Thursday, 26 March 2009

Madrid is not just the Prado 2 - El Museo de la Ciudad

This is the second in an occasional series that will strive to demonstrate that Madrid is more than the three Ps: The Prado, the Palacio Real, and the Plaza Mayor. Madrid is a diverse city, full of hidden delights. This is one of them and should not be missed by any that want to get more than a superficial idea of what has made Madrid what it is. The three Ps are indeed a very integral part of any visitor’s itinerary, but, as you will see, are not be the only places worth a visit.

The Museo de la Ciudad (The Museum of the City.)

People have been living in the Madrid area since prehistoric times. Of course, it is well known the Romans had a settlement here, although for them Segovia and Alcalá de Henares were more important. Archaeologists have discovered artefacts that cover a wide spread of centuries. However, it is thought that the origins of the modern city didn’t begin until around the 9th century when Muhammad the First ordered the construction of a small palace somewhere near the present day site of the Palacio Real.

Around this palace, a small town grew up and was known as Al-Mudaina. Not far away was the Manzanares River, which the Arabs called Al-Majrit, which means “Place of Water”. From this, the name was taken to refer to the whole area and slowly changed over time through Majerit into the modern name Madrid.

If you have any interest in the city beyond the café and bar society and the meccas of fine art, then the Museo de la Ciudad, the Museum of the City, should enter into your itinerary. In this light and airy modern building are housed some wonderful exhibits, helpfully arranged in chronological order, that explain not just the history of Madrid, but how it works and how it celebrates its existence.

It is not a museum crammed with strange object, although there are a few. It does not ram the history down your throat. Set on four floors set about a high atrium the displays allow you to discover for yourself the wonderful story that is Madrid. Neither, for the non-Spanish visitors, will you have to delve into your dictionaries to understand the exhibits, as displays are simple and it’s pretty much self-evident what you are looking at.

When I first visited the museum, I was taken by an enthusiastic Spaniard who insisted we started on the top floor. The lifts are modern and swift. In fact the place is a shining example of how to provide easy access to anyone, whatever their fitness. (Although there are there’s a tricky little area of uneven floor on near the Canal de Isabel II exhibit, which explain how Madrid is supplied with water.)

The top floor is recent Madrid. It is a testament to the art of the model-maker. Whole swathes of the city have been miniaturised. The detail is amazing. We spent ages looking over a model of the area that runs either side of Paseo de la Castellana finding the apartments and offices of friends. For me the scale model of the bullring at Ventas, which is close to where I live is quite superb.

Here too, you will find models of buildings and plazas that have since been changed since the model was made that give rise to cries of, “So that’s what it used to look like”.

But a city is more than its buildings. The citizens live, work, play and dress here. There are exhibits of many of the old ways of doing things – and the quaint and curious implements they used. There is a display of beautiful clothes, including the traditional “Vestido de Chulapa”, the tight, sexy dress worn by Madrid ladies for the fiestas of San Isidro and San Antonio.

(Now here’s a fascinating tit-bit, which will probably get me into hot water with my Madrid friends, but I can’t resist. In Spanish, if someone is described as “Chulo” it means that they are a bit full of themselves and quite derogatory. And Madrileños are often described, by the rest of Spain, as just that. Whether the name of the costume is derived from the epithet, or vice-versa, I don’t know. Men also wear a special form of dress at these festivals, but they all look like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins!)

Let’s descend a floor. Here. This is about how Madrid started and developed. We find ourselves at home with the first settlers in their rough huts. We visit the Romans in their villas Romans and see the Moslems at work. We find the comparative luxury of the bourbons and the men and women who made Madrid what it is.

What wonderful imagery is here: Pictures vividly show life at its best and its worst from Autos de Fe to magnificent parades. There are portraits of great men and women, architectural plans, exquisite carvery and beautiful fans. The ladies of the Bourbon court were the height of fashion and seemed very comfortable in their luxury.

