Saturday, 10 April, early evening in the bustling central station of Madrid, Estación Atocha, located in one of the busiest districts in the downtown area. I am in Spain for my Easter break as now I live in Manchester, England. I am not in this country looking for sun and leisure, or to indulge in some decent food such as my favourites cocido (a stew made of chickpeas and meat, a typical dish from Madrid) or a seafood garnished paella, as my English friends always tell me I should do when I go to Spain. Rather, I just want to have some time with my family and friends and enjoy myself without the exhausting demands of recreational travel. Prior to arriving in Madrid, I travelled to the south of Spain, Seville and Cordoba, where it is customary in my family to gather during the Easter break, but coming to Madrid today holds special meaning.
First, I have a feeling of nostalgia as I look through the window of my second-class carriage. There are some distinctive features about this city; one is simply the Madridian sky in the vital springtime. It is a wide, clear sky only darkened occasionally today with some passing clouds. While growing up in Madrid I never thought its sky was anything extraordinary, but having since lived abroad for 14 years of my life in cloudy Great Britain, I am now fully aware of its influence. My tip for somebody who visits this city in the spring season is to look up to this blue sky. It is like a fine curtain in the atmosphere, lightly embroidered with a few little clouds in the horizon. The suns rays shine through with a vigorous splendour. Photographers complain that in the bold natural light of this city colour timidly fades. Madrid’s lightness is an ironic feature for a city that lives the night with greater intensity than the day.
The other feeling that comes to me as I set foot upon familiar ground is grief. As I leave through the main entrance of this great and beautiful station, with its main hall converted into a greenhouse of tropical trees, I feel drawn to the other entrance, the one for the regional trains. Near this entrance flowers, candles, and emotional letters lay in homage to the 202 dead and 1,700 injured, victims of the “11 March ” bombings. So many people on a seemingly typical Thursday commute with no idea of where the mystery trains would take them. Their next stop wasn’t Hope (as Manu Chao sings to us in Próxima Estación: Esperanza, “Next Station: Hope”) as probably any young passenger would have heard in his headphones from the very popular album of this French artist, so loved in Spain (the home country of Manu’s parents). For some, it was a one-way ticket to the “other side”. The bomb blasts of 11 March are Madrid’s equivalent to New York’s “September 11”.
It is not that Madrid hasn’t seen terrorism before. Madrid has been the arena for various terrorist actions, mainly instigated by the Basque Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), its tactics become more violent in the current democratic Spain than in the time of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. But now, in a time when the Basques have achieved their own parliament and their provinces are among the wealthiest of the country (and therefore the ETA eludes any comparison with the Irish Republican Army), Spanish people wonder why any Basque would still want to kill for his cause. It is true that in the time under Franco there was a certain sentiment of affinity among some groups of the Spanish left wing and the Basque nationalists, as when, in December 1973, ETA assassinated the Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco in Madrid with a calculated bomb. This was two years before Franco’s death. For the Spanish left wing this killing was celebrated, as it meant that the strong political arm of the dictatorship had disappeared: the one who could have stopped the democratic transition after Franco’s death was no longer a problem.
However, Al Qaeda had never before committed a terrorist action on Spanish soil. It is likely that former Prime Minister José Maria Aznar’s alliance with the United States and United Kingdom in the Iraq war might have been the catalyst of the 11 March bombing of Madrid’s commuter trains. As a result of this brutal carnage, the general election, held three days afterward, changed the pro American government of the Popular party for the more European leaning, anti-Iraq war, Socialist party.
I catch a taxi outside the Estación Atocha. The cab drivers in Madrid like talking to their passengers and soon my driver, Sebastian, engages me in a conversation about 11 March. He was in the area when the seven bombs, some of them concealed in a backpack inside two of the cars, exploded. Witness to the magnitude of the tragedy, he, and many others driving in the area helped to carry some of the injured to the closest hospital. Sebastian points to a stain on the back seat, just a few centimetres to the right of where I sit, “This is blood from one of the victims. I rubbed at it for hours but it doesn’t come out,” he says, his voice shaking. “My wife said that I should keep it to make my passengers remember how horrible it was, but I would rather change the upholstery. If you saw what I saw you don’t want to remember it.” We share an awkward moment of emotional silence. Shortly we drive by the Bernabeu Stadium, the Real Madrid football club home, and we change to more trivial talk about football.
