This last weekend, Helen and I walked along the Manzanares River further than I’ve ever gone to find the Parque Lineal Del Manzanares (Linear Park of Manzanares Park). It was my first time visiting the park and I was pleasantly surprised to discover a massive park filled with green spaces, sculptures, ponds, and people playing frisbee and enjoying other activities.
There was even a small amphitheater. I was reminded of weekends in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a similar verdant oasis in a bustling metropolis.
The Parque Lineal Del Manzanares, which is about an hour and a half straight south of my neighborhood, Puerta del Angel, is also home to La Dama del Manzanares (the Lady of the Manzanres), a towering bronze and steel sculpture of a woman’s head facing toward the city center of Madrid. It was designed by Manolo Valdés, a Spanish artist, and it is 13 meters tall (roughly 43 feet for my American readers).
Situated on the top of a hill in the center of the park, the platform on which the sculpture stands provides 360-degree views of Madrid, with Plaza de España visible in the distance. It offers one of the best views of the city I’ve ever seen. Although we were there before lunch and therefore weren’t around for nightfall, I have to imagine sunsets from that perch are absolutely breathtaking. Another time, perhaps.
Though the park has gone through major renovations in the last couple decades, including the construction of La Dama, the space where the park now exists has played a vital role through Spanish history. Ancient Roman ruins have been found in the park, and during the Spanish Civil War, the area was an important (albeit, ultimately unsuccessful) point of resistance against Franco’s forces. Though I didn’t specifically see any, there are apparently still trenches and other remnants of the war in the park.
Up until last Sunday, I had never heard of either Parque Lineal Del Manzanares or La Dama, which is proof that, even after five years in this city, there are still countless new discoveries to be made.
During the 10 Cities project, when I would leave each city after a year, I knew that I had only scratched the surface of those homes and there was still plenty more to see and discover. This last weekend was a fresh reminder of why I love cities: they constantly offer new experiences. They are a source of perpetual reinvention.
It’s reassuring to know I could live in Madrid for the rest of my life–I very well might–and still be confident that I haven’t seen it all. Who knows what the next weekend of exploration will uncover?
I have now lived in Madrid for half the length of my 10 Cities project. I’ve been here for longer than any of the other 12 cities I’ve called home other than Lawrence, Kansas, my first home.
At the end of my fifth summer in Madrid, quite possibly the hottest summer of my life, I’m inevitably thinking back on the the half-decade I’ve lived in Spain. Boy, a lot has happened. I’ve made friends, lost friends, traveled to half a dozen new countries, taken thousands of photos, finished writing two novels, gotten COVID-19, seen multiple friends have babies… Oh, and, of course, I met (and pareja-ed) Helen. DWOML.
Meanwhile, back “home”, so much has happened since I left the United States – at least two plagues and one coup – yet, here, time can sometimes feel at a standstill. Some months crawl by. I suppose that’s inevitable after having lived my life on a strict yearly schedule for a decade. Any year in which I don’t completely upend my entire existence is going to feel a bit more drawn out.
Which is, of course, intentional.
Slow Down Idiot
On September 1, 2015, the day 10 Cities/10 Years was officially completed, I went to an NYC tattoo parlor to get my final project-related tattoo: “Idiot, Slow Down.” Taken from the Radiohead song, “The Tourist,” the tattoo is a reminder to myself to stay still and not let an innate restlessness rob me of what’s right in front of me.
(It’s also frequently a phrase of great consternation to store clerks who see it peaking from my shirt and wonder who I’m calling an idiot.)
Since I’ve been in Madrid, I’ve gotten only one new tattoo, a Spanish translation of lyrics from “Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia. During a dark, post-project period, this song found me and helped keep me going long enough to travel to Spain and figure out a new path. These lyrics caught my attention immediately:
You said every road is a good road Between the next road and your last road
Like so many of my previous tattoos, those words (in Spanish: “Cada camino es un buen camio”) can change meaning based on context. I love the original idea conveyed in the song itself – which, in tone and melody, suggests a kind of bitter finiteness to living – but also, out of the context of the song, the words take on additional significance. There is no inherent right way to live, just so long as you stay on the road.
So, what makes a road “good”? The travel itself.
Will I get more tattoos here in Madrid? Almost certainly. Just don’t know what yet.
Living in Madrid
When I first arrived, I lived near Ventas in what is technically Barrio Salamanca with an assortment of American roommates, all of whom have now returned to the States for a variety of reasons. Six months into my life here, I went on my first date with Helen and we’ve been together ever since. I moved into her Malasaña flat, then, some months later, we moved to our current home.
