Madrid: Spectacular but Seedy

Majestic Madrid

Where does a person go after Athens, Greece if the choice is theirs to make? Probably somewhere magnificent, like Madrid, Spain, because why go from the birthplace of western culture to some crap-hole?

I personally don’t have “the” answer to such a question, but I do know that, after a very busy day in Athens, my dear travellin’ buddy (and bestess friend) and I were bound for Madrid. Why, you may ask? Because to go from Serbia to Costa Rica as unvaccinated scum, getting to San Jose via Athens and then Madrid worked out best for us. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that doing what works best for us is always the primary option. First-class airfare while we’re at it, thank you very much.

So, the reason for our short visit to the capital of Spain was convenience. And though Madrid has a few glaring foibles, the experience was certainly worth it.

Madrid is a beautiful old lady indeed. It’s been the capital of Spain since the fifteen-hundreds. It boasts everything a venerable city of its pedigree should: grand plazas, palaces, museums, galleries, gardens, and much more. Eateries abound, alongside the shops, pubs, parks, hotels, and fabulous architecture. Madrid is certainly something to behold.

Out and About in Madrid

But, unfortunately, Madrid is also badly afflicted by some of the more unsavoury maladies affecting nearly every big city on the planet, especially the Latin cities I’ve been to. To an unusual degree, thieves, hustlers, drug dealers, and scammers abound. Watch your valuables and trust no one, especially after dark.

I know these things exist pretty much everywhere, but in my experience (which is now rather considerable), the blatant acceptance of the thievery and shadiness I saw in Madrid surpasses everywhere else I’ve ever been. And it seems as though it’s an unwritten code that every foreigner is fair game. I have yet to see Barcelona, which is apparently worse, but I imagine I’ll find out for myself eventually.

I think what caught me the most off guard about the seediness of Madrid was that, in the areas we frequented, it didn’t seem like one would have to be concerned with such things. The streets were clean and beautiful, there were upscale shops, pretty restaurants, and respectable-looking pubs and bars everywhere. Usually, crime, in all other similar environments I’ve been to in my travels, is rare to non-existent.

In many of the major cities of Latin America, you almost expect to encounter issues, and it looks like a possibility in just about every neighbourhood, but downtown Madrid, on the surface, seems like it should be exempt from such things. Or at least like it would suffer them to a much lesser degree. I felt less of a need to be on guard in the Laureles area of Medellin, Colombia than I did in Madrid.

My wife was pick-pocketed inside of a convenience store by an obvious family member of whoever owned the place. If it hadn’t been for a Tanzanian gentleman who was present at the time and happened to be very familiar with the city, my wife’s thousand-dollar phone would’ve remained in a drawer beside the cash register until after closing time, I’m sure. As it was, when the Tanzanian man called my wife’s number and the phone’s unique ringtone began, there was no denying anything, and the woman behind the counter resentfully had to hand the device back.

I can’t remember the name of the shop, or I would mention it. But I do remember that it was run by a family of Chinese immigrants who showed absolutely zero remorse, or even shame, after being completely busted.

In the four days we spent in Madrid, the phone incident happened; we were approached by hustlers at least twice (we told them to piss off, of course); and while we sat in the James Joyce pub (which we loved), we learned that an Irish family who had just arrived to town had had their rental car smashed into and robbed of anything that wasn’t bolted down. It was parked a few meters off of a major thoroughfare.

I’m not sure if that Irish family got a stitch of help from the police. It didn’t sound very promising at the time. Nobody seems to care at all if bad things happen to foreigners. I’m not sure if they care if bad things happen to locals either, but they definitely don’t care about tourists.

Another thing I feel I must mention, as we are such foodies, is that the cuisine of Madrid didn’t really do much for us. Perhaps it’s just that we didn’t dine at the right places, or order in from any either, for four entire days. Actually, there were a couple of decent eateries, but generally, the food in most places wasn’t very good. I’ll not say more about it though until we return for a longer stay (at this point you might be wondering why we would do that, but read on).

