If it’s hard to envision a picture postcard that says Madrid the way the Eiffel Tower says Paris or Buckingham Palace says London — that’s because the essence of the city is hard to capture in a photograph. So what is Madrid’s essence?
Madrid pulsates with a vitality all its own. Like no other city I’ve visited, including even Rome, the city’s double-espresso heart rate throbs with a life force that’s palpable the moment you step onto the street.
It’s a city of night owls to be sure — here, the party doesn’t get started until 11 p.m. It’s a city of fervent bon vivants and has put itself high on the list of the globe’s top culinary destinations. And yes, Madrid has high culture, haute couture and peak experiences in gastronomy. But it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
I’ve spent a good deal of time over the years pondering the source of Madrid’s character. And in numerous visits spent with a companion born and raised in one of the city’s oldest barrios, I’ve reached a conclusion: The source of Madrid’s insuperable energy lies in the way Madrileños (los gatos, as they call themselves — a nickname said to date back to the Middle Ages to describe those who scaled castle walls with the dexterity of cats) connect with their city’s streets.
Even in the middle of the day, you’ll see men on park benches strumming guitars and singing — not busking for money, just playing out in the open. Madrileños don’t care much for solitude.
“On the street, we are completely at home,” said my friend Maria Sanchez, who has divided her time between Los Angeles and Madrid for many years. “Gatos own the streets in a way that you see only in Madrid. Everyone goes out — to eat, to drink, to meet — and that ranges from young children to the very elderly.”
Many years ago, during my first visit there, I initially found myself a little taken aback by the way Madrileños so unabashedly exercised their right to public assembly. An American watching Plaza de Santa Ana or La Plaza Mayor fill up with young revelers who swoop in on mopeds might suspect a riot brewing. But no — it’s just a party. And the really hot spots, the bars and cafes that line the streets and squares, are merely a theoretical line between indoor and outdoor life, with tables and chairs spilling onto the sidewalks and into the plazas.
Second only to eating and drinking out, a favorite pastime in Madrid is people-watching, and especially for a visitor, it’s a sheer joy to observe the unbridled animation with which every transaction is conducted.
In a taberna, when you order a glass of fruity Rioja or a cold beer, the bartender will shout out a confirmation of your order (whether it’s to you or to himself is hard to tell) as if he’s the town crier announcing the birth of a prince.
Then he’ll smack the bar open-handed with a force that usually indicates an intention to secede from a government. As your drink is poured, a saucer containing some exquisite tapa comes skidding across the bar. I’ve never stopped reveling in the anticipation of what it will be: calamari, boquerones (small, marinated anchovies) with a slice of bread; a slice or two of jamón serrano; or a strip of garlicky marinated red bell pepper. Those complimentary tapas perhaps have less to do with food itself than a whole approach to indulging the senses — little bursts of flavor with lots of variation (and perhaps worthy of the word hedonism, which was regarded by the Greeks as a serious approach to life).
That, of course, extends to haute cuisine, and Madrid’s passion in that department is unrivaled. From the trend-setting restaurant la Terraza del Casino, brainchild of Ferrán Adriá, considered to be one of the world’s greatest chefs, to a recent influx of top-shelf Asian restaurants that rival any on the Pacific Rim, Madrid has it all. Like the city itself, the cuisine has become international.
Art, too, is woven into the fabric of Madrid. I’ve heard it said that a perfect day in Madrid is having your mind twisted by the paintings of Salvador Dali and your palate twisted by a chef like Adriá.
Madrid is my favorite city in the world for fine art. At El Museo del Prado a serious art lover could happily spend a week taking in the collection of European art and sculptures that spans the 12th to 19th centuries. And with its open spaces and smaller crowds, it’s nothing like the crowded mosh pit that is the Louvre. Same goes for the Museo Reina Sofia, which emphasizes 20th-century art, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which offers visitors an overview of art from the 13th to the late 20th centuries.Together they form Madrid’s Art Walk.
From the Gran Via (sometimes referred to as Madrid’s “Broadway” and a showcase of Art Deco and other early 20th-century styles of architecture), to the narrow, winding 16th-century passageways extending out from Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s streets are an urban orchard of cosmopolitan enjoyment.
Amid all this, it’s no wonder an old proverb describes the city as a final step on the way to heaven: “De Madrid, al Cielo … y un agujerito para verlo”: “After Madrid, Heaven … and a peephole to see it through.”
– Martin Booe, Custom Publishing Writer