The Bear of Madrid

One of the first things we read about Madrid in our guidebook was that there was a statue of a bear in Puerta del Sol. When I looked at the map of Madrid, I knew I would cross this vast square multiple times. So we never looked for the statue, we just came across it. It is hard to miss, with the number of tourists standing around taking selfies. We had to stand in a queue to take our selfie.

Why a bear? The origins of this symbol are as obscure as the name of the city. All that we know today is that as early as 1212 CE, the soldiers of Madrid fought under a banner which showed a bear with the symbol of the constellation of the big dipper on it. Ten years later, a strawberry tree had been added to the coat of arms of Madrid, to assert the city’s ownership of forests around it.

Since I’d only seen wild strawberries growing on the ground before, it was a personal discovery that strawberries grow on trees, which may be too high for children to reach. It was also a bit of a stretch of the mind to imagine that strawberries grew around Madrid. The scorching heat that dogged our days in Madrid must then give way to cooler winters.

The statue in Puerta del Sol was unveiled as late as in 1967. The bronze and stone work is by the Spanish sculptor Antonio Navarro Santafe, who specialized in animal figures, and whose fame seems to rest mainly on two public sculptures of bears he made. Both can be seen in Madrid, Oso y El Madrono (Bear and Strawberry Tree) in Puerta del Sol, the other in the Parque de Berlin. It seems that he modelled both after a bear caught near Madrid and imprisoned in the zoo in the park of El Retiro in Madrid. I also found it interesting that Navarro Santafe renders the foliage with much less detail than the bear. On the other hand, my photos of real bears do not show the rippling muscles that this one has.

As you can see in the featured photo, Madrilenos never stop working on the statue. Apparently it was moved around inside the Puerta del Sol while it was being remodelled a few years ago. I took the photo as the square was being spruced up during the Madrid Pride events of 2017. In its unsmiling way, Madrid is quite a welcoming city.

The friendly San Miguel market

We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.

The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.

A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.

Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).

The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.

We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.

Temple of Isis in Madrid

The Ptolemic pharaohs of Egypt walked under the two arches that you see in the featured photo and into the temple of Isis (photo below). So did the Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Legend had that the goddess Isis gave birth to the god Horus in this temple. This structure was originally built over the site of a thousand year older temple dedicated to the god Amon. For over two thousand years, until 1968 this temple stood near the first cataract of the Nile. Now you can see it in Madrid, but the story is not the usual one of colonial plunder.

In 1960 when the Aswan high dam was being built in Egypt, the UNESCO made an international call to save many temples and cultural artifacts which would have drowned under the new reservoir. Spain was one of the countries which responded and lent a hand in saving the temples of Abu Simbel. As a sign of gratitude, the government of Egypt presented the temple of Debod, which was one of the smaller temples in this region, to Spain. It now stands in the Parc del Oeste near the royal palace in Madrid.

Reading that it would close at sunset, we reached the park early on a hot evening. For some reason the temple was closed. The guards could only speak Spanish, so we never understood why it was not open. Ancient and recent historical graffiti inside the temple has been studied extensively in recent years, and there are apparently augmented reality tools available to tourists who are interested in learning about them. Since the temple was closed, we could not take a look at these. We walked around the temple, took photos, and then went and sat in the shade along with the many Madrilenos who were trying to cool down.

This was our first afternoon in Spain and our Indian instincts were totally wrong. On a very hot day in India you would spend the afternoon indoors and venture out after five or so, when the sun begins to dip towards the horizon and the air begins to cool. Not so in Spain, as we discovered. It is so far to the north that the sun sets after nine. Five or six in the evening could well be the hottest part of the day!

A vertical garden

A wonderful stop while wandering through Madrid on a Sunday was the Caixa Forum, not far from either the Prado or the Reine Sofia museum. The Forum is a museum and a cultural centre, which holds contemporary and retrospective exhibitions. The building repurposes an old electrical station. The oxidised iron roof sitting atop the old brick walls of the electrical station give the whole a very contemporary look which is, nevertheless, in keeping with its surroundings. But the star of the show is the vertical garden next to it.

It was in flower when we walked up to it, a week and a half before midsummer’s day. The stunning garden has been designed by one of the modern innovators of this form: Patrick Blanc. It is such a beautiful idea that it takes you some time to figure out that there is a deep problem with vertical gardens, requiring much ingenuity to solve.

A garden turned on its side would tumble down due to gravity: the soil would slide down, and water would wash out whatever little remains. One solution is to use many little pots stacked one above another to build a larger version of a balcony garden. A different solution is used by Patrick Blanc. He prefers to staple synthetic felt on to a plastic plate mounted over the wall. Plants root themselves into the felt. The roots then wick up a nutrient solution that is dripped on to the felt.

There is a lot of interest now in vertical gardens, and new methods are being tried out. As you can see, it looks even more interesting than an ivy-covered wall.

On a slow Monday in Madrid

There is little to do in Madrid on a Monday. Most museums are closed. The main exception is the Reine Sofia, but The Family and I had been there a couple of Mondays back. So I crashed a film shoot (see the featured photo).

