Tuesday, 12 June 2007

¡Hala Madrid! Part Three

On Sunday the sun almost shone, and we began with a late morning coffee in the Plaza Oriente, opposite the Palacio Real. The Palacio is quite striking, and while I think it's a little bit smaller than Buckingham Palace it's certainly more attractive. I've always thought Buckingham Palace looked like a rather unsightly stone box plonked in the middle of London, while the Palacio Real does at least have lots of pretty lumps and bumps (Fisher tells me they are decorative vases disguising the slope of the roof) on top. I bought a string of postcards from a street vendor, which I then had to rip apart leaving the edges very torn, and dashed off a couple. (Naturally, I failed completely to post either of them, but will send them from the local post office anyway so the thought counts).

We then went for a walk through the streets of Old Madrid, past the palacio with its view through the gates over the Campo del Moro. I was astonished to see this massive swathe of countryside right in the middle of the city, where folk go to ride horses, hike, walk dogs and generally enjoy the great outdoors. It was named the Field of the Moor because a Moorish army camped there in the 12th century, and was then used as the famous hunting grounds for the nobility which ultimately led to Madrid becoming Spain's arbitrary capital. My old A Level pal, Charles I (V), the Holy Roman Emperor, was a keen huntsman and therefore favoured Madrid above all other cities. However, it was his son, Philip II who eventually moved the court to Madrid and thereby all but named it his capital. Madrid grew rapidly after that, but it still seems to nurse a slight air of surprise that it ever came to such prominence - at least in the old town. The buildings, while attractive, lack the true opulence of a major capital, and a general attitude of lethargy seems to prevail. People wander, traffic is pushed away from places of architectural beauty, and the wide open spaces suggest a rural sleepiness that belies its status as the third largest city in the EU. Of course, Fisher and I only saw it at the weekend, so perhaps it's very different during the bustle of a working week.

We walked through narrow streets, once again reminiscent of Malta, and booked ourselves into a restaurant for lunch at 2. We then went and found ourselves a table at another café in order to read the Sunday papers in leisurely fashion, have a few drinks and chat.

Lunch was very Spanish, but actually pretty good! My baby lamb chops were surprisingly lacking in grease, and we managed to order ourselves some asparagus and satisfy a craving for vegetation. We then pondered what to do with the rest of the day. I mentioned that the French Open final was on TV, thinking I might find a café in which to watch it while others explored the city. I wasn't particularly keen on the idea of going back to the flat and playing yet more cards as I watched the game, and was surprised when Fisher made no alternative suggestions. Still, she is a Hearts fiend, and it was her holiday so that's what we did.

By the time the final was into its 4th set, and Hearts had been played out, Fisher was obviously bored and irritated. She declared she was going for a walk, but would be back within the hour. I contemplated going with her, but she didn't ask so I figured she was wanting some time to explore on her own. However, when she left, Nadal broke Federer's serve and I realised the game was pretty much over. I tried to text her, but she didn't reply. I tried to call her, but with the same result. Annoyed that she wouldn't have her phone somewhere she could actually hear it, I left the flat telling Brother that, if she came back, to let Fisher know I'd gone to find her and would meet her in the Hotel.

I stood outside and tried to think where she'd go if she wanted to explore. As we'd already wandered down the uninspiring Calle de Arenal without being impressed, I instead turned to the right. Finding absolutely nothing of interest in that direction, I then guessed that she'd probably retrace the steps we'd taken earlier, as passing the Palacio Real and the Campo de Moro had been by far the most attractive walk of the trip.

I passed a café showing the final, and was tempted to go inside and finish watching it over a cup of coffee and a slice of something horribly sweet, but resisted. Instead, I started to enjoy my wander. I returned to have a look at the Campo, thinking she may have tried to find her way into it - but on the way I turned onto the Calle Mayor where I encountered a very interesing sight. Little groups of women and young girls were laying flowers in elaborate patterns in the street. I think they were part of schools, as one of them was signed Colegio de somethingorother. I had no idea what the flowers were for - whether there was a competition, or a festa, or some sort of religious ceremony - but they were very lovely, and being laid with swift skill. It was only girls and women taking part in the flower laying, but I still don't know whether that's because it was a 'women only' type thing, or whether Spanish machismo keeps boys from touching girlie girlie flowers.

I watched them for a while, then turned back down towards the palacio, where I discovered some sort of procession taking place. It looked like the tail end, or perhaps it wasn't really a procession and more just a bunch of different clubs, churches, or organisations all heading to one place. As I stood there, wondering over a cluster of smartly suited men carrying ornate flags on silver-topped poles, I suddenly turned to be confronted by a gaggle of middle aged women in black dresses and fabulous black mantillas bearing down on me. It was quite an intimidating sight! I scuttled hurriedly out of the way, but they barely noticed me.

What the bloody hell is going on? I thought. I couldn't exactly ask anyone, as their answers would leave me none the wiser, and anyway, I haven't even learned enough Spanish to frame that simple question. Instead, I decided to head on back to the hotel and see if Fisher had turned up.

