Street Life and Public Art in Madrid

Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke in the courtyard of the Reina Sofia.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke in the courtyard of the Reina Sofia.

I arrived in Madrid in September 1981 as a high school exchange student. Back then Madrid was a just emerging from its conservative shell after decades of rule by dictator Francisco Franco who had died in 1975. The first open elections were only in 1977 and Spain was still reeling from the failed coup attempt by Antonio Tejero on February 23, 1981.

I lived in the suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcon with a middle-class Spanish family and attended the local Instituto National de Pozuelo. I returned to Spain in the fall of 1983 and attended the Universidad Complutense de Madrid for a Semester and could already see the profound impact of cultural, economic and political change in Spain which became La Movida.

Street stencil in Barrio Lavapies.

Street stencil in Barrio Lavapies.

Until last week I had not returned to Madrid in 30 years. So a recent very quick trip after attending the Wild10 Conference in Salamanca was a revelation. Spain had already been through what my longtime friend Felix Reneses said was, “The greatest 30 year period in Spanish history.” It was a heady time with the blooming of the Spanish economy and the rise of Spanish sport and cultural dynasties. Finally the promise of Spain had been reached (although it remains to be seen if Spain can honestly deal with the wounds and desaparecidos of the Franco era and the Spanish Civil War).

With my longtime and good friend Felix Reneses.

With my longtime and good friend Felix Reneses.

But then it was all over in a flash. The collapse of the economy and the recognition that the lack of political transparency and accountability and the control of the economy by a corrupt elite had once again wounded Spain and betrayed the promise of democracy.

Old school barbershop.

Old school barbershop turned new school “estetica.”

On my recent very short trip what I witnessed however was that despite the moribund economy  the passion and creative genius of Spain that infuses the country with endless energy has not been dimmed. “The younger generation really have no idea what it was like under Franco,” said Felix. “But due to the economic collapse a whole generation has been lost. People are moving abroad to find work.”


Spain has always been about old and new with visionaries such as Velazquez, Goya, Miro, Picasso, Dali and Buñuel creating new ways of seeing the world and reacting against the corruption and squalor of Spain’s aristocracy and oligarchy.

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (1665)

Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez (1665)

Here are just a few images of Barrio de La Latina and Lavapies that are between the Plaza Mayor and the Prado. Both have become  mixed areas of boutiques, great eateries, immigrants and street art. Just at their doorstep are two of the world’ greatest cultural institutions, El Museo del Prado and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. I was lucky to have stumbled upon and stayed at the Hotel Artrip, a very cool boutique hotel in the middle of Lavapies a few blocks from the Reina Sofia.


Mural in Lavapies that frames a Public Plaza that was a former empty lot rehabilitated by the community.


The Lavapies Plaza “This is a plaza. This plaza is yours, ours and for all.”


Inspired design in the Lavapies Plaza.


Community gardens and art in the Lavapies Plaza.


Congratulations to the residents of Lavapies who were inspired to remake the neighborhood without waiting for the government to tell them how to do it. That is bottom up democracy.


In the middle of Lavapies is a former empty lot turned into a Public Plaza by the community.



The plaza was filled with families and children busy making art and celebrating life in one of the coolest community projects I’ve ever seen.

Tubes and Tapas: Surfing in Northern Spain

Zach Plopping surfing an island wave that only breaks during massive winter swells.

The tapa or pintxo, with the gelatinous and vegetable covering, looked delicious. Since the bartender in this historic district Santander bar was typically rude if not downright hostile, I didn’t bother asking what the ingredients were.

But my first taste caused me to gag and push away my plate as our guide Robert Amasuno, a longtime local surfer said, “You know that gelatin is made from pig’s feet.”

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The last time I was in Santander, on Spain’s stunning northern coast in Cantabria, was the fall of 1983, when I spent a few days surfing on a trip with my little brother Nick and my mother. We had taken the ferry from Plymouth to Santander on our way to Meknes, Morocco, where my dad was working on a United Nations project. I had spent my senior year of high school in Madrid and after our trip to Morocco, I spent a semester at Madrid’s Complutense University.