I walked about aimlessly. From the Opera I walked the length of the pedestrian Calle Arenal to the Puerta del Sol, where a gay pride banner was being set up. Then I ducked into the Corte Ingles at the corner to buy a bottle of wine and some olive oil. I walked to the head of the Gran Via, and then on to Plaza de Espana. It was a pleasant morning. Last night’s rain had cooled things down.

At the plaza there was a crowd of Japanese tourists, and I was surprised to find them posing with someone who looked Spanish. Other passers-by had also stopped to gawk. I saw the microphone and camera and realized that this was a film shoot. The actresses spoke in English. I sent the photos to my nieces, and since none of them could recognize the actresses, I guess they must be Spanish. Can anyone recognize them?

That broke the monotony. I walked on to the Royal Palace and back to the Opera to find a place for a small drink and a tapa instead of lunch.

What we learnt about Spain from a taxi driver

You may know this feeling: that our deepest insights into the world come from talking to a taxi driver. A colleague uses this method to predict election results, and is not wrong more often than right. I use this method to find out a little about any new country I visit.

This is hard in Spain, because most Spaniards do not speak English. In Madrid we had the luck to get into a taxi driven by a Nigerian emigre. He said he loved Spain because of the weather and the attitude of people even though it was not a rich country. The Family raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I shrugged a silent "No idea" in reply.

Later I looked at the web. Spain, like most of the rest of the world has been in financial shock in the last few years. It is certainly not in the world’s top ten economies. But is it rich or poor? I guess one way to judge is by the purchasing power of people. The taxi driver we talked to visited Nigeria every year, and had taken a vacation in Japan and India. So he was better off than any taxi driver we had met in China or India.

I decided to look at another measure: the per capita gross domestic product. This is the average economic output of each person in the country. Of course this is a very indirect way to measure the wealth of people, but it is indicative in some ways. By this count the USA tops the world with about 55,120 USD per head in 2017. The triad of UK, Canada and Germany follow closely, with 43815, 41098 and 40133 USD per head. France, Japan and Italy are also rich by this measure with 35,566, 34,715 and 29,605 USD per head. Of the world’s top ten economies, Brazil and China are distinctly middle-income, with per capita GDP of 8,508 and 7,944 USD respectively. India, with 1,490 USD per head is the poorest of the top ten economies of the world.

I could not find this year’s data for Spain. I had to go back to data from two years ago. Then Spain had a per capita GDP of 25,752 USD. This could make it poor by European standards, but definitely one of the richest in the world. Score one more insight due to chatting with a taxi driver.

Siesta in Madrid

I am told that life is now too hectic in Spain for an old-fashioned siesta. Schools let youngsters have a nap after lunch, shops shut for a few hours in the afternoon, and, as likely as not, keep open till midnight. Still, a real siesta? Unlikely.

Not always, I found while walking around in Madrid.

A wonderfully weird railway station

About the strangest thing that we have come to expect from a railway station is that it has a hidden platform which is not a whole number. That could be weird, but a railway station can be even more strange. You might not expect this of Madrid’s Atocha station. From the outside it looks like a simple building, not even a gargoyle in sight.

A garden inside Madrid's Atocha station

We entered through a side door, and exclaimed in surprise. We had expected the usual bustle and crowd. But in front of us was greenery. There were people with baggage waiting on benches. There was some walking about, but overall, there was a sense of peaceful waiting. "Where are the ticket counters?" The Family asked. "Where are the trains?" I tried to question in reply.

Turtles inside Madrid's Atocha station

As we walked around to look for such essentials, we came across something even more wonderful: a pond full of turtles. Who cares for trains when a station has such lovely flora and fauna! This has to be the best railway station I have ever seen,

Between Continents

I spent the Saturday crossing from one continent to another, probably overflying a third. I cannot tell because the flight data display was disconnected. Seldom does the tedium of flying for a day in an aluminium cylinder get broken by something happening outside the window. Break in tedium on a long flight But this time one had good reason to sit up straight in the chair. Another jet went screaming past us. I had just enough time to register the fact that it was trailing black smoke. I have no idea what happened, Whatever it was, it didn’t happen again for the next four hours of my flight from Delhi to Madrid.

Eventually, after a very long time, we passed over a harbour.
Clearly our long journey over the Mediterranean sea was to come to an end. Due to ongoing wars in parts of west Asia, flights from India to Europe now go west for a long time before turning north. So I came to the conclusion that we had seen the other jet somewhere over north Africa. Where was it? Why was it trailing black smoke? Was it a civilian or military aircraft? I think the only answers are guesses based on the fact that no passenger liner was reported to be in trouble during this time.

Spain is a deserted country. There are only 50 million people living in the half a million square kilometers which lie in the country. As a result it is mostly deserted. I saw this as we descended from the coast to the airport in Madrid. The first thing we saw this was in the emptiness of the land over which we had just flown. The photo above shows part of a river valley. In the photo above, you can clearly see a fan of tributaries merging into a single stream. The strange banding of colours you can see in the bottom half of the photo is due to polarizing glasses mounted on each window in a Dreamliner.

After about half an hour of flying over this kind of country, we seemed to pass over a cliff. On the nearer side of this huge cliff were forests and fields, and also an occasional lake. This was in total contrast to the barren land between the coastline and the divide. Now we began to slow and descend, and suddenly we were over summer’s bare fields and landing in Madrid.

New adventures begin now.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.