If I were Spain, what city would I be?
I’d need to be at least big enough for an airport since I love to pack my bags and go. Have an eclectic mix of old and new, as well as domestic and foreign. I’m deathly pale, so beaches won’t really be necessary (Bye, bye Valencia and Barcelona and Málaga). A city in which graffiti is practically patrimonio de la humanidad, but monuments are revered and protected.
I wouldn’t be stuffy Seville, my Spanish pueblo natal, so to speak. I think Madrid – its bustle, its nitty-gritty neighborhoods, its hidden gems – would be my city doppelgänger, although we haven’t always been fans of one another. In fact, I can’t even see myself living in Spain’s capital (and, let’s face it, I would die without 1€ beers).
Madrid lies just two hours southwest of Valladolid, the city I learned castellano and how to sleep a siesta in. During the five-week program, our quirky director Denise (más bien, Denissshhh with her ceceo) took us first to Segovia to take in the devil’s aqueduct, to Salamanca to betake the oldest university in Spain which still retains its college town vibe, to Donostia for snacking on pintxos. I had to wait four weekends before day-trippin’ to Madrid, capital city and hub of Spanish life. Like Shakira’s hit song that summer, una tortura.
Madrid lived humbly in its early days as a shepherd’s village in the geographic belly button of Spain. Since then, a power struggle between two royal families, the Bourbons and the Haspburgs (yes, like in Austria) built the city into a thriving metropolis, home to the Spanish parliament, the largest population in Iberia and plenty of foreigners.
My trip to Madrid was supposed to be full of art at the Prado and Reina Sofía, strolls in the Parque del Retiro and cochinillo. Instead, I got a hurried tour through two important art collections, creepy Teletubbies in the park and a fried squid sandwich. Madrid was not for me.
In the 15 or so subsequent trips I’ve taken to Madrid, the most recent being this last weekend, I’ve come to appreciate its beauty in uniform buildings, wide avenues and attention to every walk of life.
Certainly, I could sit for hours at the Estanque in Retiro and watch couples aimlessly row heavy boats back and forth in their alloted 45-minutes. Reina Sofía would be like window shopping for me, dando un capricho as I pay the steep admission to take in quirky and important pieces of artwork. Sol, the starting point to all major, national highways in Spain would become my ground zero for exploring the central neighborhoods full of immigrants. If I lived in Madrid, I would botellón at Templo del Debod and have churros at San Gines in the early morning hours. I light up when seeing Cibeles atop her lion-driven chariot and can trace the metro stops on the light blue and light green lines.
I love stumbling upon cupcake shops and Indian places along the funky Calle Huertas. Adore the wrought iron balconies facing centuries-old facades of governmental palaces. The strange mix of bus, taxi and pedestrian traffic. The noise. That Gran Via is as close as I’ve been to NYC. I love that boutiques abound around Fuencarral, and that the bartender at Kike’s childhood hangout in Malaseña gives me free anchovies with each beer, even if I don’t eat them. And nobody judges me when I dip into a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for coffee, nor when I stare at the “lady friends” on C/Montera.
Madrid isn’t a place I see myself living in anytime soon, but, like a moth to a flame, I love visiting. Case in point: Last Thursday, eager for some restaurant recommendations, I asked friends to suggest a good ethnic food place. Not only was the food amazing, but ten of my madriles came to enjoy it with me. Madrid, for as big and boisterous, gritty and glamorous as it is, always welcomes me with open arms, overpriced drinks and an endless agenda of things to do.
Have you visited Madrid? What impressed you – or didn’t – about the city? Any must sees (I’ve done most) or must-try restaurants? Do you feel this way about a place you’ve never lived in, but have traveled to frequently?