Friday, July 20, 2007

Madrid (III): vs. Barcelona

It's not just about soccer.
Granted, I am still smarting from seeing a thoroughly inferior Madrid team take the title from my poor, injury plagued Barca a few weeks ago. But the battle takes place on a more profound level: which city is better? The question is timeless; hardly a day passes without someone asking me, upon discovering that I’ve lived in both places, which city I prefer.

People seem convinced that Spain is just too small for 2 big, world-class cities*. So, as the prophet Biggie Smalls once said, “Somebody’s got to die. If I go, you got to go.”

But wait!—this ain't easy. Both cities are gorgeous. Both offer fine food, lovely architecture, great neighborhood ambience, world-class cultural offerings, and wonderful weather.

Let us split hairs then.

Weather: Barcelona has a humid Mediterranean climate, while Madrid is arid and tends more toward extremes due to its altitude.
Winner: Barcelona can be insufferable in the summer, but at least one can swim. And in the winter, Madrid gets downright chilly, while Barcelona remains on the Mediterranean. (I spent the winter of 2000 here and it rained thrice.)
Decision: Barcelona

Architecture: This is tough because Madrid's old town is maybe prettier-- and larger--but Barcelona's is gorgeous, too, and older. Barcelona’s Eixample stands out as a playground of modernist architecture, not to mention the various Gaudi buildings nestled like gems in the rough. Madrid has no equivalent, though the Retiro and especially Salamanca barrios are probably its answer to the stately, comfortable, boutiquey areas. Both cities have huge Pijolandias (preppyville) in the north of the cities and extending out into the suburbs that are not worth exploring. Madrid wins the park war, with Retiro, Oeste, and Casa de Campo; although lacking any real park other than dusty Ciutadella, Barcelona does have lush green hills ringning the city (see natural setting).
Decision: Barcelona by a hair, mostly due to variety and coolish experimental stuff such as Diagonal Mar, which is nothing less than a daring extension to the city’s north, extending from the iconic Torre Agbar down to the coast.

People: A little easier, but we will have to speak in stereotypes here, which is lamentable. Madrilenos are incredibly nice; Catalans are only nice, while some aren’t very nice at all. There's the whole issue of the Catalan "attitude". I won’t waste time trying to describe it, except to say that Catalans have a reputation for being colder, harder to get to know--but that once you know them, they are great friends. Catalans are a people unto themselves, and I do discern a general difference between them and other Spaniards I've met (physically, as well, Catalans have distinct facial features, and if you spend a lot of time in Spain you can tell the difference). In my experience, which is highly subjective, there’s just not the same openness one finds in Madrid (or in Asturias or Andalucia). Maybe this is because I don’t speak Catalan.
(Oh also both cities have tons of gorgeous people; I’d say I prefer the Spanish women to the Catalans, but that is an even more personal choice, and probably not worth sharing.)
Decision: Madrid.

Natural setting: Not a contest. Madrid may be in the center of the country, but it’s also in the middle of nowhere. The Sierra to the north is absolutely lovely, and only a long hour away. It also boasts many nearby small cities worth visiting: Avila, Toledo, Segovia, and palaces and stuff. Madrid has a river, but the Manzanares flanks the outer edge of the city and is no Seine or Danube.
Barcelona, for its part, may be the perfect place for a city. Not only is it on the beach, but it’s nestled among a ring of massive hills that surround the city, while Monjuic and the Parc Guell area are smack in the middle of the city. Then you have the Pyrenees only 2 hours away, just in case you want to escape the Mediterreanean climate and ski.
Winner: Barcelona

