• 06 . 06 . 11
  • When I think of Spain, I think of siestas, sangria, jamon, the Inquisition, the Civil War, rain and cheesy european club music. Madrid manages to deliver all of these in the first day and night.

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Sangria, Siesta, Jamon and Fiesta

Despite its fearsome reputation, the Spanish Inquisition only killed around 2000 people. I didn’t expect that. Then again, no-one does. This and other fascinating facts were among the joys of the free walking tour we took in Madrid yesterday. Run by volunteer guides who draw no salary and work only for tips, it’s no surprise that this was one of the best tours we’ve been on, with a good balance of history and fun that took in lots of the major sites downtown. Our guide Fiona was an Irish girl relatively new to the job and mentioned that it would be helpful to have positive reviews online if we’d enjoyed it. So here it is: if you’re in Madrid and want to know a little about the city’s history, don’t mind doing it in a group of youngish people and are happy meeting lots of Australians (though I understand if that’s a deal breaker), you can do far worse than taking one of Sandeman’s New Madrid Free tours. They leave from Plaza Mayor every day at 11am and 4pm, and if all the guides are as good as Fiona was then you’ll have a great time. Just remember to tip your guide if they deserve it!

It turns out that as well as good old Christian persecution, the Spanish Inquisition is also responsible for the incredible amount of Jamon that modern Spaniards still eat today. What better way to prove to inquisitive Inquisitors that you were a righteous and appropriately god-fearing Catholic (or at least, not a Jew) than by consuming large amounts of pork and ham? A McMuffin or two has certainly saved me from the clutches of a particularly insidious hangover once or twice in the past, so I can appreciate its restorative powers, but who knew bacon could literally save your bacon?

Madrid itself is a lovely capital, well-suited to walking, with narrow streets and grand boulevards that reward casual exploration. Barcelona is considered the city with all the style, but it would be unfair to discount Madrid’s architecture, and the cathedral in particular is spectacular. Then again, it should be, having taken more than 300 years to design and build. Nowhere, except perhaps in Gaudi’s Gothic masterpiece currently still under development in Barcelona, is the Spanish ideal of maƱana so evident. First mooted in the 17th century, it was finally completed in 1993, having gone through 4 redesigns and I-can’t-even-begin-to-imagine-how-many planning meetings. Surely not even the one guy left trying to build Luyten’s Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool on his own in the 40’s would have taken that long. Think it’s hard getting that extension done on your house? Truly, this was development hell. Which leads nicely onto the fact that Madrid also contains the world’s only statue dedicated to Lucifer, which I find subversive and amusing.

As the S of the European economic PIGS, Spain is facing huge problems and about 45% of 18-25 year olds are currently unemployed. While in the past, this might have led to a spot of civil war, the triumphant entrance of a new dictator, or a search for a new monarch who could govern “the ungovernable Spaniards” (all of which has happened in the past 100 years), the Madrilenians this time have taken to peaceful protest. One of the downsides of 45% unemployment amongst the most idealistic and noisy demographic is that there are plenty of noisy and idealistic people to set up a camp in the middle of town and protest loudly. Puerta del Sol, the centre of Madrid and considered the centre of Spain from which all distances are measured, is now also the focal point in Madrid for the people’s woes. Many hundreds of people have erected a tent city and are living here, and banners hang around the plaza demanding change and jobs. With cardboard signs also in place declaring something roughly like “This Is Not A Frat Party”, the corps is largely self-regulating, welcoming to outsiders, peaceful in their methods and have created an almost festival-like feel to the place.

No festival would be complete without the rain of course, and last night it was teeming. By Jamie’s 3rd Law of Precipitation, the intensity of a storm is directly proportional to the height the rain bounces off a concrete floor. This one was a 3-incher and no mistake. As we headed out for dinner at 9pm, en route to a bar crawl with some of the folks from the earlier tour, the heavens opened up and went from spitting to full-on slobbering in a matter of seconds. Used to Brisbane weather, which is as changeable as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, we stood in a doorway and waited for it to go off in a minute or two. Instead, we were treated to a violent electrical storm that continued for so long that in the end we just decided to brave it. As we scurried down the narrow streets, attempting to dash the fine line between standing in the rain shadow of a building and getting so close that the run-off from signs and roofs coalesces into large drops that make you even wetter, I noticed a bunch of people using metal scaffolding for shelter as they watched the forked lightning. Now, my physics isn’t the best, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the safest place to be. None of them had golf clubs, at least. I just hope the protestors had better tents than the ones I used to camp in.

Five hours, five sangrias, a few beers and a horrible shot of something later, we left the final club having heard Katy Perry’s Firework one time too many. Club music here seems to be the most popular five songs on rotation, plus every latin-influenced dance song that you’ve ever heard (think Samba De Janeiro and Sway (Mucho Mambo)). And don’t get me started on the radio. It’s a good job I don’t mind Shakira, is all I’m saying.

All of which added up to a pretty incredible hangover this morning. Now, where’s that McMuffin?

Madrid Montage