Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Madrid the capital of Spain. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 November 2018

Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

  • Madrid is a European capital like no other
  • Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype

LONDON: It was bad luck that brought me to Madrid — or perhaps fate. Midway through a two-month road trip around Southern Europe, diligently skirting the coasts of Portugal and Spain, but with no intention of venturing inland, my 20-year-old campervan broke down in the scorching Andalusian planes, some 30 km outside Seville, officially the warmest city in Europe.
My fate was sealed by the calendar as much as the location: It wasn’t just that I blamed the searing summer sun for overheating my ancient engine, but also for thwarting any chance of its repair. For the month of “Agosto,” I soon learned, the south of Spain simply shuts down. There wasn’t a garage in town with the faintest bit of interest in fixing my motor. And so, after a fortnight of shade-seeking 40-degree days and flamenco-filled nights in Seville, I impulsively rented a car and made a spontaneous six-hour road trip to Madrid. And whatever the repair bill ended up being, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Arriving exhausted at dusk, I emerged from my air-conditioned car to find the climate completely transformed, temperatures hovering in the pleasant mid-twenties, surrounded by commuters ambling amiably to street-side tavernas rather than racing to the metro — or hiding indoors like their southern compatriots.

Hurried logic (and a whiff of luck) had brought me to the south-western edge of the central Sol barrio, a maze of winding streets with colorful cafés and tapas joints that seem to be as busy for breakfast as in the early hours, entertaining a constant flow of customers and an insistent throb of lively chat. It was the perfect tonic for the breakdown blues.
Arriving without preconception or preparation had its benefits. I was free to follow whims, enjoying the kind of aimlessness which can only be bred through enforced limbo. Evenings drifted by nibbling gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and pimientos de padrón (padrón peppers), while practicing my newly acquired Spanish with friendly locals at Bodegas Melibea, an audaciously decorated café with wide open windows offering cooling vistas of the ever-changing street scene.

Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype. The Plaza Major really could not be better named — a bright rectangular space built around the turn of the 16th century, lined with interconnected regal rows of identical three-story buildings, sporting a total of 237 tiny balconies.
Grander still is the Royal Palace of Madrid, a magnificent maze of 3,418 rooms which make it Europe’s largest royal residence. Be sure to stop at the nearby Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple donated to Spain and incongruously rebuilt in the early 1970s.
I had heard of the Prado Museum, of course, and held some inkling of its famed depth and breadth, but little could prepare me for the boggling floorplan and epic catalogue of art, which stretches from the 12th to 20th centuries. At any one time, only about 1,300 of the institution’s collection of more than 20,000 works is on display — but that still means that if you entered at 10 a.m., stayed until closing time at 8 p.m., and took zero breaks, you would have the equivalent of 27 seconds to view each work. Time is likely to be considerably tighter when an extension is unveiled next year, coinciding with the Prado’s 200th anniversary.




Temple of Debod. (Shutterstock)

More manageable and equally essential is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, one of Europe’s greatest exhibitors of 20th-century artists which pays homage to the country’s headline exports Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí — including staging the former’s epic “Guernica,” a stark, monochrome Spanish Civil War epic which rightfully ranks among the century’s greatest cultural achievements. At 7.7 meters wide, it’s a work that no postcard or textbook reproduction can do justice to — a statement which needs to be experienced in the flesh, and studied up close, to appreciate even a jot of its power, scope or intent.
Madrid is simply magical. Not in that quaint, stately, Western European way of Vienna or Prague, nor with the pretentious powerhouse vibe of Paris or London. And nothing like the crumbling grandeur of Mediterranean neighbors Rome and Athens. It’s a European capital like no other — and it’s the one I’d move to in a heartbeat.

 


Citizens step in to revive Tunis’ crumbling old town

Updated 26 February 2020

Citizens step in to revive Tunis’ crumbling old town

  • Many of the small businesses that once thrived in the old town are now gone
  • The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but nothing has been done to protect it

