Having given up Madrid for London, Borja Pena returns to take us around the city he remembers as a child.
Madrid is my hometown, but I don’t spend as much time here as I should. It’s been five minutes since I landed in Barajas and already the smell gets to me – I’m overcome by a complex emotion, triggered by a simple whiff of the city I grew up in. There are so many people dear to my heart here, so many adventures and so many memories.
I look up at the perfectly blue, cloudless sky. My photographer and film director friends often talk about this very light, one that you only get in Madrid. There’s a Spanish saying that people absorb power from the sun and it’s so true. Already I sense an energy I’ve not felt for a while, one that makes me smile uncontrollably. It’s no wonder there’s friendliness here that makes this city so special, the sun has absolutely everything to do with it.
I take a taxi into town, channelling Almodóvar’s movie, Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, riding through Castellana and admiring the views along the way. The heart of Madrid is the old town, although it’s a very walkable city, so nowhere is really very far. I spent much of my life here, both days and nights. There was a time I could navigate its labyrinth-like streets with my eyes closed, although today it all seems a little hazy. My father’s old music shop was in a square here somewhere; I retrace my steps in a futile bid to hunt it down, the same steps I used to take there after school in the late afternoons, running across the cobbles with my shadow and siblings for company. My mind also reminisces about the jovial late nights here with friends and the numerous walks of shame.
I stop for breakfast. Navigating and exploring needs energy. If I was staying with my family, my Dad would be up early and in charge of the ‘desayuno’, laying down Spanish treats like magdalenas, tortilla and pan con tomate to kick off the day. As he’s not here, my reminiscing and hunger take me to the steps of Mercado San Miguel, a beautiful old structure that’s been here since 1916, although the original market predates that. It’s a bit of a tourist trap now and the food expensive, but a frothy café con leche takes me down memory lane.
History abounds everywhere you look. The whole area around the market is a treasure trove of Spanish medieval heritage, but nothing can beat the grandeur and romance to be had at King Felipe’s house – the Palacio Real. It’s a history lesson and feast for the eyes, for everyone that comes here, but I have a personal fondness for this place. My aunt Mercedes works at the palace as part of the royal household, restoring the paintings of some of the most important Spanish artists in history. She has done this job as far back as I can remember. I used to arrange to meet her at the gate and she’d step out in her white overalls and immaculate hair. Today is no different, except that she isn’t annoyed that I’m characteristically late – the Borja of today has a mobile phone. The opulence of the rooms and the centuries of art that adorn the walls are absolutely incredible. I can’t help but imagine the conversations, scandals and drama that have taken place here. It doesn’t seem as big to me as it used to though, but I guess it is me that has grown.
The Spanish royal family lives a very good life, but they have always been watched closely by Church, which sums up Spanish society in general. Just next door is the Almundena Cathedral, another stunning piece of architecture with a gorgeous stained glass artwork window and ahuge, majestic door which are both mesmerising. I stop short of stepping inside, I’m not big on churches and don’t really have a great track record when it comes to my relationship with religion.
On the other side of the palace, the royal gardens of Campo del Moro give me the opportunity to sit down and take stock of just how magnificent the Royal Palace is. It also has its fair share of pomp and pageantry; I’m fortunate enough to catch the handsome Spanish soldiers, in shiny armour and immaculate uniforms, perform the traditional changing of the guard.
“I sense an energy I’ve not for a while – one that makes me smile.”
I make a brief stop at an old favourite, the Chocolateria San Gines, where cups of molten chocolate and deep-fried churros have been served here for over a century. I relive my youth of TV addiction by naming the Spanish celebrities of old who have visited the place and are immortalised in black and white pictures on the café’s picture-wall.
I move on to the busy Plaza Mayor, another landmark of the city, and engage in the Spanish national sport of people watching. I take my time walking through the square and checking out the little shops selling all manners of silk fabrics, ‘manton de manila’ shawls and even old stamps. My grandfather used to collect antique coins and I would come down here with him to expand his collection and occasionally engage in heated and often hilarious barter to swap his duplicates. I never understood why he would want these old pieces of metal; I didn’t think they had much value back then, or even now. I think he really did it to get out of the house to enjoy the outdoors and get away from my grandma.
This is something I really miss about living abroad: spending time outdoors on the terraces and tables of Madrid. Madrileños really enjoy being outside. With this comes a really strong coffee culture and as evening sets in, a vibrant nightlife scene. I’m revelling being here in it all again. I bump into a bunch of old friends on the street and I’m being willingly led to the gay district of Chueca. We have a goldfish-bowl glass of gin and tonic at one of the bars on Chueca square, followed by a vermouth chaser and lashings of never-ending, delicious tapas. We sit, chat and catch up on old times, laughing and gossiping about who is sleeping with who, who paired up with each other and who is still going round breaking young boys’ hearts.
“Everything starts later. If it’s pre-dinner drinks, plan to be there for 9pm.”
My friends give me the low-down on the latest happenings on the scene and thankfully not too much has changed. Everything starts later, if it’s pre-dinner drinks, plan to be there for 9pm. I’m meeting an old flame at my pre-dinner cocktail bar of choice, the Museo Chicote on Gran Via. I have always been obsessed by this place as its where Rita Hayworth (and Bette Davis) ‘gave good face’ when they came to Madrid. Dinner for me would usually be somewhere crazy busy and loud in Malasaña, followed by more drinks. Tonight Medias Puri is hosting a vogue ball, the ‘El Templo del Baile’, where you are compelled to dance or you’ll be chastised for chatting on the dancefloor. For old time’s sake, I’d probably end up at BLING at the Club Clandestino, where the order of the night is to hobnob with local queer celebrities and get down to some RnB, otherwise impossible to find in Madrid club life. Other famous places are Stardust and Kluster and there have been a handful of times when I might have been found at the much harder Eagle, which I’m not sure even exists anymore. For poptastic nights and more polished boys, although I’d probably look out of place due to my advancing years, I’d check out Marta Cariño, Baila Carińo and La Boite. If I were hungry for a dose of the superclub madness, I’d head out to STARK at Chamartín Station. In any case, there’s really something for everyone in Madrid and you never actually know where the night will take you. That’s what I loved most about living here, the spontaneity. It’s usually the case you’ll end up at some early-morning house party or even party on for the whole weekend – locals can be very friendly, some intimately so! But in any case, remember that 4am is actually an early night in Madrid. So now you can understand why we take a siesta in the afternoon.
So many people I know escaped Madrid for the very reason I did. When you grow up somewhere, all you think about is planning your escape. This little jaunt down memory lane has made me wonder if I will ever come back to live in this wonderful city. It’s possible – a big part of me is drawn to it, but I still remain torn. Perhaps with everything that’s happening with Brexit, London will lose its lustre, but one thing is for certain: Madrid, more so than ever, is a huge contender for my heart and will always be ‘home’ no matter where I end up.
Borja is a native of Madrid, but very much a world citizen; an international DJ, Art Director, producer and club promoter, currently working on the global, up-for-it, polysexual nightlife sensation ‘Daddy Issues’.
Photography by Martin Perry
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