Thursday 30 July 2009

Iberian Graffiti - Art out of a can.

By Richard Morley.

Many visitors to Spain come to visit the Prado or one of the many other galleries of which the country can be so proud. One genre of artwork that does very little credit is the Graffiti that adorns, or spoils, so many public areas. I am aware it is a global problem. I have even seen graffiti on a solitary, remote rock in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Libya once passed a law banning Spray paint aerosols in the country.

It seems that any vertical surface is some street artist’s canvass. Some Madrid shopkeepers became so incensed at having their shutters defaced that they paid the graffiti artists to replace the tags, (the artist’s stylised rendering of his name), and occasional obscene cartoon with something more tasteful in the hope that once decorated other “artists” would leave it alone. This actually does seem to work, but has led to their neighbours complaining that they were encouraging the miscreants. In fact I am sure it was more a matter of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”.

Left:My guetto is not dead
Right: Detail
The ayuntamiento of Madrid, in an ill-fated attempt to corral the desecration of vertical surfaces, provided a few virgin walls in public parks specifically for the aerosol artists, but it was never going to be enough.
And it has to be admitted, the ability to buy paint does not confer any artistic talent. Most graffiti is ugly and anti-social. Having said that, there are a few examples of even worse so-called “works of art” hanging up in the Reina Sofia. No one, to my knowledge has cut a groove in a concrete wall and called it art – so why should Joan Miro get away with it on canvass? But what do I know?

Conversely, I have seen a wonderful “Mona Lisa” in a multi-storey car park in York and Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” on the side of a shopping centre in Rennes. And it would be impossible to write anything about Graffiti without mentioning the secretive Banksy whose works seem to crop up everywhere and are now considered “proper” artworks in their own right. He is quoted as saying, “When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires”. The standard of street art might be dubious, but at least it’s free and you don’t have to go through a security check before you are allowed to see it.
There's something Daliesque-ish about this.

Here in Madrid, and down in Seville, I have seen examples of this “public art” that got my attention. If it gets my attention, it gets photographed, and so I present to you the gallery of the street.
There are some talented graffiti artists out there. What I show here is only a small part of those I have recorded. Unfortunately, some of these examples deface areas of town that would be quite beautiful without these additions. (And several enlivened a dull walk!) Graffiti is in the end, an anti-social practise, but I don't suppose there is much society can do to stop it.
But then if Miro can get away with it .........
I am taking a break. I am off to look at another view. Have a good summer.
What do you think about graffiti? A disfigurement of our towns or public art? Have your say below.

Monday 27 July 2009

Reaction to Rudeness

Two tales follow. Both are true as witnessed by me and are indicative of something, but I’m not sure what.

Story number One: I was sharing a dining table with a well-spoken and seemingly intelligent English lady and two Spanish students. In the course of the conversation I discovered that the English lady, like me, lived in Spain. She lived in Torrevieja, down in the south coast near Murcia, famous for its clusters of ex-patriot communities. She was what I have given the name of “Costa Brit”, although there are “ghettos” of several other nationalities also. The word “ghetto”, to me, has a somewhat negative connotation, but that was how a Spaniard who also lives in that region described it to me.

She was telling us of her life and that she had come to Spain on her retirement. We soon found out that she had lived there for thirteen years.
“Your Spanish must be quite good by now”, I suggested.
Now remember, we are sharing a table with two students who are reasonably fluent in English.
With a disparaging flap of her hand she declared, “Oh, where I live we don’t have to bother with all that gobbledygook”.

The Oxford dictionary defines “Gobbledygook” as “Language that is meaningless, unintelligible or nonsense. Taken from the sound a turkey makes.”

I am sure, thankfully, the two students did not have that particular word in their English vocabulary, but sharing a table with them, I was embarrassed that one of my compatriots could be so derogatory about the language of the country where she and I now live. Stunned, and in an attempt to have our fellow diners not think I was of the same opinion I remarked that that was a shame. That the Spanish culture was so interesting and varied that she was surely missing out by not being able to read the language or take a full part in any local event.

Her reply was a statement that, “Where I live we don’t have any need of that nonsense”.

Story number two: Again, we were a mixed group of Spanish and English speakers. Among our number was a couple from California. He played the guitar and she sang very prettily. One evening they were entertaining us and after a number of songs in English they sang that beautiful Spanish song, “Gracias a la vida”. As soon as they began a young American girl who had been enjoying and joining in with the songs so far observed, rather loudly, “What’s the point of this? It’s all yada yada yada”, and proceeded to try to engage another girl in conversation, drowning out the music in our part of the room. I am pleased to relate that another American told her to “shut up and listen to the music”.

You can too. It's a beautiful song! The You Tube clip below is sung by Mercedes Sosa.

My gut reaction to these two events is that the two people concerned were both rude and insulting. However, neither the Spaniards at my table, or those standing near to the young American woman seemed concerned. Rather it was a case that I was insulted on their behalf. I enjoy living in Spain and revel in all the new things in my life. I am quite angry at myself for not finding Spain years before. (Although in self-defence, I did travel to many other countries in the meantime.) So am I over-reacting?

