Wednesday, 31 October 2012

New Year’s Eve in Madrid. Cava, Grapes and a Mexican Wave.

It was 9pm on New Year’s Eve in Madrid’s old town and I was really starting to panic.

Like all best laid plans, ours fell apart almost as soon as we arrived in the city, the upshot was we had no restaurant reservation for the busiest night of the year.


“Told you to confirm it” my wife said knowingly, as she casually looked down the list of available Panini’s at a bar about to close up for the night. She often had this irritating habit of declaring her superior intellect in hindsight moments such as these. An intellect, that for once, I was determined to prove fallible. It’s at times like this though, when you think you’re done for, that you realise things can’t get any worse, so you might as well make the most of it. Somehow using that logic, the thought of standing for hours in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s traditional New Year’s Eve gathering place, with a plastic cup of warm Cava (the Spanish version of champagne), a stale ham and cheese Panini and the requisite traditional twelve grapes in hand, didn’t seem all that bad a deal. Then again, the thought of a night full of hindsight intellect was more than I could bear, so I said “I just need more time”. “You’ve got 10 minutes” she said “then I’m grabbing a sandwich and heading for the square”. And so I fled, deeper into the old town’s warren of side streets on a mission of redemption.

And so it came to pass, that through sheer chance, I fell upon Senor Fonsela in the foyer of his Restaurante Riazor  There he was, standing guard by his makeshift till taking money hand over fist from a queue of diners forming an orderly line outside his restaurant. Quite clearly this was a man who’s done it and worn the shirt many many times previously, but an opportunity for me to redeem myself nevertheless.

“60 Euros each” he told me. “Everything included”. Under the circumstances, regardless of the quality of the food, it was an opportunity for a triumphant victory over female hindsight, so I grabbed it with both hands. Well, to be more accurate, he actually grabbed my 120 Euros with both hands while I smugly went off to collect my wife who by now had commandeered a tiny corner in the Puerto Del Sol behind what seemed to be nearly a million people.

“I had to beg for this spot” she told me as I triumphantly walked up to her “this table had better be real”. Returning to Restaurante Riazor  my wife now in tow, my sense of impending doom returned. Had I completely lost it? I’d handed over 120 Euros to someone without getting a single bite, let alone a guarantee that he really did have a table free in the restaurant, or that the restaurant was even his in the first place!

Hastily forming plans B,C and D in my head as we approached, I was thankfully greeted like a long lost friend  and shown inside a restaurant packed to the rafters with locals who were already well on the way to their own New Year celebrations.  We had a window table ready-laden with party paraphernalia, a small bottle of Cava, red and white wine and a packet of 12 grapes each. The grapes are an essential part of Spanish New year celebrations more of which I will tell in a bit.
Sunrise on New Year's Day in Madrid (c) Andy Mossack

Our fully laden table had calmed my beating heart and looking over at my wife, who by now was wearing a pointed paper hat and blowing a curly horn at a child on an adjacent table she had clearly banished all thoughts of making my life a living hell.

What followed was nothing short of a miracle. No less than seven courses were laid in front of us, a veritable feast by any stretch of the imagination and it was all joyously wonderful. I think at that moment I was the happiest man in the world. Here I was with the woman I loved (who by now had begun her second bottle of red and was simultaneously wearing two party hats) surrounded by local Madrid citizens who seemed to have accepted us as their temporary family. It was an extraordinary coming together of perfect strangers celebrating a great evening together as the clock ticked towards midnight. As the wine continued to flow, I suddenly felt compelled to do something to further enhance my local bonding and, given the amount of alcohol I had already consumed, a Mexican wave around the restaurant seemed, at that moment anyway, perfectly reasonable . My wife’s two hats had slipped down either side of her cheeks, but even she was up for it. So I stood up, threw my hands in the air and shouted out “Ole!”  Time stood still then as a multitude of Spanish faces turned to us in bewildered astonishment. “try again” she slurred from somewhere below my chair, so I gave it another go. “Ole!” I cried and a gentleman on the table next to us who was clearly no stranger to The Bernabeu caught on and did the same and in minutes we had a fully fledged Mexican wave swirling around the room replete with Ole’s at every turn. It was a moment that will live forever in my mind, English and Spanish in perfect harmony!

Midnight approached and for those in the know of things Spanish, grapes on New Year’s Eve are de rigueur so to speak. It is a tradition handed down over the centuries that requires dexterity, aplomb and perfect timing, none of which I have in any abundance. The trick is to ensure that with each chime of the clock at midnight, you pop a grape into your mouth. You have to time each grape insertion with a chime, to ensure you have a healthy and sweet year ahead. As the hour grew near, the large wall mounted TV was switched on and there under the clock at the Puerta del Sol were the milling throng that no so long ago could have included us wedged into our little corner.

Suddenly, it was midnight and the grand clock chimes rang out and I was ready with my grapes and a glass of Carva. I popped in a grape and took a slurp suddenly realising that these grapes had pips in them. I never eat grapes with pips. This was a whole new grape, chime, slurp combo that now included spit out pip before next grape enters mouth. Needless to say, my first experience of Spanish New year grape tradition did not go as planned and I was still popping in grapes and spitting out pips well into 2011.

We said fond farewells to all our new found family and pretty soon we left the warm embrace of Restaurante Riazor to join the throngs in Madrid’s busy centre to party the rest of the night away.

Madrid really does come out to play on New Year’s Eve after all, for many there it is a full week’s holiday leading up to Three Kings Day on January 6th or Fiesta de los tres Reyes Mages, as the Spanish call it. It is as important as Christmas if not more so, particularly for kids because that’s when they get their presents!

For us though it would be for another time, although I suspect Senor Fonsela is already cunningly planning his menu and readying his till for another family bash....