One floor lower and we see how they did it! Technology comes into play. There are sponsored exhibits from the water, telephone and electricity companies.

We see how the Metro was constructed and why it became necessary to travel under, rather than over Madrid’s increasingly crowded streets. You can take a seat on a tram and watch a film and there’s a model of the construction of the metro station at Sol which demonstrates exactly why the Madrileños describe their city as being like a gruyere cheese! (And becoming more so.)

The latest display is about Barajas airport. This is a triumph of the art of the model maker. Since the opening of terminal four Madrid’s airport has increased its role in European travel. They are very proud of it.

The museum is a fascinating insight into what makes the city tick. It attracts on all levels and children of all ages will find something to amuse, interest and inform.

The Museo de la Ciudad is at Calle del Principe de Vergara, 140. Nearest Metro is Cruz del Rayo on line 9. It is open 10:00 to 20:00 Mondays to Fridays. 10:00 to 14:00 at weekends.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Chariots of Ire.

Recently I watched as a shopping trolley took an Little Old Lady to the shops. She was crossing the road as the lights changed and I am sure I saw the trolley give her a push to get her across before the inpatient Madrid traffic mowed her down. These things have a life of their own.

Whenever you go shopping in Spain, you just cannot miss these huge wheeled Shopping bags. They are not so much a trolley as a big bag on wheels and properly called “Carritos”, at least according to Collin’s dictionary. However, everyone in Spain calls them a “Carro de Compra” which makes sense – cart of the shopping – but is also very similar to “Carro de la Guerra”, which means a war chariot and in the hand of little old ladies there are definite similarities.

Look at them closely; And let’s start with the undercarriage. Those are not flimsy little wheels that twiddle and rattle as the carro pushes or pulls its owner along the street. Those are wheels designed for military applications. Some of them even seem to have four-wheel drive! Above the wheels rests a capacious fabric bag. This fabric has amazing properties: 1. its strength exceeds any NASA specification, 2. its inner, hidden, dimensions exceed its outer dimensions by many times, 3. it has some special antigravity material woven into it. This must be true, as the combined weight of anything that gets crammed into it seems to magically lighten.

I mean, I would have a serious problem coming home from the market with ten kilos of potatoes, 3 kilos of carrots, five six packs of milk (combined weight thirty kilos), assorted cans of fabadas, jars of white asparagus, beer cans, wine bottles, a surreptitious bottle of DYC and a complete jamón. Yet you see Little Old Ladies shove all this into a trolley, with hardly a bulge showing, and they grab the handle and waltz off into the Madrid sunshine as if the thing was empty.

It’s while they are travelling along the Madrid pavement that the inbuilt combined anti-theft, anti-hijacking radar comes into play. When you follow an aforementioned LOL with her carro, any attempt to pass triggers the proximity circuitry and the trolley veers out in a defensive action to impede your passage. If one is coming at you, be prepared to step into the road, as the combined width of LOL and carro will be equal to that of the pavement. And beware the amalgamation of carro and LOL carrying an umbrella. This is a combination with a death wish – for everyone else!

It is no coincidence that owners of supermarkets do not allow these devices within their aisles. I don’t know if there’s some health and safety reason for this, as there is for everything else we are not allowed to do in our lives these days, but this would be one I could support. The carnage these weapons of mass consumerism could cause would lead to too many injury claims for the supermarkets to allow it.

Which is why the entrance to every supermarket has an area where the LOLs park their carritos in exchange for the steel framed carro blindado that the shop supplies. I mean, we are talking serious shopping here! Although in the hands of these ninja nannies, those too seem to turn into lethal weapons, as they swarm along the aisles leaving a trail of bruised shins in their wake.

But maybe I am maligning these poor creatures. They are, after all, not in control of their existence. Like privates on the field of battle, they are at the beck and call of others. And like subordinates everywhere, they grumble.

