Every self-respecting capital city has its river. You can take a boat trip on the Danube in Budapest; on ours, we got caught in a brief squall, followed by a double rainbow over the spectacular House of Parliament. The Parisian baton mouches are famously romantic. Would the Golden Horn count as Istanbul’s “river”? At any rate, a thrilling and very busy waterway. And yes, Madrid too has its watery claim to fame, albeit not nearly as famous. The Manzanares flows along the southern part of the city. Did I say “flows”? That’s a euphemism as, even in the springtime, it’s silted up and barely moving. More of a testimonial, a manner of speaking than anything else. Different mayors have tried various ploys to make it more visible in the life of the city, with little lasting effect. The most recent innovation has been a costly investment to bury the ring roads circling the city, pushing the daily stream of cars into long tunnels and allowing a redesign of the banks. Now a lovely area in its infancy, cyclists and pedestrians mingle – not always pacifically -, children cool off in the several playgrounds scattered here and there, sleek new foot bridges criss-cross the river alongside the venerable Puentes de Segovia and Toledo. I say that it’s in its infancy because, for one thing, the area was officially inaugurated only three months ago but especially because the newly-planted trees are of course still sticks, barely able to create any shade whatsoever. We went just on time, because it will be tricky to stroll along the approximately 8 kms come Madrid’s high Summer. And our little river doesn’t have enough water to create any sense of refreshing coolness.
This is not a part of the city I get to very often. We took the subway to Legazpi and strolled for a couple of hours, dodging the occasional speeding bikes and marveling at how so many apartment buildings that had been boxed in by busy streets for so long now enjoyed the quiet of a pedestrian area and much nicer views. Along the way we passed the Sala Riviera, a well-known club that looks like a huge garage left over from some fancy mansion. The legendary Vicente Calderón stadium, home to the Atlético de Madrid of long history but declining fortunes, remains nonetheless an important madrileño landmark. The small church dedicated to La Virgen del Puerto was gated off but we were able to peer through the bars for a distanced look at the dim interior, decked out with flowers and lace and gold leaf. Crossing the broad Calle Segovia, we soon reached the end of the walk, near the twin chapels dedicated to St. Anthony. The original was built in 1790, with frescoes completed by Goya in 1798. An exact replica was built in 1929 across the street so that the two structures stand side by side; the first is a museum and the latter still serves as a church. Every 13th of June, the feast of St. Anthony, there is a verbena or street fair still. Although I haven’t been in years, we went several times when I was a child. Walking along the Paseo de la Florida, after a failed attempt to have lunch at the legendary Casa Mingo (because there was a line of people waiting for a table) which proved to be no problem whatsoever as the street is lined with pleasant eateries, and thrilling to the regal skyline stretched overhead – Madrid falls steeply from Plaza de España and the Royal Palace down to the river, making for spectacular views of the palace and the Campo del Moro park -, I fell into nostalgic recall… What does one really remember from childhood? The age-old question: stories re-told, fused and confused with scattered images.
A hot Summer’s evening. In those days it was easy to park just about anywhere on either side of the broad avenue. (Were the streets cobblestone?) My father parked our boxy Peugeot and we all climbed out into the thick dusk. As we impatiently waited for the grown-ups to lock the doors, check the lights, pick up a sweater, we could hear the hullaballoo in the near distance. A short walk and we entered the fair ground. What was, the rest of the year, just a bare space. Hard packed dirt was the floor. The noise was exciting: the start and finish of all the rides was announced with a whirring siren, and there was music coming from the merry-go-round, and there was the barker at the stand where you could shoot decrepit BB guns at ribbons and win a big stuffed animal or a doll decked in pink tulle ruffles. There were the giant swings: rows of chairs suspended from the upper platform on chains. The horn sounded, the roof slowly gained momentum and the swings, centrifuged, would shoot out, the riders’ feet swinging out too, far beyond the outer rim of the base. The girls’ skirts fanned out in the wind, and shrill screams of scared delight made a thrilling sight. We were never allowed to go on because my father was convinced that the chains could get tangled up and we’d be trapped there for hours. It was one of those tales that one vaguely recalls – either it happened to him or he saw it happen. No doubt the ride would be considered tame by today’s standards but it was by far the wildest thing around in those days.
There were the bumper cars too, for the older kids to get into fights with each other or flirt, both objectives accomplished in exactly the same way, by repeatedly crashing into the chosen prey. And the boys had another chance to show off with a couple of show-of-strength contraptions. One was classic: the potential strongman would swing a heavy mallet high over his head and bring it down with all his might onto a base which in turn – hopefully – propelled a metal disk to the very top of the pole. If this was accomplished with the right amount of strength, a gong would sound. The other was a metallic locomotive with a handle on the back. The idea was to grip the contraption full-handed and run the locomotive back and forth along a level track in order to gather speed and momentum and then, finally, to hurl the piece along the short level bit and on up a steep slope. The engine would either whoosh up to the top, at which point it would round the slight curve and slide back down (while onlookers patted the successful muscleman on the back while loudly voicing their approval) or, as in the majority of the cases, the little train would go roaring up the slope only to halt at some mid-point far from the apex and slide dishearteningly back downwards.
And what description of a verbena would be complete without mention of churros? The man in the white apron holding a giant syringe over a vat of boiling oil, pushing the dough out by pressing his shoulder down on the pump. It was a kind of primitive dance, rhythmically pressing and turning his body so that the dough came out shaped like an elongated ribbon. Every single churro was the same size. There was no hesitation; he knew exactly when to break off the squeezed dough with his fingers. Down it would fall into the vat with a bright sizzle, to be fished out a minute later by his wife who filled endless orders for a dozen churros by looping them onto a flexible green reed which she closed off with a loose knot. And there we had our treat, piping hot and deliciously greasy.
No doubt we never stayed late. Another bright image: arriving home tired and hot, ready to fall into bed. But first we had to wash off our feet, filthy from the dust, the mark of our flip-flops v-ing down from our toes. For this we had the bidet, quick and easy. For years our parents told us that that was the bidet’s purpose: a convenient place for washing feet.
Post by our guest blogger Clea.