Tourism in Madrid – life goes on in Spain’s free city

April 17, 2021

Hey all!

I’m back in Madrid this week, to check out the scene.

You know: the “everything open” scene that has some people worried we’ll have a 4th wave of coronavirus while the governments are still trying to get their shit together on the mass-vaccination campaign.

So, how’s your week going?

Last October I wrote about a pub crawl through post-Covid Madrid… how naive!

Things were far from over back then. But, ever the optimist, I figured we were going to have a good winter and soon return to the “new normal”.

When I got back to Barcelona, incidentally, I got Covid myself. Except for losing my sense of smell for six months, it wasn’t bad. Hardly the worst thing that’s happened recently.

Anyway, this week I’m back in the capital, with a simple journalistic mission: to find out if “keeping things open” seems to be working.

four seasons hotel in madrid
The new Four Seasons Hotel in Madrid.

First off, the context: in Barcelona restaurants and bars have been under attack by the Catalan government for the whole duration of this pandemic.

At the moment I’m writing this, bars and restaurants are able to open in the mornings, and stay open continuously until 5PM, after which it’s only takeout. That’s an improvement over the previous situation, in which they had only a few hours in the morning and at midday to be open. And late last year, they were closed fully, for the second time in several months.

These measures are certainly ruining the livelihoods – and lives – of many thousands of hard-working people. As The Guardian reports, some of Barcelona’s most iconic restaurants have recently closed for good. One was replaced by a Taco Bell. Hooray.

On the other hand, nobody in the government seems too worried about whether or not this actually works to curb the spread of the virus.

It’s not like the situation in hospitals is a whole lot better up in Catalonia, even with all the restrictions on hospitality and travel. The government is just taking some wild-ass guesses at what might work, and because of the “State of Alarm” nobody’s holding them accountable.

Surely a system which could be improved.

Meanwhile, in Madrid, things are pretty normal, as you can see in this video…

The President of the Comunidad, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, is insisting on keeping things open, and even running her campaign for the upcoming election around the word Libertad.

Freedom. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed.

Anyway, what’s the situation like in Madrid?

Barcelona – Estación de Sants, Monday

I’ve gotten a ticket for one of the early trains to Madrid.

Journalistic credentials well-documented, I go through security a few minutes before 8AM.

No police, no nothing. Except for a bit of social distancing in the waiting room – every second plastic chair has a big PROHIBIDO sticker on it – everything seems normal.

The usual café is open, and I get the usual double espresso for 2.40€.

Fewer people are travelling than usual – I’ve taken the early Monday morning trains before, and they’re usually packed. Today I’d say we’re at about 20% capacity.

Estación de Francia, Barcelona.

The train, when it arrives, is much shorter than usual: only 5 or 6 carriages long.

In the seats opposite mine, there are a couple of Catalan journalists, working away on their laptops, creating clickbaity articles about “the 21 hottest hairstyles for summer” or some such.

A family of four from the Philippines is sitting in front of me, kids and all. The carriage is mostly full as we leave the station. In fact, there are people of all kinds on board.

And no control of any kind to see if we have documented “reasons” for leaving Catalonia.

Speeding across the Spanish countryside towards Zaragoza, I listen to Dan Carlin’s podcast about the ancient Persian Empire.

Cyrus the Great, says Carlin, might have been the person who invented human rights. Rather than slaughtering his enemies wholesale, smashing their idols and burning their cities to the ground, he’d just tax them into submission, and otherwise let them go about their lives.

Pretty modern guy, that Cyrus the Great.

Renfe’s playing a movie on the little TVs that’s apparently about a German woman who spends the better part of two hours looking sadly into the distance, alone.

The countryside flies by, and the clouds start to part.

By 11 AM, we’re in Madrid.

Is everything in Madrid open?

Well, the city center is looking pretty bad. The more touristy areas are very quiet, and a lot of businesses are shuttered, permanently closed.

On the other hand, the plans to make Madrid a destination for luxury tourism are moving ahead at full steam.

The giant Hotel Riu is open on Plaza España, and the Four Seasons is open in Sol.

Presumably they’re mostly empty at this point, but once the millionaires start going on vacation again, I guess they’ll be doing fine.

In the surrounding neighborhoods, things look fairly normal.

Most of the usual places on Calle Ponzano are still there. I stop at de Atún for one of their “tostas de atún rojo con mahonesa de wasabi y trufa negra” which, as usual, is amazing.

