Despite designer hotels and chic boutiques, Madrid is still a city steeped in tradition, from loyal crowds at bullfights to backstreet bars with unexpected rituals
It’s 10pm and Madrid’s pavements are still warming the air, releasing the heat of the sun that has been baked into them all day. I’m strolling around the back streets around Las Ventas, the city’s prestigious bullring, in search of some late-night tapas and a glass of Spanish red. Tucked into a side street is an unassuming bar called El Rincon de Jerez, with Madrilenos standing around in small huddles, drinking and nibbling. There are huge legs of Serrano ham hanging from a rack behind the bar and trays of colourful tapas laid out along its length – much like any other local tapas bar in this city that will always find the cash to drink and dine out, no matter how hard the times.
I decide to join the small crowd and order myself a rioja, which comes with a dish of olives. The food served here is typical Andalusian, with plenty of fried fish, shrimp tortilla, gazpacho and cheeses, while the walls are sagging with the weight of bullfighting and flamenco memorabilia. I have never been to a bullfight, and notice on the wall a poster for a fight the following Sunday, I lean over to the men stood next to me and ask if they would recommend it. Are the matadors any good, I ask. Ah, they say, knowingly, it is not about the matadors, it is about the bulls. I copy down the website from the poster and make a decision to go.
At that moment, what had begun as just another drink in another tapas bar, suddenly takes an unexpected turn. The lights are dimmed and candles are handed to the assembled crowd, which has doubled in size. Everyone turns their attention to a gaudy statue of the Virgin of Rocio, the image of the virgin Mary that appeared to a peasant in the Andalucian village in the 15th century. Little booklets are handed round with the words of the 'Salve Rociera', although it seems that many regulars don’t need them, and then the singing commences. It sounds like half hymn and half bullfighting song – the refrain consists of plenty of olés – and it is a nightly ritual that has occurred for 25 years at 11pm without fail. With the song over, the lights are turned back on, the candles collected and everyone returns to their wine and conversation.
This is one of the joys of Madrid: despite the chi-chi bars and designer roof terraces, traditions still remain strong. I’ve been staying in the freshly restyled Hotel ME Madrid, with its high-thread-count linen, rainforest showers, iPod docks and maxi bars, but I learn that on this site was once another hotel, which housed the famous bullfighters of the day, and my experience at the El Rincon de Jerez has made me curious about this old Madrid, the city that Hemingway loved.
I take out my notebook and look up the address I noted down from the poster. The Sunday bullfight is a little out of town, at the Plaza de Toros in Móstoles. Unfortunately, I won’t be around for the big Madrid fiesta at Las Ventas on May 2, which sees the start of the bullfighting season proper. So after the compulsory Sunday morning stroll through the Retiro, the huge park in the centre of the city, and the ramble down the Rastro – the big Sunday-morning flea market – I head to the ring with a friend who can explain to me what is going on.
If you are watching your first bullfight, it is helpful to find someone to give you a commentary. Bullfights of some kind have been held in Spain since the Middle Ages, and despite calls from modernising Spaniards to see the sometimes brutal sport stopped, it still has a loyal and passionate following. Sat on the tiered seating of the ring are older men and women in berets and furs, but also young mothers with their children and courting couples.
The audience are integral to the action, shouting olé if a matador has made a particularly brave and beautiful pass with his cape, and waving white hankies if they think he deserves an ear from the bull for his courage and good, clean kill. Alternatively, they can whistle and heckle if the animal is seen to suffer, and if they think the bull is not a good fighter, they can demand he be taken away by waving green handkerchiefs. The cheap tickets are for seats in the sun, which gives you that crucial Spanish ingredient. With the warmth of the rays on your skin, a cold beer in your hand and a crowd around you shouting “olé”, while a matador clad in tights and ornate jacket waves a red cape around an angry bull, there is only one place in the world you can be.