02 May 2009

May Day in Madrid

From Plaza de Cibeles to Sol, Calle de Alcala was a riot of red flags and banners, interspersed with a sprinkling of black-and-red anarchist banners and a good measure of old Spanish republican flags of red, yellow and purple (Photograph: Patrick Comeford)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday, 30 April

5 a.m: I’m waiting in the early morning in Dublin Airport to board a Ryanair flight to Madrid. I’ve failed to cross paths with my nephew, Ciaran, who is heading off at the same time to Kinshasa to take up a new posting in DR Congo. It’s good that the older generation can find heroes in the the younger generation, and not just find heroes and role models in the past.

5.30: Two familiar faces appear 20 metres away – Anthony Coughlan, formerly of Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Sovereignty Movement, and Declan Ganley of Liberas.

I always found Tony Coughlan’s take on the European project a bit too hard to swallow. It appears isolationist, irredentist and too close to a form of nationalism that I find bleak and frightening.

As for Declan Ganley and Libertas, their blend of anti-European rhetoric and all the phobias of the far-right frighten me when I consider the prospects for the next referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

These two men are obviously happy in each other’s company. But why does that cause me concern? Who’s the adviser and who’s the planner? I’m glad they’re not going to Madrid.

5.40: Boarding flight FR 7158 to Madrid. Michael O’Leary is there himself, scanning the barcodes and tearing the stubs off the check-in printouts. Whatever you think of the man’s attitude to his workforce or his crude way of gaining publicity, Michael has done more to bring the people of European capitals together than all the people in Libertas and the Irish Sovereignty Movement ever did.

He smiles, and I’m going down the steps to the plane before I realise who is. Should I go back and ask for a refund for my cancelled flight from Stansted in February?

9.30 a.m. Spanish time: Flight FR 7158 arrives on time in Madrid. There’s the usual cavalcade of trumpet sounds from Ryanair. Michael O’Leary takes his turn in the queue to leave the plane.

Do the flights he’s on always arrive on time? Is he ever late? Is he told he has too much baggage? Is he ever stupid enough to buy one of those silly scratch cards they try to sell me on every flight? I’m much more interested in getting my money back on my cancelled flights. But he was sitting in row 3, and is gone before I can get my one bag out of the overhead bin. Perhaps I should have thanked him for his own contribution to making Europe more united, more pleasant and more attractive.

11 a.m.: I’ve checked in at the Foxá 32 Hotel, close to the strange leaning Torres Puerta Europa at Plaza de Castilla and the former water-tower of Sala del Canal de Isabel II, now used for photographic exhibitions.

After a walk around the block, a short Metro journey to Plaza de Alonso Martinez, coffee on Calle de Genova, and a stroll through busy working streets, it was time to hop on an open-top bus at Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, and get a first impression of the principal sites and Madrid, and get my bearings.

My first impression is of a city that is endowed richly with centuries of architectural heritage and that has plenty of parks, trees, green spaces and fountains.

Back at Sol, its time to start walking and to see some of those sights close up.

2.30 p.m.: Plaza Mayor is full of mime artists, buskers, bands and street artists. It is tempting to linger just a little longer over late lunch, but I only have two days and I want to continue seeing some of those sights closer up.

The west end of Calle Mayor opens across to the Catedral de la Almudena. It is difficult to grasp why a modern cathedral, completed as late as 1993, should be built in High Gothic style, rather than reflecting contemporary, post-Vatican II understandings of the liturgy and the place of the people in the Church.

The frescoes in the apse are theologically exciting, but the shrine to the Virgen de la Almudena is overpowering and in the worst possible taste, while the side altar shrine to the founder of Opus Dei, José María Escrivá de Balsguer, is another distressing symbol of the darker undercurrents of Spanish Catholicism.

The disturbing priorities of the cathedral planners and builders are reflected in the decision to build the church facing south rather than the traditional eastward orientation, so that the principle façade faces out onto the Royal Palace, providing the royal family with the opportunity to stage its regal entrances on grand occasions.

