If you are a tourist and are in Madridfor the first time, you may find it slightly jarring that Holy Thursday and Good Friday are holidays in the city. It’s like that for much of the country, but not all. The Basque Country, Catalonia, Valencia (and I believe the Balearic Islands – Mallorca and Ibiza, etc.) do not observe Holy Thursday as a bank holiday but do close down for Good Friday as well as Easter Monday, which is not the case in Madrid, unless you work at a school. Commerical Madrid taes Thursday and Friday off, but not Monday. Do you follow?
And even so, the closed element of it all is relative, since many restaurants and bars stay open to reap in some business while the residents look for something to do. That’s a remarkable change from even twenty years ago, when most of the city would shut down completely. And if you go back to the Franco times, it was even more extreme. One of the most cited examples of how repressive the regime could get was that during Semana Santa, you couldn’t even go to the movies. This lamentation has been expressed to me by numerous people over the past two decades, so the despair seemed to be widespread. That and the fact men had to cross the French border to buy girlie magazines.
Now, when I think of hardcore dictatorships, other more shocking images and acts come to mind than having to stay at home and read a book. Careful, I am not belittling the cruelty of the fascist rule here, which could be harsh and unforgiving, but it does fascinate me that these sorts of details, like being deprived of an evening at the cinema, are seen as such restrictive measures. What about free speech and the right to vote?
Oh, well. Things have come a long way since then, and night life appeared to be hardly dented by the religious motive behind the long weekend, and that is because there are two Semana Santas: one is the spiritual period remembering the final days of Christ, and the other is a kind of kick-off to the coming summer months of revelry. It’s vacation time.
This was evident right after the first procession when me and two friends who were recent fathers for the third time respectively, went for a couple of beers at the nearby pub called La Fontana de Oro. La Fontana was a classic turn-of-the-century café known for its enviable intellectual atmosphere. Often tight-knit groups of men, mostly men, would get together and discuss the latest of anything…politics, religion, science, art. These talks were known as tertulias. They still are. Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Hotel circle would be an American example of that.
La Fontana resuscitated in the 1990s when it recovered its Golden Age feel to it while adding an Irish pub touch. In fact, it was a hybrid and even prototype of the Irish pub that would invade the city not long afterward. And it’s been going strong ever since…both bar and movement.
But La Fontana hasn’t stopped evolving. I was a little taken aback by the two huge and intimidating doormen limiting access, and the music inside was the kind you listen to in Ibizan August. Some Spaniards but mostly foreigners, and ages of the clientele ranged from about 18 to…19.
We felt a little out of place, needless to say.
Downstairs, things were a little quieter, but only in relative way, like being in a room that tests hammer durability. I sat in a booth with my back to a big-screen TV the size of my living room beneath the deep and throbbing bass beat pumping in the floor above. Not a single intellectual thought came to mind.