Nowhere are people more comfortable with the visuals of raw meat than in Spain. You cannot get away from the omnipresent over-hanging hunks of pork on the hoof. It forms the essential décor at the entrances of the tabernas, tapas bars, and wine caves on streets like Cava Baja, near Madrid’s Plaza Major, where the locals raise a glass after work in the comfort of pink flesh.
Although it makes me cringe, the likes of Lady Gaga, who wore a meat dress to the MTV video music awards, must find it attractive. Manuel Polo Casas, a Madrileno, showed me around his city, and we entered a wine bar with a large mural in which a cat is sitting on a rooftop. “We’re called cats, or Gatos, because we come alive at night,” he explains.
On this long and winding street and in neighbourhoods like Chueca, locals and visitors alike have a vast choice of blazing live music venues and nightclubs and where they can imbibe and sway well into the early hours. Some establishments stay open till six in the morning; going home early is for wimps. Especially after an El Clasico (the classic) football match between Real Madrid and Futbol Club, Barcelona, raucous fans enjoy prolonged celebrations or drown in the solace of the golden brew. Gatos will tell you that their city “tiene mucha vida” literally, has a lot of life.
At the much-loved indoor market, Mercado de San Miguel in the heart of town, small but perfectly-formed eateries sell Spanish olives, paella (a rice and seafood dish), tortilla de patatas (omelets with potatoes) and the ubiquitous tapas. Manuel tells me “tapar” in Spanish means to cover. Earlier, drinks were served in jugs, covered by a plate. The plate came with a small, free snack. These became popular over time, and a whole genre of cuisine based on snacks came to life.
ART, FLAMENCO, BULLRING
Although the current economic slump is palpable, Madrid was once the centre of an enormous empire, and has benefitted from epic success in the past. Wealth poured in from the American colonies in the 17th century, enabling elaborate building projects. The pride of Madrid, besides its grand imperial facades, elegant neighbourhoods and abundant green spaces, are the art collections at the impressive Prado, Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemiza museums. If the crowds of large museums are not for you, Museo Sorolla, the studio of artist Joaquin Sorolla is a little known jewel worth wandering through as you view his impressionist paintings and collection of Spanish tiles.
While Flamenco dance is associated more with southern cities, Seville and Cordoba, girls growing up in Madrid are encouraged to learn it. Traditional long dresses, fringed shawls, hand fans and carnations are rolled out during Dos the Mayo Fiesta by working class Castizos citizens, keen to retain their heritage. Bullfighting remains a controversial subject, especially since it is completely banned in Barcelona. Some of the older citizens view it as an art form and a part of their heritage, but the younger set’s passion lies in football.