Thursday 30 April 2009

A plaza in the sun

Why is that man taking our photo?

For some months I have been meeting with a lady whose avowed intention in life is, by hell or high water, to improve my Spanish. This article is not about that. It is about the plaza where we meet before we set off in search of some quiet place where she alternatively berates me for not studying or complements me on my progress.

The plaza is not the most beautiful in Madrid. It is a concrete and tiled square measuring no more than fifty metres on each side with busy streets on all sides and a main thoroughfare crossing diagonally through it. Very typically, the surface of the plaza is actually the roof of yet another of Madrid’s deep car parking garages. Built on a slight slope the plaza is terraced with the vertical sides of the levels prevented from subsidence by rusting steel sheet. Ventilation to the car park below is evidenced by other rusting steel gratings and the garages entrance and exit are concrete gaping wounds. It would win no prizes for design.

Although the plaza is less than half a kilometre from the prestigious Salamanca district, this is not a rich area. The businesses that surround the square consist of mini-markets, sweetshops, one of the increasing number of “Chinese” shops and the frontage of the barrio’s covered Mercado, where the locals buy their meat and vegetables – but where they might know their onions, but know nothing of chirivias! Perversely the plaza has six different banks, but then the proliferation of bank branches in Spain has reached epidemic proportions. Conversely, the one dilapidated and abandoned shop in the corner bears torn National Front posters blaming its closure on the government.

In this grey half acre (a quarter of a hectare) six sets of traffic lights and four pedestrian crossings try to control the never ending stream of traffic. It is noisy and with a permanent odour of car exhausts. Its surrounding streets are mean and narrow, potholed and crumbling.
Winter does this concrete plaza no favours, for the past few months it has been a depressing spot. Yet in the sea of six (or more) storey apartment blocks that tower like breaking waves above the street, the Plaza of San Cayetano is like an oasis of sunlight and freedom and the coming of spring has transformed this bleak spot. The blossom of the few spindly trees that was stripped by March winds has now turned into fresh shoots of shiny green leaves. The wilted ivy has burst into life and is working hard to disguise the concrete. Were it not for the concrete, the high apartments, the traffic, the fumes, the noise, the smell, you could almost suppose you were in some wooded park.

And so it has become a pleasant place to spend a few sunny minutes after buying a paper from the newsagent’s kiosk, or watching the children play in the well equipped play area. (To which the only access is across several busy streets.) During the day, the pace of the plaza is lazy and relaxed. Come early evening this is transformed by the almost frenetic activity of children on roller blades, bikes, the slides and swings and a dozen water spouts that you can avoid or splash in depending on your mood.

Like ninety percent of the plazas in Madrid, this one is named after a saint. As I was raised in a protestant country, I know about three saints: Christopher, George and Valentine! Oh! And Santa Claus. So who the heck is San Cayetano?

Well, for a start he was Italian. Born in Venice in 1480 into a wealthy family he studied theology, civil rights and religious law at Padua in 1504 and in 1506 moved to Rome to begin training for the priesthood. One of his first duties was as private secretary to Pope Julio II, but when the Pope died in 1513, he returned to his studies.
Back in Venice he founded a hospital for incurables and was an all round good guy. He began a religious movement called the Theatines, which was meant to check the spread of Lutheranism, but apparently, it never grew beyond a dozen of his friends. He died, aged sixty-six, so says his biography, “of grief”. Obviously, that was also incurable!

His followers came to Madrid in the 17th century to found a hospital and care for the Italians who lived there and his fame spread rapidly. On the Calle de Embajadores, in the centre of Madrid, is a church dedicated to the memory of San Cayetano. However, he has to share it with San Millan, but he does get his own street about fifty metres away.
There are shrines to him all over Spain and his followers took his name to South America and Mexico, where he is huge; His reputation even reaching the United States in New Mexico and Colorado.

