Sunday 10 May 2009

Madrid - Second thoughts on first impressions

By Richard Morley.
Gran Via, Madrid

I knew it was around this time, but I wasn’t quite sure. So, I dug around in some old e mail files and discovered that May 11th is the forth anniversary of my first visit to Madrid. I was only coming for a week and Spain played no part in any plans I had for my life. They say people always remember their first time, but I had forgotten the effect the city had had on me until I started searching for dates among those old files.

For that first visit, I was in Spain for just ten days and eight of them were spent in a tiny village a long way from Madrid, but these jottings are my first memories of the place that has now become my home.

Of course, Madrid is no longer a novelty. I know it well. I am well aware that what now seems perfectly natural to me, once was something new and fresh. I had much exploring to do, a whole new culture to discover. Those were my Spanish salad days, or “Mis días Ensaladas”, as I could call them now, and I no longer see Madrid through those eyes. So, it has been interesting to read these early thoughts and recall my first impressions.

Some of them were actually e mails I sent, so there has been some careful editing, but I think they convey what I thought at the time.

11th May, 2005
I arrived at Madrid airport, terminal 1. For weeks, I had been studying street maps and plans of the Metro underground system and knew, in theory, how to get to my hotel, but I had a problem; where the heck is the metro? I had expected to exit the arrivals hall and see large signs that pointed me in the right direction, but there were none. Ten minutes of wanderings still hadn’t brought me any closer and I was on the point of taking a taxi. Until under a stair I saw two cleaners putting their tools into a closet and with more courage than I thought I had, uttered my first words in Spanish for twenty-five years (remembered from a couple of visits to the Canary Islands) and asked, “Donde estar el Metro”. To my great relief, with lots of waving, pointing arms and a rapid flow of words I didn’t understand, they pointed at a ramp and a sign that bore the logo and single word, “Metro”. I was pleased the sign wasn’t at all obvious – I didn’t feel as foolish as I would have done if it had been in plain sight, but what really impressed me was that I spoken some Spanish and been understood. Ok, I could probably have just said the single word “Metro” and got the same response, but like the missionaries of old, I had made my first contact with the natives.

It’s a long walk to the metro; I kept following the signs, but thought I would never get there. I did, of course. Everything about using the Metro is self explanatory and obvious. I shoved a euro into the slot and received my ticket. Went to the platform and waited for the train. Now that was impressive. How modern, how clean, …. how crowded. It was seven in the evening and I assumed this was rush hour. There were no seats. I stood and guarded my luggage and viewed my fellow passengers with the suspicion of a stranger in a strange land. They looked normal enough, but I had heard tales of pickpockets and muggings. Then a woman reached into her handbag, pulled out a fan and started to cool herself in the warm, sticky air of the carriage. I just stared. Now I knew I was in Spain, but I thought this was something from days gone by, not a sight for the twenty-first century.

It took three changes of Metro line, following swarms of people who, unlike me, knew exactly where they were going, to reach the station near to my hotel. But the station had three exits. Which one should I take? By chance, I made the right choice and on reaching the surface saw my lodgings opposite on the other side of a wide thoroughfare. This was Gran Via. Such hustle and bustle.

My hotel, actually a “Hostal” on the third floor of perhaps not the most salubrious building on the Gran Via, turned out to be clean and tidy. But it was still early evening and I only had a short time to get to see the city as I wasn’t staying. I left the building, turned left and walked. I had no idea where I was going, but it didn’t matter. In any direction I would see things I hadn’t seen before. Well, not exactly. After about two hundred metres I found the notorious Calle de Montera, with its ladies of negotiable affection. I had seen that sort of sight in many a town. I kept on walking! Honestly!!!!!

I turned left, right, went straight on. Just looking. It was easier to go downhill, so I did, and then saw a huge arch ahead. It pulled me towards it. It was the Puerta de Alcala and next to it lay the Retiro Park. I was just rambling so I entered and joined the evening strollers. I found the lake and at the end was a terrace bar. Just what I needed. Another Spanish phrase dragged up from a long buried memory resurfaced. “Una cerveza, por favor”.

Boating in Retiro

It was half past eight on a warm and sunny May evening. I was in Madrid and drinking a beer. Around me others were doing the same. There seemed to be a very relaxed atmosphere. Out on the lake rowers were heaving their course. I saw a tiny women rowing while her fat husband sat in the stern. The imbalance of their weight tilted the boat alarmingly. The water line was just centimetres behind his backside, while the prow wasn’t even touching the water. Behind me girls in very short shorts and low necked tops rocketed around on roller-blades. An old man promenaded while reading his newspaper. He couldn’t see where he was going and the skaters obligingly detoured around him. A man, also on skates, was exercising his dog. He just balanced on his skates while the dog pulled him along.

I stayed until my beer was gone. I had eaten nothing since leaving London and I could feel the effects of the alcohol and didn’t want another. But I watched while this evening scene unfolded around me. I felt incredibly relaxed, and not from the beer. It was the people. I could live here, I thought.

The next day was busy with the language school I had come to work for and though I walked the streets all I remember was the huge amount of the English language that is used in advertising around the city. I wondered what would be the reaction if Spanish was so equally used around London.

