Modern Madrid changes as fast as everywhere else. And yet…

Written by and Photography by Charla in Travel

This is the third and final post of our series, “To Madrid: A Love Letter”. The first post is here and the second post is here. Now, modern Madrid looks to its techy future but cannot stray far from its fraught past. Much like, in fact, Los Angeles. Stay tuned for future posts in Travel Where Your Live as we look at places closer to home.

Madrid’s Puerta del Sol is the city’s beating heart and the spot known as “kilometer zero” where Spain’s national highways originated for centuries. A half-moon shaped plaza in the middle of the historic center, it is a snapshot of the modern Madrid and Spain. On one end of the plaza is La Mallorquina, a bakery that first opened its doors in 1894, where my mom once ate so many Easter pastries called turrones that she got sick. On the other end of the plaza, an Apple store.

The sidewalks are packed with Madrileños and visitors at all hours of the day and night. These same sidewalks in my student days were filled with changing sensations throughout the year: the smoky aroma of chestnuts roasting on the sidewalk at Christmas time, or the piles of coal sitting on the sidewalks in September, for heating homes in the winter. Did that same, comforting schedule still exist, like the seasons themselves?

On our recent trip, winter still gripped the city even though it was technically spring. Biting cold, damp air, and rain chased us in the streets. Stuck in morning rush hour, a bus driver complained about Madrid drivers who do not know how to drive in the rain, something that we Los Angeles drivers understand too well.

Read on below…

Black and white Madrid

Madrid from the top floor of El Corte Inglés

Detail of the Palacio Real in Madrid

Even the stop signs in Spain are complicated

Atrium in Atocha train station

Passenger waiting in Madrid’s Atocha train station

Rainy street outside Atocha train station

Arriving to Madrid’s Atocha train station on the high speed rail from Barcelona

Cocido, a traditional beef and vegetable stew perfect for cold days

Sign in metro station

Entrance to the Madrid Metro

Francisco Goya: The Third of May 1808

Outside Madrid’s Prado Museum

Madrid’s past and future

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado found his creative voice between two giant moments in Spanish history: the failed Spanish-American War and national gloom of 1898, and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. During that time, Machado ruminated about the old Spain of the past and the new Spain to come.

In a short but heartbreaking poem called Españolito (“Little Spaniard”), he writes: “Little Spaniard coming into the world, may God help you. One of the two Spains is going to freeze your heart.”

Españolito que vienes
al mundo, te guarde Dios.
Una de las dos Españas
ha de helarte el corazón.

The two Spains were not that different from the two Americas that are now clashing in the United States: the progressive, secular side and the conservative, religious, unbending side. Starting in 1936 the two Spains fought in a Civil War that delivered shocking violence, brought Spain to its knees, and set the stage for World War II in Europe. It was the conservative Spain that won and led to three decades of dictatorship.

Today, Madrid itself has changed yet again: new roads, subway and train lines, a new international airport terminal connected to the city by a subway line. Four office towers, the sleek Cuatro Torres, dominate the skyline and are visible from miles away. Technology, web designers and smartphones are everywhere.

Along with the traffic, another spiritual connection between Madrid and Los Angeles is that river. The Río Manzanares, much like the Los Angeles River, was a murky, polluted afterthought surrounded by freeways and encased in concrete. The butt of jokes, in a disreputable part of town, a place to speed past on your way to somewhere else.

The Río Manzanares is forgotten no longer. The freeways have been hidden underground on both banks and even under the river itself. In their place sit a series of gorgeous parks spanned by a pedestrian bridge designed to look like a giant artistic corkscrew. City residents enjoy easy access to the Parque Lineal del Manzanares and opportunities for sports, jogging, picnics, and more. The Río Manzanares is what the Los Angeles River promises to be one day, if only.

Madrid is urban, suburban, creative, techy, vibrant, full of the same color and life that captured me and never let go. It beckons you to come back and dares you to expect what has always been even though the pace of change is so fast.

I looked out the airplane window at Madrid below me as I left for Los Angeles in 1990. I was going home after my year abroad. Would I ever come back? Departing again for Los Angeles from Madrid in 2016, Charla successfully defeated me in our usual scramble for the window seat. I leaned over her, looked at the same city and asked myself the same question.

The poet Antonio Machado thought much about this life, where we were, where we are and where we are going. His celebrated poem “Caminante no hay camino” (“Wanderer, there is no road”) is widely known in the Spanish-speaking world. If you know some Spanish then read the words out loud. If not then find someone to read it to you and listen to the music of life’s march down a path that remains unknown to any of us.

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.

Al andar se hace camino
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.

Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar…