Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Madrid: Discovery of the Inner Being of an Eternal City

Madrid held a mythical corner in my mind and my heart for a long time before I ever visited the city. Maybe it’s because I read too much Hemingway, maybe it’s because I have the strange habit of meeting an above-average number of Spaniards in my daily life stateside, or maybe it’s because Madrid seemed the opposite of everything I grew when I was growing up. Whatever the reason, Madrid sat near the top of my list of dream travel destinations for many years.

Street Café in Madrid

Street Café in Madrid
 Photo: so133

When I finally visited the city it lived up to my expectations, give or take a few stumbles, and my time there remains in my heart to this day.


Initial Impressions of Disdain

My first night in Madrid was hardly heart-warming. In fact, my first night in Madrid was terrible. I had never been to Madrid before and it was late evening and too quickly approaching the darkness of night. I arrived to find the city unusually cold and rainy. I wasn’t quite sure where my hostel was located and I couldn’t work out how to hook up to the internet at Madrid’s dingy airport. So, I found my way to the city center and I wander around, disoriented until I found my way to a cramped Starbucks. There I could catch my bearings.

I managed to eventually find my way to my hostel, a dilapidated and dreary place located in a less-than-inspiring neighborhood, a hostel I choose because it offered the cheapest bed in town. I was cold, wet, tired and hungry, and after scrounging together a meager dinner from a local supermarket I passed out wondering why I wanted to visit this city so badly in the first place.

There are a couple lessons to be learned here.

  1. Never stay at a city’s cheapest hostel.
  2. Know how to get to your hostel from the airport before you get on the plane.
  3. Never arrive in an unfamiliar city at night.

But I also learned from my unhappy first night experience in Madrid to never, under any circumstances, judge a city based on first impressions.


Madrid, Take Two

I woke up the next day to feel my optimism restored by the full force of the famous Spanish sun. I returned to Plaza de Sol and as I walked about I began to notice how gorgeous I found every inch of the city’s details, from the small, winding, pedestrian-friendly streets to the facades of each building, to the general sense of style and care adopted by nearly every one of the city’s residents.

Madrid is a city where beauty is taken seriously, a city where beauty matters, a city where creating and showcasing beauty is as important as efficiency matters to the Germans.

If you’ve spent your entire life in a cities where beauty is considered a second-class need, as in London or New York City, which also true for nearly every city in the United States, it’s difficult to understand the impact of walking through a city seemingly designed, first and foremost, with beauty in mind. It’s difficult to impart the power, the sense of overwhelming emotion and appreciation, flooding through you when you walk through the streets of a city where beauty reigns.

Friends in the Park

Friends in the Park
 Photo: La Titicaca

Walking through Madrid, a city that truly recognizes, honors, and embodies the human need for beauty, it feels a lot like eating after an fast, a time stretching out so long you forgot why your body began to ache in the first place. Walking through the streets of Madrid you feel like you’re filling a need you weren’t aware you even had.


Chasing Hemingway

A Spanish friend of mine was studying English in Madrid but she wasn’t free to show me around until the weekend. This left me with a couple of days to explore and find my way around. Seeking structure I decided to supplement my flâneur tendencies by finding some of Hemingway’s favorite haunts, of chasing Hemingway’s ghost, two tendencies of which provided an instructive note on the whole concept of chasing such a city’s ghost.

The first occurred at Botin, the current recognized record holder for “The World’s Oldest Restaurant.” This is a frequent tourist destination as it was immortalized by Hemingway as the location of The Sun Also Rises, final scene, in which two of the book’s characters eat the restaurant’s signature dish, roasted suckling pig.

I arrived at Botin during the early afternoon. Arriving by myself without a reservation the waiter sat me down in the furthest corner of the restaurant’s deepest and most dungeon-like basement. Of course, I ordered the suckling pig; how could I not do so? I munched on some stale bread, ate the pig slowly, paid and headed upstairs back to the lobby. There I shot a few photos with my camera, primarily of a leg of jamon sitting on the reservations desk. I don’t know if it was because the restaurant was a little slow that day or because I left a big tip, or if it was because I was hanging out in the lobby taking photos for entirely too long, but my waiter thanked me profusely over and over again and then lead me to the back, to the kitchen, where he brought me to the cramped and ancient room where a large man soaked, roasted, and hacked apart the suckling pigs.

My visit to Botin was a truly memorable experience, though for reasons that had nothing to do with its glorification by a famous fan or its current record-holding status as a must-stop tourist destination. After all, like many signature dishes in tourist-favorite restaurants, the roast pig itself was somewhat disappointing, as well as overpriced. And even if the pig had been delicious, most of my time at the restaurant wasn’t particularly pleasant. At first I was understandably treated like a forgettable tourist, more like a nuisance than a guest. But in those last moments when the restaurant’s staff seemed to break from its usual bored rhythms, something truly unexpected and kind and human occurred, and it was that gesture that drove my visit to Botin into my heart.

Later that night I decided to visit a few of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes. I only made it to one, La Venencia, before I gave up following in the writer’s footsteps.

La Venencia is an old Resistance joint- it was a hideaway for conspirators during the Civil War. It retains most of its character and its strict rules of behavior to this day. I felt intimidated walking into this dusty bar filled with locals, and I immediately felt like I didn’t belong.

I didn’t feel unwelcome because anyone was actively unfriendly to me, at least not at first. I felt unwelcome because I didn’t come there for the same reason as the old men and women sipping sherry from the short bar in the front and a handful of tables in the back. I felt unwelcome because I arrived as a tourist. I showed up to take something from their little world rather than to become a part of it, a point driven home when La Venencia’s tiny-but-fierce bartender came around and chastised me for standing there taking photos. I immediately felt embarrassment and left the bar, resolving to abandon my silly Hemingway inspired pilgrimage. That unpleasant experience brought home the realization that no matter what myths have been heaped upon a city, everywhere you travel is really someone else’s home, made to be lived within and appreciated as such, and not simply consumed as a check-off on an arbitrary list sites visited or of achievements.

Madrid taught me some fundamental life lessons, to never judge by first impressions, to appreciate the dedication necessary in creating and maintaining a visually beautiful city, of respecting the dignity of the people of the city, and to never again act like just another ugly tourist. For this, I shall never forget eternal Madrid.