91. Madrid me mata

“Madrid is killing me – but it’s a great way to die”.

If ever one phrase could sum up a city, then this is it. To be honest, it’s just how I’ve always experienced Madrid. Exhilaration, culture shock, and something of fear, all in one.

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And today is no exception. We’d left the calm of tranquil mountains and glacial lakes in the Sierra de Urbión just a few hours before, passed a pleasant and peaceful evening in the limestone gorge of Cañon de Río Lobos, and enjoyed a relaxed if increasingly busy drive across the plains and mountains to the airport, chasing the Iberia jets in their southward descent across the sky into Barajas.

It’s bound to seem strange, when you exchange a 2 000-strong country village for one of the most frenetic cities on Earth, and I knew it would be like this, but there’s still no way of preparing. One minute you’re strolling past goatherds, and the next you’re screeching down eight lanes of urban traffic, the taxi-driver changing lanes with abandon at 120 km/h just half a metre behind the car in front, swearing at all the other similarly suicidal road-users and well on his way to a heart attack.

It’s always been like this. The first time I ever drove on the right side of the road, and abroad, it was from Madrid airport to the university. Less than twenty kilometres through a major European city – so what’s the problem ? Just that this single journey takes in the Paseo de la Castellana, the scariest road in the world, a million frenzied Madrileños, and a crossing of Gran Via for good measure. It’s an unparalleled crash course for any beginner, and on arrival, I literally fell out of the car with fright. ‘Why don’t the drivers signal ?’ I asked my Spanish colleague, breathlessly. ‘Because indicating is a sign of surrender’, she calmly and most correctly replied.

Just half an hour of fear deposits us, safely, at the hotel on Plaza de España. Here, in the middle of the capital, the night is falling, and yet the streets are busy, packed with people thronging the pavements, cars tooting their horns, everybody with somewhere to go, all in a rush. We escape the traffic gratefully for a beer in the Plaza Mayor, and a hurried steak in a bar nearby. But then they kick us out at midnight – it’s surely some mistake? – and we find a café near the Puerta del Sol, before they close, too, at half past twelve.

What is happening to Madrid ? I never thought it possible, that they could begin to Europeanise this city, this town that never sleeps. But realistically, the habits of more northern climes were bound to have some effect, over time, and with the longer, less flexible hours of the international economy, something had to give. So Madrid goes to bed an hour before it used to, that much I can confirm. That’s the Anglo-European business culture, stealthily infusing the Spanish way. But even with these subtle changes, it’s non-stop in this town, and with no time for siestas in the modern world, this frantic pace of life is still what kills you in Madrid.

The night’s too short to freshen me before our early breakfast, and our departure for the meetings which follow soon after. But there’s more discomfort than mere lack of sleep should offer. More than just the change from small town to frenetic city, more within the sense of unease I feel inside today. These past three days of fieldwork told of a different life, a time almost forgotten, of a geologist working with rocks. So now, for this stone-crusher transformed in city spats, is it just the heat, or does my suit feel less comfortable today ? Do my dress shoes fit too tightly, are my shirt collar and tie too small for my neck this morning, and why do my rock hammer, tee-shirt and sunglasses beckon from my chair as I head out from the room, with briefcase and BlackBerry in hand ?

These are dangerous thoughts, believe me, for a man like this one, but by five o’clock we’re finished, and I’m mercifully freed again. The evening lies all ahead, with four or five hours spilling open before dinner can begin. Time enough for drinking, but it’s not wise to begin this early on a sultry and seductive evening in Madrid. And so instead, we point our running shoes towards Casa de Campo, that massive lung of trees and grass which lies just west of town. It’s easy running all the way, a long and speedy descent to enjoy with every step, even if it bodes none too well for our return trip later on. We stop by the lake, with its skyscape view, and sip granizado for a calm ten minutes overlooking the city. Then, all too soon, it’s back along the river and up the hill, along the rising, twisting lanes to return to madness.

And this is where it all comes home – those late nights, the happy evenings drinking beer and café con leche, those blissful crema catalanas I’ve enjoyed this week. If I rue those decisions now, they’re perhaps connected with the reluctance my feet are showing in just moving forwards. My companions seem full of strength, and if we’ve only one sub-three hour marathoner with us now, that’s more than enough for me. Antelope-like legs fly up the climb ahead, as I make one more effort and then fall back to walk. Resolution and unflappability in times of crisis – these are qualities you always want to show your boss, but I’ve got to admit it – I just can’t keep up. Madrid me mata – but it’s her hills which are really killing me now.

At last, we reach level ground again beside the Palacio Real. A dramatic sight, and worth a stop, not least a chance to breathe and preserve my life. We take a picture, my colleagues looking cool, relaxed, whilst my open mouth reveals a continuing gasp.

Just one more far gentler hill remains up to the Cervantes Memorial. The statues of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote wink as we pass – those futile tilts at windmills not unresembling the mindset of my run back from the park. But it’s training, of a sort, and if fitness can be measured in pain, then tonight I’ve gained in plenty.

I really need to sleep now, to rest awhile, but there’s only one night left, and we troop back across the town again to the Plaza Mayor. It’s a convivial spot, and there’s no surprise when some declare their choice to stay put amongst the tourists and eat right here. But that’s not how to experience the true Madrid, I know, and instead we form a splinter group strolling towards the Latin Quarter. It takes a while, but finally we find it – Plaza de la Paja, that perfect quiet square with its Naïa restaurant full of Spanish people, kids playing happily under lime trees nearby and the old folk ambling gently home beside. It’s the ideal setting for a marvellous dinner in fine company, our meal washed down with just one bottle or two of Ribera del Duero‘s finest tinto, tested in honour of our field-trip pilgrimage beyond that river, in the lands and mountains of El Cid.

The taste of a different Spain lies here – this food, this wine, this atmosphere, the warmest nightfall of Madrid. The contrast with San Leonardo could hardly be more marked, but replete and content under the darkening sky of this secret haven in the barrio, I know that this all-go city is still Spain enough for me.

Madrid me mata – Madrid may be killing me, but I love her just the same.

Related articles:
78. Spanish stroll: Almería Half Marathon
90. Iberian chains – Tierras del Cid, Spain
137. Otro día más sin verte: a return to Spain
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world

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