Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Madrid takes stamina

Life in a city that never sits down to a meal until it has to

Fiona Maharg-Bravo | January/February 2012

At first, the hardest thing about living in Madrid is making it through the morning. Most lunch meetings don’t start before 2.30, and they last a couple of hours. Then the tricky part is going back to work. 

For outsiders, living in Madrid is like being forever jet-lagged. I was no stranger to the marathon days, having spent most of my childhood summers in a small village near Salamanca, where my mother was born. My family lived in Madrid for a year when I was 14, and my husband is Spanish. But moving here with my own family four years ago and adjusting to the rhythms of Madrid, after living most of my life in Chicago and London, was not easy.

Madrid is chaotic and orderly at the same time, its citizens caught in the slow and the fast lanes. There are at least four rush hours a day. The working day can often stretch to 8 or 9pm, and most restaurants don’t start to buzz until 10. Clubs get going much later than that, when everyone gets a second wind. “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night,” Hemingway wrote, decades ago. It still rings true. 

Commuters are in their cars as early as 7am, filling the air with a cacophony. Cars are still the preferred mode of transport, even though Madrid has a superb metro that is heavily subsidised and laughingly cheap compared with London’s tired tube. Well-heeled Madrileños are seldom seen on the metro, though they are a bit more partial to the bus. 

To survive, a friend advised, you have to play by their rules. This means having a coffee and a nibble at noon. It means running errands at 11 on a weekday because most shops are still closed at lunch time, on Sundays and the various public holidays that are hard to keep track of. It means always running a little late. Ideally, it means going home for lunch and resting afterwards. Distances are short in the city centre, but many workers live in the sprawling suburbs. The siesta tradition, at least on weekdays, is nearly defunct. 

Madrileños are sleep-deprived, but they may not know any different. Children are trained for it, from the time they can be pushed out of the door in a pram at midnight on a warm summer’s evening. My young children’s friends may not get to sleep before 10pm on a weeknight, and are up at 7.30 to catch the school bus. No wonder they tend to sleep in late at weekends, like their exhausted parents. 

Living in Madrid requires a further type of stamina. The locals love to talk. I was having lunch with some American friends at a city-centre restaurant when one of them was struck by something about the next table. It was a table of five Spanish women, probably in their 40s, and they were all talking and shouting at the same time. And this went on for two hours.  

The chaos is deceptive, however. Family homes tend to be orderly and clean. Lunch is always at least two courses, the table perfectly set. Everything is ironed—even sheets, socks and underwear. This is largely thanks to plentiful domestic help. Spain’s construction boom attracted millions of immigrants, mostly from Latin America, and many are employed in Spanish homes. They are the unsung heroines who grease the wheels of life for many families in Madrid. Cheap help allows both parents to work those long hours and still have a house that runs like clockwork. 

Spanish children are as impeccably dressed as their parents: at weekends, you see siblings dressed in the same clothes, like the von Trapp family. The smarter shops make this easy by sorting clothes by styles, rather than size. Protocol is observed elsewhere, too. Children are insistently told to kiss everyone hello and goodbye, though parents seem to be more laissez-faire about other habits. Rare is the day that one of my children doesn’t come home with sweet wrappers from some event at school: sweets are seen as more of a right than a privilege. When getting out of a lift, you must say “see you later” even if you’ll never see the people again in your life. Yet for all these conventions, Madrileños are known for being abrupt, even rude—probably for lack of sleep. And the pavements, although cleaner than before, are still apt to be spattered with dog poo. 

A few months after we moved in, our next-door neighbour, whom we hadn’t even met, doubled the height of the spiky steel fence between our gardens. Most suburban houses are surrounded by huge walls designed to keep others out. We live in Aravaca, just down the A6 motorway, but still technically part of Madrid. The contrast with my hometown in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, couldn’t be greater. Forget chats with loyal neighbours across picket fences. Here, it is all about how to plant a strategic tree so your neighbour can’t look into your garden. 

Befriending a true Madrileño takes effort. Those born and bred in the city have extended family, plus dozens of friends from school, university and work, so they don’t have a lot of time for new people. And yet this is the most welcoming large city in Spain. There are plenty of Spaniards from other regions here who adapt quickly; it is easy to blend in. Madrid is a lot more cosmopolitan than when I first lived here in 1989. 

Foreigners who spend time here mostly rave about it. I’ve known several American families who have passed through for a year or more to learn the language, and one mother tells me: “You come to Spain and you’re greeted with a kiss on both cheeks and a platter of Serrano ham. There is no comparison to France.” But other immigrants, particularly non-white ones, can expect rougher treatment. Racial tension, while tame in comparison with the Paris banlieues or the south side of Chicago, is undoubtedly there.

