On a scorching day in August, we come out of the Gran Via metro, right smack in the middle of the buzzing hordes of tourists, who like us, had the same idea of spending this summer weekend in the city of Madrid. I look up in awe at the grandiose skyscrapers along the famous street of Gran Via (literally ‘Great Way’), and stare at the flashy Schweppes sign at the top of the Capitol building. Almost like a cross between New York’s Fifth Avenue and Broadway, Gran Via shimmers, and flaunts its row of glitzy shops, theatres, hotels and chain restaurants amid beautiful Art Deco buildings.
We veer away from the crowds, crossing Gran Via, and keep walking past the tall buildings, and eventually enter a single lane, one way street. Half a block later, the streets slowly turn quiet, and I notice most people are ambling their way around, some linger in the sidewalks and outside shop displays while talking or smoking, or both. A few stores are empty, and some even closed for siesta, or maybe for the long weekend. We are now in Barrio Malasaña.
Located north of busy and touristy Gran Via, and west of Chueca, an equally interesting, if not more eclectic neighborhood, Malasaña is still very much a residential quarter as it is a growing commercial block. There are vintage clothing shops, vinyl stores and bookshops, small theatres, restaurants, tapas bars, cafes, tattoo studios and graffiti. It’s easy to see and feel the creative atmosphere and relaxed vibe in these streets.
I learn that the La Movida Madrileña movement had always been associated with Malasaña. This artistic and socio-cultural movement that began in late 1970s and lasted until early 80s, exploded during the transition period as a reaction to the repressive life under the dictatorship of Franco. After the fall of his regime, the people, not only from Madrid, but other cities like Seville, Barcelona, Vigo, finally had the freedom to express themselves through music, art, fashion, and sexuality. Perhaps, the most renowned figure who played a key role in advancing this counter cultural Movida was Pedro Almodovar, a filmmaker, screenwriter and actor who came out with provocative films, mostly shot in Madrid.
For the next few days, we see how the neighborhood has continued to imbibe the bohemian lifestyle in subtle and overt ways. Curiously, we notice too how hipster cafes seem to stick out among the pubs, studios and bookshops.
We had booked an apartment on Calle Puebla, owned by Alfredo, a soft spoken Cuban who spoke little English. Coincidentally, Matthieu, the partner of our friend Hermogenes, has his atelier on Calle del Barco, right next to our street, something we learn only after dropping off our bags at Alfredo’s. Matt who is from Belgium, has moved to Madrid three years ago to pursue his passion in a city where artistic freedom is welcomed, if not celebrated.
We stop for some tapas at the Bodega de la Ardosa , a traditional bar with its walls fully lined with shelves of wines and beers. This small bar has only four high tables, and narrow side counters, but is packed with at least thirty customers, some standing by the sidewalks with their beers and wine glasses. Behind the bar, was a narrow corridor with a few more tables. Customers and waiters duck under the bar counter to get in. No one complains. After a couple of rounds of tapas and cañas, we walk around the next few blocks.
We pick an empty table at a corner bar for some long drinks, and conversation. I find out later that the same bar has an acoustic band playing to a full house downstairs! One couldn’t tell from the inconspicuous setup on the street level.
The next morning, we head back to Bodega de la Ardosa for our favorite tortilla de patatas. It doesn’t feel odd at all to be having breakfast in the same place we had our tapas and beers.
In the evening, we visit Matt and Hermo at the atelier, and join them for dinner. With no plans in mind, we walk in the first restaurant we see that’s open, the Restaurante La Navaja. Hermo excitedly says this place is always packed, but tonight, almost everyone is out of town for the weekend holiday. We easily find a place to sit and enjoy some baked mussels, octopus ceviche, mini steak burgers and gildas. The small group at the next table sounded as happy and lucky too to have the place half empty.
This seems to be why Malasaña clicks. You could drink, dine, shop and enjoy quiet afternoons alongside locals and co-travelers, without the frantic air of a big city, and be yourself and feel at ease.
We miss the punk bands, and skip the late night parties, but we don’t feel left out. There will always be another weekend for that. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t wait too long.