A few weeks ago, I finally took a much-needed break. It was my first block of time off since I started my job in December of 2019. Even living in the EU, with the restrictions lifted on residents of the Shengen zone in late July, it was a gamble. But I got my vacation week approved and I booked my flight to Madrid. Within a week of booking my flight, one of four of my flights cancelled. It was the last leg from Frankfurt to Stuttgart. The train was the natural alternative. As the spouse of a Deutsche Bahn employee, I can take the train for free. Had I been a regular traveler, I’d have had to spring for the train back. Thankfully, that turned out to be the only hiccup on my trip. I couldn’t even go now as Germany’s Robert Koch Institute again branded Madrid a high-risk area.
I forget the suffocating stranglehold of the Spanish summer. Tourists and “Gatos” alike stroll the main shopping thoroughfares in the afternoons, but it still takes your breath away. Normally I like to visit Spain in spring, but this year been completely upended. Madrid is naturally more empty starting in mid-July and going through August. The British and German tourists skip Madrid in favor of the beaches. Gatos themselves also leave town for the same reason. About the time things were reopening after the Corona restrictions were lifted, many service industry businesses and cultural organizations decided to stay shuttered until September. It just wasn’t worth opening during the low season.
Madrid itself is a big, beautiful beast. My favorite thing is to stroll lazily through the metropolis, enjoying the vibrancy and intensity of life that is sorely lacking in Stuttgart. La Intrusa was one example of a little funky boutique that we stumbled upon that was full of handmade designer clothing and jewelry. I succumbed to buying some unusual gaucho pants that one would never find on Königstraße, Stuttgart’s main drag. (Two locations: The Malasaña Intruder, Corredera Alta de San Pablo Corredera 33 and La Intrusa Barrio de las Letras, León 17).
Sitting on any terrace in the bustling Lavapiés neighborhood, you will be treated to premium people-watching opportunities. Every kind of human and dog offer up plenty of interesting lives to witness while downing my favorite gin and tonic or tinto de verano, red wine with soda over ice. Stuttgart also offers a version of wine spritzers, but I can’t stand them.
I’ve been to Madrid six times, enough to have seen the big art draws multiple times. One thing I appreciate is that there are a handful of renovated and repurposed spaces that exhibit art for free or next to free. Displays are usually very edgy. Sometimes the exhibits are too esoteric to be relatable on any emotional level, but sometimes the artists really hit the mark.
Casa La Tabacalera (Calle de Empajadores, 51, 28012) is my favorite funky installation space. It’s located in a former tabacco factory and always has mind-expanding photography exhibits.
Matadero (Plaza de Legazpi, 8, 28045) is a former meat factory with several renovated, connected buildings housing everything from avant garde film to contemporary art to literary programs. There is a café and bar on-site.
La Casa Encendida (Ronda de Valencia, 2, 28012) used to have a rooftop bar, but it is now closed permanently. However, it has free art displays and the building itself is an elegant marble giant.
On this trip, since it was also in the middle of summer, my Madrileña friend and I decided to escape to the beach for a few days. But deciding on which beach was not too be taken lightly in the time of Corona. While most EU countries opened their borders in late June or early July, there are now the predicted episodes of cities or counties closing again as Corona outbreaks bloom anew. We heard that popular destinations like Cadiz and Mallorca were turning visitors away from beaches after quotas of occupation were already met in the morning hours. Other areas, like Catalunya, were shutting down and cancelling cruises. In the case that the beach was inaccessible to us, we wanted to go to a place that had more than just surf and sand to offer. We decided on Valencia. Its beach was not spectacular, though it was pretty enough.
It was also a larger city with a smattering of cultural offerings. There were high speed trains from Madrid, though I could’ve also flown in from Frankfurt for an arm and a leg. In the end, it was cheaper and easier for both of us to take the fast train together.
The beach in Valencia was half-empty. We were able to rent chairs and a spot under a little thatch umbrella for 14 Euros a day. On the day rain caught us by surprise, the water was of course rough and the wind was strong. The other days, the water and air were calm and the pervasive mood of our fellow beach bums was one of resolute chill. Absent were the regular hawkers of beer and donuts. Due to health regulations, they were not allowed. Police patrolled the sun worshippers to break up parties and make the teenagers spread out, but other than that, we did not encounter anyone getting turned away because the beach overall was too crowded.
We had rented an AirBNB that normally would have been secured months and months in advance. Though shabby and located in the suburbs, it had a private rooftop terrace and small swimming pool. My friend and I stocked up at grocery stores and mostly ate and drank at our bachelorette pad. The panorama of Valencia shimmered in the steamy heat as we drank gin and tonics with chips and chocolate.
For both of us, 2020 was a difficult year to top an already challenging 2019. Even in relatively secure job situations, what can anyone really know about the economic situation and our place in it? We’re just little ants and all of us are subject to the vicissitudes of a strange new world. The iron grip of Corona and the pervasive fear is exhausting. All anyone can do is try and make the most educated guesses possible. There I was, smiling in the golden Valencian sand. I was toasting my freedom in wine bars in Madrid, just enjoying the moment.