I loved Barcelona, and kept returning, but I hadn't really thought about anywhere else in Spain. As far as I was concerned Spain was Catalunya, and that was that. But one day I was sitting in a hotel lobby talking to an American guy who insisted I should go to Madrid. I wasn't so sure. I looked at the place on the map. The city was miles from anywhere, stuck in a hollow surrounded by mountain ranges, cut off from every other part of Spain. What on earth did anyone want to go to Madrid for?
A couple of days later I climbed aboard a train. I couldn't believe what I saw. I'd thought trains in Spain were crummy ancient cattle boxes. I'd seen and heard some of them clanking by. This, however, was different. It was clean and ultra modern, and pulled into a part of the station where the platforms were built up, just like in the UK. The internal doors were electrically operated.
There was very soft canned music coming out of the loudspeakers, and the carriages had some kind of climate control, which pumped out cool slightly scented air. I walked up and down entranced. I had never been on a train like this before. When we finally pulled out of the station the train ran so smoothly I could hardly feel it moving. The ticket collector came round, and I started chatting to him. He was very proud of his train, which even had a special name: Talgo.
It was a very important line, the most important in Spain. There was no proper road from Barcelona to Madrid. The main road went to Bilbao, not to Madrid. If you wanted to go to Madrid you had to use the train.
And do you come from Madrid?" I asked. I wanted some tips on where to go when I got there.
The guard pulled himself up, looked offended, and pointed out that he came from Zaragoza, and that he only travelled from Zaragoza to Barcelona. Another guard did the section from Zaragoza to Madrid.
These bloody Spaniards! They get up your nose. So pompous, so damned provincial! No-one it seemed had a good word to say about Madrid. My friend at the theatre box office had told me there was nothing to see in the town.
"The Prado?" I suggested.
He made a few non-committal noises, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "You can go to the Prado and see old things. Everywhere in Madrid you will see old stuff. There is nothing new there. New things don't happen in Madrid. Modern painters go to Paris. There aren't any modern painters in Spain. Writers go to Argentina. There aren't any modern writers in Spain. Movies are made in Almeria, but the film industry is centred in Barcelona, not in Madrid. For the theatre you must stay in Barcelona, there is nothing in Madrid. There is no business in Madrid. You need to come to Barcelona for business. The factories are in Barcelona and Bilbao. They have no factories in Madrid."
"So what is there in Madrid?"
My friend looked down his nose and said with obvious distaste, "In Madrid you have civil servants, government officials, and...." he waved an arm in the air "the others."
I didn't question him about the others. I knew he meant the people on the wrong side of the civil war. One didn't speak about them.
I decided I would have to see the rest of Spain. I decided to travel to the south, and to Estremadura, wherever that was. But first I would see Madrid.
And here I am getting out of the train at the central station. What's my next move?
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