I am blessed, or cursed, with a curious mind. I like to discover new things. If I am honest, I would say I am almost obsessed with finding things out – as you might be able to tell from the contents of this blog. Just four years ago Spain was an unknown country to me, which probably says something about British education in the fifties and sixties. The only thing that we were taught back then was that England defeated the Spanish Armada. And that, in the light of research, was really a case of the victors, or rather the undefeated, putting their own simple spin on a much more complicated history. If the Spanish plans for invasion had worked, if the organisation had not been quite so awful, if the weather had been different, then I might have been brought up catholic and speaking Spanish and not have to wrestle with the conjugations and syntax of this strange tongue. And Spanish genes would have given the British female a mix of English rose with Spanish thorns. What a rare beauty that would be. Those same genes might also have given me the ability to sound the Spanish rr sound.

But I digress. I was talking about being curious. I cannot understand why someone should come to live in a country and then ignore everything around them. Are they not the slightest bit inquisitive about why the locals do what they do, what those strange sounds coming from their mouths mean? I couldn’t live like that.

But obviously some can.

The woman in story number one had chosen the Spanish coast as her home after retirement and under EU law she had the right to do that. But, it seemed to me, she had not chosen Spain. For her, her new home was just England with a cheaper and sunnier lifestyle. The young lady in the other tale was here on holiday and had a perfect right to enjoy what she wanted. But did either of them have the right to derogate the culture of their host country?

And do I, with my obsessive curiosity and love of so much about my new country (although the rose coloured spectacles fell away a long time ago – Spain is far from perfect), have the right to defend it; to be annoyed with those who denigrate it? I have been accused of being, at times, more Spanish than the Spanish.

I certainly defend English food that the Spanish claim is unfit for human consumption. I also defend Spanish food against the comments of visiting Brits, although I will never defend Spanish Tea!

Or should I just keep my opinions to myself?

Someone once said that if you can’t say something good, then shut up. And it was either Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln who remarked it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and prove it! (Perhaps I should heed that advice! But then you would have nothing to read!!)

What's your opinion? Were they rude or just ignorant - in the true sense of the word? Please comment below.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Out of the Frying Pan ...

By Richard Morley.
Native English speakers who indulge in the pleasant pastime of conversing with Spaniards to help them improve their language skills learn many things about the Spanish culture. Through the English villages I attend and in normal day to day conversation with people I meet in Madrid I have found out more things about this wonderful country than years of “Two weeks in Benidorm” vacationers will ever know – or likely to be interested in, frankly. But that’s their loss.

However, after hours, sometimes days, of non-stop chatter subjects become harder to find. I have two sure-fire ways of restarting the conversation.
Number one: Ask them where the best wine in Spain comes from, and Two, how do you make the best tortilla patatas, the authentic Spanish omelette?

The first can provoke a usually good natured discussion with each participant selecting their favourite region.

The second can start a war!

You see, if you ask any woman that simple question, her answer will be, “My grandmother has the best recipe”, and she will, hopefully, tell you what it is. The problem is that every woman will have at least two grandmothers and those Spanish grandmothers, or their recipes, are not to be taken lightly.

Should your conversational partner be foolish enough to reveal her grandmother’s secrets in the presence of another woman who has her own set of ancient female relatives, then having cocked the trigger, stand well back and try not to get hit in the cross-fire.

Let’s break down the variables:
Number and size of eggs.
Ditto with the potatoes.
Onions or not.
Potatoes boiled or fried.
Potatoes sliced or diced.
Onions fine or coarse.
Potatoes cooked with onions.
Method of turning tortilla in pan.
I have seen looks of disbelief on other grand-daughter’s faces when a perfectly rational woman explains how their grandmother makes this simple dish. No, “disbelief” is the wrong word. It suggests the other ladies present retorting mildly with “I can’t believe she does it that way”. What is actually said, loudly and with feeling, is, “That’s wrong. My grandmother would / never would …” and so on.

And there are a huge number of Grandmothers.

AND EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM IS RIGHT! I, a mere male, would be foolish to suggest otherwise.

As an unmarried guiri I differ from Spanish men in that I do not have a woman, mother, girl-friend or wife, to cook for me. Luckily I enjoy cooking and having lived here for a while like to try out Spanish recipes. And a tortilla patatas is only an omelette with potatoes (and onions – definitely onions). What could possibly go wrong?

¿Es fácil, no?

Well, no! My first efforts had the appearance of yellowing cow-pats. Not a nice thing to contemplate eating. But I persevered and got better. And a short time ago I created the culinary masterpiece that was MY tortilla patatas. It looked good, resembling a white speckled pale yellow flying saucer. And it tasted good. I was proud of it.

Pride is a sin.

Pride commeth before a fall.