TUNIS: Ali Boukkaa remembers when his cafe was the only one in the marketplace for traditional chechiya hats in the Tunis medina — a small, green wooden cabin catering to some 400 hat makers, their apprentices and customers.
Fifty years on, only six hat masters remain in the area, Boukkaa said. His eatery has been joined by other cafes and restaurants that have set up in abandoned workshops, but they are all struggling for business, he added.
“There are no regulars — we just have a few people that are here visiting, or students,” lamented the 60-year-old cafe owner.
Tunis’ medina — or old town — was once the economic and political hub of the capital, until a push to modernize the city in the 1960s led to an exodus that left the area neglected and its historic buildings falling apart, say locals and historians.
Now artists, residents and civil society groups are trying to revive the area by opening community-led businesses and bringing attention to the area’s rundown neighborhoods.
The medina, which dates back to the seventh century, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979.
Yet no strategy has been put in place to stop it from falling into ruin, said Adnen Ben Nejma, a conservationist at the government’s National Heritage Institute (INP).
“There is no management, no vision for ‘what do we do with this medina of Tunis?’” Ben Nejma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over a mint tea near Beb Bhar, the big stone entrance to the medina off the city’s main avenue.
He noted that about 50 public buildings in the old town are currently closed, including the Torbet El Bey, a royal mausoleum.
“Unfortunately, heritage is not a state priority — like security, agriculture or tourism,” he said. “We (must see) that this heritage has the potential to be a vector of development.”

Tunis’ medina — or old town — was once the economic and political hub of the capital. (File/Shutterstock)

Modern exodus
From the 12th to the 16th century, Tunis was considered one of the wealthiest cities in the Islamic world, according to UNESCO.
During World War Two, there were about 100,000 people living in the medina’s 270 hectares (668 acres), said Raoul Cyril Humpert, a Tunis-based urban sociologist at the University of Stuttgart.
Now the population is down to less than a quarter of that, he said.
Mohammed Bennani, a bookbinder and historian living in the medina, said the main exodus was after the country gained independence in 1956.
Over the next two decades, he said, Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba built new roads in line with his “modernizing” vision, destroying parts of the traditional city in the process.
The young Tunisian state stopped investing in infrastructure in the town center to focus on developing the suburbs, Bennani added.
“(The population) left for the commodities. They wanted cars, a big bathroom, and they went to replace the French” who left to return to France, he said.
At the same time, according to Humpert, the empty medina properties were filled by Tunisians who arrived from rural areas and found they could squat homes or buy at very low prices.
Many of those properties are sitting empty due to inheritance disputes, which is one reason — along with cost and squatters’ rights — the government has not stepped in to revive the crumbling buildings, Ben Nejma of the INP explained.
Property ownership is complicated in Tunisia, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, since sharia law states that a house is to be divided between all relatives after death.
Often families cannot agree on what to do with the house and so they leave it vacant, which can lead to properties being squatted. Other families will divide the house into smaller units so that each member can sell their share individually.
“Our biggest problem is real estate,” said Ben Nejma, adding that, despite their historical significance, private homes are not listed as heritage because this would oblige the cash-strapped state to participate in financing them.
“How do we avoid the fragmentation of buildings?” he asked. “How do we restore a building that belongs neither to the inhabitant nor the state?“

Many of the small businesses have closed down. (File/Shutterstock)


Keeping the medina alive
After years of neglect, local entrepreneurs and cultural institutions are working to bring life back into the old town, and interest is slowly growing, said Leila Ben Gacem, who runs two boutique hotels in the area.
One of her hotels used to be a home belonging to the Anoun family, among the most important artisan perfumers in the area during the 17th century, she noted.
Ben Gacem bought and restored the house, then opened it as a guest house in 2013. She extends her business by working with artisans to offer workshops to her guests.
“I don’t see myself as someone who has eight rooms — I feel like the whole medina is the experience,” she said.
As Ben Gacem tries to entice visitors to stay in the medina, the Association for the Conservation of the Medina wants to help them discover the area.
The organization, created by the municipality in 1967, recently published a set of maps outlining walking routes around the historic monuments and roads.
Architect Amine Ben Said, who is a member of the heritage conservation association Edifices et Memoires, said any projects aimed at rejuvenating the old town must be designed to benefit the local community.
“The conditions in which these people live is killing the medina,” he said, referring to the poorly maintained roads and the lack of rubbish bins.
“We need to create projects that allow the neighbors to live well,” he added.
The municipality did not respond to requests for comment.
Helping neighbors live well was the goal behind a project by El Warcha, a local collaborative design studio set up four years ago.
Most recently, in a project that was part of a medina arts festival, the group cleaned up part of the working-class neighborhood Hafsia and installed a hydroponic system — a network of pipes holding potted spinach plants.
“We wanted to change this place — the rubbish bins and mess everywhere,” said Aziz Romdhani, an 18-year-old from the area who is in charge of the project.
“We wanted to change that with an installation that would let people sit.”
Olfa Souissi, a high school teacher, notices a difference.
Before the project, the courtyard next to her house was filled with rubbish and puddles of polluted water, a stark contrast to the expensive restaurants and “beautiful trash cans” of the nearby tourist area, she said.
Now she plans to celebrate her son’s eighth birthday in that same courtyard.
“We were suffocating,” Souissi said. “Now there are plants and wood and natural elements.”