If New York is the city that never sleeps, Madrid is the city that sleeps during the day. Shops mysteriously close, the streets empty,everything gets quiet when the sun is at its peak, only to mysteriously come back to life when darkness comes.
There is a good reason for this: In daylight, Madrid is rather uninteresting, by the standards of European capitals. Yes, it still has its charms (like the beautiful Parque del buen Retiro), and a visitor can instantly tell he is in Spain by the distinctive architecture and cultural feel. But the streets are a permanent sort of dusty gray, the traffic moves with all the alacrity of a hung-over Bluto Blutarsky, and the madrileños wear that perma-scowl only seen by Americans behind the counter at the DMV.
At night it's a different story. No longer does el sol expose the urin stains on store fronts. The sluggish traffic is replaced by scantily-clad young chicas, walking fast and talking faster. And get this: they smile! I don't know why Spanish women hate the daylight so much, to the point where they wear dark sunglasses even on the subway. But they do love the glow of streetlights. It's such a pleasant surprise to actually see eyeballs that we could be forgiven for thinking we have been beamed to a different city altogether: a happy one. And indeed, we have.
And about those street lights. They are given a place of honor. More design flourishes and creative touches are expended on the humblest street-chandelier than on the marble edifices lining the Plaza Major. In Madrid, the street light is elevated to an art form.
And yes, the city does sparkle at night. It goes from interesting yet functional to absolutely beautiful. It's almost as if the buildings are designed to be lit from below. The air cools down, the dust settles, the laughter starts. To experience Madrid, you must experience Madrid At Night.
It's 2:14 AM and I haven't slept or changed my underwear in three days. I think I'll have another San Miguel.