In the not-so-distant past, I wasn’t exactly Madrid’s savviest tour guide.
When my best friend came to visit me for the first time back in 2011, it didn’t take her long to realize that my ‘tours’ around Madrid were, well, rather special.
They were descriptive (“Let’s meet in front of the dude on the horse in Plaza Mayor!”); utilitarian (“That over there is…a big fountain”) and imaginative (“There’s the Royal Palace where the King and Queen of Spain live”).
Cultural savant I was not. And though my bemused friend had enjoyed this parallel version of Madrid that vaguely resembled reality, she came to my rescue on the last day of her visit.
It came in the form of a curious little book left on my pillow, titled Hidden Madrid: Madrid’s Oddities and Curiosities. On the first page was a note that read: Here’s a little something to help sharpen your ‘tour guide’ skills in Madrid.
Fast forward to three years later. I was meeting Hidden Madrid author Mark Besas for the very first time to interview him for a magazine. After a few friendly text-changes, he asked me where to meet.
“Let’s meet in front of the Galileo statue,” I messaged him. By that, I meant the bronze equestrian statue of King Felipe IV in Plaza de Oriente – you know, the one which Galileo helped assemble by making the exact weight calculations needed for the horse’s hind legs to balance. Common knowledge! *wink*
Thankfully, Mark didn’t think of me as a pretentious pelota and the interview went smoothly.
Mark’s foray into writing his bestseller had a familiar start – touring visiting friends around Madrid.
“I got tired of taking them to the same places,” he says. “After a while you get bored of going to Sol and Plaza Mayor and the Prado. So I started reading about the different places and was learning about peculiar things. Pretty soon I started doing my own version. Forget Plaza Mayor – I’d take them to this little corner where someone died or where a crime was committed.”
Soon, a friend of Mark’s who worked in radio had heard about his unique tours, and it led to a 10-minute weekend radio program on Cadena SER, where Mark would talk about “weird anecdotal things in Madrid.”
Escaped bulls and pachyderms
It also helped that Mark’s father collected antique books about Spain. Eventually, the father and son tandem hatched a plan to co-write the first book, even without a publisher.
“We had absolutely no idea that it would do well. We were just doing it for the fun of it,” he says.
The book was first published in 2007, with a later version translated into Spanish (Madrid Oculto). Today, it is still going strong, selling over 5,000 copies a year.
A few pages into the book and it’s not hard to see why it’s a runaway hit. It’s a compendium of short stories behind the streets, cafés, monuments and little corners of Madrid that you’ve passed by a million times.
The anecdotes are so interesting and quirky that you wonder if half of them are real – like the one about the escaped bull that rampaged through Gran Vía in 1928, or the case of the headless priest that inspired the name of Calle de la Cabeza, or the adventurous elephant Pizarro that made its way to a tavern, uncorked a few wine bottles and guzzled them down.
Mark says that one of his favorites is the one about Paco the Dog, a stray mutt that became so popular in Madrid that Madrileños even published a newspaper about him. Here’s an excerpt about “El Paco Perro”:
Paco was a stray black dog that used to visit Café
Fornos, one of the most elegant restaurants of Madrid in the 1880s.
Paco became a favorite of the nobleman Marqués de Bogaraya, who would
throw him scraps until an unlikely friendship developed, and the
frisky pooch became a regular in Café Fornos, as well as the honored
guest in theatres, bullrings, and gardens. Paco became so popular and
well-loved in Madrid that waltzes were written in his honor,
confectioners displayed sugary models of the dog, and even a newspaper
was published giving Paco’s ‘opinions’ on political matters. Paco’s
adventurous life sadly came to a sudden end in the most dramatic way
in the bullring.
Café Fornos, by the way, is today a Starbucks.
Between Madrileño and guiri
As a half-Spanish, half-American, native-born Madrileño who majored in film at NYU, Mark considers himself as somewhere in between cultures. “Spanish consider myself American and Americans consider me Spanish. I think when you have two cultures, it gives you a better judgment of the country you’re living in. It allows you to see the good and bad of both sides.”
For him, the bad and good about Spain can be the same thing. “I would say one of the things bad and good is how everything is still very laidback. That can be very frustrating in terms of work, how lazy and inefficient many times Spain is. It’s getting better but it’s still not at the level with the rest of Europe, like Germany or France.
“Until very recently, people still drove around drunk, people parked wherever they felt like it – still do – and if they say they’ll get it to you by tomorrow, it will never get to you tomorrow. But that’s also what’s nice about Spain, that ‘No pasa nada!’ attitude. Where it’s ok to go out on a Thursday night and be hungover on Friday, because nobody does anything on a Friday anyway! And if it’s a holiday on Thursday, nobody’s gonna do anything on a Friday.”
As for the quality of life, Mark believes it is far above the US and most countries in Europe.
“People here live wonderfully. Even if there’s a recession, nobody’s gonna take away from them a big dinner with marisco and have 2 or 3 drinks afterwards. ‘La penultima’ – that’s Spain. And that’s the good thing and the bad thing.”
Then again, being half-American has made him a target for the “guiri” label, which he doesn’t mind at all.
“I actually kinda like it, it’s sorta funny. I take it further; I say pu** guiri. My friends call me that all the time! I don’t think there’s a really horrible intention.”
Crime and publishing
The success of Hidden Madrid has paved the way for more successful exploits, including a sequel (Hidden Madrid 2), a children’s version, and a new, visually appealing special edition. It’s even led to a professional tour guiding career, based on his offbeat kind of storytelling.He and his father are currently working on a third edition, and after really thinking hard about the new title, he revealed it to be called…drumroll please…Hidden Madrid 3.
Outside the Madrid theme, Mark has co-written a book about crime and criminals in Spain, De Madrid al Infierno.
“I love crime, I think that was actually the best book I’ve done,” he shares. Unfortunately, it didn’t do very well, and Mark attributes it to the lack of a true crime section in Spanish bookshops, and so the book ended up in the Madrid section. “It’s a horrible section to sell a book about crime because nobody who goes to the Madrid section is looking for criminals!”
In spite of Mark’s writing success, he makes no bones about the difficulties of the publishing industry. “Books are not very lucrative for the writer. For the publishing company, it is so complicated because the amount of money to be made is so little. Many publishers here even try to gyp you, they say they’ll print 1,000 but print 3,000 and only pay you the rights to 1,000. And it happens constantly.”
The Tale in the telling
So what was Hidden Madrid’s key to success? Mark believes it had a lot to do with luck. “My father would disagree but I think that perhaps there’s more luck than talent. Talent is James Joyce or Umberto Eco or Stephen King. I like telling stories, regardless of what medium it’s in. And I can tell a good story!”