Spain: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

A Peep at Madrid (Continued)

Before leaving Madrid, you will like to see the Royal Palace, since it is the home of an English Queen. The building was begun in 1737, and its first royal occupant was Charles III., who took up his abode there in 1764. It forms a square, about 471 feet each way, and rises, in three stories, to a height of 100 feet. The base is of granite, the upper part of white stone. In style the Palace is typical of Spanish Renaissance work in its late and impure phase; it has the classical form without the classical spirit. But although from an architectural standpoint the building is unsatisfactory, being squat, heavy, monotonous in general appearance, and confused in detail, it ranks as one of the finest royal palaces in the world, by virtue of its building material of white stone, which looks like marble, the magnificent decorative features of the interior, and the treasures it enshrines.

The lower story is plain and massive; the one above is lighter-looking, having columns and pillars of mixed classical designs dividing a row of high and narrow balconies. The upper story is pierced by mean-looking windows, and the slate roof is crowded with garrets, the abode of pensioned Court flunkeys and innumerable pigeons. The principal royal apartments overlook the garden and command a fine view of the Guadarrama Mountains. The chief salon, the reception or throne room, with its rock—crystal chandeliers, colossal mirrors, marble tables, numerous gilded details, and painted ceiling, representing the "Majesty of Spain," is a magnificent example of State splendour. There are many other apartments furnished on a princely scale, and particularly noticeable among the specimen pieces are countless clocks, the hobby collections of Ferdinand VII. and Charles V. The grand staircase of black and white marble is of truly noble design, and the marble lions are beautifully executed. Placing his hand ecstatically on one of these lions, Napoleon, entering the Palace for the first time in 18o8, exclaimed:

"Je la tiens enfin cette Espagne si desiree."

And as he ascended the stately steps, he turned to his brother Joseph and added:

"Mon frere, vous serez mieux loge que moi."

It was not for long that the French were able to maintain their hold on Spain. Wellington was at their heels, and when, in the course of his great campaign, he entered Madrid in triumph on August 12, 1812, he stayed at the Royal Palace.

We are going to plunge straight from high life into low life, from the stately splendour of a royal abode to the simple poverty of a common lodging-house.

It so happens that I owe to Madrid one of the most interesting experiences that has fallen to my lot. There I sampled life in a foreign doss-house, and, thanks in great measure to the companionship of an ideal travelling comrade, I was able to see the humorous side of the situation, even whilst culling that experience, and can look back on the little adventure as a pleasant surprise, which gave me the satisfaction of getting into personal touch with a phase of Spanish life that is unfamiliar to many a Spaniard, and, generally speaking, quite out of the visitor's sphere.

The incident was indeed a surprise, and I must admit that in its early stage it did not give promise of any pleasing element—quite the reverse.

The circumstances which led up to the astounding revelation were quite ordinary. My friend and I are of one mind as wanderers in foreign lands: when we go to a strange country we like to be as the natives, to sleep in native hotels or inns, live on native fare, travel with the natives in such conveyances as demonstrate the standard of comfort for the masses, as distinct from the classes, who can base their mode of living more or less on the English or Parisian model. We steadfastly avoid the hotels which boast, "Ici on parle francais" or "English spoken," knowing that we shall either be asked in unintelligible gibberish to pay exorbitant prices for indifferent accommodation, or run the risk of being ruined in a really first-class establishment, where it is possible to be "at home from home"—in which case, why leave home?

In making inquiries before we left England about the hotel accommodation at Madrid, we learned from an Englishman exactly where to find an inn that would be just the very place to suit us. Somebody had once told him that he had heard from somebody, who knew someone who had been told by someone else that there was a very good Spanish inn situated in the heart of Madrid, where a comfortable bedroom could be had for the modest sum of a peseta (about 10d.) a night, including light and attendance, with absolute freedom to meal out. The address was forthcoming, and we made a note of it. We also confided to each other later on that we thought there must be something "fishy" about that inn. We would certainly hunt out the place if it was still to be found, but we would be very careful to make further and full inquiries before coming to any decision with regard to staying there.

It so happened, according to the way in which we arranged our programme, that we passed through Madrid en route  for Toledo, previous to making a stay in the capital. We had a couple of hours to spare between the arrival and departure of trains. What to do? Why not seek out that inn and see what it was like? Capital idea! If there were no such place, or if it proved an impossible rest-house, we could have a look round at the hotels; it would be good to know before we left Madrid where we were going to stay when we came back.

We found that so-called inn without much difficulty. It was, as we had been told, situated in the centre of the city, most conveniently cornered in a quiet street of good appearance, running parallel to the main thoroughfare. It was quite an imposing-looking establishment, and we came to the conclusion, as we mounted a broad flight of steps leading to the bureau, that the place had changed hands, and been raised to the dignity of an hotel, It did not seem at all probable that the rooms were now a peseta a night.