Back I went, trudging slowly back along the Calle Mayor for another look at the flowers - which were continuing to be laid by these very determined groups of girls and women - and then back to Plaza Isabel II. At the hotel, I was pleased to be told Fisher had already picked up the key. I was less pleased to see an obviously upset Fisher who, it turns out, had not been pleased to spend the afternoon inside on a beautiful day in a foreign city. She'd also been frustrated at not finding me, and had looked forward to exploring together. After a brief exchange of words, we decided all was not lost and set off out to do just that. Fisher said she wanted to try and go to one of the parks, but when I offered to show her the flowers I'd just seen she was very pleased to have a destination in mind.

I led her back to the Calle Mayor and she was thrilled with what we saw. Since my last look, the flowers had been all but completed. Each school had its own rectangle of around 4 x 20 feet, and they were filled with swirls, patterns, shapes, and sometimes writing. More than once there were declarations of love, or red hearts picked out in rose petals, and I began to think this was some sort of Spanish Valentine's Day. The artists used petals, stems and even the heads of flowers to decorate their allotted space. And the scent was wonderful! We wandered along, breathing deep and pointing at anything that caught our eye. Fisher was quickly enchanted, and I, too, felt that this was exactly the sort of thing we'd come to Madrid for! We had no idea what we were looking at, but it was very definitely something we'd never seen before - and that's always what you hope for in visiting a different country.

At the end of the Calle Mayor, we decided to try and enter the Campo Moro, seeking to find a way beyond the palacio. Unfortunately, we chose to turn right rather than left - and soon discovered what the procession I'd seen earlier had become. A large square in front of the palacio was cordoned off and filled to bursting with people. A crowd had gathered around this square, with people climbing on the stone pedestals in order to see over the heads of those in front. We managed to catch a glimpse of what was going on, and that combined with the few words we understood coming over the tannoy, deduced that a public church service was in full swing. Over a small stage there hung a banner which read something like: "Eucaristía ... Sacrameto del amor" and I hooked onto the idea that it was a special service of love, which local schools honoured by decorating the streets with flowers. (Actually, according to a website called ABC.es, it was a 'solemn Mass for the occasion of the Corpus Christi' - the festival of the Body and Blood of Christ.)

With that small mystery, if not solved then at least leant a plausible explanation, Fisher and I went in search of the entrance to the Campo de Moro. From the map it looked like you could access it through the smaller Jardines Sabatini (not named in honour of Gabriella Sabatini the Wimbledon finallist, as I'd secretly hoped, but after the Italian architect and advisor to King Carlos III - booooo), so we went down a flight of stone steps into a small oasis beneath the palacio. Little paths led beneath tree groves, which would have provided welcome shade from the heat of the sun had the sun been particularly hot, but as it was evening and the day hadn't been too searing anyway, it was simply deliciously warm, and the ground prettily dappled. There were several people with dogs, and we were impressed by how healthy the pooches appeared. They were all skinny and well muscled, without the depressing waddle you see on so many overfed British dogs. As we sat beneath the branches of one impressive tree, a small poodle pranced up, eyes fixed on the frisky pigeons in the branches above. It barked, jumped, and turned to its owner with a look on its face as if to say: do you SEE them? They're just SITTING there! Help me get them and we'll put them in a pie! His owner gave him a sage nod, and the poodle turned back to the birds, head cocked on one side as he tried to figure out just how to extract said pigeons from said tree. Unperturbed, the pigeons continued to focus on their own little battle of sexual wills.

After exploring the Jardines Sabatini and discovering there was really no way to get to the Campo from there, we decided the only thing to do was go and find ourselves an ice cream in a little street café from which to watch the Madrileñas go by. This we did, calling Brother to ask if they wanted to join us. They did not, as he was in the throes of homework, but we arranged to meet at the flat at 9, then go out for tapas at 10. This left Fisher and me to enjoy our ice creams and marvel at how loud and obnoxious the American children were as they ran between the tables, shrieked and chased each other, while their parents ignored them.

It took so long to get our bill we were almost late for our rendezvous at the flat, but as we reached the Calle Mayor for a last look at the flowers, we discovered something that absolutely made us late.

The street was lined on both sides with people, and down the middle, walking over the strewn flowers and rushes of lavender, was a long line of nuns from various different orders and, on the other side, women in ordinary clothes. This was all very well, and the scent of crushed lavender and the solemnity of the march might have been enough to catch our interest - but what was truly moving was that they were all singing as they walked.

