A Sense of Spain - 2
That modern Spain is a country of tensions may be a statement of the obvious, but it is the key to understanding Madrid, its capital city. Some spring from the fault lines – religious and political – laid down through Spain's years of global power; others – notably in Catalunya and the Basque country – reflect deeply-felt distinctions in culture and language; while still others, as in the USA, track the scars left from the Civil War (1936-39); and lastly, there are issues arising from 20th century human migration and decades of unbalanced economic growth, funded by lending from an aggressive, sometimes reckless, banking system. Where and when these overlap, latent fissures open and tensions emerge.
And so to Madrid - at the epicentre of all this. Capital of Spain since 1561 when Philip II decided to move his Court from Valladolid to a more central location; at an altitude of 6000 metres, boiling hot in mid-summer and freezing cold in December and January; twice “invaded”, first by Napoleon Bonaparte and then by the Nationalist forces of General Franco; today a city of over 3 million “madrilenos”; and, as the historic centre of Castille, also custodian of the Spanish language.
Madrid's great art galleries give perhaps the most vivid insight into Spain's rise and subsequent decline. Go first to El Prado; at the point where two corridors meet, you have a direct view of “Las Meninas”, Velásquez’s study (1656) of Hapsburg pomp and confidence at its apogee (and of himself too!) while in the other direction you can see Goya's painting of the Bourbon “Family of Carlos IV” (1800), on the surface still ablaze with power, and yet underneath full of intrigue, deceit and bitter rivalry - a dysfunctional family if ever there was one! Downstairs, you can find Goya's paintings of the 2nd and 3rd May, 1808 uprising in Madrid (by then in the hands of Napoleon's brother Joseph); and lastly, the same painter's “Pinturas negras” - surely some of the most disturbing images of human frailty ever created. “Fast forward” then (about 200 metres down the Paseo del Prado) to Museo Reina Sofia. and the work which, more than any other, captures the savage brutality of modern civil war and foreign intervention – Guernica. Picasso himself spend most of the 1939-45 War in Paris, where he was considered a decadent artist and accordingly received frequent visits from the Gestapo. On one such occasion, the German officer noticed on the artist's desk a post-card sized copy of Guernica: “Interesting” he said, “Did you do it?” “No”, replied Picasso, “you did”.
On a slightly lighter note, another insight to modern Spain is available (if you're lucky) at the Bernabeu Stadium, home of the city's and, arguably, the nation's most illustrious soccer club – Real Madrid. The most successful team in European competition, at one stage said to be bankrolled by the Bank of Spain, Real Madrid undoubtedly owed much of its early success to General Franco. To win the Spanish Civil War, General Franco and his Nationalist (largely monarchist and catholic) forces had to capture Madrid, then home to the democratically-elected Republican (largely left wing and secular) Government. This he achieved in 1939 after a siege lasting 3 years, during which the majority of madrilenos suffered unrelenting privation and brutality. To win over the hearts and minds of those he had “conquered”, Franco came up with two “brainwaves”: first, the “menu del dia” obligation on all cafés and restaurants; and secondly, direct patronage of Real Madrid. The first was, and still is, very successful; the second, many would argue, may well have benefited Real Madrid, but only at the cost of deepening the divide between Madrid/Castille and Barcelona/Catalunya. You only have to watch the biannual matches between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona - “El Gran Clasico” - to get a sense of how profound that gulf has become - even though Franco is long dead and Spain's national team, made up mainly of players from Real Madrid and Barcelona, won the 2012 World Cup.
Despite the teeming crowds, busy bars, restaurants and shops, it is possible to come away from Madrid feeling that it is little more than the legacy of its past, that in post-Franco Spain, it is struggling to make a global impact in the same way that Barcelona has done; that for all the panoply of royalty and government, the most poignant testament to its role in the modern world is the plaque in Puerta del Sol commemorating those killed in the Atocha bombing of 11th March 2004.