I was standing in the queue at the checkout a few days ago. A grey-haired abuela was slowly transferring her purchases from the supermarket’s wheeled basket to the belt while simultaneously holding a conversation with the checkout girl and another LOL, who was even more slowly putting her checked items into her carro, which meant I had plenty of time to kill. Beyond the checkout a group of these carros stood patiently waiting. I swear I heard the following conversation:

“Oh dios mio”, wailed one. “Will you look at all that milk? Poor Diego. That’s going to put a strain on his wheels. I hate milk days. Those cartons are so heavy by the time we get back home I am quite exhausted.”
“Cat food”, complained another. “Those cans are no light weight. I don’t think my frame will take another load”.
“Ay! Hombre. Cat food doesn’t leak.” The carro raised its flap. “Smell that. Sour milk! Had a leaking brick a couple of days ago, and the silly old bat hasn’t noticed. I stink”.
“You think you have problems”, remarked another. “We went to the Pescadero yesterday. I’ve got the smell of fish leaking out of my seams”.
The other two carros silently sniffed. “¡Anda, joven!” the first one remarked, “doesn’t she give you a wipe out afterwards?”
“Says she can’t because of her back. Now the maldito cat won’t leave me alone. Keeps coming and licking me and cat’s tongues are so rough.”
“That’s nothing. Ours sleeps on me.”
They were interrupted by a squeaking sound. “Look out! Here comes Fernando”, one of them commented and a battered old carro joined them. “Hi Fernando”, they all chorused. “She still hasn’t oiled your wheels, then?”
“Hola amigos”, the newcomer greeted the others dismally and let out a long sigh. “What a morning I’ve had! The lift is not working in the apartment, so she bumped me down four flights of stairs. We’ve been to every shop in the street. I think one of my wheels is falling off and my insides are stuffed”. His flap quivered as he let out a small burp and there came a rumbling from somewhere deep inside. “There’s no room for anything else, but now she’s brought me here; ¡Ay de mi!”
“Diablo! Pobre! These women are brutes.”
“No es nada”, said Carlo. He had been a sleek, shiny carro of Italian design. The others had envied his fine looks when he had first shown up in the shop, but now he was looking the worse for wear. “That’s nothing”, he repeated. “My old lady is too old for the shops now. She gets her teenage grandson to do all her shopping.” He turned his front panel to the wall. “It’s so embarrassing to go shopping with a teenager. And he doesn’t care about me. He bumps me up and down kerbs, bounces me down stairs. One day he left me outside the pandearía while he was getting some bread and a dog came and, came and ….” He slumped. He couldn’t continue. His shame was just too great.
“I don’t know why humans can’t carry their own shopping”, exclaimed Fernando.
“How could they do that”, answered Diego. “They don’t have wheels. I am surprised they can move at all”.
Suddenly a human hand grabbed his handle. “Looks like I’m off Chaveros. Hey, watch this. You see that smug shop manager standing by the door. I’m going to run over his foot. With what she’s just put inside me, that’s going to hurt.”

And with that Diego trundled off to the door shortly followed by the sound of the manager screaming in agony.

That’s one small victory for a Carros de Compra. One agonising leap for a man.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Madrid: The Parque De Berlin

I was a man with a mission. A friend had a meeting in a part of Madrid that neither of us had been to and suggested that after the meeting we could meet for lunch. I have never been known to reuse an offer of lunch, but the problem was, where? As my friend was busy, I offered to diligently search out a suitable watering hole and report back. It’s a hard life sometimes!

As Madrid expanded, the developers, as now, gave their newly created barrios delightful names to attract buyers. The area I was searching is split into two: The barrios of Prosperidad and Ciudad Jardin. Prosperity and Garden City; they sound wonderful, don’t they?

Perhaps they were once! Now these two barrios are part of the inner city and a warren of constricted streets overshadowed by dingy high-rise apartments and littered with cheap “Chinese” shops, where nothing costs very much and you get what you pay for!

