I don’t think I’ve ever made it through passport control that quickly. It helped I was in one of the first few rows of economy class. It helped that ours was the only flight arriving at that time of night. And it helped, that I had only carry-on luggage. Even so, it was literally less than three minutes from when I joined the security queue to the moment when I emerged on “the other side”. I couldn’t believe my luck. And from there it was maybe a 10 minute walk to the Metro, where I purchased a five day pass. Half an hour later, and I was at the Bilbao Metro station, roughly 100 metres from my hotel, the Ibis Madrid Centro.
Though I toyed with the idea of going out for a walk around the streets to enjoy some of that legendary Spanish nightlife, the lure of a new hotel room with a good bed was too much. Instead, I opened the window, and simply enjoyed the sounds from the street below. On the fourth floor, I was high enough for the sounds to be pleasant, not annoying.
As always, I woke early. About 5.30am. Looking out the window it was still dark, and the moon was close to full. Checking online, I discovered sunrise isn’t until about 8.00am at the moment. So armed with that bit of information, and the freshness that comes from a good night’s sleep, I went for a walk around the nearby streets. There were still people out and about from the night before. Though a few people looked a little worse for wear, I felt no sense of aggression or anxiety.
When the sun finally arrived, I headed back downstairs for breakfast, and then into town to take part in one of the New Europe Free Walking Tours. “How many have done one of these before?”, our tour guide asked. Almost everyone, it seems. The first one I did was in Berlin in 2008, and since then I’ve done quite a few others. Though they’re called “free walking tours”, there’s an expectation you’ll tip the guide, and you’ll listen to some of their propaganda about other tours where you pay up front.
I was more than happy to leave a healthy tip for our tour guide, Ramón. 26 years old, and born in Argentina, he came to Madrid “about twelve years ago”, he explained. Articulate, well rehearsed, and with a wicked sense of humour, he was our guide for almost three hours, taking in some of the main tourist sites. He also provided us with terrific background on many things, including the emergence of tapas (one of the kings insisted bars provide food with alcohol to ensure worker productivity). I also asked him about the many flags around Madrid at the moment. He explained there are many reasons why people fly flags, ranging from pure and simple patriotism to neo-facism. “We have the same thing in Australia”, I told him.
After the tour I headed to the Vodafone shop to pick up a local SIM card. Though the wait was excruciating, the experience was made easier by having a charming, handsome sales assistant. It was so cute when he called out my name as “harmez”, and then corrected himself. I swear, I’ve fallen in love a thousand times since arriving in Madrid. The men here are very handsome. They’re also much shorter than I expected, and there’s also more cultural diversity than I expected, with many of the people on the tour, and many of the people I’ve since encountered, coming from South America.
At around 3.00 to 3.15, I finally settled in for lunch. Jamon. Olives. A couple of beers. I walked off the tourist strip to a nearby neighbourhood bar that was full of lots of older people, ordering large amounts of food, enjoying their wines and beers, and much, much laughter. It was about then I thought to myself, “I get this Spanish thing now”. It brought a smile to my face, an ear to ear grin.
I felt similarly when I wandered out last night for a drink and a bit of people watching. Unlike many other large cities in the world, Madrid still appears to have a significant “gay area”, centred around the street, Calle Pelayo. I had a beer at Pepito Grillo Cafe (an intimate bar attracting an older male crowd) before heading to LL Bar (attracting a range of ages for their drag shows).
When I arrived at LL there was only a handful of people, and it was at least an hour or so before many others started to arrive. In the first couple of hours, I got chatting to a guy from Colombia. He was in his 40s/50s, and he told me it was his first time in Europe. At first, he thought I was from Estonia, which I’ll put down to my poor diction. Later, during the drag show, he was my “translator” for the many songs and jokes in Spanish. There was a lovely buzz in the room.
As I wandered home, around 1.00am, there were large numbers of people still on the streets. The bars were still open, but many people were outside, enjoying the fresh air. “Would you like to buy some beers”, one of a number of young men said, as I walked by. This surprised me, as I’m sure I passed a number of shops still selling alcohol. In the midst of all these people, there was, again, no sense of anger or anxiety, and I didn’t see any alcohol-related violence. There you go Sydney, it’s possible.