Back then, the coast around Santander provided endless empty beachbreak waves, warm water and just a few local surfers. The food was excellent. I’ll never forget a dinner of braised rabbit at a rustic country restaurant.

Today northern Spain is a different world. Endless rows of abandoned vacation condos litter the coast (seeing the numerous abandoned construction cranes and vacation villages in Spain is a great way to understand the European and Spanish financial crisis). Surfing is now a big deal with skilled and experienced surfers populating beach cities.

But northern Spain still has a rustic charm that is hard to ignore. The massive Cantabrian range provides a rugged backdrop to the green coast. Hikers enjoy the wildlife and scenery of the rocky shoreline. Picturesque cafes and restaurants serve up mouthwatering seafood.

On this trip I was with Ben McCue and Zach Plopper of WiLDCOAST who had spent a year studying in Santander while undergrads at UCSD. We had  attended the inaugural Global Wave Conference in Biarritz and San Sebastian, and were anxious to sample the world-class Spanish surf.

The second day of the conference took place in San Sebastian at the ultra modernist Kursaal Conference Center designed by Rafael Moneo at the east end of La Zurriola beach. I had previously visited San Sebastian in July during a trip with my two sons and French cousins.

When we arrived the surf was firing. A small crowd rode double overhead offshore waves at the west end of the beach. Bigger bombs to the east went unridden.The minute the conference ended later that day, participants, grabbed boards, stuffed themselves into wetsuits, and paddled out for the evening surf. The surf was well overhead and still offshore.Soon the lineup was populated with surfer-conservationists from South Africa, Spain, France, England, Japan, Portugal, Australia, and the U.S. who shared the plentiful peaks and hooted the best rides.

After our surf, we assembled at the seaside People Café and Lounge on the malecon overlooking La Zurriola to sample pinxtos, jamon serrano, San Miguel beer, and Rioja wine.

It was a great ending to an inspiring conference.

The following day we headed out to Mundaka. Unfortunately the swell had dropped and everyone from northern Spain seemed to have descended on this gorgeous Basque village.

The harbor at Mundaka

We paddled out through the ancient port, caught a couple of waves and then paddled back in.

At a bar overlooking the epic lefthander, considered to be one of the best waves in the world, we ate bocatas de tortilla de patata, and admired the framed photo of the world’s best surfers who had surfed here when Mundaka was an important stop on the ASP Dream Tour.

With south winds still howling and providing offshore conditions (when storms move in from the north from the Atlantic the wind on the north coast of Spain turns offshore for days), we decided to drive west toward Santander.

“We’ll hit up this cool beach we love to surf,” said Ben. “It should be firing.”

About an hour later, we found ourselves winding through a river valley and driving alongside an empty wild beach. In the distance we spotted offshore peaks.

Soon after we were surfing 3-4’ uncrowded A-frames. After our surf we found a nearby café and dug into bowls of pulpo and and calamar.

That evening we found Robert in Santander. Over pinchos and cañas de cerveza he promised a great session at another beach the following morning. “It will be pumping,” he promised.

The following morning I found myself overlooking aqua colored offshore peaks from the cliffs of Dunas de Liencres Natural Park. Pine covered dunes and sandstone cliffs protect the sandy shoreline and a large estuary.

The lineup was empty and there were sandbar peaks up and down the beach.

Out in the water, we all rode hollow overhead waves. A couple of Spanish surfers paddled out, but there were plenty of waves for everyone.

“Most of the time in the winter I surf here by myself,” said Robert.

Back in the carpark after our session, the wind was still offshore and the tide had dropped, shifting the swell down the beach to an insane right peeling off an inside sandbar.

A week later after I was safely home, I received an email from Zach, “Yesterday we scored Rodiles [a left point] – Mundaka’s little, yet hotter, sister. We have been blessed with two weeks of offshore south wind and swell.”

Note: Zach and Ben flew to Bilbao via Paris on Air France. Your best bet is to rent a car and explore the coast, and lodge at small hotels or pensiones in the coastal villages. While Spanish surfers aren’t that friendly, the same advice applies as it does anywhere; never fail to say hello and smile. While nothing is cheap in Europe including Spain, it doesn’t cost anything to be friendly and learn to say, “Hola, buenos dias.”

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