Pretending to Sleep in Madrid

A Sunday bull fight in the Plaza del Toros.

A Sunday bull fight in the Plaza del Toros.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, Madrid is the city that pretends to sleep but is actually always awake. When the Metro reopens at 6am every morning, it is packed with people who have transnochado—stayed out all night—in danceclubs in Chueca, cave bars underneath the expanse of Plaza Mayor, or eating churros near Plaza de Sol. They re-emerge into the light of day to head home, nap until 10am, rush off to work, and do it all over again.

Spain’s capital lacks both the raucous, carefree feel of coastal Barcelona and the intimate and romantic pull of Sevilla. But after three months there, I began to realize that the city merely feigns tranquility; in reality, it holds a myriad of hidden gems waiting to be unearthed by a curious wanderer. Ancient churches with crumbling masterpieces of art from the Renaissance and Baroque periods dot the city, nestled among neighborhood corner cafes and eclectic shops.

The manicured gardens within Retiro, Madrid's central park.

The manicured gardens within Retiro, Madrid’s central park.

A few minutes spent in each of these places reveals another clue about Madrid’s story. An altar painting of Saint Diego defeating Moorish invaders recalls the city’s role in centralizing Spain as North African conquerors were pushed southward during the Reconquista. A mid-morning conversation over café con leche about youth unemployment and immigration hints at the capital city’s tensions overtian xiao cheng the sudden increase in the immigrant population during the 2000’s. The purchase of an antique oil jar from a stand during El Rastro speaks to the cuisine of central Spain—heavy on oil, meat, eggs, potatoes. (It may seem bland, but it says something when a region’s culinary tradition is basically hangover food.)

Puerta del Alcala

Puerta del Alcala

What Madrid lacks in sand and sea, it makes up for in the stories it tells you and the stories it helps you create. One of the most beautiful stories it tells hangs in the Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia: the enormous painting Guernica by Picasso. This 11x25ft (3.5x8m) piece depicts the pain of war and the defiance of resistance struggles, particularly pointed messages in a country where these messages have been repeated since the nation’s inception. Meanwhile, stories unfold daily during bullfighting season in Plaza del Toros at the Ventas metro station; Sunday events last multiple hours (if you can bear the sight of multiple bulls being slaughtered in a gory, if traditional, fashion). At night, flamenco artists sing stories of heartbreak and loss: Corral del la Morería, Casa Patas, and Candela are noted as the most authentic locales. And finally, if you manage to make some stories of your own trying to transnochar in one of Madrid’s many clubs, you might find yourself on the búho (owl)—the late night bus that carries the Madrileños who can’t make it until the subway reopens. But careful on the búhos not to fall for Madrid’s trick and think that things are winding down when, really, they’re just getting started.

Author: Casey Weston

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