It’s just not Portugal…
This post is to placate Janus.
I’ve been in Spain for over a month now. I haven’t entirely been sure what to say about it because it has made so little impression on me – and that I haven’t seen that much of it. For the first month I lived with a Spanish family in el Barrio de Salamanca, one of Madrid’s ritzier neighbourhoods. This month I am living in Usera, one of Madrid’s poorest and roughest neighbourhoods. I’ve taken the amount of free time I had to explore the city.
Madrid is a relatively new city. The oldest portions of it barely predate the 17th century with the exception of the occasional Moorish ruin. Much of the city dates from the 19th and, worse of all, 20th centuries. As normalcy and prosperity returned to Spain after the end of the Second World War Madrid grew rapidly. Much like Shanghai or Seoul the priority was keeping up with population growth, not building structures of great artistic merit. As a result, large portions of Madrid vary from merely boring to simply ugly. Older portions of the city – Los Austrias especially – can be lovely, but no more than any other city of the era.
Madrid is infamous for this, however. Madrid has never been Spain’s most beautiful or memorable city. It was chosen to be the capital of the Spanish Empire by Felipe II in the later 16th century to replace the congested and priest-ridden Toledo. The move was inevitable. The Church was simply too powerful in Toledo and its dense population served as too convenient an excuse to pass up to move capitals. Carlos I preferred Seville, but his son had other ideas. This might have been a good thing. Seville was allowed to develop as a centre of trade until the Guadalquivir’s silt built up rendering it useless for that purpose. It became an Iberian Kanazawa or Toowoomba, a city with a glorious past and many monuments standing to remind us of this but a sense of graceful decline in relevance.
What redeems Madrid is its convenience. Madrid has an excellent and affordable public transport system. The Madrid Metro is extensive. Spain’s rail network is extensive and relatively cheap. As the centre of politics and business for centuries – and set in concrete by Franco’s mad drive of centralisation – all roads do eventually lead to Madrid. Iberia’s other great cities are no further than a few hours away. Iberia’s greatest city, Lisbon, is a bit more difficult to reach by rail as high-speed links have not yet been completed. This is hardly a major inconvenience; however, as TAP Portugal offers return flights for £60 or so. Portugal’s rail network is perfectly decent making the very best of Iberia easily accessible from Madrid.
I’ve seen little of Spain outside Madrid. I went for a night to Toledo. Toledo is beautiful. It is everything that Madrid is not. Toledo is ancient, Toledo is chaotic, Toledo is beautiful. Toledo is eccentric and eclectic – a mediaeval city. As with most things in Spain, it suffers from its reliance on tourism. So long as the hordes do not descend it is a pretty enough city, but that is not very often. I did not suffer during my visit but it felt like living in an open-air museum. Even then, I saw little of Toledo as I took sick suddenly.
Other than that things are coming together relatively well. My job training is intensive, but we’re supported and guided at all times. I’ve largely secured a short-term future as an English teacher for younger learners, ranging from the ages of 3-15. This time, I’m actually being prepared for what’s to come rather than being tossed in front of large groups. Thus, I can reasonably hope to repeat the problems of the year past when I go to Taiwan (hopefully) in Winter.