After 60 days of strict lockdown I was feeling a bit claustrophobic, and frankly fairly hacked off, but actually since those restrictions were lifted in the summer, life has not been unduly limited.
Yes my work has disappeared along with international tourism, yes, it’s a pain not to be able to travel, yes it’s uncomfortable to have wear a face mask, yes it’s frustrating not to be able to meet up with people..., but all in all we are surviving - my family has (touch wood) so far avoided infection, we still have food on the table, my son has continued with his education both online and recently at school, we have mastered the technique of video-calling to keep in touch with distant loved ones, we have even managed to maintain, to some extent, a socially-distanced social life with a select group of friends!!!
We have tried to take every precaution without being paranoid, but despite these blessings I must admit I was getting a bit weary of our protective cocoon. So, I decided it was time to get out and see if there was still life out there…
After 4 months of self-inflicted semi-isolation, and suffering from severe tapas withdrawal syndrome, I decided to venture back into the centre of Madrid and check out its formerly buzzing food scene.
To be honest, Christmas time is far from my favourite time to be in the centre. Everything is usually swamped with a noisy crowd of shoppers and sightseers, so it was actually quite a relief to be able to stroll through an almost deserted Puerta del Sol. In fact, if you are looking for a plus-point to all of this, it is that you can wander through some of the most iconic and beautiful parts of Madrid in relative seclusion…
But at the same time, it is in the centre of Madrid where the sheer destruction of commerce and tourism is most evident.
The more I walked the somewhat desolate streets, the more depressed I became, as I saw boarded-up shop fronts every couple of doors, hotels with painted-up windows, and bars closed, some till further notice, some permanently. This could be a post-flood New Orleans, without the water. The wave of Covid-19 has truly decimated everyday business.
There was a grim quiet hanging over the normally raucous queue of be-masked people waiting 2m apart to buy their annual Christmas lottery ticket, in an attempt to achieve some semblance of normality, or maybe because betting on a prize is a necessary hope for them this year.
It really struck me that, whereas I might be cursing the virus and worried about when things will bounce back, even if they have kept their health, others’ livelihoods have already been destroyed, and for them there may be no coming back.
I nearly went home...
But then I stepped into a bar!!!!
An almost-forgotten but familiar feeling provoked by the cheer and and warmth of Madrid’s bar scene rushed back to embrace me (metaphorically of course and after a good coating of cleansing gel). Waiters, waitresses, owners, cooks offered effusive greetings and “long-time-no-sees”. Everyone exuded friendliness and solidarity and a certain amount of pride to be digging in and still operating.
The “guasa” or cheeky sense of humour that pertains to many Madrid waiters dispelled the clouds of doom and offered a breath of fresh air to go with the freshly painted and decorated establishments - another positive is that in the absence of clients nearly all the bars we visited had obviously taken the time to do a lot of “spring-cleaning”; walls gleamed white and rustic decoration had been polished to a sheen.
“Half of the workforce has been put on furlough or they are working in another bar, but we are still here and working even harder than ever, as now there are only 5 of us.” said Danny who runs Cervantes, one of the great bars we take people to on our tours. “But we are still joking, only you can’t see me smiling behind my mask... I’m saving a fortune on dental work!” he quipped.
In the city centre, while there are lots of great squares to sit out on, many of the fantastic side-street bars are unable to offer seating on open-air terraces through sheer lack of street space, but they have adapted the interiors of bars to offer socially-distanced table seating. Doors and windows are left open to keep things aired, sanitising gel is on offer at the door, individual plates are distributed and there is a distinct lack of paper serviettes strewn on the floor (something traditionally seen as a sign of a popular bar in times past)!!!
Everything felt controlled, clean and safe as I tucked into my pulpo, gambas al ajillo and tosta de setas. As delicious as ever, and gosh, how I had missed tapas...!!!
Sad though it is to see so many establishments out of business, it leaves a warm feeling to know that in the face of such adversity people remain upbeat and positive. I left refreshed of spirit and stuffed of tummy and with nothing but respect for the sheer resilience of Madrid's bar industry.
I will be back soon for another fix of my beloved-tapas and simply to enjoy the light-hearted atmosphere of a world I had feared may have disappeared, but which now I know is still out there, hanging on tooth and nail...
I always knew food and drink brought out the best in us.
Please read our next article TAPASSING IN TIMES OF COVID (2. Some practical advice) for some tips on how to get out tapassing safely.