It’s not all like that. There are a few streets where rows of neatly fenced two storey detached houses defy the encroaching apartment blocks as Don Quixote defied the windmills. Squint and ignore the multi-floored giants and these rows remind one of Provincial France, or British suburbia, but over their shoulders the apartments loom and one day, I am sure, will take their place.

Neither, as I found, is it a barrio for the walker. Centuries ago, it was a land of rolling pasture where sheep grazed. Sheep with four legs don’t mind steep slopes. The narrow lanes that radiate out from the main street that divides the two barrios, El Calle de Lopez de Hoyos, need stout legs and a Sherpa guide to negotiate.

So by the end of the morning my legs were sore and weary. I had just walked past a school playground whose level surface ended ten metres above street level, which might give some indication of the steepness of the slope, and, in the spirit of one who was determined to complete his task, was contemplating one final climb when, in this sea of sullen stonework, I had a glimpse of green.
And when I had scaled the mountain, there it was. A park I had not expected to find in this dreary neighbourhood. At first, apart from the trees, all I saw was the flat, dusty area of an inner city basketball court.

Groups of young men in baggy shorts competed with each other while others, with clouds of cigarette smoke hanging lazily over their heads in the still air, watched with varying degrees of interest. In the distance, a grey cement structure that proved to be a small auditorium, plastered in peeling posters, gathered sweet wrappers under its drab concrete seats.

The sun was hot on that barren patch. The players’ feet kicked up swirls of brown dust as they leapt for the hoop. Beyond them stood a file of shady trees where people sat sheltering from the sun. I bought an ice cream from the graffiti strewn kiosk and went to join them.

As I approached, the ground fell steeply away from me. Oh, how the sheep must have loved this rolling landscape - assuming they had two legs shorter than the others! Then I realised this park had two distinct halves. There was the flat summit with its dusty sports area, and a lush, well-watered, green and shady decline of tended gardens and hedgerows. I looked down on to three gushing fountains set in a network of grey asphalt pathways and flowerbeds.

Under the trees the temperature dropped sharply, almost causing me to shiver. There, elderly gentlemen played chess on painted checker board tables. Readers relaxed with their newspapers or books. Young mothers sat and watched their offspring. It all seemed rather peaceful, and just what I needed.

Below me, at the foot of the gradient I saw an irregularly shaped pool of water. Three fountains gushed perpendicular spouts of water that stood like sentries about what seemed to be some modern art sculpture standing on its island plinth. Always ready to educate myself I wandered down. The sculpture consisted of three concrete panels. I thought, “Hmm! Not exactly what I would call art”, and then, “even so, it’s a shame that the graffiti artists couldn’t leave them alone”. Because that’s what it seemed, three grey slabs standing on end and covered with paint daubs. But then I read the plaque:

En memoria del derribo del muro de Berlin. Parte de el queda aquí”.
"In memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall, part of which stands here. "

I was actually looking at historically important graffiti. I am pleased to report that during my researches I discovered that I was not alone in my ignorance and that some of the paint had actually been cleaned off by an over zealous Parques y Jardines worker just before Herr
Brandt’s arrival.
So, I am not the only idiot in Madrid!

This corner of the park is on the busy intersection of the Plaza de la Virgen Guadalupe. There is a quite magnificent fountain in the centre of the plaza. Its view is unfortunately marred by the traffic lights and road signs of a busy junction. It is named for the church that stands opposite the park, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora De Guadalupe. I am told that the church is mostly attended by those of Mexican descent who live here. It is certainly a striking piece of architecture.

Turning back into the park, I became well informed. A sign proclaimed this to be the Parque de Berlin. So now, I knew where I was. With a sense of duty, I did some research. It was opened in 1967 by Willy Brandt, then the mayor of Berlin, to celebrate that city’s ties with Madrid, whatever they are. But when he opened it, it was just a park. The Berlin wall did not fall until November 9th, 1989, long after Brandt was just a memory, and the three slabs were erected as a memorial the year afterwards.

