Monday 12 December 2011

Marmite and what's this Radio Four?

By Richard Morley

We all have our rituals. One of mine is to start each Saturday with coffee, toast and Marmite and to listen to either the News Quiz or the Now! Show on BBC radio channel 4. (They alternate.) Both programmes give a satirical slant to British politics. Why should I be interested in British politics when I haven't set foot in the country for five years is a good question, to which the answer is that one can never really escape your home country.

I mean, did you notice the reference to Marmite. In the UK this foodstuff divides the nation. For the uninitiated, it is a dark, salty, almost black, paste made originally from the grunge found at the bottom of brewer's vats. You could almost describe it as industrial waste! And we eat it. No one would ever say, “Well, I sort of like Marmite”. You either love it or hate it. But in the rest of the world that thick, gooey paste is almost universally despised. I remember some French ex-colleagues throw several jars in the trash because they sniffed it and assumed it had gone bad. When we Brits explained it's meant to taste like that the look that passed over their faces was one of relief that they had eventually won the hundred years war, otherwise the perfidious English would be forcing it down their throats as a form of heinous torture. (Much like they do to geese!) My Spanish landlady asked me for a taste once. She's never asked again! It follows then that if you like Marmite you will, probably, be British. The opposite does not apply – it divides the Nation, remember!

All nationalities have their own tastes. US residents in Madrid make this plain with their own store called, openly, “A Taste of America”. Us British tend to be more subtle, so the shop that caters to our food predilections is called, “Things you miss”. This shop sell everything from Frey Bentos Steak and Kidney pies to Sherbet Fountains and Wine gums, Tetley's Teas to Branston Pickle.They don't seem to have updated their website recently, hence the archive link, but you can find the shop in the Calle de Juan de Austria, 11. Nearest Metro is Bilbao.

Spain has a wonderful cuisine. Those of us that live here permanently, as opposed to the ten day holiday-makers on the costas, learn to appreciate and embrace the tastes that the country has to offer, but from time to time it is natural that us guiris want a taste of home. Just last Saturday I was asked if I knew where one could buy porridge. I have no idea as I am not fond of the stuff. Perhaps one of my readers could enlighten us.

But the Spanish are very chauvinistic about their food. For them, all other cuisines are at the least, suspect, and at most, horrible. I have a friend who when visiting Ethiopia, lived on sandwiches and completely missed the delicious, spicy dishes of that country. Another, who while telling me she liked foreign food, back-tracked quickly when I suggested an Indian in Lavapies. And when I first arrived here, just six years ago, a taste of anything British usually came in the form of food parcels sent by concerned relatives.

Parsnips - You can see why one of the assistants in Gold Gourmet calls them "Zanahorias Blancas" or "White carrots".

That, I am happy to relate, has changed, but not by a lot. When I posted last year on Facebook that I had obtained Parsnips I was inundated with requests asking me from where? I have to admit I was of two minds whether to pass on the information. Suppose I went to the shop and found some earlier Brit had cleaned them out – on my advice? The shop, GoldGourmet, (actually shops – in the plural, forming as they do a short high street of their own,) can be found at Calle José Ortega y Gasset, 85. Don't worry about that address – it's the cheap end of JOyG. Not anywhere near the Diors, Jimmy Choos, Burberry etc at the posh end. Nearest Metro is Lista (L4).

Much the same happened when I posted about mature cheddar cheese and Branston Pickle. Where, where, where? Were people that desperate?

Branston Pickle and Cheese.

Some of the larger hypermarkets on the outskirts, Carrefour et al, (but not their smaller branches in the centre,) now carry many food items of foreign origin. Since they finally extended line 2 of the metro to Las Rosas, my expeditions in search of British products have taken me to the Carrefour hypermarket there. The nearest metro stop is actually Alsacia and then its a two minute walk. There, recently, I loaded my trolley with English cheeses, Branston Pickle (they had piccalilli, but I didn't buy it), proper English back bacon, (Spain does ham very well, but not bacon,) Marmite, Bovril gravy granules and, amongst other things, it being Christmas, Mr Kipling's Mince Pies. Moving along the aisle a little I picked up a selection of Sharwood's Indian sauces. I have been experimenting with “fusion” food, which I call “Spindian” - Spanish - Indian. My albondigas jalfrezi are delicious! Even my Spanish landlady's kids like it! And Bovril seems to have replaced the Spanish caldo as a hot drink on a cold day. Spanish tastes can change!

