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.


  1. Fascinating post about the starting point for nearly all my expeditions around the city centre, and thus a place I'm fond of, in a way.

    Seeing as you've posted a picture of the terrorist victims' memorial, I can't help commenting how very much I dislike it - it looks like a roll of bubble wrap, to start with, but even worse than that is the fact that it is firmly set in the middle of a five lane roundabout. Nobody can get close enough to contemplate, meditate or leave flowers, and even if they did, there would be nowhere for them to sit or stand. Not that I want to, but if I had had any connection with the people who died, I might have wanted to. An example of appalling design and citizen-unfriendly planning.

  2. I like to much this blog is awesome..