A well-groomed man in white uniform came forward to greet us in the office. In answer to our inquiries, he informed us that the best  single bedrooms were 1 peseta a night, the best  rooms with two single beds 1 pesetas. We asked to see one of the latter. He selected a key, led us down a wide corridor that looked spotlessly clean, and opened the door of an equally clean-looking, fresh-smelling room. Certainly there was no superfluous furniture in that room, no attempt at decoration; but this is an advantage, rather than a drawback, in a strange apartment. It was large and airy; the walls had just had a new coat of whitewash. There were two iron bedsteads, with snowy-white coverlets, a couple of chairs, a table, and an enameled washstand. Impressed by the courteous manners of our cicerone, the spaciousness and cleanliness of the establishment, and the atmosphere of peace and quietude, we booked the room for a specified date, and took the first opportunity of rejoicing over our good luck in hearing of the place and getting a room there.

One Saturday night we arrived back in Madrid. We had come up by the last train, and it was very late, but we were perfectly at ease, seeing that we knew where we were going to stay. We drove straight to our destination. This time, instead of finding our-selves on the threshold of an empty doorway, we stood on the curb looking in bewilderment at a crowd of men, women, and children who blocked up the entrance. We called someone to take our luggage, dismissed the cab, and edged our way through the crowd, only to find ourselves caught in another throng that was wending its way upstairs. That broad flight of steps, which we had previously mounted in solitary state, was now packed with men in shirt-sleeves, soldiers of the line, women with babies in their arms, and ragamuffin children. We were carried up with the stream, never dreaming that we should not break clear before we reached the bureau.

Suddenly we were brought to a standstill at the back of a queue. As we took our turn to move forward and came nearer to the office, the truth dawned on us. We looked at each other, but said never a word; silently we agreed to see the thing through. In due course our turn came to have a key handed to us over the counter, and we found our own way to our room. But we did not have to let ourselves in; that little service was undertaken as a personal act of grace by an attendant, who had already taken up his official position for the night on a bench just outside our door. Whilst the key was being turned we had leisure to watch a pedlar let himself in at a door opposite, and notice a peasant, his buxom wife, and several children, enter a room on our right.

Left to ourselves in our own apartment, I broke the silence—that is to say, the silence between us two; but I had to raise my voice to make myself heard above the din without.

"Do you know we're in a doss-house?"

"A first-class one," came the cheery reply.

"And evidently a favourite."

"Saturday night, you see—soldiers on weekend furlough, country cousins in town for Sunday. . . . By the way, perhaps there's a bull-fight to-morrow . . . if so, we're in luck . . . and that would easily account for a specially busy night here."

"Are you really prepared to stay in this place?"

The room looks just as clean as when we first saw it. Besides, we can't go out into a strange town and look for an hotel at this time of night."

That settled the question, and I proceeded to turn down the snowy coverlets and examine the beds. The sheets were clean, inasmuch as they were not begrimed, but obviously they had been slept in. I called the attendant, and told him to bring all fresh bedclothes for both beds, at the same time slipping a coin into his hand. He returned presently with the desired luxuries, remade the beds, and went away smiling, as though he were highly amused by our eccentric ideas; but he came back unbidden over and over again, each time with something new that he had thought of to make us more comfortable.

We went to bed, and, tired out, fell asleep. An odd rebel or two defied Keating, and woke us up in the early hours of the morning. We made tea, got out the biscuits, sat down side by side at the table, had a festive picnic, laughed over past adventures in the night, told ourselves how we should laugh over the present one when we were well on the other side of it, and, growing drowsy, leant our arms on the table for pillow, bent our heads down on them, and dozed off into a semi-slumber. But when morning came we were quite sure we had not dreamed that people had been on the move in the building all through the livelong night. Nevertheless, we both agreed that we had often passed a night in far more uncomfortable and "lively" surroundings, and been obliged to pay through the nose for the experience into the bargain.

Considering its clientele, that doss-house was remarkably clean, and it was certainly conducted in a most orderly manner. Massed in memory with all the native Spanish inns at which we stayed, it has a place of honour for its freshness of atmosphere, and, judged by comparison, even its sanitary arrangements now seem to me to have been planned on some sort of hygienic system.

There is just one other never-to-be-forgotten reminiscence connected with the place. As we were leaving, we paused to read some printed and framed rules that hung at the top of the staircase. One regulation concerned family beds: there was a limit to the number of relations that might occupy any one of these at the same time, and a sliding scale of charges according to the actual number, within bounds, availing themselves of this collective sleeping accommodation.