Coming back to Madrid after 10 years means discovering a city which has changed completely.
The Spanish capital's streets are cleaner, old palaces have been renovated, the crowds in the streets are younger and now you can see a more multicultural society, despite the deep economic crisis in the country.
Nightlife is, of course, as vibrant as it has always been. Chueca, the main gay ‘barrio’ (neighbourhood) is now an icon of the LGBT movement around the world.
Dozens of clubs, bars, pubs and shops make this area look like an enormous gay funfair. But this is also the place where a new visibility for LGBT people started. This is the source of modern Spain.
And ‘pink’ Madrid is spreading. Many new gay-friendly bars and clubs, especially for women, have opened in Lavapies and Latina, two areas south of the Gran Via.
These are also the most multicultural barrios of the Spanish capital. And here you can find kebabs and lesbian clubs, hammams and gay saunas, cultural associations and, on Sunday, the wonderful Rastro market, where you can search for vintage clothes and bargain Spanish memorabilia.
I arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon and opted for the Petit Palace Ducal in Chueca, a three-star hotel in the heart of the gay area.
Rooms are big and clean and the HighTech Hoteles chain has invested in technology. Wifi is available, for free, in all rooms. I appreciated the big-screen television and the nice system of lights. The mini-bar is well-stocked and at a reasonable price.
José Manuel Castillo Ruiz is the area manager of the Madrid’s High Tech Hoteles. He told me: ‘I opened this hotel in 2003 and it has always been a very gay-friendly venue.
‘We are not a “gay” hotel but we are in the gay neighbourhood and we can’t ignore it. If you are here, you have to collaborate, this is what the market wants. That’s why we are open to all kind of families, we accept little pets as well and we welcome all our customers with a big smile.’
I left my luggage and started exploring Chueca with Carlos Sanchez and Emilio Aguilera, who organize the cultural aspects of the Madrid Gay Pride celebrations.
In 2017, Madrid will host World Pride. But every year, since the 80s the parade and the week-long celebrations have been must-attend events in the city's calendar.
The Madrid’s tourist board, which is in the city’s Plaza Mayor, is very sensitive to the LGBT world. The board, every year, campaigns for LGBT travellers with leaflets and events.
An LGBT leaflet states: ‘What makes the Gay Pride celebrations particularly noteworthy is the mixture of people. People of all ages, tendencies, cultures, nationalities and tastes share in the spotlight for a couple of days. A celebration that is much more that a fiesta, given that it marks the very birthplace of the normalization of the LGBT collective in Spain.’
Every year, at least a million people parade in the streets.
The AEGAL, Asociacion Empresarios para el publico Gay de Madrid y su Comunidad, is the association of gay and gay-friendly entrepreneurs.
It organizes Madrid’s gay life with LGBT associations COGAM and FELGT. Sanchez is one of AEGAL’s managers and is one of the best ‘gay’ guides I’ve ever had.
We started from the Museo Chicote, a very old and fashionable cocktail bar on the best side of the Gran Via. Founded in 1939, it has hosted Spanish and American stars, actors and comedians, politicians, kings and queens. Now it hosts young and posh customers. The cocktails are good, the ambience is perfect.
But the Movida went on. I visited Enfrente and Hot, two venues of the Madrid’s rich bear scene, Delirio Live, which hosts art exhibitions every month, Liquid, one of the most crowded bars in Chueca, and PK2 (Pekados), a club for younger LGBT people.
The following day, Sunday, I dedicated to the arts. The Paseo del Arte, the arts’ walk, is home to four of the best Spanish museums. And The Museo del Prado is an unmissable highlight of anyone's visit to Madrid.
The Prado Museum accomodates an awesome collection in a stunning shell. It is the most important representation of Spanish art in the world, from the Romanesque to the 19th century, from Goya to El Greco, from Velazquez to Tiziano and Caravaggio, the Italians are well represented as well.
After the Prado, I went to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza which guides you through the history of European painting. It ranges from Impressionism to German Expressionism with a strong Medieval painting collection as well. Its shop is one of the best in town and the new building contains the Baroness Carmen’s collection.
Then, the Museo Reina Sofia, where I saw Picasso’s Guernica and several Dalì’s paintings. The rest of the museum is worth a stroll as well, but I preferred going to the Caixaforum, a brand new venue in Madrid.
It is the social and cultural center of the La Caixa Benefit Society. It accomodates important artistic and social events, like temporary exhibitions, conferences or concerts. At the moment, there’s an interesting exhibition on the history of the skyscrapers. And the building is wonderful, with its vertical garden and innovative architectural solutions.
Finally, a few suggestions on eating in Madrid. The city is very cheap and the local food is outstanding. The Museo del Jamon (the house of the Spanish ham) is one of my favorite places, with its ‘bocadillos’ (sandwiches), starting from €1 and with very cheap beers. But I tried also some ‘all you can eat’ solutions and a proper restaurant, the Marisquería Ribeira do Miño in calle Santa Brigida, between Chueda and Malasaña.
A meal of seafood and sparkling white wine is a perfect way to remember this city. Madrid is fizzy. People from Madrid are fizzy. And you'll return home feeling fizzy yourself.