Tuesday 28 December 2010

A Roof Over Your Head

By Richard Morley

It was bitterly cold. I didn’t want to remove my gloves to reach the cash in my pocket to pay for the caganer I had just bought for a friend’s Belen, the Spanish word for nativity scene. I love these little characters. They seem so irreverent during this Christmas time, yet they are funny. I was at the Christmas market in the Plaza Mayor. Darkness had fallen and the circles of illuminations swaying gently in the chill breeze above my head did nothing to relieve the cold.

The Caganeres often are used to poke fun at political figures or celebrities.

Summer visitors to Spain can hardly believe just how cold it can get in Madrid in winter. As I write this, the day after Christmas, it’s ten in the morning and there is still frost on the roof of the supermarket across from my apartment block. While I was out and about taking photographs of the Christmas lights for the previous post, the metal body of my camera was so cold I could barely hold it steady, and the ice-covered pavements first thing in the morning last week were a danger to life and limb.

When it comes to weather, Madrid, so centrally placed in the Iberian peninsular, is a city of extremes. So cold in winter and yet, so swelteringly hot in the summer months. I first arrived here one balmy May evening and fell in love with the city and assumed, so far south of a cool English spring, that this was normal in Madrid. My next visit, three months later in August soon dispelled that. The city was oven hot and sensible people took refuge in air-conditioned shops and museums.

And likewise, as soon as my business at the Christmas market was concluded, I escaped the bitter chill to a place of heated air and hot tapas. Albóndigas and Croquetas, steaming hot, was definitely something to be devoutly consumed.

It’s comforting to know that, at least as the plaza mayor is concerned, these extremes of temperature will soon be a thing of the past. Too cold in winter, too hot in summer, this jewel in the Madrid tourist crown will soon be a place of equitable climate all year round.

The Kagod Centre in Washington - designed by Foster and Associates.

Taking inspiration from more northerly countries, which have their own extremes of climate to deal with, the ayuntamiento of Madrid have decided to enclose the plaza under a roof of glass. The construction was put out to tender and the design of a Japanese firm of architects, Yono Creo and associates, has been chosen to do the work. Apparently they has stiff competition from an American company, Darel-Mentisa, who won the contract for the new bio-domes which will be erected at the south end of the Retiro park and which will incorporate the rose garden and provide a new home for the tropical garden currently housed at Atocha railway Station. The Retiro’s army of roller-bladers and skateboarders are said to be not happy at the prospect of losing their playground. The tropical garden at Atocha will become a business centre.

An example of how the southern half of the Retiro will look enclosed in the biodome.

This will not be the first time an open area has been covered with a glass roof. Just a block away in Sol the Casa de Correos, now the home of the Comunidad de Madrid, had its central courtyard covered long ago.

The Plaza Mayor however, covers a much larger area. The specifications for the new roof stipulated that there would be no central supports or pillars. One design proposed a light plastic roof supported by air pressure alone. This was considered unsuitable as it would have necessitated double-door vestibules at every entrance to the plaza to maintain the higher air pressure. The winning design was successful for two reasons. It incorporates a cantilever construction strong enough to support real glass. The glass chosen however, is far from ordinary. Reactive to sunlight like photo-chromatic sunglasses, the full glare – and therefore heat – of the midday sun will be mitigated. Every second pane will be a transparent solar panel generating electricity to power a climate management system, which will allow the plaza to maintain a comfortable environment at any time of year.

As someone who rarely goes to the Plaza Mayor, considering it a place for poor and expensive food, I think will make a great difference to this historic heart of the city. Just next door, the Mercado San Miguel has been converted from a run down food market into a sophisticated and up market food hall and the chosen meeting place of the Madrid elite. If the Plaza goes the same way it might begin to challenge the restaurants of La Latina, Chueca or Serrano.

A spokesperson for the ayuntamiento, Mentira de las Día de los Inocentes, has suggested that if the Plaza Mayor Project is a success, a similar roof will be provided for the bullring at Ventras, allowing corridas to continue all year round.

What do you think?

Sunday 19 December 2010

Xmas in the City

By Richard Morley.
Madrid Graffiti. A winter scene painted on a wall near Arturio Soria.

Somewhere back in the archives of this blog, down in the comments section, someone once wrote a happily complimentary comment but finished with a suggestion that “You must certainly have a lot of free time on your hands”. I was cut to the quick. The couple of thousand words that he or she were commenting on had, as seems to customary for what I write, taken weeks of research, visits, photo taking and then the plain hard graft of actually sitting down and collecting my thoughts and research into a coherent whole.

This year, being the centenary of Madrid's (now slightly dowdy!) Centre Piece, the Gran Via, the sheer complexity of its history forced me into writing a trilogy. The finished result, liked by many, I am pleased to recount, reflected only the more striking, more interesting (from my point of view – this is my blog, after all) of all the stuff I had to sort through. Such is the complexity of the history of any great city. It was, in fact the culmination of seven months (on and off – this is not a full time occupation) of research on line, in my local library, asking people who had lived through that history and so on.

