Monday, August 11, 2014

Nurse the Hate: Madrid

Madrid in the summer is hot. The days run up to 95 degrees, but with low humidity and a slight breeze it isn’t as oppressive as it sounds. Good looking people walk confidently through the major plazas in light linen clothes. The city has that particular Spanish combination of old history combined with ultra-modern style with the emphasis on beauty rather than function. It is as if everyone and everything knows it is being observed by a critical eye, and wants to shine in its particular moment.
Spain should not function. It appears that no one actually works. Once in a while a man in a suit can be spotted leisurely walking down a street, but it seems he is going to stop in a café for a coffee as opposed to rushing to make a stress filled presentation. At any given time 40% of the population is sitting down having a drink while watching the other 60% of the population walking on their way to meet someone for a drink. Once seated in cafes, waiters will drift over at some point in the to be determined future, take the order, and disappear for incalculable lengths of time. Madrid is not a place to be if you are in a hurry.

There’s a whole lot to like about Madrid. With multiple art museums hosting perhaps the second best collection of art outside of Paris, it’s an ideal place to wander around getting lost in paintings. While the Prado gets the most press with their incomprehensible number of historically significant paintings, I gravitate toward the Thyssen and their vast collection of more modern art. Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Dix, Picasso, and on and on. The masterworks are almost like little flowers that open up. Poems that have been written decades ago and whispered into your ear. I found it to be almost exhausting intellectually and emotionally to move through the galleries at the brisk pace I maintained. A stop in the Renia Sofia is a must as well, as the impact of Picasso’s “Guernica” is necessary in person to appreciate the size and scope of the work. While there, it’s also a good opportunity to question if Salvador Dali was a great artist or a great hustler (or both).  Between us, I don't think he knew what any of those paintings meant either...
In the mid 1700s Spain decided to build a palace to knock the socks off visiting dignitaries. It appears that the people designing it had the sensibilities of The Real Housewives of Orange County. Imagine if Lil Wayne had an unlimited budget to build a house a few hundred years ago. That’s what it looks like inside. It’s insane and well worth a peek. Though the other tourists were all groups of Japanese taking dour photos of one another in front of the building, or Eastern Europeans in track suits, I was still able to take in the sheer excess of some of the rooms. The throne room alone is worth the trip. Pop into the cathedral across the plaza too. Get yourself some Jesus.

A short walk away is the Plaza Mayor. This has always been a main meeting place going back to when it was the spot to hold executions during the Spanish Inquisition. A good venue is always a good venue. Now there are plenty of tourist trap souvenir shops and expensive cafes, but make sure and get a beer in La Torre del Oro. It’s a great bullfighting bar packed to the gills with memorabilia, photos, and enormous stuffed bull heads. The bartenders ply you with tapas while keeping one eye on the never ending bullfighting feed on the TVs. It’s my kind of place.  Any bar that features an enormous photo of a horn going through a matador's face is a good spot to knock back a cold one.

The pace of life in Spain is very civilized.  Lunch is around 2p.  Stores remain closed for the most part until 5p, though many international chains have abandoned the old ways in search of profits of additional open hours.  Dinner is around 10p, though by 7:00 many residents have begun the long parade of visiting various favorite bars for tapas (or small plates) of kickass little snacks.  I'm a big fan of the octopus grilled with paprika, ham croquettes, the small dish of meatballs, and the small wedge of egg/potato quiche thing.  However, all of those take a backseat to the glories of jamon Iberico.  These small slices of ham from pigs raised on acorns are perhaps one of the world's greatest foods.  It was so hot, I found myself drinking lots of cold beer with it, though certain cafes have begun to be more serious about their wines.  Inexpensive albarinos and verdejos are easy to find.  My preferance would be for a nice red Rioja or Ribera del Duero, but 90+ degrees is too damn hot to be drinking red wine outside. 

Stop in at a place.  Have a drink and a snack.  Some conversation.  Go to the next place for their specialty.  Repeat again.  Suddenly it is 10:30p and time for a light dinner.  It is odd to be outside on a Tuesday at 11:30p to see families with small children just finishing their dinner.  However with the weather that warm, it really is the nicest time of day.  To sit outside surrounded by nice architecture, thoughtful lighting, and good food is much better than the American Tuesday night of staring at TV isolated inside our air conditioned shacks.

Spain certainly has a laundry list of problems.  Unemployment rates are out of control.  Young people emerging from college have no chance at a job in their field. Separatists blow up things now and again to remind everyone that the Basque people and Catalans want to go their own way.  Still, the spirit of the people and their joy of life is what makes this one of my favorite places to visit.  The dedication to forging a new path while remaining respectful of old traditions is what makes this such a place of contradictions and interest.  I look forward to a return visit sooner rather than later. 


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