Along the same aisle were Filipino and Mexican delights. It just annoys me that I have to travel out of town to buy this stuff from a Carrefour, when my local Carrefour, just thirty metres from my apartment block, does not. It does sell HP baked beans though – another successful change in tastes I have brought to my Spanish family.

But loving Spanish food as I do, most of these items will last quite a while. So I can happily shop locally. But I despair of my local shop-keepers. Gold Gourmet, mentioned above, requires a half-hour walk for me, but there are three vegetable shops just minutes from my home. Shopping in my local market last week I asked Pepe, of Verduras Pepe, if he had Parsnips. (This was a repeat of the conversation I had three years ago which you can read here. ) History repeated itself as he shrugged and replied that, no, he hadn't, but then added that I was the third person who had asked him that day. An Englishman and a German Lady had also been searching for that wonderful vegetable. “So perhaps you will stock them in future”, I enquired. It seemed a market for them was developing within the barrio. “No”, he replied, “There's no demand”.

Ok, perhaps us three do not a “demand” make, but we surely cannot be alone?

But to return to the other half of my Saturday ritual – listening to the BBC's radio 4 programmes.
Should I not be listening to Spanish Radio to improve my listening skills? I should, and I do. Other rituals include always watching the early evening news on TV and occasionally tuning in to COPE radio. (I don't share their politics,but they do speak clearly!) But as a teacher of English it is also necessary to keep my skills in that language current. I am surrounded all day with such English as, “My sister, she work in Barcelona”, or “I am very fluently in English”. If I didn't have regular doses of mellifluous BBC English I might not notice those lapses in grammar and syntax. In fact, out of lessons I don't, so normal have these mistakes become to my ears. My professional life maybe in English, but I live in Spanglish.

Incidentally, the English of visiting British youth could also do with infusions of Radio 4. I was sitting opposite some English youths on the metro recently and could hardly understand a word! And the double negatives in their sentences made me wince.

Perhaps I should return home to teach English there. It seems to be needed. But then I would miss all that wonderful Spanish food and that is something up with which I shall no longer put.

Incidentally, if you live in Madrid and know of places where you can buy your favourite "missed" food or other items, perhaps you would like to tell us where in the comments below. If you are looking for something, you could ask and someone might have the answer. 

Sunday 27 November 2011

Trains of Thought

By Richard Morley.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”. Well, I have made a plan. It faces me from the cork board on the wall behind my computer. It is a printed spread sheet telling me where I have to be from now until the end of the year. My life has suddenly become more than busy.

Too busy, I am afraid to maintain this blog in the way I would wish. Gone is the time I could devote to the visits and research I love to do. I haven't stopped completely as life always brings new questions to be answered, new places to see and wonder about.

This year I have visited parts of Spain very new to me. I have experienced new delights and met new people. I have tried new food and learned more about local cultures. All of which are recorded for future blog posts and I will try to find the time to write something about them.

One chance encounter led to a twenty five percent increase in my teaching duties – and took me to new areas of Madrid I had not seen before. I have written about Madrid's public transport system, it's wonderful Metro, both heavy and light, and its convenient bus service, before. One thing I have only mentioned in passing is Madrid's local commuter rail network known as the “Cercanias” - the system that brings thousands of workers into the city each day from the neighbouring suburbs and towns. It was this rail network that was attacked by terrorists on March 11th 2004, that took the lives of nearly two hundred people. If the metro and buses are the arteries of the city of Madrid, then the Cercanias are its lungs and throat, bringing into the city the “alimentación” that keeps it alive.

I have only occasionally used the Cercanias up to now. Now I have to count myself as a regular commuter, well, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at least.

I however, go in the other direction to most commuters. Madrid continues to expand. The cost of establishing a business in the centre of town is high and companies are setting up on the fringes. My job takes me from one office to another. I spend quite a lot of my time on the move. I enjoy this. I wouldn't like to be set in one place all the time. For me, each day's commute is in a different direction. But this new job is taking me, twice a week, to the very limits of the city.

Yet its cost to me is the time it takes to travel. In monetary terms the fares here are so ridiculously low I can pay for my journey with the change I get from buying a pack of cigarettes.

