Cultural experiences and funny musings by two twenty-somethings living abroad
Spain is a country I like to think I know pretty well. Ever since I first went there when I was 5, I have visited big cosmopolitan cities like Bilbao, Barcelona and Valencia as well as the more rural and traditional parts of the Costa Blanca, Costa de la Luz and the Spanish interior. Madrid sits in between the two – the largest city on the Iberian Peninsula is about as far away from the coast as you can get and is still fairly traditional. In late October, I had the pleasure of being able to go there once again for the first time in seven years to visit family and friends.
As a city in the interior of Spain, it’s not a city that receives as many tourists relatively as other places in the country. This hasn’t stopped the spread of English though – 7 years ago, I was often laughed at when asking people in my very broken Spanish whether they could speak English, but now they are very eager to speak to you in English as soon as they realise you have a non-Spanish accent, which was a bit frustrating for me as my Spanish is now reasonably good! The lack of English-language skills in Spain had been recognised as a problem for a reasonably long time but that has definitely been tackled head on and I met many Madrilenians who were able to speak English very well.
Madrid is also somewhat unusual as a major city in that it doesn’t really have a major landmark akin to London’s Big Ben, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate or Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps another reason why it doesn’t receive many tourists. It doesn’t mean though that there aren’t sights to see. There are many sites there that reflect Spain’s past glory – The Plaza de Colón, dedicated to the great explorer Christopher Columbus, is definitely worth a visit and the Museo del Prado houses Spain’s rich artistic heritage. The city also has monuments dedicated to some of the more complicated events in recent Spanish history – Madrilenians have chosen not to renovate sites such as the Puerta de Alcalá, which was damaged during the civil war in which the Fascists won, and have also dedicated a monument to the victims of Al-Qaeda’s bombings in 2004. Yet there are also many places that reflect happier moments in cash-strapped Spain. After all, no visit to Madrid is complete without visiting the Bernabeu Stadium.
On the subject of football, I also happened to be in Madrid during one of the most politically and emotionally charged events in Spain – ‘El Classico’, the key footballing fixture in the Spanish footballing calendar. For some, this match represents much more than just some simple rivalry between the top two clubs in Spain – it also represented Catalonia vs. Spain. At precisely 17 minutes and 14 seconds into the game, a massive Catalonian flag began to move around the Nou Camp, pro-independence banners and flags began to be waved around and chants began to be heard, much to the annoyance of the Real Madrid fans whose annoyance was compounded by a Barcelona goal just moments later. The mood in the bar where I watched the game over a nice pint of Paulaner was very lively – With every bad decision made by the referee or every bad tackle that was made by a Barça player, people would leap up off their seats, dash to the television and scream in front of it, making pretty big gestures with their hands. With the match ending 2-1 to Barcelona, it perhaps wasn’t a great night for the Madrid fans, but it was certainly entertaining for the neutral!
It was a sad moment though when I had to leave Spain on the hottest day I was there to come back to the joys of the dank British weather. Whilst Madrid may not be as exciting as Barcelona and located too far from the coast to enjoy a good soak after baking in the sun, it has culture, it has tradition, and it has some of the best food and wine you could ever ask for, and that certainly makes Madrid a city worth visiting.