Wednesday, 23 September 2009

It's Turned Out Nice Again!

By Richard Morley
Sunny skies over Madrid's Main Mosque.

Well I am sorry to inform the Schadenfreude of some, but once La Noche En Blanco was out of the way the weather turned nice again. The skies are blue with just a hint of cloud, jackets are now being carried, not worn, and the tables on the pavement are in use again. Temperatures are in the mid to high(ish) twenties, which is a welcome relief from the searing heat of not that long ago. I am so glad I did not succumb to the temptation to store the electric fan for the winter and right now it is wafting a welcome cooling breeze about the room.

La Noche en Blanco, the White Night or literally, “Sleepless Night”, seemed to be a great success. Wandering around Gran Via with its normally cream coloured cliffs of building facades painted brilliant colours by gelled floodlights was a wondrous sight. Up every street a crowd gathered to watch some street performance or listen to bands playing every conceivable type of music. I am told the usual long queues meandered slowly outside the major galleries, although as they are there every day of the year this bemuses me. But one should never underestimate the madrileños’ love of anything free! But whether it is vale la pena to wait for hours I am not so sure.

For me the evening will be remembered for another sort of pain. Climbing on to a bus to go to a friend’s house, I slipped and scraped my shin from knee to ankle and fell flat on my face into the bus. (And yes, I was sober!) Several passengers rose from their seat to offer me assistance, which with great bravado I shrugged off, but the pain ……!

I arrived at my friend’s house where the cuts to my leg were immediately attended to with some large dollops of iodine. Ouch! Even more pain. I have been left with a leg that has evolved through all the colours of the rainbow, that has two gaping holes in it, and has twice the circumference of the other leg. I presume it will deflate in time.

Once the wound was dressed and a restorative glass of Mahou had been consumed, we set off to partake in the evening’s events. On nights like this I, as the guiri, am happy to be guided by those that know their culture better. Our group are all of a “certain age”, but had decided to relive their salad days by going to listen to a band from the seventies. We set off for Clamores Jazz club in Chamberi. There we spent an evening in the company of Cánovas, Adolfo y Guzmán. This was only three quarters of the original line up; someone called Rodrigo was missing.

With the three eponymous members playing guitars and a session musician on piano the audience were treated to nearly two hours of a zimmer-framed stumble down memory lane. The three musicians were now all old men. This mattered not to their fans who had come to listen and sing along. Everyone knew the words and were actively encouraged to join in, perhaps to disguise the occasional croaks of age from the stage, although the voice that came from those three old men were not old at all, but still had the timbre of their youth. You can see how in the YouTube clip of one of their more famous songs, covered by just about every Spanish singer of merit, below.

Of course, many of the songs, despite their age, were new to me, and I could not lend my voice to the choir. But when they sang a couple of Beatle’s songs I was right in there – alone – while the rest of the audience kept quiet. Oh what the heck, they were probably too drunk to notice! But Rule Britannia and all that.

After the show we went out into the streets and attempted to listen to a jazz band, invisible among the throng, in the Plaza Dos de Mayo, then wandered through the crowded streets of Chueca down to Gran Via and a solid river of people oozing through the trafficless street.
Without a never ending flow of cars Madrid seems somehow more open, more free and much more sociable. For this night only the city was for the people: Couples, groups of friends, families with their children – some quite young. It was like a tide of humanity had flowed in through the carless streets – and quite magical.
Of course, more has been happening than La Noche en Blanco. No one has been able to avoid the overspill from the Cibeles Madrid fashion week. The newspapers have been full of the wonderful, and downright weird, ideas of the fashionistas. We have seen quite an eclectic mix of designs, but you know very few will ever be seen worn on any high street anywhere.
And they are still shifting the street furniture. “We will have to find a new place to meet in Sol”, suggested ADN newspaper. As part of the renovation of the Plaza del Sol it seems they are moving the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree. But don’t worry too much. We shall not see hoards of rootless tourists missing each other because there is nowhere to meet. They are only putting it back to where to was 30 years ago in front of the Tio Pepe building. According to the report this will be the finishing touch to the remodelling of Sol. Hooray! I have lived here for four and a half years and only one once seen the plaza without work going on. The residents and shopkeepers will be very relieved.
But not those in the neighbouring street of Montera, it would seem. This, of course, is the notorious street where the ladies of negotiable affection ply their trade. Three years ago the residents tried placing webcams on their balconies to put off the girls’ clients and that was followed by the ayuntamiento placing very obvious cameras, with warning signs, along the street. Apparently this has had very little effect. I am not surprised. Two years ago the girls had an alternative venue, the Casa del Campo, but the authorities closed the roads to through traffic, so everyone came into the centre, spilling out along Gran Via. Recently the Gran Via girls had a bust up with the Montera girls when one of the former strayed off pitch. Despite the area being swamped with (blind?) police, it seems quite an affray ensued, according to a friend (honest!) who was an eye witness. “The cameras have had little effect”, claimed QUÉ! Newspaper.

But are lessons learned? I doubt it. At a cost of 600,000 Euros forty eight surveillance cameras have just been installed in the Barrio of Lavapiés. According to the Ayudamiento the activities of the working girls once again are the main reason, but it does have a reputation as a high crime area. I say “reputation” as I have no first hand experience of Lavapiés other than as a place to get the best Indian and Asian food in town. It was once the Jewish quarter with surrounding walls to keeps the jews in after nightfall, until they were all thrown out in 1492. I recently waited for a friend in the Plaza there and eavesdropped in on a conversation between four men; a Moroccan, an indeterminate African, a Chinese and a Spaniard, all sharing one long bench. It is probably the most cosmopolitan plaza in Madrid. Whoever has the job of watching those cameras is going to be very bored.

And going back to the subject of shifting the street furniture, Cristobel Colon, or Christopher Columbus to our American readers, is now all trussed up waiting to be moved to his new home in the centre of the Paseo de la Castellana. To date, the Madrid Municipalities have asked central government for 1,076 million Euros as part of “Plan E”, the scheme to renovate the city by finding jobs for the unemployed. As I have written before, much of this work is needed, but moving the statues does seem like “busy work”, just to keep people in jobs. The government has recently stated it will raise taxes to pay for all this work and some politician voiced the opinion that those who have benefitted from the crisis by having their mortgage repayments reduced as interest rates went down should pay an extra tax so that no one can be seen to profit from the current depression.

I love this town, but sometimes ….!!!!

Still, the weather's turned nice.

Friday, 18 September 2009


By Richard Morley.

With a resounding drum roll of thunder the end of summer came crashing down on Madrid.

It had been a humid, muggy few days. The sky had ominous grey clouds moving in to obscure the blue skies, but the temperature had only decreased a little from the plus thirties we had been enjoying a few days before. Everyone commented that this was the best time in Madrid. It was cool, but a jacket still wasn’t necessary. Tee shirts and shorts were still being worn at the terrace cafés, even at midnight.

And then in the early evening of Wednesday the clouds gathered into an ominous critical mass and decided, with a series of booms across the city, that what we us humans really needed was lots of rain and temperatures in the mid-teens. Last weekend it was thirty degrees. Today it is thirteen. The weather gods are having a laugh.
The Plaza Mojada, sorry, Mayor.
It is time to find those sayos we all put away on the fortieth of Mayo.

A friend of mine, fed up with the unrelenting, never ending days of summer Twittered to the world that come the first rains he would stand naked in the street and let the cooling shower cascade over him. If he did, he risked pneumonia, because it might have been llover a cántaros, or raining pitchers-full, but it would have been a very cold comfort indeed.

At the time of writing this Madrid has seen a steady drizzle all morning. Nothing for a red-blooded Inglés to bother about, but my portero was very concerned I wasn’t going out with an umbrella.
Plaza Santa Cruz.
Ah yes, the paraguas, the umbrella, as wielded by the denizens of this metropolis is a dangerous instrument. Little Spanish ladies carry their umbrella with the sharp points at standard guiri eye level. They carry them as defiantly as Don Quijote carried his lance – and any other person is regarded as a La Manchan windmill. Beware!

Of course, the extents of the umbrella occupy more space around you than a Spaniard, with their “up close and personal” regard to other peoples’ space, would allow. So sharing a pavement with a granny with a brolly is fraught with dangers. Protect the face at all costs. And the fact that you, umbrella-less, are keeping to the covered, dry parts of the walkway, matters not a jot. They want that area too. Men, be a gentleman and keep to the kerb. Ladies, you can battle it out as you see fit.

And I have just return from a bus trip where I saw a man use his umbrella to push the stop request button without leaving his seat. He did not waver in his aim. These people use umbrellas as the Taliban use ground to air missiles!
Soggy Sol.
I am reminded of a time when I was meeting with some friends in the Plaza de Callao. There was a steady downpour, but no cats and dogs were tumbling off the roofs, and a young Chinese man was selling umbrellas in the street. “Paraguas, dos Euros”, he cried to not many takers. But suddenly the nature of the shower changed into a small tropical storm with huge drops, like a misty spray, rebounding half a metre off the paving slabs. Without missing a beat the young Chinese changed his cry to, “Paraguas, tres Euros”. In two steps the price of this now very necessary item had increased fifty percent. Good business!

And I am also reminded that those friends I was meeting berated me for not having an umbrella on such an evening. “Are you English?” they reproached me. Apparently all Englishmen are born with an umbrella. But at least I was dressed sensibly: My berating friend was wearing open-toed, low slung, sling back shoes which were easily swamped by the onrushing flow that cascaded down the Rio Grande, sorry, I mean Gran Via, but that evening it was difficult to tell the difference.
Sensible shoes.

It’s not quite that bad, yet. But for the first time sine June I am wearing a sweater. My cleaner, who for the past few months has been coming to work in tiny shorts and flip-flops, which has quite brightened my days, is today dressed like an Eskimo.

The cars move along my street with a swishing sound, leaving a small wake behind them. But it has given me the chance to introduce a new word into the vocabulary of my students: Puddle. They can all say, “It’s raining cats and dogs”, but no one has taught them what not to step into.

There again, maybe the other thing you might step into on the streets of Madrid has been washed away!

Rain, a drop of twenty degrees! Is this what they call global warming?

Of course, I blame it on the Ayuntamiento, the City council. This weekend sees one of my favourite nights in Madrid, La Noche en Blanco.
From 7pm on Saturday until 7am on Sunday the streets in the centre will be closed to all traffic and all over Madrid will be hundreds of cultural events covering the high arts to the circus – and it is all completely free.

But it is cursed.

Two years ago we went to watch a singer who was giving a concert at the Temple of Debod, Madrid’s Egyptian temple. It was a pleasant, warm night. The crowd gathered, the singer came out of the temple to rapturous applause and – the skies opened. It was as if the bomberos, the fire fighters, had opened their hoses on us. There was no shelter apart from a few trees and bushes which soon became saturated. We ran down to the Plaza España where there was shelter and I remember well that the rain was so heavy that the huge Edificio de España, at the other end of the plaza, was completely obscured. I heard that the singer gave her concert in full, but I have no idea who to.

The bars did a good trade that night!

But I also remember walking with a million others up a traffic free Gran Via while a tightrope walker teetered overhead, a brilliant concert given by the Jazz Orchestra of Spain on the steps of the congress building, a circus at the Bernabeu and of other smaller events taking place in each little plaza and park. You can see flamenco, Tango, ballet. You can hear great jazz, blues and rock. You can watch performance art of every hue. (The usual buskers won’t get a look in!) You can get, if you can stand the queues, into all the galleries for free and go back stage at the Opera House. It is a fantastic night.

With only one thing to annoy me.

The event is organised by the Community of Madrid, the same organisation who run the metro. So why, if the event runs from 7pm to 7am can’t they, for this one night of the year, keep the metro running all night. With a couple of million people out on the town the night buses just cannot cope. So it makes it a good night for the taxi drivers too. With their after midnight charges they must make a killing. Two years ago I decided to walk the four kilometres home after deciding the buses were too crowded and not an empty taxi in sight. I am sure this could be better organised. But if it rains, imagine four million people with umbrellas.

Take a look at the pictures of the previous post. I took them only just four days ago. If the weather continues to deteriorate at this rate, there will be icebergs floating down the mighty Manzenares and penguins in the Retiro.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Breaking Out

By Richard Morley.
Calle del Principe de Vergara running through the District of Salamanca.

