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Madrid smiles again

Paul A. Fabry Photographs by Elizabeth Fabry

Spirits are high again in Madrid, only several months after it suffered the Continent’s deadliest terrorist attack and an unexpected change of government. As one of America’s traditional allies, Spain is reassessing its role as a tourist magnet and leader in the European Union while downplaying the March 11 destruction.The first royal wedding in a century on May 22 was a welcome distraction. Crown Prince Felipe and his TV journalist wife were married with pomp at the Almudena Cathedral. Tulips and geraniums still decorated parks around the Royal Palace and the city’s famous fountains when my wife Betsy and I arrived a week after the celebrations.Fresh flowers were also seen at the Atocha railroad station to memorialize the 191 victims of the March 11 terrorist attack, which was as dramatic for Madrid as September 11 was for New York.

Arrivals at the Barajas airport are handled efficiently and quickly. A madrileño helped us find a taxi. The gentleman was quick to approve our choice to come here. “So many Americans refused to visit France when it objected to the war in Iraq as we did, but I hope your people will not shun Spain.”How could we? It is part of our history and an ally since 1492, we said.The first evening, Antonio and Teresa Trueba invited us to their elegant home in a residential area where the city’s wealth and heritage dominates. De Madrid al cielo, (after Madrid – heaven), we hear repeatedly. Antonio, the president of the Madrid World Trade Center, is confident that this youngest capital of Europe can “smile again.” The Truebas’ optimism is well-placed. While the national trauma resulted in the election of a new government, and Washington lost a close ally when Spain withdrew its military units from Iraq, Spain’s economy is the poster child of the EU.

“It is nonsense that Americans would now go elsewhere. In fact, 53 million tourists are expected in Spain this year and very few visitors canceled out,” Antonio says as we toast our old friendship with French champagne. Uniformed Central American maids serve jamon de pago. A serious dinner in Madrid must start with this hard-to-resist dried dark red ham from acorn-fed Seville pigs. The conversation turns to terrorism. It seriously complicates the integration of the large Muslim minority in Spain, but Antonio feels that a generous spirit will prevail. After all, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony in Iberia for centuries. But in the crowded city, which once was a Moorish fort, Islam carries different meanings. Cordoba, the capital of Muslim Spain, endured for some 500 years from its capture in 711 until Ferdinand III drove the Moors out of their Iberian domain, including Toledo and the village that is today’s Madrid. Islam is still well understood and tolerated in this Catholic country and the excesses in the Middle East are interpreted as religious nationalism.As warm breezes sweep down on the wide avenues from the Guadarrama Mountains on a bright day, we walk to the fabulous Plaza Mayor, once used for bullfights and royal festivals. It is packed with well-dressed young people with cell phones glued to their ears. Pretty girls in miniskirts mingle with older citizens in black berets. Matrons with canes, their reddish hair sprayed into towers, pass by and camera-toting Japanese tourists hurry after their guide’s flag while we sit at a café’s tiny marble table.

A line of tapas restaurants cater to the thousands of tourists who have invaded the square for centuries. Around the statue of Philip III in the center, one can hear a Babel of languages. Waiters try to explain food items in sign language. The expanded EU itself now unites people with 21 different tongues on the Continent – and they all seem to gather here.Just a few steps down from a corner of the vast Plaza we go for dinner to Botin, listed as the “world’s oldest restaurant” by the Guinness Book of Records. It is famous for suckling pig and baby lamb, slow-cooked in 16th-century brick ovens and served on three art-crammed floors packed with tourists. Myth has it that Goya was a dishwasher at Botin before he started painting. More credible is the restaurant’s claim to have been Hemingway’s favorite.We visit parts of Spain every year. The transition to a socialist regime made the capital an important stop for appraising the country’s new role in Europe. The wealth and self-confidence in today’s metropolis of 3 million is a far cry from the Franco years or the days when Madrid was a no man’s land between the Christian North and the Islam South.After visiting the 1764 Royal Palace, full of excesses and featuring a grand armory, we walked to the nearby Café de Oriente for a late dinner one evening (all dinners are late in Spain). In its century-old barrel-vaulted downstairs restaurant, which was a convent ages ago, the Basque-influenced crab-shrimp-clam dish was Betsy’s favorite.

