Madrid is better than Barcelona, and other sober, serious thoughts

May 13, 2024

Visit Madrid in spring.

I dare you.

Visit Madrid in spring and walk around the center and then come look me in the eye and tell me it’s not the greatest city on earth.

I’m not exaggerating. But try it, in any case, and come tell me.

Because I’ve just gotten back from a trip to Madrid and elsewhere, and I’m just going to say it: Madrid is better than Barcelona.

Controversial, I know.

But in Barcelona the buildings look moldy and dilapidated, like the city’s best days are far behind it. The general vibe is that “maybe this used to be nice”.

Madrid, on the other hand, is booming. Even The Economist says so.

Here in Spain’s capital (which we travel writers are required, by international law, to describe as “vibrant”) the best days are right now. Especially in spring.

San Jeronimo el Real, in Madrid.

Welcome to Capital City, kid

Getting off the high-speed train with Morena, there’s the usual stiff breeze in Atocha.

It’s refreshing.

There’s also, as I always notice, a different quality to the light down here. It’s probably due to the altitude: Madrid is one of the highest European capitals, second only to Andorra la Vella.

We drop our bags at the hotel in Plaza Castilla, then walk down to Royal Thai Cuzco, a favorite local restaurant.

Morena is a big fan of Asian food. She claims to be Asian herself. I have some doubts about this. I always thought that Indians were just Indian, and I never really included them on a my mental list of “people from Asia”.

But the gods decorating the Thai restaurant bear a clear resemblance to the Indian ones, and I guess if you squint just right at the map, India appears to be hanging off the bottom of the social construct we Westerners call “Asia”. So maybe she’s right.

None of that matters, though, right now. I’m just happy to be in Madrid, eating spicy chicken with basil at one of my favorite restaurants, back in my old neighborhood.

Movin’ on up! (To the north side…)

Going to Madrid with Morena is always interesting on another level: her situation has changed so much since we left that although it’s the same city, the experience is completely different.

Walking in front of the Rodilla at Plaza Castilla, she tells me about one time she spent 2.70€ on a sandwich and was very disappointed because the sandwich was three bites of soggy bread and in those days, for her, 2.70€ was a lot of money. (Or, in her words, a lot of Carrefour sardines.)

She was on her science grant back then, working in a lab at Tres Cantos, and didn’t want to be hungry on the bus ride back home. So she decided to splurge on a “famous” Rodilla sandwich for 2.70€. Bad idea, it turns out.

Later, we’re near Ópera and she recalls walking through the center, looking in shop windows and not able to afford anything. Outside Palacio Real and she remembers her first job after quitting science. “I’d stand right here on the Segway, trying to sell tours for 35 bucks. I stood in the sun all afternoon for 400€ a month, plus tips, which were usually nothing. I caught a lot of abuse from drunk tourists, though.”

That was her first experience in sales, which (looking back) was good practice, and helped her get where she is today. At the time, it just sucked.

Anyway, now she’s living a different life than when we met: managing a large team at work, and dropping 70€ on lunch for two like it’s no big deal. Another successful immigrant hustle story.

Entrecotte at Café de Paris on Calle Felix Boix.

Barrio Salamanca adventures

I may not be a very good tourist.

A lot of the time, “the sights” aren’t that interesting to me – if anything, they just give me a direction to walk in.

The next day Morena’s working from the hotel room, and I wander off to find a new band for my Fitbit. Why not? I’m on vacation, and that’s as good a plan as any. I check the Media Markt near Plaza Castilla – no luck.

Guess I’ll just head down to Barrio Salamanca, see what’s up. There’s a Decathlon down there, and a Fnac. Both are suggested by Google Maps to have Fitbits and their accessories.

It’s a perfect spring day when I get off the bus.

Going down Calle Serrano I see dozens of people lined up outside some shop. “Luxury is lame”, I say to myself. Turning left on Ortega y Gasset, I walk in front of Tiffany and Co. “Good thing I’m above this whole wealth and status thing,” I think. “Look at these morons!”

Then I make a right onto some small street, and the sun breaks through the clouds at just the right angle, and it hits the immaculate facades, and I look around, and everyone (even the old grannies) is beautiful and well-dressed and a chorus of voices in my head starts shouting “I have never wanted anything as much as I want 10 million euros and a penthouse on this street in Barrio Salamanca!”

The feeling only lasts for a few minutes, and, you know, fuck luxury. I’ll just take the penthouse and the money. No need for jewellery or fancy clothes.

It turns out to be shockingly easy to buy a new strap for an Apple Watch, but impossible for a Fitbit. After two hours walking around and going into electronics shops, I order one on Amazon for next-day delivery and go back uptown to have lunch with Morena. The watchband was just an excuse. I had a great walk.