I’ve now lived in Madrid’s Puerta del Angel barrio longer than I’ve lived in any home since my parents divorced and sold the family home. I was 17 when my mother and I moved into a small loft apartment for my senior year of high school. Since then, the longest I’d inhabited any dwelling before my current one was 2 years (a fact that can complicate matters when I have to verify my identity with banks).
Life in Madrid is relatively easy, for various reasons. The main one, though, is it’s cheaper than basically any other comparable city, certainly more so than all the US cities I lived in, other than perhaps New Orleans. I live comfortably without making work my end-all, be-all of existence. I realize I’m fortunate in that, and my circumstances are not all people’s circumstances. But, also, I spent my 20s eschewing anything resembling a career and I had plenty of people telling me I was going to regret that financial instability.
Now I have socialist healthcare, can travel to beautiful countries for a few hundred bucks, and work (mostly) when I want. I think I did okay.
There are aspects of Madrid (and Spain) that aren’t perfect – for one, there isn’t a word for “customer service” in Spanish. But that’s the constant give and take of life, knowing that there is no such thing as paradise, no utopia. You determine the things that matter most to you and hopefully you can place yourself in a situation where the good outweighs the bad.
I made countless choices in life to get to where I am, and the main reason I can be satisfied with where I am in life is because I made those choices. They weren’t made for me. There are plenty of roads I bypassed on my way to Madrid (often, the “right” roads), but the detours I took had some amazing scenery.
I don’t know. I’m here now. I’ve slowed down. I still travelfairlyfrequently, albeit as a tourist, not as a new resident. I’ve found a home, I’ve found a life with Helen. Beyond that, the future is unwritten, just as it was when I finally completed 10 Cities/10 Years and didn’t have a new destination in mind. However, unlike September 2015, when the sudden completion of a decade-long project left me feeling listless and lost, I feel content, no longer restless.
I’m not naïve. Problems can (and do) still crop up, both personal ones and ones beyond my control. The daily nuisances of life never end. Moving to Madrid didn’t suddenly make life a cakewalk (far from it in many situations). Life will always be a road, potholes and all; that’d be true no matter where I lived.
If you’re feeling lost and aimless, would I recommend dropping everything and moving to a foreign country? Not necessarily. Your circumstances may not allow it. All I can say is, if you’re not dead, you haven’t reached your final destination yet.
Helen and I have talked about the possibility of living other places at some point, but there’s no rush. If the opportunity to take another road presents itself to us, we may take it. But, right now, the road we’re on is pretty damn good.
This last Saturday, Helen and I, along with her parents, headed to the third night of Las Fiestas Virgen de la Paloma, one of Madrid’s most popular local festivals and essentially the biggest party of August.
My first experience of the Fiestas de la Paloma was back in 2018, when Helen and I accidentally stumbled upon it not realizing what weekend it was. The festival, from August 11 to August 15, builds to one of Spain’s main national holidays, the Assumption of Mary (or Assumption Day). Being a majority Catholic country, celebrations of Mary (Marian feast days) take a central role in Spanish society, even if day-to-day religious practice is majorly on the wane. They usually involve parades, religious plays, and Mass.
While Saint Isidro is officially the patron saint of Madrid, the Virgin de la Paloma (Virgin of the Dove) occupies a similar, albeit unofficial role for Madrileños (citizens of Madrid). As such, the Paloma festivals are essential the city’s biggest block party and not-quite-end-of-summer celebration.
The festivities takes place in Barrio de La Latina, among Madrid’s most active and developed neighborhoods (it makes my own Puerta del Angel look positively sleepy). Situated around Plaza de la Paja, the festival stretches past the Royal Basilica of Saint Francis the Great and to the Church of the Virgen de la Paloma. At that second church, there is a famous image of the Virgin Mary over its altar, from which the church and the festivals derive their name.
While La Paloma is ostensibly Catholic, the parties themselves aren’t particularly religious. Mostly, they’re an excuse for locals and visitors to drink beer, eat various grilled meats (lots of roasted full pigs on display), try their hand at carnival games, and watch traditional music and dance performances, like the El Chotis, a Madrileño folk dance that’s origins go back to Polka. At night, there are also concerts on a mainstage to show off various local performers, from flamenco to rock.
A fair warning to anyone planning future visits to any Spanish festivals: If you want to eat, show up early. Spain is a country of exact timings, and the only thing more rigid than dinnertime (22:00) is lunchtime (14:00). If you go for dinner at the standard time, expect to wait in line for 30 minutes, easy. On the plus side, if you’re even 10 minutes early, your wait will be cut in half.
