcelona. It has three-star Michelin restos and a phenomenal foodie scene, with with even high-end places guaranteeing a ‘Menu Del Dia’ – that’s three courses plus water and wine – for around €12.

  12. admin says:

    Bernard –
    To counter your food experience we had incredible meals there – better than in Barcelona. It has three-star Michelin restos and a phenomenal foodie scene, with with even high-end places guaranteeing a ‘Menu Del Dia’ – that’s three courses plus water and wine – for around €12.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin You can’t really unsee those trainers. That being the case — I presume you bought them at the Fundació Joan Miró museum on Montjuïc.

  14. Roger says:

    I forgot to say, Admin: the way to cope with cold weather is to wear a hat outdoors. The same with hot weather; just a different kind of hat. Never mind how you look (or think you look), you can gloat over the people who deride you when they collapse from the cold or heatstroke.

  15. Helen+Martin says:

    Roger, you’re absolutely correct, although missing the other half. If your head and feet are warm then all of you will be. Likewise the reverse in hot weather.

  16. Roger Allen says:

    I think wearing nothing but a hat and shoes – even a Donegl tweed cap and admin’s new super-trainers – and nothing else would not ensure that if your head and feet are warm then all of you will be, but I am not personally inclined to try the experiment. Likewise the reverse, as you say, in hot weather, Helen Martin..

  17. Wayne+Mook says:

    A scarf and a woolly hat just the ticket.

    From M&S I was eating Dark Chocolate Habanero Chilli Tortilla Chips, my little one doesn’t like them but i find they go down far too easily, so i think I’ll get some more.


  18. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thanks once again Wayne for the food report, although I think you must have a cast iron stomach (to use an old term)!
    I vote with your little one on the idea of Dark Chocolate Habanero Chilli on tortilla chips or anything else for that matter.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Wayne Can I assume you’re eating your way through the M&S tortilla chips line ? If so — need reviews for the Chorizo and Red Pepper and the Sweet Potato Seed. Others for the Sweet Potato Parsnip Crisps and the Mini Poppadoms would also not go amiss. Munch on!

  20. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu-I-am – I fear that our favourite author may not be eligible for the crime lovers award since Random House Penguin is certainly (I hope) larger than their maximum size of publisher. Of course, Doubleday is also mentioned on the copyright page with Transworld Publishers as its owner. Transworld is up at the very top of the page with a physical address but described as a part of Penguin Random House. I really sympathise with kids learning how to cite sources when faced with a mishmash like this. Do enlighten me.
    As for heat/cold clothing show me where I limited clothing to hats and shoes. In fact, I didn’t even mention shoes. I’m learning to be very careful with phrasing.

  21. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin I can see where the text was a bit confusing but, you could have voted for CF as ‘Best Author,’ and for ‘Best Crime Novel’ (since ‘London Bridge’ was published within the specified period) neither of which has a publisher size/turnover limitation (which I did several times — Just kidding …).

    I think what threw you off was the sentence which defined an “Indie” crime novel which does have a publisher size/turnover limitation. Unfortunately, the nominations closed at Noon today (10 Nov) but assuming CF does make one or more shortlists, we will again be able to show our approbation. I’ll keep watch and post the link here when it shows up. Transworld is the British arm of Penguin Random House which has its headquarters in NYC. But wait, a proposed merger between PRH and Simon & Schuster (the third largest US publisher), now on hold because of an antitrust suit by the US Department of Justice, could really confuse things if it does go through.

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin I inadvertently forgot to add Doubleday to the ‘publishing salad.’ It is what is called an ‘imprint’ — basically a trade name or ‘ brand’ a publisher (Transworld in this case, as the British division of the American Penguin Random House) uses for certain categories or genres of books.

    As indicated by your ‘confusion,’ the use of imprints has virtually nothing to do with the reading public which could generally care less about who published a book. It is essentially an organizing scheme as publishing houses continue to get bigger through consolidation or mergers and which makes navigating these ever larger corporate mazes by authors and their agents — booksellers, as well — more manageable (and usually more efficient).

  23. Helen+Martin says:

    The problem, Stu, for those of us older than those millennials is that we can remember when Doubleday was a publishing house on its own, as were Penguin (hmm, not quite so sure there), and Random House. Of course there were others, too, Knopf and that other one that was ** and then **and son, then ** and sons and then **’s sons. As each firm developed an image the name became special so that if firms bought each other out they had to ensure that people looking at their lists knew where to look. People did look at the firms’ fall and spring lists, ordinary people just looking for reputably published books for their home libraries. That’s a long time ago but it’s why old names still wander about the shelves.

  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be’ — to borrow the title of the musical comedy. The publishing houses you’re probably referring to with ‘sons’ in their names are: Charles Scribner’s Sons (now part of Simon & Schuster), G.P. Putnam’s Sons (now part of the Penguin Group, itself a division of Penguin Random House) and John Wiley & Sons, the textbook publisher, which is still independent. Knopf is now part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group imprint (PRH). And I forgot to mention that PRH is itself owned by Bertelsmann the privately held German media giant.

    Further consolidation may be inevitable, but it doesn’t bode well for authors (except for the bestselling ones) or the smaller presses and bookselling in general. To all intents and purposes, this ‘supersizing’ of the publishing industry is a reaction to the dominance of Amazon — probably ensuring better negotiated deals for the megafirms’ bestsellers and backlist titles (the ‘cash cows’ of the industry) but dramatically changing the landscape elsewhere even further for the always fragile publishing industry and those who rely on it — including us.

  25. Wayne+Mook says:

    Helen as Stu said, PenguinRandom is now part of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. Penguin was a line of The Bodley head before going it alone and so was a separate entity, they created some amazing books, and a distinctive look for certain lines. The Bodley Head is now just a line for Penguin/Random house. Penguin and Random house merged in 2013 so reducing the big 6 to the big 5 publishers in English in the US = Random House/Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan.


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