sábado, 26 de abril de 2008

My new city

Someone asked me recently what Madrid was like (settings have never been one of my strong points in writing!).

Well, take the beauty of Barcelona - and instantly forget about it. I'm not even going to pretend that my new home city is as stunning as the Catalan capital. We have no Sagrada Familia, no Parc Guell (just adorable), no sea . . . In fact, Madrid doesn't have a lot going for it. There's a trickle of water that they call a river (trust me, I've seen bigger "rivers" flowing down the Bigg Market on a Saturday night), it's roasting in summer, freezing in winter and surrounded by nothing. And not even green nothing either; the land is a pale sand colour that burns your eyes in summer.

BUT . . .

For a city of almost five million, Madrid is surprisingly compact, meaning you can wander around to your heart's content - and I defy you not to find something of interest on every street corner. Wander through La Latina and you're in the oldest part of the capital, with leaning towers of flats (well, a couple of storeys at least) and atmosphere galore. The streets here are narrow and dark, just the place for Alatriste or Britain's own Flashman to find adventures, and still contain traditional features, such as public water fountains. La Latina eminates from the beautiful Plaza Mayor (Pictured left. Just don't ever eat here. You'll need a credit card that could pay off the national debt of several African countries to do so). The plaza is a wonderful columned square where people still live and very much socialise. On one corner is Moore's Irish bar, in whose basement the Inquisition once tortured non-believers (I hate Irish bars so the torture continues to this day). My favourite place is the cape shop, where you can buy traditional Madrileño cloaks and pretend you're Dick Turpin (hmm, mebbes revealed a bit too much there).

Away from the Hapsburg part of town and you're met by wide, open boulevards and lots of light. And what light. Madrid is the highest capital in Europe and it shows. When the sun shines, the air becomes translucent. It has a quality that the only way I can describe it is to say my skin doesn't have it but I bet Gwyneth Paltrow's or Agyness Deyn's skin does. The light glimmers and shines and makes everything look different. It makes me understand why people climb mountains for the view (although understanding is the nearest I'll ever get to climbing a mountain. I mean, hey, I have the light here - why exercise?)

Statues, gargoyles, columns . . . at times, every building seems to have something to see. But the best things to see are the people. Brightly dressed to match the sun and full of life. Constantly chatting, whether to friends, to strangers, on their mobiles or even to themselves (!), the bubble of talk fills the air as much as the mopeds and car horns. You cannot come to Madrid and not get caught up in the atmosphere.

From where I'm sitting now, I can just see a plane in the distance taking off from Barajas. I always wonder where they're going. The convent sits opposite, quiet until the bells at mid-day or just before mass. Nuns and priests are a common sight in Madrid. A Spanish flag is valiantly trying to show itself in full glory but there's very little breeze now that Spring has arrived so it moves slightly and then the effort is too much and it relaxes. It's going to be a hot day, so I know how it feels. Far, far away I can just see the tops of the still snow-covered mountains, so small that I know they must be gigantic close up. And then, in between them and us, lies a range of greens, a montage of mosses and sages and olives, jades and kellys and limes from the many trees and parks and gardens that fill the north-east of the city. The sky is a pale-blue softly flecked with high cloud and the birds appear as silhouettes as they start their day. It's still and peaceful, but I know that in an hour my barrio will be buzzing with activity, people going to buy their bread and newspapers, calling into La Terraza for coffee, enjoying a lovely Spring day.

No, my city doesn't have the beauty of Barcelona. It has more.

Photographs @ www.turismomadrid.es (some great images here!)

domingo, 13 de abril de 2008

El Greco's Toledo

About an hour away lies the mystical city of Toledo, a wonderful daytrip for Madrileños. It's here that the Greek painter El Greco made his home - and no wonder. My favourite view - which I sadly missed getting a shot of - was a mobile knife-sharpener polishing up blades with the aide of a converted bicycle. He turned the wheel with one hand and then polished the blade against it.

To market, to market . . .

