I lied – Madrid was my final stop. I was only there for a night and had to get up so early that I stayed in, but it didn’t stop me from being tempted. Madrid, not New York, is the city that never sleeps. On a Thursday morning I woke up at 6AM and people were still shouting outside from the night before.
Much in the way people say, “Munich or Berlin?” and “Krakow or Warsaw?” there’s a sort of competition between Barcelona and Madrid. Most people preferred Barcelona and wrote Madrid off as just a big city. I only met two people who were the other way around, and quickly discovered that I was as well.
It is just a big city, but it completely lacks any pretension. It’s amazing. Madrid is business, ridiculously, almost Paris-level expensive, but it’s confusingly laid back. People are friendly, and very pragmatic. If you have any illusions about life Madrid would be a good place to come kill them.
The streets, on which every convenience is readily available, are wide and busy, filled with endless shopping, big chains, and too much food. You couldn’t go hungry in Madrid; any street you walk down you’ll pass five little tapas and churro places that all sell the same kinds of things.
I stayed on a busy shopping street called Calle Carmen, near one of the many plazas, Plaza del Carmen, which is packed with people 24/7, literally. It was a Wednesday night and busier than I’ve ever seen Baltimore get on a Friday or Saturday. So many drug must pass hands here, I thought as I sat on the rim of a fountain completely surrounded by people and noise.
Madrid doesn’t have a trace of the wound-up air that floats around Barcelona. All the restaurants in Barcelona proudly served Catalunyan cuisine (or Asian), but in Madrid you see everything – Catalunyan, Basque, southern Spanish – thrown together with an air of whatever, we don’t care. We’re realists and we’ll take your money. But people weren’t greedy; they were approachable and talkative, without trying to sell you something . The only subset I interacted with was those in food service, and for the first time in months I was having normal conversations with world weary strangers who had no incentive other than an inclination to personal openness to chat with me.
The most fun area – and it’s extremely fun – is the triangle between Calle Atocha and Calle de Alcalá, which nestles a dense little maze of tiny alleys with literally hundreds of bars (tabernas), clubs, and extremely unique stores like the new age antiques shop and the custom t-shirt shop. You can’t go wrong down bright Calle de la Cruz and any of the tiny streets branching off it. But if you go too far suddenly you’ll find yourself out of this world of dark little tabernas and tapas bars and back on a straight commercial street of neon signs. People spend all night getting lost here.
Someone told me that if you have one day in Madrid, visit the Museo del Prado, so I did – and got there when it was already closed. Hungry and agitated that I’d walked so far for nothing, I went across the street to a little restaurant and got paella and sangria, a venerable last European dinner. The only downside was the bill, which for rice, vegetables, and weak wine was around 20 Euros. This is the whole problem with Madrid – other than the price it’s hands down the most fun city in Europe, maybe the world.
The Prado was in a wealthy part of town and the restaurant sat on the huge, heavily trafficked Paseo del Recoletos. For having such prime real estate is was surprisingly casual and devoid of anyone who looked like they dealt in the business world. Local people in jeans and button-up shirts sat around this nice, clean local little paella joint humbly eating what I knew were very expensive meals and watching soccer.
The next morning I had until about 9 before it was time to leave, so I walked down Gran Vía, an enormous street that’s Madrid’s commercial artery. Every block was filled with chains and electronic billboards like Times Square but smaller, so I was wondering how this would lead me to J&J Books, “the perfect place to relax, read, and meet travelers,” according to my map. I veered off of Gran Vía down Calle San Bernardo, which began a huge residential area. The deeper down I went the quieter it became and the more little paella places I saw. This was clearly not as hip as the triangle, but it felt like a homey area and is probably where I’d stay in the future. Right off of Calle Espíritu Santo was J&J, dark and closed until 9. In the window I saw fliers for local events and handwritten messages and cozy chairs. Le sigh.
I turned around and got breakfast at a tapas bar, where I apparently had not learned my lesson about patatas bravas being French fries and where I suddenly craved a Coke. The man behind the counter and I chatted as I ate. I told him I’d been traveling for three months and was flying out in just a few hours – he’d caught me at a weird time. I voiced my shock at how expensive Madrid was and he nodded soberly, getting into how many people, including himself, had emigrated from South America to Spain. I’d indeed noticed the huge South American population especially around Madrid. He had the same daydream free “it is what it is” attitude so striking in this city, an acceptance of life that might account, in part, for its laidback approach.
At least here I found that food isn’t always ridiculously expensive. For the same size portions you see a huge variation in price depending on the ingredients. In the U.S. it’s a much smoother landscape, but here it was an honest reflection; what was worth pennies cost pennies. Like the churro I got next door for 10 cents. I know at home it would be a dollar.
So, a valiant try but an unsuccessful visit. At least in those few hours I tasted how happy and free it felt just being there, rare feelings to feel in a big city. And the mid-October weather was warm.