The history of the Madrid's water supply took almost as long. The Canal Isabel II, the name of the company that supplies Madrid with its water, is buried under a heap of its own self-congratulatory list of achievements. It will tell you how wonderful it is now, but how it began, using convict labour, poor geological surveys, and the usual Madrid political grumblings about its cost and who should take the credit, took ages to sift through. But I found the time. Nice comments made it all worthwhile.

Were that true now! As someone once said, “Time is like a handful of sand – the tighter you grasp it, the faster it runs through your fingers”. Can it really be that I haven't posted here for nearly a month? The trouble is that I have been plagued by that curse of life – work. Couple the offers of work with an inability to say “no” and suddenly “having time on my hands” is no longer an option.

So, apologies to those who have clicked on here expecting to find something new each week. But there are articles in the pipeline, so all is not lost.

However, here I am in that most majestic of cities, Madrid, at that most wonderful of times, Christmas, and Christmas in Madrid is always a huge pleasure. For a start, the roasted chestnut sellers are out in force. On your behalf I have been making my annual survey of many of the purveyors of this fine food. I have been disappointed in the Calle Goya, near to El Corte Inglés, where the dozen I bought were undercooked and three were bad, and astonished at the Puerto de Toledo where the lady there sold then in multiples of seven – so I was forced to buy fourteen. The choices were seven, fourteen, or thirty-five. Perhaps the latter is the “party pack”. But they were all good. Last year's winner, the man at the Plaza España was way up there in the rankings but a guy under the bridge at Nuevos Ministerios takes this year's award as the best chestnuts I have ever tasted. Perfectly roasted, he chose my solicited dozen with great care, segregating the nearly cooked from the over cooked until he filled the bag with twelve nuggets of sheer heaven. I was about to board the metro, which would have necessitated eating them in a rush, but I chose, after the first couple, to walk to the next station, savouring them as I walked.

I do despair for the poor street cleaners who have to follow in my discarded shell footsteps.

El Corte Inglés department store at Goya. The display is a sound and audio delight.

Due to “La Crisis” the illuminated decorations are, in many cases, the same as last year and there have not been nearly as many of those silly “Christmas Cones”, Madrid's mechanical solution to saving the fir-wood forests, as last year, although the monstrosity in Sol is there again. The thing about these metal surrogates is that they may look quite pretty all lit up at night, but their black ugliness during the hours of day light is no substitute for a real tree.
Golden Rings (ting-a-ling) along the Calle Naráez

And while the shops might be exhorting us to enter and buy, and with El Corte Inglés enticing us to “make a present of Christmas”, the shops have not been looking particularly Christmassy. There seems to be a dearth of Belens this year and although ECL have decorated the outsides of their stores, inside it is business as usual. The most successful shops seem to be those selling what I call “fire sale” goods. “Everything Ten Euros” proclaimed a shop in the Calle Alberto Aguillera this morning. I walk past these premises every week and each time it seems to be selling a different line of goods at knock down prices. Today, the last Saturday before Christmas, it was toys and games. Piled high and sold cheap. Inside was standing room only and a queue of expectant buyers stretched fifty metres along the pavement outside. A sign if the times.
Calle Goya all lit up.

At the other end of the financial scale, the finally finished Calle de Serrano, with its serried ranks of “posh” shops, seems to be doing an equally brisk trade. Serrano finally got rid of the workmen and machinery a few short weeks ago and, carpeted in pink, allowed its patrons to shop without fear of tripping over exposed pipe work or falling into deep trenches. In its first refurbished Christmas it has pulled out all the shopper attracting stops and illuminated itself like a fairy wonderland.


There is no doubt that “La Crisis” is biting into Christmas expenditure. One man, interviewed in the street on Madrid Direct, our local news channel, said that due to his unemployment “there would be no Christmas this year”, and I am sure that many will have to settle for less than before.

That said, the shops have been packed full of those who do have the disposable income to celebrate. Sol and its radiating streets have been jammed with package clutching shoppers since the start of December. I wonder what my friends have bought me!

If only they could buy me time.

Calle Principe de Vergara.

Sunday 28 November 2010

The Things That People Do.

By Richard Morley.

I think it is time to book my room at the tanatorio across the road. The Tanatorio, for those of you who don’t know, is where they take the dead people en route to the grave. A grey, forbidding place, it is where relatives and friends to come and pay their last respects. When I eventually go there I want all my friends to come and shout at me, poke me, sing to me and make sure I am really dead before they do with me whatever they will. It’s just a precaution.

My local Tanatorio is about three hundred metres away from my apartment as the spirit flies and as I often walk past it I can say that I have already made my final journey many times.

