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High life

Spanish style

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

8 October 2005

12:00 AM

Madrid

This is the sultriest city in Europe and, along with Paris and Rome, the most romantic capital of the old continent. When visiting Madrid there is only one place to stay, the Hotel Ritz, right in the heart of the city, opposite the Prado. There is a bucolic air about the Ritz, with the wide leafy streets that surround it and its beautiful garden-restaurants, which hint of romance and the forbidden pleasures of long ago. The past, of course, is what Spain is all about. Charles V had made it the most powerful country in Europe, imbuing his people with pride as well as melancholy, which his chronically depressed mother suffered from. Back then Spain was a closed country. Diplomats would report that hidalgos would sit down to dinner with only a few crusts of bread, but served on a gold dish. The fairy moonlit courts of the Alhambra were eventually succeeded in the public imagination by the sinuous dancers with great flashing black eyes of Merimée’s and Bizet’s Carmen fame. Spain, however, always remained mysterious, proud and melancholy, until the death of Franco, that is.


Until then, Madrid was the living symbol of the divorce of old Spain from the new. I remember the first time I visited Andalucia, in 1957, the legends of the smugglers and brigands etched in the faces of the gypsies. There was not a single high-rise anywhere, just extreme poverty and extreme pride, real Hemingway stuff. And then I went to my first bullfight. El Litri was the star, if memory serves. I got hooked on the drama and the atmosphere quicker than you can say Pete Doherty. The great Papa never apologised for bullfighting. He wrote that it was not a sport, but a tragedy, symbolising the struggle between man and the beasts. As usual he was right. Bullfighting had been going on since AD 1126.

Later on, still during the Fifties, while playing in a tennis tournament, a gypsy bullfighter by the name of Chamaco, asked me to go with him and his entourage to a nightclub to watch flamenco dancing. Chamaco was known to like young men, but there was no way I was going to miss the flamenco in the company of a bullfighter and his court. Real blood-and-sand stuff. The only pass that was made that night was mine, when I was presented to Ava Gardner, a pass that missed by a mile, but that’s a different story altogether. (She asked me if I was a maric


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