It was 2004 when I first visited Madrid. I was on a high school trip with the French/Spanish club and our adventure happened to land just weeks after the train bombings that killed 191 commuters on their way to work. Every where we went in the city, security was tight. There was a barricade around the Palacio Real and soldiers with big guns guarding the entrances to all of the important buildings.
Although it irked me, because September 11th was so fresh on our national memory, I was excited to learn more about a country that seemed to welcome me at every corner. Spain called to me so intensely that I knew I would return to explore the country more in depth.
When I finally returned to the capital of Spain four years later, I remembered why the city felt so much more formal and stately than my home city of the year, Barcelona: Madrid is the ‘real’ España. There was none of the Catalan spoken I had learned to include in my daily vocabulary, mullets were not as plentiful, and the beach was missing. Plus, it was cold. I mean, it was December, but I was not prepared to wear a coat.
The pain of the past train bombings had worn into memory of everyday life in the city and I hardly thought of them as we toured the important buildings and museums. The Reina Sofía and the Prado nearly brought me to tears, while I shivered in my boots (shoes that would oddly distinguish my travel bud and I later that evening…) and wrapped my scarf tight around my shoulders.
Separating from the group, Amy (my travel goddess extraordinare) and I desperately tried to find a place to grab a bite to eat around 11pm, late even by Spanish standards. We finally found an adorable restaurant and immediately ordered a bottle of wine with dinner. Now maybe it was because of the travel or maybe we were just tired, but that wine got to us fast. In retrospect, I think she was trying to get me tipsy.
The plan was to meet her ‘friend’ for dancing after dinner. I loved dancing and, especially with the wine in my tummy, thought that it sounded like a splendid idea. So as we waited in Plaza España, she announced to me that she had only ever met this friend online and didn’t exactly know what he looked like. At this point, I got nervous. I wasn’t going to leave her alone because I worried for her safety, but my own personal security was at risk too.
When he came up and hugged us both, dos besos included, I felt much more comfortable hopping in a car headed to a discoteca outside of the city limits (you can bet that I noted every train station we passed and every police car I saw, just in case). Nearly 2am and we rolled out of the tiny car with a crew of madrileños staring at the boots that comprised my ponytail-style outfit. All I could do was laugh.
A few hours of dancing later and way too much ridiculousness to even share on such a lovely forum as this, we were headed back to our hotel. Madrid, although it will never quite be Barcelona, did not let me down in the least. Culture, wine and dancing made for the perfect second visit to the real Spain. Besides, there was the awesome market (el Rastro), the great shopping, and the killer meals to go around.