Sao Caetano do Sul, (Portuguese spelling) is a city near Sao Paulo in Brazil. In Nicaragua he is known as the Father of Devine providence and miracles have been attributed to him in the finding of work and food. He’s definitely a working class saint. As such, he is the patron saint of workers, job seekers, and the unemployed, which might be why there are so many men reading newspapers in the plaza during the day. An unfortunate sign of the times we live in.
He is also the patron saint of gamblers. However, the shop premises in the plaza that bears the torn poster accusing the government of its downfall was due to be an amusement arcade of one-armed bandits. Perhaps they thought the patron saint of gambling would be a boost to their business. Well, you can’t win ‘em all!

Visitors to Madrid will very likely never find, or even want to visit, the Plaza Cayetano. While waiting to meet my friend there every week I see the same groups of mothers chatting, the same old man who invariably asks every passer-by for a cigarette, and the same very old people who sit quietly to take the sun.

The traffic never slows, except to ask me directions. Why me? People pass through with their shopping, lovers kiss on the benches, the children play.

I often remark that Madrid is not a city. It is a collection of villages that just happen to exist side by side. There must be hundreds of these tiny plazas scattered throughout the city. Like the Plaza Cayetano, they are like the village green where everyone meets everyone and may be why, a country boy like myself feels very much at home here. May that long continue.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Signs of the Times

In Leon, an town important town in Spain’s Northwest, a street name either has been, or is in the process of being, changed. The story came as part of other research I am doing and I can’t find an exact date, which is annoying. However, to get back to my point: A street that has (or does) bear the name of one General Vincente Lafuente is being renamed. General Lafuente gave the orders for a Captain Juan Rodríguez Lozano to be shot by firing squad during the civil war.
The renaming of this street follows the introduction of a law introduced by the present government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to remove statues, symbols and street names that commemorate General Franco or his supporters.

This is doubly unlucky for General Lafuente. Leon is Mr. Zapatero’s town of birth and the young captain Lafuente ordered to be shot was the grandfather Mr Zapatero never knew.

Calle by calle, plaza by plaza, the names of the leaders of the civil war are being expunged.
Street names, like history, are written by the victors. But they still have a way to go.

Being a curious soul, I have endeavoured to find out as much about my new country of residence as I can and, of course, it is impossible to avoid the civil war. At the beginning of that war a terrible atrocity was committed. Known as the Massacre of Badajoz, in Extramadura, the advancing nationalist army, led by General Juan Yagüe y Blanco, murdered between two thousand and four thousand (estimates vary according to who is telling the story) civilians, including women and children. This is well documented and the general himself was quoted by an American journalist, John T Whitaker, as saying, “Of course that we have killed them. What did you suppose? Will I take 4.000 red prisoners with my column, having to advance against the clock? Or will I leave them in my rearguard so that Badajoz will be red another time?"
Since reading this history, it annoys me that when I visit a dear friend the name of her street is the Calle General Yagüe.

So I think this is definitely a case where the name should be changed. No war criminal should be commemorated in this way. However, when I have spoken about this, the consensus is that today no one remembers him, and that changing the name would drag up old memories that would be better buried. So now you know why the decade following Franco’s death is known as the age of amnesia!

And while I agree that it is not right that these men should be remembered with honour, by removing their names, we are not just allowing society to forget the perpetrators of evil deeds, we are also allowing the deeds themselves to disappear from our collective memories. A knowledge of history means we do not make the same mistakes again!

Cities the world over commemorate their great and their good in the names of their streets. In my travels through France, my curiosity of French history was fuelled by reading street names and wondering who the heck these people were. Every town has a “Place de Gaulle”, a boulevard de Carnot or Victor Hugo, and a Rue Gambetta.

Madrid is no different, although much of its history is contained in the names of its Metro stations as well. Any visitor will soon find streets or plazas named for great artists, writers, musicians, scientists, saints and of course, politicians.

But sometimes I think the people charged with choosing the names get stuck on a theme. In my friend’s area, not only is the notorious Yagüe commemorated, but generals Orgaz, Cabrera, Ramirez, Varela and Peron. Evita would be pleased!