It was late evening. I sat back and regarded my empty plate and sensed my full, satisfied stomach and had to tell someone. In this modern age this is easy to do. I sat down at my keyboard and announced to the world, or to at least my three friends on face book, that I had just eaten the best tortilla patatas in Madrid – and that I had cooked it myself. If I expected congratulations, I was wrong.

“Any food cooked by the English is terrible”, complained one. “It is not possible for English people to cook Spanish food”, opined another. “That would be like me saying I could cook ´Bubble and Squeak*´, declared one señorita who normally likes anything British. “I can’t believe it”, doubted someone I had thought of as a friend. I could sense the earth trembling as many Grandmothers began revolving in their graves.

The comments went on and on. Although there was one Spanish lady, who now rose highly in my esteem, who wrote, “Mmm. Save some for me”, but most were expressing the opinion that a British male could not cook Spanish food as if combining eggs, potatoes and onion were some special Iberian talent that no one without generations of Spaniards in their family tree could possibly have .

A couple of weeks later I was discussing the possibility of having a picnic with a group of friends. One of them suggested I should cook a tortilla and bring it to the meal where they would all see if what I declared was true. Talk about the Spanish Inquisition! I could feel the flames as they tied me to the stake of culinary heresy.

The picnic never took place, but what if it had? Would my efforts have been scorned? Would the opposite occur and I disprove this myth that tortilla making is somehow genetically Spanish? Would several Spanish señoritas have thrown themselves at my feet and proposed marriage? Hmm! Let’s not get carried away.

I mean, I reiterate. It’s just eggs, potatoes and onions, no?

A month later I made “Huevos Estrelladas”. This is a fancy Spanish name for egg, ham and chips (French fries). I excelled myself. I will never order the dish in a restaurant or tapas bar again. They couldn’t compete. It was fantastic. But this time I told no one. I can’t stand to see the Spanish cry!

*Bubble and squeak is a simple English meal made by frying mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts and is absolutely delicious.

Nice comments, this is a family blog, can be posted below.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

High Wire Act

By Richard Morley.

It’s not just San Francisco that has little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars. If you are looking for an alternative city in which to leave your heart, Madrid has them too.

I mentioned a few posts about the Teleferico, Madrid’s cable car ride. What I didn’t realise then was that the 26th of June this year was the fortieth anniversary of its opening.

Normally cable cars are associated with ski resorts where they are used to take you high up a mountain side. In Madrid it will take you around three kilometres out of the city. In a journey taking around eleven minutes you will cross the valley of the mighty Manzanares River, the M30 motorway and float over the tree tops to the centre of Madrid’s largest park, The Casa de Campo. This park was once the hunting estate for kings. Since May Day 1931 the 1700 hectares has been open to all. It’s a great place for a picnic if you watch where you sit. People walk their dogs and don’t clean up. Worse, the world’s oldest profession is conducted here and discarded condoms are unpleasant. However, it’s a huge park. You can walk or cycle for miles. From the brow of the hill you will see Madrid laid out before you. It is a grand sight and must have been so tantalising for the nationalist troops during the Battle of Madrid. So close, yet far. The front line was drawn through the park and there is still evidence of military activity today. Once you could drive, but they closed the roads to deter clients driving in to pick up the girls. Now you can take the Teleferico. The terminal in the centre of the park houses a restaurant which does and adequate and inexpensive Menu del Dia. Or just sit with a beer and pick out familiar Madrid landmarks on the horizon. The Teleferico has 80 cars. More than 10,000,000 journeys have been made since its opening. During one day in 2003 over 6500 people rode the cable car. To find the Teleferico you will need to take the metro to Arguelles and descend the Calle del Marqués de Urquijo. Alternatively a number 74 bus will take you directly to the Paseo del Pintor Rosales. It is not open in the mornings.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Mas Molestias

Just yesterday I published a post about the renovation of various areas of Madrid. There have been new developments.
About the same time as I was putting the final touches to the article the authorities were erecting large signs informing the city that the holes, trenches, piles of rock and detritus in the Calle de Serrano would remain untouched for the foreseeable future.
Work has come to a sudden stop.
It seems they have uncovered a sixteenth century waterway and have had to call in the archaeologists. Workers on the site and beleaguered shopkeepers on the street supposed it was all to do with a find of a historical site dating back to Felipe IV made in May, but this water channel is apparently more important that will require cleaning, sifting and cataloguing. It has been suggested that the shutdown with delay the finalisation of the project well into the middle or third quarter of next year. Naturally the shopkeepers are furious.
Customers of the famous shops in the Calle de Serrano (it is called Madrid’s “Fifth Avenue”) have been negotiating an obstacle course of safety fences and bollards, holes and piles of materials. Temporary pipes have been laid along the surfaces of pavements, waiting to trip the unwary. There is nowhere to park cars and buses, unable to move into the side, drop passengers off in the middle of flowing traffic. The merchants were hoping to see a return to normal for the Christmas shopping season, but that now looks a forlorn hope. One shop-keeper is reported sayings, “We had expected to see a fall in sales due to the crisis, but the road works are having a worse effect. This new thing is stupid. We are suffering for nothing”.
A tobacconist says he has seen a fifty percent reduction in sales since the work began.
But at least he has a job. For the construction workers, many of whom have only recent returned to work after unemployment, this “Tontería” (stupidity), as one described it, will cause hardship.
“They tell us that we will all be dismissed”, said one of the workers interviewed for a report in El Mundo. “I am a father of a family, with two daughters and I was expecting to work for three years and now they tell us there is nothing for us to do. We cannot go back to claiming unemployment benefit as we haven’t been working long enough to earn it.”
The report said more than fifty workers would be affected by the stoppage and went on to say that Friday, tomorrow will be their last day of paid work.
This work on the Calle de Serrano has already led to heated exchanges between the Ayuntamiento, which runs the city, and the Comunidad, which is responsible for all the surrounding areas. Although on the same side politically, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón the mayor of Madrid and the president of the community, Esperanza Aguirre, have never been what you could call “close”. The war of words over Serrano has been as petty as how many trees to leave standing to more serious accusations of causing deliberate delays. The community is claiming this is just another tactic by the Ajuntamiento.
Meanwhile low paid workers and shop owners are feeling the pinch and Madrid will be finished that little bit later.

