I arrived in Madrid in December 2012, in time to celebrate the bleakest Christmas the city had seen in a generation. Capital and country were reeling from a series of shocks that had brought Spain to the brink of ruin. Six months earlier, a slow-burning banking crisis had blazed out of control, forcing the government to request billions in rescue aid from its European partners. Spain was in recession and suffering an unemployment crisis that would see the jobless rate peak at 27 per cent a few months after my arrival.
Reminders of the nation’s desperation were everywhere. On days when I took my son to kindergarten we would pass a long line of people — not all of them poorly dressed — waiting outside a church-run soup kitchen. Walking to my office in the morning, I would find more and more shops boarded up. Inexplicably, the tiny store that sold and repaired mechanical typewriters held out, defying both the economic downturn and technical obsolescence. Then, one day, I found that it, too, had gone out of business.
The city suffered but it kept going. Recovery came, eventually. Yet even at the worst moments of the crisis, Madrid never felt like it was staring into the abyss of social collapse. Families helped each other. Communities rallied. People continued to treat each other with the decency and empathy that make Spanish society so admirably resilient.
There was anger, to be sure, but it was directed at people you saw on television, not in the street. Spaniards cursed the corrupt politicians and the reckless bankers who had created this mess, and those merciless austerians in Brussels and Berlin who were telling them how to get out of it. But I never saw a bad word directed at the young west African migrant selling pirate DVDs outside my house, or the foreign lady begging outside my local supermarket. Neighbours would greet them every morning, like people who belonged to the barrio. Madrid, and the country at large, came through the crisis with reserves of solidarity and grace that were at times hard to fathom, and harder still to forget.
After four-and-a-half years in the Spanish capital, I am leaving Madrid and moving to Berlin with my partner Ana, a Spanish journalist, and our five-year-old son Tom. I am looking forward to the chance to write from the nerve centre of political power in Europe. But I am also keenly aware of what we are about to lose: Madrid is a wonderful place to visit, but a better place still to live in.
Of all the big capitals in Europe, it is probably the most relaxed and unhurried. It is a city of long lunches and long nights, a city where people walk slowly and stop frequently, with none of the stand-right-walk-left efficiency that has been bred into the denizens of London or New York.
Madrid is a place where people know you — and make you know them. The fishmonger remembers your partner had a knee operation and wants to know about her recovery. The waiter remembers how you like to drink your coffee. The office receptionist knows which football team you support, and how far he can tease you after a weekend defeat. The garage attendant knows your son’s favourite cartoon character and has saved some stickers as a gift. Everyone advises, argues and talks. Everything is everyone’s business, for good and for bad. Mostly for good, I think.
In our case, this daily swirl of relations took place right in the centre of Madrid. Having spent five years as foreign correspondents in the Middle East, Ana and I were keen for full-on big-city European life. We had loved the beauty and professional excitement of Jerusalem, our base, but missed the many things that make a continental capital so rewarding — the bars, the restaurants, the cinemas and (far too occasionally) the concert halls and clubs. We found a large apartment in one of the late-19th century buildings that dominate the centre. Our new home boasted a light-filled salon with bits of stucco and an old caramel-coloured parquet floor that creaked heavily but satisfyingly with every step.
Best of all, the apartment was just a minute’s stroll from Plaza del Dos de Mayo, a beautiful lively square in the heart of the Malasaña district. Among older Madrileños, the neighbourhood has a rather poor reputation, dating from the 1980s, when it was known for its wild nightlife and savage drug problem. Some of the bars and clubs from that era survive, but today they are non-smoking and frequented by a happy blend of veterans and youngsters. In recent years, Malasaña has emerged as something of a hipster heaven: if you are looking for vinyl records, vintage racing bikes or limited edition sneakers, this is the place to go. The general feel extends to the local playground, where toddlers play in the sand dressed in tiny Ramones T-shirts.
In the summer (which by northern European standards is most of the year) we would go to the square several times a week to play with our son, or to read the newspapers in the corner café, or to have a few beers with friends after work. On scorching summer nights, the public fountain would provide ammunition for extended water balloon fights. Introductions were easily made, especially when you arrived with a decent football. “Are you friends from school?” I once asked a couple of boys who had kindly let my much-younger son kick a ball with them. “No, somos amigos de la plaza,” came the reply — “We are friends from the square.” It summed up everything that is right about Madrid — a big, sprawling city but also a village where children make friends in the street.
I will miss many things about the Spanish capital: the food, the Prado museum, the elegant Retiro park in the centre and the snow-capped mountains to the north. I will miss the little restaurant near my office, with its white-and-green tablecloths and menu for less than €10. I will miss speeding through the Madrid dawn towards the splendid Atocha railway station, the starting point for so many reporting trips. I will miss the fact that beer is served ice cold and in tiny glasses, and that ham is not a food to eat but a universe to discover.
I will miss the long walk down the hill to the old Calderón stadium, the roar of the fans of Atleti growing louder with every step, as my son grips my hand a little tighter. And I will miss coming home long after midnight, and finding my neighbourhood still throbbing with people, the narrow lanes of Malasaña crowded with noisy, friendly, happy faces, determined to keep going until the night is over and — damn this crisis — the morning comes.
Buck’s favourite places . . .
Room 67 at the Prado
This room contains Goya’s “Black Paintings”, 14 of the most haunting works of Spanish art. They depict insanity, witchcraft, cannibalism, murder and even a pitiful drowning dog. Goya painted them almost two centuries ago, but they remain astonishingly provocative and fresh.
Spain’s decade-long building boom turned out to be an economic disaster but it did leave Madrid with some first-rate new parks. Madrid Rio is the pick of the bunch, a long stretch of green that runs parallel to the Manzanares river, packed with playgrounds, bike lanes, cafés, water features and the best slide-park in the city.
Stay away from well-known markets such as San Miguel and San Antón, which cater mainly to tourists. Instead, try the Mercado de la Paz in the Salamanca district or Barceló by Tribunal metro station. Both have a splendid array of stalls but also boast a few decent bars serving drinks and food.
● Madrid has one of Spain’s most favourable tax structures for foreign buyers and charges no wealth tax
● The city is home to football clubs Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. In the past four years, the latter has won the Uefa Champions League three times
● Highly regarded international schools in the city include King’s College, the International School of Madrid and the American School of Madrid
What you can buy for . . .
€500,000 A one-bedroom apartment with parquet floor in the Justicia area
€1m A three-bedroom apartment in the Barrio de Salamanca
€5m A seven-bedroom villa in La Moraleja outside Madrid, with a garden and pool
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com
Tobias Buck is the FT’s Berlin correspondent, and its former Madrid correspondent
Photographs: Luis Davilla/Getty Images; Alfredo Caliz for the FT
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