Madrid – City of the Giants – Madrid, Spain

Madrid, City of the Giants

We arrived in Madrid on a Sunday on that dismal night train from Barcelona. You know, the one that arrives at 7:00am and drops you into darkness, too early for anything to be open and too early to check in to the only published hostels in town: the dreaded HI. Packed like sardines in our 8-person compartment Jarrod and I were the last to disembark, taking advantage of the space to stretch out and wipe our tired eyes. To our ears appeared a Spanish couple fighting loudly in the corridor. The gist? She had fallen asleep during her “shift” and their passports had been stolen. A quick search of our belongings proved that we escaped theft.

The sun was just rising and our feet were dragging as we exited the efficient Metro at Aguillers, the stop that would drop us right off around the corner from a bed. Walking the wide streets in the blue haze of morning we somehow became disoriented and realized we’d taken the wrong exit from the metro. Cursing our bad luck and backtracking a bit we entered the HI hostel to find that we could not get a bed for another half hour. It was 8:30am. This fed my ongoing theory of the HI network. They were not there to help budget travelers but to hinder them and steal their money. But it seems the only hostels in Spain are HI affiliated. Figures.

Sunday in Madrid is free museum day and the world famous Museo del Prado was our first and only stop. And since it was free there was none of that familiar guilt to see every painting and read every description no matter what language it was in. Passing through a security checkpoint it dawned on us that our pocketknives were in my daypack. The prim security officer was none too concerned with the knives, but singularly focused on the jar of peanut butter. “No eating in here,” she confirmed in Spanish. A sideways smile and nod and we were off to see some art. How bizarre that we could enter with our knives, especially during this paranoid climate we are living in now, but there were issues with the sandwich spread. Right.

The high ceilinged walls, the building being art itself, were lined with masterpieces from The Spanish School. Despite all of the works by Velasquez and Goya, I stumbled upon one of my favorites: El Greco. The ghostly images in each of his paintings remind me that I sorely lack that sort of talent. And it always amazes me how religious art is far more touching to me than the religions themselves and how many different ways there are to portray one biblical event. These thoughts swirled through my head as we exited the Prado and headed north by foot to find the fabled English bookstore on Gran Via.

And perhaps it was because it was Sunday. Or maybe because it was close to siesta. But the wide avenues were strangely quiet and we crossed 8 lanes with no worries. I imagined the streets during the rush hour craziness, little cars zooming by at top speeds, crushing poor travelers without a second thought, putting Italy to shame. It was so quiet I could have lain down in the center and had a nap. All insanity aside, we strolled along Paseo del Prado onto Gran Via and gazed up at the buildings in awe. Now, American cities have their skyscrapers, the canyon-esque, wind tunnel streets lined with multi-storied office buildings, all metallic and glass. Madrid accomplishes the same but with enormous columned palaces with giant wooden doors. The local bank a thirty story equivalent but with gargoyles and fortress thick walls. Madrid was once inhabited by Giants. That had to be it. Who else could have opened those tall palatial doors and ornately designed windows? What monstrous being once peered out of those curtains? Or perhaps, when did we get so small?

As it turned out, we were just in time for a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros de la Ventas. Every Sunday of the fighting season they stage the national sport for all to enjoy. Relatively cheap, we purchased tickets for 1200 Pesetas from official vendors. Outside the ring were countless old men waving tickets in our faces and chanting “Tee-ket!” and pointing at inflated prices. I found it funny, not funny ‘ha ha’, but funny ‘it figures’, that ‘no’ in English has the same pronunciation in Spanish but these short little old men did not seem to understand its meaning. Chased away from the bullring by these hordes of molesting scalpers we settled on a bench nearby and watched the crowds come.

The seats were directly in the sun. No wonder they were so inexpensive. In the hall they were renting out cushions for a few hundred Pesetas but to save money we did not buy. Which I somewhat regretted later after being led to our solid concrete stadium seat. And to my surprise the place sold out. Finely dressed ladies accompanied by men with cigars who surreptitiously tipped the usher with a flick of his hand. As I looked at the clock I noticed a little man switching the minute hand as each minute went by. What tradition here.

The first fight was rather exciting. Set in three acts, each fight was more like a scripted play than a sport. At the playing of the Paso Doble, five costumed Matadores (matar, meaning: to kill) lured the confused bull into a bit of a frenzy, teasing him into attacking them, getting him fired up for the man with the spear on the armored horse (the picadores). The bull attacks the picadores and the rider plunges the spear into a spot of muscle between the bull’s shoulder blades. Now at this point the crowd is chanting and clapping together in counts of three. They are hungry for blood.

Act Two: two Matadores taunt the bull with brightly decorated harpoons and stab them into the already gaping wound on the bull’s back. The crowd roars at each attempt, cheering or jeering the success or failure of each jab. Once all four pins are in, it is time for Act Three: the kill. The crowd jumps to their feet as the big guy saunters into the ring. El Matador Himself with the fancy red cape, here to hypnotize the bull into submission. With a thrust of his groin and a wave of the cape, the bull repeatedly falls to his knees. The crowd, hushed with anticipation, goes wild as the Matador lunges the sword into the bloody mess on the bull’s back. After a few stumblings and waverings the bull falls. He is dragged out of the ring, the bullfighter triumphant.

Now imagine six of these 20-minute bull-torturing sessions and you have the proudest sporting tradition in Spain. I know it was not my imagination that the crowd eventually stopped cheering either out of shame for their bloodlust or respect for such a noble creature. Maybe they too were glad that one bull survived. He was too aggressive, too hostile, having injured a horse and possibly one of the matadors. The trainer tried luring him off the field with a few female bulls but when that did not work he himself ran on to the field, waved his jacket a bit and the bull chased him out of the ring. I knew eventually the bull would fight and he would die. But since he did not, another fight was added. This seventh and longest, most agonizingly boring fight (I was nodding off to sleep in my uncomfortable seat) caused the crowd to thin drastically, leaving the ring almost empty. Maybe five should be the limit.

But despite Spain’s strange killing sport the charm Madrid held for me then still holds now. Many people I had encountered told me to skip it, that it was boring. Well I found it gorgeous to wander and easy to traverse with its user-friendly subway system whose Metro sign seemed eerily reminiscent of the Underground’s. My traveling companion and I left Madrid for the Extremadura region the next morning, looking forward to walled medieval towns and exercising our rarely used Spanish chops, promising the city of giants another visit, another time.