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Clive Martin Goes Missing in Madrid

I was starting to see Europe in a completely different way.
July 14, 2014, 1:00pm

To read the first part in Clive's London-hating journey across Europe, click here.

There is no less romantic way to arrive in a city than pulling up at a deserted bus station at 5AM, sticky-backed and shaky after failing asleep on an eight-hour coach ride. I'd just arrived in Madrid, the capital of Spain, the city of Franco, Goya, Raúl, tapas, fascism, bullfighting and Hemingway, and all I could see was empty Avis booths and puffy-faced American tourists half-sleeping on steel benches. At airports they have flags, murals, armed police, warm welcomes and souvenir shops. At coach terminals they just have vending machines and misery.

Stepping out into the warm early morning, I took a cab to the hostel I'd booked online just hours before, trusting a few anonymous commenters with my life and luggage. The taxi swerved through the grand old boulevards of imperialist Europe, passing big white buildings dressed up with a gold trim, highways built for tank processions and parks that back onto palaces. My driver changed gears silently and coughed loudly. I once again began to ask myself what the fuck I was doing in Spain. According to my emails, a few other people were asking the same question.

The girl at the hostel let me in and gave me a free McDonald's map of the city, which conveniently eschewed just about everything you'd want to see in Madrid in favour of a smattering of Golden Arches. Once I'd been let into my room I couldn't sleep. Not one bit. Not even after some weird Euro-valium I'd bought over the counter from a dodgy Lisbon chemist. Instead, I found myself staring at the off-white, easy-clean ceiling through a wormhole of fatigue, lingering in a weird state of near elation, my wrists trembling and my jaw aching.

My motor skills had gone to fuck, so I walked out into the city in search of some kind of protein fix – ideally something hot that contained processed cheese and local ham. I was past the threshold by this point, having left merely "tired" behind in Portugal. In the kind of quasi-narcotic state I'd imagine long-distance lorry drivers could empathise with, I felt like I was gliding across the hot mosaic pavements, knocking into kiosks and narrowly avoiding oncoming taxis, all with a smile on my face. A knackered zombie in search of a bocadillo.

I had no idea where I was going – "forward" was the only direction I had in mind. The streets of Madrid soon seemed to congeal into a kind of undulating mass of museums, hotels, Ronaldo shirts and Iberico hams. I walked to the Museo Reina Sofía, wondering whether the chaos of Guernica would somehow pull me out of this trembling, dead-footed euphoria. But it was closed, so instead I found myself nursing an Estrella and a bowl of crisps I didn't ask for at a bar run by Spanish crusties in Bad Religion T-shirts. After that experience, I went back to the hostel and failed to sleep again.

(Photo by Sergio Albert Avilés)

A few beers later I found myself wandering the city, a newfound enthusiasm spurred on not just by the beers, but by that unique feeling of sticky, sweet metropolitanism that European cities on summer nights seem to exude. In a place like Madrid, there's this all-encompassing sense that something is going on, even on a Tuesday night. A feeling that the world hasn't been deadened by scheduling and responsibilities. A buzz, a vibe – whatever you want to call it – that's distinctly rare in the UK.

I wondered where that comes from. Is it because the weather is better and the drinks are cheaper? Maybe. But there are places with better weather and cheaper drinks that don't come close to that same feeling. Is it that famous Latin temperament? An easier approach to life? A greater respect for alcohol and a more civilised drinking culture? Possibly. But I think the heart of it is that great cities don't treat their visitors like visitors.

Go to Madrid and, for the most part, you'll be treated like a Madridista. The city is yours; you're free to experience the lives and loves of its residents, to drink cold glasses of Mahou, cheer on the football and stand at the bar eating patatas bravas with the locals. In London you're a fucking tourist, and if you don't have the foresight to get out of Zone 1 you're probably going to be ripped off, mocked, segregated and sighed at on the tube. But in a city that invites its passers-by in for a drink rather than spitting at them for not knowing how to operate the Oyster machines, the nightlife and the feeling of wellness in general is enhanced. Because these people aren't forced to adhere to the 9-to-6 existence, the city is good vibes most of the time. If you're planning to drop into London between a Tuesday and a Thursday, you'd probably have more fun sticking around at the Stansted Travelodge.

I watched Colombia vs Japan in a small bar on an overflowing Calle De Somewhere, and it was full of Japanese and Colombians. It was, of course, amazing – I felt like a citizen of the world, rather than just a day-tripper in a city that resents its day-trippers. Sadly, a tourist's love affair with London will always be an unrequited one.

A tapestry of Guernica. Not the original, but at least you have an idea of what I was looking at. (Photo via)

After a few more drinks and another Euro-vally I finally got some fucking sleep, and the next day I went to the Real Madrid museum. That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and Guernica – which I saw afterwards – wasn't as good as I thought it would be. Being a tourist isn't as predictable as the cliches suggest.

