Madrid notebook: Guidebooks are crap
Dog-ear your Frommer’s, read and re-read Lonely Planet till the pages turn as soft as chamois, steep yourself in the wonky elegance of that heavy-as-hell DK: Travel guidebooks lie.
Spanish food writer Penelope Casas wrote one of the best—anyway, one of the most personal. Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide is a region-by-region guide to restaurants, food markets, hotels, and tourist sites. Casas knows her shit, especially food. She wrote The Foods and Wines of Spain, published in 1982. In Paella! (1999), her enthusiasm was so deep it sought expression in punctuation. But Discovering Spain is Casas’—I don’t know—A la recherche. More than a guidebook, it’s a book of opinions about Spain, a country she knows like most of us know the layout at Target. Trouble is, Discovering Spain is as persuasive as it is useless.
Which, despite what it sounds like, is no slam on Casas. She’s diligent. But preparing yourself for travel with a book is like prepping yourself for your first blowjob by reading literary porn.
That’s because nothing prepares you for the walk up the stairs of Madrid’s Gran Via Metro station on a Saturday afternoon, in the midst of a micro-scale simulacrum of Times Square, hoisting your suitcase when its wheels become useless on the steps. Nothing prepares you for the sidewalk, for the old man lurching forward on double canes, or the rich, delicious stink of burning diesel. Nothing prepares you for the sapped, sexy delivery kid with saggy pants and a dolly stacked with Coke, or the pair of women in hajafs—sheathed down to their feet—moving in graceful tandem.
Casas can’t prepare you for the traffic, for the glare of the sun, or the young guy flexing—paused at a stoplight at the entrance to La Chueca, Madrid’s gay ghetto—with stubble, tightass jeans, and a tee shirt that reads STORK, red letters on black, checking out the curve of his bicep in a window reflection.
Casas’ book doesn’t tell you about Madrid’s late-night porn channel, a continuous loop of jump cuts—nude women squirming, a shiny black dildo pressed up against skin, phone-sex numbers flashing on the screen. Instead, Casas gives you idyllic impressions of a decidedly more wholesome Madrid, circa summer 1962:
Evenings I would visit the Plaza Mayor, where outdoor cafes and tabernas spilled over with high-spirited Madrilenos, and from there I would descend to the gently curved Cava Baja, where I’d spend hours at cave like taverns called mesones. There was no need to purchase theater or movie tickets or have a specific place to go; singing, music and dance filled the streets, and one could join in; lively conversation was to be found everywhere.
Nothing in that description prepares you for the guy in stale club clothes outside Club XY, pissing in the street—without touching his penis—at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday, his girlfriend slouched against a car, lighting a smoke with a blank look. Or the bitchy-looking girl in caramel-yellow pleather, holding her counter space at the Mallorquina by force of a furious look that warns she’ll fuck you up if you try to elbow in for a coffee; or the Mallorquina’s counter man in black tie and short sleeves, hairy forearms splotchy with ancient bluish tattoos. Doesn’t prepare you for the old lady on the Metro, the one with a face of graceful collapse, like the skinned lambs’ heads displayed in the carnicerias.
No way Casas warns you about the stink of BO everywhere—like on the bus to Toledo, through a harsh Castilian landscape of umbrella pines and discount furniture centers, where it blends with the smell of onion-and-vinegar potato chips on the breath of the girls seated behind you, mingling with the ghosts of recently smoked cigs and orange-scented toilet water.
But it’s the funk where you find Spain—gorgeous, stinking, flickering—as surely as in the taste of anchovies doused in vinegar. It lingers on your fingertips. —John Birdsall