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Not-so-totally-touristy guide to Spain, Part II – Madrid

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Our deepening chat flowed easily as I sat in a chair in his corridor facing the kitchen, where my friend of 16 years was preparing us dinner my first evening in Madrid. Marcos is the kind of friend I’m able to not talk to for ages, and still be completely on the same wavelength with. We are both nomads by a mix of choice and consequence, once journalists by passion and currently fish-out-of-the-water academics; also, we share a birthday (two years apart) and a Brazilian upbringing, and with the latter come pop culture memories we can laugh about for hours together, and which only people who grew up in Brazil can understand. But although we’d met up over the previous five years in Copenhagen (where I was studying), Oxford (where he was studying) and Leipzig (my current heimat), we’d still never really been out partying together. That weekend on his new stomping grounds was to be the first time, and the real purpose for which I’d returned to Madrid. My previous visits, alone and then with another friend from the U.S., had consisted basically of the Prado Museum, the Parque de El Retiro, the Palacio Real, walking up and down Gran Vía, and going to bars I remember nothing about because they were on a hostel-organized pub crawl. Throw in a bullfight and some sangria and that’s about it.

Typical Spanish outfits where people can put their heads through, at Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
Typical Spanish outfits where people can put their heads through, at Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

Marcos said Madrid had hooked him in an inexplicable way, like no other city he’d romanced had hooked him before. He’d lived there before, in 2011, for the Balboa journalism program, and ”had to be literally dragged away” when the program ended. He told me about how he’d been the last person to both enter and leave the plane back to Brazil – his last night out in Madrid having lasted a lot longer than he’d anticipated, his bag unpacked until the very last minute, he’d almost missed his flight and had to be deposited by friends at the security check; he then passed out the whole flight, woken up by a flight attendant and being asked to please gather his belongings and get off the plane. It had taken him four years, but he’d found a way to get back to his Spanish heimat, while working a couple jobs and doing a PhD about one of his idols, Ernest Hemingway, whom I also admire. One of the quotes that have stayed with me through the years comes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”

Does it sound familiar, like the life of someone I know? Perhaps. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d even end up in Pamplona, where part of that novel is set, a favorite hangout of the torada aficionado Hemingway. And the drinking and hanging around cafés part was definitely there for me in Madrid.  How could it not, when you’ve got Mahou? You see, I don’t remember having met Mahou the previous times I’d been in Madrid. I also don’t remember seeing the armies of specifically Chinese people, for some reason, selling Mahou in one-euro cans across the city, popping out of corners like genies from lamps divining your wish. Marcos told me Chinese people are making a lot of money in Madrid because they hit the streets selling beer after all the Spanish shops have closed, and keep their own shops open also late and on the others’ days off. But my first time registering it was Mahou that I was drinking actually happened by accident, my first full day in Madrid. I’d walked into a crowded little bar (Cervecería La Fábrica) off of Paseo del Prado thinking it was a micro-brewery, but all they offered me was Mahou. No matter. I liked the creamy taste and refreshing feeling of this pale lager so much that, even when I got irritated at the small size of my overpriced portion of mussels and having to sit squeezed in a corner, I kept ordering more beer and staying on. And each beer came with a small tapa – a marvelous regular practice in Spain – which I should have relied on for my lunch instead. From then on, Mahou has been in competition with Guiness at the top of my list of favorite beers (and no, this is not a paid ad).

That day, I’d walked from Marcos’s largely residential neighborhood, Quintana, about an hour to Parque de El Retiro – luckily, it was not unbearably hot as it’d been in previous weeks there. I passed by the Plaza de Toros on the way and had breakfast across from it (for a nice €3.50 at Cafeteria César de las Ventas), while reminiscing about my heart-wrenching experience watching a bullfight there some years back. I honestly don’t understand the appeal (sorry, Spanish friends and Hemingway) and wouldn’t do that again, so this time I simply took photos of the venue from across the street. At Parque de El Retiro, I briefly glanced at the boats on the water – a fond Madrid memory from years back – and proceeded to look for a restroom and then a patch of grass on which to do some work because this was not all vacation. I found both, not so far from the boats but far enough from the tourists’ noise to have some peace while reading and writing, and able to move from the sun to the shade when the heat got a bit uncomfortable. I had a few hours left before meeting up with Marcos when he was done with work, but after the park and lunch decided to already go to the neighborhood where we were supposed to meet – Chueca, one of the city’s nightlife hubs. Once there, I did some more work and had what appeared to be a whole shot of rum by accident, at an overly decorated but cozy (and with free WiFi) Mexican place named Barriga Llena;

I didn’t realize their yummy coconut Helados Panza dessert would feature such a generous touch of booze.

