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Old Saints and old Cities

If Andalusia still conjures Bizet's Carmen bewitching soldiers on the banks of the Guadalquivir, Madrid summons images of women on the verge. Who can forget Almodóvar's Carmen--Carmen Maura, that is--setting fire to the bed she once shared with her lover in a penthouse apartment overlooking the city's rooftops?Or his Rossy de Palma passing out from gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills?Here, more than anywhere else in Spain, the ecstasies of the flesh are cloaked in a seductive weave of high seriousness and witty sophistication. Madrid for Christmas?Why not?Especially because that meant I could head into the rocky countryside that surrounds it, a backdrop more readily associated with ascetic mortification and spiritual enlightenment than worldly pleasures.

In late November Madrid goes into high gear, buzzing with hyped-up energy, turning the lights up brighter. Fashionable Madrileños stroll past the illuminated decorations and alluring shopwindows of Puerta del Sol (definitely the place to avoid on New Year's Eve, when this busy plaza turns into a Spanish version of Times Square). Throughout the city, branches of the popular Corte Inglés department store vie for the most extravagant holiday displays with gargantuan, glittering topiary, trumpeting angels, and yoked reindeer.

And on Sundays, the famous flea market, El Rastro--so large it's a neighborhood unto itself--takes on a special intensity. What's remarkable is the sheer variety of objects for sale, from tie-dyed T-shirts to antique birdcages, from flashy underwear to rusted auto parts, from tattered vintage comic books to faded maps of a world that no longer exists. Competing with the lure of bargain-hunting is an ongoing and often outrageous street theater. The star of the show one December afternoon was a paunchy transvestite crammed into a skin-tight black leather flamenco outfit, clicking castanets and strutting to the wailings and bouncy rhythms of a Gypsy band.

Yet beneath the city's love affair with the perverse are traces of a Spain much older and much closer in spirit to the Gothic cathedrals and fortressed medieval towns that surround it. The most magical market in Madrid is still the Christmas bazaar in the Plaza Mayor, with its rows of stalls selling Nativity figures and tree ornaments, as well as grotesque masks for the Feast of the Innocents, which commemorates Herod's slaughter of infants in Bethlehem, observed here on December 28. The plaza is surrounded by stone arcades that skirt elaborate 17th- and 18th-century buildings with wrought-iron balconies, slate roofs, and painted murals. Plaza Mayor is something like Paris's Place des Vosges, but with a dramatic, spookily Castilian edge; it was here, after all, that public executions were held during the Inquisition.

It has been awhile, though, since the plaza mayor trafficked in anything other than pure enjoyment. Some of the city's best tapas bars line the square, as do long-established emporiums selling hats and capes, hams and spices, offering a rare combination of time travel and shopping. Among these is the Casa Yustas, which specializes in exotic headgear: veiled evening concoctions, the three-cornered hats made famous (or infamous) by Franco's Guardia Civil, and hats that appear to have been on the premises since the place was founded a century ago.

History and tradition meet unrestrained carnivorousness at Botín, the oldest restaurant in the city and, legend has it, in the world; Francisco Goya is said to have worked here as a dishwasher before his art career took off. With its colorful tiled walls, open hearth, and gleaming copper pans, it's part cliché, part fantasy. This fantasy has been functioning since 1725, but, happily for me, my husband, and a number of stylish Madrileños, it's real, too.

We can't resist the house specialty, roast suckling pig, which looks and smells so delicious (in Hemingway's Sun Also Rises, the dish is Jake Barnes's idea of comfort food). The very fact that I, a reasonably health-conscious American woman, am devouring the irresistible parchments of crisp, salty skin--in the middle of the night!--is proof that I have already succumbed to the excess that is Madrid.

All the delicious and unhealthful foods that I have (dutifully, and at great personal cost) learned to stay away from at home--mammoth hunks of roast meats, crunchy pig skin, delectable deep-fried fish--are all-too-readily available throughout the city. Here, even side dishes arrive, as they do in the American South, accompanied by wicked little morsels of crackling and (still more) pork. In one form or another, the pig shows up in almost every meal we have in Madrid. One afternoon we grab a snack at a food emporium called the Museo del Jamón, which displays a positively exhaustive variety of magnificent hams and breads; another day, we lunch on a creditable version of cocido madrileño (an aromatic stew of meats and vegetables) at Terramundi, cheerful with its pale yellow walls and linens. Dinner at the funky La Trucha restores our faith in what can be done with simple ingredients--airy fried fish, silky spinach in garlic, artichoke hearts sautéed in olive oil with tiny nuggets of salty ham. And there's something weirdly titillating about dining at Viridiana, which, for some time now, has been among the hottest of Madrid's restaurants. Chef Abraham García's inventive creations are heightened by the kinky thrill of eating them amid stills from the Buñuel movie from which the restaurant borrows its name: the great director's brilliant meditation on sin, corruption, blasted innocence, and the twisted eroticism of not-quite-faithful Catholics.

A less ironic take on the transports of Christianity can be found in the Prado, among the miraculous paintings of Murillo, Zurbarán, and Ribera. With its recently restored collection of Netherlandish art--one of the world's most extensive, including masterpieces by Brueghel, Bosch, Weyden, and Patinir--and new galleries devoted to Velázquez, the Prado is more breathtaking than ever. As in all great museums, there's a shock in suddenly finding yourself standing before a favorite painting by Goya, Rembrandt, or Titian; it's like unexpectedly encountering an old friend.

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