Margarita means daisy
If we move southwest from the centre and go to Carabanchel, all the streets are named for birds. It’s a great way of improving your Spanish ornithological vocabulary. Up in Las Moralejes the Spanish learner can swot up on horticultural terms as they use the names of flowers and herbs.

Salvia is sage and Petunia is, er, Petunia

Any visitor taking the metro from the airport will pass through the Mar de Cristal station. Ascend to the surface and you will find yourself in the barrio of Hortaleza and adrift in the middle of the Caspian, Bering, Mediterranean, Atlantic, Aral, Negro (black), Adriatic, Japanese, Baltic, Caribbean, Coral and Cantabria seas. Feeling seasick? It gets worse: Down in the Colonia de San Pablo every South American river flows though its streets.

And where I live they decided to name each calle or avenidia after cities in other countries – SO LONG AS THEY BEGIN WITH THE LETTER B. So we have the Avenidas de Bruselas, Bonn and Brasilia, The calles of Bristol, Bern, Bremen, Biarritz, Berlin and Brescia. It dates the barrio that Bonn is honoured as an Avenue and Berlin is just a street. Surely today, it would be the other way about.

In some places, the naming of places has become clever or decorative. The Plaza de Dali uses the artist’s own unrecognizable signature on the plate and the many tiled plaques seen around the city can be interesting as well as pretty. Regard for instance my favourite, naturally, at the head of this post, but I challenge anyone to find the actual street!
Plaza de Dali - in his own write.

And sometimes the namers of streets, would they be Calle-ographers(?), provide us with some unintended humour, well, at least to my warped mind. Not far from where I live the streets are named after virgins. Yes, well, the “Cult of the Virgin” as religious historians call it, has been important in Christian society since the middle ages. So in one barrio no less than seventeen streets bear the name of one virgin or another: de la Pena, de la Paz, de la Roca Trav, de la Nieves, de Loreto, de Nuria, de Sonsoles, del Espino, del Fresnedo ….. I could go on!
And where are all these virgins? Where is this bastion to chaste maidenhood?
In the Barrio De Concepción.
That’s immaculate!

Saturday 18 April 2009


Renoir's "Lady with fan".

When I first arrived in Madrid, like thousands of other arrivals I took the metro into town. It was seven o’ clock in the evening, there were thousands of Madrileños also using the metro, and I swear they were all in my carriage!

This was las horas punta, the rush hour. People were on their way home after a busy day’s work and the business suited, strap-hanging throng looked like any bunch of tired commuters in any other city in the world. Some spoke, but most had that appearance of fatigue and relief that most of us feel after a hard days work.

I had had no idea of what to expect on this first visit. I didn’t know if Spain was like other European countries and was only vaguely aware of its history.

I read nothing into the fact I had just arrived at a modern airport or riding on one of the world’s leading transport systems. The capital cities of Africa have some fine airports that are a façade hiding the poverty behind.

It was early May. The carriage was very warm and the sardine-packed crowd had loosened ties, jackets, and were mopping their brows. Again, a scene no different from that happening in cities all over the world.

Two metres from where I was standing, rocked by the motion of the train and observing my fellow travellers with the suspicion and nervousness of a stranger in a strange land, I noticed a smartly dressed lady, sitting straight backed on one of the few available seats, reading a book. As I watched her, she reached into her elegant handbag and withdrew what I thought at first was a cream coloured pen.

With a practised flip of her hand the “pen” opened into a fan and she began cooling herself. I stared, fascinated, watching the rapid fluttering. No one else took a blind bit if notice, yet for me this was a sight that seemed anachronistic, something out of some historical costume drama.

Of course, today, the sight of ladies fanning themselves is something I take for granted. Lady friends have even turned their fans around and blown the warm air from my face. On a sticky evening, the effect is very welcome, but I would not own a fan myself. Apparently, while men might indeed dry their perspiration with a quick flick from a newspaper or office file, it is not done for men to use a fan.

One young man of my acquaintance, seeing several of the women in our group using this ancient device shot off onto the local village and got one for himself. Then walked around using it – quite openly. Until someone took him aside to point out that should he continue, the ladies he hoped to impress would now see him in a very new light! We never saw the fan again.

In Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Volver, there is a wonderful scene. A dozen women, dressed in funeral black, sit around a room gossiping, counting their rosaries, genuflecting, while all the time flapping their fans without missing a beat. Fans, which are often brightly coloured, or painted, in this scene are funereal black. The speech in the scene is punctuated, almost lost in the rapid, rhythmical click-clacking of the fans. The next scene shows the funeral car with the mourning ladies following, fans flapping and clacking under the hot Spanish sun. One gets the feeling that these ladies would feel naked without their fans, that it is not something they use, but something that has become a part of them. In fact, I am convinced some of the women have a third hand just to operate the device.

In Madrid’s hot summer the sight and sound of rapidly oscillating fans is a commonplace. You can buy a cheap plastic Chinese import for a couple of euros from a street trader or in bone with beautiful designs from specialist shops for considerably more. Tourists buy them and never use them, but a crowd of Spanish ladies resemble a swarm of fluttering moths. I have been here so long I hardly notice them, except if someone is using one in the adjacent seat in the cinema. Then that infernal click-clack is really annoying.

Fans on Sale at Madrid's Rastro Market.

But they do more than just keep you cool. Carefully observed, the fan is an indicator of mood and of expression, and where an English or American women night use a tilt of the head, a rise of an eyebrow, a purse of the lips in silent communication to another, the use of the fan has a language all its own. It’s a secret language, a silent communication of love, expectation, and sometimes, of disappointment.

Of course, this is a language in which only women speak and men listen, but then, since when has that been otherwise? And so, so as not to have any misunderstanding, gentlemen should know what is being said to them.

Therefore, if a women catches your eye and you see she is running her fingers through the vanes of the fan, is means that she wants to talk to you. Be warned though that if the fan is only half-open and covering part of her face, it signifies you and she are being observed, so don’t do any thing rash.

Resting the fan over her heart is telling you are breaking her heart, closely regarding the fans design means she likes you, and if she drops it you are hers forever.

Lady with fan by Giovanni_Fattori

But women are fickle, so beware if you see any of the following. When she rests the fan on her lips, she’s telling you she doesn’t trust you. Using the fan to shield the sun from her eyes suggests she considers you far from being the most attractive man in the room, which, followed by a slow wave of the device, is saying she’s not interested, look elsewhere.

On the other hand, rapid, small movements declare that she is definitely interested and slapping the fan against the arm of her chair or some other object declares her impatience. Check the fan is fully open, so you are sure no one is watching, and make your move.

Mindful of Shakespeare’s words that “Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman”, watch out for the rapid passing of the fan from hand to hand. You have been looking at other women, and she’s not happy. If she opens and closes it repeatedly and quickly there’s jealousy in the air. Be afraid, be very afraid.

You might think it’s a good sign if she is slapping the fan in the palm of her hand. This is saying, “Love me, take me now”, but if she walks towards you with a closed fan in her right hand she looking for diamond rings and commitment. Hmm! Run like hell!

So, if she looks closely at the design then quickly fans herself, tonight could be your night. But she might just be cooling herself and “A View From Madrid” is not liable for any circumstances, matrimonial, legal or injurious, caused by you misreading the signs.

Friday 10 April 2009

Easter in madrid - or not in Madrid

Great. It’s Easter. In fact as I write this it’s Good Friday, or Holy Friday here in Spain.

This is a time of long cavalcades as statues of the Virgin are moved around the town for the veneration of the faithful. Down in Seville, men dressed in long gowns and pointy hats, which look uncomfortably like the Klu Klux Klan, process around the town.

I went into the centre of Madrid to watch and all I saw was the back of someone’s neck! There are times when I wish I had extendable legs. The crowds are incredible, because Easter, or Pascua, is a religious festival is it not?

Erm! Well, for most my friends it means vacations. Quite a few have taken the whole week off and flown away to New York or Egypt, (two to my knowledge), or shot off down to the coast or up to the hills. Other poor souls had to work until Wednesday, but took the first train or plane out of town that evening.

