In 1975, when the dictator Franco died, the mayor of Madrid declared that there would be a party in the Spanish capital every night for a year. As the weight of decades of oppressive conservative rule was lifted from the city it exploded into a relentless fiesta that thirty-six years later, continues unabated. The recent economic downturn have made its much-hyped nueva cocina restaurants, redevelopment projects and designer nightclubs look like embarrassing white elephants, however the Madrileños seem unfazed. It is the authenticity and raw intensity of this most Spanish of Spanish cities that is and will continue to be the source of its magnetic allure.
While the Museo Prado looms in all its grim magnificence over the itineraries of many travelers to Madrid, the city’s attraction is not in a collection of landmarks but the experience of being entirely enveloped in its unique verve. It is now much more the city of the free spirited Almodovar than it is the catholic guilt of Valasquez. For the visitor there are rules of engagement that must be adhered to in order to enjoy the real Madrid. The first and most vital is to remove your watch. The rhythms of life in Madrid are like nowhere else and so when you are eating what amounts to the Spanish equivalent of afternoon tea at 8:00pm, several hours before dinner and many more before bed it will all not seem so alien. Madrid is the city that never sleeps (except for siesta). Magically, if you allow it, your body clock takes up the pulse of the city as if by osmosis and rolling through the city’s countless bars until dawn on a Tuesday suddenly seems possible.
With a bar for every six Madrileños it is no wonder that they are their defacto living, dining and even board rooms. With a smoky, unpretentious and flirtatious energy, bars are the essence of Madrid and the possibilities for a night out in any one of them are limitless. The city’s best food is found there too and truth be told a recount of eating in Madrid is really a wild tale of drinking. Of all of Spain’s many and considerable gastronomic legacies it is probably the tapas-style of eating that is its most enduring. This system of small portions taken standing at the bar, paired with a cana (small beer) or a briny manzanilla sherry is a perfect fit for the transient dining culture of the city. Every bar has its speciality whether it be fried bacalao, a can of Galician cockles preserved in arbequina olive oil, boquerones from Cantabria or a slice of golden tortilla. Finding the best bars can be counter intuitive to what may be desirable almost anywhere else. If the space is tidy, modern and sparse it is almost certainly not the best choice, in Madrid it is often a case of the filthier the better. Before entering look to the tiled floor and if it is a graveyard of olive pits, cigarette butts and discarded servillettas it is likely to be a local favorite worth trying.
Despite being in the dead center of the Iberian peninsula and surrounded by a sparse desert like landscape Madrid is one of the world’s great seafood cities. The Spanish rival the Japanese for their ruthless appetite for the fruits of the sea and while it is all pushing to the side of unsustainable, the results of this hunger are undeniably delicious. Like Tokyo and Paris, the best seafood of the region passes through the city’s central seafood market and is distributed amongst its famed mariscos. A marisco is a kind of Spanish sushi bar except populated by a prehistoric looking morass of barnacles, mollusks and crustaceans hauled from the depths of the Atlantic. The Friday lunch rush in a marisco needs to be seen to be believed with old men ordering piles of precious percebes (goose barnacles) and tearing them apart as jets of Atlantic brine shoot across the bar before slurping their insides out.
It is true that the Spanish capital does not have the immediate cachet of other European capitals like Rome, Paris even perhaps contentiously Barcelona. There is no postcard familiar landmarks that recall it immediately but this city is an idea, a way of living with a devil may care attitude that sweeps you up in its hedonistic swirl.
© Vogue Living, May 2011, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora