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.


  1. You could send this blog to an Edinburgh native and they'd very much appriciate it. I have to hold my hands up to being 'un guiri comico' (a new term I've just invented) in their fine, historical and more complex than given credit for city for August, however we weren't treated to so mucb sun and those in Madrid would have been.

    I don't know if I've missed a few of these blogs but it seems like a long time since I've read one. Nice to read one again!

  2. Lovely read, as usual

  3. Well said! I couldn't agree more on every point. For me, historical Madrid exists in the people and the culture. And to truly understand that, you must escape the tourist-filled center and experience the city as those the locals do.

  4. What a lovely post about a beautiful city.

    I am fortunate in that my son lives in Madrid, and when we visit, he insists that we join him in each of the districts and barrios his classes are at. This way we have discovered some of the most beautiful areas outside of the touristy parts of Madrid. Also, taking the metro, getting of at some random stop, walking and eating in those areas has been an great way for us to experience the people, the culture and the architecture, old and new, good and bad.

    Each time we visit, I look forward to exploring more of the real Madrid, outside of those 'Three P's' or the tourist triangle as I call it, and thats the Madrid I love.

  5. Great stuff ! Yes, Madrid does belong to its inhabitants, habits and traditions, not to its monuments only. Live the Madrid life, take the time to soak it in, it's the only way to really enjoy it. In fact, this is true of every kind of tourism. I always try to live the local ways more and more everytime.

    Keep on the great stuff!

    PS: my "moving to madrid tips" blog if you're interested :

  6. Sounds interesting, might have to take you up on that some other time.
    Following and supporting your blog! Looking forward to future updates!

    Visit here for my blog Funny Kids

  7. One of the best things about my time there was discovering the Madrid outside of the tourist areas. I'm so glad I chose to live in a proper residential area. If not for living there, I'd probably still be going no further out of the main areas than wherever the tapas night is on a Saturday evening before VT.

  8. I couldn't agree more! This juxtaposition of old and new is something I was also trying to get across in my own entry on Madrid and modern movements in the city:

    I'm glad I found this blog and look forward to following it!

  9. Hey there,

    I've been following your blog for the last two years while I've been living in and blog about Spain. I am editing a Spain wiki page over at and I was wondering if you'd be willing to write a little blurb about your take on Madrid. I can link back to your blog in the credits for your writing. Let me know! Ashleigh