Madrid is wringing its hands. It’s wondering why the tourists aren’t coming. It’s concerned about its brand.
Branding a city is an unfortunate necessity. At its heart, it’s a dishonest exercise. A city can’t be encapsulated in a slogan. Jonathan Raban wrote that cities are plastic; that each of us creates our own version of the city we live in. And this is what makes cities such wonderful places – they’re not one story, but many.
But a brand needs a single story.
So what’s Madrid’s story?
When I first arrived three years ago I didn’t get the Spanish capital. I couldn’t make sense of it. There were no iconic touchstones – a Sagrada Família or an Eiffel Tower – to hang onto. But within six months I fell hard for the place. Yet I still find it impossible to say what I love about this city in one gasp.
To show you what I love about Madrid, I’d need to take you out. One night will do, a weekend would be better. We’d need to wander the broken, lamplit streets of the Barrio de los Austrias, while I talk your ear off about inbred kings and cloistered nuns, to squeeze into the Saturday night uproar of my favourite castizo La Latina taverns, to switch it up and go hipster in a Malasaña craft beer startup, to shoot the shit with brawny, mouthy Jesús (the ham man) in the Antón Martín market, to disappear into Conde Duque.
We’d hitchhike up to the Valley of the Fallen, that spectacular metaphor for Spain’s inability to untangle its vicious past and I’d show you Goya’s Drowning Dog in the Prado and tell you why it’s the best painting I’ve ever seen. We’d go off-piste Sunday morning in the Rastro, hitting junk shops and Gypsy stalls, tossing fish bones on the floor at Bar Santurce and choking on pigs’ ears and vermouth at Casa Amadeo. It’d be once around the Retiro’s fallen angel, and we’d stand on the rooftops over Plaza Santa Ana so you can see this ageing-imperial capital looks like a white village from the sky. Then we’d get blinded at my place on a bottle of Spanish wine that’s so good I couldn’t afford it in a bar.
Maybe I’m just a giddy New Zealander allowed to run riot in a big, old capital. Maybe I’ve fallen for the first European city that stretched out its hand.
But Madrid has a dirty, rumbling energy. An electric vein. And while its people might seem a little taciturn and closed-mouthed at first, once you walk at their pace, they’re a blustery, generous and big-hearted lot.
I don’t know what Madrid’s story is. But I know what my Madrid is.