Then further up the slope is a monument to Beethoven, and that appeared in ’81. So I am not quite sure what Willy Brandt opened, except that there is a statue of a bear on a plinth bearing the single word, “Berlin”, which was probably there at the time. It’s curious that both Madrid and Berlin take bears as their figureheads. Perhaps that’s the cultural tie!

I quite like the monument to Beethoven. In the shape of a grand piano, it seems to be made out of a single lump of granite. Installed, as the inscription says, in 1981, it commemorates the ties between the city of Bonn, then the capital of West Germany and Ludwig Van’s birthplace, and Madrid. In a park dedicated to Berlin, this seems rather as if Madrid is hedging its bets. The musical notes inscribed along the front are the strident opening bars of Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony. In this park, I would have thought his sixth; the “Pastoral” would have been more suitable.

Not far away is another memorial. It is for Alvaro Inglesias Sanchez. It’s a simple bust on a plain plinth. It commemorates a simple act. In 1982, when the young people’s hostel in which he lived caught fire, he risked his own life to save others. And he made the ultimate sacrifice. His was the only death from that fire. He was responsible for the rescue of many others before the fire-fighters arrived.

The Spanish singer, Victor Manuel, in 1984, celebrated the park in song with the words,
“En el estanque la luna prendida a un nenúfar empieza a llorar. Junto a Beethoven y el oso un cisne agoniza de felicidad”.
“In the pool, the moon caught a water lily and began to cry. Next to Beethoven and the bear, a swan died of happiness.”
Hmm! It probably loses something in translation!

I didn’t see any swans. I did see people relaxing and taking it easy. It did see joggers and dog walkers and children playing. Just what one would expect to see in a park. A few months after I found it I took some friends there for a picnic one Saturday afternoon. We sat on the grass and arranged our rugs to stop the wine bottles from rolling down the hill. Below us, the harsh slabs of the Berlin Wall looked as ineffectual as the wall had eventually proved to be. Beethoven’s notes, sounding the V for victory in Morse code, reminded us that common sense had won through in the end.
We saw the trees and flowers, the lawns and bushes and ignored the towering apartments that surrounded these ten acres of tranquillity. It’s a little park in a great big city and certainly not worth a tourist visit. Good, leave it for us.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Madrid Metro Museum at Chamberi

A year ago, I was one of the first visitors to the just opened Metro Museum in Madrid.

In 1966 the Ministry of Public Works, finding that Chamberi Metro station could not be easily modified to take the longer six carriage trains, because it was built on a curve, decided to close the station. This was no great loss. The area is well served with other accesses to the metro system; there are three stations within five hundred metres of the Plaza de Camberi and a forth only a little further away.

For forty-two years only the tracks running through the station were maintained as it lies on the busy Line 1. Meanwhile the platforms and access tunnels and stairs slowly crumbled.

On the surface, a new Plaza was built; a place of relaxing benches under shady trees, raised flowerbeds, a children’s playground, and a bandstand surrounded by terraced cafés, leaving no clue to what lay beneath.

Then someone had the bright idea to resurrect the station as a museum. In 1966, the metro was very different from the sleek and modern system that runs today. The material used then was brick and tile, steel and wood. The restoration took two years.

This is not a large place. The majority of the museum lies along just one of the platforms. Even if you linger it won’t take you longer than ten minutes. This would be a place to visit when you have a spare hour – and that would give you time to also let you take a coffee in the Plaza above. And entrance is free.

The photograph above shows the derelict state of the ticket office that the workmen found. Today it has been restored to its original ceramically tiled glory as envisioned by the first architect of the metro, Antonio Palacios.

Antonio Palacios Ramilo was a Spanish architect whose works can be seen all over Spain. In Madrid his works include the Palacio de Comunicaciones, that wedding cake castle of a building at Cibeles, and the Circulo de Fines Artes and the Rio de le Plata bank, among many others.

