118- Around Madrid

Summer in Madrid is to be avoided, or rather, Madrid in summer. The city becomes a frying pan. I really struggle to understand what is the appeal of hot weather, and I look rather suspiciously at people who claim they love it. Because what exactly is there to love when the thermometer still shows 38 C at midnight, or when opening a window feels like opening an oven.  The one positive thing about Spanish heat is that it’s dry and there are no bloodthirsty creatures that come out at dusk. Mosquitos, not vampires. Unfortunately, sometimes the decision whether to stay in the capital or not is not yours to make. As all my colleagues disappeared to the beach, someone had to stay behind and defend the wicket. So to speak, as not being subjected to my Spanish colleagues´ daily (and loud) emotional outpours wasn’t really a sacrifice, if nothing else my hearing definitely improved.

Casa de Campo at sunset

Cycling to work – heat stroke risk apart – becomes a pleasure as the city empties out, although cycling  for pleasure, on the other hand, completely lacks the pleasure unless you set off by 6 am and get back before noon when the temperatures hit high 30s. I only managed several rather sous vide sunset rides on the odd clement day. So what can you do to escape the boiling concrete jungle, or at least to make it more bearable?

  1. Do as the Spanish do: cinema, museums, or the all-time classic: hit El Corte Inglés. Nothing better to soothe your nerves than spending the afternoon in a crowded shopping centre with hundreds of Madrileños who don’t have aircon at home.
  2. Relax in one of the city’s many swimming pools. Just secure your season ticket before the first heat wave strikes, or you will spend good 2 hours in the queue to get inside. I learnt the hard way. Also, if by “day by a pool” you imagine lounging by some rooftop infinity pool with an overpriced cocktail and the latest airport exclusive paperback, forget it. You will have to fight for a spot in shade, struggle through hordes of screaming children to gain enough space for a quick dip (forget swimming) and endure terrible soundtrack consisting mostly of reggaetón and similar rubbish. If you still manage to read, even if it’s some half-price airport crap, chapeau! (Side note: I was desperately trying to pick something half decent to read at Heathrow the other day, to no avail. Has anyone else noticed that most titles contain either shit, fuck or Auschwitz? I mean, compared to this, Danielle Steele sounds like an appealing read. Note to myself: next time visit a bookstore while still in central London). Madrid summer pools may not be relaxing, however, they offer an excellent occasion for people watching (which, admittedly, shopping centres in summer do too, but without the tinto de verano that comes in a pint, which makes everything more bearable, even the 40+ heat.
  3. There is one slightly more sophisticated option: UCM (Universidad Complutense Madrid) runs an olympic size pool in central Madrid that only admits students or people with university education. They don’t make a fuss about it, I entered showing a pdf file of my thesis. In Czech. Still, they managed to out-snob the English. Good effort.
  4. Or, you can explore. There are several lovely natural destination around Madrid for a fantastic day trip for active people who love adventure and being outdoors. A couple of tips:
Mirador de los Poetas, Cercedilla


A charming little town on the northern border of Madrid Community district, set in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains and hometown of the alpine ski olympic medallists family Fernandez Ochoa. Cercedilla is just one hour away from Madrid Chamartín train station. Popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers and road cyclists in summer, and cross country skiers in winter. Nearby Nevacerrada is an alpine skiing centre (not fantastic skiing, but the closest one from the capital). There are many paths in the woods around the village, of various difficulty and length.

Artist at work. The lens distortion makes me look tall and slim. Cheers for that.

The two treks I have done so far were shortish, without too much climbing involved, but most importantly they were almost entirely in the shade. Just a little circuit from the village up to Mirador de los Poetas, to enjoy a bit of lunch with a view, and back. It was still hot, albeit not 40+, and leaving the treeline to reach summits under the sun did not seem like a great idea (I haven’t abandoned it though, I am just saving tackling the climbs for cooler weather). Hiking maps are available in the information office Fuenfría, but consider yourself warned: the trails marked on the map do not always correspond to reality, especially when it comes to colour marks, which disappear, change, assume a completely different colour, and reappear at random, which makes the walk more fun and allows you to dust off you orienteering skills. Also, someone had the bright idea of marking two completely different trails with the same colour, and they intersect at some point, not that the path will lead you dangerously astray (at least, if you are clever enough to realize that if you are descending while trying to reach a high point, you are most likely going the wrong way), but this little misfortune may make your walk longer than planned.

Cercedilla is situated along an ancient Roman road that linked Laminium (modern Granada) and Segovia. Nowadays, the local road M-966 matches it almost exactly, but stretches of original paving and a couple of roman bridges can be admired just before the trail from Fuenfría heads into the restricted area of the national park. I do need to work on my expression during the jumping shots.

And finally some wildlife along the path. Butterflies and wild roses. And whatever that blue thing is. A flower.

Embalse de San Juan

Some time ago I came across an article (thanks to my colleague who keeps the flow of reactionary press stable) that basically claimed that dear old Franco was different (better) than the other dictators, because he wasn’t acting in name of any particular ideology. If we take the extreme catholic bigotry out of the equation, that is. In other words: he was just an evil arsehole, but not a delusional one. Every dictator worthy of respect needs a megalomaniac dream, and Franco’s was wet, literally. For nothing gratifies a leader’s ego like changing the course of nature. Franco’s grand project was to fight the country’s geography and irrigate the country’s arid south. Deliberately oblivious to the ecological disaster he was causing, Franco built more than 500 dams as part of grandiose system of waterworks that brings surplus water from the (once) rainy north to southern regions frequently affected by draught. Hence, there is a dozen reservoirs around Madrid, but swimming is not permitted in any of them but one:  Embalse de San Juan, about 60 km west from Madrid. You will need a car to get there and park it by the dam. There are a couple of bars, and a nautical club for water skiing, but I recommend to pack all food and drinks into an icebox and bring it with you. The artificial lake is huge, although this time of (the extremely dry) year, the reservoir is only at 30% of its capacity. You can walk along the shore until you find a spot you like, and even in the peak of summer, you won’t have any trouble to have a piece of beach for yourself and swim/sunbathe without bothering with the swimsuit. Water is clean and pleasantly refreshing, and if you walk far enough from the loud beach bar, you’re in for a peaceful day.


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