What Makes Madrid “Madrid”?

This item appears on page 49 of the May 2010 issue.

In a writing “contest,” ITN posed the question “What makes Madrid “Madrid”? The window for submissions is closed, and in the last two issues we printed a few of the entries. Here are a few more. Other cities will be the subjects of future essay contests, with more prizes.

On our first morning in Madrid, my brother looked out over the city and exclaimed, “Where are the monuments like in Paris and Rome? What is there to do here?”

How to explain to him that Madrid is a different city?! It is the people and their culture that make it so special. So I began to show him the beauty and depth of Madrid.

We started at the Prado Museum, where he was awed by the treasures. At the Museum Reina Sofía it was Picasso’s moving work “Guernica” which was significant and which would be even more so as we visited the Basque town of Guernica and sat through the tear-jerking movie shown in the Peace Museum.

On that visit to Spain, we ate in Madrid’s quaint restaurants in Plaza de España, were overwhelmed with the crowds in the Plaza Mayor and walked in the parks, joining the people in their daily promenades.

We would picnic for lunch, buying fresh hot bread, meat, cheese and desserts from the grand supermarket at El Corte Inglés department store.

We took day trips to Segovia and Ávila, looking forward to “coming home” to our hotel after a long day.

I knew my brother finally got the feeling of Madrid when, after touring the Royal Palace, he bought a print at the shop to remember his trip.

As I said, sometimes it is not the monuments that make a city but the energy and vibrancy you feel from a city that is so alive and proud of its legacy in the world.

Kathy Lovell

Boston, MA

(May-June ’07)

I first saw Madrid in 1975 when my company assigned me to a project in Spain. I lived in Madrid and worked in a small town outside the city.

Madrid was beautiful, the populace was friendly and the food was to die for. My favorite new tastes were roast suckling pig and lamb roasted in a brick oven all night. But the traffic was a nightmare.

By far and away, the Spanish choice for an auto was a white, two-door SEAT sedan. These cars were built in Spain under license from Fiat. The day I visited the Madrid SEAT dealer, the white, two-door cars were on a long back-order, but they had two black, four-door cars in stock, so I bought one.

Near downtown Madrid is the Plaza de Colón (Columbus). There is a traffic circle there where traffic from four arteries merges. During my stay, it was always a madhouse. The first time I tried to merge at Plaza de Colón, surprisingly, the traffic officer waved me through, ahead of waiting lanes. I was also surprised when the officer saluted me as I passed him. Later visits to Plaza de Colón provided me with similar treatment.

From Spanish friends, I learned that high government officials were issued black, four-door SEAT sedans. I realized that the officers could not decide whether I was a chauffeur or a VIP.

I continued to receive this perk for two years, at which time I returned home. Ahh, Madrid!

David Lowe

Fullerton, CA

Cosmopolitan flair perhaps matched only by Paris. Pictures you have seen reproduced all your life but, in the Prado, the originals. Street musicians outside your hotel window in the pedestrian zone playing long into the night. Churros and thick, thick hot chocolate at San Ginés. Delicious hotel room picnic fare from the basement supermarket of El Corte Inglés (including ham selling at prices per pound that are nothing short of astounding). Plaza Mayor, steeped in history (positive and negative) but providing a kaleidoscope of humanity and a place to savor coffee, wine or your choice of delectable goodies. Fresh orange juice for breakfast, along with coffee strong enough to insure you will not soon fall back to sleep. Hectic street crowds reminiscent of Manhattan. Vehicle-packed boulevards, along with more quiet, winding side streets and alleys unfolding into one new and fascinating photo opportunity after another. Seafood selections that one might expect to find in a harbor city. Dinner at historic restaurant Botín, where Goya reportedly washed dishes. Many, many tapas bars offering grand assortments of the unfamiliar. Welcome sidewalk cafés to rest those weary feet, watch the rest of the world busily hurry by and plan for the next opportunity to savor that unique piece of physical and human geography that is Madrid.

Bob Lata

Paso Robles, CA

(May ’08)