Few places in Europe can compete with Madrid’s famously eclectic and inexhaustible appetite for nightlife. “Going out” in Spain is a way of life. An almost daily activity, it requires practice and commitment if you are to develop the stamina needed to last through the evening. Known in Spanish as marcha — which can translate as gear or speed, but also as a clearly militaristic march — nighttime entertainment is not taken lightly in the country. Yet even by these high Spanish standards, as June reaches its final days and World Pride 2017 floods the streets of Madrid with over two million reveling visitors the partyometer of the Spanish capital will be sent spinning into a whole new dimension.
City of Water and Culture
Built high up on the northern banks of the Manzanares River, Madrid owes its name to the medieval Muslim settlement of Majrit, which translates as “the place of water.” Eclipsed by the infinitely more important city of Toledo, Madrid lived a relatively sleepy existence until the mid 1500s when King Philip II, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, moved his court there from Valladolid. Immediately, the city experienced unparalleled growth, going from just over 10,000 inhabitants in 1560 to about 100,000 by 1600.
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Madrid’s convenient location, in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula at the foot of a mountain range, was one of its keys to success. Its relative anonymity was another. Soon, however, it would become the cultural center of Spain’s Golden Age in literary and artistic creation. Madrid’s court attracted and financed geniuses of the caliber of Miguel de Cervantes and Diego Velázquez, and the city’s thriving theater scene in the 17th century saw the emergence of indisputable greats. Names like Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Calderón de la Barca haven’t just defined the cultural landscape of the Spanish language but to this day have an inescapable presence in the city’s streets, bars and theaters, especially, though not exclusively, in the trendy Barrio de las Letras — the literary quarter.
Chueca, the New Tradition
After almost four decades of ruthlessly conservative and autocratic rule, the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975 amounted to a new dawn for Spain. This change directly unleashed a cultural renaissance. Almost immediately, Madrid was swept by a transgressive and liberal — almost libertine — social revolution that gave birth to the famous Movida, a countercultural movement fuelled by a collective relief and revolt that swept across the country. Equal parts exciting and chaotic, the newfound verve that defined those days influenced just about every aspect of life, from the music to the wave of nudity evidenced in Spanish cinema — a phenomenon known as el destape — to the proliferation of drugs in the city, most notably heroin and the struggle to secure civil rights for long-disenfranchised segments of the population, particularly women.
Distanced from the limelight but equally fierce, the gay community established a bastion of its own, not too far from the neighborhoods most commonly associated with La Movida in a central but largely neglected area of the city named after the composer Federico Chueca. Little remains from the first generation of underground, dark, clandestine gay clubs other than a handful of legendary names, such as Black & White or Griffins — but even those have moved to different locations or adapted to new, more salubrious, standards.
Equally legendary, though stemming from the more militant post-Movida era of the mid-90s, is the bookshop Berkana. Exasperated with the secrecy that surrounds a closeted existence, Mili Hernández, along with her partner Mar de Griñó and Arnaldo Gancedo, set up the bookshop to give visibility to a community that had long been relegated to the shadows. The time had come to storm out of the proverbial closet, and these courageous entrepreneurs took a step forward that reverberates to this day. Faced with the threat of closure, Berkana launched a crowdfunding campaign early in 2017 to secure the necessary funds to keep running for a full year — and the target sum of 13,500 euros was reached in 10 days!
While clearly proud of its roots, Chueca has undergone a dramatic transformation in the new millennium. It has evolved into one of the trendiest and most expensive neighborhoods in Madrid, while also growing into the largest gay district in Europe. Once the domain of junkies and petty thieves, now there are bears with perfectly trimmed beards and carefully gelled hair sharing the narrow streets with tourists from all over the world and plenty of straight Madrileños too, lured by the progressive vibe and the sumptuous dining options. For along with late-night venues such as LL Bar — famous for its drag queen and stripper performances — or the more laid-back Bears Bar, Chueca boasts an impressive array of gourmet establishments. Ranging from the swanky San Antón Market to the traditional cider bar, El Tigre, countless eateries in the district are celebrated for their extraordinary menus and beverage selections.
Pride for All
Every year in June, Chueca bursts into a candid, colorful and quite remarkable celebration that extols the camaraderie and neighborly qualities of the close-knit though tremendously diverse community. Overnight the area is converted into the Republic of Gay Pride. Multiple parallel focal points encourage revelers to keep moving, generating a unique sense of small-town involvement and big-city dynamism. This is likely is the reason gay Pride — Fiesta del Orgullo — has long been adopted by the LGBTQ and straight residents of Madrid as their favorite annual celebration.
Or perhaps it’s just because Madrileños love a big party. This will be especially handy this summer when somewhere in the region of two to three million visitors descend on the streets of the city for WorldPride Madrid 2017. The sheer volume of people already makes this a momentous occasion, but its most special component is less about the size of the crowd, and concerns its heterogeneous nature. For Madrid’s Orgullo is an inclusive and joyous celebration of respect, tolerance and cosmopolitanism kindled singlehandedly by the gay community’s tireless quest for visibility and equality. That in itself should be a great source of pride.