Madrid Confessions – What I Really Did

Madrid Memories

Schmap Madrid Guide has liked The Delhi Walla.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

[One of the several photos taken by The Delhi Walla has been selected for inclusion in the ninth edition of Schmap Madrid Guide. Click here to see that picture]

Never before been out of India but having grown with Tolstoy, Bach and Vermeer, I considered myself a brown European with Proustian sensibilities. In September, 2009, I finally went to the ‘mother continent’, not on an extensive tour, but for a weeklong getaway in Madrid. (You may read and find links to The Delhi Walla‘s entire Madrid Diary here).

I wasn’t excited. I feel for Paris and Vienna. On the map, Madrid is closer to Morocco than Moscow. Besides, I never cared for paella, Don Quixote, and Picasso.

The Finnair flight landed late at night in the Barajas airport. It was raining. The cab driver was drunk. He couldn’t understand English. I didn’t know Spanish. There was hardly any traffic. The Eurostars Madrid Tower hotel looked as characterless as a Dubai skyscraper. It was 235 tall with 30 floors – and had only 2 people in the lobby. The 21st floor room was modern and impersonal; the shower worked by buttons. From the wall-sized window, I saw a few cars zipping up and down the avenues.

The next morning I got into a metro train with a ticket to Campamento, the route’s last stop. On the seat, a man and a man were kissing each other; the rest remained hooked to their novels and newspapers. I stepped out with the lovers.

Outside was Chueca, Madrid’s gay district. Romanian gypsies were playing accordions, Peruvian hippies were selling pendants, and black Africans stared around blankly. The cobbled streets were lined with cafes, bars, discos, sex stores, hostels, and bookshops. People were kissing in bus stops, holding hands in sidewalk bars. Most were walking with lovers, friends or pets. A few were alone but had a swagger that suggested the optimism of picking a date later. I wanted books.

The collection at Chueca’s Berkana bookstore is exclusively gay – only gay novels, gay magazines, gay DVDs. Inside, in a corner, was a coffee counter where you could make your own tea or coffee. Booklovers gather there to discuss literature or to hook up for sex with fellow bibliophiles. Maria Irod, a visiting lesbian writer from Bucharest, did neither. In blue jeans, leather jacket and long hair, she said I must join her next morning for a trip to San Lorenzo De El Escorial.

A windswept village few miles outside Madrid, Escorial has dozens of tombs; a monastery and a palace. Founded by Philip V, the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty, it served as the residence as well as the burial site for the royalty for 500 years.

We spent almost four hours in the palace complex where the royal apartments still had the king’s original bed, desk, curtains, and carpets. Being the ground zero of what was once the world’s biggest colonial empire, I sensed its extinct glory and ruthlessness in its grounds, staircases, corridors, spires.

Later Maria treated me to a meal at La Cueva, an ancient restaurant in the village. Everything, except the prices, was quaint and dignified. The courses were several, and served from the left side. But the Spaniards remain laidback even in the stuffiest of places. After gulping down the house wine, followed by gazpacho, grilled fish and chocolate cake, I was astonished that three hours had passed in fifteen minutes.

While I dined at various places, paella, a rice dish that I imagined to be Spain’s staple fare, was rarely on the menu. It turned out that the country’s cuisine was as complicated as India’s. There’s no signature dish though seafood dominates. Paella was just another regional delicacy – from Valencia on the Mediterranean coast.

But my most sensuous meal was not because of the food. Listed in the bestseller 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, Corral de la Moreria is the restaurant where you go to watch Spain’s best flamenco performance. The dancers are a sprightly lot. Creating rhythm by tapping heels on the wooden platform, their facial expressions change with the mood of the lyrics – beaming in delight, grimacing in suffering. The singers, on the other hand, make such guttural, heart-wrenching sounds that you could understand the songs without the translation. And in Moreria they make sentiments almost touchable.

But the Madridian sky was more sentimental. Showing different hues in different times of the day, its clouds added sobriety to the city’s easy-going character. Maria credited the September light – bright and melancholic.

She introduced me to the most exquisite pleasure I had in Europe. At mid-morning we were watching people on the terrace of the Café de Oriente. Once the haunt of intellectuals and artists, it faces the royal palace, the heart of old Madrid. Japanese tourists were segway-ing past the Oriente square, beggars were playing saxophones nearby, and next to our table, an old man, with earphones plugged into his ears, was moving his arms in time with his music. The steward arrived with water bread and extra virgin olive oil. Maria tore off a piece, drowned it completely in the oil. I copied her. Here was no salt, no dressing, but this typical Mediterranean-world starter tasted divine. We had it again and again, all across Madrid.

Almost all restaurants, cafes and bars in the city have covers also laid next to roads. Even as cars go past, you could read your El Pais at peace; while washing down the mantecados (those crumbly, melting cakes) with cappuccino.

Later in the week, Maria dragged me to Prado museum, the storehouse of the best of Europe’s civilisation. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d said that the museum’s thick walls had grown damp with the combined passions of Rafael, Correggio, Rembrandt, El Greco and other great artists on display.

We stopped by Jose de Ribera’s Jacob’s Dream where Jacob looked so alone, so close to God. At Diego Velanquez’s Las Meninas, Maria looked moved. At Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, a shiver shot down my spine. In this portrait of Spanish civilians being killed by Napoleon’s firing squad, the terror of death became disturbingly romantic.

Overwhelmed, we came out and silently walked towards the grassy slope. One needs months to explore Prado but I was leaving the next day. Lying next to me, Maria took out a wrapped package from her bag. It was La Isla Bajo El Mar, Isabelle Allende’s new novel. “But it’s in Spanish,” I said. “Doesn’t matter,” she replied. “I got it from Chueca.”