Beating the Heat: Summer in Madrid

As far as I remember, most house buyers in the UK crave a south-facing garden. When we bought our current flat here in Madrid, Marina was quick to point out how lucky we were that if faced North. This didn’t make much sense to me until we spent our first summer here, but now it is something I’m constantly grateful for. It means we can open our shutters and let a bit of natural light in after about 11 am. Before that, as we actually face slightly north-east, we have to keep the shutters in the living room firmly down to make sure no sunlight gets in.

At night we sleep in the living room as well, on the sofabed, as the bedroom is far too hot to use during July and August. We keep the windows overlooking our roof terrace wide open, and enough air comes in to cool the room to about 25ºC by 7 a.m. (on a cool day). That’s the time I wake up, see the first rays of sun creeping in at an acute angle (it’s that north-east angle again), and quickly bring all the shutters down, in the hope that we can maintain something close to that temperature all day long. I then go back to bed for half an hour, before running round to the small spare bedroom/study (also too hot to use) to shut the window and blind there too, before the sun starts pouring in on that side of the building as well.

So in the mornings we work in the living room, in near darkness, ceiling fans spinning above our heads, and in the afternoon we sleep a little and work drowsily (no one can argue with a siesta when you’re only getting 6 hours hot sleep at night). All things being well the inside temperature maxs out around the 30º mark, and we sit it out until 8pm, when it’s cool enough to go out to the park.

Thank goodness this is a cool summer, with outside temperatures in the shade rarely topping 33º in the last couple of weeks. On a wine tasting course I went on recently, the girl in charge was explaining how alcohol content in wine is increasing as a result. I don’t remember the exact reasoning (something to do with the changing way the grapes ripen), but she basically said, “You just don’t get those crazy hot summers in Madrid any more, where you would see 40 degrees or more on a regular basis.”

It’s true, and such a relief. Otherwise we’d be moving the sofa bed onto the terrace every night. Or ourselves to somewhere a lot cooler… like the Basque Country or Asturias. Now there’s a thought…

37 thoughts on “Beating the Heat: Summer in Madrid

  1. Bill

    For my first three years in Madrid I lived in a top floor flat in Moratalaz, with three exterior walls, no a/c and no central heating. Perfect for letting summer heat in and winter warmth out, so in summer it was unbearably hot and in winter unbearably cold – especially when we had to go without hot water for a month.

    We moved to a new flat just over a year ago and immediately spent a fortune on decent air conditioning. What happens? The bl**dy Madrid summers turn cooler! We used the a/c once last summer and only a few times so far this summer.

  2. Jonathan

    Another side effect of global warming, on the day that another chunk of Patagonia’s Perito Moreno glacier fell off forever? I have air conditioning now, and it’s turned me into a softie. I lived for ten years in Tirso de Molina without any and sweated a bit through the summer, but survived. Now I thoughtlessly reach for the remote control and help to bugger up the environment as I do so. So maybe this cool summer is Nature’s way of telling us to please, please switch off the air con.

  3. BrianA

    We noticed a big difference after living in an old town house with very little breeze, to move to a fourth floor flat (facing NE). Any moving air that’s around we can now feel. The aircon is great for when the humidity goes up and the fans don’t help, also for noisy Saturday nights so we can shut all the windows.

  4. Ray

    Okay, now try it without ceiling fans, and while working graveyard shift. Sleeping during the day is painful. At least the noise that construction usually makes has died down a bit with the current real estate market.

  5. luke

    I thought I was getting better at dealing with Madrid summers, didn’t realise that they were getting better.
    You geographically skipped Cantabrias; not keen on that area? I’ve been thinking of getting a place up there since there are good connections to Madrid and UK, sea, mountains and not too hot. Basque country would be perfect but there’s the language and the minority who might have a problem with my Castillian mujer.

  6. Colin

    “like the Basque Country or Asturias. Now there’s a thought”

    So, what’s wrong with Galicia??????

    The Xunta will be calling . . .

  7. Graeme

    Well although I understand you had your reasons for moving to a newer flat, there are advantages to living in older buildings in Madrid, and to narrower streets where the sun can’t spend the whole day heating your flat. Some of the newer buildings in Madrid can get incredibly hot, even on the sides that don’t get the sun.

  8. Parubin

    @ Luke :
    Cantabria (Santander being the capital city of the region) has long been a favourite summer destination from people from Madrid and Castille (and now even neighbouring Basque Country).

