playing tour guide in the city of “irrepressible fizz”

Photo courtesy o Jose Maria Cuellar, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Jose Maria Cuellar, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

“Madrid’s main selling point is the friendly, anarchic energy of its urban culture. Compared to Rome, its history is short and its monuments modest. The city also lacks the grand planning of Vienna or Berlin’s sense of space. What Madrid does have is an irrepressible fizz, with an eclectic architecture that includes medieval alleys and renaissance squares but also art deco skyscrapers and slightly hysterical buildings that resemble Belle Époque Paris on steroids. While its main street is often said to recall New York’s Broadway in all its pre-2000s grungy energy, around the corner there are quiet, village-like corners apparently populated only by old women walking toy dogs. And although it has one of the grandest royal palaces in all Europe, it’s always been a fairly scruffy place and none the worse for it. Nowhere else in Europe quite matches its contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism, its combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy.”

Feargus O’Sullivan

In each of the last three months, I have played the role of tour-guide-extraordinaire to three combinations of visitors from the motherland.  Each set of guests, made up of both friends and family, relied on me to design and execute their itineraries–from sunrise ’til sunset, from sightseeing to dining, from transportation to communication.  All of these visitors combined their trips to Madrid with visits to other Spanish cities, including Barcelona, Seville and Toledo, but I made it my personal responsibility to prove to them that Madrid is número uno, embodying the best that many of the others have to offer.

The thing about the Spanish capital is that, like a fine wine that gets better with age, Madrid gets better with familiarity.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with charm like other European cities, but it drips with quirkiness and regality and magic as long as you know where to look.  Remembering how not-won-over I was during my first visit here as a tourist almost four years ago, I did everything in my power to give my visitors the express version of the Madrid that one knows and loves after living here for some time.  The task of putting together 3-, 5- and 6-day itineraries that capture the city’s essence forced me to think critically about what makes it so special, and what experiences one must have here to be truly aware of its greatness.  I raved to my guests about Madrid’s liveliness, gastronomy and people; its traditions, openness and public transportation; its compactness, diverse neighborhoods, and sense of history.  As they meandered through the bustling avenues of Gran Vía and calle Alcalá, the winding streets of La Latina, the hipster vibe of Malasaña, and the historical heft of Madrid de los Austrias, it appears I was successful in converting them to Team Madrid.

And who could blame them?  What more could one ask for than a city described as possessing an “irrepressible fizz” with a “contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism” and a “combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy?”  Very little, I tell you.  Very little.