I couldn't stick around in Madrid forever, of course; the next stage of this existential tour of Europe was upon me, and before that was a small matter of a 13-hour coach ride from the middle of Spain to the north of France, trudging across mountains and the endless fields of L'hexagone in some vague attempt to get home.

I arrived at the same coach station I'd pulled into 36 hours earlier, still phoneless, still bookless, still alone and still adamant I wasn't going to pack it in and jump on an EasyJet to Heathrow. While waiting to board I noticed the huge amount of people around me – locals, Koreans, French and West Africans all standing on the same coach platform. Surely they couldn't all be getting on the same bus? As a few of them started to board I realised that most of these people weren't here to get on, but to say goodbye.

Despite what Richard Curtis might want you to believe, it's rare that you see that kind of thing at airports. Once you're past the check-in gates, people waiting for planes are just lonely lost souls drinking pints, buying sunglasses and eating herb chicken wraps. But at coach stations, extended families travel en masse to greet and say goodbye to each other. They hug, they cry, they walk alongside the coach as it begins to pull out.

Why are these displays of emotion so much stronger at coach stations than at any other travelling platform? National Express posters and Burger King concessions are hardly very Brief Encounter, are they? I think it's probably because the people who are travelling on coaches aren't economically fortunate enough to be able to redeye-and-AirBnB it into some other city for a couple of meetings. When people go away on coach, chances are they won't be coming back for a long time. They definitely aren't part of that moneyed, Monocle-reading culture of jetting around the world to sample new boutique hotels and saké speakeasies. They are going because they are going. 

(Photo by Melchior Ferradou Tersen)

Most of the people on my coach weren't heading to Paris for a quick visit to the city of love. For a start, I knew this because it was going to take them 13 hours to get there. But more than that, I got the sense that they unlike me they weren't travelling, they were going, moving, changing. Suddenly my own crises of air travel and busted relationships, and my angst surrounding my own place in the world felt very small indeed; suddenly, I felt like a fucking tourist again.

The bus swerved through the city in the direction of the suburbs, towards their sun-baked tower blocks and multiplex cinemas, onto the A-roads and into the hills just north of Madrid, where deep valleys of what looked like oversized broccoli gave way to the slate grey moon rock of northern Spain.

But eventually the scenery built itself up again, into municipal motorway emptiness – long, straight roads flecked with blue signs for service stations and second-tier cities. The guy sitting beside me – a young Angolan lad with a fake Prada bag and a Spanish Iniesta shirt – tried to start a leg-space race, while avoiding anything bordering on eye contact. In the end we learned to respect each other's space, a silent agreement slowly forming between us.

This being a 13-hour coach journey there was on-board entertainment. But the only English-language movies available were mega-flop John Carter, 27 Dresses, Slumdog Millionaire and that movie with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried in it. I tried to watch John Carter but had to turn it off, realising that even counting lampposts was probably less tedious. In the end I made do with watching One Day in Spanish, and the Timberlake movie, which was actually sort of amazing.

As the motorway salidas became motorway sorties and the landscape seemed to flatten out, the French border pigs boarded the coach. Passports were examined and a few people were ushered off into lonely brick cabins at the side of the road. One young man in a garish vest and hat combination was separated from his family, who looked on in hushed, worried horror, seemingly in an effort not to draw attention to themselves. The coach rumbled on, later and lighter than it was supposed to be. On this coach I'd witnessed a Europe so far removed from BA's city-hopper deals that it seemed like a different continent altogether. For the first time I was actually glad I was on a coach. This wasn't holidaying, it was travelling.

(Photo by Hugo Denis-Queinec)

We rumbled on, the drivers swapped seats and the sun began to rise somewhere north of Bordeaux. I knew I was in France spiritually – as well as geographically – when I found myself paying £8 for a ham and cheese croissant and an orange juice. We stopped in Tours, which I could have sworn was where Blue Is The Warmest Colour had been shot, but then I wondered if I was just being one of those American-style tourists who thinks every old man in sunglasses they see in Paris is Jean-Paul Belmondo. Four hours later we were somewhere on the edge of the Boulevard Périphérique and the world seemed to have come to life again.

Paris isn't a city with a famous skyline; Hausmann never really went higher than seven storeys. The Arc de Triomphe is obscured by out-of-town shopping centres, multiplex cinemas and shoe factories when you're on that famous, torturous ring road around the city. For all you know, you could be in Belgrade or Dundee.

But look closely and there's one sign of the clichéd, snow globe version Paris feared by the Japanese, adored by Woody Allen and hated by the people forced to live in its suburbs: The Eiffel Tower, that rusty beacon of Europeanism that towers high above the antiquated nucleus of the city. Some of the people on this coach would maybe be going to the top of it; some of them might end up selling miniature plastic replicas directly below it. But, for now, we were all staring up in a state of knackered rapture at that great symbol of the European dream. Give or take another hour of traffic, we had arrived.


Previously: 'Fuck London': Why Clive Martin Went Missing in Europe