Sebastian is a supporter of Real Madrid, the club that has won the most competitions in the Spanish league and garnered many trophies in the European champions tournament (a competition that reunited the European winners of their respective leagues), but he is not happy with this year’s performance. Real Madrid was knocked out of the European Championship after being defeated by Monaco. The dream team (or “Galacticos” as this team is called in Spain) that Real Madrid has obtained with the signing of some of the best players in the world, such as the English footballer and icon Beckham, the French Zidane, the Brazilians Ronaldo and Carlos, the Portuguese Figo, and the Spanish Raúl, have not lived up to their expectations. “They don’t deserve the many millions these footballers earn”, says Sebastian.
The Spanish obsession with football is probably the Spain’s feature most in common with Britain. For both countries, football is more than a sport it really is like a religion. The English supporters wear the colours of their teams any day of the week, game or not, as proof of complete devotion; while in Spain football is a passionate topic, often leading to loud arguments as fans watch their team playing on the television set hanging on the wall of a local bar. A football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona sets off many sparks between Spain’s two largest cities; the division a faithful reflection of the political tension between the central government and the autonomous government of Catalonia. For some Spaniards, Real Madrid represents the team of the Central administration; Franco himself, and most of his cabinet, took a special liking to Real Madrid. The Real Madrid flag blends with the Spanish national flag as the Real Madrid supporters wave them. On the other hand, Barcelona is the team that most symbolizes the aspirations of the Catalan region, with Barcelona’s colourful flag blurring with the bicolour Catalan flag.
Sebastian lets me off at my flat, and I quickly call my long-time friend, Andres, to meet at our favourite hangout. I take the tube this time, definitely the fastest way to travel in this city with its crazy, busy traffic. As I arrive at our rendezvous, Andres and his girlfriend, Eva, wave to me from the back of the bar. La Via Lactea (“The Milky Way”) bar has long been an important place in my life and that of my friends. This music bar is where I used to DJ on Sundays before I moved abroad. La Via Lactea is located in the middle of the district of Malasaña in the downtown area of Madrid. This area was one of the epicentres of the “La Movida” years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (movida is a Spanish slang word to mean several things, including “movement”, “thing”, “scene” or “action”).
During the La Movida years, the bars in the Malasaña district played rock music until late hours, and venues providing live music had people lined up outside their doors, winding along the narrow streets. La Movida was a period of artistic effervescence and excitement, and it was certainly not exempt from exaggerated behavior and general craziness, as Madrid was in the throes of changing from the bureaucratic old town of Franco’s times to one of the most hedonistic places in Europe. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll were intrinsic to these explosive times. At last, the former grey administrative capital of Spain had lost its inhibitions. It happened at the same time as the Punk revolution in England and the United States, which was the real musical catalyst of Spain’s teenage movement. Young Madridians were tuned to the happenings in London and New York, but Madrid’s long nightlife was the real background of this scene. It seemed that every night there was a new bar to discover, such as the emblematic Rockola (the Madridean equivalent to such important clubs in the New York musical scene as the CBGB or the London 100 Club), and the music bar “Penta” in the Malasaña district.
New bands such as Nacha Pop, Alaska y los Pegamoides, Derribos Arias and Radio Futura were some of the most charismatic bands emerging in this scene, a scene that included many different styles from the Power Pop of Los Elegantes and Los Nikis (the Madrid response to the NYC Ramones), to the industrial and futuristic sound influenced by the American band, The Residents, and the British anarchists, Throwing Gristle, to Esplendor Geometrico. The scene included the straight punk of Kaka de Luxe and Siniestro Total, the Catalan bands of Los Rebeldes and Loquillo y los Trogloditas, afterpunk and gothic rock in the same vain as Bauhaus or Killing Joke with Paralisis Permanente and Gabinete Caligari ( the latter evolved gradually to a more “Spanish style”, mixed with a more traditional concept of a rock band). Live music pounded through club walls into the narrow streets of Madrid. When I tried to tell my English mates about what it was like to be in Madrid during La Movida, I had to make a comparison to swinging London in the ‘60s, a time that changed the spirit of the city and shaped it into something new. Consider the swinging ‘60s set in Spain after 40 years of a dictatorship. Then you can imagine how eruptive and vital La Movida was.