Contrary to popular belief, women do not, in fact, like shopping. Oh yeah, we grin and bear it and drag our heels to the shops when we have to go out for the essentials - handbags, shoes, earrings etc - but believe it or not, going to the local supermarket fills us with as much dread as it does you men.

But then, you move to Spain and a visit to the supermercado takes on a whole new meaning.

Some things are annoyingly similar to shopping in the UK. No matter which trolley I choose, for example, it’s always the one with that sixth sense of knowing exactly the direction you wish to go in and then choosing to turn its wheels in the opposite. And no matter what time you go, it’s always full - unless, of course, you go on a Sunday, when the shops are closed. Oh yes. Only on the first Sunday of every month can you go to the supermarket. The remaining Sundays, you’re left facing shuttered grills and forced to go to the bar for Sunday lunch. Our first few months of shopping here were fun until we gathered that one out, I can tell you.

But the real excitement comes once you’re inside (having run the gamut of the security people who want to check all your bags to make sure you’re not smuggling in any dangerous items). Give Spaniards any set of wheels and suddenly they undergo a personality transplant, all miraculously becoming Fernando Alonso - and I mean any wheels, shopping trolleys included. While I’m struggling to get mine to move in a straight line, these baby F1s are all under starter’s orders and determined to get best track time around the aisles. Until they see something they want, then the trolley is abandoned in the middle of a busy lane and you find yourself stuck in that most ugly of situations - the supermarket traffic jam. Without horns to blow, these guys are lost as to how they should behave and resort to barging their trolleys past the offending obstacle (metal or human) or pulling their handy little shopping baskets on wheels over whatever gets in its way. And an amazing lack of foresight on behalf of the supermarket planners means the parafarmacia (drugs department) is upstairs, leaving the lamed and crippled forced to hobble their way onto escalators to buy bandages, antisceptic cream and brandy (purely medicinal, of course).

Having suffered the trolley rage, there’s only one place to go to chill out – the fish counter, and not just because it’s covered in ice. Grab a good book, pull up a basket to sit on and get settled because you’re going to be here for a while. Spanish love fish and Madrid has one of the best reputations for fresh fish, even though it’s in the middle of the country and miles from the nearest port. As a result, your ticket number may say you only have five people ahead of you, but these five people obviously never learned from Jesus and instead buy enough fish to really feed the five thousand. And each fish has to be descaled, de-headed, de-backboned, de-everthing (the removed parts are, of course, placed into another bag for when you’ve got the ten hours necessary to make fish stock from them. Amazingly, many of my co-shoppers seem to have this time free - no surprise after the long wait at the fish queue. I, meanwhile, am left to mutter “no, gracias,” head down to avoid the disapproving looks as these tasty morsals are thrown away. An hour later, after you have your fish (“no only two pieces, please. Yes, that’s all”), it’s time to head for the shellfish counter and another long wait - this time enlivened by trying to avoid the escape attempts of the crabs and lobsters which, still alive, start to move towards you. Still, at least the wait gives you time to dash to the meat counter, where a tantalising array of heads, feet, brains and ears have the amazing affect of making you instantly decide on a veggie stir fry for that night’s dinner.

But there is always one source of satisfaction: the foreign food section. Every week, we stop and drool at all the exotic produce on offer - Homepride Cook-in Sauces, Oxo cubes, Chivers orange marmalade and Weetabix. (What, you thought I meant authentic Chinese, Indian or Italian food?) They all cost an arm and a leg to buy (hmmm, perhaps I could get these joints at the meat counter too) and we walk away with heavy hearts and protesting stomachs.

Until last week, when a sudden madness brought on by the wonderful reappearance of the creme de la creme of British food made us throw our Spanish style of life out of the window. That lunchtime, after tussling with the trolleys, freezing at the fish counter, shunning the shellfish and forgoing the feet, we sat down to a real feast: Heinz Baked Beans on toast washed down with Robinson's Orange Barley Water followed by ice cream in proper wafer cones, all eaten out on the terrace, of course. With the sun beaming down and our favourite comfort food inside us, it was just the thing to turn that supermarket weep into a supermarket sweep.

miércoles, 9 de abril de 2008

Wheel gone kid

No matter how late at night I’ve walked home (OK, staggered on some occasions), I’ve never felt scared on the streets of Madrid.