In 1789 the population of Madrid, confined within Felipe the second’s ancient walls, was 140,000. Not quite seventy years later, in 1857, that figure had doubled to 281,170. The walls were bulging.

This had been foreseen by the writer, statesman and leading figure in Spain’s Age Of Enlightenment, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos a century before, and by Juan Merlo, a Madrid engineer, in 1842. Merlo, who had been one of the original designers of the Plaza de Oriente near the Royal Palace, had actually drawn up some plans to expand the town, but they were rejected.

It wasn’t that the citizens were breeding like rabbits; this was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The rural population was leaving the fields and coming to Madrid in large numbers, lured by the better pay, and hopefully better lifestyle found by working in one of the increasing numbers of cast iron foundries and weaving factories. Something had to be done.

Luckily, this was a time when great public works were begun. Anyone who has seen a manhole cover in Madrid will see that the public water system is known as the Canal de Isabel II. She was the queen at the time.

The Minister for Public Works, José Posada Herrera tried to introduce legislation called El Proyecto de Ley General para la Reforma, Saneamiento, Ensanche y otras Mejoras de la Poblaciones. (The General Law for the reform, health, expansion and other improvments of the towns.) To, I am sure, his great disappointment this, like Merlo’s plans eighteen years before, was rejected by the senate. It was a pity he did not have a crystal ball to offer in evidence. Twenty years later the population of Madrid would have almost doubled to 400,000. Mid IX century Madrid.

Eventually the burgeoning populations of all cities persuaded the parliament to promote expansion. The first “Ley de Ensanche”, law of enlargement, was passed on the 29th June 1864. It allowed local authorities to compulsorily purchase land outside of the existing boundaries. Three more “Laws of enlargement” were passed in 1867 in which developers had to have their plans approved; in 1876, which were no more than a redefining of the rules; and in 1892, which made the regulations nationwide.

The job of expanding Madrid fell to the city’s chief engineer, Carlos María del Castro and his associate, Carlos Ibáñez de Ibero. They had actually published their plans in 1860, but had to wait for the Ley de Enlargement before beginning their implementation.

The first thing to happen was that the ancient walls of Felipe Segundo came tumbling down.

Castro thought that Madrid could expand in three directions: North, North East, and South. It shows how cramped Madrid must have been prior to this time when it is realised that the three areas he had in mind are today very much inner city neighbourhoods: Chamberi, Embajadores / Atocha, and Salamanca.

This was a time of an expanding middle class. Great social change was upon the city. With all the public works, the sanitation and water supply, a gas supply, a postal service and the first trams and railways, the expansion of the military, the increasing numbers of civil servants, lawyers, professors and serving officers required homes to befit their station.

Chamberi had already felt the effects of the Industrial Revolution and had two main industries: Brickworks and Tile manufactures. I apologise to those who live their now, but this was always a working class neighbourhood! And the river, with its smell and insects made going south a poor choice.

Where were the new middle classes to go?

Their hopes rested on one man. His name was José de Salamanca y Mayol, who would later become the Marquis de Salamanca. A wealthy entrepreneur and sometime banker, Salamanca was the epitome of Madrid’s commercial leaders and a driving force for progress.
José de Salamanca y Mayol, the epitome of Chulo, looking down his nose at the rest of us.

But he was a man who had gained and lost several fortunes in his lifetime. He had done well with an investment in Spain’s first railway, which went from Madrid to Aranjuez, and also with the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad in the United States. He has a town named after him in New York State. Google Earth view of the Salamanca District.

In the 1860s he began to develop a huge area directly to the northeast of the current city. Delineated as a rough triangle whose base ran from the Pueta de Alcalá, one of the old gates of the city, to what was then called the Plaza del Roma, but now known as Manuel Becerra and up to the Republica de Argentina. His plans for the district predated Cerda in Barcelona and Soria in Madrid in that streets were laid out on a grid plan similar to New York.
The streets were wide and tree lined, the buildings modern, for the time, and well served with amenities. The upwardly mobile moved there in droves.
And the new distrct carried his name – Salamanca.

But great plans are expensive. The nouveau-riche might have wanted to move into this new development, but the old, more influential money stayed put in old Madrid. Greater expansion was put on hold for lack of funds; Properties did not sell quickly enough and the money ran out.