    It is considered to be a bit elitist, and prices for vacationing can be quite expensive (among the highest in Spain) but in return you find reasonable summer weather, unspoilt coast, lush valleys, montain ranges, wonderful towns (both inland and coastal), great gastronomy and atmosphere…

    No air condition needed in Cantabria as temperatures rarely go further than the highest 20’sºC.

    And yes, you are right, it is just in the middle between Madrid and Great Britain.

  9. Colin

    @Luke

    Galicia has everything listed by Parubin* but is not elitist. And it has better weather than Santander.

    Except Cantabrian cuisine, of course.

  10. bill

    @Jonk – many people do without a/c in Madrid since keeping the flat warm in winter takes higher priority, and the warmest part of the year is usually spent somewhere else.

  11. bill

    @Colin – I never knew that Galicia has better weather than Santander. Does that apply to all Gallicia or just the western coast?

  12. Colin

    @Bill

    Yes, my comment relates to the west coast, and in particular to the Rias Baixas, where it is also better than in the north around A/La Coruna.

    PS My daughter survives in an attic flat in Madrid without air conditioning but she is a friolera and I’m not sure I could. In fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t.

  13. luke

    @Parubin and Colin
    I haven’t spent much time in Cantabria but I thought that Galician, Asturian and Basque cuisine had higher reputations?
    As far as the weather goes I suppose it’s depends if that is more important than connections to Madrid and UK. Could I put up with the rain in Santander, I think its wetter than London?
    I know Santander has a reputation for pijos, doesn’t the King have a place near there? One of the reasons I like Madrid is that, unlike Barcelona, there is a less pretencious atmosphere. So maybe that is a reason to avoid Cantabria? I’ve been monitoring house prices there for a while and they don’t seem too expensive to me…

  14. Ben Post author

    We do have air-con but hate to use it as it is such an artificial atmosphere. The new cieling fans I have installed are wonful though as long as the inside temp stays below 31º (still fine at 30!)

    Colin – sorry, meant to include Galicia too, but not elitist Cantabria 😉

  15. ValenciaSon

    I think the alcohol content is higher because the warmer tekmperatures are speeding up the yeasts’ metabolism, resulting in a higher alcohol yield. That has risks because in progressing to quickly from primary to secondary and tertiary alcohols too quickly, you may progress further to the unwanted acetone stage (vinegar). Why is everyone else off topic? 😉

  16. bill

    Elitist or not, Santander has the best city beach I have seen in Spain. Well, I think it’s better than La Concha, Barcelona, La Coruña, Valencia and Gijón at least. It might not have so many interesting buildings behind it, and it might not be that lively, but the beach itself seems more interesting, with plenty of rocky pools providing environments to all sorts of sea life.

  17. Parubin

    I have to admit that ‘elitist’ comment on Santander and Cantabria sounds indeed a bit ridiculous, but it does stand true for some part.

    In the first decades on the last century, Santander was the first beach-tourist destination in Spain. The Spanish Royals used to vacation there (in the Palace of La Magadela -formerly a royal property, now home of the Summer University UIMP- in the middle of a beautiful peninsula in the center of the city that divides the Bay of Santander and the Beach Area of El Sardinero) and they attracted a lot of the noble people of the era. Those times have passed but a lot of the resorts and buildings made in El Sardinero are reminiscent of the ‘Belle-Epoque’, in a similar fashion than Biarritz, for instance : The Casino, Palace-like hotels, hyppodrome, tennis clubs and even a Polo field (never seen it used for that purpose in my life though)…

    Of course, nowadays, tourism has been ‘democratized’ and it has become almost a public need and not a luxury. Still, Santander, and some towns in Cantabria (Comillas, Santillana, San Vicente, Castro Urdiales…) make good business in july and agoust with prices (on hotels, restaurants, terraces, appartment to rent) quite above the average in Spain. In fact, I’ve read in the news that it is the most expensive summer destination. Good or bad?? I don’t know, the hotel will cost you a bit but you don’t get a horde of tourists flocking your way. And you don’t have mega-resorts spoiling the coast.

    I think the same applies for the whole of the north coast, really. The north is a bit more expensive for vacationing, and therefore, maybe, more ‘elitist’, if that doesn’t sound weird of stupid, which maybe it does.