Economic and political progress underway, Spain entered the European Union in 1986. Meanwhile, Spanish fashion designers such as Adolfo Dominguez and Agata Ruiz de La Prada began their meteoric careers. So, too, film director Pedro Almodovar, who, in two of his early films, captured the mood of the La Movida years; Pepi Lucy Boom y otras chicas del montón and Laberinto de Pasiones. The charismatic living-on-the-edge rocker and photographer Alberto G. Alix took his camera wherever he went, compiling photographs into one of Spain’s best kept memories of those crazy years when nobody seemed to sleep.
After so many years away from Madrid, this bar, La Via Lactea shows little change. There’s the sexy, rock chick waitress, wearing that revealing, low-cut blouse and mini skirt, her dark hair falling over her chest, looking much like the Indian woman in Vixen, the famous film of ample-bosomed women by Russ Meyer. There’s the DJ in his black Misfits T-shirt, tight black jeans, and long hair dyed black and cut in fringes, emulating the style of the band, The Kings of Leon. The music is the same kind of rock as before: The Cramps, the Ramones, the Fleshtones, the Rolling Stones, and local heroes, such as Sex Museum, a hard rock band with a punk attitude in the same vein as the New York band from the late ‘70s, The Dictators. But also, now the music includes the White Stripes, the Libertines and the Strokes. Things in Madrid don’t change as fast as they do in Manchester, where venues easily change name and atmosphere within the year. Andres, who has lived in Madrid all his life, doesn’t see it in the same way, and told me that the “little has changed” feeling I have is only a feature of the Malasaña district; other areas have changed considerably since I left.
Eva suggests dinner nearby. We go to a pizzeria in the 2 of May Square, named after a popular uprising against the French invaders in 1808, in support of the Spanish Royal family, who were on the way to exile ordered by the troops of Napoleon. The Madrileños went to the streets to fight the French with anything they could get their hands on. This dramatic episode in Spanish history was captured by Goya in his famous painting, Los Fusilamientos del 3 de Mayo (The Executions of May the Third), which illustrates the bloody reprisals the day after the uprising. I wonder if the victims of the 11 March will be remembered in the same way.
After dinner, we move on to Huertas Barrio, a 10-minute drive from Malasaña, and I began to realise what Andres was talking about. The city centre of Madrid has definitely changed. The change has mainly occurred as a result of the new influx of people from all over the world now living in this city. We pass a venue that provides live African music, another with Salsa music, a long queue at its door, and a Moroccan restaurant with Rai music seeping through its walls. We choose the quieter atmosphere of the Café Central, a jazz bar with live performances nightly. The wail of saxophones mixes with our cheerful mood, our mood lightened with the help of a few Cuba libres (rum and coke cocktails). The saxophones provoke us to get off our seats and dance swingingly to the mellow tunes by the Brazilian quartet. Eva, an innate and spontaneous dancer of elegant and gentle movements, has drawn the attention of the audience and soon other dances join us, while the musicians contently play more of their samba-jazz numbers.
After the band’s last song, we set off for Vistillas for the last round. This area is in the historical part of the city. Its origins can be traced in its mixture of medieval, architectonic style from Mudejar (a combination of Christian and Arabic architectural styles that flourished in Spain during the medieval era) to baroque. Opposite of La Vistilla stands the Royal Palace, with its modernist style of the XVIII century. Indeed, the evolution and expansion of Madrid can be appreciated through its architecture.
