After a few drinks at Cat's — and something else at Cat's, that was rather less pleasant — a big group of us went down to Plaza del Sol, Madrid's central square, to welcome in a Happy New Year ("Feliz Año Nuevo") madrileño-style. Emmanuelle, her Dutch friend, Miguel, Dan, Matt, Kenny and myself headed to the plaza together — although almost the entire hostel went there at some point; not to mention almost all of Madrid at large. It was mad, it was flamboyant, and it was without doubt the most jam-packed crowd I've ever been in. But it was certainly unique. And because this is Spain, midnight was just the beginning.
New Year's Eve in Madrid is, logistically speaking, doomed and f$#%ed. Greater Madrid is a city of over 5 million people. During major festivals and celebrations, that number is boosted by at least several hundred thousand, in the form of visiting tourists. And Plaza del Sol — which really isn't all that big a plaza — is the one and only place — The Place To Be — where everyone goes to welcome in the New Year. This is in contrast to Sydney — my home town, and the only place I've ever celebrated NYE up until tonight — where the population story is about the same, but where "The Place To Be" is anywhere with a harbour view: that includes over 20 different parks and lookout points around the harbour, as well as thousands of private parties that take place in harbour-view homes, restaurants and function centres. Hence, Madrid is comparatively much more deprived space-wise. The result: squeeze-tacular!
To sum up Plaza del Sol, when we were there between about 11:15pm and 12:15am: it was packed; it was thunderous; and it was out-of-control. In a feeble attempt to curb the amount of broken glass on the street, the cops were snatching bottles off anybody they saw who was holding one. They snatched a half-finished bottle of beer off me, when I was getting through a particularly tight spot — however, I doubt that they managed to confiscate even as much as 10% of the bottles that people had on them tonight. Every minute or so, a random (and blatantly contraband) firework would whiz up and explode, to the joy of everyone in the square. There was singing everywhere (and in every language). There was dancing everywhere (and in every style). And there was rubbish everywhere (always the worst and the most depressing thing about NYE — having to wade knee-deep in the stuff).
Finally, the big clock above the Madrid City Hall struck 12, and the plaza exploded in a Mexican Wave-like cheer. Here in Spain, they have a famous tradition that when the clock strikes 12 on the New Year, everyone has to eat 12 grapes: you have to eat them whole, and you have to swallow each one simultaneously, in time with each "ding" of the clock. Everyone had a bag of 12 grapes on them — people were selling them at every entrance to the square, and we all purchased some — so we were all able to partake in the tradition. I didn't actually hear the clock striking (I didn't hear very much at all, to tell the truth), but I did eat all my grapes — hey, that's at least half the tradition!
The clock may not have struck for everyone to hear; but they did at least let off plenty of fireworks for everyone to see! The fireworks are always the highlight of NYE for me: and although they were nothing compared to the stunning multi-million-dollar extravaganza that I'm used to back home, they were quite impressive nonetheless. They were made all the more beautiful, by the fact that they went off right above all our heads, and by our all being so densely crowded together to share in the celebrations. After the fireworks finished, Kenny triggered a little explosion of his own, by cracking open a bottle of Champagne that he'd kept on himself the whole time (and that he'd gotten past the cops), and by showering the lot of us with a spray of bubbly.
I'm very sorry, dear readers, but I have no photos of tonight to share with you. That's because I didn't bring my camera out with me for the New Year (I left it safe and sound inside the hostel). The lack of photos is unfortunate; but considering what happened tonight, I think it was for the best. After the crowd in the plaza had begun to disperse a bit (this took a while), and we'd begun to make our way out and to start hunting down a good club, we were prancing merrily down the streets of downtown Madrid. I, for one, was dancing down the street — why not, when you're in Spain for the New Year? Anyway, a guy walking past me stopped where I was, and started joining in and dancing next to me; and before I knew it, the bastard had his hand in my jeans pocket, and was trying to rob me! Only with some (surprisingly) quick reflexes was I able to yank his hand out of my pocket, before he had time to make me yet again the victim of theft while backpacking. Not that I was carrying much, anyway — he only would have taken my cash, and only about €60 at that. "Puta madre" (lit: "son of a b$tch"), he screamed at me as he ran off — but hey, better a curse than a punch in the face.
After the midnight fiesta at Plaza del Sol, we said goodbye to Dan, Matt and Kenny — as they had pre-booked tickets to a private dance party with all-you-can-drink booze, which they managed to obtain through a friend of theirs. That left Emmanuelle, the Dutch girl, Miguel and myself to go club-hunting. The first club that we found had a fairly cheap cover fee, but it was a bit of a white elephant: the music was up s$#% creek, and the atmosphere simply was not kicking. An OK place to kick off 2008 with a drink or two, but not somewhere we could spend the whole night.
The second club that we found was much better: it had a long queue at the door (always a good sign, even if it means a tedious wait), a still-reasonable (albeit higher) cover charge, and much better music inside. It also had a proper disco and dance floor in the downstairs basement, where locals and tourists alike were getting into it with a vivacity that made me smile. Although I did more than smile, of course: I dove right in and joined the fun. This club was exactly what we were looking for: we ended up staying there for the rest of the night, and dancing away the New Year to that beautiful mix of Western rock / pop, salsa and reggaetón that I've come to know and love.
Like I said, tonight we celebrated the New Year madrileño-style. And in Madrid, they keep partying (at least) until they see the sun rise. This has its advantages: not least of which, is the fact that by the time you've finished at the clubs, the cafés are open for breakfast! In central Madrid, they're serving from 5am. So once we were done at the club, the four of us headed over to one of these joints, to grab some delicious 6am coffee and churros (fried pastries — sort-of like pretzel-shaped donuts) for breakfast. After that, it was time to welcome New Year's Day in the only way that's proper (no matter where you are in the world): by going to sleep.