The first railway line of the system, and indeed the first anywhere in Spain, was the line that ran from Madrid to Aranjuez, forty eight kilometres south of the city, which was completed in 1851. From those early beginnings the Cercania system has now grown to almost three hundred and fifty kilometres of track reaching out over most of the greater “Comunidad” of Madrid, and one line takes you into neighbouring Castille y Leon.

On the way to the mountains north of Madrid.

You can find a map of the system here.

Once a diverse amalgamation of different companies the Cercanias were nationalised, like all the other railway companies, in 1941, and come under the control of RENFE, (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles). Some of the local lines were narrow gauge and continued to be so until 1970.

Unlike the commuter trains of other cities, the Cercanias do not stop at terminal stations,leaving the journey to work to be completed by other modes of transport. The Cercanias come right into the heart of the city, underground, and completely hidden from the sight of tourist who might not even suspect the system exists.

Ok, that last statement is not as true as is used to be. Following four long years of tunnelling and construction, the Cercanias arrived in the Puerta del Sol, the most central point in the city. Visitors may well have noticed the signs directing those using the Metro to descend even deeper into what has been called “Europe's largest man-made cavern”, but they will have passed through towards their subway line and not really given it a thought.

Similarly, if you have ever changed metro lines at Nuevos Ministerios, and you will have if you have travelled into the city by metro from the airport, you might not have noticed that part of that sprawling mess is a very extensive series of platforms for the Cercanias. From there you can travel south to Aranjuez or north to Colmenar Viejo. You can now, if you wanted to avoid the four stops on line 8, take the Cercania to terminal four at Barajas.

They have been promising us this direct link from the airport to the city centre for years. Up to very recently the only way, using public transport, into the city has been via the metro, with at least one, sometimes two changes of line depending on the destination, or on the regular, but subject to traffic, shuttle bus. Now we have a direct line Cercania – BUT IT GOES TO THE WRONG PLACE!
The new line, C1, from the airport passes through Nuevos Ministerios, but from there, instead of going to Sol, where most tourists will want to go,being a) central, and b) within walking distance of hundreds of hotels and hostels, and c) connects to three Metro lines, it passes through Recoletos, which has none of those three advantages mentioned. In fact Recoletos is pretty useless unless you work nearby. Sol, on the other hand is the most used station in Madrid. So why RENFE, why? The main advantage of running a direct link from the airport to the city centre has been lost. And Recoletos connects with nothing. If you alight there, you will have to carry your bags three hundred metres down to Cibeles where you can catch a bus or a single metro line. On behalf of several friends who visit Madrid often I feel annoyed at this stupid bit of routing.
Oh, and you can only take the Cercanias from Terminal 4. So if you arrive at 1,2 or 3, won't have the option anyway.

But if you do arrive at terminal 4 and take the Cercanias, you will either have to change at Chamartin station, (as recommended by RENFE) Nuevos Ministerios, as you did before, to Cercanias lines C3 or C4, or travel on to Atocha to change to line 1 of the metro – possible the worst and most over-crowded line on the network. At great expense, nothing has been improved.

Be that as it may, the Cercanias are clean, cheap and are only crowded during rush hour. They are also quiet. Totally electrified and running on the smoothest track imaginable, you can read or listen to music in peace.
The inside of one of the carriages. Obviously this is not rush Hour. 

They also run on time – and in the mornings, very frequently. On the route I use, at least, a train leaves for my destination every ten minutes. And I always get a seat!

Changing the subject:

I was attending a meeting with other teachers recently. All of them were reporting, like me, if they wanted it, an increase in workload. We may well be in a recession, but language teaching seems to be hardly affected. It's not just English. French and German are also, it seems, needed by Spanish businessmen and women. Not all companies have been affected by the crisis. They might not be enjoying the boom times of recent years, and this is probably, and not too late, making them reflect on their marketing strategies. The companies I teach at are telling me something very interesting: it is not a priority for their employees to pass an exam in English. They want their employees to close the deal, sell, get the contract signed, advertise and network – and whether this is done grammatically or not is not important, so long as communication is established.

Grammar teachers – don't send me hate mail. I will state here and now that conjugation and syntax are vitally important when communication needs to be precise. Dates and terms of agreements have to definitely understood on both sides. What these employers mean is they want to concentrate on practical communication. And if that means slipping out of the grammatical and into the vernacular, then that is what they want.

