Hemingway might have thought that Madrid has “month in and month out the finest climate,” but ask any resident and you’d probably get a “¡Qué va!” In fact, Madrileños have a tight little rhyme to describe the extreme weather conditions in the highest capital of Europe: “nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno.”
Madrid is more of a way of life than a city.
The prolonged period of chilly weather probably came as a nasty surprise to many of us foreigners in our first year of living here, but by year two or three, you simply make peace with the cold, hard reality that Madrid is not the Mediterranean and you learn to layer with Zara.
But it turns out, that wasn’t always the reality. Wherever you sit on the global warming debate, a man-made climate change did occur in Madrid in the mid-1500s. According to Jules Stewart in his recently published book Madrid: The History, the city’s climate dramatically and irreversibly changed when Felipe II moved his court practically overnight to the newly chosen capital:
Forests were felled for timber to expand the Alcázar and make space for the king’s colossal entourage and provide firewood to keep them warm. Game was frightened away from traditional hunting grounds, waterways dried up, wheat and grape harvests failed, pastureland vanished and farmers were forced to herd their cattle to distant grazing land. With the virtual denuding of the countryside, Madrid’s climate grew harsher, with drier and greater extremes of weather, giving rise to the proverb ‘Nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ (‘Nine months of winter and three of hell’).
Over 450 years later, Madrid’s residents are still feeling the pain from that environmental destruction. “That shocked me,” Jules says as he puts down that other Spanish oddity, café con leche served in a glass, not a cup or mug. “Understanding why there’s such a harsh climate in Madrid — it was just denuded of all vegetation!”
Jules, who now lives in London and Pamplona, spent twenty years in Madrid working as a journalist and has witnessed it under Franco, the movida madrileña and the 2004 bombing. Realizing that after two decades of looking up at names on street signs and not knowing a thing about them, he decided the best way to learn about Madrid was to write about it.
Barcelona is yesterday’s city.
“When I proposed this book to my publisher, he said, ‘All right. Nice idea. Why don’t you do Barcelona? Because more people go there.’ And I said, ‘Everybody knows Barcelona. Barcelona is yesterday’s city.’
“I’m not going to rubbish Barcelona; it’s a fantastic, wonderful, sumptuous Mediterranean port and it’s very recognizable for tourists, but it doesn’t have the people. And that’s what makes Madrid. You have to understand the people, you have to speak the language, and you’ve got to have a lot of stamina.”
Understand the people, he does, and that’s what really sets Madrid: The History apart from other history books. It isn’t just an “A to Z, up and down history” as he describes it; the book is full of valuable and spot-on insights about contemporary Madrileño culture and people. In the first few lines of his introduction, Jules states what only locals would know: “Madrid is more of a way of life than a city.” Throughout the text, he continues to nail it with nuggets like “there is no point in showing contempt for outsiders, for Madrid has always been a city of immigrants” and “it would take more than political turmoil or economic crises to deter Madrileños from seeking enjoyment.”
In the book, Jules describes the capital in the 1980s which saw the end of the movida and the beginning of a “Europeanized” Madrid. In that decade, Spain became part of the European Economic Community, multinational companies moved in and skyscrapers were being erected among squat 4-storey brick buildings. “Brussels,” Jules writes, “now threatened to emasculate a way of life based on late hours and a healthy disregard for money. Spain was now part of something much bigger and the country faced demands of competitiveness and productivity it had never known before.”Fast forward thirty years and the two-pronged campaign to move Spain back to its original GMT and get the country in line with the 9am-5pm work routine of other European countries like the UK and Germany is being discussed in Congress.
“What are they trying to do? Do they want to make it a miserable place?,” Jules says. “The country does function. The transport system is better than Britain’s and everything seems to work much better than it used to. And this business about the siesta — that has been going on for years before Franco came to power! The last thing we need is another Holland or Belgium.”
Late nights are also nothing new, he says, and even has a theory as to how Madrileños get by on less sleep — it’s the abundance of sunlight and the altitude that energizes the people. Then there’s an attitude, a happiness in the city, he factors in as well: “Even now, despite the economic crisis, Madrileños sleep less than most, but those few hours are not spent agonising over what the morning will bring – at least not for those fortunate enough to hold jobs.”
Madrid, needless to say, is Jules’s favorite European city so it was a sad occasion when the city lost the bid to host the Olympics for a third time in a row.
“I think Madrid should have gotten it. It’s easy to be cynical about it and other things like this casino. I’m dead set against that. It’ll do nothing but damage to Madrid. But look at what [the Olympics] did for London. It made some money, not a great deal of money, but it just boosted the image of the city. The question is: does Madrid need that? It’s also, how do you measure success or failure? It’s not just how many tickets you’ve sold, there are other factors you have to take into account. What sort of tourism are you going to generate in two or three years’ time? Your exposure, your profile. You can’t quantify these things.”
There is talk that Madrid won’t be bidding again for the 2024 Olympics but Jules hopes it does. Madrid is practically the capital of Europe when it comes to cultural offers, he points out, and with every visit, he’s surprised by things blooming and popping up all over the place. “Madrid by and large is a more positive place all the time — it’s better all the time,” he says of the city that led the uprising against Napoleon in 1808 and held out for three years of shelling by Franco’s troops in the 1930s. Madrid, the heroic city with a fighting spirit, was defeated and overrun, but it has never surrendered. Time — and perhaps a change of government leaders — will tell if Madrid actually gives up on hosting the Olympics.
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.