It is a balmy July night in Madrid, and the narrow colonial sidewalks of the Chueca neighborhood are crowded with fashionably dressed Madrileños. Many of them patiently wait in line to get a table at some of the better restaurants and tapas bars in the cosmopolitan neighborhood. In any other place, one might expect this pulsating scene during the early hours of the evening. But this is Madrid, and it is well past midnight. Madrileños, as its citizens are called, are just getting started.
Madrid has it all backwards, or so it seems. Between noon and 4:00 PM. the citizens of this sprawling city go home for a long lunch and a nap. Most shops close, and the city calms down a bit. These are the habits expected from smaller towns, sleepy provinces that have not been touched by modernization.
Yet, the ways of a modern world, with longer working hours, and less leisure time, have encroached on Madrid. Until recently, the entire city shut down during the afternoon. Residents returned to work at 4:00 PM. and stayed at their jobs until about 8:00 PM. After work, many of them retired to restaurants, coffee shops, and tapas bars for long conversations with friends and family. Today more and more stores and businesses stay open all day, and fewer people have time for long lunches, even less a quick nap. The city’s night life, which made it famous around the world, has suffered a bit from Spain’s attempts to catch up economically with its European neighbors. Yet, Madrileños don’t give up easily. On any given night, especially on weekends, the streets continue to fill with late night revelers.
Madrileños, much like the citizens of many other capital cities, have been accused of snobbery. It is perhaps the weight of history that sustains this perceived aloofness. Madrid was once at the center of an empire that stretched over large parts of the globe. In the heart of Spain, it remained the center of cultural and political life for many centuries.
The city was actually founded by the Moors, who traveled across the Mediterranean from North Africa to conquer the Iberian Peninsula. During the Christian Reconquest, Madrid fell to a Castilian king, but it would not be named the capital city of Spain until 1561. Madrid suffered through all the ups and downs of an empire, including the occupation of the city by the French in the early 1800s. By the 1930s, Madrid was under heavy artillery fire, its citizens trying to defend the Republic after getting rid of the monarchy. Madrid eventually fell to the pro-monarchy forces (1939). From here, one of the most notorious dictators of the twentieth century, Francisco Franco, would rule the nation with a tight fist for more than three decades.