This was the beginning of the end for the man. He lost money on the stock market and in his involvement with the Banco Isabella II, meant to be Spain’s first central bank, which was a disaster. The endeavour won him his nobility, but when he died in 1883 he was in debt.

He died in the neighbourhood of Carabanchel; he could not afford to live in the district that took his name. This is ironic as the district of Salamanca is home to many of Madrid’s rich, famous and royal. Before “La Crisis” it was not unusual to see an apartment in Salamanca sell for three million euros. I doubt if the crisis has affected the residents too much.

As an administrative district it has overflowed its original boundaries to take in the neighbouring barrios of Guindalera, Goya and Ibiza, which has definitely raised the snobby tone of those poorer barrios – and the rents that are charged in them. Given the nature of its population the district has always been staunchly right wing. During the civil war, before Franco’s Nationalist forces took the city, many of his supporters lived there by keeping a very low profile. In fact has been said that the squadrons of the German Condor Legion were ordered not to bomb the neighbourhood for fear of alienating the Nationalist faction.
This leads us to a second irony in this Nationalist stronghold. Running east-west through the barrio are two major thoroughfares: Calle de Juan Bravo and the Calle José Ortega y Gasset.

Juan Bravo was a leader of a rebel group during the Castillian War of the Communities. This was an uprising by the people against the king, Carlos V. The rebels were defeated in 1521 and he was beheaded. He has, incidentally, nothing to do with the cartoon character Johnnie Bravo, despite that being what a friend claims.

José Ortega y Gasset was not actually a rebel, but did lead the intellectual opposition to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and played an important role in the overthrow of Alfonso XIII in 1931. His main occupation was as a writer, journalist and editor. He did become, for a short time, a politician for the republicans, but soon abandoned politics and exiled himself to Argentina at the start of the Civil War. He did not return until 1948.
Being a philosopher, he is often quoted. His best known line is, “I am I and my circumstances”, which is almost theft of Descartes “I think therefore I am”, but he also claimed that, “A revolution only lasts fifteen years, a period which coincides with the effectiveness of a generation”, which given that Franco’s regime lasted thirty five years meant that was a little mistaken. I find it strange that he is held in high enough esteem to be quoted on the web page of Spain’s ultra right party, El Frente National, as he wrote, “Under the species of Syndicalism and Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions”, and “Rancor is an outpouring of a feeling of inferiority”. I won’t dignify the party who thinks I should return from whence I came by quoting the out of context paragraph.

All of life's little necessities can be found in C/José Ortega y Gasset.

Nowadays, the name José Ortega y Gasset is a by word for luxury. Together with Francisco Serrano, Duque de la Torre, who helped depose Isabel II in 1868 and whose eponymous Calle runs perpendicular to Ortega y Gasset and is known as “Madrid’s fifth Avenue”, the two streets are a mecca for those seeking luxury labels to impress their friends. They are all there: Dior, Chanel, Burberry, Tiffany and several more. It’s a good place to walk. I know my money is safe – I can’t afford to spend it!
No, I am wrong! There is one shop that does get my money. Calle José Ortega y Gasset boasts the highest class of green-grocer in Madrid. The Gold Gourmet is the only place in Madrid that sells Parsnips, the infamous, on this blog anyway, Chirivias. And I live nearby. Sometimes it’s good to have rich neighbours.
Any comments? Feel free below.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Last of the Summer Whine

By Richard Morley.
The remains of summer are blasting through the wall. Within a week those responsible for the too many decibels of, I think they call it music, will mercifully, for me, have returned to their desks and schoolbooks. The beaches of the Costas are once again the province of the ancient Brits, the parks of Madrid will have no one to notice the leaves turn gold. The gridlock on the streets will have replaced the sardine crush of the Benidorm sunbathers.

In the month of August Madrid is like a ghost town. I am greatly amused when visitors tell me what a “quiet” city Madrid is and “How wonderfully free of traffic”. They make their annual pilgrimage here only in August.

I stood at a pedestrian crossing a couple of weeks ago wondering why I was waiting for the lights to change. There wasn’t a car in sight. I strolled across all eight lanes of the normally busy Paseo de la Castellana at 8pm one evening ant thought they were remaking the opening scene of Vanilla Sky in Madrid. It was deserted.

