Celebrating the New Year in Madrid

Posted on / by Alex Berger

The small travel alarm I had with me let out a loud chirp ripping me from the throes of my quasi dream state. I’d mentally told myself I needed to be up early – which left me just awake enough to spring into action. Rolling over and silencing the small alarm clock, I quickly glanced around the room feeling a bit guilty. I was relieved I hadn’t woken up any of the others in the room. Apparently, the alarm was nothing compared to the trinity of earth shattering snores two of my fellow hostel mates and I had been responsible for over the previous 4 nights. Holding my breath I gently eased myself down from my perch in the back of the room on the top bunk bed. Making more noise than I’d have liked I quickly dressed – pausing to moan and rub the sleep from my eyes. I tossed on my backpacks and made my way to the elevator. It had been a late night and my train left far sooner than I’d have liked.

Half in a daze I checked my e-mail in the lobby before setting out into the crisp morning air. It was a cold, wet, gray day. It made me regret leaving Granada a bit less, for which I was grateful. Five minutes later I was standing on the Grande Villa scratching my head and hoping I was about to board the right bus. Eventually, I found the one I needed and after a quick five minute ride, disembarked in front of the train station. With a few minutes to spare I picked up a small box of Pringles and found a bench. Eventually the train arrived and I said my goodbyes to Granada. It was a bitter sweet moment. Effectively the end of my explorations and my latest adventure. From Granada it was back to Madrid for New Years and then onto a plane for the 12:40pm flight back to the states.

The train ride back to Madrid was comfortable. The scenery attractive. Having arrived at the central station, I quickly found my way back to the Musas Residence. I’d stayed at this hostel when I first arrived in Spain. There I settled into my room, showered, grabbed a kebab and began taking vitamins. It was December 31st – I knew I had a long night ahead of me, and with a 14 hour flight waiting for me on the 1st it was time to prepare. I read, napped, ate and drank water. Only venturing out to enjoy the city briefly for food or fresh air.

New Years Eve in Madrid

As evening settled in, there was a palpable electricity in the air. Everyone was excited and eager to begin the evening’s celebrations. Madrid has a reputation as one of the most exciting New Years Eve celebrations in the world and I was eager to experience it. I swung by one of the local stores which was still open and picked up two bottles of wine and another kebab before heading to the hostel’s kitchen/common room. There, after a bit of a hunt, I found a cup and corkscrew and settled in at a table with 3 other Americans – a brother, sister and their mutual friend. They’d just arrived from the Midwest and were eager to kick off their trip. We shared wine, stories and got acquainted – quickly polishing off a bottle of champagne and both bottles of wine. As we warmed up for the evening we joked, laughed and teased each other and the others who drifted over to our table. We decided to make our way out on the town and headed towards Puerta del Sol – Madrid’s New Years Eve celebration ground zero.

As we wound our way from plaza to plaza…and past bar after bar…we eventually found a fantastic little dive which had bathrooms in the basement, down a winding flight of stairs that resembled a dungeon more than restrooms. We paused for a side of olives, quick tapas and glass of Sangria before rejoining the throngs flooding through Madrid’s streets. Everyone was in high spirits and most of the Spaniards were dressed with colorful wigs and fanciful outfits as part of the festivities.

Starting to feel the bottles of wine we’d had earlier, I led us through the winding streets towards the Puerta del Sol. With about an hour to go, we found the entrance to the event…A barricade across the street with at least 6 police officers standing guard. We paused, taking in the sight, and quickly realized that instead of carding or giving people grief as they entered the police were handing out giant plastic cups to party goers. Not to be left out, we quickly backtracked to one of the entrepreneurs turned street vendor selling grapes (more on this later), beer and bottles of wine – expecting price gouging we were surprised to find a bottle of champagne was only 5 Euro. Hardly more than we’d paid earlier at the local supermarket. Two bottles and 4 large plastic cups later we were inside the barricades and working our way through the crowd. We’d managed to beat the majority of the crowd and as a result ended up with a great view of the main building (note the building in the attached video).

Once in position we settled in and waited, quickly getting to know the various groups around us. Some were Spanish, others were English, others Australian and yet others German. The square was packed and despite it’s great size quickly filled to overflowing. The dull roar of the crowd was deafening…and then the final countdown began. Marked by twirling lights we all stood, jumping up and down and shouting at the top of our lungs with 12 grapes in hand.

As the final 12 seconds of 2008 clicked by we quickly ate our grapes – one for each second. The 12 grapes signify the 12 months of the year and have become a fun tradition, albeit difficult to execute. Cheeks stuffed with grapes, Madrid ushered in 2009 with the roar of thousands of voices and one of the most incredible fireworks shows I’ve ever seen. As one the crowd jumped and cheered – pausing only long enough to steal a new years kiss – we watched as vibrant explosion after vibrant explosion lit up the evening sky. As the firework show subsided the crowd slowly began to untangle itself. Like water poured onto parched earth we flowed back out and away from the square en-mass. Heading in every direction and clogging all of the side streets.

After a quick pause I realized I’d lost the others. After a few minutes spent looking for them, I eventually gave up and undaunted slowly made my way back to the hostel – pausing as I met new friends along the way. Once back at the hostel I reconnected with the Americans and settled in for a few rounds of drinking games with a group of other travelers and hostel employees. Somehow time quickly slipped past and long before I was ready I realized it was 5am. With a heavy heart I said goodbye to three Italian girls I’d met (all from Milan) and crawled into bed. I had to be awake at 9am – there was an hour’s commute to the airport, and then the typical 3 hours advanced check in for international flights.

In rough shape I woke at 9. Half standing, half rolling out of my hostel bunk I crawled into the shower for a quick rinse before hoisting my backpack up and onto my back. The walk to the metro was easy. The stale metro air however, was not. With a grimace I purchased my metro ticket and waited for my train all the while fighting the urge to vomit and sweating in silent misery. It had been a good night. It was going to be a rough morning. As the metro train rattled along its tracks I paced at one end of the car as women nervously watched me. I quickly realized that my pacing – though necessary – made me seem nervous. Combined with my size (I’m 6’4″, 200 pounds), general appearance and two backpacks (one on my back and a smaller a smaller day pack strapped to my chest) the pacing understandable left them a little edgy. The whole scene was comical. The metro itself looked like a war zone filled with hundreds of party-goers in all different states – all bedraggled – making their way home.

Somehow, I managed to hold it together for 40+ minutes across 3 separate metro lines. Believe me when I tell you that when I reached the airport station I was the first one off. Like a lightning bolt I made my way to the surface and to fresh air. I never actually got sick…but it was a close thing. Another 5 minutes on the metro and I doubt I’d have made it.

Once inside the airport, I made it through security in a matter of minutes. So much for needing 3 hours! I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then quickly located a set of benches where I could stretch out. It was 10:30 – my plane left at 12:40. I took a quick nap and recovered some before heading to my gate. Luckily I arrived early. In some sort of odd Spanish form of efficiency the plane was boarded and heading towards takeoff by 12:35. Scratching my head in wonder, I shrugged and counted my blessings – it was a good thing I hadn’t arrived late.

The flight back was long…the planes old and the service mediocre. Despite the discomfort though, I didn’t mind. It had been an amazing adventure from start to finish – and oh what an ending.

If you ever have the chance to celebrate New Year’s in Spain head to Madrid. It’s without question, one of the most amazing parties in the world.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


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