The D&O Diary’s European sojourn concluded with a brief stop earlier this week for business meetings in Madrid. I had never been to Madrid before. Like many Americans, I have a deep attachment to Paris, a city I have visited many times and for which I have an abiding affection. However, after my visit to Madrid this week, I now recognize that a visit to Madrid was long overdue — and that my bias toward Paris may have been due to a simple lack of critical comparative data.
Madrid is a big city. Its population is almost 3.5 million, a little less than that of Los Angeles. Driving in from the airport, the city’s size and sprawl are apparent. But Madrid’s Centro de la Ciudad is quite compact. It is possible to walk the diameter of the city center, from the Palacio Real to the Museo del Prado, in an afternoon. But though it is physically possible to traverse the central city in a short time, to actually do so would be a mistake. There is so much to see within the city that a more leisurely pace is by far the better approach, and indeed Madrid’s own rhythm pretty much requires it anyway.
The city’s heart (and literally the country’s central point) is the sun-drenched, crescent-shaped Plaza Puerto del Sol (pictured above at the top of the post). Radiating northward from the plaza are busy upscale pedestrian shopping streets. Far more interesting are the streets to the west of the plaza, full of stores selling clocks, musical instruments, antique religious paraphernalia, coins, tapestries, hats, gloves, and assorted other remnants of time and history.
Just to the southwest of the Puerta del Sol is the Plaza Mayor, a sprawling, colonnaded quadrangle with an area of nearly 200,000 square feet enclosed by three-story residential structures mixing Habsburg, Bourbon and Georgian architecture. Today, the Plaza is ringed with shops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and thronged with sightseers snapping selfies with their cell phones. Enterprising young hustlers work the crowd, trying to sell French and Italian school kids little plastic wind up pieces of crap and bird whistles that make a sound like a duck with a hernia.
I had a particularly pleasant evening sitting at a sidewalk café in the Plaza Mayor, watching the peaceful procession of tourists while the sun set and the day turned to dusk. The Plaza has not always been so serene. At the Museo del Prado, I saw a painting from the time of the Spanish Inquisition depicting an auto de fe in the Plaza Mayor. The painting appeared to have been created in celebration of the event, which involved the trial of dozens of heretics. Among the attendees depicted in the painting was the then-monarch, King Charles II (who proved to be the last of the Spanish Habsburg monarchs). As I watched the darkness gather in the Plaza, I wondered whether the ancestors of the swifts and swallows that flitted about the twilight sky also flew about the heretics’ pyres as well.
The sun sets unexpectedly late in Madrid — after 9 pm local time while I was there. Turns out that Madrid has put itself in the “wrong” time zone. Madrid is actually a little bit further west than London, but rather than sharing Greenwich Mean Time with the U.K., Madrid has put itself on Central European Time, the same time as the rest of Western Europe. Madrileños adaptation to solar time explains in part – but only in part— their late-shift lifestyle. The hours around midnight are prime time in the city’s many atmospheric neighborhoods. But it is not just the evenings that are late. The entire day is oriented later.
For one of my business meetings while there, I met a couple of industry colleagues for lunch. We met at my hotel at 1:30 pm, and we strolled around Malasaña, one of the many neighborhoods in the city center with atmospheric, narrow alleyways lined with tabernas, wine bars, and restaurants. From there, we made our way through a maze of city streets to the Mercado de San Miguel, a 19th century iron-canopied marketplace near the Plaza Mayor. After a renovation completed in 2009, the market is now full of small, upscale eateries, as well as shops selling upmarket meats, cheeses and wine. We paused there to share a plate of oysters from Galicia, which we ate standing up and which we washed down with a glass of white wine. From there, we made our way westward toward the Palacio Real, to a traditional Spanish restaurant near the Plaza de las Vistillas (which affords an agreeable view of the green expanse of the enormous Casa de Campo and the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains beyond).