That’s twice recently the news has affected something I have said or written. Knowing my main work is in the oil industry, I was asked recently about whether Spain has any oil of its own. When I was asked the question I was in a remote part of Spain away from any form of news media or the internet. Now I wasn’t part of the survey that was done a few years ago, but I have read the reports and the answer was basically that there was nothing worth bothering about. So that’s what I replied.
The next week I returned to Madrid to read the news that Repsol, the national oil company, had made a major find off Spain’s north coast.
It pays to keep up with the news.

Any comments? What do you think? Post below.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Disculpen Las Molestias

By Richard Morley.
When I came to Spain I looked out of the Windows of my hostel in Gran Via and saw some pretty intensive building work going on. The Plaza Callao was being remodelled and its Metro station was getting a facelift. The work continued causing great disruption in the centre of Gran Via for about eighteen months, but was eventually completed and left us with yet another pleasant plaza in Madrid. I went past there this afternoon and they are digging it up again!

Shortly after that, work began on what seemed like an improvement to the metro station in the Puerta del Sol. Indeed, the station did get a lick of paint and a new entrance in the Calle de Preciados, but the work didn’t stop. A huge hole appeared and the Calle de Montera became a cement works, much to the chagrin, I am sure, of the ladies who regard that street as their place of employment!

That, of course turned out to be the excavation of what is claimed to be the world’s largest man-made cavern to house the new Cercanías commuter train station at Sol.

Surface work on the plaza slowly shrunk over the years, leaving most of Sol once again open to tourist cameras. Then a couple of months ago the entire plaza was ring-fenced by builder’s safety barricades.
My four year old memory of an open Puerta del Sol, although looking a little shabby with stained concrete bus shelters and gridlocked traffic in it pre-pedestrianised hey day is rather dim now. But now the Cercanias station is open for business, with its smart new, albeit controversial, twin-domed glass entrance, they obviously thought the plaza needed a further remodelling.
Finally, I understand the joke I heard shortly after arriving here that “Madrid will be nice – when it’s finished”.
How could a four hundred year old city (from its modern inception) not be finished?
But wherever you turn in Madrid today they are digging up the roads, laying new pavement, (sidewalk for our US cousins), rebuilding intersections, moving monuments, tunnelling, excavating, and rearranging the metropolitan furniture. John Maynard Keynes argued that in times of national financial crisis, it is better to have men digging holes for a wage than to have them sit idle. The Ayuntamiento of Madrid has taken to this philosophy in spades. (Or with spades, shovels, excavators and pile drivers.) I have been around the town in the past few days to attempting to augment my photo library for the blog. I needed shots of places historic and famous. Nearly everywhere I pointed my camera there were construction workers digging, slabbing, widening, deepening, demolishing and building. A rumour has it that one of the companies contracting these works for the Ayuntamiento was told only to hire men who had been out of work for six months or more.

But the politics of the situation only has a mild interest for me. I have gazed into some of the holes that have been opened up along the entire length of the Calle de Serrano and seen the rusting, rotting pipes and cracked cable trunking. This is work that obviously has a need to be done. Our city leaders have turned “La Crisis” into an “Oportunidad” to perform some much needed maintenance.

Madrid has one of the best public transport systems anywhere. But is also a very easy city to negotiate on foot. To that end pavements are being widened and whole streets pedestrianised. The company charged with the modernisation of Calle Serrano has produced a glossy flysheet (left) describing the wonders of their work. When they are finished, they claim, the two kilometre long street will have five traffic lanes, a cycle lane, five metres of pavement on one side and ten on the other, underground parking for two thousand cars, and 813 new trees. To this you can add that below the work being done on the surface, a high speed rail tunnel is being bored between Atocha and Chamartin railways stations.

