Budget flying has its own special magic. Stansted Airport at dawn resembled Burger King on a rowdy English Saturday night. Gangs of excited hens and stags preparing to take Europe by storm. The shops weren’t selling bottled water in normal sizes, only the flavoured kind which leaves the mouth like a pot pourri of aspartame and imitation peach. My 36hr trip to Madrid was already running 2 hours late.
Once you enter the parallel reality of the cheap European flight, count nothing as given. If they could, they’d put a slot machine by the airplane loo. The surprise freebie was the leg room at the front of the aircraft: a perk after the organised fight for a seat. The airline’s extreme economy also appeared to apply to runway metrage. When the plane touched down in Spain, it seemed to halt in under a minute, the braking so hard, we were all pushed forward like crash test dummies, stomachs in mouths.
But the destination more than made up for it, Spain’s capital: a great old smokey melting pot with a pulsing centre. Even the metro map resembles a heart, with veins leading off into the suburbs. The view as we landed reminded me of a film where Penelope Cruz, I think, and a newborn baby, traverse the capital on a bus. She holds him up to the skyline so the city is the first thing he sees. ‘Look!’ she exclaims in her beguiling accent,’Madrid!’
I am in the middle of writing a novel set in the city and my trip was mainly to see if its tree-lined thoroughfares had changed since I was last there. Madrid has its own vibrancy. The directness of daily interaction which years ago felt brusque, had softened. Perhaps it was the searing temperatures, streets sizzling like fresh croquetas. Everyone seemed to have time for a chat.
Here are my three faves in the heart of a city which doesn’t stop beating:
Authentic local dishes: Despite being miles from the coast, Madrid houses the freshest seafood in Spain. They say an ancient route from La Coruña ferries it in regularly, ostensibly for the king. I certainly felt I was eating like one! The tapas too: raciones, pinchos (still struggling to differentiate the size margins) patatas bravas, alioli, beans, every type of paella – with its own special menu in some places – and efficient no-nonsense castillian service.
Amazing art: As in many capitals, diverse barrios sit cheek by jowl. I was staying in colourful Atocha. Turn the corner and you’re on Paseo del Prado, an avenue of huge plain trees, grand arches and three astonishing art galleries. I made a beeline for the Thyssen, my favourite of the three. On its pink walls in a series of subtly lit spaces, it houses a private collection spanning Belgian portraiture, old lit up scenes of Venice by Canaletto and into cubism. I had gone to view a painting I hoped was in the same place: the magnetic stillness of Rothko. It was.
The noise of it all: The city speaks in sounds that form a symphony to the city’s occupations. Wait at a traffic light and a bird will coo from the lamp-post telling you when to cross. The s’s of madrileños are thick in sentences which end with a frank up and down. In the metro, the announcers are a duet of recorded voices, ‘Proxima Estacion:’ says the man, with a woman naming the station in a commentary that changes with the city above. Buskers range from the lone saxophonist to Peruvian panpipes and even an organ grinder transporting the pedestrian zone to the 19th century.
It truly sinks in that I’m leaving Madrid’s unique cacophany when, waiting to re-board the budget delight, I sit at our gate listening to the announcement. First, the emotion of hurried Castillian: ‘Su vuelo puede sufrir cambios,’ (Your flight may suffer changes). Then a plummy English gent in restrained Anglo-Saxon: ‘Your flight may be modified.’ I’m heading home.