24.08.2014 - 29.09.2014 36 °C
A city that makes you sweat from the heat, the bustle, the energy. Everything about Madrid is scorching, the pavement crackles beneath your feet, your tapas steam on their plate, your beer is perspiring the second it's poured. The days are long and draining, the sun refuses to trade places with its nocturnal counterpart, reluctantly bleeding blood orange at 9pm when the street lights and billboards take up their post and the city switches into party mode. Yet you just want more of Madrid. There are cities that you feel take from you, wear you down, you secretly want the evening to come so you can hide from them. In Madrid, you don't want to take rest-stops, you refuse to bow out, it's like when you're full but you just keep picking at the feast in front of you.
I have to admit, I really had small expectations of Madrid. Whilst I really shouldn't have listened to others, seeing as you meet more negative people when you're travelling than at your average funeral, almost every person out of the plethora we've met definitively wrote it off as industrial and shallow, like how I found Milan. But, wow, such a place. It was not going down without a fight and it dealt some knockout blows. It may go down in this trip as stealing the championship belt.
The night we arrived, we went to a dodgy flamenco show at a hostel with a friend, figuring that you couldn't go wrong for 12€ with a sangria included. Whilst it was definitely sub-par it whet my appetite to see some professional flamenco dancing, and to my surprise Hodge enjoyed it as well (it may have just been the free sangria). Speaking of appetites, that night taught me a powerful lesson. Listen up, kids. If they offer you hot sauce in a Spanish fast-food restaurant, do not assume it will be the same diluted sweet chilli rubbish that we put on cheap meals back home. It will make your insides feel like the burning nest of Hades and have you doubled over the next morning cursing the inventor of Mexican food.
So we undertook a journey to find some decent flamenco, and really hit a home run. We went to go see a flamenco performance called Mamaroso, and it was fantastic. The dancers are so incredibly athletic and passionate. Flamenco used to be the form of expression used by Spanish peasants to share their experiences and emotions and you can definitely tell; the performers are so raw. The entire show is improvised depending on their mood for the evening. A free cocktail with the ticket topped off a wonderful night, despite Hodge deciding he had a hidden talent for flamenco and stomping all the way home.
A thing I adored about Madrid was that it was such a green city, full of large welcoming plazas and shady avenues. Shady in a good, leafy way, not a 2am in Barcelona way. Retiro Park is a beautiful example of this, a large manicured public space that outsizes even Central Park, filled with sculptures and a lovely man-made lake. This lake is the closest the city has to a beach or shore so the locals sunbathe along side it by day, with hawkers attempting to sell beer to them. We rented a rowboat at the lake and happily paddled around people-watching and trying to spot the jumping fish.
Of course we had to go see the Bernabau Stadium, home to Real Madrid and an institution in Spanish football. These sporting tours actually fascinate me because I think the history of the clubs says so much about the political and social identity of the place; like Franco's legacy to Real Madrid.
Another highlight was our day trip to Toledo, a historic town literally in the middle of the desert. On the train ride, after you've passed the outskirts of Madrid, there is nothing but endless red and orange to see for miles. Madrid in itself is bizarre that way; a thriving and very cosmopolitan metropolis in the centre of such vast arid land. Toledo's architecture is gorgeous, you cross from different parts of the town and the buildings change; each representative of whether the former inhabitants were Jewish, Catholic or Muslim. Toledo sort of rolls down the hill that hosts it, decaying buildings renovated into souvenir shops litter the otherwise rocky, scraggly mountainside. Whilst Toledo was a very multicultural city in its peak, it also played a central role in the abhorrent Spanish Inquisition- we visited the Museum of Ancient Torture Instruments and it was confronting to see and touch the mechanisms. While most of Western Europe's souvenirs are beyond tacky, Toledo takes 'I really wish you hadn't' gifts to a whole new level. The town is famous for its expertly crafted silver and steel, and thus has made most of the swords and armour for blockbusters like Lord of the Rings. I'm sorry, but I opted not to bring home anyone a 100€ replica of Aragon's sword.
But the absolute bonus about Madrid, a gift I never expected- the food is so cheap! Order a drink, a complimentary tapas is slammed down on your table. Order a meal, a bowl of bread appears for free. My favourite place to eat was the San Miguel Market, an open-style market place where you could wander from stall to stall, picking up a glass of wine here, a plate of olives there. The culture of progressing through dinner in nibble-sized portions really appeals to me. Hodge began a culinary love affair with a Madrid exclusive food chain- the Museo del Jamon, or the Museum of Ham. Why? You can order two beers, two bocadillos (crunchy rolls filled with ham) and get change from 3€. Pit stops at their many stores became a regular respite from the sun. Hodge now recommends it to people as 'Disneyland for meat lovers'. Such a Croatian.
Lonely Planet calls Madrid the most alive city in the world, and I now agree. Memories of Madrid will be infused with a buzzing in my ears, sweat on my brow, and the promise of another bright exciting day.