Madrid Stories: Oar-inspiring moonlit nights spent trying to stay afloat on an icy lake

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The Independent Online

In mid-January, when I started rowing lessons in Madrid's central Retiro Park, the sun had set before I ventured on the lake.

In mid-January, when I started rowing lessons in Madrid's central Retiro Park, the sun had set before I ventured on the lake.

I signed up with a friend, not knowing what I was in for. Classes were every evening - not once a week, as I'd imagined - and our crucial first strokes were at night.

Some nights, in the coldest winter for 20 years, the lake froze and we couldn't go out. But it didn't feel cold on the water, because there was no wind. After a couple of sessions poking our single sculls nervously this way and that, Cristina and I struck out across the 250m-by-125m lake, lit only by the moon, two solitary vessels upon an expanse of silent water.

With no tide and no traffic, this was a far cry from my experience as a teenager in Richmond, circumnavigating Eel Pie Island in a hulking wooden skiff.

I slipped into a reverie, admired the 17th-century black cedars silhouetted against the black sky, the policemen trotting in pairs on the finest horses in Spain. (The only people haunting these erstwhile royal pleasure gardens on winter evenings seemed to be boys quietly dealing drugs.)

Cristina and I collided with a crash and a violent wobble. But we obeyed the golden rule dinned into us by our coach, Oscar - "Never let go of the oars; it's the best way not to fall in the water" - and stayed afloat. I dreaded falling in, although the lake is only a couple of feet deep.

Within weeks, everything changed. One evening when I arrived, not only was the sun high in the sky, glinting on the water, but the lake was dotted with blue and white pleasure boats, filled with screaming girls, their oars stuck out like knitting needles.

I threaded my slender scull amid the flotilla of fibreglass tubs, whose cheery oarspeople smiled and apologised as they got in my way. "Not at all," I smirked, pulling away elegantly, to crash against the granite steps of the handsomest monument in Madrid, a belle époque pile in honour of Alfonso XII. "Faster, faster," mocked onlookers who thronged the lakeside, playing bongo drums, rollerblading, juggling or practising t'ai chi.

As sunset blazed across the sky, the pleasure boats were piped in, and out churned a group of windmilling canoers. Cristina and I glided out of range. We have learnt not to crash. I can now observe the people of the park without tying my wrists in a knot. I'm still scared of falling in, and of walking home through the streets of the capital, dripping. But at least, now spring is approaching, I won't freeze to death.

The streets emptied this Easter week as Madrileños headed out of town. But not for long. Instead of vehicles, the roads filled up with religious processions. Madrid's tradition of parading Christs and Virgins through the streets is recent, dating only from the 1940s - the most fervent years of Franco's dictatorship - but more pointy-hatted penitents step out every year.

Locals, rather than vague northerners with maps and hiking boots, stand in multitudes for hours to watch the spectacle. For once, cars are banished in an overwhelming display of pedestrian power.

Madrid prides itself on being a modern European metropolis, but its top tourist souvenirs remain the retro kitsch figures of bullfighting and flamenco pioneered in the 1960s. The city's tourist shops have not only multiplied, but a recent survey confirms that their best-selling products are flamenco dancer dolls with kiss-curls, felt-covered bulls, castanets (even though no one can play them) and lace-trimmed fans.

The only indication of change in four decades is the huge selection of T-shirts (which are covered with designs about bulls, flamenco, beer and siesta) and similar mugs, which traders describe as "a fashion imported from Britain".

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