A nearby bar, La Parroquia de Pablo, has a couple of “Yo con Ayuso” signs up, in support of la Presidenta. I stop there for another tosta and a beer, before heading back to the hotel.

bar in madrid
Parroquia de Pablo just off Calle Ponzano.

I know a lot of people reading this will fly into a fit of hysterical, childish rage any time a vaguely right-leaning politician is elected, anywhere on the planet.

And that’s what Ayuso is, I guess: vaguely right-leaning.

The thing is, back where I’m from, most Spanish parties would fit snugly into the wacky far left.

Here in Spain, even the “conservatives”, like Ayuso’s party, are mostly in favor of a large welfare state and free healthcare for all. Take that, Obamacare!

And most of the big political issues back in the US are things that are barely problems here in Spain, or at least most people don’t consider them to be “big political issues”.

So acting like there’s one big global right-left spectrum based on the Republicrats and Demicans across the pond is a bit naive, in my opinion.

Anyway, back to the topic…

Most of my favorite places are still around: Casa Toni on Calle Cruz still has the best oreja de cerdo, Matcha up in Tetuán has the same nice people serving the same reasonably-priced sushi.

The inequality, though, is looking pretty stark. A lot of expensive places are full, and a lot of cheaper stuff is closed. I suspect that once the furlough plans are over, and the banks can repossess houses again, we’re going to see some serious economic destruction.

But what do I know? A lot of streets in the center are being fixed up, and there’s plenty of new construction.

So maybe we’ll get out of this better than we went in.

Or at least some people will.

So what’s the verdict, Mr Chorizo?

On Friday night, I’m out with a former student and her friend.

We go to a bar in Chamberí that serves all sorts of international beers. It’s right in the middle of the International Beer District, actually.

wine in montecarmelo
Drinking the tears of my enemies, and it feels so good.

At 6:30, when we arrive, it’s pretty empty, but by 9PM it’s packed.

In fact, except for the masks, it’s just like the before-times. I’m shouting and leaning in to hear the conversation. There’s a table of people in their 60s and 70s just to my left, sipping Chimay and having a grand old time.

I look around and it actually feels a bit surreal, dreamlike: Barcelona shut down at 5PM, police dispersing groups of healthy young people exercising outdoors, no-one allowed to leave their comarca without documents justifying their “very good reason” for doing so…

And here, someone’s grandma is fearlessly having a beer and some tapas, two feet from my left elbow.

My conclusion: ¡Viva Madrid!

And as usual, a final philosophical note…

Remember a couple of years ago, when people were protesting against tourism in Barcelona, and it seemed like AirBnB was the biggest “problem” we had anywhere?

Well, that was then.

In those days, I’d try to imagine what it would take to actually stop tourism – and I couldn’t think of anything besides some really totalitarian government measures that would be FAR worse than the actual problem they were trying to solve. I never thought it would happen… that’d be ridiculous!

Well, here we are. It happened. And it might continue for a while.

Here’s the thing about freedoms: they’re not gifts handed to us from people in high places.

They’re rights that people in previous generations fought – and sometimes died – to achieve. We didn’t just get this level of “progress” – and I use the word in quotes, obviously – by accident.

It was a struggle. And in that struggle, there were certainly people who found it much easier to stay home, cower under their blankies, and wait for it all to be over.

Other people went out and fought to create the world they wanted to live in.

I’m not political in the traditional sense, because as I made clear earlier, the “right-left spectrum” doesn’t do much for me. Life is more complex than that.

But you’ve gotta choose a side. What kind of world do you want to live in?

And more importantly: what can you actually do to make that world a reality?

Having an opinion is great. We’ve all got hundreds.

What can you DO about them?


Mr Chorizo AKA Mr Daniel.

P.S. I elaborate a bit on the philosophical side of this in my article about being pro vs being anti. But basically, the upshot if it all is that entropy is out there. And all we can try to do is to create a bit of order from the chaos, and reduce suffering where we can. Also, clean up your damn room. And don’t forget to have fun!

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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. Thanks for reporting on Madrid…and you’re right, freedom isn’t free (as my Vietnam vet dad’s hat reads). In Toronto, they’ve made it legal for police to stop people and ask where they’re going, etc., which I guess has been happening in Spain all along. It seems like they just keep going on lockdowns right before every holiday. Maybe it’s not to keep numbers down, but to keep people from talking and perhaps being united for once? Keep fighting the good fight. People need to hear the other side of this too!

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