But why do I have these thoughts about my own mortality? Something terrible happened today. A young man, sporting a New York Yankees jacket, Silver and blue Nike Trainers and an expert juggler’s set of rings in his left earlobe, offered me his seat on the bus.

Ok, my hair is grey and the skin around the eyes is showing signs of age, but inside I haven’t aged a bit since my twenty-first birthday, but by outward appearances obviously this young man thought I am getting on a bit.

As the bus emptied and filled as we went from stop to stop the young man would find a seat, but immediately offer it to some ancient who shuffled on board at the next stop. A well brought up, polite young man, who seemed to have a mission in life as a seat warmer for wrinklies.

I was on my way to give a lesson in Castellana. I was early and so found an empty banco, or bench, to while away the minutes with a cigarette and a quick review of the lesson of prepositions I was about to give. A few metres away stood a water fountain, a thing of cold, dull, cast iron with a sprung-loaded tap. A very dishevelled – unshaved, raggedly dressed – middle-aged man approached the fountain and removing a reclaimed yoghurt pot from his stained pocket, proceeded to rinse it out; throwing the water in all directions. He then took a drink and, thirst assuaged, stumbled a few metres to a tree and urinated, totally oblivious to my presence and that of passing office girls on their way to lunch.

I have a feeling that British office girls would have reacted with cat-calls and loud comments. Their Spanish counterparts walked past as if nothing unusual was happening.

A couple of hundred metres north, where Castellana intersects with Ayala an old man, his head swathed in a threadbare woollen scarf, a grubby raincoat flapping about his knees and a crutch, waited for the traffic to halt for a red light. He would then stumble his way through the stopped cars, leaning heavily on the crutch, while banging on windows and thrusting a plastic cup in the faces of drivers, begging for money. He would, perhaps, approach seven or eight cars before the lights began to change. As the engines started to roar he would make his way to the kerb and walk, quite unaided by the crutch, back up to the lights and await his next queue of victims.

The things people do sometimes astounds me. And travelling around Madrid from lesson to lesson, I see a lot of people.

Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Like the time a gang of leather-jacketed, chain jangling youths swaggered towards me taking up every centimetre of the width of the pavement as if they owned it. But just before they reached me, two of them stepped down into the gutter allowing me to pass while begging my “perdón, señor”. My landlady’s teenage son, who shouts and slams doors while at home, approached me in the local supermarket recently and insisted on shaking my hand before politely asking for a loan of my house keys.

Sometimes I am surprised by rudeness, like the old ladies who consider, unlike the youths above, that the pavement does belong to them and that four women walking abreast should not give way to oncoming pedestrians. And don’t get me started on their use of umbrellas or shopping trolleys.

And sometimes I am just perplexed. I watched a young woman the other Saturday morning try four different seats in an uncrowded bus until she was happy. I was reminded of the way that dogs go round and round in circles until finally flopping onto their beds to sleep, or will sniff every bush or tree before finding just the one to relieve themselves against.

Others board the bus and take an aisle seat, leaving the inner seat, next to the window, empty. At the next parada a new passenger gets on and despite there being a plethora of other empty spaces, insist on taking that free window seat. This sets me wondering on two levels: One, why did the first passenger not slide across to avoid the business of getting up, standing aside, and retaking his or her (and usually it’s a her) original seat? And two, why did the second passenger not just take one of the available empty seats?

And while I am on the subject of taking the bus. Why can’t those with abonos find their ticket before the bus arrives, instead of climbing on board and only then, with a queue behind them, begin to search pockets and handbags for that elusive red plastic wallet? ¡Qué fastidio!

Or those who hesitate before stepping on to a metro escalator, as if waiting for just the right step to come along before they will use it. As my Facebook friend Sophia once asked, “What are they waiting for? A shiny one?”

But worse are those who reach the top of the escalator, step off, and then stop, dead, while those coming up behind them have to swerve or leap around them. What are they doing? Planting a flag and claiming the lobby for Spain?

But it’s while they are riding the metro that you will witness the unexplainable. There seems to be an unwritten rules that the end seats of a row of four will not be left unattended. Imagine, four people sit in a row. The train arrives at a station and those occupying the end seats get up to leave. Immediately those in the centre seats will slide over to take the freshly vacated, still bottom-warm, seats of the just departed.

Ok, I’ll admit I have done it myself if, say, a couple get on and want to sit together. So I will ask the question of one of life’s little mysteries: Why do ladies leave warmer seats than gentlemen?

Then moving upwards to the surface and Madrid’s busy, traffic tangled streets, I might ask the purpose of traffic lights as at junctions not under surveillance by CCTV. No one seems to obey them at all. Red or amber lights seem to have the sole purpose of telling the drivers there might be crossing pedestrians to weave around. They don’t seem to be there to inform the driver he has to stop and let people on legs cross the road safely.