Planner's vision of a finished Calle Serrano

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating; the Madrileños say their town is like a gruyere cheese. Not just because of the Metro and Cercanias tunnels that twist their way all over the city. There are service tunnels too, never seen by the public, except on a series of TV programs earlier this year. The new tunnel that runs through the new cercania station at Sol is seven kilometres long, the original tunnel that connects Atocha with Chamartin via Recoletos and Nuevos Ministerios stations is just under six. And the new AVE high speed link will come in around seven and a half. The original tunnel is known as the “Tunel de risas” or the tunnel of laughs as it took so long to construct and became a laughing stock. Of course, that was dug out by hand. Today, like moles, Madrid has huge Tunnel Boring Machines named “Excavolina” and “Dulcinea” burrowing everywhere. Lines 2, 3 and 11 are being extended as well as the new AVE link. In some areas of Madrid there is nothing below the surface at all.

Both the historic surfaces of the Plaza Mayor, Sol and Oriente are just veneers on the skin of the city, as will be most of the Calle de Serrano when it is finished.
Probably the least obstructed part of calle Serrano.
None of this comes cheap. These works are costing billions of Euros. Contributions from the European Union are much less than they were; the Spanish tax-payer is already stretched to the limit. And today Esperanza Aguirre, the president of the Comunidad of Madrid has complained central government is not giving the city enough.
M30 construction work.
So what does the city hope to gain?

Well, in the short term the people of Madrid, more than 97% apparently, are eager to attract the Olympic Games in 2016. The deciding committee has already visited the town a couple of months ago and was shown the work being done to improve the city’s infrastructure. I presume they will be back to check all is going to plan. According to signs all over town the Madrileños are so sure they will be the chosen city they can feel it in their bones, or in Spanish, “Tengo una Corazonada”. So, with shiny new roads and plazas, more metro and Cercanias lines, and swish new shopping areas (although I’ll have to win El Gordo before I can afford to shop in Serrano), Madrid hopes to welcome and dazzle millions of visitors. And in the long term the population will have a city to be even more proud of than now.

At least I hope they think it is worth all the disruption. Right now the barrio of Chamberí is protesting that work being done in the Avenida Pablo Iglesias means that for the first time in thirty years this barrio with its population of 150,000 people will have nowhere to celebrate its Fiesta del Carmen. And when I say protesting, I mean just that. There’s a plaza in Chamberí that could take, perhaps, a thousand people at a pinch, and tonight the entire population has been invited to go there and demonstrate.

I was picking my way through one of the worksites on Sunday afternoon. The standard of work looked excellent to my untrained eye and the quality of materials of the highest order. So, I am sure Madrid will be nice when it’s finished. The only question is, when?

If you have found this post interesting and would like to leave a comment, please do so below.


Monday 13 July 2009

There once was a lady from Spain ...

Friday evenings at the English Speaking Group in Madrid are fun. It is about practising the language. It is not a class. I am gratified by the number of people who arrive each Friday, and also, surprised. I mean, it’s Friday night in Madrid, for heavens sake! There are so many alternatives. So Cait and I must be doing something right – or maybe it’s the beer.

In an effort to “ring the changes” each week, we try to “come up with” something new and sometimes original. Last Friday I am not sure if I didn’t make a big mistake. I introduced our Spanish friends to the joys of English poetry. Well, not exactly poetry, but the genre of the Limerick.

In the introduction I gave them a few examples:

A lady who came from Sevilla
Was driving her car with no fear
When told she was good
Said, “That’s understood.
I always drive better with beer”.

A señora, who was very fanatical
Of making her sentences practical
Said, “I want to speak better
Or write a good letter.
But English is very grammatical”.

A lady who came from Sevilla
Was making a Spanish tortilla.
She used potatoes and eggs
A three week old dregs
From a bottle of Cruzcampo beer.

So armed with those examples I set my victims, er guests, in groups with both Anglos and Spaniards, the task of creating their own limericks. And then made them an offer: If the limerick showed promise AND WAS SUITABLE FOR PUBLICATION, I would put them on the blog. There was lots of suspicious laughter, making me suspect that some of the native English speakers were leading our Spanish friends astray. After all, the limerick does have a reputation bordering on the risqué – or downright rude!

The names of the guilty, er responsible, have been given to apportion blame where necessary. Enjoy.

By Alex, Luz, Cristina, Manoli, Sid and Emma

A handsome man from England
Came to Madrid and thought it was dreamland.
Each Friday night he gave monster rants,
But we got fed up and pulled off his pants
And sent him far away off to Greenland.

Hmmm! I wonder who they are writing about!!

There was a young girl called Manoli
Who really enjoyed ravioli
She was very clever
There was no way she’d ever
Marry an ugly panoli.

Debbie, Alejo, Mercedes, Maria José.

There was a young man from Madrid,
You’ll never believe what he did.
He said he came from Sevilla
To flirt with a chiquilla
But she thought he was just a big kid.

