I began my last full day in Madrid with a bit of vintage shopping in the district Malasaña, just north of the downtown area. I’d gotten quite badly overheated from walking yesterday so I used the metro for the first time, journeying from Sol to Tribunal. Although the platforms were a little stuffy, the trains themselves were air-conditioned (unlike the ghastly London tube) and the time saved was more than worth it. As long as you knew the station at the end of the line and the direction, the metro was very easy to use and I would definitely recommend it to avoid getting hot and bothered before you even arrived anywhere!
The street to be for vintage shopping was Calle de Velarde, with second-hand shops lining both sides of the street. I pinballed out of one directly into another: Magpie Vintage, Biba Vintage and La Mona Checa to name a few. The clothes were very affordable and I bought a lovely maxi skirt from Retro City for 20€. I could have also bought about a dozen denim jackets, but after remembering my extensive existing collection back home I managed to refrain.
I stopped for a drink and a slice of carrot cake at a dinky little place by Plaza del Dos de Mayo called El 2D and wrote for a while in the shade of an outdoor table. Aside from an unfortunate amount of graffiti (and not the skilled kind) it was a perfectly nice place to sit, but lacked the striking appearance of the frescoed walls of Plaza Mayor.
I hopped back on the metro and tried my luck getting into the Prado Museum, the main Spanish national art museum. Luckily I’d timed it right and sailed straight in. When faced with such a colossal museum such as the Prado and lacking any professional art knowledge, I decided to wander into the first room that took my fancy. It was filled with vast paintings of stunning natural landscapes with one stretching across an entire wall: “Landscape at El Pardo, Mist Rising” by Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1866). I’m always most drawn to realist paintings and get a little sceptical with the more modern, interpretive types. The colours in this oil painting were beautiful; it captured the perfect moment when the sun was at its most golden, casting a soft light over the tops of the trees and the clouds. There was so much depth in the scene; you could really believe that the rider letting his horse drink in the river was many miles from the distant mountains. I loved everything about it, from the glassy reflection in the water to the fluffy clouds.
Once I’d had my fill of the Prado I faced the peak of the day’s heat, which would remain at 37°C until 6pm. I’d planned on reading in El Retiro Park, but there wasn’t enough granizado de limón in the world to keep me cool enough. In addition, my sandal promptly broke, and I took that as affirmation that I should get out of the sun.
After a brief cooling off period, I ventured back out in the early evening when the temperature was far friendlier. I bought a strawberry slush this time, just to mix things up a little, and took a leisurely stroll up Calle de los Bordadores and then Calle del Arenal, where two school-age boys were busking. One was playing violin, the other cello. As well as classical pieces I also recognised Dancing Queen, Viva La Vida and Smooth Criminal, which all sounded fantastic played on strings. A little further up the street another busker was strumming Spanish guitar: the epitome of a balmy evening in Madrid.
To make my last night even more Spanish, I went to see a flamenco show. Of the many tablaos (flamenco venues) around, I chose Las Carboneras, which was just around the corner from Mercado de San Miguel. As I sipped my complimentary drink, I had to suppress a sob when one tourist asked for the Wi-Fi password. I was delighted when the waiter denied it, and instead told them to enjoy the show.
Unfortunately I had waiters marching to and fro in front of me for the duration of the performance, as well as several tourists who couldn’t sit still. It was a shame that photography without flash was permitted so there were dozens of distracting phone screens blaring. After testing my patience too far, I had to tell one man to stop because he had begun to lean into my view. It wasn’t the cheapest flamenco show in town and I wasn’t about to watch it on someone else’s screen.
Nonetheless, the show itself was electrifying, which may sound melodramatic and cliché but it genuinely was. The atmosphere created by the seven performers – four dancers, two singers and a guitarist – was nothing short of incredible. The sound of the dancers’ shoes hitting the floor was like the crack of fireworks. One minute they were spinning in a frenzy, long skirts swirling, and the next they were frozen with just their fingers clicking or their wrists twisting in slow circles.
At times I didn’t know where to look. While the dancers obviously caught the eye in their elaborate and brightly coloured dresses, I found the guitarist fascinating too. His fingers moved almost in a blur but his actions looked effortless and he barely watched what he was playing. As mesmerising as he was, I most enjoyed the parts where the only sound was the lead dancer’s feet and the other dancers’ – who took it in turns to take the stage – clapping. They watched the lead dancer’s movements like a hawk and increased or decreased the rhythm of their clapping in response. There was such dramatic contrast between the gunshot stomps and moments of utter silence. As each dance built to a dizzying climax I felt my chest tighten. The tension in the room was overwhelming.
I would be interested to see how other shows compare to Las Carboneras. It was cabaret-style seating with tables dotted haphazardly and waiters weaving between with trays of drinks. While this suited the environment and lent itself well to such an intimate and emotional performance, for the sake of being fully immersed in the whole ambience, I would have preferred more traditional theatre-style seating. The constant interruptions of drinks coming and going was irritating, not to mention inconsiderate tourists. Venues more catered towards locals may be less tolerant of taking photos, or perhaps locals don’t feel the need to take any in the first place. Even considering that, I would recommend flamenco to anyone visiting Madrid, purely to hear that explosion of sound with their own ears.
When I left the show I didn’t feel like turning in. It was a beautiful evening so I strolled to Plaza Mayor for some night photography. At 11pm the square was buzzing with activity. A saxophone was serenading diners with “Sway” and a tour group was in full swing, assembled by Felipe’s statue in the middle of the plaza. A woman walked by with her dog. Life continued just the same after dark as it did during the day. Perched on a bench, I felt perfectly safe in the bustling square. There are, without a doubt, things that a girl shouldn’t do alone at night, but in a place like downtown Madrid I felt perfectly at ease. When I got peckish I tried another portion of churros from a café and still found them hard as nails. If there was one disappointment from my trip, it was the let-down of the churros.
As I people-watched and scribbled in my journal, I reflected on the past five days. My time in Madrid had been both diverse and enlightening – my first trip alone to a non-English speaking country. While the language barrier had sometimes felt like quite the hurdle, I’d muddled through and had some incredible experiences. I’d watched terrapins up close and personal, sampled the buzz of El Rastro flea market and had been truly moved by the passion of flamenco. With a little more Spanish under my belt, I could really see myself living like a true madrileña.