A few months ago I was actually hit by a car as, with the permission of the little green men, or flashing viejos verdes, I was crossing a road when this car swung round the corner and came straight at me. The driver slammed on his brakes and did manage to stop just as his front bumper came into contact with my leg. No harm done, no bruises, not even a scuff mark, but I left the driver in no doubt what I thought of his ability and, to give him his due, he signalled his apology with that praying hand sign they seem to know, and probably practise, so well.

My friends told me I could have sued. That I should have acted terribly hurt, leaping up and down while holding a supposedly injured limb, while promising the driver that if he slipped me a hundred euros I wouldn’t call the police. Hey ho! Another lost opportunity.

This has happened just once, but almost happened a hundred times. It might not be old age that books me that one way trip to the Tanatorio!

But why do drivers ignore the lights? And come to that, why do pedestrians? They step out on to the road at the first twinkle of changing colours with no thought to the tons of metal hurtling towards them as their drivers attempt to cross before the lamp turns irredeemably red. Perhaps they have a suicide wish. In fact I am sure of it. I know one lady who will grab my arm and say, “Quick, let’s suicidarse” at the slimmest break in the traffic. Another, given the choice of two crossings a hundred metres apart on the busy Calle Conde de Penlaver, thought the best place to cross was almost exactly halfway between them.

And sometimes the things that people do are just amazing. The generosity of the Madrileños is not confined to being quickest on the draw when it comes to picking up the tab. Ask directions and chances are you will be taken there, or at least to the right intersection and have a landmark pointed out to you. Admittedly their willingness to engage in conversation can be a little annoying when you are in a hurry, but you can’t fault them for friendliness. Then again, I have had many a Spanish lesson from waiters and waitresses in cafés and restaurants. I still remember the waiter in the Plaza mayor, in my early naïve days here when I thought that was a good place to eat, who taught me “postre”.

For that matter, I am amazed at the patience they show while attempting to improve my abysmally bad Spanish, sitting for hours speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully so I can understand and putting up with the ungrammatical nonsense they get in return. And that includes the assistant in the pharmacy who wouldn’t let me pay for the painkillers I needed for a bad back until I proved I could pronounce “Ibu-pro-feno”. She made me repeat it three times before relinquishing her hold on the packet.

As I write this, although I won’t publish for a couple of days, it is Thanks-giving day in the United States. In the five and a half years I have lived in Madrid I keep finding more and more things that I should be thankful for.

My sister once asked me how I could live in a country where I felt like a “foreigner”? The answer to that is that I don’t. And for that, to all the people who reside in this fantastic city, with all their strange – and suicidal – ways, I want to say thank you.

And I should say it now, before I die. A thousand curses on that polite, well-bred young man. Why couldn’t he have just let me stand. The Tanatorio is not far, and should this be my Last Post, remember this, in that place, one room will be forever England.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Life in the Colonies

By Richard Morley.

At eleven o’clock, one Monday morning, I boarded a number seventy-seven bus that took me all the way to the End of the Week. And when I got off, I found myself in December.

No, I wasn’t smoking something illicit. I had been searching for a bus route that would take me to one of Madrid’s large out-of-town shopping centres and noticed on the itinerary displayed on the EMT’s (Empresa Municipal de Transportes de Madrid ) website, that the final destination of this particular route was a place called the “Colonia Fin de Semana”, and the more detailed listing of the paradas de autobús named the final stop as the Calle de Diciembre.

The stop I was searching for, the nearest to the shopping mall, is actually half a kilometre away from the centre and why the public transport companies, EMT or Metro cannot provide a service that would actually take the shopper directly to a popular shopping centre is something I just can’t understand.. (The nearest Metro station is half an hour’s walk away on the opposite side of a busy motorway crossed by a high footbridge.) I was checking prices for a heavy printer I have my eye set on, but the sheer distance I would have to carry the thing to the bus stop has decided me against buying it from there. This failure to provide a good transport link to this part of Madrid is a rant for the future, but why was my eye drawn to the last stop of the route?

Scattered around Madrid’s neighbourhoods of high rise dwellings are some curious links to the past. I can look down on one from my fifth floor apartment window; A collection of some thirty, small, two storey houses set on about a hectare (roughly two acres for my non-metricised readers) served by two narrow streets. Each house has a high wall to protect the inhabitants from the eyes of the curious. Over every wall can be seen the straggling stems and branches of mature gardens. Peering through gaps one can see private patios and personalised entrances.

Surrounded on all sides by eight, ten and twelve storied apartment blocks these compact houses seem very much out of place. But in fact, it is the high rises that are the usurpers. This small colony of houses was here long before the developers began building in the mid fifties. And it has a name; La Colonia de los Carteros. Yes! The Colony of the Postmen (or mailmen – again for my US readers.)