It was a low, peaceful sound. There was no warbling soprano leading the choir, only a gentle lilt of voices, sometimes blending in harmony. It was obvious they were singing well known hymns, because often the crowd joined in and swelled the sound. When one hymn ended, a random voice would begin another and the song would start up again. Sometimes they didn't know all the words and would be led by a few who did, or even by the crowd, but they never fell silent save for a few seconds between each hymn. As Fisher and I walked alongside them, I couldn't help but feel truly moved by the simplicity of their worship, and the respect - almost reverential - of the crowd with whom they sang. As many men as women watched them pass, and I couldn't help but think how rare it is in this world that men afford women that sort of public respect. In the UK, how often would men line the streets to honour a group of women? Is there not always an underlying sense of 'PC', or some agenda, or even a patronising attitude of 'support' accompanying such things? Worse, there's often a slight smirk, or a roll of the eyes, that goes with any female undertaking. Of course, a lot of the time women only gather when there is an agenda to be fought for, and it's often a matter of political correctness. Sadly, when that's not the case and it's something like the WI, other women are the first to twist their lips in scorn. All female gatherings are mostly something to be railed against by women, who are too terrified of appearing to be (spit spit) feminists - who everyone knows are just man-haters and should shut up and let us all get on with it.

Is there any group of women in the UK who could walk down a street and be seriously, reverentially applauded by a mixed crowd, who honoured them for the choices they've made and the lives they've lived? I can't think of one - and that depresses the pants off me. When did women lose so much respect?

Anyway, after watching this procession of dignified, purposeful women, I felt both soothed and uplifted. In that mood, we hurried to Brother's flat and spent the hour before tapas playing yet more Hearts and chatting.

Brother and Gaura took us along the Calle de Arenal to a new area, which was much more touristy. Two Scots walked past us, drunk and bellowing expletives with every second word, which gave me absolutely no pang for home and reminded me how unthreatening Madrid is in comparison to British cities. (Yes, even Edinburgh.) I'm sure the surface is beguiling, and underneath beats a heart as corrupt and criminal as any other city in the world, but at least it had the decency to hide it when I was around.

The first tapas bar we went into was a Spanish equivalent of formica tables and Tennents on tap. The tapas was ok, although we never received two of the dishes we ordered, and the service was rubbish. I have to say, one of the reasons to go abroad is to remind yourself that your own country is neither the best nor the worst in the world. For example, while I bemoaned the fact the people of Britain can be uncouth and obscene, I also took pleasure in knowing that our service culture actually isn't nearly as bad as we think it is. Travel can be just as much about reminding yourself of your own culture as appreciating a new one.

Still hungry, we moved on to a second tapas place - after a couple of false starts, owing to the fact it was nearly midnight and several places had stopped serving. This was much better - a long, thin restaurant with tables that gave the impression of being in booths because of little cornices on either side - and we were able to grab a few extra dishes and another, much nicer, beer.

Back at the hotel, we said goodbye to Brother - who had classes all the next morning so wouldn't be there to see us off - and collapsed into bed, looking forward to our last morning in Madrid.

Alas, my old troubles returned on our final morning, and with such vengeance I had to send Fisher off with Gaura to the Reine Sofia museum and Guernica while I lay and read, trying to take my mind off my troubles. When they came back at noon, I was a little better but certainly not up to getting coffee or food. We had to check out of the hotel though, so I sent them off again while I waited for them in the flat.

I was very disappointed not to see Guernica, but Fisher wasn't exactly brim full of excitement over it. After she and Gaura came back from their snack and we'd bid a fond farewell, we caught a taxi at the rank in the Plaza and she told me all about her morning. She actually had very little to say about Guernica. Instead, what truly seemed to catch her eye was the sight of a gaggle of 4 year old school children who were being urged by their teacher to study Guernica and tell her all the things they saw and - most impressively - what they thought each thing represented.

Do we do such things in the UK? If not, why the Hell not? According to Fisher, the kids were far more enthusiastic than the lachrymose, sullen pack of teenagers on much the same field trip.

The taxi ride was far less daunting than the one that had taken us into the city, and we were soon enmeshed in the puzzle that is Madrid airport. Our tickets had a bold 'A' stamped on them, which we naturally thought was the gate. It turned out to be the part of the airport our gate would be in, when we actually learned which one we'd been allocated. In that area, the gates were also allocated letters - but it took us several long walks to discover we weren't leaving from gate A ...

Oh, bollocks to it. This blog is quite long enough without bemoaning the rubbish set-up of Madrid airport. Suffice it to say, once we'd found our gate and boarded, all went smoothly. We took off on time, landed early, and were home to happy, well-walked pooches by 7pm! Fonda left us a note to say Baffie and Bridie had been angelic, save for Bridie taking a swim in the pond, traipsing scum all through the house and needing a bath. I went into my usual home-coming ritual of checking the post (2 exciting packages for me - Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and a new book from Amazon), my emails, and the phone messages. I then sat in front of my computer for a while, checked the news, the sport, and revelled in being back. A few messages from pals put me in a good mood, looking forward to seeing them again to break bread, drink wine, and exchange news.

I'd hate to be someone without ties to a place. Being a gypsy is all very romantic, but travelling is lonely when there's no-one to tell of your adventures. I think coming home with new stories is one of the best feelings in the world.

Of course, now I've put them all in a blog, I might as well not bother.