Madrid surprised me. With its 3 million inhabitants I was expecting a crazy, bustling city – which it was in some respects – but above all Madrid struck me by how walkable and peaceful it is. Strolling through narrow streets around Plaza Mayor, Plaza Santa Ana, or La Latina in an endless hunt for tapas & vino is an almost spiritual experience. Enjoying great bacalao (cod) at Casa Labra, sampling traditional callos a la Madrileña (tripe stew) in Casa Alberto (tavern founded in 1827 in a building where Cervantes used to live), sipping Riojas and Riberas at Taberna Alhambra, ending the night at San Ginés Chocolateria with chocolate con churros – those are moments to cherish.I loved Madrid’s leisurely pace and could spend hours wandering along city streets ornate with brightly tiled walls or relaxing closer to the nature in the expansive greenery of Buen Retiro Park only to resume the tapas crawl after the sun sets. That lifestyle definitely takes some getting used to, though, given that for most self-respecting Spaniards 9:30pm is the earliest they’d consider going out for dinner and reportedly the busies time for San Ginés Chocolateria is between 3 and 6am when the party crowd slowly begins to return home. If I were to live here, I can see already how my productivity would suffer thanks to endless tapas bars such as cosy Taberna Tempranillo on Calle Cava Baja. But there is definitely more to Madrid than great food plus awesome (and incredibly cheap!) wine night after night.
Madrid has layers. Looking at muralla árabe, a wall built by the Muslims in 9th century, you can feel that you’re standing on centuries of history. Having passed between Muslim and Christian hands during Reconquista, Madrid – or Mayrit as it was originally called – ultimately gained national prominence when king Philip II moved the court there from Toledo in 1561. So the site where Palacio Real now stands started as a Muslim fortress, or alcázar. And the Almudena Cathedral stands on the site of a medieval mosque destroyed in 1085 during Christian conquest. Pretty neat.
More recent history speaks most poignantly through art. Goya’s Dos de Mayo & Tres de Mayo at Prado Museum take us back to the failed and brutally suppressed uprising against Napoleonic occupation in 1808. Although the French, crushed by the failed invasion of Russia, ultimately withdrew their demoralized forces across the Pyrenees, the victory for Spain was pyrrhic. The political and economic chaos of the war spelled the beginning of the end of the Empire as most of Spain’s American colonies soon declared independence and it pretty much went downhill from there hitting the bottom under Franco. Picasso’s Guernica at Reina Sofía of course is the best known testimony to the dark days of the Spanish Civil War that gave rise to Franco’s regime, screaming with pain of a city annihilated by Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937. Fortunately today when most people think of Madrid and Spain in general, La Movida Madrileña following Franco’s death and transition to democracy in 1975 comes to mind rather than the gloom of previous decades.On a historical walk of Madrid, probably the most unexpectedly notable spot, however, goes to Templo de Debod. Built in ancient Egypt and threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, the temple was saved through an international effort and transported stone by stone to a Madrid park. Impressive in and of itself, the site also offers an incredible view toward Palacio Real and one of the best spots to watch the sunset in the city. There is an old Polish saying “życie jak w Madrycie” – life like in Madrid – which is usually an aspirational statement implying carefree and prosperous life. I don’t know where it came from – I’m guessing from two sources: 1) sunny Spain remained an exotic and alluring place for most Poles, at least until recently, 2) it rhymes. But there is definitely something to it and I, for one, want to come back for more la vida Madrileña!