Madrileños are demonstratively pleasant to visitors and everybody proclaims to have relatives in America. Still, a storekeeper jokingly said, “Just don’t criticize us for leaving the mess in Iraq for you to clean up.” Right, we thought, but we were also reminded by friends that Madrid, once a favored city for exiled Arab radicals, North African revolutionaries and Near East millionaires, is now feared to be a staging ground for terrorists. This is now the self-proclaimed “brave new Spain … modern, tolerant, cultured,” the dynamic new prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced. The newspapers are full of his revolutionary proposals – legalizing gay marriage, ridding schools of Catholic dogma, strict separation of church and state, eradicating sexism in Spanish society and fighting criminal machismo. To start with, half of his cabinet is female.Old-style machismo is gone and the nation’s young leadership is becoming a guiding force in Magna Europa. But the radical pronouncements sound unnecessary to me. Ever since Franco’s departure, Spain has been developing fast and is an example of social liberalism. Still, the open clash with Catholic doctrines is new in this basically conservative nation. When the prime minister went to Rome in June, it was no surprise that Pope John Paul II warned him not to let the country stray from its Christian origin.

To fall into the rhythm of life here, we strolled along the crowded Calle Mayor, the medieval part of town with Mudejar-style architecture and remnants of the old Moorish quarter. The Renaissance and Baroque areas are still referred to as “El Madrid de los Austrias” because they bloomed when Spain was part of the Habsburg Empire. Another walk took us to Bourbon Madrid. When the French royal family took over the Spanish crown, the city grew to its highest period. Visits to the museum district around the grandiose fountains of Cibeles, Apollo and Neptune are on everybody’s list. The lush green park with classic statuary of the Paseo del Arte leads to the Prado, the town’s top attraction. After a major expansion this year it will include new galleries with a restored 17th-century cloister inside.The 185-year old Prado in itself is a weeklong job to absorb for the cognoscenti. But for those with a shorter attention span, like me, one day in the formerly dark and dusty corridors of this grand depository of paintings by El Greco, Murillo, Goya and Velazquez is memorable enough. And that is only the Spanish section. The Bruegel, Duerer, Bosch and Titian rooms require another visit. Close by are the Queen Sophia Museum of Art and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, both with extraordinary collections in lavish spaces and with relatively small crowds. We have devoted half a day for each and, of course, it was not enough.

To decide what to do and see here is difficult during a short visit. But the not-to-miss list should include the Archeological Museum at the rear of the National Library for its Moorish art section and the replica of the Altamira caves. As to the high art of living, two hotels in Madrid provide postgraduate courses. The Ritz and the Palace, which face one another across the Neptune Plaza, are just as formal and sedate today as they were years ago when I used to stay in their brocade-draped rooms. The lobby of the Ritz is still a theater of upscale social gatherings. The Palace is favored for aristocratic weddings, and their bars have been elite meeting places for generations. The city’s huge department stores are more typical to the wealth of the bourgeoisie. The confirmed fashion follower will find today’s Madrid a real treat. Equal to Milan and approaching the chic of Paris, the boutiques and mall areas are among the best on the Continent. But euro prices make them no cheaper than Fifth Avenue, New York.At sunset, we joined the crowds at lit-up fountains along the paseos lined with seedy bars. The smells from the myriad tapas bars where aromatic dishes swim in olive oil with eggplant, onion, garlic and bacon are inviting. Many are open 24 hours.

At dusk the area is a perfect backdrop for an Almodovar or Buñuel scene. Gypsy beggars in the square and the lament of a sole guitar are the movies’ extras. It is all part of a cultural mix that included Don Quixote, the missionaries, the inquisition, the conquistadors and Picasso.I had never considered Madrid a food city. Only recently has it evolved as one of Europe’s top culinary destinations. The newfound prestige of gastronomic Madrid comes from a dozen extraordinary chefs. Basque, Galician and Andalusian cuisine led the revolution. Then came several young Catalonian chefs with a fusion of country fare that has spread to London and Paris. The varied influences that entered the kitchens of Spain can probably be traced to Philip II, who made Madrid the capital and hired cooks from all regions of his empire. Ever since, local dishes are referred to as madrileño, which also designate the city’s people. The real world of modern Madrid lives parallel with the imaginary world that Cervantes created. This year is the 400th anniversary of “Don Quixote,” and the intrepid knight and his loyal sidekick are in the forefront of Spanish life. “Don Quixote is our prophet and the book a secular bible for all Spaniards searching for their identity,” said a student we met. “Some old politicians are still fighting the dark forces in the windmills.”

“We are modern businessmen and have learned to divide Catholic faith and politics,” Antonio Trueba says. And the economy seems to be leading political trends here. Spaniards also draw a dividing line between the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. After all, they had lived with Islam for centuries. And North Africa is still next door.Paul Fabry’s collection of travel essays, DETOURS (www.traveldetours.com), many of which appeared in the Aspen Times Weekly, was published by AuthorHouse with photographs by his wife, Elizabeth. They divide their time between Aspen and New Orleans and can be reached at paulfabry@aol.com


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