Of course, that would have been a re-remake as Vanilla Sky was based on the 1997 Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open your eyes). The lovely Penelope Cruz played the same role in both movies. It was a pity that Tom Cruise was in any of them.

The rush hour metro trains have that late night feel to them. Passengers sit listlessly, wilting in the heat that the on board air-conditioning can never quite combat. And there are seats. No standing shoulder to shoulder watching your fellow travellers. It must be lean picking for the pick-pockets.

There are those that tell me that Madrid is wonderful in August because “You can always get a seat in a restaurant”. Maybe, but what restaurant? So many of my favourites close as their owners take their vacation. Visitors ask me for recommendations, but I am never sure if the place will be open.

But some are: Those who cater specifically for the tourist and who, in the local parlance, are, “Making their August”, with inflated prices. No restaurateur around the Plaza Mayor will shut his doors to the August Guiri. Although, surprisingly, several of the gift shops in the nearby Calle de Toledo, did.

Out of the centre the story repeats: Useful shops like grocers, tobacconists and newsagents either close completely or have just a few specific hours of opening. Throw in a fiesta and the situation is impossible. On the 14th of August I returned after two weeks away to an empty fridge and pantry and set out to replenish the stocks only to find not one shop open. It was the Verbena de Paloma, or Paloma’s Fair where there may well be music and dancing in the streets, but a not a loaf of bread or carton of milk to be found. Three cheers for the Chinese shops that have limited stocks but never close.

I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweeds rolling along Gran Via.

Madrid is a friendly city where, I am pleased to think, I have many good friends. But not in August. They jet away on foreign vacations – or visit the village of their ancient relatives. I too spent most of the month not here, but went out of town to the sierras of the Peña de Francia, contemplating in the cool of the mountains, that in Madrid I had just one friend. The day that I left the mountains my friend arrived there. So now I had no friends. Qué triste! How sad is that?

But now September has arrived. People are back in their offices, traffic clogs the street. English teachers who have survived the past few weeks on zero income are happy to see their students return. The smell of the city has changed as fresh air is replaced by exhaust gasses. Trains and buses are standing room only and there are queues outside every restaurant offering a decent Menu del Dia.

The open top buses offering expensive sight-seeing trips to the tourists are now half empty. The last lingering back-packers are leaving. The restaurants in the Plaza Mayor have to cater for a more discriminating clientele. (Who, if they are that discriminating, won’t go there anyway!)

Madrid has become Spanish again. My friends have returned. They are not so happy as they have returned to work, but I get to take long lazy lunches again with my favourite people. Today in fact. People I haven’t seen for several long weeks have invited me to take comida.

My favourite city, dead for the past month, has come alive again. The traffic is noisy, the streets are crowded, and the language is Spanish. Welcome back one and all.

Now, only five more days until the kids with their pounding music return to school. Already the summer smile is being replaced with the scholastic scowl. Their vacation is far too long! Come Monday – heaven. I can’t wait.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Shoes and Ships and Railway Stations.

By Richard Morley.
What do a Railway station, a shoe and a shipwreck have in common?

Returning from a night on the town with some friends, we were accosted by a couple of English lads who, pleased at hearing their language spoken, explained they were lost and had no idea how to find their hostel. “It’s in a place that sounds like a sneeze”, they explained. “Like ‘a-tishoo’”.

One of the Españolas in our group said, “You mean Atocha”.

“That’s it”, one of the misplaced revellers cried, and started singing the old English nursery rhyme:
Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.
Only he replaced the onomatopoeic “A-tishoo!” with “Atocha”. It feels me with deep shame and embarrassment that my friends and I were drunk enough to actually find this funny! This wouldn’t work in US English. I noticed, while I was looking up the correct spelling of “a-tishoo”, that in their version of the rhyme they only say “tishoo”. What the heck! Don’t they breathe in before they sneeze?

I suppose “Atocha” does have a sort of comedic mellifluence about it. Well it does if you are not exactly sober!

We were near Opera at the time and had to tell the guys they had a fairly long walk ahead of them, it being around four thirty in the morning and the metro closed.