8.30 p.m.: The Spanish gave us the Siesta, so it would have been churlish not to enjoy the pleasure of one, even if it was late and brief. After that, it was back to Plaza Mayor for dinner. This vegetarian was worried that Spanish omelette might have been the only alternative to tappas, tortilla and paella. The restaurants rimming the square may be tourist traps, but they offered good fare and good value, and with the buskers and street artists still filling the square it was as good as being in any pricey restaurant pretending to offer a floor show.

10.45 p.m.: The hotel bar is closed, but across the street Laredo is a working class bar offering a warm welcome. Few tourists probably stray in here, and the welcome and atmosphere are both authentic.

Friday 1 May:

After breakfast, it’s time to set off to see inside some of those magnificent sights that I only saw from the outside from the top of the red bus yesterday. But I had forgotten. This is May Day. Monday is the public holiday back in Ireland. But Spain endured decades of fascism and oppression, and of course May Day is celebrated on May Day in Madrid.

Art galleries such as the Museo del Prado and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza are closed – the workers have a day off.

But from Plaza de Cibeles to Sol, Calle de Alcala is a riot of red flags and banners, interspersed with a sprinkling of black-and-red anarchist banners and with a good measure of old Spanish republican flags of red, yellow and purple. If the right can be triumphal in the Catedral de la Almudena, then at least on May Day the streets of Madrid belong to the left and to the workers. In Plaza de Cibeles, even Cybele and her chariot were bedecked in red and republican colours.

The Prime Minister made a brave decision to turn up as most of those who spoke at the closing rally condemned the close link between the government and Spain’s financial institutions, and blamed the government for a share in Spain’s current economic woes.

I was impressed by the speed with which the streets were cleaned up afterwards – the workers of Madrid looked after their city. The churches I tried to visit were closed – including Colegiata de San Isidro, which served as the city’s cathedral for centuries, the Basilica Pontifica de San Miguel, now run by Opus Dei, the parish church of Santa Cruz, next door to the Foreign Ministry, Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, where Goya is buried, and the Anglican Church of Saint George.

But as I stroll in the atmospheric streets south of Plaza Mayor, elderly couples proudly display lapel pins with the flag of Republican Spain. They endured decades of suffering and oppression and cruelty throughout the Franco years. Now they are having their day in the sun. May Day is a day to celebrate for those who have struggled for human rights and the rights of workers.

Saturday 2 May:

8.30 a.m.: Instead of getting the Metro back to the airport, I opt for a taxi. On the north side of the city, looking back towards Madrid, the leaning twin towers of Torres Puerta Europa at Plaza de Castilla stand out above the skyline. Madrid is an architecturally exciting city and Spain is a modern democracy that can be proud of its pace in Europe today.

9 a.m.: Waiting at the Ryanair desk in Terminal 1, I wonder if Michael O’Leary will be on the flight today. Then there’s an announcement: a flight has been delayed for an hour. I think it’s mine and stroll off for a much needed espresso. If the flight is delayed he can’t be here, and there’s no point in looking for that refund.

But I was wrong. Flight FR7159 is not delayed … it is a flight to Marrakech that is an hour late. I rush back, and board the 10.10 flight to Dublin.

On board, I catch up with what’s been happening in Irish politics. Declan Ganley spent May Day in Rome, sharing a platform with a Spanish activist who demands a “white Europe,” and disturbingly far-right politicians from the Czech Republic, France, Poland and even one from Italy who is unrestrained in his admiration for Mussolini. So much for May Day and workers’ rights.

11.40: The plane arrives on time in Dublin. And another fanfare of trumpets. Once again, Ryanair has succeeded in bringing the capitals of Europe closer together. Declan Ganley and Tony Coughlan can keep each other and their friends. Give me Michael O’Leary any day. I’m glad I spent May Day in Madrid and not in Rome.

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