(This is a general rule for eating in Madrid any day of the year. If you don’t have a reservation and want to get a table for lunch, show up at 13:45 and you’ll be all good.)
The Return of the Festivals of the Virgin of Paloma
In 2020, las Fiestas de la Paloma were canceled due to COVID-19. Still reeling from the ongoing pandemic, 2021 brought the return of the festivals, but in a very restricted manner. There were strict capacity limits for most of the events, even outdoors.
So, seeing the bustling, mostly unmasked crowds at the festival this year really drove it home: Madrid, and probably Spain in general, has officially entered the post-COVID era. That’s not to say COVID is gone (it never will be), or even that people should stop caring about COVID (I’d expect at least a mini-surge in winter). But people definitely have stopped caring.
To be fair, at 86% of the population, Spain does have one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe (and the world). Though the country was pummeled by the first few rounds of COVID, life in Spain has mostly felt like it’s been back to “normal” for a while now. But this weekend at La Paloma was the first time it was so in my face.
We were among the unmasked cohorts; there were maybe a handful of attendees wearing masks. In Madrid, mascaras are only required on public transportation and in pharmacies. Perhaps that’s a mistake; maybe the long-term effects of COVID will prove masking should’ve been a permanent part of our lives. But, hey, no one ever accused humanity of being farsighted.
(I realize for many Americans, the idea that any COVID precautions would still be in effect sounds insane.)
For now, at least, it really does feel like we’ve truly entered the post-COVID era. Not an era where COVID doesn’t exist, but an era where the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, vaccines are readily available, and serious cases are few and far between. Famous last words? Guess we’ll see.
Fiestas de la Paloma 2022
If the last 2 years has reinforced anything, it’s that we live in uncertain times. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, the fact that lifestyles that were once taken for granted are no longer the norm. It’s not just the pandemic. The Great Recession and its ripple effects, the rapid technological advancements, the widening global reach of culture, all of it has wildly reshaped what it means to live, even just from a generation ago.
So, it’s interesting to walk through something like the Fiestas de la Paloma and see the vestiges of the past still holding on. The elderly chotis dancers were doing their part, performing their routines in classical attire. And there were younger people helping out, too, like the 20-something-year-old girls wearing manila shawls and traditional dresses.
The purpose of the various Spanish festivals is to continually reinforce the ever-fraying threads that connect the past and the present. Many Madrileños will return to La Paloma year after year, growing up with it from childhood to adulthood to parenthood, bringing their own offspring to an event that makes some concessions to the changing world but largely remains the same. They’ll come because it doesn’t change.
Likewise, posts like this by writers like me are meant to be evergreen, something that aims for the first page of search results when someone googles “Fiestas de la Paloma Madrid”. A good travel blog (which 10 Cities/10 Years is categorically not) is always looking for that perennial hit post, and that means writing about these kinds of static cultural events.
But, how static is it, really? The festivals themselves are relatively new, having grown out of the religious processions surrounding Assumption Day; the Paloma Festivals only started at the end of the 20th century. So, while it’s now a mainstay of Madrid culture, it’s a relative baby in terms of Spanish tradition. What will La Paloma look like in the future; in the unknowable 2023, and the unimaginable 2053?
Spain is a country that is notoriously slow to embrace change, but it feels like all of us are being carried on an unstoppable wave to a foreign future (and not just because sea levels are rising). So, will I be returning to the Fiestas de la Paloma in 30 years, or will we have all evacuated the city to escape the fire-breathing lava monsters that rise up out of the heat-scorched Earth? It’s really anyone’s guess.
Madrid is being gentrified. That isn’t news. It’s been happening in many of the city center’s most popular neighborhoods – Malasaña, Lavapiés, La Latina – for years. It’s also a process that has been rippling through most of Europe’s capital cities for quite some time now. If anything, Madrid has been a bit slow to the trend, considering it’s still far more affordable overall than most other European capitals.
Every couple months, though, a new article appears to bemoan the gentrification occurring in my barrio: Puerta del Angel. This phenomenon is such a focus of breathless conversation that the barrio even has a nickname: Bruclin, as in, Brooklyn, the trendy neighborhood on the other side of the river from the main part of the city (and the OG gentrification model).
This week, it’s 20 Minutos decrying Puerta del Angel’s gentrification (a new enough concept that the Spanish word for it is simply gentrificación), with the headline lamenting that living alone in PDA is nearly inviable. A once working-class barrio has become just another expensive, trendy neighborhood.
