Postcard from Madrid: ‘The city rides on a footballing high’ | Travel

In the narrow streets surrounding our flat in the old heart of the Spanish capital an explosion of fireworks and cheers tore through the night, heralding Real Madrid’s victory over Liverpool in the Champions League final. Our solitary elderly neighbor above, whom we have seldom heard, broke into song: “Campeones, campeones, olé, olé, olé!”

As tradition dictates, the team’s fans then surged towards the nearby Cibeles fountain. Our building’s portero — doorman, rather than goalkeeper — sounded hoarse when he returned to work after the weekend. “Celebrating the great victory?” I asked. “Of course!” he replied. But then he checked himself and grinned: “But it was no big deal. We are used to winning.” His Madrid chuleriacocksureness, had momentarily slipped. El País newspaper ran with the headline “The infinite glory of Madrid”.

Real Madrid fans last week in the Stade de France, Paris

ALEX GOTTSCHALK/GETTY IMAGES

The victory was another sign, at least for supporters of Real Madrid, that God was back in — or at least edging towards — his heaven. The city suffered particularly badly at the start of the Covid pandemic and inflation and energy prices have rocketed. But now, like the horse chestnut blossom in Retiro Park and the roses and irises in the Royal Botanical Garden next to the newly reorganized Prado Museum, Madrid is experiencing vernal rapture.

Café terraces are as full as the foamy cañas (glasses of beer) that waiters bang down with panache on tables. The tourists have returned. The message that Madrid is open for business was broadcast early, when the pandemic was still a real threat. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative head of the regional government, won many local hearts and a resounding election in May last year by controversially going against the Socialist-led central government by keeping bars open with a slogan of “Freedom!”

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The capital’s libertarianism was not unalloyed. The pandemic led to much mask wearing, in part due to fear of contagion and police fines, and in part due to courtesy and common sense. But now the masks are slipping, obligatory only on public transport and in chemists and hospitals. For the first time in two years the feast day of San Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint, on May 15, was celebrated with as much gusto as in pre-pandemic years, with people dressing up in traditional costumes to enjoy live music and rosquillas, a kind of doughnut.

Since May 8 — and running until June 5 — Madrid has also been celebrating, once again full-bloodedly, the San Isidro festival, the world’s most prestigious bullfighting event. As a correspondent I have been sent a ticket for one of the corridas, with a ringside seat. Spanish friends have sent messages warning that a bull may land in my lap. One sent a photo of a massively horned bull leaping over the ring fence this week.

A parade in Madrid on the feast day of San Isidro

A parade in Madrid on the feast day of San Isidro

ALAMY

Surveys suggest bullfighting now divides Spaniards as much as the country’s politics. The recent temporary return of Juan Carlos, the former king, who was forced into exile two years ago by the government and by his son King Felipe VI over corruption investigations, has equally split Spain. The investigations were shelved this year, but Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, wary of public opinion, has refused to let him return full-time for now, saying that Juan Carlos owes Spaniards an explanation. Instead the former monarch came back for a sailing competition. When asked by a journalist if he would give explanations, he replied, “About what?” and laughed. As an unimpressed Madrid taxi driver said: “Que par de cojones, What a pair of balls.

In our flat the many sounds of a hale and hearty Madrid waft through our open windows: the chatter of the Catholic faithful queuing round the block to touch or kiss the crucifix of the Christ of Medinaceli in a local church; the window-shaking drumbeat as they process with the crucifix in front of packed crowds; and the sound of drunken revellers passing in the street.

And, of course, the din of drills from roadworks and apartments being renovated. Madrid is in a state of perpetual rebuilding that produces sanity-threatening levels of noise. Its centre point, the Puerta del Sol, has just been dug up again; city ​​hall claims the works will only last a year. Yet for all of that the capital remains more or less, in spirit, infinitely glorious. Olé, olé, olé.

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