He had a vision for the Madrid Metro and he assumed that the people of the city, used to broad open, sunlit skies, would not enjoy being confined in a dank and dismal underground. So he designed his stations to be as high and wide as the technology of the day allowed. To further reduce the claustrophobic effect he used brilliant white or light coloured tiles to line the walls and installed the best lighting of the day. It is possible to see examples of his work at existing stations, most notably at Tirso de Molina and Menéndez Pelayo.

The visitor enters via a spiral staircase or lift sited on the corner of Calles de Luchana and Santa Engracia. Two spirals down one passes through the vestibule to where a small tiered cinema, cleverly formed from an ancient stepped access, shows a twenty minute film describing the Metro’s history – from it’s beginnings in 1919 to the present day. Here are views of old, preMetro Madrid with its uncluttered, tramways and evocative scenes of the metro tunnels in use as air-raid shelters during the Civil War.

Down the steps, no escalators here, through the old style ticket office with its heavy steel gates, the descent leads to the actual platform. The museum planners have designated this “Anden Zero”. (Platform Zero)

The station lies on line one, between Iglesia and Bilbao stations and the trains whizz through at high speed. Fortunately, the platform is barricaded from the tracks by thick panels of glass, through which the visitor can view the opposite platform where short films of preMetro Madrid are projected on to screens.

Overhead the white ceramic bricks gleam in the light of passing trains.

Advertisements for mineral water, light bulbs and Gal, the famous Spanish perfumers are set in coloured tile. The ads didn’t get changed weekly then. It would have taken a team of workmen days to do the job!

The visit, including the film show takes less than an hour. It presents a curious and evocative glimpse of times gone by. The restoration has given Madrid a time capsule of life before today’s frantic bustle. If you have a spare hour and want to shelter from the heat of a Madrid summer, then I recommend this little treat.

Open Mondays to Fridays from 11:00 to 19:00 and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10:00 to 14:00.
Nearest Metros: Bilbao, Iglesia, Alonzo Martínez and Ruban Dario. The train no longer stops at Chamberi.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

March 11th 2004 We Shall Remember Them

On the morning of Thursday the 11th of March 2004, within just fifteen minutes of each other, four trains departed the station of Alcalá de Henares, a historic town some 35 kilometres northeast of Madrid. Packed with commuters coming into the city for a day’s work, this should have been just another normal journey.

At 7:37, as the first of the trains was just pulling into Madrid’s Atocha station, a bomb exploded in one of its carriages. Seconds later a further two more bombs exploded. At the same time, two bombs on a train just leaving the station of El Pozo devastated the central carriage, another at Santa Eugenia station, and four more on a train running alongside the Calle de Tellez, about 800 metres outside Atocha.

By the end of the day tragic figures began to unfold; one hundred and ninety people were dead. Sixty-seven died at El Pozo Station, sixty-four next to the Calle de Téllez. The final toll at Atocha was thirty-four with sixteen more dying at Santa Eugenia Station. And nine more died later in hospital.

This gruesome total increased by two when a Special Forces agent died as suspects of the attack blew themselves up during a raid on their apartment, and two months later a baby born to a mother critically hurt in the attack succumbed to the mother’s wounds. As well as the dead, a further 2051 people were injured, 82 critically.

As well as the 142 Spanish who died that day, there were citizens from sixteen other countries: 16 from Romania, 6 from Ecuador, 4 each from Poland and Bulgaria, 2 each from The Dominican Republic, Columbia, Morocco, Ukraine and Honduras, and 1 each from Senegal, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, France, and the Philippines.

Such horrors and the innocent victims cannot and should not be forgotten.

Today, five years later, the city remembers that day.

In the Puerta del Sol, in the city centre, on the wall of the Ayuntamiento is a plaque. It reads:

A todos los que supieron cumplir con su deber en el auxilio a las victimas de los atentados del 11 de marzo de 2004 y a todos los ciudadanos anónimos que las ayudaron. Que el recuerdo de las víctimas y el ejemplar comportamiento del pueblo de Madrid permanezcan siempre.