And won’t be back until Tuesday, even though Monday is a workday. I can understand. After all, vacation time is important and the Spanish won’t get another holiday for ….. three weeks. That’s May day.

So that’s something to look forward to as after that it will be a whole two weeks until the next one!

And something terrible will happen this year.

Both of those holidays fall on a Friday.

In the country of my birth public holidays that celebrate a particular date are moved to the following Monday, so people get a long weekend. Here they are celebrated on the day and if that should fall on a Tuesday or a Thursday then the day between that and the weekend is usually taken as well. This is know here as “El Puente”, or “The Bridge”.

When I first came here, the first week of December did have both the Tuesday and the Thursday as public holidays and one of my friends took the bridge at both ends, only going into work on the Wednesday. I don’t suppose she got much done! Others would have taken the whole week off. This, as local parlance has it, is not a “Bridge”, but an “Aqueduct”. I love Spanish humour!

But with both of the next holidays falling on a Friday, there will be no bridge to cross. Poor things!

Of course, the Spanish all know about these, but the unsuspecting tourist will not. They will wake up one morning in their Hotel or hostel, go out on to the streets and find everything closed. Of course you will not want for food or drink, but the nicotine addict will search in vain for an “Estanco”, or cigarette shop that’s open.

Some time around midday some of the larger shops, El Corte Inglés, FNAC, and a few of the clothes shops in Gran Via may open their doors, but the morning will have been dead. And don’t think you’ll pass the time in the Prado or Reina Sofia. The attendants there want their vacation too.
So yesterday was the first day of the Easter break. Most of my friends have disappeared to thebeach or grandma’s house, but because of “La Crisis”, some have opted to take their break in what my mother would call “Stopathome”, (pronounced all as one word). So yesterday afternoon saw me sitting taking the sun, and liquid refreshment, with a good friend on a pavement terreza.
A few lines of bad poetry formed in my head:

It’s Madrid in the spring
And the warmer weather
Brings Necklines and hemlines
Closer together.

Oh, ladies of Spain I adore you!!! (To coin a phrase.)

So all looked set for long weekend of balmy weather and the chance to work on the guiri tan. (A “guiri tan” means that while the Spanish just slowly turn brown in the sun, us guiris, or foreigners have to go through the stage of going lobster red before we turn the colour we are aiming for. Must be genetic.

But as they say here: “Hasta el cuarenta de Mayo, no te quitter el sayo”, which translates as, “Until the fortieth of May, don’t put your jacket away”, or as we would say in the UK, “Don’t cast a clout till May is out”.

It’s a good warning and this morning we awoke to a miserable grey, rainy day. And according to señor Google, this is what we will have all of Easter.

But what the heck! This is Spain. There are a few blue breaks in the clouds right now, the temperature is in the mid teens and the bars are open.

Not a day to spend in front of a computer.

Happy Easter everyone.

Monday 6 April 2009

Linear Living

This post is about a man, an idea and a very long street.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave when in Madrid we try vivir”, as Walter Scott might have written had he lived in here.

I am writing about the tangled street layout that is old Madrid, but which also applies to any other large city that has grown organically, without any form of obvious town planning. Study a map of Madrid. Apart from prestige projects like the Gran Via, Castellana, the remodeled Calle de Alcala, and the regimented grid of the Salamanca barrio, the calles and callejones of Madrid owe very little to urban planning. In most of the City, Madrid’s streets followed the path of least resistance. And, as any lost tourist will tell you, it is a mess. A charming, lovely sprawl, but still a mess.

And that’s on the surface. Imagine the spider’s web of utility pipes, sewers and cables that are weaved below. Trace the lines of Metro tracks built, before the introduction of powerful boring machines, by digging up the street, excavating a trench for the line to run, and then covering it up, and notice how the sinuous they are.

Now line those streets with canyonesque slabs of apartments. A century ago this would have been a depressing place. Narrow streets that stank of horse manure and dwellings without sanitation.

