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.