Madrid has been eclipsed by two things: The Catalan tourist magnet Barcelona and, more recently, Spain’s economic woes. So, is the Spanish capital still worth a visit? I decided to find out, and booked a flight to Barajas airport in the city’s northeast.
A lot of people seemed confused as to why I had chosen Spain’s biggest city for a holiday.
“But why?” They asked. “Just go to Barcelona.”
Truth be told, Barcelona was half the reason. Just about everyone I know has been or is going there. Madrid may not have the sea or architecture by Antoni Gaudi like Barcelona, but to me, it offered a different kind of adventure.
Madrid makes up for its lack of cobblestone lanes and marble statues with a vibrant lifestyle and a mix of contemporary and historic architecture. Some of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers grace Madrid’s skyline in the financial hub of Cuatro Torres.
To best admire Madrid, one must stay in the center, so I settled on a hotel at Puerta del Sol. The colorful public square is a gigantic urban intersection bustling with 10 boulevards.
For the Spaniards, all roads lead to Puerta del Sol, a hotspot for political protests. The “Indignados” movement started here on May 15 last year, when thousands of young Spaniards camped out for weeks to demand social and employment rights. The Occupy movement was quickly copied the world over.
But most days, Puerta del Sol is just a giant cafeteria. I chose to join the famished crowd, but first caught up with an old friend, Laura. Originally from the south, Laura now studies in Madrid. She asked what I wanted to do.
“Brunch. Ideally with churros,” I said. She gave it a thought. “I think I know a good place,” she replied.
The place turned out to be the Chocolateria San Gines. Tucked in a little corner just off the shopping strip Calle Arsenal, this old-school bar has been serving its specialty — chocolate con churros (deep-fried, chocolate-filled pastry) — since 1894. After paying, we happily chose one of the rattan seats outside.
“My father has been working double shifts. You know, the crisis,” Laura told me.
Luckily, her father hadn’t been badly affected by the economic woes. On the contrary, being a public accountant, he had never audited more companies declaring bankruptcy.
At 26, Laura already had two postgraduate degrees, and little possibility of employment.
“It’s not the best time to look for work,” said Laura, who was thinking of setting up a hospitality establishment in the countryside using her family’s summer house.
I found Madrid residents, known as Madrilenos, quite upbeat despite their bleak economic prospects. Perhaps in a country where people live to eat, an abundance of food is always a cause for cheer.
By lunchtime, the historic plazas in the city center were packed with diners, so we headed to the popular Mercado de San Miguel, a covered market decked with kiosks serving tapas and regional specialties.
Later in the evening, Aytor, another friend of mine, took me for a walk before dinner. In Spain, dinner never takes place before 10 p.m., so we had plenty of time to explore.
We headed toward Santa Ana, Lavapies and the Parque del Retiro. The city’s historic quarters, once trodden by world’s mightiest rulers, have now become artistic spaces for all to enjoy.
“What’s that?” I pointed at what seemed to me an unusual structure, its facade covered by rusty crimson slabs and climbing ivy.
“Ah, that’s my favorite, the CaixaForum. It’s an art gallery with a vertical garden. The plants are grown on the wall,” Aytor explained.
Aytor, like me, is a relative newcomer to Madrid. His family is originally from the Basque country, but he grew up all over the place.
“I was in Montreal, London, Milan, Brussels, but I now call Madrid home. Don’t get me wrong, those are great places, but I was looking for something else, and Madrid had it. It has warmth,” he said.
“In Spain, family and friends are extremely important. More so than money. You can be unemployed or poor, but you will always have a close-knit group of friends. Here, friends never abandon you, no matter what. That’s why I decided to come back. And believe me, things will get better.”
Aytor and I grabbed a simple meal of bocadillos (filled sandwiches) at the perennially packed Museo del Jamon tapas restaurant in the city center.
To wash it all down, sangria at the infamous drinking hole Cuevas de Sesamo was imperative, Aytor told me. Sesamo is better known for the writing on its walls and ceiling than what’s on the menu.
As we entered, the words of homegrown poet Pedro Salinas greeted me at the doorway.
“ No rechaces los suenos por ser suenos. Todos los suenos pueden ser realidad ,” it read. “Do not reject dreams just because they are dreams. Any dream can come true.”
The poet’s words made me ponder for a second. If the poem represented Madrid, it probably symbolized a hope, one for a bolder tomorrow that will surely come.