When 8:45 p.m. rang (they finish work later in Spain because of the siesta), Marcos came out of the metro and took me to the starting place of our Chueca hop. It was Mercado San Antón, which looks like a big upscale delicatessen, its products on display and looking luscious and smelling fresh. I found that market much more pleasant to be in than the impossibly crowded Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, and Madrid much less crowded as a whole, as well. Marcos explained that a lot of places close in Madrid for the entire month of August, when people go on summer holiday. So this is a good month to visit the city, if you can handle the heat; the low season also means you may be able to find cheaper accommodation than usual.

The next day, while happening to find myself close to the market once again, I would roam it on my own and buy six different types of fish tapas. They tasted great and were only €1 each. But during that visit to the market with Marcos, I didn’t really have any tapas, except the little bites that accompanied our Mahou orders at the rooftop bar right upstairs from the market area. I could see myself spending quite a few hours talking and drinking in that lovely open-air lounge, surrounded by sunset and stars and beautiful Spaniards; however, we were on a mission where he was to show me some of his favorite Chueca spots, and he had to work the next day, so we left the rooftop bar at nightfall. The highlight of the bar hop for me was definitely El Tigre: It was chaotic, but in a good way; probably the most crowded bar I’d see in Madrid, the floor covered in napkins, which I’d find out is a common sight in popular bars there. We got two Mahous for €5, and with it a very generous portion of tapas. When the bartender shouted (in a rough but, strangely, also friendly way) at us to move to the next table with some other people because a big group had arrived and needed ours, he brought us a new big portion of tapas for free, to be shared with the strangers already sitting at the table we moved to. We smiled at each other and clinked our glasses.

Each little interaction during that trip confirmed for me the general kindness of strangers in Spain. And each new Mahou we ordered confirmed for me that Marcos had been a long-time fan of the beer. We had some more that evening, punctuated with another of our shared favorites, Guiness – next inside the trendy throwback-pop-art bar Freeway in nearby Malasaña, a neighborhood strewn with cool little shops and bits of street art. We went back to Marcos’s place at a reasonable hour (well before dawn), because we needed to save up our energy for the following night, Friday. People dine late and start going out late in Madrid, especially on weekends, and you know the adage, ”While in Madrid…“  So, what I did is I slept until almost the afternoon Friday, and decided my only mission during the day would be to visit Iglesia de San Antón, an unusual Catholic church I’d read about in a magazine on my Vueling flight to Spain. (I am not religious and was simply curious. Also, they have free WiFi at the church, which I wanted to try out.)

It’s an unusual church because it’s open 24 hours, has HD TV feeds from the Vatican and such, lets you change your baby there, take a leak, have a coffee, use a defibrillator, hang out with your pet, use WiFi whenever and with no strings attached, and chat with the friendly-looking priest who has a smartphone himself (and, when I was there, was checking his phone at the same time he was talking to a guy in front of him). Since I was in the middle of an important conversation, the kind where you say ”I gotta go” 10 times before managing to actually go, I continued using WiFi at the church even as mass started, and no one bothered me. Besides these amenities, notable is the vending machine near the entrance to the church – selling what looks like real meals for very cheap – and a collection spot where people can leave what they need and take what they need freely. Bonus of the church location is that it’s near the Mercado de San Antón, which I stopped by, as I mentioned, before heading back to Marcos’s place for our big night out. I also passed through the nice-looking Plaza Mayor in the city center, but only briefly, because I didn’t think I’d find cheap coffee there.

Back at Marcos’s apartment, I managed to complete the section I’d been trying to for work and lie down a bit before he arrived. And then it was time, as usual now, for tapas and Mahou; he asked me to get a big bottle at the Chinese-owned store by his place, and I got a six-pack instead. Marcos made his marvelous tapas, and made dinner once again, and we ate and chatted and drank along with his female flatmate, a fellow irreverent Brazilian journalist, until nearly 2 a.m. We really didn’t feel the hours pass by. The metro had stopped going, so we had to take the nightbus to Barrio de las Letras (“literary quarter”), which he chose as the starting point for what was to be an intensive bar-hopping night (or morning). He showed me a quote from Dom Quixote on the ground near the front of the first club we (spontaneously) went to, which obviously goes with the neighborhood’s theme. I felt very cultured, by osmosis. Soon, the erudite feeling morphed into “rockstar for 2 minutes 30 seconds” though, because we went into some karaoke bar and everyone sang along to my rendition of the 1992 song “What’s Up” by the 4 Non-Blondes. I was really surprised the 18-year-olds there all knew it. This song will now forever remind me of my very special experience in Madrid.

We then decided we wanted to dance, and walked around looking for some place that would tickle our fancy. We couldn’t find a more attractive offer around at that time than the one from Crystal Club in the Barrio de Universidad and its persistent promoters, fighting over customers: entry and three drinks for €7 per person. When they didn’t want to give us our third drink, I complained and we got it, and this became an inside joke Marcos and I would repeat throughout the rest of my time in Madrid. Inside the club –a real night club, I remarked, with the proper mixture of dark and disco lights, and pop music, and people dirty-dancing – a group of Venezuelans invited us to join their circle on the dance floor, and we happily did. We were watching amusedly as their little soap opera unfolded, as two couples formed and the group of unpaired girls, one of them dancing frantically up until that point, suddenly decided to leave. We left not so long after them, once we’d gone through our three “free” drinks, and let the night, now winding down, spontaneously guide us.