Those sophisticated Europeans

The next morning I’m having breakfast with my friend Donna. She’s from New York, but lived in Córdoba for a while. When we sit down she speaks to the waitress in Spanish.

“I hear you still have that Andalusian accent”, I say.

“Yeah, well, now I’m dating a guy from Cádiz. Did I tell you I’m non-monogamous?”

I’d heard that’s something the kids are doing these days, but that’s going to have to be the topic of a future article, because I don’t have time right now. Donna and I talk about modern relationships, and about starting an online business, and about Spain’s insane tax system which makes it nearly illegal to have a “side hustle”… and more.

Finally, on the way to catch to the Metro back up north, I get around to why I’m here in Madrid. “We’ve got a private tour of the Prado Museum, and then I’m going off to do La Ruta de Don Quixote on a bicycle.”

“Oh wow! That sounds fun. You know, I was in the Prado the other day, and I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t not see it through the lens of post-colonialism.”

I make a mental note to google what it means to see something through the lens of post-colonialism.

“The paintings were all about kings showing off!” she says. “It was like their Instagram.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s weird to think how much of what we call high culture is just the product of dick-measuring contests between aristocrats centuries ago.”

The Surrender of Breda, by Diego Velázquez, housed in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Instagram, of course, is mostly about status games. But so is fine art. A lot of fine European art, in fact, was just rich guys showing off – calling it a “dick-measuring contest” is a bit crude, but mostly accurate.

A few blocks away from us, el Palacio Real was designed to be bigger than Versailles. Around Europe, rich guys would commission composers like Beethoven and Mozart to write music, in order to impress others with their wealth and taste. And the paintings in the Prado?

Well, we’ll talk about those in a few days…

In any case, artists (usually) work for money, and there was no mass market back in those days. So I’m not criticizing painters. Actually, I’d assume that even today, any painter who’s actually making a living has a network of rich patrons making the whole thing possible. Who else is going to spend thousands on a picture to pay a starving artist’s New York rent?

Half an hour later…

I’m sitting in the sun near Cuzco, just off the old calle de Capitan Haya, waiting for Morena.

I used to drink wine at this bar. Now I’m on alcohol-free beer, surrounded by old ladies in fur coats and guys in well pressed shirts and loafers. People in Madrid dress better, and (unlike in Barcelona) they don’t seem to be in a competition to see who can get the most tattoos.

The free tapa (something else they don’t have in Barcelona) is a croqueta floating on salmorejo.

The old guys at the next table are talking about the Battle of Lepanto. I don’t know why. Miguel de Cervantes was at Lepanto, though, and since I’m currently re-reading bits of his novel, Don Quixote, my ears prick up.

The guy in suede oxfords says Lepanto was an infantry battle on boats. The bearded guy in well-polished tassel loafer has a couple of pins on his lapel that suggest he’s retired military. He agrees, with the caveat, that the armada was much different back then.

And like I said, I’m sitting there, when another woman comes up to me.

“Daniel? I’m one of your students. I have all your books!” She’s a retired doctor from the north of Spain. “I live here in Tetuán, and I loved when you used to say ‘el romántico barrio de Tetuán‘ in your videos.”

Spotted by fans in the street. That doesn’t happen much these days, but it’s always gratifying. Morena thinks it’s weird that I spend my time meeting random strangers who contact me through the internet, but a lot of positive things have come from it, and I’ve yet to have a bad experience.

My plan to do La Ruta de Don Quixote, for example, was once nothing more than a message someone sent me through the contact form.

So was the tour of the Prado, which is tomorrow.

(If you’ve got any fun proposals for me, check out the contact form here. Thanks!)

Sorry, hyper-advanced alien civilizations

The next day, bright and early, Morena and I are on bus 27, going down La Castellana.

Visiting Madrid is always intense for me, too, because everything has memories attached to it. Line 27 of the bus probably isn’t a landmark for most people, but in my mind it’s a whole Madrid institution – I’d take line 27 to and from my last job, back in the day.

This was before I declared victory over the Spanish labor market and just became self-employed. Every morning I’d wake up at 6:15, have some coffee, and walk outside before sunrise to catch bus 27 down to Banco de España – sort of like the Spanish Federal Reserve.

There I’d wait with a few other English teachers while the trumpeter played 8 AM reveille at the Army headquarters across the street. When my students would show up I’d spend an hour or two giving English lessons, then go back uptown to work on my online empire for a few hours before my lunchtime classes. After which I’d work out, eat, and head off to the suburbs for more classes in the evening.

Looking back, I don’t know how I did all that – my metabolism ran entirely on alcohol, protein and youthful enthusiasm, apparently. But it was fun… working 14-hour days so that I could some day afford to work 4-hour weeks. It all turned out both better and worse than I expected. And life (as Steve Jobs famously said) must be lived forwards, but can only be made sense of by looking backwards.