  18. Brendan

    @Bill

    most a/c units have cooling and heating but I presume the price of electricity is more expensive than gas (central heating)?

  19. bill

    @Brendan – I think gas prices have gone up so much recently that it’s not much cheaper than electricity anyway.

    Yes our a/c unit can blow in hot air, though it’s quieter to use the central heating, and perhaps more efficient since the radiators are spead out around the house and under the windows, and it directly heats water instead of air. It seems to heat the whole house up and keep it warm, while the a/c vents are near the ceiling and don’t heat the whole house up so well.

    I think the trend these days is for underfloor heating instead of radiators – though I don’t yet know anyone who’s got it.

  20. Jon Hundt

    I wish I had your problems! Here in Holland it is different. I was painting outside today (July 15!!) and I wore a sweater most of the day… I had to dig out a floodlight at noon because it was too dark, I couldn’t see my work.

    Stop your griping! You all wanted to live in a warm place, didn’t you?

    We frequently stay at a little beach hotel. They put A/C units in each room a few years ago. I have never found those things necessary. My wife thought we should turn it on one really warm day… we left the room for dinner, when we came back the marble-tiled floor was so cold we couldn’t stand on it!

    I think energy use and global-warming effects would both improve dramatically if people accepted the heat for what it is, and didn’t try to change their “personal environment”.

    Is Spain turning to a “Los Angeles” culture, where you run from one A/C shop to the next in your A/C car, then rush home through the traffic jam to your A/C house so you can jump into the Hot-Tub with a cool drink?

  21. Jill (la vieja de la manga)

    I write from South East Spain and it’s pouring with rain! Most unusual for July but we’re so grateful for the wet stuff. Thus far the summer has not been too hot at all but on those hotter nights try using a “chillow” http://www.chillow.net/ . An amazing device which actually works and gives a comfortable nights sleep.

  22. sandy

    Generally, the hotter the temperature, the sweeter the fruit become. It applies to typical fruits grown in Spain such as grapes, figs and oranges. The sugar in the grapes converts into alcohol in a complex chemical process that I don’t understand. Therefore, the Spanish wine usually has a higher alcohol content than French wine where there is less (hot) sun.

    I agree the Cantabria has some of the best beaches I have seen in Spain. But after living there for so many years, I, grown up in a tropical country, still could not get used to the cold Cantabria sea water. That said, there are still many unexplored white sandy beaches in the Basque country where you don’t have to fight for towel space like in some of the popular beaches in the south east.

  23. gary

    July 17th – North of England – 16 degrees C max and rained most of last week. We even put the heating on one evening.
    Last year more rain than we’d had for 75 years.
    Roll on Barcelona in august

  24. Carl

    Hey Jon, I resemble that remark, uh I mean, I resent that remark about Los Angeles!

    Besides, we now sit in solar heated hot tubs with our cool drinks.

  25. Ben Post author

    @ese, gracias, y buen idea, pero vamos a estar en campos muchos mas verdes para estas fechas!

  26. mcark

    Ben, you have A/C but you don’t like to use it? Wow. I respect that……really but you are in your living room living off of six hours of sleep and you don’t snap and turn the damn ac on? That’s amazing. It’s 94 degrees ( hold on, let me google the conversion…..34 C) here and I have a box fan and an AC going along with a bowl of ice cream!

  27. Ben Post author

    @mcark – the last two days we have craked and had to use it for a couple of hours! Apart from that, the ceiling fans are wonderful!

  28. Pepino

    I have the combined air-con/heaters in my flat, and it’s a godsend in the summer. Winter’s are usually just mild enough here in Barcelona to get through it with just the occasional use of the heater in the evenings, but summers definitely need a touch of aircon. I would never sleep with it on all night though as I did that once thinking it was a good idea but woke up feeling that my lungs had been raked out! I’ll pop it on for 30 mins before bed so that I can at least drop-off to sleep though.

    I have a friend who is morally against the whole concept of aircon, despite the fact that his flat directly overlooks one of the noisiest early morning markets in BCN and he has to sleep with the balcony doors open to keep the temperature manageable. He’s clearly mad of course, but it deserves some respect! :-0

  29. Jonk

    I hear why some people don’t like AC but for me, just don’t get it. I love a bit of the good old AC! Especially during the Australian summer. Can’t wait until I get rich enough to rent a place with it. Oh, why can’t my parents just move back down from Sydney…

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