Hester, José, Belen, Carl, Mike, Augustin

I heard that the girls of Madrid
Will sing you a song for a quid
And if you are smart
You could win her heart
And for her hand you could bid.

Christophe, Diego, Pedro, Bud, Laura, Gloria (?), Javier, Mylene.

We are so proud. To be Madrileño
We have lived here since we were pequeño
What ever the emotion
We put on the lid
There is no comparison with Valladolid.

I live in Madrid
And I’m proud of it
And of you don’t like it
You can leave or go to Cadiz.

The amazing thing was they all seemed to be looking for a rhyme with the syllable “id”. Now I need a limerick totally in Spanish. The first line could go: “Hay un hombre joven de Madrid, …..”

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with one I made up as another example:

A young señorita from Spain
Said men from Madrid are a pain.
She said, “My greatest wish
Is a man who’s English,
And I’ll do it again and again”.

Ladies, take note.
There will be a more sensible post tomorrow.
Contributions of limericks about Spain and/or Madrid are welcome. Keep 'em clean or I will dispose of them!

Thursday 9 July 2009

Madrid: Answers to Questions

By Richard Morley.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. It is full of information both useful and, let’s be honest, not so useful. I dare say that what you have read here has been a little of both.
But I am fully aware of what you really want to know about Madrid. Yes I am. I have a spy watching you. I have a little program that monitors all the questions that Mr Google, Yahoo, Ask, and all the other search engines direct my way. Some of you will have been disappointed. I see your question and I am really sorry that in the short time this blog has been floating around in the cyber-ether I have not yet written about what you want to know.
I started this endeavour because I had written a few things about Spain for other websites and I kept being asked when I was going to start my own blog, which is very flattering. But there are many blogs out there that are just what the first time visitor to Spain requires. They are full of useful information and, in some cases, better than the Madrid Tourist office’s own site. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.
So, “A View Of Madrid” really means “MY View of Madrid” and I can be cynical, opinionated, and sometimes a liar and therefore not to be trusted – probably.
But the world keeps asking these questions and Big G, Yahoo, et al keep sending them here. So I thought, for once, I would try to be helpful. I have seen some of the questions the cyberworld asks, from the simple to the strange, and to save you prolonging your search, and because some of them interest me too, I will try to provide answers.

To begin, here is the most often asked question:

What Metro Station do I need to get to the Prado? Madrid’s second most visited attraction, (the first is the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, home of Real Madrid,) does not have a metro station close by. It is equidistant from Banco De España and Atocha. There is a station called Atocha RENFE. Don’t use this one, it’s for the railway station. Between these two stations runs the Paseo del Prado, so you know you are in the right place. If you want to go to the Reina Sofia to see Picasso’s Guernica, or the Caixa Forum, Madrid’s best free gallery, you will need Atocha. Don’t forget that opposite the Prado is Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which has, in my totally ignorant opinion, a better collection of enjoyable art than the Prado.

Where is the statue of the man sweeping the street?
He is in the Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, which is at the top of Calle de Carretas if you are standing in Sol. This is also the home of Cines Ideal, if you want to see movies in English during your stay.

From the airport I saw a big white cross on a hill. What is it?The cross lies on a slope above the cemetery of the “Martyrs of Paracuellos”. It commemorates one of the more shocking episodes of Spain’s civil war. In 1936 those not supporting the Republican side were imprisoned. There were many of them and due to the encroaching Nationalist army the prisoners had to be moved. That was what was meant to have happened. In fact Nationalist supporters, Falangistas, churchmen and intellectuals were rounded up on the banks of the Jarama River and shot in the so-called Fusiladas Paracuellos. Fifteen Thousand of them are buried here.

A similar question is: Which Madrid monument has a cross on a hill? Not so specific as the last question and there could be an alternative answer here. Sixty kilometres to the northwest of Madrid, just as you approach the Guadarrama Mountains the traveller will notice a tall cross dominating the landscape. This is the cross of La Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos, The holy cross of the Valley of the Fallen. It is meant to commemorate those who died during the civil war, but there are only two names commemorated: José Antonio Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco, who are entombed here in a basilica below the cross. Franco declared it a national act of atonement, but few see it that way. Some die hard right wingers see it as a place of pilgrimage. Some refuse to set foot in the place. It was built by slave labour and for some, is a memory of a time they would prefer to forget.

What is Madrid’s height above sea-level? Madrid officially is 667 metres or 2,188 feet above sea-level. It is the highest capital city in Europe. In fact, Spain as a whole has a higher average elevation than any other country in Europe. Switzerland might have higher mountains, but Spain just has more of them! The greatest surprise to the first time visitor is that Madrid is a hilly city. They say Rome is built on seven hills, in Madrid you lose count. It’s a pain if you have luggage to carry.

Are there any foreigners in Madrid?
Yes, really. I have not made that one up. Honest. The answer is there are no foreigners in Madrid; they are all Guiris like me.