These “Colonias” are dotted all over the city. As in the case of my neighbours, some were built to provide housing for workers in one sector or another. They are not all pretty little houses. Some are more utilitarian like the Colonia San Cristabal, occupying a few streets opposite the Cuatro Torres, and was designed to provide housing for employees of the bus company. Some were built just to provide affordable housing for anyone.

The Colonia de San Cristabal. Built in the first half of the 20th century, they are now dwawfed by the monsters of the 21st.

The key word here is “affordable”. Actually that’s not quite right. In December 1921 and July 1922 two pieces of legislation were passed known as “El ley del Casas Baratas”, or the Cheap Housing Law. These laid down in Spanish law some principles that were sweeping Europe at the time, which were to provide housing for workers that had to be of good quality, sanitary and low cost. The bywords were “Simple construction with economic materials”. In the late 1800s the United Kingdom has legislated the “Labouring Houses Act” and France saw the creation of la Societé française des habitations à bon marchè.

In Spain these laws specified minimum build quality, cost, and, and this really drove the movement, gave subsidies and tax breaks to companies who provided such housing.

The narrow streets of the Colonia de los Carteros

Given that low cost was the major factor, it is not surprising that these “Colonias” were built outside of the city on previously unused land. My neighbours in the Colonia de los Carteros, built in 1922, are nearly five kilometres from Madrid city centre. I have been told that prior to the 1950s my part of Madrid consisted of open fields with only scattered housing. It’s different now! The Colonia de Retiro, which was built on new land off the South East corner of the famous park is just three kilometres from Sol, yet at the time of its construction was completely isolated from the city and is now completely surrounded.

The Colonia de Retiro: Quite isolated when it was built (top), now, as shown in this Google Earth image (bottom), totally absorbed into the city.
Seven kilometres south west of Sol you will find the old Colonia Militar Arroyo Meaques. Lying within sight of Colonia Jardin metro station on line 10, it fiercely maintains its independence from the encroaching high rise apartments.

Colonia Arroyo Meaques seen across the carpark of the nearby Colonia Jardin metro station
Rows of pretty cottages in Arroyo Meaques

A stroll around the Colonia quickly shows that this was almost a self contained village. At one time the colony had its shops, its bar and it church. The old town hall reveals its village like status before the approaching Medusa like tendrils of the city. The cottages have been maintained or restored the way they were built and it really is like going back in time.
It would almost be a village scene if it wasn't for the high rise beyond

A fig tree escapes its confines. Away from the city's bustle, perhaps just two hundred metres away, it's like being out in the country.

There is a reason behind this. The reason why these tiny enclaves continue to exist and have not been demolished in the path of profitable high rise apartment blocks is because they are protected by law. In 1997 an act was enabled that enforced on them a “listed” status, as it is called in the UK. The insides may be modernised but their exteriors must be preserved. There are by-laws which protect and extend beyond the properties to the streets outside with restrictions on parking, and what you can and cannot do.

When you consider what the value of the land would be to a developer, these very houses that were built as “casas baratas”, have now become very valuable indeed.

What this has done, of course, is to create enclaves of small, expensive housing. If you were lucky enough to inherit, you would be sitting on a gold mine. Otherwise, if you want to live here, and I think I could very easily, then you will have to wait for that lottery win.

But the people who live in the Colonia Militar Arroyo Meaques are not so rich. A couple of blocks away is a disused army base and the houses are owned by the ministry of defence. The residents are ex military personnel who, amazingly, rent their homes for the grand sum of two hundred Euros a month. Originally built to house officers the houses are quite large. In recent years the colony has been refurbished at a cost of three and a half million euros. The pavements are neatly block-paved, the roads freshly asphalted and many of the one hundred and thirty three houses have been completely renovated, while still maintaining the old external appearance. There are a few houses still in the process of renovation and signs affixed to the walls of empty properties proclaim them to be “Almacén del Invifas”, which means they are the property of the “Instituto para la Vivienda de las Fuerzas Armadas”, or army property, and is a legal necessity to stop squatters.

A cottage in the (very) early stages of renovation
The cost of renovation, incidentally, was shared by the Ayuntamientos of Madrid and Pozuelo as the colonia lies on the boundary of the two, leading to the somewhat ridiculous matter of there being two different designs of lampposts in the streets. The military, whose personnel benefit from the renovation, paid nothing.

However, as well as providing living accommodation for workers, some of these colonias were nothing more than holiday homes. In the same way that well-off Madrileños today have second homes on the coast or in the cool hills north of the city, the pre-motorcar age required these week-end “get-aways” to be closer to home.

That very philosophy is, obviously, reflected in the name of the place where I began this article: La Colonia Fin de Semana.

Situated some twelve kilometres east of Madrid and a good couple of kilometres beyond the advancing tide of high rise apartments, this “Colonia” still betrays its origins as a “get away” place. It’s central plaza is wide and gardened.

