I’m sitting on the broad sidewalk outside Hotel Mediodia, right next door to El Brillante Restaurante.
It is a gorgeously sunny and cool early spring mid-afternoon in Madrid, right off the huge roundabout where the Paseo del Prado is spun off, left and right, into Paseo de la Infanta Isabel and Plaza (though it’s a street) del Emperador Carlos V.
Who knows what lies beyond them- streets here seem to change name every few blocks.
On my first go around looking for a seat, there were none- absolutely zero- among the some 100 chairs around 25 to 30 tables. So I walked left around the corner, turned left again onto the small street 150 feet away and walked over to the restaurant’s rear entrance, where I counted the tables there- exactly 28 – and found they too were all occupied, with all of maybe two or three empty chairs among the 100 or so there.
Sixty-some outdoor tables, and more than 200 chairs, and nowhere to sit. Madrid does love lolling away its afternoons over coffee and wine and beer and bocadillos on the countless sidewalk cafes.
Luckily, as I turned left twice again and rounded the other corner to return to the front sidewalk, a small round table had just cleared out, and I quickly sat down, feeling as if I were in some huge game of musical chairs.
Madrid is a city of low, grand vistas. Unobstructed views of buildings 300 and 400 feet in the distance across hundred foot wide boulevards, with the exception of the odd monument or fountain- sometimes both, standing between viewer and object.
Sidewalks that are 30 to 40 feet wide, with tall shade trees growing up from four foor squares cut out of the slate or stone, allowing water to the roots, and providing a place for dogs to pee and cigarette butts to land.
Center greens with numerous trees separate broad one-way streets each with four lanes of traffic.
This is Madrid Retiro, a sprawling area of the city directly east and just a bit south of Madrid Centro, a couple or three miles away, with it’s legendary plaza and the Gran Via .
A hundred feet away is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia, a major art museum. Yesterday in the plaza it shares with the Hotel Mediodia out back, there was a major rally for the Podema party. I watched from my top floor window as the second largest political party in Spain held a rally. For two hours more than 5,000 people cheered and chanted and waved flags as more than a dozen people spoke.
At the other end of the block is the Estacion des Artes subway entrance- one of them. Across the two broad avenues of traffic, maybe 500 feet distant, is the Atocha Train station where trains from near and far stop in Madrid.
Off to the left of Atocha if the magnificant Minestero de Agricultura building, four massive stories clad in red brick and cream stone and terra cotta.
Atop which sword weilding angels ride winged horses in honor of… something. Agriculture-related, I’d guess.
Maybe 2,000 feet to the east, is a massive park, once a royal estate, that allows you to forget you’re in a major city. Or any city.
More cultural, historical and natural treasure than I can recount is within a few hundred feet to a mile away.
In my immediate environment, all about me, the industrial, the commercial, governmental, human and natural worlds are woven seamlessly together into a marvelous tapestry of movement and chatter and noise under a soft blue sky dotted with cotton clouds. I search for a seam, a stitch, a dropped loop, something, and I can’t find one.
It is perfection. An unpainted Seurat work on a far grander scale. Something the band Chicago would have written a song about if they’d been to Spain in the early 70s. The foundation for a novel if Nelson Algren had ever wanted to step away from the winter gray of Chicago’s post WWII neighborhoods and draw inspiration from sunlight and wine and tapas and architecture that Chicagoans see only in their dreams, despite their pretensions.
I’m in heaven, or at least its suburbs.
Life here doesn’t happen in certain places, here and there; it happens all around. All over. Everywhere. All at once. Like a rich dye soaking into cloth.
I guess there are dicey neighborhoods somewhere, though I didn’t pass through one. I saw personal lack and broken people. I saw political dissatisfaction. But it is nowhere near what I’ve witnessed in Chicago.
An hour after returning to my room, I went down in search of something on which to spread left over Brie. Walking back to the front of my hotel, I stopped and stared at the facades of two buildings, their red-brown surfaces glowing like a Moroccan desert in the late afternoon North African sun.
Someone knew what they were doing when they selected the material for those two buildings.
Back up in my room, I opened the six foot window and let the sounds drift up from the plaza below and the streets beyond.
A mechanical rumbling somewhere off in the distance. Vehicular traffic hissing across the pavement in all four directions. A lone shout. Children’s joyous yelps as some game played out across the plaza. The dull, indistinct impact of an inflated ball on the stone pavement.
As the cool evening air wafted gently into my room, I felt a slightest hint of sadness at knowing I was leaving soon. Not Spain just yet. But Madrid. Retiro and Centro. the central city. This incredibly, uniquely yeasty, fulsome, both calming and exciting mix of the elegant and the average, the exceptional and the mundane.
Beauty of all sorts in every direction.
On the street, in the street, contained in parks and behind ornate walls.
And sometimes on walls.
Throughout an urban and cultural life that roils and rolls from early morning to late into the evening.
Unlike some cities and some some countries, Madrid never obesesses about being great. It doesn’t have to. It just places its greatness on display, day by day. More than greatness, ongoing magic.
I’ll miss it. But only for a while. I’ll be back.