For the same reasons as in Athens, I’d expected Madrid to seem a little bit miserable. Weren’t both Greece and Spain in the European Union’s dog house for their disinclination to get their national debts paid? Weren’t both of them supposed to be enduring austerity to placate their German creditors? But Madrid seemed almost as prosperous as beautiful — and colder then either prosperous or beautiful. You’d never guess from its capital city in December that Spain is the country most loved by Brits fed up with the cold and dampness of their own country. Its frigidity was nearly as brutish as Berlin’s.
Our first day in town, we took one of those hop-on/hop-off tourist buses, and it, at least, seemed very austere indeed. In Berlin, I insisted that we kept going round and round the city because the prospect of getting off the lovely warm bus was too daunting to contemplate, but the Madrid version seemed not to have the heat on, and it was nearly as vindictively frigid inside as out. The pre-recorded narration advised us of the names of the architects and dates of completions of a succession of noteworthy buildings, and was so boring as almost to make us want to expose ourselves to the brutish cold again. I would estimate that at least 60 percent of the great, great many queued up to get into the Museo del Prado suffered hypothermia. Around the corner from the museum, a beggar lacking shoes was trying to get culture-lovers to drop a few eurocents into his rumpled McDonald McCafe cup, but few were doing so, and Dame Zelda fretted that he might lose a couple of toes to frostbite.
Noting that they intended to charge each of us 95€, and that their deluxe New Year’s Eve menus weren't exactly crammed with the vegetarian options on which she insists, I was able to persuade Dame Zelda not to have our last dinner of 2016 at one of the restaurants near to our gorgeous, stylish hotel. Instead, we trudged up Calle de Toledo to the La Latina area, and there found a modest, but very warm local restaurant with a charming, ebullient proprietor/server, no pretensions, and good food. While we ate, a quartet of English girls, one in a very short sequinned dress in which one less gangly might have caused traffic jams, fended off the pair of Belgian bachelors at the bar who apparently didn’t mind the prettiest one’s gangliness even a little. At meal’s end, we agreed that welcoming the new year in the nearby Plaza del Sol, in which we’d earlier seen mobs of machine-gun-brandishing policemen in bacalavas practicing their terrorism-discouraging glares, might be 20 glamorous and fun, but, because of the weather and the crowding, 80 unpleasant. We headed eagerly back to our hotel, and there, at midnight, watched the bombs bursting in air from our warm, comfortable room.
On the first day of 2017, we took ourselves on a little walking tour, and enjoyed the world’s most delicious hot chocolate (molten Heaven!) and churros at a place near the plaza we'd avoided the night before. Our considerable pleasure was slightly lessened by the guy who greeted us, if greeted us is the right word, when we came in. He made pretty clear that he resented our interrupting the exchange of texts he seemed to be conducting on his mobile phone. When I wondered if we might have a wee peek at the menu, he sneered contemptuously, and said, “Only chocolate and churros,” though we soon ascertained that coffee and croissants were also on offer. Our server fairly threw our churros and chocolate onto the table in front of us, but my own displeasure was lessened by the fact of his and other servers wearing beautiful white jackets, with gold buttons and braid epaulets, of the sort the captain on our 2008 cruise to the Caribbean had worn on Dinner with the Captain! nite.
Later, Dame Zelda elected to remain in our cozy, stylish hotel room catching up on emails on her tablet while I traipsed down to the river, which turned out not to be much of a river, but to be surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds, and traversed on one’s choices of bridges, one ancient, the other as modern as modern can be. As is my custom, I took a series of shadow self-portraits. I liked to imagine when I first began the series, in Wisconsin, in 2007, that they suggested that I’m cool and sexy and mysterious, but I have since realised they more eloquently suggest either that I lack self-esteem, or am too cheap to spring for a selfie stick.
I think both are probably true.