Luckily, that is exactly what I teach. Coming from a technical / scientific background that morphed into management seems to have worked in my favour. The business student wants useful language skills and I have lost count of the number of times one of my students has commented that vocabulary within that business context that I introduce into my lessons was never taught to them at any “academic” language establishment. And they wonder why?

Business English (BE), English for Special purposes (ESP), and other forms of useful language skills should be our priority if we have those types of students. Get away from the academic and into the realms of the practical. And if you don't know the vocabulary, you can learn it. In recent months I have taught British and American Legal, Accountancy, Marketing, Technical and Scientific, (where I had to learn all the terms needed in meteorology incidentally!) and Financial English. In business, a basic vocabulary, while useful, is not enough. And employers here know it.

In the light of that, one of the teachers I met with thinks that the market for business English will remain strong for at least the next decade. That should see me into my dotage nicely!

Another change of subject:

I bought Parsnips and Brussels sprouts a couple of days ago. A sure sign that Christmas is nearly with us. After the aforementioned teachers' meeting, I wondered down to the Plaza España and lunched on Chestnuts

The Christmas illuminations have been turned on and nativity scenes (belensare starting to appear in shop windows. I love this time of year in Madrid. Everyone seems to be even more friendly than normal and the Christmas parties, at least for me, begin next weekend.

I just hope I can find the time to enjoy them!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Madrid Suburbia - On Route 66

By Richard Morley.

The Poet Antonio Machado claimed there were two Spains. He was writing about the divide caused by the Civil War, but as I wrote in my last post, there are still two Madrids: The one the tourist experiences and the one in which we live. The visitor knows the centre of the city including the infamous “Three Ps”. Away from that centre they would get a different, and more truthful perspective of the city.

So, putting shoe-leather where my mouth is, I thought I would take my little camera out there and actually show you. And Antonio Machado’s quote is apt because my first expedition led me to his eponymous calle and Metro station.

We are in the extreme west of the city proper. A few hundred metres west the concrete and brick open up to green countryside. Golf courses and the “Hipódromo de la Zarzuela”, Madrid’s horse racing course, find their home here among the rolling hills where, after a half hour’s walk you can forget the city exists.

Here, the city is bounded by the multi-laned M30 ring road. And the city comes right up to its edges.

Exiting from the metro station, serving the two Colonias of Saconia and the charmingly named Valdeconejos, or “Valley of the Rabbits”, we find a broad, open road  lined with well spaced and modern apartment blocks. These buildings utilize modern materials in bright and light colours. No grey granite canyons as seen in the centre. Between road way and residences lie green, grassy gardens and children’s play parks.

The road runs along a natural valley that exits from a tunnel that brings the traffic underground from Castellana. Thanks to this program of taking the traffic under the city these residential areas are mercifully free from exhaust fumes and grid-lock. Yet, not too far away the looming bulks of the Cuatro Torres peer over the roof tops.

You are out of the city, but still part of it. The metro will have you in Sol in twenty minutes. As Mason Cooley wrote, “A suburb is an attempt to get out of reach of the city without having the city be out of reach”.

 Looking across the valley to the Barrio del Pilar.

On either side of that valley the land rises quite steeply, revealing a cascade of apartment blocks, one behind the other. A lot of people live here.

This is a recent development. As we climb the sides of the valley we begin to find older areas. Here are found the abominations of sixties concrete and glass. Architecture can easily be divided into three classes: The Good, The bad and the Ugly. These older apartment blocks are not pretty. They were built, at a price, to house a rapidly increasing population. The passing years have lent a maturity to the streets. The shops, the bars, those little plazas where the old relax in the sun and the young play, give a sense of community. There is nothing for the tourist to see, but this is where we live.

New development in the Valley of the Rabbits has basically reached its western limit, but head north and there is lots of space.

I work a bit in the northern suburbs and so come with me on a journey.

Heading to the northern end of the Paseo Castellana the traveller arrives at the plaza Castilla. This is deemed a gateway out of the city.  The leaning towers of the KIO buildings are a more modern expression of the historical Puertas of Alcala and Toledo, but perform the same function. After seemingly endless years of construction the Plaza now boasts a modern public transport interchange boasting three metro lines and countless town and country bus routes and is one metro stop from Chamartin mainline railway station.