If you think about it, all names of places must have had a meaning once, but times change and the meaning changes or become forgotten and we are left with just a name. Then late one night, although not as late as in the tale recounted above, I thought of those young men and their silly recitation and wondered, why Atocha?

Just south of the Plaza Mayor, in the Calle de Toledo, stands a shop that has been selling a particular type of shoe since 1860. Called Casa Hernanz, it sells espadrilles, or as they are called in Spanish – alpagatas, the rope soled shoe. The rope used in their manufacture is made from halfah grass, also known as Needle grass or Esparto grass – hence “espadrilles”. It is not only shoes that are made from this material, but also paper and baskets.

The grass is found in many places in the world, but the best, according to the workers, is home grown Spanish grass from Andulacia. Indeed, there is a town near Seville called Espartinas and, in Spain a worker in this industry is called an Espartero.

But while the south of Spain might now have the monopoly, it was not always like this. Once it was a major industry in Madrid as can be evidenced from the street that runs from the Puerta del Sol to the Plaza Santa Anna.

It was reported that when the parish church of a district in Madrid was being built, whole swathes of this grass was found growing on the site and while the Sevillanas might call it “esparto”, botanists call it Macrochloa tenacissima, in Madrid it was known as “tocha” or “atocha”. And this definition can be found in Collins English-Spanish dictionary.
And so the barrio got its name.

The Present Day Basilica of Our Lady Of Atocha

The parish church is the Real Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Atocha or The Royal Basilica of our lady of Atocha. Legend has it that a small icon of the virgin was found in the long grasses growing on the site at the time of the reconquista. The church was built and a whole neighbourhood grew up around it. There have been several churches on the site. The present one dates back to the last rebuilding in 1951 following the destruction of its predecessor during the Civil War.
The Basilica before being destroyed in the Civil War.

But what of the icon that was found in the long “tocha” grasses?

Legend has it that it was a small carving of the Madonna and child and it was curious that the child wore shoes and a hat made from esparto grass. It seems that before the reconquista, when Spain was ruled by the Moors, the Caliph had the people of Atocha arrested and imprisoned because of their Christian faith. The Moors provided no food for the prisoners, but the Caliph issued an order that, in a spirit of charity, children under the age of twelve could bring food to their families.

But what of those without children under twelve; what of the aged and the infirm? The story continues that in the dead of night a small child would bring a basket of bread for all those who were hungry. No one knew where the child came from or to whom he belonged, but there was always enough bread to feed those who needed it. In thanks they would pray to the small sculpture of the Madonna and child and one day it was noticed that the esparto grass shoes of the child were wearing thin. To show their gratitude the prisoners made some new shoes and fitted them to the small effigy. The child continued to bring food and again it was seen that the shoes were wearing thin. The people believed it was the Christ child himself who was bringing the food and gave thanks to the virgin and her holy son.

When the Moors were finally expelled from the country this miracle was celebrated with the building of the first basilica.

The building of Madrid’s main railway station in 1851 was half a kilometre from the Basilica. It was originally known as El Estación del Mediodía, but due to its proximity to the basilica and being in the parish, became colloquially known as Atocha Station. This is now its official name. Thank goodness. Midday Station would really have been silly.

The original station burned down and was rebuilt is 1892. Similar to many glass and cast iron structures throughout Europe it served the city for exactly 100 years when the new terminal came into operation. The old glass expanse now houses a tropical forest.

The new AVE terminal brought the station even closer to the basilica of Our Lady of Atocha and it is somehow fitting that the glass tower of the memorial remembering those lost in the terrorist bombing at the station is visible from the parish church.

The legend of the Santo Niño continued. It was carried to the New World by the conquistadores. In those far off lands the faithful needed the protection of such miracles.

In 1622 a savage hurricane decimated 28 Spanish galleons laden with treasure in the channel between Havana and the Florida Keys. Two of them were dashed against the reefs and sank near Marquesa Key, about 40 miles west of Key West. One was called the Margarita and the other, the Atocha.

In 1980 the wreck of the Margarita was found and more than $40 million dollars of the treasure recovered. Five years later, they found the remains of the Atocha. What a find! More than $400 million dollars in gold bars, silver coins and emeralds were discovered in its rotting timbers.
After all these years, the spirit of Our Lady of Atocha and her infant son continue to provide.