So it’s possible I’m constructing a narrative where there is none, and we’re all just collections of atoms bouncing off each other, or maybe we’re brains in vats, or characters in a more advanced civilization’s video game.

In that final case, I feel kind of bad for the super-intelligent alien who had to slog through my 12 years of formal education and 18 years of badly-paid day jobs just so I could finally get to the point of being able to afford steak year round.

Terrible simulation. Sorry about the shitty plot. We’ll try to do better in future levels.

The private Prado Museum Tour

The Prado Tour starts at 9, a full hour before the museum is open to the public. And we’ve been invited because I’m an influencer. (Or so some people think.)

On the bus, I mention to Morena what Donna said yesterday. “You’re from a former British colony. Have you done anything to decolonize your mind?”

She rolls her eyes. She’s never heard of “decolonizing her mind” and while she won’t let me publish what she actually says at this point, she’d like to state on the record that she does not identify as being any sort of “oppressed person”. (What she actually says is hilarious and very profane.)

Also, the Prado is awesome. The huge halls are completely empty except for the guide and our group of five, and we see some of the greatest art ever made as part of anyone’s dick-measuring contest (or super-advanced video game).

More on that soon. For now, check out the page at Walks Tours called “alone in the Prado”.

Burritos on the spiritual journey

This post is a bit non-chronological. Not that you’d ever know, with the way one section flows into the next.

In this section, my friend Andrew has just come from the gym, so he’s hungry. We end up at Tierra Burrito Bar.

“I was just in LA”, he says, “and I went to Chipotle on the Sunset Strip. This is better.”

We talk about the spiritual journey. The experience of being self-aware, aging, meat-based robots stumbling through an alien simulation (or what have you).

Whatever this life “really” is, we’ve still gotta make a living every month. And we both agree that a big part of the spiritual journey is to find the thing that gets you out of bed with a spring in your step, despite being several decades into this game we call existence.

“You know”, says Andrew, “when I used to teach English, people would complain to me about their jobs. I thought that maybe with a better attitude they’d be just fine. But now that I’ve got a real job myself, I understand just how soul-crushing the whole thing is.”

I like to think of myself as the kind of empathetic person who can just imagine how soul-crushing it is. But I haven’t had a real job since I was a teenager, and I’m probably not as empathetic as I think.

I nod along, and raise my bottle of kombucha, because alcohol-free lifestyles.

Here’s to victory over the labor market, and to the spiritual journey.

A few non-chronological days later, I’m off to Toledo, and several days after that, back in Barcelona.

That’s a wrap…

It’s spring here in Barcelona, too, but it’s nothing like in Madrid.

(Our city hall up here seems to be anti-vegetation, for one thing. The whole place is dusty and dry, even though the drought emergency is officially over.)

Anyway, I got back a couple of days ago, with a lot of material to write about. Soon we’ll have more on the private tour of the Prado Museum – which you can do, too – as well as my full report from cycling La Ruta de Don Quixote down in La Mancha.

And I’ll probably sit down and write something about modern relationships (monogamous and otherwise) when I’ve got a minute or two.

Some of these will be accompanied by videos, some will be podcasts as well. You know. The old content-creation hustle.

Sign up for my emails so you don’t miss out.

Thanks for reading.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I was a bit hard on Barcelona in this article, so if you’d like to see the other side of the story, check out my instant classic Is Barcelona the new Austin? Have fun!

P.P.S. If there’s something you’d like to see here, leave a comment, or write me on the contact page. Or – and this is the best idea of all! – you could attach a note to your generous donation, right here. Thanks!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Just thinking Daniel, by the way I haven't gotten in contact with you since you moved to Barcelona because although I have family living in Barcelona and there is much I love about Barcelona; La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's park and building and many other things, I am A Madrid lover, if I chose a city in Spain to live in, it would be Madrid, which brings me to the question…..is it impossible for Morena to get an equally well paying and important job in Madrid? I know I'm prejudiced being as I am from Almeria and practically all Andaluces dislike Barcelona and love Madrid, but also because I have visited both cities a lot and find Madrid to be more enjoyable

    1. Hey Antonio, at the time Morena was new in Spain, and didn’t speak Spanish, so it was easier to get a job in the English-speaking startups in Barcelona. Now her Spanish is good but she’s got a career track at a US company with a big office here. We’ve contemplated whether or not she could have just continued looking for jobs in Madrid and had the same success, but there’s no real way of knowing. And all told, life up here has worked out very well, apart from the obvious “not living in Madrid” problem. Thanks for commenting!

      1. I appreciate your response a heck of a lot and I understand your reasons for having moved to and staying in Barcelona. If you haven't visited Almeria, I highly recommend you do, it has the only desert in Europe, some great Spaghetti westerns were filmed there and Part of sierra nevada is there plus a lot more. The provincial capital is also nice to visit

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