Rasheeda Bhagat

Beating the Spanish blues

| Updated on November 15, 2017 Published on May 21, 2012

The beautiful San Jeronimo el Real Church next to the Prado Museum in Madrid.

It felt sad to leave Madrid on a morning when news had just come in on ratings agency Moody's having downgraded not one or two, but as many as 16 Spanish banks. As this, expectedly, sent shivers down the Euro zone, particularly the markets, the Spanish government pulled out all the plugs to soothe frayed nerves.

As shares of Spain's biggest home-mortgage lender Bankia tumbled 29 per cent before stabilising a bit to end down 14 per cent, and rumours of a run on many Spanish banks did the rounds, the secretary of state for economy, Fernando Jimenez Latorre, assured investors there was no such development “as there is no need for one”.

Just two days earlier we, a group of visiting Indian journalists, were in Segovia and Toledo, sampling the best of cuisines — and, of course, Sangria, a delightful Spanish cocktail made from red wine, Cognac, crushed slices of orange, lemon or any other fruit the restaurant might fancy — that the region had to offer.

The previous day we had been mesmerised by the stunning flamenco performance at Las Carboneras, a Flamenco restaurant/bar in Madrid. I don't exaggerate when I say that, 72 hours later, I can still feel the energy, vibrancy and passion, the music and the magic beat of the dancers' feet.

As Anna and the other dancers held the diners at the packed restaurant spellbound by their performance, I marvelled at the variety of experiences — in art, culture, music and dance, food and wine, heritage and architecture, and, of course, its fascinating history — that Spain offers a visitor.

Return visitors

During an earlier olive oil trip in 2008, I had sampled the magic of the southern region of Spain at Cordoba, Granada and Seville, where the long Moorish influence is still evident, not to speak of the spectacular Alhambra. Small wonder then, that Arturo Ortiz Arduan, the Tourism counsellor at the Spanish embassy in India says, of the 58 million-odd tourists that Spain attracts annually, about 40 per cent have visited this beautiful Mediterranean country about 10 times. Surely that should be a sort of record in tourism!

“But the pity is that most of them think of Spain as only Barcelona and Madrid; hence we have taken you to Segovia and Toledo to show the diverse experiences that Spain has to offer.” The awe-inspiring architecture at the Alcazar at Segovia, where 22 kings and queens have stayed, as well as the magnificent splendour and magic of the Roman aqueducts, held us spell-bound.

But as we oohed and aahed over the amazing symmetry of the aqueducts built in the early 2nd century that have survived both natural and man-induced calamities, our guide Mariano observed drily: “Today, of course, the aqueducts bring more tourists than water. But the former are very vital for our economy”.

Returning to Madrid, one of the high points of our visit was lunch at the famous Botin restaurant, where artist Francisco de Goya once worked as a waiter before getting accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

The restaurant is historic, having been started in 1725; we reached it a few moments before 1 p.m., to find a long queue of people waiting for the restaurant to open its doors.

Hemingway table

While all kinds of celebrities have frequented this historic restaurant, where you can get a table only by reservation, for me the most thrilling part — even more than the delicious fried aubergine, gazpacho, tortilla, Iberian ham and croquettes — was to see the corner table where Ernest Hemingway had enjoyed many meals.

Joanna Wivell, our guide, is full of stories about the interesting history of the place, where smoking is not allowed.

Once, a visiting Russian First Lady suddenly expressed a desire to have a meal at the Botin restaurant, which had not been planned.

The team had not only to rustle up a delicious meal, that included, of course the famous Iberian Jamon (pronounced hamon) that comes from pigs that have been fed only on acorn, the windows had also to be thrown open to let out the smoke. “Russians smoke a lot, and you can't tell the members of a First Lady's entourage not to smoke,” laughs Joanna.

But juxtaposed against the delights that Madrid has to offer, such as the Prado museum, the awesome cathedrals, squares, fountains, the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium of Real Madrid (which I enjoyed through my younger son's eyes, having very little understanding of football), its awesome tapas bars, its flamenco and other restaurants… are its present financial woes, its restless population unhappy at the high rate of unemployment, austerity measures, political corruption. How the country grapples with the present phase of economic crisis, will shape its future.


> rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

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Published on May 21, 2012
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