The cetral plaza in Fin deSemana
There are open spaces used for growing vegetables and old houses with sprawling vines and crawling roses. But its artificiality is apparent. The streets are laid out on a strictly regimented grid and named, (by lazy, unimaginative planners) in order, after the months of the year. Hence my untimely arrival in “Diciembre”. Unlike the bucolic joys of the Colonia Arroyo Meaques, which strives to maintain a timeless quality, the Colonia Fin de la Semana is undergoing development.

Ancient dwellings resist the encroachment of new development.

Regimented rows of modern houses, obviously for the well to do, stand cheek by jowl with the ancient cottages. Untended wildernesses wait for the developer’s bulldozer. Much of the northern half of the Colonia is industrial, with builder’s yards and ironworks. Not as pretty as I thought a weekend retreat should be.

I suspect I was not the only one to be disappointed. Within minutes of arriving I was approached by a back-packing Australian couple who, with not even a faltering attempt at Spanish, asked me for directions. Am I so obviously a guiri? Well no, because their surprise was palpable when I replied in English, “Sorry, I haven’t a clue”, when they were expecting a Spanish reply. I would never, in any non English speaking country, approach a stranger without some attempt at the local language. I wonder why this couple, well, the woman, thought it was ok. However. I don’t think the Colonia was the tourist sight they expected to see.

Fin de Semana now provides housing for all of the week.

A close scrutiny at any map of Madrid will reveal many of these “Colonias”. There are, in fact, forty two designated, and protected, as “colonias históricas madrilènes”. Some don’t actually have “colonia” in the name, but they are there. And you don’t have to go far to find them. The top end of the Calle Serrano will put you right in the centre of where Madrileñillos used to spend their weekends. There are four just behind the Real Madrid stadium; El Visto, Cruz del Rayo, (built to house civil servants), La Prensa y Bellas Artes (to house writers, journalists and artists – obviously) and Iturbe IV for professionals.

The Chamartin district boasts seventeen. Prosperidad, a lovely name, for one, was built under the 1927 law of cheap housing for labourers. The list also includes Socialista, Jardin de Rosa, Los Pinares, Las Magnolias, Los Rosales and so on. While Iturbe III was constructed by the Cooperativa Madrileña de Casas Baratas y Económicas slap bang in the middle of the Salamanca district for who knows who, but just think of the prices these properties in that area fetch now!

I can sort of tell you, although the documentation I have found is about six years old. In Salamanca the prices for the houses in the three colonies of Carteros, Iturbe III and Fuente del Berro were around €4,800 per square metre. So, half a million each, which actually isn’t bad for that area, but the places are tiny.

Some of the properties protected by the 1997 law are not parts of colonies, but individual holdings. For this reason you will find many ancient, slightly rickety, little houses completely swamped in a sea of high rise blocks.

Some are quite charming, if not seeming a little lonely. However, a quick glimpse thought a chink in a wall, or through a half open gate, reveals well cared for properties and a view of how Madrid used to be before apartment living was the norm. Long may they last.

Below - Experience a year in a Weekend

Sunday 31 October 2010

Smoke and Morirse

By Richard Morley.

The Main Street of my Neighbourhood.

I like my little bit of Madrid. My barrio is sandwiched between two major arterial roads and cut off from our neighbouring barrio by an expanse of wasteland where forty years ago they dumped the sandy soil known as Peñuela that was removed from the tunnel of our metro line. Google earth shows my barrio to be about one kilometre long by about a half a kilometre wide. Isolated by the roads and the dog-walkers wasteland we are, to all intents and purposes, a little village.

Running through the centre is our main shopping street. These days it seems to consist of hair-dressers, opticians and banks; lots of banks. In four hundred metres we have eighteen branches of one bank or another. You are never more than twenty metres away from a cash point. I suppose they must all find customers. Our barrio might be small in area, but it is high. Apartment blocks up to twelve stories high soar into the Madrid sky. From my own apartment window I have a glorious view of all of eastern Madrid.

Surprisingly, at ground level, our concrete jungle, or Jungla de Cristal (glass jungle) as the Spanish call it, is hardly noticeable. Our streets are lined with tall, leafy trees that effectively hide the brick and concrete beyond.

At either end of the main street are two small businesses. Both of them are estancos, or tobacconist shops. They sell more than cigarettes and cigars. Here you can buy bus and metro tickets, newspapers, birthday cards, stamps and envelopes and decorative wrapping paper for presents, which for some reason the gift shops where you buy the presents, don’t sell.

I tend to frequent one of these estancos more than the other, for the simple reason that is the closest to where I live. I have wished this wasn’t the case. The far estanco is run by an attractive young lady who is always polite, cheerful, and knows my order as soon as I enter. The only words of Spanish I have to use is “uno”, “dos”, “mechero” and, of course, “gracias”. She, on the other hand, likes to practise her few words of English, with a smile and a self conscious chuckle. It is a pleasure to go there on the odd few times that I do. Maybe I should move to the other end of the street.