We finally sat down at our table for lunch at about 3:15 pm. The restaurant was packed. After many plates of sardines, clams, small squares of dried ham and toasted bread with tomato sauce, plus potatoes with eggs, fish cooked in garlic with onions and mushrooms, cheese, and much else besides, we finished our lunch around 5:30, about the same time as the rest of the lunchtime crowd. No wonder they eat dinner so late in Madrid.
In at least one respect, the city’s late-hour orientation worked to my advantage. One day, after I had finished my meetings for the day, I was able to sneak in a visit to the Museo del Prado, because it stays open until 8 pm. The Prado unquestionably is one of the world’s great art museums. Its collection holds over 7,000 paintings, including many masterpieces of Western Art, but from my perspective, the most interesting art works in the museum are the "pinturas negras" (black paintings) of Francisco Goya. The fourteen paintings, which were given their collective name due to the artist’s heavy use of dark pigment, were painted as murals in the artist’s rural retreat and apparently were never meant for exhibition. The paintings are intense and haunting, and present quite a contrast to the many galleries of well-fed Habsburgs and Bourbons upstairs.
In a happy stroke of luck, my visit to Madrid coincided with the feast day of San Isidro. Because San Isidro is the patron saint of Madrid, his feast day is a city holiday. On the feast day, a number of people in traditional attire made a pilgrimage to the various sites around the city associated with the saint, including a well at which the saint is reported to have miraculously saved the life of his son through the intercession of angels. One of the day’s traditions includes drinking water from the well, a ritual (in which I joined) that is supposed to produce particularly salubrious effects, both physically and spiritually.
Most of the city’s residents seemed to be honoring the saint’s feast day by strolling through Madrid’s parks and ancient neighborhoods, with their narrow streets and tiny plazas. And why not? Madrid has to be one of the best cities in the world in which to just walk around. I got lost numerous times while I was there, which at first I found quite frustrating, as I have a certain pride in my sense of direction. But after a while, I realized that it didn’t matter, that I should just follow the streets where they led and enjoy the scene as I passed through.
Given the throngs of happy strollers on San Isidro’s feast day, the idea that Spain is the midst of an economic crisis seems wildly implausible. Nick Paumgarten explained this seeming paradox in a February 23, 2013 New Yorker article entitled “The Hangover” (here):
It is often hard to perceive an economic crisis. Debt doesn’t look like much. It has no shape and smell. But over time, it leaves a mark. In Spain, it manifested itself, first, as empty buildings, stillborn projects and idled machines. The country is now a museum of doomed developments – a white-elephant safari… In twenty years, Spain acquired an urbane opulence that turns out to have been built on debt that cannot be repaid…. Once the crisis came, foreign money dried up. No one, in either the private or public sector, wanted to finance Spain’s liabilities, and interest rates shot up. Spain is now stuck with an unaffordable currency and seemingly unpayable debt.
What may lie ahead for Madrid and for the country remains to be seen. The city and the country have been through very dark times before. Whatever may come, it seems likely the city will endure, as it has through centuries of change.
I opened this post about Madrid by mentioning Paris. My invocation of the romantic French city was deliberate. I know that for many Americans, Paris represents the urban ideal, as is captured in the old saying to the effect that when good Americans die, they go to Paris (a quotation variously attributed to Oliver Wendall Holmes and Oscar Wilde). With all due respect to our conditioned reverence for all things Parisian, I have to say that Madrid has every bit of Paris’s charm – perhaps even more. As one of my American friends in Madrid put it, Madrid is Paris without the Parisians. I wouldn’t quite put it that way, as I happen to have had only good experiences with Parisians. I would say that Madrid is Paris without the requirement for rigid adherence to certain aesthetic forms.
Whether or not the comparisons between the two cities are apt, or even necessary, the simple fact is that Madrid is a colorful city with a rich and complicated historical heritage, and a vibrant street life of which I think I could never grow tired.
I propose a revision to the old saying; how about this – when good Americans die, they wind up in Madrid on a warm spring evening, seated at an outdoor table at a tapas bar, with a bottle of Rioja and hours to go before the dawn.
More pictures of Madrid:
Fiesta de San Isidro:
Paseo del Prado:
The Streets of Madrid