September 26, 2011

Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 2

If in the last entry I outlined the kinds of images of Madrid that commonly circulate, here I want to say a bit about the city's cultural significance to Spaniards, a significance which the Hemingway paradigm misses entirely.

Very eighties movie poster for Almodóvar's classic
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
For many Spaniards, Madrid's cultural moment was "la Movida Madrileña," a countercultural movement which took place in the 1980s in the wake of "la transición," i.e. the political transition following Franco's death in 1975 and the beginning of Spain's present-day democracy. Often characterized as a hedonistic cultural wave unleashed by the loosening of the earlier rigid and prudish Franco Regime moral codes, la Movida was a period when Madrid was alive with artistic transgressions of earlier taboos, the widespread use of recreational drugs, and a fusion of Madrid's street culture, including the slang or jargon of working class areas like Lavapiés referred to as "cheli," and youth culture associated with the hip bohemian neighborhood of Malasaña (jokingly referred to at the time as "la República Independiente de Malasaña"). To get a feeling for the period, Almodóvar's movie Mujeres al borde de un ataque nervioso (1988) is to la Movida and 1980s Madrid as Mike Nichols's Working Girl (1988) is to Manhattan and 1980s corporate culture. (Or for a more "lived experience" of Madrid in the eighties, I recommend reading Diario de un aburrido's nostalgic account of it.)

In part, la Movida was an extension of Madrid's long history as a cultural center for the arts and creative cultural movements. Madrid, for example, has an old theatre tradition, and has long been a mecca for actors and theatre artists. Gran Vía is Spain's Broadway and, if your Spanish is up for it, I highly recommend you try and see a show there while in town. Seeing a production on the Gran Vía is a 'must do' much like seeing a Broadway show is in NYC. Even if you skip a theater production, a stroll down the avenue, which turned one hundred years old in 2010, is worth it just to take in the Modernist architecture and detailed building facades. An article marking the anniversary very eloquently noted a distinct schism caused by globalization, which divides the street-level shops, all globally recognizable brands and logos, from the yesteryear grandeur of the building rooftops:
"En realidad hay dos granvías, la que ve quien contempla los edificios y la que consume quien va de escaparates. Hagan la prueba, miren la calle con un dedo bajo los ojos. Por arriba, todo belleza y eclecticismo; por debajo, el look globalizado... muchos colorines, pero poco chicha. Trampas para turistas abigarradas de souvenirs y oficinas de cambio a comisión. Y lo peor, las cadenas—de ropa, de maquillaje, de comida rápida, ¡de calcetines!—homogeneizándolo todo. Los mismos neones, el mismo chunda-chunda, las mismas ofertas, la misma tarjeta Visa..."
The Gran Vía during the day. For a video capture of a day in the life of the bustling avenue, click here.

Chocolate con churros
La Movida also foregrounded Madrid's incredible nightlife. Night club culture in Madrid is without equal. You will see the streets in the hipper neighborhoods in the city center fill up with club-hoppers starting around midnight. Most will hit the bars until 1 or 2AM, and _then_ go to the club where they will dance and drink until the sun comes up the next morning. Indeed, the clubbing tradition in Madrid is to finish the night out with your friends at a "chocolatería" eating "chocolate con churros," a fried pastry dough that you dip in a fresh, thick and delicious chocolate drink. One of the most reputed chocolaterías is Chocolatería San Ginés, just blocks away from Plaza Mayor, where, according to a madrileño friend of mine, it is an old family tradition for many to take their kids there around Christmas time.

La Chocolatería de San Ginés, one of the best places to have chocolate con churros

Street life was so central to the movement because Madrid is a walking city. Skip the taxi and forget the metro (though it is pretty good). Wandering the streets of the city's distinctive neighborhoods is sure to make any visit there magical. One fun neighborhood to stroll through at night is Chueca, Madrid's gay pride neighborhood, which has a vibrant nightlife and also plenty of vegetarian haunts for those of you burned out on the meat-heavy Castilian fare. Two other great neighborhoods to walk around at night or go club-hoping in are La Latina and Lavapiés, colorful immigrant neighborhoods with a high concentration of quality restaurants, including lots of foreign food options.

La Movida also marked the economic revival of Spain as the country integrated into what would soon be the Europe Union and further opened up to the Western consumer culture that had swept neighboring countries. In this vein, the new image of Madrid's corporate culture are the skyscrapers that have sprouted up in the Paseo de la Castellana (north of the Paseo del Prado), specifically the Cuatro Torres Business Area and the Puerta de Europa. These towers have become iconic of Madrid and Spain's new global corporate look, just as nearby Calle de Serrano, Madrid's 'Golden Mile' and analog to NYC's Fifth Avenue, registers one of the country's favorite pastimes, shopping for brand name or creative design products at the street's many hip shops and boutiques.

Cuatro Torres Business Area and, to the left, the Puerta de Europa

And, finally, a word on food. While Madrid is certainly the place to eat pig, since pork and other meats are important to central Spain's regional cuisine, I recommend sampling the many kinds of "tortillas", or Spanish omelets, which are also a Madrid staple. The most well-known is "tortilla de patatas," potato omelet or what gets translated as "Spanish omelet." But there are dozens of variations with mushrooms, asparagus, Spanish ham or other ingredients in place of potato. It is also commonly said that the best fish in Spain can be found in Madrid. Indeed, Mercamadrid, "la Capital de los Mercados" with over a thousand years of history, is a massive fish, meat and produce market located south of the city center and is reputed to be the second largest fish market in the world in terms of quantity of merchandise sold. (The first, not surprisingly, is located in Japan.)

Slightly out of the way from the center, but definitely worth a visit, is Casa Mingo, which can be found on the Avenida de Valladolid near the Príncipe Pío station. It serves excellent Asturian cider and perhaps the best roasted chicken I have ever eaten. I make a point of going there on every visit to Madrid.

Casa Mingo has been open since 1888 and a favorite, inexpensive dining place of locals


Anonymous said...

Mmm... my first night in Madrid I went to San Gines for chocolate con churros, and it was a wonderful find!

I'm loving your blog; keep up the good work.

An Expat in Spain said...

Thanks saracita! It was hard for me to believe that any place near Plaza Mayor could be an important local tradition... but when I visited San Ginés during Xmas it was _very_ crowded, lines running out into the street all day long. The chocolate and churros are _that_ good, one has to go back!

An Expat in Spain said...

Apparently, I'm not the only ex-pat who wants people to appreciate not just the old, but also the new in Madrid:

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