Spain, Voltaire once observed (expressing the scorn that many Frenchmen feel for those unlucky enough to have been born on the wrong side of the Pyrenees), is “le pays de la paresse”—the land of laziness.  For a long time, paradoxically, this was part of her charm, part of the magnetic attraction, of the “Byron syndrome” that drew so many English travelers—from George Borrow and Richard Ford right down to Gerald Brenan—to settle down in the peninsula and to record its eccentric ways.  A land where it was customary to lunch between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, to dine any time from 9:30 on until midnight, after enjoying a good two-hour siesta, was clearly no ordinary country.  It was alluringly exotic, refreshingly non-European, and thus seemed to be—as Tom Burns Marañon, the grandson of a famous Spanish writer and endocrinologist, has aptly written—a heaven-sent “reserve of natives living on the periphery of Europe, torn between indolence and militancy, and thus a fascinating ‘target’ for seekers after adventure and strong emotions.”

It would be oversimplifying matters to say that this romantic, essentially 19th-century view of Spain has little to do with present-day realities.

Irksome though it has been for many, the Madrileños have learned to keep reasonably strict office hours.  However, they obstinately continue to lunch and dine at what, by European standards, are distinctly odd hours.  In Madrid, the bars and cafés tend to be almost empty before 2 P.M., after which they are submerged by garrulous wine drinkers and aficionados of “Tío Pepe,” manzanilla, and other forms of sherry, who interrupt or punctuate their sentences with sausage or shell-fish tapas and small, sandwich-like bocadillos, which, as the name suggests, can be consumed in a single mouthful.

Madrid, essentially an administrative capital, was never a major magnet for foreign travelers and seekers of the exotic, being far outstripped in touristic sex appeal by Alfonso the Wise’s and Charles V’s ancient capital of Toledo; the old university town of Salamanca; Santa Teresa’s brick-walled city of Avila; the strongly Moorish cities of Cordova and Granada; the Andalucían capital of Sevilla, with its Semana santa processions and tumultuous Feria; and the Atlantic seaport of Santiago de Compostella, in relatively verdant Galicia, which ranks immediately after Rome as Europe’s most prestigious target for Christian pilgrims.

Unlike older cities such as Paris, London, Vienna, Prague, and Rome, Madrid is a relatively recent capital, having been founded in 1561 on a fairly barren plain lying southeast of the Guadarrama mountain range by Emperor Charles V’s dyspeptic son, Philip II, who realized that trying to transform the old fortress town of Toledo, with its maze of narrow, upward-winding streets, into a modern imperial city would be an impossible task.  What it lost in medieval picturesqueness, the new Spanish capital gained in urban automobility; for, with the exception of a small area of narrow streets leading up to the quaintly arcaded Plaza Mayor, Madrid is, to a large extent, a gridiron city, with parallel streets encompassing “blocks” of houses, intersected here and there by major avenues—not unlike Savannah or Washington, D.C.

When I visited it more than 50 years ago, Madrid was a somewhat provincial capital of one million souls, the center of which had been slightly damaged by shells randomly aimed by General Franco’s gunners at key government buildings.  Cars were a rarity—Spain had not yet embarked on the production of her first pseudonational automobile, the Seat (designed in the Fiat workshops of Turin); the underground subway system was still grossly underdeveloped; and Madrid was basically a city of tram-and-bus riders and pedestrians.  The city boasted a few theaters; the Opera was a national joke or tragedy (depending on one’s taste); and the city’s sole cultural jewel was the Prado Museum.

Today, the buses have largely replaced the trams; the metro system has been enormously extended; Madrid’s streets and avenues teem with European and Japanese cars (many of the latest Peugeot and Renault models being manufactured in Spanish factories); and the city now numbers more than four million inhabitants.  The handsome redbrick apartment blocks, which, in the early 1950’s, had begun their semi-high-rise march toward the north, have since been joined by concrete and glass-paned skyscrapers, which extend in all directions for miles on end.  The theaters have hardly changed, and the Madrid Opera is still nothing to brag about, but the city now boasts three magnificent museums, with the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection and an admirable Museum of Modern Art both within easy walking distance of the Prado, which make this leafy corner of Madrid the most concentrated repository of great paintings in all of Europe.

In one respect, the city has changed dramatically—and, I cannot help feeling, for the worse.  Forty years ago, apartment buildings in central Madrid were guarded at night by watchmen, charmingly named serenos.  Anyone returning home at any hour of the night had only to clap his hands, and soon the sereno would appear, armed with a truncheon and a huge bunch of keys, one for each apartment building’s entrance door.  Particularly agreeable was the conversation that habitually accompanied the propina (tip).  There are Spaniards who claim that, since the abolition of the serenos, (not long after Franco’s death in 1975), the streets of Madrid have ceased to be safe at night.  Others argue that this venerable institution had to be abolished, because it provoked endless administrative squabbles among competing apartment overseers, and also because the serenos acted as watchful police informers.

