Two years ago I celebrated the arrival of 2009 in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol. It was crowded, I was jostled, and I stood in one place for four hours. New year came, the bells of the clock on the casa de correos chimed twelve and we ate our grapes. There were fireworks, music and a laser show. It was great fun and a wonderful display of city pride, but it was now on my “Been there, seen it, done it – bought the tee-shirt” list and said I would never go again.
So what the heck was I doing there last night?
I have a friend who a few months ago moved to Spain for work. She is Scottish and therefore loves her New Year celebrations. Her Spanish friends and colleagues told her that most definitely she had to celebrate New Year in Sol. Enjoy the atmosphere, eat the grapes, drink, sing and be merry. It is a Great Spanish tradition.
And then all of her friends found something else to do!
So, instead of there being a crowd of us, it was just us two. We met early, planning to eat before joining the crowds in the centre. Her Scottish compatriot put it well when Robbie Burns wrote about “The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley”, because where we had planned to eat had closed its doors for the night. Nearby was a VIPs restaurant, which informed is they were not cooking that evening. (So why the heck were they open?) They did however provide a pancake postre and a couple of beers, which saw us through.
My Scottish friend was amazed that catering establishments would so willingly give up the chance make money from the tens of thousands who attended last night’s celebrations. In Edinburgh, she told me, when the masses gathered in Princes Street to welcome in the new year, the restaurateurs and pub landlords would not waste such an opportunity to fill their cash registers.
Walking along the Calle Mayor last night we passed bar after bar whose doors were shut and in darkness. Even McDonalds was closed.
But there was drink aplenty in Sol – so long as you had brought it with you. Early arrivals came with a liquid picnic and sat on the cold slabs of the plaza. Some near us, had bought twin packs of Coke and Red wine taped together to create the instant calimochó and of course, there was Cava, the Spanish champagne, everywhere.
After our meagre dinner, my friend and I found our spot in the plaza and began the long wait for midnight. Our legs weakening, we followed the example of the picnickers and reclined on the cold, stone slabs of the plaza while we waited until the thickening throng started standing on us. One picnic group generously passed us a can of Cruzcampo to share.
The television companies, who had set up al fresco studios on the balconies and rooftops opposite the clock would incite the crowd to cheer and wave as they sought to add colour to their broadcasts. Those wearing garish wigs of bright colours out-numbered those who didn’t. I noticed a new line in headdress this year with the inclusion of Venetian masks, richly decorated, worn by the ladies. Men tended to stick to orange afros. A guy dressed as the pope staged a one man protest against the catholic church’s opposition to condom use, another group sailed a huge banner in support of the right of divorced fathers. An annoying guy banged a drum non-stop.
By eleven the crowd had grown to jostling proportion. We had to almost fight, at least be really stubborn, to maintain our position on the two stone slabs where we had staked our claim. But it was a good natured crowd with only a couple of *¨/&$Ys who rudely shouldered others out of their way without a perdone. There was singing, restricted dancing, and much taking of photographs. You can see my blurred offerings on this page. (I really must get a better camera!)
A minute before midnight and the already deafening screams of the crowd rose to painful. People prepared their little bags of twelve grapes, ready to consume one for each chime of midnight. It was a slow minute, but then the minute hand clunked up to vertical and the preliminary peal from the bells began, catching out those who thought this was the actual midnight chime. A few first grapes were consumed before the twelve strident bongs rang out across the plaza.
A grape for each chime. Manage this small feat will bring you luck for the year ahead. The noise fell to a murmur until the last grape was swallowed. Then the crowd broke into song, shaken cava fountained, unconsumed grapes were thrown. There were kisses and hugs, back slapping and wishes of Feliz Año on all sides. And then ……
No fireworks – no laser projections – no music. Around us people watched the sky expectantly. It remained dark. Someone in the crowd let off a small rocket and there were a couple of thunder flashes. But no official celebration. There was a definite feeling of anti-climax. Within minutes the crowd began drifting away. Some glancing back to see if something would happen. But no.
My friend and I joined the exodus and wondered off in the direction of Plaza Santa Anna in the hope of an open bar. No luck, they were all closed. What sort of celebration was this? Eventually we bought some beer from a Chinese shop and sat in a plaza near her hostal drinking and chatting. Passing strangers wished us “Feliz Año”, one man stopped and kissed my friend – and then insisted on kissing me!
A dead Plaza Santa Anna. No celebration here!
I would be lying if I told you I had not enjoyed the evening. I had a good time and in great company. The generosity and joy of the people around us was infectious. But there was something missing this year. It must be “La Crisis”. It would surely be wrong for the ayuntamiento to spend Money on public entertainment when so many are without jobs or have had their salaries reduced.
So I am curious to see to what extent the parade of the three kings will be reduced next week. Last years cabalgata was a fantastic show which must have cost a fortune to stage. It is a night of colour, noise and music. It’s the night when the three kings come to bring the presents for Spanish children. I hope they come in style.
After leaving my friend I attempted to get a taxi home; A necessity when, after attracting tens of thousands into the city centre for a midnight celebration they still insist on shutting down the metro at one-thirty! I had no luck and walked back though the town to catch a night bus from Cibeles. I did pass open bars, but with others closed those that were serving were packed beyond limit. It seems strange that in a time of financial uncertainty business owners would deliberately give up the chance of profiteering from the thirsty.
Spain, still, is different!
This blog is on the cusp of being two years old. Last month it achieved a record number of hits from every time zone around the world. For that, let me say a huge thank you to all of you for reading what I write and, sometimes, writing such encouraging comments in return. I apologise to those who were caught out by my annual Diá de los Inocentes mischief. We will continue to alternately roast or be soaked in the Plaza Mayor for a long time to come, and there will be no bio-dome in the Retiro.
And of course, allow me to wish all of you a very happy and prosperous New Year.