Story and photo by Alyse Walsh
Spain is a nation of relatively new beginnings with extremely old roots. Less than 40 years ago, it was a country under Franco’s strict conservative rule. Evidence of its rebellion and rebirth can be seen throughout Spanish culture. On my first trip out of Madrid, to the city of Segovia, whose protective walls date back to the 8th century, I noticed a clear juxtaposition of the old and new.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in this ancient city, which sits an hour north of Madrid, is the still intact, Roman aqueduct that runs through the city center. It was built during the first and second centuries B.C.E. during the Roman occupation of the region and still stands tall as a marvel of ancient architecture and a blatant reminder of the history of Segovia. It is an incredible sight to see, with166 pillars and arches balanced and engineered without any type of cement.
Yet, while standing before one of the oldest structures I had ever seen, I was distracted by the ghostly figure of a woman that was spray-painted on cardboard and propped against the aqueduct. Her huge white eyes, single red tear and low-hung breasts somehow captivated me more than the history that surrounded me. I thought of modern Segovianos. Their contemporary art was screaming to be seen, but tourists came for the historical cathedrals, the Roman architecture, and the fortresses. Although dwarfed in size by the power and history of the immense aqueduct, the graffiti art caught everyone’s eye and camera flashes began to shutter.
The strategic placement of history and modernity struck me on other occasions.
In Salamanca, a beautiful city full of Renaissance architecture and glowing gold sandstone buildings, the nightlife abounded. This city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and, like Madrid, its younger population makes the city’s pulse thump all night long. “Spain has two things: cathedrals and bars,” joked the tour guides in Salamanca.
And so we saw both of them. The barhopping and dancing ended in the early morning, emptying crowds into the cobblestone streets as we began our group tour of the cathedral. The cathedral in Salamanca was breathtaking, consisting of la vieja – the 12th century Roman portion of climbing pillars and rounded arches – connected to la nueva – the “new” Gothic cathedral whose construction began in the 16th century. The irony in these classifications grew all the more deliberate as graffiti artists, once again, set up shop just outside this historical structure.
A DJ began spinning Spanish rap and hip-hop, mixed with some American beats, while artists sprayed white wooden boards. Images came to life before my eyes. It seemed that Spain’s youth was itching to break free of their traditional confines and show the world that aside from the history, they have parties too.
When I arrived in the dry heat of Madrid for six weeks of summer classes, I expected lazy, siesta-filled afternoons and cooler evenings spent sipping wine at terrace cafés. I quickly learned that while the siestas were still very much in place, the nights in Madrid were long and hot.
Most wine sipping occurs in the beginning of the evening—a tame prelude to the night ahead. And although Madrid’s metro closes at 2 a.m., this is when the night begins.
The bigger nightclubs are packed with a wild, younger crowd until 5 or 6 a.m., but it seems to be more of an international mix of students and visitors that frequent these joints. Madrileños, local Madrid inhabitants, might not be seen in these touristy dives, but their nights are just as wild and end just as late.
In fact, I lived in the apartment of a thirty-something working woman who, on most nights, came in far later than her 21-year-old roomie. Holding her head most mornings, one of the first words she taught me was resaca, a hangover.
My bedroom window was always open, welcoming the little breeze that Madrid offers. Along with the weak drafts came the shouts and songs of drunken madrileños stumbling home in the soft light of the early morning hours. Rather than annoy me, however, these quirks of Madrid made me appreciate the blossoming city even more.