When Victoria Beckham came with her husband to Madrid in 2003, she reputedly made a comment along the lines of “Spain smells like onions and garlic”, which did little to endear her to the natives. Walking home from work the other evening, I happened into an invisible but highly substantial cloud of frying onion and garlic aroma (emanating from an open kitchen window a couple of floors above street level) and started thinking about the former Posh Spice’s comments. Madrid does sometimes smell like garlic and onions but it also smells like other things. Here’s my top ten:
Whether wafting in the window from a neighbour’s kitchen early in the morning or spilling onto the street from one of Madrid’s multitude of bars, the aroma of rich and flavoursome coffee is never far away. The Spanish take their coffee very seriously. There’s no cutting corners on quality or the elaborate technique involved in its preparation. Coffee isn’t just a morning thing; excellent coffee can be had anytime, anywhere in Madrid.
When I first set foot in Spain over ten years ago, everybody smoked. Everywhere. In the airport baggage hall. In the taxi. In the supermarket. In the bank. In hospitals. And it was a different kind of tobacco from that to which I was used: black tobacco (tobaco negro), which has a deeper, heavier, more pungent scent. The most famous brand of black tobacco is Ducados ― an iconic Spanish brand in the same way Marlboro would be American. Nowadays, not so many Spaniards smoke and the restrictions on where you can light up are much less lax. You can’t even smoke in bars since 2010. But still, the smell of black tobacco is ever-present and something unmistakably Spanish.
It’s probably true that all cities’ metros (or subways or undergrounds) have their own unique smells. Madrid’s is a fusty, damp odour, something very organic, as if the dampness at the heart of the smell is not groundwater, but ― how shall I put this? ― raw sewage! It’s not a totally unpleasant smell, in the same way the smell of rotting seaweed isn’t quite 100 percent noxious; there are some agreeable undertones. Ironically enough, the metro smell is stronger above and outside the metro, as one passes a vent, than down below, which probably says more about modern ventilation techniques than anything else.
This is a summer smell. On searing-hot Summer days, when temperatures are up in the mid-thirties and there isn’t a sinner in the city ,the smell of the countryside invades the glass jungle. Much of Madrid is surrounded by wheat fields and it is this papery, dry smell that hangs in the air throughout June, July and August.
5. Old-man cologne
Spanish older gentlemen are fastidious about their appearance and meticulous in their grooming. Highly laudable and indeed welcome, but they do tend to go a bit overboard on the aftershave, to the extent that at a certain hour of the morning, when they sally forth to buy the newspaper and bread, the smell of old-man cologne dominates elevators, stairwells, corridors and indeed certain sections of streets close to bread shops and press stands. Brands favoured by these old men are Varón Dandy, Agua Brava and Aqua Velva. These are available to buy in litre bottles, which obviously encourages their liberal application.
The smell of rain isn’t very common in Madrid, but maybe 20-30 days a year, the city clouds over and the whiff of rain is on the breeze. This sends most Madrileños scurrying for cover, but as an Irishman living in the city, I smile with relish and prepare myself for a little singing ‘n’ shenanigans in the rain.
7. Fallen poplar leaves
A musky, autumnal smell. The poplar (el chopo) is one of the most commonly-planted trees in Madrid. As they begin to lose their leaves in late October, the streets fill with their roughly triangular leaves. Kicking through a wind-blown bank of these raises a rude and vital smell to the nostrils.
8. Onions and garlic
Mrs. Beckham wasn’t telling a lie! The Spanish do love their onions and garlic. (Innumerable dishes are based on the two ingredients.) They do love to fry. At certain times of the day the streets do smell of onions and garlic (along with other foody smells). It’s not an unpleasant mixture. It could be worse. Get over it people!
9. Summer street
It’s August. It’s forty degrees. It hasn’t rained since May. There isn’t a puff of wind. You stick your head out the balcony and you’re hit by a heavy, overpowering smell ― Summer street. A mix of desiccated drain ooze, dirty footpath, oily road, melting tar, traffic pollution, all the aforementioned street smells (tobacco, cooking etcetera), dust, pollen ― you just wish it would rain so that some of the components of the wall of smell could be washed away.
I mentioned these confections in a previous post. Most neighbourhoods have churrerías. The aroma of frying churros and bubbling hot chocolate is, along with roast chestnuts, one of the principal smells of the Madrid winter street.