I had an amazing time in Madrid this past weekend – my first visit to that city. After several weeks in cold, rainy Brussels it was a welcome respite. It also made me realize just how much I’m starting to miss being in a big city.
Madrid reminded me a lot of New York. With its grid street pattern of cement blocks, tall buildings, extensive and efficient metro and intense late-night nightlife, it was a bit like being back in the big apple. London is like New York in a lot of ways, but in those key areas I’ve listed above it is definitely not. So Madrid is probably the second most “like New York” city I’ve seen in Europe. The nightlife there is not only a lot of fun, but it’s also very relaxed and not as rigidly structured as the nightlife in London, where people go out very early and the rest of the evening has all sorts of rules about when things close. Comparing it to nightlife in Paris, it does have similar late-night hours, but I would definitely never describe Paris nightlife as being “relaxed”.
It’s interesting to compare Madrid to these other European capitals, since it developed in such a radically different way from them. Whereas both Paris in London developed organically as Roman towns which slowly developed into both political and cultural capitals, Madrid is a relatively new city that didn’t become the capital of Spain until the 16th century. Even then it was just a small one-note town (like Washington DC) with nothing but royal and government institutions for centuries. It didn’t develop into a large city with its own culture and economic institutions until the end of the 19th century.
The effect of this can be seen in the city’s architecture, which is so different from older, entrenched cities like Paris and London. Almost all of the architecture seems to date from the late 19th/early 20th century, a time when there were grand projects to make the Spanish capital into a real global city in its own right. In this way, it doesn’t feel ancient or charming like Paris and London do – rather it seems modern and busy, like New York. The city’s size and importance is even more amazing when you consider that it went from a small town revolving around the monarchy to become the third largest city in the EU (after London and Berlin).
My favourite attraction in the city was probably the royal palace. It was an impressive series of rooms that was open to the public. And perhaps the coolest one was the throne room. It was very impressive, and it was the first time I've seen a throne room that opens out to a balcony facing a huge square. It was from that balcony that Franco used to deliver his speeches, as a matter of fact.
I was amused though, during the tour, that the guide kept talking about the monarchy as if it was something that has existed uninterupted for centuries. They'd talk about the throne room and say "This is the spot where King Ferdinand VII would receive dignitaries. And it is still the place today where the current king Juan Carlos receives guests". Nowhere in the tour did they mention that for 45 years there was no king, and Spain was a Republic followed by a dictatorship. The current Spanish constitutional monarchy only dates from 1975. Seemed like kind of a big omission to me. But the tour was very much all about stressing the continuity and symbolism of the monarchy, which of course was the purpose of restoring it in 1975.
All in all it was a great trip. Now it's back to life in Brussels. Luckily the weather's great here right now, so it shouldn't be too difficult of a transition!