07/24/2012 07:13 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

In Spain, Better Living Through Tourism

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Europe On 5 Wrong Turns a Day.

When I told people I was headed to Europe, or had just come back, the subject of Barcelona inevitably arose -- "Did you check out the food scene?" "Did you see the Gaudí buildings?" or, most often, a straight-to-the point "Isn't Barcelona awesome?" And I'd have to say, "Actually, I didn't go there; it wasn't in my vintage guidebook" -- it really wasn't on the tourist trail at all in the 1960s.

Today, Barcelona is one of the most popular cities in Europe for travelers, trailing only London, Paris and Rome, and ranking well ahead of some of the places that did make the Europe on Five Dollars a Day cut, such as Nice, Athens and Oslo. And Madrid. Spain's capital did make it into E5D, but the moment I arrived here, I realized that Frommer's comments about the place might as well have been about Mars or 15th-century Mongolia, for all the similarities it had to the city before me. In perhaps no place I visited other than Berlin were the differences between then and now more profound.

I bounded up the subway station steps at Puerta del Sol -- basically the Times Square of Madrid -- eager to poke my head above ground like a prairie dog and take in the scene. On one side of the square, a billboard for Nike soccer shoes towered above me; I winced and turned around to find long rows of Renaissance revival buildings -- a tiny balcony at each window, terra-cotta tile topping each roof -- stretching into the distance, along the streets that radiate out from the square. That was more like it.

The buildings were just the right scale (four and five stories) to give a sense of officiousness and urbanity without being imposing. A bagpiper played at one corner of the square; on the other side, a duo of hammer dulcimer players of mesmerizing dexterity and virtuosity put on a show for the crowds streaming by, an even mix of gawking tourists and commuting locals. The street was all bustle and high spirits -- even more so than Rome or Berlin or any of the other cities I'd just visited -- a genial cacophony, more friendly than frenzied.

It would be incorrect to say that Spain was truly thriving. The recent collapse of the worldwide economy had hit the nation especially hard -- by April 2010, unemployment would reach 20 percent and the burgeoning deficits here and in other countries (including Greece and Italy) would cause widespread concerns about the long-term fate of the common euro currency. As I walked up a pedestrian mall called Calle de la Montera, headed toward my hostel, I saw several people -- each with a haunted, hard-luck expression -- wearing sandwich boards that read, "COMPRO ORO." I buy gold. They were handing out cards for a pawnshop. When I ventured back into the city after a few hours' respite in the hostel, I got propositioned three times in the span of one block. (Well, I thought, Frommer was right when he said the Spanish people are friendly and helpful.)

Still, Madrid's exuberance was impossible to deny. That night I feasted on impossibly cheap and delicious tapas and hung out at a side-street bar, sipping beer and chatting with the bartenders -- what a joy to be, finally, in a city where I spoke the language, albeit crappily! -- and when I ambled back to my hostel after midnight, sated and giddy, the streets were still alive. There was even a bookstore open.

Seventeen cities get the full treatment in Europe on Five Dollars a Day; Madrid is the final chapter and also the shortest. I would have more than enough time for Frommering, I knew, so I spent the next day biding my time, enjoying myself, tracking down places and sites listed in my E5D only if I happened to be in the neighborhood. My navigational instincts were in fine form, and the few times I did get lost, I discovered I was no longer the least bit concerned about making a fool of myself when asking for directions.

"I'm getting quite brave about asking 'stupid' questions," my mother wrote from Rome, in letters from her trip abroad back in the '60s. Being a happy tourist is in part about acknowledging and accepting your own ineptitude, but being keen to improve.

In the morning, I took a bike tour. Our leader was a man in his early twenties named Ramón, tall but lean, and with a soft voice that belied the giddy delight he took in showing off his city. The bustle had not abated. Sometimes it felt like every other block had a festival going on or about to start -- groups gathering, music blaring.

When I asked Ramón about it, he shrugged. "Just regular life."

We stopped at Mercado San Miguel, a big Beaux Arts building with a decidedly modern interior. As a public market, it had historically been a community fixture, Ramón said, but in recent decades had fallen on hard times, becoming a forlorn, dismal place. A few months earlier, it had reopened as a showcase of regional foods. There were produce and fish stands as well as a chic little wine bar and a small tapas restaurant -- modern and traditional, urban and pastoral, all rolled into one packed market. It, too, felt like a festival -- but, no, just regular life, tourists mingling with locals, everyone beaming.

We got back on our bikes, reluctantly, and moved on. At a sprawling intersection where two major roads met at a roundabout -- it reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe, albeit with slightly fewer cars and a massive fountain in the middle rather than a monumental arch -- Ramón called us to a stop. The fountain was covered with an immense white tent, and a stage was being set up on one side of the intersection, just in front of the Palacio de Comunicaciones, the city's iconic structure, a Gothic-inspired edifice that was part wedding cake, part cathedral, but altogether stately.

"We are one of the finalists for the 2016 Olympics," Ramón said. "The vote is in a few days, so they are setting up for an event to maybe get the attention of the International Olympic Committee."

Spain's tourism boom traces its roots to the rebuilding of the country after the dictator Francisco Franco -- the man most responsible for the "economic backwardness of Spain and the poverty of its people" that Frommer observed -- fell from power in 1975. But the Barcelona Olympics are widely credited with being Spain's big coming-out party, the catalyst that launched the country into the upper echelons of tourist destinations. (Frank Gehry's iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, opened in 1997, helped the trend along.) By 2007, Spain drew more tourists than any nation in the world other than France, although it has since fallen to fourth place, with the United States and fast-rising China rounding out the top three in 2010.

So now, Madrid wanted to claim some of that charm for itself, to reclaim its spot as Spain's cultural capital. Ramón's brown eyes brightened as he explained, "We are trying to show the world we want this -- we want them to come here."

As we pedaled off to see the rest of his beloved, reawakened city, I recalled Frommer's comments about the country's impoverished "quaintness" and his wish for a better, more prosperous future for the Spanish people. And I thought, happily, mission accomplished.

Reprinted from Europe of 5 Wrong Turns a Day by Doug Mack by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Mack.