Out there we managed to find a restroom for me, who’s got the world’s smallest bladder. For that we went into the popular Irish pub La Fontana de Oro (in the Sol quarter), which that morning, as it was about to close, unfortunately featured an extremely creepy dude standing out front propositioning women in the grossest possible way, unchecked by the bouncer. Later, as we sat drinking €1 Mahou cans on a Gran Vía sidewalk, drunkenly talking about any random subjects that came to our heads, with the deepest most unshakeable convictions (to be gone by sober afternoon), we said we’d write a complaint letter to the pub in three different languages. Eventually, we went back to Marcos’s place and continued talking and drinking, until Marcos ran off into the living room and passed out at 11 a.m., protesting against my insistence that we stay up for 48 hours. I told myself I’d sleep only for an hour or two, but ended up sleeping all day.

Street in La Latina decked out during the day for Fiestas de la Paloma in Madrid. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
Street in La Latina decked out during the day for Fiestas de la Paloma in Madrid. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

Saturday was time to experience another, less-frequent facet of Madrid nightlife, with both Marcos and his lovely flatmate: the barrio fest. The week I was there happened to be the turn of the La Latina quarter, with the Fiestas de La Paloma. Because we slept too long, we missed the religious parade connected with the festival and could only catch the very secular evening party hours. I’d gotten a preview of La Latina the day before when I stopped in for a drink at the neighborhood bar Muñiz, attracted as usual by the lively crowded atmosphere, but also by the flags already hanging like an arch over the street for La Paloma. The older bartender was quite chatty and decided to give me some life advice, besides recommending which ”typical” drinks I should order and how much of them I should have without passing out from treacherous drunkenness. I had a Limonada (a type of white sangria) and a rosé, besides taking one sip of another Spanish wine that was supposedly very exclusive but which I didn’t like all that much.

On Saturday evening, the outside of the bar was mobbed by people, turned into an open-air disco, like most other bars in La Latina. We’d never seen so many people gathered in one neighborhood; it looked like all of Madrid was there. Every corner was throbbing with life, excitement and bountifulness. Huge pans were bursting with glistening meat, potatoes, eggs and seafood. Speakers were bursting with various kinds of music, like every little block was a different nightclub. We danced a little bit and miraculously managed to always find tables to sit at, but couldn’t stay in one place for too long because we were too fascinated. Every group of people we found, we made up a story for. And there were very diverse groups of people. People of all shapes, sizes and ages. We couldn’t keep going as late as we had the previous night, but managed to get a big jug of sangria and a few Mahous in.

We would take it easy on Sunday. In fact, we wouldn’t end up having lunch until it was nearly evening, stopping by an Indian bakery in the multiethnic neighborhood of Lavapiés and sampling a number of sweet and savory goodies. We were on our way to Matadero, a former-slaughterhouse-turned-art-space that very much reminds me of Leipzig’s Spinnerei. Then came the cherry on the cake, so to speak. Before leaving for Madrid, I’d asked a friend who is originally from there but lives abroad what places he’d recommend for me to go to. The place he mentioned first, and emphasized, was Templo de Debod. Marcos took me there before we had a big dinner at Museo del Jamon toward the end of Sunday, and at first I must confess I didn’t understand why it was so special. The hill of Debod wasn’t even that high, the view from there not even that impressive, the Egyptian monuments kind of small. But all it took for me to get its appeal was for sunset to arrive, and for all the people to stop solemnly and gather looking at it, taking photos. (And it was quite a sunset.) I lay on the grass and increasingly felt the relaxing and simultaneously lively atmosphere envelop me. Life looked so bright from where I was that moment. We had our €1 Mahou cans from the Chinese vendors (a tradition already for us, as you may have noticed), and tried to guess what the story was with a big group of diverse-looking folks who had settled not far from us on the grass. We guessed right: They were from a hostel. The next day, it would be my turn to stay at a hostel, but in Pamplona. It was quite a spontaneous suggestion from Marcos, and somehow it all fell into place when I started looking for accommodation and transport options on the Internet. I’d go to the place that inspired the expat manifesto that is The Sun Also Rises, without any expectations but to pass my last couple days in Spain somewhere I’d never been to; which would allow me to be more touristy without feeling like I’d be missing out on authenticity.

Check back here next Saturday for the final part of our series – a more concise narrative of my time in Pamplona.

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An aspiring social scientist and former newspaper reporter, an avid eater, a pseudo-philosopher and poet, an occasion-propelled singer, a semi-professional socializer, a movie addict, a Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, but with special attention to travel, entertainment and lifestyle.

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