Culture: Both cities off the hook. Madrid has a better museum scene, as it is probably one of the finest art cities in the world; Barcelona probably has a more diverse gallery scene, if anything because it seems to attract more artsy foreigners. Both cities do a great job of investing in public concert series and exhibitions—there is never, ever a shortage of things to do here. Young people in both places seem to have opportunities to throw concerts or parties, start up shops, etc. Both cities are thriving.
Ditto with the bar scene. I have to say that I was blown away revisiting Madrid: Malasana, Latina, Chueca, Huertas, and Lavapies are each great hoods in their own right, whereas in Barcelona the choice more often seems to be between the three areas of the old town: Raval, Barri Gotic, and Borne. The Eixample is a great family neighborhood but only has a few exceptional bars in the whole grid. Barcelona can’t compete with Latina and Malasana; Madrid can’t compete with chiringuitos playing techno or raggae on the beach. Both cities have legit club scenes and bring in DJs and performers non-stop, both big-time and underground. Barcelona, known as the more 'cutting edge' city, hosts Sonar, a huge electronic music festival; and FIB, an even bigger and longer festival, is not too far away in Benicassim.
Decision: tie (sorry)

Plazas: Spaniards love their plazas so much that it deserves its own category. The headline battle is clear: the huge, stately perfection of Mayor vs. the palm-treed simple beauty of Reial. I’d hang out in Reial any day, but I think Medieval Mayor gets the nod here, with that restored fresco in front, and the steely corner towers, and all that open space for concerts and Frisbee throwing. Plus Madrid has 2 de Mayo in Malasana, San Andres and Paja in Latina, and of course Oriente, nestled between the Palace and the Opera—sunset central. Barcelona fights back with Plaza Pi, plaza des Angels at the Macba, and Gracia’s charming little underscored squares. All of which are lovely, but it’s no contest really.
Decision: Madrid

Food: Barcelona is known for its experimental culinary culture, but I really don’t have the money to indulge in that world. I’ve spent more time indulging in 2euro everything-included sandwiches made by my boyz over at Tetuan, or in the one and only Israeli Maoz falafel at like 2.30am. That being said, I do eat tapas. Both cities have many Basque tapas bars, which is to say the bet tapas bars. Otherwise, I would say it’s a virtual tie. For those of you thinking of Bcn’s ocean access, know that Madrid is second to none in seafood: they take perverse pride in flying in fresh stuff all day. In Madrid your cana is more likely to be accompanied by a little tapita, but only in Barcelona can you get pan com tomaquet, or bread smeared with tomato (and olive oil), which is delicious. I just have a greater fondness for Madrid's old-school tapas bars—they’re just cooler: Santa Ana and the area around c/Jesus, and c/Almagro, etc—incomparable.
Winner: Madrid (though, again, in a sadly narrow culinary scope)

OVERALL WINNER: in an extremely close contest, Barcelona**. But the truth is that if these two badasses actually did get into a fight, or have, like, a duel, they'd probably both shoot each other. Barcelona might stay alive a bit longer and enjoy the pathetic sensation of watching Madrid die, but after a while he too would expire, tortured, confused, wondering why two such cool dudes couldn't just get along.

*Luckily Barcelona is in Catalunya, which is its own nation, right? So this competition gets asterisked. Results will be under review.

**As you may perceive, this judgment ultimately comes down to the fact that Barcelona has a beach, and Madrid does not. If you are not a beach person, you may well preferMadrid—many do. I have reservations about this selection, but as many of our conversations have concluded this summer, the simple fact that one can retreat to the beach after even the shittiest of days at work trumps pretty much everything. This also has something to do, I suspect, with Barcelona's reputation as a more 'cutting edge' city. The fact is that more young artsy people come here because there's a beach and a Mediterranean climate. Let's not complicate things here.
What's really impressive about Barcelona (aside from the fact that everyone seems to love the place), if you think about it, is this: If you consider the fact that a beachless Bcn already competes with many other European cities in quality of life (aside from lack of central parks) and the above categories, the fact that it has a beach is downright unfair. For me, a beach and mountain lover, that's what it's all about. Biking or takign the metro to the beach, even just for an hour? Are you kidding me?
That’s why I simply cannot for the life of me understand the IHT’s recent world city livability rankings, in which 3 Scandinavian cities place in the world top ten. What kind of crack are those guys smoking?

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