Beyond language in Real Madrid


The streets of Madrid. View from Plaza Mayor

The streets of Madrid. View from Plaza Mayor

On and off over the past year, I have been learning Spanish from the Michel Thomas CD course, supplemented more recently with the BBC’s España Viva course.

Having never had an actual Spanish lesson in real life, I was rather pleasantly surprised on my first night in Madrid (also my first night in Spain, ever) that I could not only understand the taxi driver and the waiter at the hotel restaurant, but was able to make myself understood without any problems.

Night 2, I was even able to ask a random on the street for directions to the Cava Baja and understood enough for my colleague and I to easily find it.

Of course I don’t claim to be anywhere near fluent, but it was immensely rewarding to be able to communicate in a new language.

Which was a good thing too. As I discovered, madrileños speak (surprisingly) little English compared to the other big European capitals of Berlin and (even) Paris.

So it came to be that I met Miguel on the weekend.

[Aside: I should probably explain that I was in Madrid for a couple of weeks for work so I only had some evenings and the weekend to properly explore in the daylight.]

Miguel doesn’t speak much English and mi español es puta terrible. But I was more than delighted with his kind offer to show me around Madrid.

Puerta de Alcalá

Puerta de Alcalá

Despite some awkward times of me just looking puzzled and my stock responses of (yes) and no entiendo (I don’t understand), we communicated pretty well enough for a whole afternoon and evening (Spanish definition, lasting till about 4 am when we stumbled out of a club).

There were some misunderstandings, like when I was (figuratively) scratching my head looking around for a bar that Miguel was telling me about before I realised that he was telling me about el barrio (bureau or neighbourhood) rather than el bar.

The experience was similar to that time I was in Algiers, but probably a little easier (or maybe I’m becoming more experienced at this). But ultimately, I was getting more confident at communicating, even if I still got a netball (as Michel Thomas puts it) every so often and I had to try another serve.

It opened my eyes to just how little vocabulary one needs to communicate and how much we do (or can) communicate through non-verbal means.

My top tip when communicating with people who don’t speak much of your language is to speak slowly and clearly, and also choose not only the most simple words but also simple sentence structures. The common reaction of speaking louder certainly doesn’t help.

The non-verbal nature of communication was also apparent when I went to a flamenco show at the Tablao Flamenco La Quimera.

What a spellbinding experience it was.

The multiple rhythms created by the tapping/stamping of the feet, clapping, occasional castanets and solo guitar were woven together by the husky melody of Andalusian gypsy singing, The intricate hand movements, poses and spinning exalted by breathy passion and sultry looks.

As a dancer, I was fascinated and thrilled by the virtuosity and beauty, and wanted to join in.

As a human being, I was drawn in to the raw emotion and rhythms that seemed to get to the core of existence.

Not once did I feel any lesser for not understanding (fully) the words that were being sung or spoken. Music and dance existed long before language and that night I truly understood this.

To round off this post, here are my favourite experiences in Madrid:

  • Tablao Flamenco La Quimera: As described above, just spellbinding. Don’t worry that a large proportion of the audience are Tripadvisor aficionados (like yours truly). The small tavern itself and show are very Spanish and (in my view) rather authentic. €31 per person (if booked online, considerably more without booking) gets you a very filling (if basic) meal and a superb show.
Tablao Flamenco La Quimera

Tablao Flamenco La Quimera

  • El Museo del Prado: Housing some of the greatest artworks ever created, it’s certainly a must see, even if (like me) you’re not the biggest connoisseur of art. My favourites were
    • Velazquez: Las Meninas
    • Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights
    • Raphael: The Cardinal
    • Goya: The Family of Charles IV

I’d actually go so far as to say that I preferred it to both the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican Museum in Rome. Also, it’s free to get in the last 2 hours before closing time each day!

Art imitating life @ El Museo del Prado

Art imitating life @ El Museo del Prado

  • Metro Bistro (Plaza Mayor): Just outside the Plaza, this unassuming restaurant showcases some fantastic modern cooking that shows why Spanish restaurants are making a huge mark on the culinary world. I had the 7-course degustacion (tasting) menu that threw delight after delight at me. I won’t name them all but from a bonus amuse bouche of celery mojito to delicious salmorejo (cold tomato soup) with olive oil ice cream to perfectly cooked squid on a bed of black risotto to crispy-yet-pink pork tenderloin to a delicious chocolate sauce with popping candy, it was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It literally felt that they were giving it away at €32 for the whole lot.
Menu degustación @ Metro Bistro: Part of what I had: celery mojito, salmorejo with olive oil ice cream, 3 kinds of bread with 2 kinds of butter

Menu degustación @ Metro Bistro: Part of what I had: celery mojito, salmorejo with olive oil ice cream, 3 kinds of bread with 2 kinds of butter

  • How friendly everyone seems to be. Every time someone passed by in the office (or sharing a lift), they would always engage in eye contact and offer an hola, buenos dias, buenas, hasta luego, etc. This is something I wish would happen more in the UK, where I it can sometimes feel that being friendly usually results in people thinking that you have an ulterior motive.


  • Retiro Park: Madrilenos’ weekend hangout. In addition to lots of greenery, there’s a boating lake, monuments, a Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal) and other things (e.g. puppet theatre). Really nice place to walk around and have a sit/lie down.
Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal) @ Parque del Retiro

Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal) @ Parque del Retiro

  • Mercado de San Anton: This food in Chueca is not only much larger than the Mercado de San Miguel, but also a lot less touristy. I like the layout better too where you have a supermarket in the basement; specialty shops, butcher, fishmonger on the ground floor; various stalls serving all kinds of food (seafood, Canary Island specialties, truffle dishes, etc); rooftop restaurant/bar. Prices seemed a little lower than San Miguel as well.
How many varieties of tomatoes can you name? @ Mercado de San Anton

How many varieties of tomatoes can you name? @ Mercado de San Anton

Overall, I had a great time. I wasn’t as keen on the various ‘attractions’ to visit as with other large European capitals, but that was more than made up for by the food, vino, musica and dance (bailar).


See more of my photos (and at better quality) on my Flickr page.


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