Madrid is probably not the first city to come to mind on the list of great European capitals. But while it lacks the self-conscious chic of Paris or the urban swagger of London, it’s sheer vibrancy more than makes up for it. I’ve been here only a few weeks, and already I’m intrigued.
It’s a city that defies classification. Sure, it has grand old buildings, tourist-ridden pavements and all the cosmopolitan little cafés you’d expect from a capital city. But it’s also distinctly lacking in the ‘world class landmark’ department. And for me, after having lived in Paris all year, I have to say I find the ‘concrete grid’ effect rather uninspiring too. I also can’t work out if I think it’s filthy or not.
One thing no-one’s debating right now is the heat. Europe’s highest capital sits 650m above sea level on Spain’s central plateau, where it is alternately frozen and baked each year. An old saying best explains the climate here – nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno (‘nine months of winter and three months of hell’).
I’ve been here for 14 days now and I’ve yet to see a single cloud. It’s disorienting. Distressing, almost. The week before I arrived, a heatwave trapped the city indoors, with temperatures still at 33 degrees after midnight. The July sun is something best feared, not worshipped. It heats up the buildings, the pavements, the roads… by 7pm this concrete jungle literally becomes an oven, baking its unfortunate inhabitants from all sides. Coupled with the smells, the pollution and the other standard fare of any large city, it can be pretty unpleasant. (Though I doubt I’ll receive much sympathy from drenched readers in the UK.)
But my whirlwind first 48 hours in Madrid made for an appropriate introduction to what truly matters here – the madrileño way of life. There was the kamikaze taxi driver, weaving through lanes of motorway traffic at 150km/h like an Alonso wannabee. There was the obligatory awkward first meeting with suitably exotic flatmates – only to be partying like an idiot with them a matter of hours later. And then there was the 250,000 people pouring out of every bar and club onto the Gran Vía, dancing in the street ‘til the sun came up, because Spain had won the Euro 2012 football championship.
A well-timed first night in the city, then. But look around you and you realise something: the economically crippled, woe-ridden Madrid of the international press couldn’t be further from the truth. A chat with a local revealed an insider’s view: Spain has never had a great economy. But it does have a lot of welfare – it’s a country that tries hard to be fair, after having spent half of the last century being distinctly unfair. That this “system” – to our eyes impractical and over-inflated – stays intact is more important than yet another ominous headline in the FT. “So there’s a crisis… that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy.”
She was right: there’s no woeful staring at the floor from the people I see in Madrid’s streets. The sheer numbers of euphoric revellers I encountered when I first arrived spoke volumes of Spain’s insatiable quest to party. Some will no doubt say this characteristically relaxed attitude is in part responsible for the current situation. But that’s a debate for another article – and to be honest I don’t want to add another voice to the ranks of doomsdayers.
What struck me most about my first weekend in Madrid is how much this city needed that sporting victory. It needed an excuse to celebrate and defy the media negativity. It needed an excuse to bring out the true spirit that’s often hiding away these days; that of a lively, exuberant city where people matter more than the place itself.