Do Spanish people take milk in their tea?
I didn’t really address this in the post, Tea for Tú, which did actually receive a correction when I was told I should have entitled the article “Tea para Ti”. So I had to explain my bad pun on an old song. To answer the question – not usually. If you are a visiting Brit who likes a “dash” of milk in your tea, snatch the milk away from your waiter. The Spanish are a generous people and never more so when pouring milk into a cup. And once started, impossible to stop. Be careful too that the milk is cold or you will get hot milk with a skin oozing into your cup. Getting a good cup of tea as the British like it in a Spanish establishment is (almost) impossible. Stick with coffee – in Spain it’s delicious.

How high is the column of Christopher Columbus, Cristóbal Colon, in the Colon Plaza in Madrid?
Erected in 1885, El Monumento de Colón has a column of seventeen metres, while the statue of the man himself stands a further three metres. The monument was the work of Arturo Melida y Alinari, although the statue at the top was sculpted by Jerónimo Suñol. Although the column is regarded as Madrid’s salute to Columbus, it was his descendants who financed its construction. The column used to stand in the middle of the Paseo de la Castellana, but was moved into the plaza during the construction of the Plaza and reconstruction of the busy intersection with the Calles de Goya and Génova. In the plaza it was placed over the entrance to the underground Teatro Fernán Gómez and supported on a concrete plinth, which could be seen to add around three more metres to the height. However, the intersection is being transformed once more and soon Columbus will find himself back in the centre of the Paseo. Whether this will alter the height of the column remains to be seen.

Where is the Egyptian Temple in Madrid? This is the El Templo de Debod, the Temple of Debod, and to find it go to the bottom of the Plaza de España, turn right and walk about three hundred metres up the calle de Ferraz. There are splendid views over the Casa Del Campo and is a quiet place to contemplate the world while watching the barely rippling reflections in the still pond. The temple was given to Spain in thanks for its assistance with the moving of the famous temple of Abu Simbal from the encroaching waters of Lake Nasser that was slowly filling behind the dam at Aswan. (I have been there – it’s a magnificent sight!) The main entrance to the temple’s park is rather strange, considering what you will have come to see. Between the two sets of steps is a wall constructed from concrete moulding of sandbags. Against the wall a stricken figure lies dying. It is yet another memorial to those who died fighting in the civil war. Stop and read the inscription. Where is the best view of Madrid?
Immodesty would make me say it is this blog. However I guess the questioner wants to take a photograph. The picture heading this blog was taken from the top of a high building in Gran Via and in its original size won the best photo of the month in a long defunct competition that was run by the Notes From Spain website. What is “best”? The best views of the city would surely be from the top of the Cuatro Torres, the new skyscrapers just being completed at the north of Castellana, but I don’t have the “enchufe” to gain admittance. For me, one of the most beautiful views of the city is from the middle of the Casa del Campo, the large park to the west of the city. The good news is you don’t have to walk there, but take a cable car, or “Teleferico”, from the Paseo del Pintor Rosales, five minutes walk from the Egyptian Temple. From the centre of the park you can see the whole city spread out beyond the valley of the Rio Manzares, and if you get the light just right, the view is fantastic. Other searches that my program throws up are things like, “Paris Metro, Madrid”, “Bridge Dress in Madrid”, and “Patron Saint of Apartment seekers”. If I understood the questions I could probably look for answers! You really are an odd lot.
I hope this has been helpful. If you want to know the answers to other matters that have been bugging you about Madrid, send me an e mail at, or comment in the places provided below.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Dinosaurs, a glass fish, and an Australian songbird

By Richard Morley
I have been away. I went to the land of dinosaurs.

Deep in a wooded valley in the heart of the Tierras Altas, the Highlands, northwest of Soria lays a small, isolated village. It is called Valdelavilla.

Up until the mid 20th century, Valdelavilla, like many small communities in Spain, earned a living from rural pursuits until the pull of a better life drew the inhabitants to the larger towns and cities. Up to the time Valdelavilla was abandoned, sheep grazing, forestry and subsistence farming provided the twenty or so families that lived there with a poor life. Eventually they left.

This is a story repeated all over Spain. Today there are around two thousand, six hundred of these abandoned villages scattered throughout the country.

On the road from Soria, wide alluvial plains provide space enough for sweeping barley fields, but as you climb into the mountains the cultivated fields become tiny and strewn with boulders. Eroded spars of bare limestone pierce the surface and make detours for farmers with ploughs. The crops are sparse. Lonely farmsteads and stone pueblos dot the landscape. The road twists and turns as it follows the path of least resistance along the valleys. One wonders what supports such tiny communities and whether they too, like the other two thousand and six hundred, will one day be left empty and decaying.

One such is Vallarijo. At one time, according to official records, this tiny hamlet supported 32 families who owned between them 16 beehives, 5 mules, 16 colts, 26 pigs, 654 sheep and 280 goats. Although the village itself it set on a rugged slope, not far away on a flood plain of the Rio Linares they grew cherries, olives and other crops on 45 “Yugadas” of land. A “Yugada” is an old Roman measure of land equivalent to half and acre or a quarter of a hectare. It was meant to be the area of land a double yoked team of oxen could plough in a day.

