Spain endears me


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Category: International 28 Nov 11


What endears me to Spain (among many things) is that for a people who have spread the Spanish language to over 500 million people worldwide, is that almost everyone I have met so far speaks English. This makes me horribly ashamed of my horrendous Spanish which sadly involves much pointing, and rudimentary French. Most Europeans are admirably bi- and trilingual which allows them easy access into one another’s countries (Including the one half naked Frenchman from my hotel with whom I had an unexpected encounter). I blame Spain which makes my brain go into overdrive. After a week, I worked up my courage to ask the concierge at our hotel in Madrid for directions in Spanish. I wanted to surprise my siesta-happy husband with a SIM card for my phone and wanted to pick up some fruit and cheese along the way.

But having mixed up right with left—derecha, izquierda (or is it the other way around? Picking up my pace in the November chill, I was distracted by the sounds and sights of the narrow streets with glimpses of wide tree-lined boulevards dotted with cafés; catching glimpses of a palace courtyard, or entering a tall stony church with heart stopping flickering candles representing human hurt and hope, against the eternity of stained glass windows; and once, hearing both priest and confessor practically shouting in Spanish, saviour and sinner carried away by passion and penance, pushing past groups of high spirited girls, boots clicking on cobblestones, running down some ancient steps under a giant ancient arch; looking up at rows of balconies on narrow streets, on top of its many bars and cafés where the young and old men gather to smoke, where life looks outwards rather than inwards. Very soon, with my zero sense of direction I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

I remembered the guide who told me the best way to see cities in Spain was to “get lost.” Back then, I was peeved, but now understanding. I turned my iPod on to the Travieso Carmesi–De la Parra conducting Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, melted into Madrid and got thoroughly lost. Madrid, immortalised in the movies of Pedro Almodóvar spreads in concentric circles outwards from its position as the centre of Iberia, starting with its crowded medieval narrow cobble stoned streets and squares as its heart, spreading to sprawling suburbia as witness to the development of the city over the centuries. It is from this centre in Sol that all distances are measured. In the brisk November chill and a strong double espresso, I began practically levitating thinking it would be easier to film the city from a helicopter, starting with its centre rather than writing about it.

It’s easier, even in the imagination to have a companion when strapped onto a helicopter and movie cameras. We swooped down on The Puerta del Sol recently, the seat of the indignados movement. Felipe II moved the seat of the capital to Spain simply by virtue of its geographical position at the centre of Iberia, from which he could receive the fastest post and communication from every corner of the nation. Zoom onto a pavement outside the clock tower south of the square; a stone slab shows “Kilometre Zero.” It became the Habsburg capital in 1561. As its Friday, the narrow alleys in and around Plaza Mayor are so crowded that a Trini may mistake it for “las lap” on Carnival Tuesday.

Our imaginary helicopter is now hovering over Palacio Real de Madrid, the official residence of King Juan Carol and the Royal Family. It is built on the site of a 9th century fortress, an outpost of Muhammed I Emir of Cordoba. In 1561, at the height of Spain’s power, Philip II moved his court to Madrid, and lived here and each monarch made it more palatial. Its long facade, enormous courtyard, overlooking the city in lemony afternoon light does not prepare you for its unbelievable opulence. The apartments of marble, art, crystal, frescoes, tapestries, gold, silver, furniture, a chapel, a throne room, and a Grand Banqueting Hall with lush draperies and chandeliers, and decorated ceiling that is still used today for a state banquet; it’s bling times a thousand.

The Bourbon expansion continued in the 19th century with emblematic buildings; One spanning centuries of change is The Teatro Real, (Royal Theatre) home of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, and Opera house, a stately cream structure with arches, pillars and formal structure as distinguished as a gentleman off to a white tie banquet, wedged between two plazas, across the road from the Royal Palace. In 1850, the young Queen Isabella II dubbed it the Teatro de la Opera (opera theatre) which today has the reputation as one of Europe’s great opera houses.

I remember the thrilling tour by the Theatres press officer, the supremely poised Graça Prata Ramos, who took us deep into its underbelly, allowing us entry to a secret world: Fourteen floors that could simultaneously accommodate four operas, roomfuls of stage costumes, shoes, (many of which I was dying to try on), another where half a dozen people were strand by strand with hair from India, making an array of wigs (which I was also longing to try on), sets that glided and spun up, and down, rooms of practicing musicians, a magnificent lone pianist, all centrally controlled and managed.

Finally Ms Graça Prata Ramos escorted us to the pearl of this building from its highest central point. She smiles at our faces as we gape at a sea of red velvet seats which could accommodate almost 2,000 people, a drop curtain and around us, decorated ceilings and boxes for the rich and famous. We feel the full beauty of the modern acoustics of this historical theatre as we attend a concert of the Presidency of the European Community, led by Master Manniner.

During the break, with vino and tapa in hand, we walked around La Rotonda (alongside many Spanish students who get a 90 per cent discount for high art) which runs all around the building, made up of four large salons named after the streets can be seen from its windows: Carlos III, Vergara, Arrieta and Felipe V glowing gold with lamps, rich with precious art lent by the Prado Museum, which due to the shortage of space here, I can only say, gives Le Louvre stiff competition in its layout and art.

Even in the civil war which caused untold damage and led to 40 years of isolation, you can sense Madrid’s idiosyncratic style. But in the decades since, Francos death, guided by poet mayor, the late Tierno Galvan, whose creation of parks and gardens now ablaze with autumn gold leaves along its wide boulevards, cafes, whimsical life sized figures on balconies in 18th century dresses holding the centuries close, opening a vital ingredient of the movida madrilèna “the happening Madrid.”

Here and there, we see queues for food joints but that doesn’t take away from its quirky sense of style.
We now have a bird’s eye view seeing a thoroughly modern European city of over four million people, as comfortable with the shiny new Reina Sofia museum of modern art where earlier we had seen Picassos famous Guernic, as they are with pockets of medieval buildings. We are back to earth now for some churros dipped in cafe con leche, in a crowded cafe with music that my 17-year-old would be familiar with.

In the cafe, I think, even the most practical Spaniard has the soul of a poet. I have been sitting in cafes, palaces, galleries, and offices with journalists, guides, politicians. One moment they are speaking with unflinching honesty about the drawbacks of their country in very practical terms, but the moment you ask them what they love about Spain, they say something I’ve had to ask them to repeat. “The light.” They say, “The light?” I ask. Yes. Look at it.

I look for it and find it. Here it is mother of pearl over the Royal Palace, deep gold over squares, airy white on botanical gardens, brushing the tops of autumn trees a fiery amber, cutting buildings in half with a delicate sun, casting long shadows on streets, blazing through a tiny window, its hues of the palest pinks, lilacs, hints of gold, white silver is everywhere. This is how I find myself in a daze after my long day (minus the Spanish phone) at the Vincci Hotel in room 109.

I find it ajar, smelling of smoke, and start shouting at my husband in less than ladylike language for smoking. I encounter a very amused, mostly naked Frenchman lolling and smoking on the bed sitting up with a casual “’ello?” hearing his laughter echo as I flee down the corridor to my own room numbered 106, thinking that anything is possible in Spain. Next week: Barcelona, Toledo, Cordoba, Francos Palace, Flamenco, a real Real Madrid star, the Cervantes Institute, tapas and finally, the Ghost of Casa America.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur