It’s been five weeks since I traveled in Spain and my thoughts drift back there often. What comes to mind most frequently is Madrid. I think it has something to do with not feeling like a tourist there; I felt connected. And I attribute that, in part, to the lovely flat we rented, right in the middle of everything with a set of doors that opened directly onto Calle de la Bolsa, the pedestrian street, below.
From my favorite perch on the sofa, I could see the weekend activities of the Madrileños nearby. Early in the morning, I watched the merchant across the street methodically sweeping the whole area in front of his store, straightening the garbage cans and capturing every misplaced leaf. Later, servers from the two restaurants on this block set up the tables and chairs that had been neatly stacked the night before, and wiped them down in anticipation of the lunch crowd.
Any time of the day or evening, I might hear musicians stopping to play for the people dining in the street. Then they’d wander to another location. The only one who didn’t move (I assume because it took so long to set up and the acoustics on this street were particularly good) was the water glass player. Unfortunately, he performed a very limited number of songs, and I soon knew them all. His favorites seemed to be Love Story and Ave Maria. I never cared for Love Story, but I used to really love Ave Maria.
Children practiced soccer, people walked their dogs, a group of men played a street game (not scammers), and families strolled with babies. At least once a day, I heard the clip-clop of the mounted police riding their horses past my window on this world.
But the real action on my street started in the evening, just about the time I sat down with my cheese and wine to begin writing. And it lasted well past midnight. Occasionally the people on the street had to move aside for police cars or taxis, and in the day, delivery trucks. But no one seemed to mind.
I was always astounded at the children out so late. But the Spanish first eat dinner at 9 or 10 pm. I finally found out why. If you look at a globe, you’ll see that Spain is actually below and west of England. Originally, Spain was in in the Greenwich Mean Time zone, with the UK. During WWII, Franco moved Spain to Central European Time to show solidarity with Hitler. But the Spanish people, many of whom were farmers, continued to live their lives as they had.
This meant that, while they ate at the same time as before, the clock said they were dining an hour later. Thus, an 8 pm dinner became 9 pm. The tourist industry in Spain benefits because the sun sets late (Spain also goes on Daylight Savings Time with the rest of Europe) and visitors have so much evening to enjoy. But personally, I prefer an earlier evening meal. Shoot, back home I’m in bed by 9.
Just a block away, almost an extension of my street, was the famous historic Plaza Mayor. It is surrounded by buildings on all four sides, the only access being through arches leading in from all directions. The buildings are lined with arcades, mostly filled with taverns and restaurants. We spent a fair amount of time here, people watching, soaking up the sun, and passing through.
King Phillip II who chose Madrid as the Capital of Spain (1561) began plans for the plaza, rebuilding a market plaza that already existed. It was finally constructed under the reign of his son, Phillip III, whose equestrian statue graces the center. This historic place has been used for markets, soccer games, concerts, and in times past, before the statue was placed in the center, for bullfights, public executions and the Spanish Inquisition’s auto-da-fé.
You never know what you will see here. One afternoon, a director was shooting footage with a dance troupe. He shouted at the people in the plaza to be quiet. They just looked at him, some annoyed, some amused, and kept on with what they were doing.
Another couple days and nights, the Plaza was full of Brits, fortifying themselves for a quarter final football match between Madrid’s Atlético Team and their Leiscester City Team. The Madrid police were not taking any chances, as the boisterous all-day drinkers had already left a lot of trash. About a dozen paddy wagons lined the portico along one wall of the plaza, and police on foot watched warily. To tell you the truth, I was very impressed with the hospitality of the Madrileños for this crowd whose anthem seemed to be, “We’re all here on a Spanish holiday, Spanish holiday, Spanish holiday,” sung to the melody of “Yellow Submarine.”
I loved the energy of the Plaza, day and night – such a vibrant place. This is also where I found the quintessential Madrid calamari sandwich, made fresh in front of you. Yum! And all so close to my flat.
Many other restaurants clustered nearby. (Why do my essays always devolve to food?) We had two favorites. One was a tiny shop with empanadas (we tried every type) and alfajores, traditional cookies. In this shop, they were made South American style, with dulce de leche between two cookies.
The historic Chocolatería San Ginés was our other favorite, where I solved the mystery of the pudding-like “hot chocolate” I ordered in Barcelona. It’s not for drinking; it’s for smothering churros! They’ve been serving churros and chocolate since 1894. I wish we hadn’t waited until our last night to visit. We’ll just have to return.
For those of you wondering if we did anything cultural in Madrid besides eat, a couple highlights: Museo del Prado, Retiro Park with it’s airy crystal palace, Goya’s fresco of St. Antonio at Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (contemporary art, including Picasso’s Guernica).
My advice for other travelers wanting to feel the pulse of a new city is to find a flat in a neighborhood near public spaces where you can people-watch. It will enhance your visit immensely.
For more of my trip to Spain, see:
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