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Chapter Four - Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol

OH yes, I know that here I ought to discuss many other matters, such as the history of Madrid, the view on the Manzanares, the gardens in Buen Retiro, the royal palace with the guardsmen in red and shouting bevy of pretty children in the courtyard, a whole lot of churches and museums and other main sights. If it interests you, please read it up elsewhere; all I offer you is the Puerta del Sol, and just as a special favour for you, I will add Calle de Alcalá and Calle Mayor, together with the tepid evenings and all the people of Madrid.

There are sacred places in the world; that are the most beautiful streets in the world, the beauty of which is irrational and mysterious as a myth.
There is the Cannebière in Marseilles; there is the Rambla in Barcelona; there is the Alcalá in Madrid.

If you were to detach them from their surroundings, boiling them down and depriving them of their life and all their small local odours, and then put them elsewhere, you would not notice anything remarkable about them; why, you would say, this is quite a nice wide street, but what else is there? What else, O ye of little faith? Don’t you see that this square is sacred, nay more, that the world-renowned Puerta del Sol, the Gate of the Sun, is the centre of the world and the naval of Madrid?

Don't you see how this priest, more dignified and stately than any other priest in the world, is wending his way along, with his cloak tucked beneath his arm like a soldier with a rolled great-coat. And here this Spanish hidalgo, disguised as a gendarme in a shiny hat dented at the back; another caballero probably a marquis or something of that sort, with an aquiline nose and the voice of a crusader leading his warriors, is shouting El Sooól! or the name of some other newspaper; and here again is a conquistador, leaning on a broom, and with sculptural gestures performing an allegory of some kind, perhaps the Cleansing of the City.

But here are some pleasant people; lean and sunburnt peasants from the Sierras, bringing vegetables and melons with them on the backs of donkeys; enough red, blue and green uniforms to mount a dozen decorative ballets; limpiabotas with their small stands -

Wait a bit : this is a chapter all to itself and headed : boot cleaning.

Spanish boot-cleaning is a dance, which, like the Siamese dances, is performed only with the hands. The dancer kneels down before you as a sign that this performance is being held in honour of Your Lordship; with an elegant movement he turns up your trousers, with a graceful pass he smears the respective footwear with a fragrant salve of something of that sort, whereupon he indulges in a frenzied set of dancing movements; he flings the brush up-wards, seizes it again, slaps it across from one hand to the other, allowing it to touch your boots in a respectful and flattering manner. The meaning of this dance is clear : it expresses respect; you are a magnificent grandee, receiving the ceremonious homage of a knightly page.

Accordingly, a magnificent and agreeable warmth, mounting from the feet, spreads inside you; which is certainly worth half a peseta.

Oiga, camerero, una copita de Fundador. You know, caballeros, this has quite taken my fancy : all this crowd, this noise, which is not an uproar, the gay courtesy, the charm ; all of us are cavaliers, tramp and custodian of the law, I and the crossing-sweeper, we are all of noble birth, wherefore long live southern equality !

Madrileñas, you handsome long-nosed woman in black mantillas with your dark optics, with what dignity do you bear yourselves in your half-concealment; señoritas with dark-eyed mamas, mamas and their babies with small round pates, like dolls; fathers who are not ashamed of their love for their children, old women with rosaries, good-humoured fellows with the faces of brigands, beggars, gentlemen with gold teeth, pedlars, caballeros one and all ; a bright and bustling crowd which chats and strolls in a good–tempered allegro.

But the evening comes, the air is steeped in warmth and has a keen savour; the whole of Madrid, if it has legs at all, is walking, thronging and surging from Calle Mayor as far as Calle de Alcalá ; caballeros in uniforms, caballeros in plain clothes, in sombreros and caps, girls of all denominations, viz, madamiselas, doncellas and muchachas, señoritas and mozas and chulas, madamas and señoras, dueñas, dueñazas and dueñisimas, hijas, chicas, chiquitas and chiquirriticas with dark eyes behind the dark mantilla, with red lips, red finger-nails and dark side-glances, all promenading, a festival of workaday, a processional demonstration of amorous and flirtatious charm, a pleasure of eyes, an avenue of endless erotic enchantment.

Cannebière, Rambla, Alcalá : the most delightful streets in the world ; streets which overflow with life, like a goblet with wine.