Then I went away for a week and arrived back in Madrid, due to mechanical breakdown, around nine-thirty in the evening. This, I thought, would be my last evening ever in the city. I recalled my impression to a friend by e mail.

20th May 2005.

I arrived at my hotel just before ten. What a dump! The Internet is great for on-line, convenient bookings, but there’s no guarantee as to what you’ll get. What I got what a seedy hotel on the second floor of an ancient edifice hidden in a back street somewhere south of Sol. It was in the early throws of badly needed refurbishment. The corridor was a dimly lit alpine labyrinth of piles of cement bags and rubble. The manager was an overstuffed Cuban who had been imbibing all too freely. But he was friendly and bumblingly efficient and showed me my room that was surprisingly clean and comfortable. It was not air-conditioned, but had a huge ceiling fan that I swear used the rotors from a Blackhawk helicopter, so it was reasonably cool. Again, I did not linger, but shot out to the Plaza Mayor for a meal.

When I die I hope heaven is like the Plaza Mayor that night. I sat and ate a Spanish omelette surrounded by loving couples, families and other tourists who all seemed happy to be there. From all sides came the drift of pleasant music: classical Spanish guitar from one arcaded corner, (cleverly chosen to enhance the acoustics), flamenco from another. A folk group stood at the feet of King Filipe and encouraged its audience to sing along. The songs sounded bawdy and suggestive and the crowd happy to oblige. One wandering minstrel, an American with an electric guitar sang Lennon and McCartney to pavement diners, yet somehow did not seem out of place. His girlfriend collected from the captive audience and hawked his ‘latest’ CD. Near the entrance another couple danced an x-rated exhibition tango egged on by the suggestive cries of their audience.

My meal finished I ambled between the groups of squatting schoolchildren who had staked claim to a few square metres of the plaza with their backpacks strewn to trip the unwary. Two hysterical girls were being harangued by their teacher. They had become separated from their class and been brought back by the police, who thought the rescue necessitated the full force of their siren and flashing lights, which detracted somewhat from the ambience of the square.
Descending some steps at the southwestern corner I thought I had stumbled into Montmartre in Paris with artists displaying their work, musicians playing discordant jazz and curiously scented smoke drifting from darkened cafés.

Well after midnight, I returned to my hotel. The manager greeted me like a long lost friend. I read a little then drifted off to the best sleep I had had for a week.

The next morning I took breakfast at a street café in a little square near my hotel then took the metro to the airport. I love the metro and now I love Madrid.

As I said, I never expected to come back, but for me Madrid’s charm was too great to ignore. I came back for further visits and then to stay. I am older and wiser now – and not so naïve. That Spanish omelette I mentioned above: I had thought to order a simple omelette, what I got was a complete tortilla patatas, which cost me €13 and I didn’t finish. (And the waiter had not thought to explain to the “guiri” that the meal would probably be too much for one.) In subsequent visits to the plaza, which I hardly ever visit nowadays, I realised that the street entertainers were working to a schedule and regulated and that better, and cheaper, food could be obtained elsewhere. There’s a little bit of me that now views the Plaza Mayor with some distain, but of course, is a “must see” for any new visitor. Take a relaxing beer or coffee by all means, but let your stomach take to towards better eateries near the Opera or

I hope you have enjoyed this post. If you wish, please leave a comment below. Blogger hiccoughs sometimes. You may have to enter your comment twice.


  1. My first visit to Madrid was in June of 2007 for a similar English speaking program. I had scheduled my flights to arrive from the USA on Wednesday - but the weather and airlines did not cooperate. Grounded flights, broken planes and a night in Paris extended my trip to two days plus. I cleared Barajas shortly after 1:00 pm and to make the 2:00 pm orientation at Casa Patas, took a very crazy cab ride into the city. I had even less Spanish skills that you did. Traveling to Madrid and participating in the English speaking programs have now become a part of my life, with my fifth trip taken in February and March of 2009, and now planning my sixth trip. I am trying to figure out how I can spend more time in Madrid. Anyone interested in a house swap in Phoenix, Arizona? Our condo has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage and a carport, and the pool and exercise room is less than 30 meters from our front door. I look forward to seeing you again (if you can stand meeting an obnoxious and loud American) at some of the Friday evening sessions at Brasserie Lacondita.

  2. Always pleased to see you, Tom. If you get someone for the swap, I'll mail you the bill for the agency fee!Sounds like a nice place you have there. Shame it isn't in Madrid!

  3. Coffee in the Plaza Mayor is a must-do on any first trip to Madrid. My first trip to Madrid was in 2008 and I am looking forward to a visit back.

  4. It's hard to believe it's been four years....trying to figure out when I can return.

  5. I agree Plaza Mayor is great for a first visit, I ate a very presentable steak under a clear Madrilenan sky and felt that I'd had good value for money, which I had by UK standards. Since then I have been lucky enough to have been introduced to far preferable bars and eateries by friends Ben and Marina, and found a few myself. Even with the collapse of sterling eating out is great value for money

  6. Absolutely agree with you, Gary. And once you realise that Madrid has more going for it than the centre, there are some great bars and restaurants to find. Unfortunately the short term visitor will never experience places where you can eat and drink all night for under €20 a head, or the hundreds of little plazas each with their own charm and character. If you have the time they are well worth finding. If you don't have the time, ask a local.