How to Be the Ultimate Guide to Madrid
Mark Besas on his bestselling book and being between cultures
In the not-so-distant past, I wasn’t exactly Madrid’s savviest tour guide for visiting friends.
Forget Plaza Mayor – I’d take them to this little corner where someone died or where a crime was committed.
When my best friend came to visit me in Madrid for the first time, eager to get to know the new place I called home on the map, it didn’t take her long to realize that my ‘tours’ were marked by distinct characteristics. They were rather descriptive (“Let’s meet in front of the dude on the horse in Plaza Mayor!”), utilitarian (“That, over there, is a big fountain”), and imaginative (“There’s the Royal Palace where the King and Queen of Spain live”).
Cultural savant I was not. And though my bemused friend had enjoyed this parallel version of Madrid that vaguely resembled historical fact, she decided to come to my rescue. It came in the form of a curious little book called Hidden Madrid: Madrid’s Oddities and Curiosities, left on my pillow on the last day of her visit. On the first page was a dedication that read, “A little something to help sharpen your ‘tour guide’ skills in Madrid.”
And so, three years later, it comes as no surprise that I message Hidden Madrid author Mark Besas to meet me “in front of the Galileo statue”. By that, I meant the equestrian statue of King Felipe IV in Plaza de Oriente, which Galileo Galilei helped assemble by solving the problem of balancing the weight on the horse’s hind legs. (Look at me, the reincarnated Ian Wright! Thanks, Hidden Madrid!)
Mark’s early ventures into writing his bestseller had a familiar start – touring visiting American friends around Madrid. “I got tired of taking them to the same places,” he says. “After a while you get bored of going to Sol and Plaza Mayor and the Prado. So because I was just touring my friends around, I started reading about the different places and was learning about peculiar things. Pretty soon I started doing my own version. Forget Plaza Mayor – I’d take them to this little corner where someone died or where a crime was committed.”
Soon, a friend of Mark’s who worked in radio had heard about his unique tours, and it led to a 10-minute weekend radio program on Cadena SER, where Mark would talk about “weird anecdotal things in Madrid.”
Escaped Bulls and Pachyderms
It helped that Mark’s father collected antique books about Spain. Eventually, the father and son tandem hatched a plan to co-write the first book, even without a publisher. “We had absolutely no idea that it would do well. We were just doing it for the fun of it,” he says. The book was first published in 2007, with a later version translated into Spanish (Madrid Oculto). Today, it is still going strong, selling about 5,000 copies a year, with 50,000 copies already sold. “That’s a lot for a little book!” he exclaims.
A few pages into the book and it’s not hard to see why it’s a runaway hit. It’s a compendium of short stories behind the streets, cafés, monuments and little corners of Madrid that you’ve passed by a million times.
The anecdotes are so interesting and quirky that you wonder if half of them are real – like the one about the escaped bull that rampaged through Gran Vía in 1928, or the case of the headless priest that inspired the name of Calle de la Cabeza, or the adventurous elephant Pizarro that made his way to a tavern, uncorked a few wine bottles and guzzled them down.
Mark says that one of his favorites is the one about Paco the Dog, a stray mutt that became so popular in Madrid that Madrileños even published a newspaper about him.
Between Madrileño and Guiri
As a half-Spanish, half-American, native-born Madrileño who majored in film at NYU, Mark considers himself as somewhere in between cultures. “Spanish consider myself American and Americans consider me Spanish. I think when you have two cultures, it gives you a better judgment of the country you’re living in. It allows you to see the good and bad of both sides.”
For him, the bad and good about Spain can be the same thing. “I would say one of the things bad and good is how everything is still very laidback. That can be very frustrating in terms of work, how lazy and inefficient many times Spain is. It’s getting better but it’s still not at the level with the rest of Europe, like Germany or France.
“Until very recently, people still drove around drunk, people parked wherever they felt like it – still do – and if they say they’ll get it to you by tomorrow, it will never get to you tomorrow. But that’s also what’s nice about Spain, that ‘No pasa nada!’ attitude. Where it’s ok to go out on a Thursday night and be hungover on Friday, because nobody does anything on a Friday anyway! And if it’s a holiday on Thursday, nobody’s gonna do anything on a Friday.”
As for the quality of life, Mark believes it is far above the US and most countries in Europe. “People here live wonderfully. Even if there’s a recession, nobody’s gonna take away from them a big dinner with marisco and have 2 or 3 drinks afterwards. ‘La penultima’ – that’s Spain. And that’s the good thing and the bad thing.”
Then again, being half-American has made him a target for the “guiri” label, which he doesn’t mind at all.
“I actually kinda like it, it’s sorta funny. I take it further; I say pu** guiri. My friends call me that all the time! I don’t think there’s a really horrible intention.”
Crime and Publishing
The success of Hidden Madrid has paved the way for more successful exploits, including a sequel (Hidden Madrid 2), a children’s version, and a new, visually appealing special edition. It’s even led to a professional tour guiding career, based on his offbeat kind of storytelling. Outside the Madrid sphere, Mark has co-written a book about crime and criminals in Spain, De Madrid al Infierno.
“I love crime, I think that was actually the best book I’ve done,” he shares. Unfortunately, it didn’t do very well, and Mark attributes it to the lack of a true crime section in Spanish bookshops, and so the book ended up in the Madrid section. “It’s a horrible section to sell a book about crime because nobody who goes to the Madrid section is looking for criminals!”
Though he is a bestselling author, Mark’s true vocation is film. After working for many years as an assistant director, he decided to open his own production company called Elemental Films and made a few short films, one of which, The Legend of the Scarecrow, reached the Goya Awards and was pre-selected for the Oscars, and picked up over 40 international awards.
Exploring film production had proven to be more difficult because of its expensive nature, but Mark remains positive. “It seems like it didn’t really matter if I was writing or doing a film. What I’ve always enjoyed is writing and then getting some sort of reaction – you’re making people laugh or cry.”
In spite of Mark’s writing success, he makes no bones about the difficulties of the publishing industry. “Books are not very lucrative for the writer. For the publishing company, it is so complicated because the amount of money to be made is so little. Many publishers here even try to gyp you, they say they’ll print 1,000 but print 3,000 and only pay you the rights to 1,000. And it happens constantly.”
The Tale in the Telling
So what was Hidden Madrid’s key to success? Mark believes it had a lot to do with luck. “My father would disagree but I think that perhaps there’s more luck than talent. Talent is James Joyce or Umberto Eco or Stephen King. I think I can just tell a good story. I like telling stories, regardless of what medium it’s in.”
Photo of Calle de la Cabeza by Asia Lillo
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About Natalia Diaz
Longtime newspaper journalist, children's book writer, retired fire dancer. I moved to Spain in 2008 for the wine, food, and football.