Visitors sometimes ask me, “Is the tap water safe to drink in Madrid?”, “Can I drink the water in my hotel?”, “Will I die if I drink it?”
The short answer? Yes (well, no to the last one).
The long answer? Yes, Madrid’s water is safe. You can, and should, drink it. In fact, the capital’s tap water is among the best (if not the best) in Spain. Only fools and horses drink bottled water in Madrid.
(Note: The tap water is potable throughout Spain. But it’s true that in some parts of the country it doesn’t taste very nice. In Barcelona, for example, the tap water tastes like it’s been filtered through your grandmother’s underpants.)
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
Now onto what I really want to talk about. I’ve found a crusade. Finally. I’ve been snuffling around for one for months if not weeks. Shawn in Seville has her bread charges (good luck to her!). But my holy war is thus: the regular reticence and sometimes refusal of Madrid bars and restaurants to give free jugs or glasses of tap water to diners.
Here’s a typical scenario. You’re lunching on goat’s leg in a Madrid restaurant with your husband/wife/priest. You’re halfway through a fine bottle of Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva. But something is missing. Water.
You catch the waiter’s eye. You ask for a jug of tap water. Now, this is what he will say: “I’m sorry caballero/señora, we don’t have jugs. We do have bottled water though.” Ha! He thinks he got you there. But what he doesn’t realise is that you knew perfectly well that he wouldn’t serve a jug of tap water. Because Madrid restaurants NEVER serve jugs of tap water (to their disgrace). Your jug request was merely a deft chin jab to soften the poor chap up. What you really want is a glass of tap water for yourself and your lover/priest.
So you ask for two glasses of tap water. And word choice is critical here. If you ask for just “water”, your waiter will bring a bottle that you will have to pay for. You must ask for “agua de grifo”, tap water.
Sometimes your waiter will simply nod and bring you two glasses of water. If so, you can relax and get on with your meal/life.
Other times, a monumental battle of wits will unfold.
You see, the waiter has been told by his boss to sell sell sell bottled water. Because the markup is astronomical.
So he may come straight out and say that they don’t serve tap water in this establishment.
Or, and I’ve actually heard this one, he may say, “We don’t recommend the tap water in this part of the city for health reasons.” At that point you smile (perhaps even chuckle to yourself) and inform him that Madrid’s tap water is cleaner than a baby’s bottom (hang on…), and that you drink nothing else. In fact, it may pay to mention that Madrid’s tap water is so pristine, you even shower in the stuff.
Or, and this happened to me last week, he may agree to bring you a glass of tap water but then appear with a bottle of water and a lame, muttered statement that they don’t do the tap variety. Before you can react, the plastic top is off, and your glass if half full (well, half empty).
Curiously, the classier the place and the more expensive the food, the more likely you are to be refused tap water (kinda like free wifi, I guess). And the more likely you are to be made to feel like a dirty, penny-pinching tap-water-drinking pleb. And the more likely those around you will be drinking bottled water because they think it’s a mark of a distinction.
But it’s not. If the tap water is good, then drinking bottled water is an act of economic and environmental terrorism.
Remember: you are a gourmand. And gourmands drink tap water.
SO, WHAT DO YOU DO?
So, what do you do if you’re refused your God-given right? Screw up your face, puff out your chest, slam both paws on the table and insist on tap water. Make a scene. Demand to see the manager. Froth at the mouth. Shake violently. Get naked.
OK, maybe don’t get naked. But make your displeasure known.
Or, if you’re not feeling fighting fit (or you’re on a first date and you’re saving the naked-getting until later), then simply mumble “fachas” under your breath, eat your meal in silence, sip your bottled water through pursed, chapped lips and vow never to return to the restaurant again. I’d also suggest calling them out on Twitter.
And feel snug in the knowledge that you are in the right. Because as Jesus said, “No man should drink bottled water alone, or at all if possible.” Don’t look for the quotation in that dusty King James edition on the shelf. The line (commandment?) was expunged from most Bibles in the early 17th century due to fierce lobbying by the (then nascent) bottled water industry. But that, as Conan (the barbarian, not the comedian) said, is another story.