Loath as are many Spanish Republican diehards to admit it, what is now often called the “economic miracle” of modern Spain—today, the world’s leading olive-oil producer, the seventh in automobile construction, a partner in the construction of the European Airbus—was, in fact, launched during the last years of Franco’s “regency” by his prime minister, Adm. Carrero Blanco, and several enlightened Catholics belonging to the lay Opus Dei order, led by Alberto Ullastres, who, after serving as minister of commerce, went on to become Spain’s first ambassador to the European Common Market.

This essentially “liberal” policy of encouraging free enterprise was judiciously continued, after the restoration of the monarchy under King Juan Carlos, by Spain’s first Socialist prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, a charismatic lawyer from Sevilla.  Three times reelected—in 1986, 1989, and 1993—though each time with a diminished majority, Gonzalez successfully reinserted Spain into the existing concert of European nations by having her admitted to the Common Market and NATO in 1986.  But for a series of corruption scandals, in which his party was heavily implicated, he would probably have been reelected for a fourth time in 1996.

His conservative successor, José María Aznar, who had begun his life as an obscure treasury official, made up for what he lacked in personal charisma by a kind of Sancho Panza horse sense and the realization that, to succeed in democratic politics, one must try to occupy the “middle ground.”

Had he been less pig-headed, Aznar—or, at any rate, his party—might still be in power today.  But early in 2003, he decided, like Tony Blair in Britain, to defy domestic public opinion, violently opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, by proclaiming his support for President George W. Bush.  This was asking for trouble in a country that is probably the most anti-American in Europe, ever ready to blame “yankis” for every conceivable woe—from the loss of her imperial colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific to the American corruption of her relaxed lifestyle, culture, and good manners (for Spain is still a land of caballeros, where such matters count a lot).

In May 1985, when Ronald Reagan made a three-day visit to Madrid, a plan to have him entertained in the Town Hall had to be called off at the last moment when the U.S. embassy discovered that the mayor, a maverick Socialist professor named Enrique Tierno Galván, was sardonically planning to deliver a speech in Latin, of which his illustrious guest would not have understood a word.  More recently, in a public-opinion poll undertaken early in 2004 to measure the popularity of foreign countries, the United States ranked next to the last—one notch higher than strongly disliked and distrusted Morocco!

It is clear that the Aznar government was singularly inept, in the aftermath of the devastating Atocha Station train bombings of March 11, 2004, in trying to claim that they were the work of ETA Basque separatists—with Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, in particular, losing her head and telephoning newspapers and TV stations in Madrid to insist that the diabolical explosions were not the work of Islamic terrorists.  Many Spaniards felt that they were being lied to once again by an arrogant government that had bamboozled them into supporting a war fought to uncover an Iraqi dictator’s “weapons of mass destruction.”  The result was the stinging electoral rebuff of March 17, when Spain’s Socialists were returned to power with, nationally, 42.6 percent of the vote and 164 parliamentary seats (compared with 37.6 percent and 148 seats for Aznar’s crestfallen PP).

This electoral triumph was surprising, given the lack of charisma of the Socialist Party’s new leader, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a model paterfamilias from the northern city of León whose mild, accommodating ways have won him the nickname of Bambi and the reputation, particularly with the señoritas, of being soso (insipid).

A determination to overcome this “handicap” may explain the new prime minister’s readiness to be undiplomatic in his relations with the government of the United States.  During the Spanish National Holiday celebrations of October 12, 2003, marked by a military parade that included a tiny U.S. contingent of a half-dozen flag-carrying Marines, Rodriguez Zapatero remained ostentatiously seated.  After his party’s electoral triumph five months later, he ordered the prompt withdrawal of the 1,900-man contingent that the Aznar government had dispatched to Iraq and, later, made a trip to Tunis, where he publicly stressed his conviction that the invasion of Iraq had been a “flagrant error” made by persons (i.e., the United States) who had disqualified themselves as policymakers in the Middle East.

Washington’s response to these diplomatic pinpricks was not long in coming.  The U.S. ambassador, George Argyros, chose to repay Rodriguez Zapatero in his own coin by absenting himself from the National Day parade of October 12, 2004.  A few days later, he made his displeasure felt by urging the new Spanish defense minister, José Bono, to tell Rodriguez Zapatero (in blunt words that unleashed an uproar in the Madrid press) “to stop kicking me in the shins!”