They say travel broadens the mind. It works for me. After a family Christmas, the Traffords went their separate ways and two of us finished the festive season with old friends in Madrid.
The Spanish take New Year seriously. By 3pm on New Year’s Eve shops were closing, not to reopen until January 2: the capital was holding its breath.
To see in the New Year we booked a table in a taberna and rolled up for what the Spaniards consider an early start, 9.30pm. Expecting to spin out the evening beyond midnight, we were surprised to be chucked out at 11.45 as all the staff also put on their coats, grabbed a bottle of Cava and took to the streets.
Madrid doesn’t possess a focal point like Trafalgar Square, nor a river like the Thames, so there weren’t spectacular fireworks. But madrileños descend on a central square, the Puerta del Sol, or as close as they can get to it (we were several hundred yards away).
Nearly everyone in that vast crowd followed the Spanish tradition of eating a dozen grapes while the clock strikes midnight. I never heard a clock, but we gulped down our allotted grapes. There was an atmosphere of hilarity, noisy celebration, but not a hint of threat, danger or even excessive drinking. It was entirely good-natured partying.
We also ate at the world’s oldest restaurant, displaying its certificate from the Guinness Book of Records. In continuous operation since 1725, Botín lurks under the massive buttresses of the 17th-Century Plaza Mayor, and still uses its original wood-fired oven which produced us a hearty roast dinner al español.
For lunches we foraged in the nearby Mercado de San Miguel, a cast-iron market building now dedicated exclusively to (fairly posh) food and drink. Madrileños and tourists alike wander round with a glass of wine, purchasing bite-size Spanish delicacies from dozens of stalls.
I realise I’ve talked more about the food than about the cultural experience. The Prado and Thyssen galleries house mind-blowing art collections: but perhaps that mix reflects my idea of a good city-break.
I like meeting people, too. Everywhere we encountered French, Dutch, Germans and Italians, tourists like us. Nonetheless, all seemed to sit comfortably with the city’s easy-going Spanish inhabitants. We enjoyed finding restaurants and cafés that they, not merely we tourists, choose; conducting friendly, interesting conversations in an atrociously ungrammatical mix of our two languages; and finding, as so often, that the city’s inhabitants are simultaneously fiercely proud of their home and nationality, warmly welcoming and ready to talk to visitors. The culture is open and infinitely ready to extend a friendly greeting to outsiders.
Yes, travelling did broaden my mind, as well as my waistline. Madrid’s fine buildings and relaxed friendliness reminded me strongly of Newcastle, where people are similarly ready to talk.
Returning to the UK, I couldn’t miss the contrast. News coverage of fears over immigration, not to mention pre-election mud-slinging already under way, reminded me that we need to learn from other cultures, not fear them.
We should seek to lower barriers, communicate and share with our European neighbours much more readily. We shouldn’t permit politicians’ agendas to us turn us inwards so we see “outside” as a threat and build our walls higher. There’s a lot wrong with the European Union: but the fault lies with a complacent, inefficient political structure whose bureaucracy spreads like bindweed and perpetuates itself, not with people, ordinary Europeans.
Whatever UK government is elected in May, it must cut back Europe’s sprawling inefficiencies and shake off its madder control mechanisms (not human rights, however!) But don’t confuse that strangling political machinery with the righteous desire to create a harmonious European family of nations. That family wants to live with us in brotherhood and share the great richness that is European culture.
Perhaps anti-Europe “Little Britishers” should travel a bit. It might broaden their minds.
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.