What if the city had been built on different lines? No, imagine if it had been built along a single line. Think of one very long straight road with other roads leading off at right angles. Make the main thoroughfare wide, the spaces between the side roads large. Allow for lots of communal space, allow the sun to get in, and make it beautiful. That would be very different from the tangled sprawl that could easily describe much of Madrid.

One man had such an idea.

His name was Arturo Soria y Mata. He was born in Madrid on the 15th of December 1844. He was a Spanish inventor, civil servant, and town-planner and mostly self taught. Among his other works he was a driving force behind one of the first tram companies in Madrid, The Compañía Madrileña de Urbanización, and heavily involved in the creation of Telefonica, Spain’s first and largest, and now international, phone company.

Arial View of the Linear City (Right)

In 1886, following on from the works of the Catalan architct, Idelfonso Cerdá, who had been responsible for much of the development of the new, expanding Barcelona, Soria began to formulate his ideas on urban planning. Cerdá had been constructing rectangular city blocks, but Soria had another design in mind. He thought linearly.

A Grand Design (above) and the announcement (Right). (click on each picture to enlarge)

In a book he wrote explaining his concept he said, “The key to urban living is not distance but travel time”. His scheme involved the linear plan I have described above with a main road as a “spine” and with residential and industrial areas built along the perpendicular side streets. Ideally, some form of public transport would shuttle along the spine and so the daily commute or the trip to the shops would never take long.

His tram company, like urban public transport systems in other European towns, gave people the opportunity to live away from the grime of the inner city. Taking full advantage of this and in an area some five kilometres east of the city centre, work began on his linear city in 1894.

Oddly enough, the part of Madrid that actually bears the name of Ciudad Lineal, is not, because of reasons of topography, built to his original plan, but more along those of Cerdá in Barcelona. But if you take the metro on line five to the “Ciudad Lineal” station, you will be where Arturo Soria stood when the first stone was laid to put his ideas into concrete and brick reality.

Foundation Stone

Recently, on a bright spring afternoon, I walked the length of the linear city. After Soria’s death in 1920 the central street was named in his honour as the Calle de Arturo Soria and in 1992 his statue, made by the sculptor Cidoncha, was erected in the centre of the bridge where his road crosses the Avenida de America. Not far from that a newish Shopping Mall bears his name. This is a fairly up-market place, which for some reason uses old British Red Phone Boxes to house its public telephones. Being British I had to take a photograph of these when I was approached by a security guard and asked to cease and desist. Apparently, I am a security risk!

British phone boxes and Jamon Iberico In the Cento comercial Arturo Soria

It is a walk that is just a little short of six kilometres. I began in the barrio of Concepción and continued through the barrios of San Juan Bautista, Colina, Atalaya and Costillares, which were part of the original plan.

It might be one long street, but the different character if each section presents a surprise around each bend. Yes, bend. A perfectly straight road would monotonous. English readers think Milton Keynes or Harlow! And Soria’s plan allowed for a meandering waterway to border one side of the linear city. This waterway, actually little more than an Arroyo, a stream, ran along the foot of a steep(ish) escarpment that bounded the linear city to the west. This arroyo, which is shown on old maps of the city, has completely disappeared into a pipe under the M30 ring road. The escarpment though, is still as steep as ever, as a recent Sunday afternoon stroll demonstrated! Puff!

Since its inauguration, the Calle de Arturo Soriá has matured into an almost continuous ribbon of shady and leafy oasis along side a busy city road. Widened over the years until its present dueled three-lane carriageway, its grassy verges with an uncountable number of small, shady parks and playgrounds, the linear city provides a pleasant place to live, get educated, work and relax.

Between Colina and Atalaya barrios the roads widens to grassy lawns and sparkling fountains. Looking north, there is a wonderful view of Madrid’s new architectural attraction the Cuatro Torres, the four skyscrapers that claim to be the highest in Europe. You will notice I did not write the “tallest”. They are not, but due to the elevation of the terrain on which they stand, will at 236, 236, 249.5 and 250 metres, finish more than one kilometre above sea level and so be higher than any other buildings in the continent.

