Vibrant moods

Vibrant moods

Lively City

A shiver of anticipation surged through the hall the moment the flamenco dancers, Spain’s best known entertainers after her bullfighters, stepped up. They strutted with deliberate intent across the stage before striking dramatic poses.

As the music swelled, the latent energy trapped within these frozen human sculptures erupted. Then, like a tightly coiled spring that had been released, they sprung to life. The dancers whirled and stomped, wove arabesques in the air with their hands as guitars throbbed and singers sang about love — lost and regained. Up on the stage, the dancers shed their inhibitions and gave full expression to their emotions — joy, pain, love, betrayal. We could feel the passion that fired their performance well within us like a heaving tide.

In many ways, the flamenco dance performance captured the spirit of Madrid, the boundless energy of a city that is on a boil 24 hours of the day. It’s a city that is constantly on the move and to experience it, we had to move with its rhythm too. Here, life is lived out in the open; on the streets where Madrilenos love to party and any excuse is good enough for a celebration. Their football team — Real Madrid — wins a game and the road leading from the city square to the stadium becomes a revelry zone.

A wedding means two
separate street parties as it is not just a boys’ night out (the groom is easily identifiable as he celebrates his last night of bachelorhood dressed in an outlandish costume) but an equally boisterous girls’ night out too.

Vamos a tomar algo, a phrase which means ‘Let’s go and eat something’, is generally the call for a tapas-hopping spree, brimming with wine, delicious snacks and bonhomie. It is a ritual that involves a slow crawl through the streets of the city with friends and family, stopping to grab bite-sized snacks — tapas — and drink at their favourite watering holes, locally called tasca. The tapas trail, we discovered, was more than culinary indulgence (we were fortunate to go along with someone who knew every hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar/inn and their specialties) as it helped us rediscover Madrid all over again — of people on the prowl determined to squeeze every drop of fun they could chance upon in the colourful restaurants and shops of the city.

One of the popular stops on the tapas trail is Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records), which dates back to 1725 and enjoys the status of a museum of sorts. Ever so often we would stop in our tracks and listen to a quartet give a stirring musical performance — no, not your street corner artistes scratching out faltering tunes, but gifted musicians. We joined rivers of gaily dressed humanity strolling down narrow streets — gesticulating, talking and discussing issues passionately with their companions.

By midnight we were limp with exhaustion, bloated with all the tapas that we had foraged on even as we observed life swirling around us in colourful eddies. By the end of the tapas trail, we realised that Madrid is a city with a split personality: wild and fun loving after sundown and a shade more sober and artistic during the day.

Local legends
We had pounded the same cobblestone streets and plazas earlier that day, maps in hand; the sights and sounds of the city distracting us from the task of finding our way around. Church spires, gilded domes, compelling sculptures riding the crest of imposing monuments, ornate pillars, decorative archways and hidden friezes — Madrid seemed to delight in the fact that we were mesmerised by her beauty.

We browsed in the narrow alleyways that snaked through the oldest part of the city and came upon the convent where Cervantes of Don Quixote fame is said to be buried but no one is quite sure if indeed his remains are there. Since the nuns who reside here have taken vows of seclusion, no one is allowed inside. But there is another tribute to the famous Spanish author at Plaza de Espana where tourists pose with the bronze hero of his parody and his faithful escort while Cervantes looks on at his creations.

Other famous Spanish authors have been acknowledged in quaint ways: quotes from their books have been embossed in brass on the cobblestone roads that squeeze through the city’s Writers’ Quarters. We did not spend time pondering over these wise observations but we did stop to photograph the Zero Kilometre sign engraved in the pavement on the busy Puerta del Sol Square: all the highways in Spain are measured from this spot.

Later, we ran into Spiderman in his blue and red costume at Madrid’s famous Plaza Mayor, once the scene of bullfights and even executions. Though hopelessly out of shape, he was not as out of place as we initially imagined. In fact, he fitted right in with the carnival spirit of this lively city square. He was just one (admittedly, the one who first caught our fancy) of the many entertainers who did their special thing in the cobblestone courtyard encircled by brick-red buildings splashed with murals.

The human statues were show stoppers as they had signature ways of showing their appreciation each time someone dropped a coin in their hat: gargoyles gurgled in delight; a lady in period costume with absurdly enormous breasts did a little jig; a finely caparisoned matador waved his cape at an imaginary charging bull.

An assortment of musicians (the accordionist was awful) pumped out happy tunes for the tourists who soaked in the Spanish sun as they nursed their meals and drinks in the sidewalk cafes that traced the perimeters of the plaza.

Imagine our surprise when we came upon the ancient Egyptian Temple of Debod perched on a hillock. This magical shrine, we learned later, was gifted to Spain in gratitude for helping to relocate the temples of Abu Simbel which were under threat of being submerged with the building of the Aswan dam.

In the course of our amblings, we dropped in at the city’s famous Prado Museum, which houses the largest collection of paintings in the world under one roof and stumbled on Plaza de Cibeles where the Phrygian Goddess of Fertility sits on a chariot pulled by two lions. We browsed a lively marketplace housed in a building that once functioned as a mosque and later a church and found ourselves struggling with mixed feelings as we admired a palace believed to be haunted by the spirit of a young girl who had unknowingly married her long-lost brother. That evening we watched the sun set over Retiro Park, the city’s green lung splashed with blue water bodies.

The Royal Palace, the official residence of the royal family which is today used only for ceremonial occasions, was the perfect antidote for a tapas-hopping hangover. We walked through the elaborate gardens of this French-style palace — a shrine to indulgence and opulence. Gilded chambers brimmed with awesome treasures; ornate antique clocks, delicate Chinese porcelain, beautifully crafted furniture, rare paintings and crown jewels.

Of the many chambers, one had a sad tale to tell. In 1878, King Alfonso XII married his cousin Maria de las Mercedes de Orleans whom he had met a few years earlier and the duo had fallen madly in love. However, within six months of their marriage, she died of tuberculosis and the king was so overcome with grief that he decreed that no more celebrations be held in the grand hall in which they were married.

And since Maria de las Mercedes de Orleans died without bearing an heir (a necessary qualification for a wife to graduate to queen), she could not be buried in the palace grounds but was laid to rest in the Almudena Cathedral across the palace courtyard. On her headstone is inscribed: “King Alfonso XII’s sweetest wife.”

A quartet of street musicians playing a lively classic overture outside the palace grounds distracted us from our musings on the tragic story and sucked us into the whirlpool of a city that seems to be in a non-stop party mode.

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