Madrid Stories

Liz Nash, the darling of the waiters, finds a gourmet supermarket and sees an English actress outshine her Spanish co-star

Like all those still in town these dog days, I am rediscovering my neighbourhood. With the usual haunts closed for the summer, I have to venture further afield for somewhere to eat, drink and shop.

Café Manolo, a local favourite, does most of its business with MPs and spin-doctors by day, and operetta enthusiasts in the evening. With Parliament at one end of the street and the theatre at the other both closed for the summer, Manolo's has been shuttered and silent for so many weeks that its curlicued brass lettering is starting to tarnish.

The equally traditional Sanabria round the corner is closed for renovation. Regulars here include the legions of labourers who interminably dig up and repave the streets, widening them, narrowing them and excavating car parks; Parliament's armed guards; the occasional priest; and teenagers descending blearily from cheap hostels in pursuit of breakfast.

Bafflingly, even the hostels are "closed for the holidays". The quiet is so intense that when a couple strolled beneath my window their ringing conversation made me jump, and I stepped on to the balcony and glared at them.

So it's up the hill, past Starbucks-alikes thronged with tourists, accordion-players and an enterprising Canadian squatting in the sun with "I was robbed" written on a piece of cardboard. My newspaper kiosk is closed, necessitating another detour – until I penetrate those streets behind Puerta del Sol alive with Chinese 24-hour stores, sex shops and prostitutes seeking shade in the doorways of emporia selling religious statues and devotional tracts.

One, slender and anxious, has a coat over her arm and two small dogs on a lead. Another, plump and frumpy, sits on a bollard, indolently flopping a fat scarlet purse from side to side in the lambent midday heat, in the most arresting alfresco display of erotica I've seen.

Here, in clattering bars whose windows are daubed with jaunty vermilion shrimps, you get decent coffee, and the waiters are courteous, because they know that a client won in August is a client for life.

Then I make the greatest discovery of all: Lidl, the cut-price German supermarket. It has luxuries rarely obtainable in corner shops. Smoked salmon, good brown bread, Roquefort, crème fraîche, tomatoes on the vine, exotic juices, virgin olive oil, Viennese pastries – all are carelessly strewn about and unbelievably cheap. It's well worth the yomp through streets churned to rubble.

Moroccans, pensioners and dreadlocked hippies load up their trolleys. A jittery man clutching a whisky bottle asks to jump the queue. How come prosperous arty types, supposedly recolonising the city's seedy heart, haven't found this treasure trove? I suppose the posh folk are all away on holiday.

* * *

Among those working in Madrid this August are Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, completing a thriller directed by Christopher Hampton about Argentina during the dictatorship. Madrilenos who packed into their recent press conference were thrilled to hear Emma answering all the questions directed to her in reasonably fluent Spanish, which she claimed to have learnt in three days, five years ago.

"What elegance, what courtesy," radio chat show hosts raved about the Oscar-winning actress many Spaniards thought was a typically chilly, intimidating British female. La Thompson, laughing and informal, exuded more fluttery luvvieness than the solemn Tony Flags (as her co-star's name translates) on whom she called occasionally for help. "I am ... determined?" she said, quizzically turning to him at one point. "Determinado," he offered. She went on: "... determinada", adding the feminine ending, a glint in her eye.

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