To all those who carried out their duty to assist the victims of the crimes of the 11th of March and to all those anonymous citizens who helped them. May the memory of the victims and the exemplary behaviour of the city of Madrid stay with us always.

A friend who still lives near Atocha remembers the loudest noise she had ever heard. Friends and families were calling each other for reassurance. Ordinary people gave of their time to aid the rescue work. Everyone was affected that day, whether they were present at the scenes of tragedy or not, but everyone knows someone who was.

The sheer number of the resources mobilised that day were unprecedented in Spain. The health authority activated its emergency plan with more than 70,000 personnel called to assist. Nearly three hundred ambulances transported the wounded to hospitals all over the city. Non-urgent medical operations were cancelled as the injured arrived. Every operating theatre was in use. At the various scenes, two hundred firefighters searched the wreckage for survivors. There was always the danger that there were more bombs and in fact, a further three were found, their detonating mechanisms fortunately faulty. Bomb disposal detonated two within the station that morning, but it was not until the early evening that they found one more hidden in a rucksack in a pile of passenger’s luggage.

It is right that the city remembers their bravery and the parts they all played.

From all over the world messages of sympathy and support poured in. That day Madrid found it was not alone. The words came from a planet that reeled in shock. Madrid has never forgotten that support.
Located in the heart of the busy terminus, the Atocha station memorial is an eleven-metre high glass tower. Inside, held aloft by air pressure alone, is a thin plastic cylindrical membrane. Inscribed on the inside of the cylinder are inscribed some of those thousands of messages of condolence that arrived in the days following. They are in all languages and all scripts. In simple words the outrage of an appalled world is made plain - and its frustration.

In one way or another, they all ask the question, why?

This is a sombre place, but it demonstrates that the world is not full of terrorists. It quite literally spells out that the majority of the world’s inhabitants are good people, caring people. It is good to remember that when evil strikes.

Not far away from Atocha is another memorial.

Cross the Paseo de Prado and take a ten minutes walk to the entrance of the Puerta del Ángel Caido of the Retiro park. Once inside veer left into the trees and follow the winding path. Eventually you will come over a rise and look down on to a small hillock, not more than ten metres high. Around the base of the mound runs a trickling stream of water. Spiralling to the summit of the mound a narrow path leads to a small open area from where you can look down on a formal garden planted with olive and cypress trees.

This is the El Bosque de los Ausentes, or the Forest of the departed.

Engraved beside the water’s edge are the words:

“En Homenaje y Agradecimiento a todos las victimas del terrorismo cuya memoria permanece viva en nuestra convivencia y la enriquece constantemente.”

“In homage and gratitude to all the victims of terrorism whose memory permanently lives within us and enriches us constantly.”

There are one hundred and ninety two trees; One for every innocent victim of that fateful day.

Surprisingly, this is a pleasant place; A place to spend an hour with a book or taking the sun. However, because of the loss that it commemorates it can never be a happy place. As I walked the spiral path to the top of the mound, surrounded by the trees that remember and celebrate the lives so cruelly taken, I used to think it felt like being among the ghosts of the departed.

But now, when I visit, although I knew none of them when they were alive, I feel they are still with us. They are as much a part of the city as they were in life. Still living.

To those families that lost a loved one, a simple tree with never replace a personality. Gone forever is the soul, the laughter, the comradeship, the love, but not their spirit. Within the trees our memory of the victims will never die. The people of Madrid are strong people, caring people, defiant people. This memorial sends out once again to a watching world the message, “No Pasarán”.

The garden of remembrance is more than just a place to recall another massacre of the innocents. It is a place to recall that more than once Spain had picked itself up, dusted off the ashes, and got on with life. Here one can contemplate, despite the only statue of Satan in the world standing just beyond the trees, that although evil may have triumphed in one small battle, it will not win the war.

There will be many families in Spain today remembering a special someone who was taken from them on that day just five years ago. We, in our turn, should remember them.