Plump cloves of garlic were skilfully chopped on a wooden board. A huge bunch of parsley received the same treatment. Then it was all mixed and tossed over sardines steeped in olive oil. On plates were thin slices of ham and cheese. Everything was done quickly and without a moment’s pause. The crowd of customers in front of the bar kept up a clamor of demands. Spanish-style potato omelet with fried green peppers, salmon, or shrimps on slices of crusty bread… Appetites were keen. Glasses of frothy beer and delicious home-made red wine were ordered to accompany the sandwiches, and hor’s d’ oeuvres. Then small plates of green olives flavored with spices and slices of lemon were placed on the table with the compliments of the management. Smiling-faced bartenders never forget this customary gesture. They are all as busy as bees. No, that is not the right description. Each one is an unsurpassed maestro conducting his customers through their symphonic metal. Even amidst the rush and bustle, they never miss the entrance of a new customer: “Hola,” “Buenas Noches!”
The bar was crammed full as usual, with almost no room even to stand up. Everyone was cheerful. The Madrilenos’ appetite for talking is as insatiable as that for tapas (hors d’ oeuvres), so the bar hummed with sound. Perhaps that is why some bars do not bother to play music.
The place is continuously emptying and filling because to stay rooted in one spot is not the Madrilenos’ habit. A drink and a tapas, and they are off again on the bar trail. Since bars and taverns are usually clustered together on the same streets, bar hopping is no trouble.
The customers were of all types. There were businessmen with loosened ties, impoverished young students, curious tourists, artists, intellectuals, and course lovers. In the corner at one end of the bar stood a young girl with a thin face and dark curly hair. She held a glass of wine in her hand, and pinned to her jacket was a CNT (National Labour Confederation) badge.
With a journal’ sna curiosity, I would have liked to ask her some questions, but I could not butt in. She was with her boyfriend. Madrid is a city of lovers! Yet Madrid stands on a high plateau far from the romanticism of the Mediterranean coast. It was proclaimed capital by Philip II in 1561, chosen because of its position at the center of the Iberian peninsula. Its climate is not at all amenable to delicate sensibilities, swinging from the bitter cold of winter to the scorching sun of summer, and the suburbs which grew up around the city in Franco’s time are filled with high concrete blocks of the most insensitive kind. But although Madrid might not have the many great works of architecture of Toledo, Salamanca, or Granada, nor the stylish magic of Barcelona adorned with the buildings of Antoni Gaudi, what visitors discover here and never forget is the passionate love of life of the Madrilenos.
To make this discovery, all you have to do is reach Puerta del Sol, a teeming square adorned with statues and fountains.
Narrow busy roads lead into this square at the heart of the city, which is regarded as the hub of all the streets in Spain, symbolized by a zero kilometer sign on a paving stone near the clock tower. This is a good starting point for those wishing to study the Habsburg architecture dating from the 16th century when Madrid became the Spanish capital. Situated in the old town, around which walls were built in the 15th century, the square is a popular meeting place, surrounded by mid-16th century buildings, jewelers’ shops, bookshops, restaurants, and a close rival, Plaza Mayor, the traditional city center. Puerta del Sol has witnessed many important events in Spanish history, such as the revolution.
2 May 1808, which was subsequently depicted by Goya. When the Republic was proclaimed in a bloodless revolution in 1931, it was here that the crowds gathered to celebrate, and here that people again meet to celebrate the new year at the stroke of midnight every year.
Madrid is a city that is a pleasure to explore on foot, particularly the area lying between Palacio Real and El Retiro Park, which was opened to the public about a century ago. This is a cultural triangle consisting of the Reina Sofia, Prado, and Thyssen museums where you can see Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s ‘black paintings,’ and the Royal Art Collection. The best place to start walking is Puerta del Sol, from which Calle Mayor leads to the palace. Calle Mayor was the main street through medieval Madrid, and on it lies Plaza Mayor, completed in 1619 according to the plan of Philip II. The profusion of balconies and windows in the baroque façades encircling the square is striking and meant that around fifty thousand people could get a good view of events down below in the yard, such as bullfights, coronation ceremonies, royal weddings, tournaments, trials, and executions, feast day ceremonies, and plays.
Today the Madrilenos still gather here, and the square is used for performances of plays and concerts.
The squares elegant but expensive cafés and restaurants, souvenir shops, street artists, and stamp dealers attract tourists. Life here is an infectious pleasure. Infectious because in Madrid, you find yourself obliged to behave like the Madrilenos even if you have only come for a few days. For example, you decide to shop in the middle of the day. Impossible! The shops are closed for the siesta, and the museums too, of course. So give up and use those hours to gather energy for the evening. It is best to wait until 14.00 during the day or 22.00 in the evenings to taste the meat and seafood dishes of the extensive Spanish cuisine. Those are the usual hours for dining in Madrid, and it is no fun eating in a restaurant filled only with tourists. During the dead hours, you can prepare for the evening to come by tasting some tapas in the bars or ‘ham museums,’ just like the locals.
It is a Madrid custom to enjoy night-time to the full and with passion.
This is the only place in the elderly and time-wearied continent of Europe where you find traffic jams and packed city buses at four or five o’clock in the morning. At that time, the people of Madrid might be returning home or off to yet another disco.
Another Madrid custom is to end the night with a drink of hot chocolate. Chocolateria San Gines, established initially to serve breakfast to people going early to work, is now the last stop of the night where people snuff out the candle with hot chocolate and sweet pastries. After living a Madrid night to the full, and especially if your visit is drawing to an end, drop by here before departing. The taste of hot chocolate will sweeten the sour disappointment of leaving this vibrant city behind.