With the most obvious issues we had with Madrid now addressed, I will say that most of the people we met there were quite friendly. Some of them were actually rather awesome. And our little room at Hostal La Vera was an absolute gem for what it was, though the check-in procedure was a little clumsy. It’s in a great location, however, and it was clean and well-priced. It was definitely the best 1-star hostel/hotel I’ve ever stayed at. It’s the only one-star hostel/hotel I’ve ever stayed at after the age of about twenty-five, but it was the best.

Hostal La Vera

The city of Madrid is undoubtedly beautiful. The architecture alone is worth a visit, but it’s got more going for it than just fabulous buildings. Something we really appreciated about Madrid was the prevalence of so many outdoor green spaces offsetting any feeling of concrete jungle that might otherwise exist without them. Trees, parks, and gardens abound, set perfectly throughout the city for all to enjoy, which we did.

A couple of hours at the Real Jardin Botanico, which sits beside the Museo National del Prado, was relaxing time well spent. The garden and the park are both located just outside the Parque del Retiro, on which the Palacio de Cristal sits. All of that is in just one of the many, many areas of overwhelming interest throughout the city.

Real Jardin Botanico, between seasons, but still beautiful.

Though we were in Madrid for less than a week, and there’s enough to keep a motivated couple very busy just in the downtown area for weeks or more, for us, there were two beacons that shone the brightest.

After visiting the Real Jardin Botanico, my partner in crime and I decided to pop into the James Joyce for some, what we assumed wouldn’t be, Irish food and a pint. The James Joyce is an Irish pub (obviously) in Spain that’s owned by an actual Irishman. A gay one to boot. If all that’s not reason enough to check the place out, what more do you need? He’s a character-and-a-half and he takes no shit from anyone (which is sort of an Irish thing in general). He had us laughing half to death more than once.

Stopping in for a couple of pints at the James Joyce

Two meals (the best food we had in Madrid), countless libations, and a lost number of hours later, we got an Uber to take us away, for our own good. The Uber only took us as far as El Imperfecto, but that was within stumbling distance of home.

Our other favourite spot was El Imperfecto, a tiny little hole-in-the-wall pub on Plaza de Matut. It’s a chill, artsy little place that serves killer cocktails and plays great music. The bartenders were exceptionally cool, and we spent two of our four nights there. I’m sure that it will be a regular haunt when we return to Madrid.

El Imperfecto? maybe, but it was perfect for us

El Imperfecto didn’t serve food when we were there, but there was a restaurant right across the tiny little lane that seemed to stay open fairly late. We didn’t eat there, but it wasn’t right in the middle of tourist central and seemed frequented by locals, so it may have served better food than most of the places we dined at in Madrid.

The day after discovering the James Joyce, we hid indoors, nursing our livers back to health. Irish pubs can do that to a person. Spending an entire day inside, hungover, with only four days in a city like Madrid may seem like a waste, and maybe it was, but more than likely, at that point, we needed the rest anyway. That being the case, any suffering that followed the previous day’s pleasantness was well worth it. No regrets.

So, even though the seediness of some of the less desirables in Madrid is a bit too overlooked by police and locals alike, four days is nowhere near enough. I’m not actually sure how much time is enough, but when we’re in that area of the world again, we’ll most likely set aside a couple of weeks to get better acquainted. Only this time, we’ll sew any valuables under our skin, tuck samurai swords beneath our coats, learn some lethal combat techniques, and have a getaway car standing by at all hours, ready to whisk us off to our subterranean lair at a moment’s notice.

All in all, Madrid wasn’t a bad way to spend our last few days in Europe before heading off to Costa Rica, which, now with hindsight being so clear, we could have avoided altogether. Just turning around and heading back to Albania, or Greece, or perhaps visiting Croatia, would have been far better options. I hear Sicily is nice in the winter.

Ah well. C’est la vie. Life can’t be perfect all the time.

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