Step out onto the road, however, and it’s a different matter.

Madrileños are some of the nicest people I know (not counting the waiters, of course, who pride themselves on being so grumpy they make Oscar the Grouch look like Mickey Mouse), but put them behind the wheel of a car and you discover just where Robert Louis Stephenson got his inspiration for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They become monsters who forget all rules of the road.

For a start, there’s lanes. Or rather the lack of them. Getting into the right lane is an interesting concept to Madrileños - and one that must be ignored at all costs. Want to turn left? Then just cut in to the five other lanes that are blocking your way (and yes, there are only supposed to be two lanes on most roads, as in Britain, but then there’s the vast number of cars straddling the white lines - where they exist - as well as the mopeds and the taxi drivers who are making up a whole new road system). Bus lane? What bus lane? That’s just a really, really good way to get through the rush-hour traffic (which happens four times a day, thanks to long lunches) and avoid the other cars - if only those cars in the five other lanes weren’t blocking your way and what on earth are those large red vehicles full of people doing trying to get past?

Meanwhile, if the SAS ever need a new way to test the toughness of their new recruits, Madrid pedestrian crossings are the way to go. There are two types - the ones with green man and the ones where you cross and pray to God that the car hurtling towards you will stop (usually they just swerve round you). With the other type you’re halfway over the damn crossing, the green man proudly lighting the way, when you notice the cars coming round the corner are still coming round the corner and hurtling over the crossing. That’s not strictly fair - some will slow to a speed of “not excruciatingly painful if I hit you” as they ignore every rule Tufty the squirrel taught you about the Green Cross Code (look left, look right - dammit just run for your life).

Then there’s the double-parking, the constant tooting of the horn, the speeding . . .

None of this criticism has anything to do with my recent expedition into the driving seat, of course.

I love driving and have missed it terribly in Madrid. I’ve driven in Spain before, several years ago during a trip from Nerja to Huercal Overa, in Almeria. It was all motorway, until we got to the small villages and then our guide offered to take over. I was out of the driving position so quickly you’d think the hire company had installed an ejector seat a la James Bond. Driving on the wrong side on straight roads is easy; on windy, bendy, too-narrow-for-a-burro roads it’s impossible and I was glad to leave the responsibility to someone else.

In Madrid, the traffic is so busy, no matter what time of day or night, that I’d never dared get into a car. Besides, there’s no need - public transport is amazing and we’ve never missed having a car. But I have missed the sensation of being behind the wheel, with the world at my feet (or pedals) and that’s why I took my friend Fernando’s offer of a try behind the wheel of his company car.

We were in a quiet part of the city, with barely another vehicle in sight, and the insurance covered everyone. No problem, I thought, easing the car into first gear and moving off. It was plain sailing - apart from Fernando screaming: “Look left. Left! The other left!” at every junction. In fact, I felt so confident I had no qualms as I maneouvred into the parking lot.

Which is probably why I didn’t see the workmen’s railings on the right-hand-side of the car until I heard a sickening sound similar to fingernails being scratched down a blackboard. I had scraped the side of the car.

I apologised profusely, offering time and time again to pay for the damage, but Fernando merely shrugged it off. “It’s the company’s car, not mine,” he said, displaying a very Spanish attitude.

For the next couple of weeks I could barely look at him, I felt so ashamed. But then he invited me for a drink. “Remember when you drove the car?” he asked over a caña. I groaned and begged him not to talk about it. “No,” he continued, “I was laughing about it with my father - when I did exactly the same thing on exactly the same railings.”

I hid a smile as he muttered something about “at least I know which left to look at”. But who cares about left and right? For me, it was full speed ahead moral superiority.

And so long as I never get behind the wheel again, that’s a road I’ll never have to leave.