I suffer from a romantic delusion about international travel. It causes me to imagine, in faded technicolor shades, an immaculately dressed Sean Connery striding through 1960’s airports armed with deadly weapons yet unchallenged by any form of security check. On the plane the hostess openly flirts with him whilst disdaining to notice other passengers. The sun shines down on his exotic destination as he slips into a waiting taxi without having to queue and, before you know it, he is checking in at a flashy, international hotel where, surprisingly, there is no queue. The suave reception manager fawns over him and a uniformed minion whisks his leather suitcase into the walnut-and-glass-panelled lift. Knowingly he scans his luxury suite before buying the minion’s loyalty with an impressively generous tip.
I am not so naive as to have expected so much glamour from my recent Easyjet flight from Manchester to Madrid, but I did still harbour expectations of an exotic experience once arrived in one of Europe’s famously cultural capitals. Nor was I disappointed if, by exotic, we mean intriguing and unfamiliar. I had chosen to stay not at an hotel but an hostal - the difference becoming apparent only when I arrived there.
It was a 19th century apartment building with an original, worn wooden staircase and an early-model elevator retro-fitted in the well. On the 3rd floor, past a couple of lawyers’ offices, was the hostal – a converted apartment which must have been very grand and spacious in its original form. The large, middle-aged lady who opened the door swatted away a small, fluffy, yapping dog before beckoning me into the reception area. She was wearing a black vest, leggings and slippers that looked rather like the dog. With no mutual language between us, she found my name in her book, demanded my passport, then set off down a dark corridor with me and the dog following.
The room, like its owner, was tatty, amply proportioned but clean. The sunlight beamed through French doors which opened onto a balcony on the curved corner of the building. The doors were quadruple-glazed against the noise of traffic from the busy intersection outside. The foreign decor, fixtures and fittings excited my imagination, as I unpacked and changed in anticipation of an evening in beautiful Madrid. Then I noticed the rhythmic sounds of lovemaking from the next room which added a further frisson. The scene was set.
It was Friday evening and, out in the streets, I could feel the workers switching to weekend mode. I wanted to join them but my first priority was to get some earplugs. That done, I made a beeline for a magnificently Spanish-looking cerveceria. It was staffed by imperious professionals who had no inclination to be forgiving of foreigners who could not speak Spanish and, as a consequence, I was presented with a plate of jamon generous enough for a stag party and a glass of beer larger than any other in the bar. Both were delicious but, with no one to share with and feeling a little intimidated, I decided to move on as soon as I decently could. Declining the barman’s offer of a second beer, I picked up the hefty tab and went in search of more Madrid experiences.
I admit to becoming less adventurous as I explored a warren of busy side streets and hesitated before the venues which looked too Spanish. I settled on the one which most resembled a busy, modern wine bar with an international feel. I found a small, corner table and was relieved to be served by a young man who was happy to speak fluent English as he served me a couple of excellent glasses of a Carmenere/Cabernet blend, some very trendy tapas and smoked paprika crisps. As I watched the immigrant vendors plying the tables with roses and gimmicks, however, I realised that a busy bar full of chattering groups of friends is no place to be on one’s own. So I decided to call it a day and get back to my room while I could still remember the way. En route I was, at last, approached by friendly locals - but they were simply offering discounted entry to gay clubs which is not, I believe, a uniquely Spanish experience.
Back in my room, whilst checking for invisible trip-wires and bugging devices, I reflected that Sean Connery probably would, by this stage of the evening, have had a more eventful time. I plugged my ears, drew up the blanket and determined that my return to Madrid would be different: more triumphant, perhaps, and less solitary - certainly.