The Family - Torso of an Archer - Togetherness

But as well as a view of the towers, this part of the Calle de Arturo Soria also provides us with a small exhibition of modern sculpture. I am not sure I see any resemblance to a family in the one with that title, but they are still interesting.

However, there is no central tramway, although never-ending streams of buses do ply their way. The metro only hits it in three places and then only seemingly as an afterthought, although the central station does bear Arturo Soria’s name (Line 4). Personally I am not that sure that as a concept of urban planning, it actually works. I doubt the people who live along its length consider themselves part of the same neighborhood, but identify with the barrios they actually live in and which now stretch way beyond his original five hundred metres. And six kilometres is a long way from Cuidad Lineal to Costillares, two very different barrios.

Until one arrives at the northernmost barrio of Pinar de Chamartin, there are no really high apartment blocks. The side streets are quiet, leafy lanes of peace, where there are some interesting examples of architecture to be found. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would say that the hands of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe had played some part in its design. In fact, it’s the other way round as Wright claimed Soriá as an inspiration for his Broadacre City. That too, has its critics. And the Madrid that has sprung up in the past fifty years is more based on Cerdá’s city block concept than the unending street.

Soria’s idea was that his linear city could be added to at either end, without increasing its width. This gives the possibly of creating, as has happened in Russia and Japan, which also took up his ideas, cities of indefinite length. In Madrid just a further one kilometre has been tacked on to the northern end to create the Barrio of Pinar de Chamartin. This is an area of high-rise apartments and hard concrete. By no stretch of the imagination could it be called beautiful.

Up to last year, this was a part of the city the magnificent metro had ignored, but it now has its own station (Pinar de Chamartin - Line 4). I was pleased by this. After six kilometres on a warm day, I did not relish the prospect of having to walk back!

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Madrid weight loss brings trouble to the city.

The Retiro Park's light and airy Palacio de Cristal

Now here's some intriguing news: Madrid is lighter and higher than it used to be.

I have spent most of my life in the field of Geophysical exploration; the study of the earth’s sub-surface using techniques involving small movements of the earth’s crust, and I still take a great interest in any new information that comes my way.

So I was intrigued recently when I read in the IGJ, the Iberian Geological Journal, that certain seismic events have brought change to the geology of Madrid.

Any change in the geology of an area is a slow process. That continents move about the globe, floating on “rafts” of rock on a deep sea of magma is now well known. They move very slowly, but as Galileo would have said, they do move. It was the northern drift of the Iberian peninsular slowly pushing into the continent of Europe that folded and buckled the surface rocks to form the Pyrenees chain of mountains in the north and the massive plate that supports Africa pushing against the Iberian plate in turn that created the Sierra Nevada in the south.

The Iberian peninsular has not stopped moving, but its travels are now predicted to take it more to the northwest, squeezed out from between the those two massive plates to eventually break away from mainland Europe altogether and drift isolated into the Atlantic. According to a report I read last year (and it pains me that I can’t remember where) Spain’s global location in thirty million years time is predicted to be somewhere north of where Iceland is now, so it’s too early to be buying the cold weather clothing just yet.

However, according to the report in the IGJ some movement in the Spanish geophysical record is speeding up, and an important result of that is being experienced right here in Madrid.

The author of the report, Doctora Señora Avril Primero, suggests that Madrid is undergoing a severe vertical geological shift. In non-technical language, this means that the height of Madrid above sea level, already the highest capital in Europe, is actually increasing. And increasing fast.

The studies used a relatively new form of geological survey called GSI3D, or Geophysical Survey and Investigation in Three Dimensions, which has pin-pointed with some accuracy exactly what is happening under the city.

However, first, let me explain a basic principle of plate tectonics, the system proposed and eventually accepted in the 1970s (despite much opposition) that describes continental drift. Imagine a toy boat in the bath. Untouched it floats perfectly level in the water, but apply pressure or weight to one end, say you sit the soap on the stern, the other end, or bow, will rise in the water. This is the principle geologists call “Isostasy”.