Near one of the bridges that separate the Medieval Madrid from the Modernist Madrid is where you can find El Mescalito, a Tex-Mex and country bar. This is Andres’ favourite bar, as he is a big fan of this music. Its orange walls are adorned with black and white photos of reputable musicians of country and Tex-Mex music such as George Jones, Willie Nelson, Flaco Jimenez, Los Lobos, and Graham Parson. I read that Charlie Parker, after an exhausting gig, used to go to a bar that had a country music jukebox. He’d get really quiet and tell his sidemen, “listen to their stories”. It is true, country music has a knack for great lyrics. Listening to Johnny Cash sing a “Man called Sue” while sipping a coffee and enjoying a Cuban cigar is a great pleasure; on such occasions, time stops for a moment.
A friendly group joins us. One of the girls says, “Whenever we want a quiet night we come here from Mostoles” (a satellite town at the outskirts of Madrid), “Madrid is a bit down after the bombs and the country ballads are perfect for our spirits”. Her words are echoed in the last song played, “Hurt” by Cash. The part that goes, “Everyone I know goes away in the end” put us all in a sentimental mood. We grow silent as the last bars of the song fade away.
It is now 3.30am on Sunday, 11 April. We decide to get some rest, as it is customary to go bargain hunting in the El Rastro flea market on Sundays, and after the flea market, we’ll top it off with a late afternoon tapas crawl around the streets of nearby Plaza Mayor. After a few hours of sleep, we’re up and out, again.
El Rastro is located in the Lavapies district, an area recently patrolled for illegal immigrants and terrorist fundamentalists by the most reactionary groups of the Spanish political spectrum. It is true that one of the terrorists involved in 11 March had a business selling mobile telephones in this area, where the mingling of nationalities is a distinctive feature of this bohemian district. But jumping to xenophobic conclusions about the Moslems living here is an assumption as far-fetched as declaring all the Basques living in Madrid are terrorist suspects. The Lavapies district is also working class, of left wing and anarchist tendencies (where the historic anarchist Spanish group, National Workers Confederation, also as known as CNT, still keeps its main office). In the ‘70s Lavapies was largely Bohemian; young artists from the country came to this district for its cheaper rents and convenience, as it is located in the heart of the downtown area of the city (a kind of Madrid version of New York’s Greenwich Village). It was in Lavapies that La Movida arose. In the ‘80s, Lavapies was the scenario where the Okupa (squatters) movement had its base.
The City Council regards Lavapies as a high-risk area of criminality and underworld life. In the early ‘90s, conservative Mayor José María Alvarez del Manzano promised to clean the area of trouble, which basically meant he closed bars and nightclubs and had a permanent police force repress any group of unidentified foreigners. Junkies gathered in the central districts of Madrid, but despite the problems that come with drug addicts in the neighbourhood, police intervention was never welcome by the locals. Residents had their own way of sorting out their own problems. Lavapies is a place of solidarity, faithful to its history of left wing sympathies, so residents promoted their own progressive and integrationist initiatives through cultural associations. They formed civilian local patrols to discourage drug users and dealers. Remarkably, the squatters were rarely seen as intruders and their relation with the locals was in most cases friendly. The emigrants that arrived in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, including Moroccans, Ecuadorians, people from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and China, found Lavapies tolerant: now, Spanish bars stand next to African shops, Turkish Kebabs, Chinese Supermarkets, and Caribbean greengrocers. The conservative and “straight” people rarely venture into its streets but for Sunday, when the popular Rastro flea market makes equals of us all.
We have been to the flea market and out for dinner and it is night, again, and time to leave the market and my friends. I say goodbye to Andres and Eva and take a taxi home. Castellana Avenue is strangely quiet as we drive. This driver, a more serious character than Sebastian, doesn’t talk much. The radio fills the silence. The broadcaster reads the news and plays music on request. A remembrance for the victims of a month ago is followed by Camarón de La Isla, the Flamenco cantaor, singing the popular lullaby composed by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca “La Tarara”. This is the perfect tune to end my long weekend. Buenas Noches, Madrid.