I could have taken the metro the four stops to Tres Olivos, but instead chose to take the bus. Just about the first things we pass are the towering Cuatro Torres. Built to take advantage of a business boom that now will arrive later than planned these buildings are magnificent. Approaching two hundred and fifty metres in height their glass shimmers in the sun. As they stand on the highest part of the city their pinnacles are higher above sea-level than any other building in Europe. On cloudy days the tops just disappear.

Apartment blocks give shade on a sunny day.

Opposite them, we turn sharply and enter the Colonia of San Cristobal that I wrote aboutlast year. Crossing the M30 we head into Fuencarral and already the city of Madrid is forgotten. The winding streets and low old buildings betray its earlier independence from the city. You could be easily passing through an old English Market town built years before town planning was a reality. Through the built up area and now we pass into new developments and eventually into Tres Olivos.

Built in a natural hollow the concept is interesting, but lacking in imagination. A wide elliptical plaza fill the bottom of the hollow with streets radiating away in higher concentric ellipses. Around the plaza, cutting it off from its surroundings, stand two rings of high apartments. East and south the concentric streets boast modern “Chalet” (and in Spain they pronounce the final “t”) style housing with walled suburban gardens.

At ground level the blocks surrounding the plaza contain small shops. Several are out of business and boarded up giving a slight air of dilapidation. This is a residential area. Commerce tends to be limited to groceries, hairdressers, and banks. Perhaps it was better before the metro with it fast service into the city opened, but now it seems a little forlorn.

The plaza rejoices in the name of the “Ronda del Ingenioso Hidalgo”. Of course, a reference to that fabulous knight, Don Quijote. Knowing that whoever gets the job of naming Madrid streets tends to go in themes I looked around for other street names. Working concentrically outwards I found the “Ronda del Caballero de la Mancha”. Hey! Wait a minute. Surely these are both names for Don Quijote? But moving on the next street was named for his horse, Rocinante, but then I discovered the “Calle del Caballero de la Triste Figura”.  That’s another name for the ingenious knight. Either the person who names streets was being very ingenious him or herself, or just being plain lazy. Or perhaps they just feed Spanish literature into a computer and expect it to come up with random, or not so random as it turns out, street names.

Either way it would annoy the heck out of me if I had to write ““Ronda del Caballero de la Mancha” or “Calle del Caballero de la Triste Fugura” every time someone wanted my address. My landlady agrees and thanks providence that our address is a single two-syllabled name.

Eventually other Quijote characters popped out of the street naming procedure. There is the “Calle del Caballero de los Leones”, “Calle del Caballero de los Espejos”, and the Calles “de Casildea de Vandalia”, and “Bella Altisidora”, but those last two are the same person as well! No surprise then that I eventually came across the “ Bar Quijote”.

However, repetitive street naming aside, this small neighbourhood seems a pleasant place to live. The streets give a sense of space and respectability. Climbing quite a lot of steps I arrived in neighbouring Fuencarral park that looked down on it all and gave splendid views across the city to the south. Then I wandered up to the Tres Olivos Metro Station that did have three trees planted outside although none were actually olives and went on to the next part of the suburbs I want to show you.

Fuencarral Park. It's difficult to escape the Cuatro Torres, even this far out. 

But before I do: That bus route I took to get there? Well, I got my pics – on route 66. Sorry about that!

It’s just two stops on the metro to get to Las Tablas. Again the central area is a large ellipse bisected by the crossroads of two underused four lane highways. Las Tablas is very new. The first time I visited most of it was under construction. Some still is! There are no suburban “Chalets” here, but gated blocks of six and seven storey apartments encircling their own private gardens. Some boast swimming pools and tennis / paddle courts and lawns for relaxing and taking the sun. Ideal for raising small families in relative security as one of my students, a very recent mother of twins, is doing.

 Las Tablas

The apartment blocks are pleasing on the eye, if not beautiful, and the spaces between blocks is immense with plenty of sunlight and a sense of total unconfinement. If it wasn’t so far out of the city I would move there. You really need a car, and then, with the M40 encircling the neighbourhood just a few hundred metres away, you can get anywhere quickly. If you don’t have a car then there are three ways to get into town: Bus, Metro and Metro Ligero, or the over-ground light railway.