My estanco, the one nearest me, was run, in the mornings, by a sharp chinned, sharp nosed and sharp tongued woman called Esperanza. Give her a black cloak, a pointy hat to hide her grey straggly hair and a broomstick and she would have been first choice for any of the three witches in Macbeth. In the more than three years I have lived here Esperanza never once remembered what cigarettes I smoke. Or at least pretended not to. I had to order them, by name, every time. Then she pretended not to understand and gave me a pack of some different brand. I know she did it on purpose. And when I pointed out the error, the look on her face suggested that I was the one who had made the mistake.

The Estanco.

It wasn’t just me. Others had a similar problem with the woman. Every transaction, whether for a simple purchase of a single packet of cigarettes or a more complicated postal matter, took time and frustration. All queries were answered with a snapped reply. The woman had the shortest syllables in the Spanish language. Queues would form, with much grumbling from those at the back when the unmoving line of people stretched metres along the pavement outside her tiny shop. It was not possible for more than three or four people to actually be inside together.

At two in the afternoon she would shut up shop for lunch. Not a second later. Leaving any proposed purchase to the last minute was a fatal mistake. More than once I was caught on the wrong side of the road, waiting for the crossing lights to change in my favour, when I would see her face at the window, dead on two, pulling the concertina security bars into place and slide the sign on the door to, “Cerrada”. No amount of gesticulated pleading would make her remain open for a few seconds longer.

Luckily, Esperanza only worked in the shop in the morning. From five, when the shop reopened, to eight in the evening, we would be served by Carmen, Esperanza’s daughter, but who certainly did not take after her mother.

Carmen has deep brown eyes, jet black hair and bee-stung lips that always carries a smile. Once she had realised that I stayed loyal to one brand of cigarettes I have never had to ask again. Unlike her mother she dealt with all her customers quickly and cheerfully and there was hardly ever a queue. Naturally, I tried to make my purchases in the evening.

Last August I was away from Madrid for the first two weeks of the month. Having broken from my normal routine I found myself without cigarettes after two o’clock on a Monday afternoon. I knew the estanco would be closed, but my local, the Elizabeth Bar, with its more expensive cigarette machine would be open. Being a Madrid summer, it was hot. I needed a break and thought a cold beer would be a good idea (when isn’t it?) and so set off for the bar.

Imagine my surprise when I saw, at approximately half past two, that the estanco was open. To buy the cigarettes there would only have saved me fifteen céntimos, but look after the céntimos and the Euros look after themselves as my mother would have undoubtedly said if we had lived in post euro Spain. So I entered the estanco fully expecting to see Carmen behind the counter. Surprise number two was that it wasn’t Carmen but Esperanza and therefore, even more surprisingly, there was no queue. Just her and me, but then it was lunch time.

But the greatest surprise, if not shock, was yet to come. “Hola, Buenas”, she almost chirped and then a strangely smiling Esperanza turned to the rows of cigarettes and turned back with my brand. The right brand. Then, while making change, talked about the weather, followed by a cheery “Adios”, when I left.

Twenty five hours later, meaning at three thirty the following day, the shop was open again. Esperanza stood alone in the door. I didn’t need any cigarettes so walked past on the other side of the street. She saw me, popped her head out, and waved. This was so strange I will admit to thinking that perhaps she was on some sort of medication.

That evening, when I did need cigarettes, I went to the estanco and was served by Carmen. Oddly, she was not her usual happy self. But then, I never did understand women.

For me, this was very welcome. If I was busy working in the morning and slowly working my way through a pack of cigarettes, I no longer had to keep an eye on the clock to ensure that I had renewed my supply before two. There are times when writing or researching a piece for the blog or working on interminable lesson plans for my students means I lose track of time. It gave me a new flexibility.

And so it continued for two weeks. September had begun. Vacation time was over and my students were back in their offices expecting me to arrive for lessons at fixed times. I had lost some of my flexibility, but if I timed it right, I had just time to get to the estanco before catching the bus to the first lesson of the afternoon. I left my apartment and walked the two hundred metres to shop. I crossed the small plaza opposite and saw Esperanza standing in the doorway and wiggled a hand in her direction, but the lights of the pedestrian crossing were against me. The nearest approaching car was still way off, and if I was quick I could have made it across the road, but that vehicle was a black hearse with a cherry wood coffin buried in piles of flowers in the back. I looked across at Esperanza and smiled. She smiled back. A rather strange, wistful smile I thought. And she returned my wave.

The Crossing.

As the hearse passed me by, I stood on the pavement in respect. In first car of mourners bringing up the rear I thought I caught a glimpse of jet black hair behind a sad face that stared unmovingly ahead towards the car bearing the coffin.

The slow procession passed and the road was clear. I looked across and began to cross. But the little estanco was in darkness. The security bars had been pulled across and the sign in the door proclaimed, “Cerrado”. I swore. Perhaps Esperanza had to go somewhere and couldn’t wait, I thought. But she had seen me. Waved at me.