Today, Vallarijo lays abandoned and desolate. To view its remains makes one think of looking back to some ancient, forgotten time, but the presence of ceramic electrical isolators reveals its demise as being much more recent. The last resident left in the early sixties. Being a forty minute walk away from Valdelavilla, I have visited it on several occasions. The bramble and weed strewn houses with their collapsed roofs and walls present a melancholy sight.

Many of these places are actually for sale. For not a lot of money you can own your own Spanish village, but I would imagine the cost of restoring it would be horrific.

But unlike the Vallarijo and the others, Valdelavilla rose again.

The Main Building housing the bar and restaurant at Valdelavilla

The region in which it sits is now a national park. Not nearly famous enough for its beautiful, steeply wooded valleys, exposed limestone cliffs and verdant vistas along the meandering Rio Linares, it receives nothing like it fair share of visitors. A (rather cynical – I thought) description of the history of the area tells of a time when the hills were covered with oak trees. These trees were used to build the ships of the Spanish navy, including the “Armada Invencible” that attempted to invade England in 1588. This history (hence the reason I thought it cynical) goes on to say that much of this oak can now be found lying at the bottom of the English Channel! One can only assume that after the cutting of the trees the hillsides were left bare and open to erosion for many decades. Thirty years ago the whole area was planted with non indigenous pine, which might be useful for building and telegraph poles, but their rigid lines do not enhance the landscape. In the late nineties, a group of businessmen financed the renovation of Valdelavilla into a resort hotel. It is not however a luxurious place. The cottages are small, the plumbing is minimal. The steepness of some staircases and lowness of ceilings present a permanent danger to those not so nimble on their feet or of above average height. Floors are not even, the oak beams crooked and the cobbled paths could easily twist an ankle or two. In other words the village is an (almost) authentic representation of how difficult life was to the original inhabitants. No wonder the flat floors and spacious rooms of city apartments drew them away.

In 2001 it was discovered that the village’s remoteness and total absence of a mobile telephone signal made it ideal for improving the English of Spaniards wanting to practise the language. You can read about that in “Victimising the Spanish” from a few months ago.

The most prolific growth in this bare wilderness seems to be that of wind turbine generators set along the ridge of every hill, their huge sails revolving slowly in the ever present wind.

But the limestone has kept secrets for millions of years. Now erosion and the determined chipping away of geological hammers are revealing what once was a home for dinosaurs. Forty minutes before arriving at Valdelavilla, we turned off the main road at Garay to see a five metre high concrete Tyrannosaurus Rex celebrating the discoveries made so far. Not far from Valdelavilla, the eroding landscape has revealed tracks of dinosaur feet. Once made in a muddy river bed and now fossilised for all time, this has given palaeontologists insight into how gregarious the dinosaurs were. They would herd in huge groups, protecting their young in the centre of the herd like elephants do now.

I have been to Valdelavilla several times. Its approach, down a long and winding series of hairpin bends means that the winter snows cut it off almost completely. For this reason it is only open from April until October. But the photograph below was taken on May Day 2008, revealing that nothing can be taken for granted in these lonely places. I was away for a week with no access to the outside world. I returned to Madrid to find that life had continued as ever.

In the centre of the city, in the Puerta del Sol, the place from which all distances are measured, the hole they have been working on for four years has finally opened as a station for the Cercanías commuter train system. Its very modern glass entrance, consisting of two unequally sized glass domes, has been quickly given the nickname of "El Pez", or the fish, by the citizens, has come under fire for detracting from the historical architecture of the plaza. I haven’t been down to see it myself yet, but when I first came to Madrid the Puerta del Sol was little more than a bus station with ugly concrete bus shelters. So El Pez has to be better than that.

I wrote in April how street and plaza names were being changed to remove references to the Franco era. Last week the Ayuntamiento, Madrid’s town council, decided to strip Franco of the honorary titles the city bestowed on him during his time in office. Among others he was an honorary mayor and adopted son of the city (he was born in Galicia) as well as having several medals.

Following the law passed by the socialist government in 2007, Madrid has now followed other Spanish cities by removing these honours. Naturally, it was the far left party, Izquierda Unida, who initiated the vote in the Ayuntamiento, but with the exception of two right wing councillors who walked out in protest, the vote was carried unanimously by all remaining parties.

The interesting thing is that this was a move from within the town hall – and done openly. It is not that long ago that central government, without consulting the Ayuntamiento, decided to tear down a statue of the ex-president. The action was carried out at two o’clock in the morning, leaving a blank area of pavement for office workers to find when the sun came up. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, Madrid’s mayor was said to be absolutely furious.

Of course, the big news that dominated quite a lot of the press, was that Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop singer, gave a concert in the bullring at the Plaza del Toros, not far from where I write this. I am not sure if I am too troubled about missing that! Ventas Bullring

Ah, it’s good to be back.
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