Madrid boasts three lines of light railway. There are two quite long ones to the west of the city, leaving from the Colonia Jardin, that will take you a long way out of the city. The line that arrives at Las Tablas is comparatively short, only nine stations and half of its route is actually underground, putting the “light” railway in the “dark”, so to speak. The trains consist of five short, flexible carriages, enabling them to be steered around some quite tight bends.

This line, 1, of the metro ligero takes you from Las Tablas into the city where it connects with lines 1 and 4 of the real metro. I write “real” as the metro ligero reminds me a fairground ride; Not very fast and you feel every bump and twist as you seem to chug along, but it’s clean, comfortable and very well air-conditioned and so a pleasure to use and, unlike the metro, enables the passenger to view the city passing outside.

 Ranks of Apartment Blocks in Sanchinarro

Line 1 takes you through the neighbourhood of Sanchinarro. It is here the northward expansion of the city began. Old Madrid slowly merges into new. Narrow streets become wide thoroughfares. Mature publics gardens are replaced with scrubby, sapling planted, open spaces. But most of “old” Madrid here is scarcely more than fifty years of age, so the next generation will enjoy it.

Most of the apartment blocks are around eight stories, but soaring above them is a building that up until recently intrigued me. Seen from a distance from the inside of the metro ligero, the “Mirador Building” is fascinating.

Twenty stories high and looking like it was built from left over Lego blocks I am sure that this is a design you either love or hate. Designed to be a self-contained vertical village it has an open area for kids to play in (on) on the twelfth floor. It is a plaza with amazing views I am sure, but as to whether it fulfils that purpose, (is there a bar, fountain, swings and climbing frames?) I am not sure. Walking round it I found just one entrance which seemed severe and unwelcoming and resembling the entrance stairway to some science fiction spaceship. It is a building out of the pages of Brave New World. I personally don’t think it belongs in this one.

I am not sure how it fits into the categories of Good or Bad, but now I have seen it close up, I am convinced it is Ugly. As the link here says, it is certainly innovative and striking in its outward appearance, but some have remarked it’s not really suited for its purpose. I can see what Prince Charles of England means when he speaks of a “carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend” while describing a modern extension to one of London’s classic buildings. The Mirador Building in Madrid is not beautiful and not in the right place. It is totally out of keeping with its surrounds.

But as the tall apartment blocks of old Madrid testify, going up is the only solution to a housing crisis where space is limited. (Ask those living on Manhattan in New York!) When the building boom began in Madrid in the fifties and sixties it suffered from the same architectural solutions that were being muted in other cities across the world. Steel, Glass and reinforced concrete were regarded as low cost solutions whose problems and lack of aesthetics did not truly become apparent until time had taken its toll.

When I wrote about the “Colonias” of Madrid  I applauded the movement towards low cost housing. But that was on a small scale. The greater problems that came mid-century together with the new “wonder” building materials, contrived to produce slums for the future. This is evident in parts of Madrid today, such as in San Blas and the Barrio del Pilar (which do have better examples of building design before anyone complains) and the Barrio of Conception, which I can unfortunately see from my apartment fifth floor window.

 Bad and Ugly in The Barrio de Concepción

Same Barrio, but better.

Today’s buildings appear to have had more thought gone into their outward appearance (mostly), although residents in them complain of paper thin adjoining walls, and are a far cry from those depicted in Pedro Almodovar’s film, ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, which was filmed, incidentally, in those same ugly blocks in the Barrio de Conception. Greater planning control and more rigorous building regulations might mean that today’s solution to housing results in a more attractive city.

Unlike cities in the UK, Madrid does seem to be avoiding inner-city blight with the flight to the suburbs, for which we can thank the tourists who come to see “Historical Madrid” and the young and not so young who keep the barrios of Chueca and La Latina alive as there is precious little night life in the suburbs. Which perhaps means that Madrid has struck the right balance. Although it might keep the Metro running a bit later to allow us to get back home.

But most of us can’t afford to live in the centre. The “afueras” (outskirts) offer affordable, secure housing at a good price. I hope some of what I have shown you here demonstrates that. I only went, out of convenience, to three districts. There are many more just as good. Perhaps the more enlightened visitor might like to board the metro ligero and see them now, before they too become “Historic Madrid”.

PS The visitor who would like to explore more but needs to be pointed in the right direction might like to read these other posts:

Friday 9 September 2011

September Song

By Richard Morley.