Mostly, though, Madrid is liberating, and not just because you can stay out late. Much of life takes place outdoors. The city is at its best in spring and late summer, when the street cafés are packed in the late evening. The huge Casa de Campo park is great for biking and walking. My kids play outdoor tennis and basketball all year round. July and August are scorching and best spent elsewhere, but the strong Madrid sun is an asset in winter, bringing both warmth and a clarity of light I’ve seen nowhere else.

Refreshingly, living here doesn’t require a lot of planning. Parents will RSVP to a children’s party the day before. Madrileños are spoilt for choice for restaurants and bars that don’t require reservations weeks in advance. Dinner parties are relaxed: people don’t talk about work as they do in America, or obsess about getting into schools as they do in London—Spanish children in private education usually stay at the same school right through. 

Thanks to the climate and the geography, holidays don’t need much planning either: you can just get in the car and go. The destination is often a parents’ holiday home on the coast or in smaller towns. The city is right in the middle of the peninsula, so all roads lead from Madrid: Valencia is three-and-a-half hours away, and Bilbao not much more. The high-speed train can have you in Barcelona or Seville in under three hours. 

Location was one reason why King Felipe II chose to set up his court here in the 16th century. Historians say that Madrid was also free from feuding nobles and could be easily moulded. It grew quickly, but the real explosion happened in the 1950s and 1960s, when the population doubled. Suburbs have sprung up alarmingly during the construction boom, adding millions more people to the total metropolitan area. 

No one I know is desperate to leave in the way that many burnt-out Londoners dream of moving to the country. If you need to get away from it all, there are amazing day trips to the sleepy medieval towns of Toledo and Avila. If anything, Madrileños muse about moving for a while to an English-speaking country. Or better still, sending their children away to learn English—this is an obsession in a country where unemployment is over 20%. Madrid’s regional government has had a big push to make more state schools bilingual, and the most sought-after private schools are mainly English-speaking or at least half and half.

I find myself obsessing over my children’s English, too, even if they are practically bilingual. My two eldest attend a unique Spanish school with barely any instruction in English. If we ever voluntarily moved away from here, it would be to shore up their language skills. But I’m sure that, like most people who leave, we’d eventually come back. It would be hard not to. 

GOING NATIVE

Where to stay
If money’s no object, try one of these charming boutique five-star hotels. Hotel Santo Mauro is an historic mansion (ask for a quiet room) with its own restaurant, la Biblioteca. Hotel Orfila is a small 19th-century building tucked away on the Calle de Orfila. Hotel de las Letras has modern, spacious rooms in the heart of cultural Madrid, just off the Gran Via. 

Where to eat
At lunchtime, look out for “menu del día”, an economical set menu. For tapas, try the Mercado de San Miguel, a gourmet covered market with beautiful stalls where you can sample cheeses, oysters, pata negra ham or consommé from Lhardy, one of Madrid’s oldest restaurants. Lavinia, at Calle de José Ortega y Gasset 16, is a fine wine shop with a restaurant on the second floor which is open for lunch. Mentidero de la Villa serves outstanding modern Mediterranean food at Calle Almagro 20. El Lando offers classic Spanish food—order huevos rotos (eggs cracked onto fries)—on the Calle Plaza de Gabriel Miró. One of the best Basque restaurants is Goizeka, at the Hotel Wellington on Calle Velázquez. And don’t miss the South-East Asian gem Sudestada at Calle Ponzano 85.

Streetwise
The centre can be explored on foot, but taxis are cheap and plentiful. Join the other tourists at the Palacio Real and have a coffee in the Café de Oriente by the Teatro Real. Then wander the narrow streets of the neighbourhoods in the old quarter, including La Latina (great on a Sunday), Chueca, the slightly grungy Malasaña or Plaza Santa Ana. The Gran Via, which has just turned 100, ends in the Calle de Alcalá, opposite the beautiful Circulo de Bellas Artes, the Bank of Spain and la Plaza de Cibeles. These regal buildings are spectacular at night. Hold on tight to your handbag or wallet: the city-centre thieves are highly professional.

What to see
Madrid is dripping with great art: don’t miss the Prado, with its Velázquez collection, at Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, or the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in the ducal Palacio de Villahermosa on the Paseo del Prado. The Museo Sorolla is attractive, set in his former home and garden at Paseo General MartÍnez Campos 37. Microteatro por Dinero (at Calle Loreto y Chicote 9) offers 15-minute plays for tiny audiences in small rooms: you can almost touch the actors, often rising stars.  

Shopping
If you’re pressed for time, go to any Corte Inglés department store, or stroll along the refurbished pavements of the Calle Serrano in the elegant Barrio de Salamanca. Fashionistas can head for the boutiques around Calle de Argensola in Salesas. The Gran Via has some good high-street stores, as does the nearby Calle Preciados which leads to the Puerta del Sol.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.