To Madrid, a love letter

Written by and Photography by Charla in Travel

This is the first of a three-part series.

To arrive in Spain in grand fashion you cannot do better than Madrid’s Atocha train station. Our high-speed train glided into the giant terminal after reaching speeds of over 300 kilometers per hour on its three-hour trip from Barcelona. This same trip when I was a college student decades earlier was a 13-hour bus ride or an even longer train ride.

Every time I return to Madrid I flash back to my student days and notice how different the city is between now and then, and how different I am as well. In Madrid since that time so much has changed. And so much more has stayed its same, Spanish self.

Like any major city’s train station, Atocha is a mass of people boarding trains, eating, drinking, smoking, shopping. The people-watching proved to be epic. Just a few weeks after a major terrorist attack in Europe, police carrying machine guns were everywhere.

Two Madrid police officers loitered outside the station. They were heavily armed and wore black balaclava ski masks, the kind favored by law enforcement to hide their identities. That is until a few other unmasked officers wandered by. One gave the other two a quizzical look, rubbed his face and laughed at them as if saying, “Really? What’s up with the masks?” The two shrugged. They all noticed me watching and gave me a sheepish look.

Hilarity is forever mixing with seriousness in Madrid. Madrileños are happy to share their opinions, however ill-informed, while displaying such generosity and caring for others that the overall feeling takes your breath away. “Americans don’t know how to make good wines,” a Spaniard confidently pronounced to me, the only American at a dinner with twenty Spaniards. I opened my mouth to argue about California wines when the subject changed again. It was often difficult to follow since the rule in Spanish gatherings appears to be that everyone talks at once. While some of my American counterparts found this frustrating, I was amazed at the skill.

Atocha is a good starting point at the edge of Madrid’s historic Centro district. Plenty of travel guides describe the sights, sounds and tastes of the city center. And yet there is no substitute for actually experiencing it: the shock of Picasso’s painting Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; or the cold, sweet taste of horchata on a hot summer Sunday in the Retiro park; or the satisfying salty bite of fried calamari rings; or the staccato Madrileño Spanish accent ordering cañas – tiny beers – at a bar; or the clatter of cups on saucers at the same bar at 7:00 a.m. the next morning when ordering café con leche after being out all night.

“Being out all night” is known in Madrid as la movida or la marcha. The nightclub and concert hall Joy Eslava has been a top movida destination since 1981. It has multiple levels of bars and dance floors for late night clubgoers. The club’s website proudly states that “it is one of the most legendary clubs in Madrid, the forerunner of socio-cultural movement La Movida Madrileña.”

The best part of Joy Eslava is not the club itself but tiny Chocolatería San Ginés next door. Clubgoers at 3:00 a.m. order their churros and chocolate in the bar’s narrow rooms whose walls are thumping from the club beats on the other side. Like an old Hollywood eatery, the walls are covered with photos of actors, directors, musicians and politicians from Spain, Europe, Latin America, and the U.S.

Churros in Madrid are nothing like the doughy stalks sold at high school football games and parades in the U.S. These are thin, crunchy, airy strands of fried batter served by the dozen. The hot chocolate is thick like gravy and is for dipping your churro. People wear expressions of pure delight as they taste the chocolate’s dense sweetness which perfectly coats the crunchy churro. Afterward, the night’s options are: back to the club, find another bar, catch a cab home, or if the sun is rising then café con leche.

Visitors to Spain are often warned about the late habits of Spaniards, as if they were living a full three time zones behind everyone else. Lunch is at 2:00 p.m. and dinner is at 10:00 p.m. One night in 1991, my sister and I were invited to meet my friend Marcos and a couple of his friends. Our group of American students arrived at the bar promptly at 10:30 p.m., just as Marcos said. The bar was empty, which seemed odd for a Friday night. We ordered a drink.

More than an hour later, no Marcos. I was frustrated at my slacker friend and ready to leave. “I’m sorry David,” my sister said. “It looks like he’s not coming. We can go if you want.”

At 11:55, I put on my jacket. At 11:56, in walked twenty people, all talking at the same time. The room filled with laughter and the atmosphere instantly improved. Marcos came up to us and said, “Hi! I’m glad you made it!” Either ignoring or not seeing our annoyance, he ordered a round of drinks.

“Where were you?” I asked. “We’ve been waiting since ten thirty!”

“Oh, we just got a little delayed at the last place,” he said.

Next: When history is on every corner and in every bite.