Living in Puerta del Angel, Madrid
I moved to Puerta del Angel with my pareja, Helen, over three years ago when she bought a flat between the two main metro stops of the barrio. We had a couple friends that already lived here before us, and since then a few more have either bought or rented places here. Even in the relatively short time we’ve lived in the barrio, there have been changes aplenty. Overall, though, no one would mistake the still mostly working-class, family-filled PDA for Malasaña (or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg).
Probably the most visible change is the transformation of the Mercado Tirso del Molina, a century-old local indoor market that has gotten the full Madrid Redux treatment. Still a place to buy fresh produce and meat, most of the stalls in the market are now stylishly unsophisticated restaurants. There’s a pizza spot, a taco spot, a vegan spot, and, yes, even a few Spanish restaurants (if you’re craving paella).
The transformation of the market started well before we arrived, but the last few years has definitely seen an acceleration, in part because of the pandemic. When being indoors became a risk, the city gave special permission to businesses that didn’t have terrace seating to create spaces in the street. With one of the calles running alongside the market now pedestrianized, the area is one of the main gathering places in the barrio (getting a weekend seat on the terrace is nearly impossible).
The mercado’s growth has spurred other development. A slightly overpriced café opened up across the street a few months ago, and a new restaurant (by the same owners as the café) opened on the opposite side of the market a couple weeks ago. Those same owners also opened a decent pizza place a bit west of the market. And then there have been a host of other bars, cafés, and restaurants popping up throughout the barrio.
When we first moved here three and a half years ago, we struggled to find open bars after 10 pm on a weeknight. Now, there’s an abundance of them, especially along Paseo de Extremadura, the main thoroughfare that runs west from the Manzanares River and serves as the northern border of the barrio (on the other side of the paseo is Casa de Campo and Lago, one of Madrid’s best parks and outdoor dining areas).
All in all, a great barrio to live in.
The Ills of Gentrification
So, yes, there is every sign that Madrid’s Puerta del Angel is gentrifying. As I’ve written about before, I find the conversation around gentrification confounding. Far too often, it seems to be a way to complain about certain people moving into a neighborhood (often white people complaining about other white people). I get it, hipsters (or whatever the term is now) are annoying. But people need to live somewhere. Does moving to a cheaper neighborhood because you can better afford the rent mean you’re a gentrifier?
An article in El Confidencial last year seemed to blame guys “with beards and skinny jeans” for the gentrification, which is just totally backwards. It’s one thing to find a home in a barrio. It’s quite another to intentionally buy up property for the purpose of jacking up the price and reselling it. And here enters the villains of Puerta del Angel.
I appreciate that 20 Minutos pointed to the true cause of gentrification: the real estate companies that vacuum up every available structure, causing rents to skyrocket and pricing out both residents and local businesses. It’s happening all over the world right now. In Puerta del Angel, that malevolent force has taken the form of a management company called Madlyn (to be fair, El Confidencial also mentioned Madlyn; both articles said they contacted Madlyn for comment to no avail).
Madlyn is buying up barrio property left and right, converting former bars and eateries into cookie cutter apartments and coworking spaces (and Madlyn offices). Simultaneously, real estate offices have been popping up like mushrooms over the last couple years (I suspect they’re all a front for one conglomerate), taking over vacated fruit shops and clothing stores. Property is big business in the barrio. They’d argue they’re just filling a need, but every time I see a new estate agent office, I get thirsty for a Molotov Cocktail.
Look, I have a beard. My pant legs are pretty narrow. I write for a living. I am a white dude who speaks English in a Spanish-speaking country. I am everything that signifies gentrification. But as with most things, by the time the outward signs of gentrification are apparent, the underlying causes are already deeply entrenched.
These articles about the gentrificaciónde Puerta del Angel always include an interview with a local who has lived in the neighborhood all their life and is weary of the changes. Understandably, of course, but change is inevitable. People relocating is inevitable. I’d hate to live in a world where that wasn’t an option (10 Cities is, above all else, a celebration of relocation).
And you know what? Gentrification may, in fact, be inevitable. I don’t really know.
What I do know is, Puerta del Angel is a charming barrio, both because of the recently opened, trend-hopping bars and restaurants, and for the older establishments serving 2€ beers and wines and pouring whiskey like it’s water. A relatively newer establishment like Quinta del Sordo can exist next to the neighborhood locals and the old man hangouts. We make an effort to patronize both.
And, in 10 years, I’ll lament that all the good bars I used to love have been replaced by hipster lounges that play the music too loud. Can’t wait.