Madrid, as I am coming to find out, is a city made for walking. Yes, it is rather massive. Yes, it has an amazingly well-connected metro system. Yes, Google Maps doesn’t usually know whether I’m walking down Calle Jordán or the similarly tiny Calle Olid. But that’s part of what makes exploring Madrid de pie such an adventure. I usually have no idea which direction I’m going (or should be going) but with playground-filled plazas, impresionante old buildings and hub-ub-filled markets popping up everywhere, being lost is turning out to be far more fun than being on time.
The other night I decided to take a stroll around my new neighborhood near the Chamberí and Trafalgar barrios, just north of the heart of downtown Madrid. The guide books would have likely advised me to take a left out of my front door and walk down calle Fuencarral (the main street) towards the city center where I could admire the quintessentially Madrid buildings: statue-topped skyscrappers featured on post cards, the main plaza Sol with it’s bear and tree statue, the expansive whitish-grey Royal Palace and it’s perfectly manicured gardens. These are the icons of Madrid, but not, contrary to their central geography, the heart and soul of this city. For that, I had to walk the opposite direction, through the winding, absolutely un-grid-like streets of the upper barrios.
Rather than attempting my poor mapping skills, I opted for a meandering paseo with no destination in mind. I turned when the side street looked prettier than the main one, crossed the road only to examine the menus of cute cafes or peruse the old records at a hole-in-the-wall shop. The longer I strolled the more I began to understand the resting pulse of this city, the daily lives of its citizens and the driving force of its beauty.
Hidden just off the main thoroughfare that is Fuencarral I stumbled upon a Plaza Olavide, where scores of kids still sporting their school uniforms kicked soccer balls and wobbled past on roller skates while their parents gossiped on the benches, guarded the strollers or had a caña of beer at one of the dozen bar/cafes surrounding the plaza. This little neighborhood park/plaza didn’t have the splendor of Sol nor the intricacy of Retiro (Madrid’s version of Central Park) but it was real. It was functional. It had only a handful of empty benches and rumbled with the sound of chatter and children.
Beyond the plaza was a tiny (even by Spain standards) fresh fruit store, one of may absolutely favorite places. I peaked my head in to ask the shop attendant if he had any figs, my new fruit obsession. He snapped on a blue surgical glove and dropped six gorgeous, deep purple higos into a clear plastic bag asked me for a euro and slumped back down on his stool. Half of those juicy fruits would later become a spinach, goat cheese and fig salad for my dinner.
As the sun began to set, I wandered deeper into the Chamberí neighborhood, which judging from the grand buildings, is home to Madrid’s more fortunate inhabitants. I saw a red brick school that looked like a relic from an old movie set at Oxford. I walked past a pop-up flower shop selling olive tree saplings that were bent from the weight of their bright-green fruit. I meandered past two old men in tweed suits and old-man caps arguing in whispers on a sidewalk bench. I spotted a small, faded blue sign on a ten-story tall apartment building advertising “Gas on every floor.” I slowed my steps behind an old couple out for their evening walk and watched as they shuffled towards a nearby church, the abuela explaining to her husband which parts had been recently renovated. Her show-and-tell complete they decided to call it a night and turned around to head back home.
It’s these little moments that give this city it’s magic. Of course I love to stand in the plaza outside the Royal Palace and admire its majesty and I can’t get enough of the flower gardens in Parque de Retiro. But it’s the more routine experiences of Spaniards that I’ve come to admire most. These are people who take walks just to take walks, who take hours to finish one beer because the stories are more important than the beverage, whose kids think a piece of rope is the funnest toy on the playground, and who have stores that sell nothing but scissors. This is the Spain I love and the Spain I yearn to know better, the Spain I’ll never find in a guide book.