The Cuatro Torres on a sunny day.

The guy who plays the accordion has returned to his pitch halfway up the double escalator at Cruzco metro station. His dreary renderings of Ave Maria once again accompany my ascent from platform to pavement as I strive to arrive on time for the lesson. Like most of the population of Madrid, he’s been absent for the past month. Their place was taken by tens of thousand of camera snappy, culture vulture tourists, who just have to “do” the Prado, oh!, and a million and a half of the pope’s groupies.

Now, except for a few stragglers, the visitors have gone home. I hope they have happy memories of this most wonderful of towns, but I am glad they’ve gone. (With a notable exception who I am going to miss! Ah! No name! I have to maintain an air of mystery.)

I suppose many who live in places deemed “tourist destinations” have similar thoughts. What the visitor comes to see, those things I famously call the “Three Ps” of the Prado, the Palacio Real and the Plaza Mayor, with maybe a side trip to the Retiro Park or the new Madrid Rio embankment park (if they venture that extra half kilometre out of the centre,) all assiduously recorded on a million digital cameras, are what they will tell their neighbours and colleagues about when they return home. “Madrid is so historical! ”, they will exclaim.

And that includes that monolithical concrete lump of an eyesore called the Bernabéu Stadium, which happily, might not be around for much longer as there are plans by the club to replace it with a steel and glass monolith including a new shopping mall. I am not detracting from the sporting skill of the club, just their choice of architects! And to be honest, there are a few other buildings in that area that hark back to the concrete and glass heyday of the sixties and could well, should be, replaced.

Possibly Madrid's ugliest building

Travel more than a kilometre from Sol and, with a couple of exceptions, that sense of “historical” Madrid disappears. Most of what constitutes the city dates back not much further than the 1950s. Gran Via itself is only a hundred years old. Yes, a lot of it is a Jungla Cristal of not very attractive apartment and office blocks, which is not what the tourist has come to see. Yet that is where the people are, and it’s the spirit, the friendliness of those people which is the essence of this city I now call home.

Like all large cities the majority of the population are immigrants. Madrileños who can trace their ancestry back two or three generations and stay within the city are few and far between. These are the so-called “gatos”, or Madrid cats. I do have a friend who can go back five generations and when I mention this I am met with expressions of amazement. It is very unusual. But the spirit of the city imposes itself even on us new-comers and we don’t, in the main, live in “historical” Madrid. We live in a modern, bustling, vibrant town that, yes, like any place that predates 1776 actually has some history!

The Business District in Castellana

From the soaring Cuatro Torres, Europe’s highest skyscrapers, to the bottom of Castellana this spirit is evident in the architecture. But who is the brave tourist who ventures north of Colon? Or west of the Palace, east of the Puerta de Alcala, south of Atocha? Yet that is where you’ll find the real Madrid.

I want to drag our visitors out to the Parque Juan Carlos Primero to see new thinking. I want to lead them around the streets and markets of Carabanchel. I want them to see some fantastic modern architecture in Alcobendas and Alcorcon.

Instead, when a tourist wishes to escape the town centre, where do they go? Toledo! I am sure history is fascinating to those who have little history themselves, but just because we in Europe do, they shouldn’t ignore our more modern achievements.

I know on this blog I tend to write about the historical myself, because it fascinates me. But in the same way that I tell people to cross over the Paseo de Prado and visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza gallery (much more interesting than the Prado) I want our visitors to see beyond the “Three Ps” and experience a real Madrid, the living city, not the time capsulated centre where even the modernisations look old.
Men in suits.

But they’ve gone now, these interlopers. We have returned to our offices and classrooms (or soon will). We still have clear, brilliant blue skies with thirty degree plus temperatures, but the shorts and patterned shirts have been replaced with business suits and ties (reinforcing my belief that Spanish men are nuts as the ladies are still sensibly wearing thin strapped summer numbers), the metro is crowded and the lines for the Menu del Día are long.

Mind you, we break into our work schedule gently here in Madrid. The first full week of work ends ……… in a bank holiday. I mean a full five days would be too much for the poor things!

And the accordionist sits on his stool halfway up the escalators at Cruzco and plays Ave Maria. Madrid is ours again.

Don’t worry. We will lend it to you again next year.