I notice I've shorted Madrid. This isn't really fair. I like Madrid. Not, perhaps, as much as I like Barcelona, but I like Madrid. Looking back, all I've narrated of Madrid is pickpockets and squatters. I like squatters, and all, but if a city consisted entirely of pickpockets and squatters, I'd probably skip it.
Part of why I've skipped writing about Madrid is that when I've been there, I've usually been too busy to write a lot. One of those inconvenient things, sort of like how hard it is to have money and leisure at the same time.
Madrid has good restaurants, great nightlife, and (in the older parts of the city) quite a bit of good architecture, although from the nineteenth century on it runs to the bombastic, the oh, yes, we have so much money to blow on this building school of architecture, which can be fun but gets stale. Although one gets an initial impression of sprawl, almost everything interesting is contiguous (unlike, say, New York: who would ever find the Cloisters without being told in advance?) and much of it is interesting, indeed: great museums (the Prado, especially, is worth a visit to Madrid all on its own), some really cool neighborhoods (I could sit half the day at the Cafe Comercial by Bilbao Metro watching the scene), etc. Plus, like it or not, the country's transportation network centers on Madrid, so you can easily travel between Madrid and anywhere by any means of transport, unlike Barcelona, which is off in a corner of Spain, isn't entirely sure if it is part of Spain, tends to look more outward...
If Barcelona is New York in the 50s or Paris in the 20s, Madrid is more like London before Thatcher. The climate is lousy ("6 meses de invierno y 6 meses de infierno", 6 months of winterand 6 months of hellfire), but there is a lot going on culturally and the general sense of the place is optimistic. In the heat of summer, I'm told, the city adapts: everything moves outdoors and starts after midnight. I've never been there in summer to find out.
Even more than Barcelona, Madrid is a compulsory part of the Grand Tour. This is true not only of American and British teens (or belatedly solvent adults) "doing" Europe, but of touring musicians, touring art exhibitions, etc. If it's big and it's touring Europe, you will probably see it in Madrid. Barcelona might miss it.
I made a geographically absurd last visit to Madrid before I headed for Italy and Central Europe, mostly to visit Sonia and Luis and Scott and Katrina. Not that much to narrate. Had a good visit. While I was there, Atlético de Madrid won the national A-league championship in soccer. The Americans reading this can just think of the first time the Mets won the National League title and (if I remember correctly) went on to win the World Series, too. Atlético is distinctly Madrid's "second" team after Real Madrid, and their fans are the gonzos with the banners and the songs and all. Combine that with the fact that it just happened to be the festival of San Isidro (Madrid's patron saint) and you can imagine the chaos. Deep into the night, "Atléééti, Atlééééti, Atlético de Madrid" to the tune of a "Heil Prosit" I already knew too well from drunken Bavarians.
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