Derived from the Greek; “isos” meaning equal, and “stásis” meaning standstill, the term refers to the state of gravitational equilibrium between the earth’s lithosphere (the solid bit we live on) and the asthenosphere, (the crumbly part way below us). In this way the earth’s tectonic plates float like icebergs with their median height determined by their thickness and density. And like the toy boat in the bath, if the weight of one area is altered, there will be a corresponding change elsewhere. For instance, if the Himalayas vanished southern India would likely begin a journey to the centre of the earth.

Pulling together a combination of the results obtained by the new GSI3D techniques and borehole tests exploring the possibilities of using geothermal energy close to Madrid, plus Elevation Mapping by Satellite, using high frequency radar to monitor the height of the earth’s topological surface, Señora Primero has shown that Madrid is slowly rising. However, her measurements have also demonstrated that land masses to the north and west of the city, the Guadarrama range near El Escorial and El Monte de el Pardo are, at the same time, descending.
Legend: 1. Plutonic rocks; 2.Slates, marbles, quartzites and gneisses; 3.Slates and metagreywacke; 4. Slates,quartzites and, metavulcanites; 5. Mesozoic;6. Early Tertiary; 7. UndifferentiatedMiocene; 8. Lower Miocene Unit; 9. Intermediate Miocene unit; 10. Upper Miocene unit; 11. Pliocene; 12.Quaternary.
Explanation: “Plutonic Rocks” are Rocks formed deep in the earth’s magma. Granite is such a rock. “Cuenca” is Spanish for a fluvial basin, or an area mostly formed by water erosion and deposit of sedimentary rocks. From this map it is very easy to see the differentiation of the lighter rock of the Madrid plain and the heavier material of the mountains to the northwest.

Map after La Instituto Geológico y Minero de España. Ríos Rosas 23, 28003 Madrid, Spain

Geological studies have shown conclusively that the annual rates of erosion in the mountains has stayed constant, meaning they are getting lighter, not heavier, and so should show an increase in elevation, but this is not the case. The only explanation for this, according to Doctora Avril Primero, is that Madrid is becoming lighter than the mountains and at a faster rate.

This is a problem of balance. The Madrid Basin, an area of sedimentary geological deposits, sand, gypsum and clay, known locally as “Peñuela”, and on which the city rests, is of a relative lower density than the granitic mountains to the northwest. Madrid is the smaller child on the end of the see-saw. (Subibaja in Spanish) However, until recent excavations, this balance has been maintained, but now the sheer volume of rock and soil deposits being removed from under the city is causing severe problems. Put simply, Madrid now weighs less than it used to.

What could be the cause of this? Well Señora Primero thinks she has the answer. As the subsurface of Madrid has been removed in new tunnelling operations, the building of the new cercanías station at Sol, further extensions to the metro system, and excavations for new underground car parks, the density and mass of Madrid has decreased alarmingly. These excavations have led to Manileños describing their city as “Like a Gruyere cheese”. It is a reasonable analogy.

Excavating yet another station for the Madrid Metro.

Finding a spot near El Escorial, the famous town about 60 Km northwest of Madrid, where the elevation has not changed at all, but where the verticality of older buildings are now showing a demonstrable “lean”, Doctora Primero has declared this the site of a “Geological Fulcrum”.

Calculations using elementary physics show that although Madrid has not lost a similar amount of weight as the mountains, the lever principle, taught in schools to young children everywhere, would easily account for the vertical movement.

“Madrid’s elevation is increasing”, Señora Primero declared, “and like the rising end of a child’s see-saw is beginning to tilt alarmingly. Either the comunidad must stop removing soil and rock from beneath Madrid, or we should start urgent quarry work in the Guadarrama Mountains to redress the balance. The rise in the elevation to the south of the city has already led to the waters of the Manzanares River slowing to a trickle. If the plateau of Madrid continues to tilt in this manner, the consequences will be disastrous. How far do the Cuatro Torres have to lean before they fall over?” she asked.

The Cuatro Torres in the north of the city already show a slight lean.

That is a very good question to ask, this first day of April 2009.