I was puzzled, but thought what the heck, shrugged and recrossed the street and bought my cigarettes from the machine in the bar Elizabeth.

Returning from lessons a little after five the following afternoon I climbed off the bus and crossed over to the estanco. Carmen was just pulling back the security bars and opening for business. “Are you back to normal hours, now?” I asked. “Now that everyone’s back at work.”

A look of puzzlement crossed her face. “We haven’t changed our opening hours”, she said.
“But you have been open every afternoon at least for the past two weeks”, I protested. “I’ve been getting a pack nearly every day”.
She looked me square in the face. “Your normal brand?”
“Yes, of course”. I assured her. “You mother’s been serving me.” I smiled. “It’s been interesting talking to her. Usually she’s so busy. But she’s a different woman when the shop’s not crowded. Quite chatty, in fact.”
“My mother’s been serving you every day for two weeks?” she asked, uncertainly.
“One pack?”
“Normally. Sometimes two.”

The blood seemed to drain from her face. She turned to the rows of stacked cigarettes. “For the past two weeks when I’ve opened the shop at five we’ve been a pack short from the end of morning count. One day, two packs. Your brand”.
“Perhaps Esperanza forgot to tick them off”, I suggested.
“Esperanza? My mother?” Her body suddenly shook and she grabbed the counter for support.

“Señor, my mother died two weeks ago. Because some of the family were on vacation the funeral was just yesterday. In fact I saw you standing at the crossing, opposite the shop. I remember seeing you wave, but I couldn’t see who you were waving to.” Her eyes narrowed and stared into mine. “Where were you going?”

Sunday 10 October 2010

Far from the Maddening Crowds

By Richard Morley.

A couple of years ago some friends and I thought that a pleasant way to celebrate the end of a working week would be to pass lazy summer Saturdays having picnics in a park. Each of us took our contribution and although I invariably got the job of bringing the drink, the stuff that weighs a lot, I remember those Saturdays with pleasure.

The first picnic was taken on the sloping lawns of the Parque Berlin and the idea developed that we should picnic in a different park each week. This we did, with the proviso that each park should be close to a metro station because those cartons of fruit juice and glass bottles of something stronger didn’t need to be carried for long, and so we enjoyed happy times on the banks of the lake in the Casa del Campo, in the Arabic garden of the Parque Juan Carlos Primero and so on.

There are many parks in Madrid. Of course the most famous is the Retiro, and its fame brings the crowds and one of the joys of picnics with friends is NOT to share them with the madding masses. There is also the Parque del Campo del Moro behind the royal palace, the Parque del Oeste with the adjoining Parque de la Bombilla and the Parque de San Isidro. But these parks, like the Retiro, are not far from the centre and, should you want to eliminate the city from your senses they only succeed to a certain extent. Another of my favourites, the Parque Enrique Tierno Galvan, with its high spurting fountains, forum, shady plantations, and very steep embankment, has its peace shattered by the horns of passing AVE trains and the rush of neighbouring motorway traffic.

One of the fountains at the Parque Enrique Tierno Galvan

So I was intrigued when an attendee at my Friday evening English Speaking Group mentioned “her” favourite park and I hadn’t heard of it. She told me of its tranquillity, of how she would go to peacefully read or study. I was even more astonished to find it was in my part of Madrid - well four stops on the metro, so it’s not far.

Following her directions I took the metro to Suanzes (line 5) and emerged on to Madrid’s longest street, the busy Calle de Alcalá and according to her I was there, at the park. But there was no park to be seen. Just a high wall painted in fading pink with an inset building with barred windows. However, my heightened powers of observation noticed that some of my fellow alighting passengers were disappearing through an arch in the wall. So I followed.

In fact the arch is a short tunnel which opened into a small courtyard lined with shady trees and pink flower beds. The height of that hideous pink wall and the narrowness of the tunnel effectively killed the noise and the bustle of the Street outside. It was like entering a secret world.

Before me stretched a long avenue of trees and on either side spread twenty seven hectares of green lawns, small, shady spinneys and wide walkways of peace. That’s about 67 acres for my US readers.

I was in the Parque de la Quinta de los Molinos.

Leaving the small courtyard and following the slightly inclined tree lined path ahead leads you wide open areas, an orchard of almond trees, a hidden depression, a temple. Before the park came into public hands the Quinta de los Molinas was a private garden. Here stood the home of César Cort (y) Boti.

Cort Boti was an architect and considered a pioneer in the contemporary urbanisation of towns in the 20th century. His work can be seen around the Plaza de Olavide in the Trafalgar district and he was professor of Urbanisation at the Madrid School of Architecture. In 1928 he worked on the expansion of the city of Murcia and later reformed the town centre of Valladolid.

For most of his life he worked and lived in Madrid, but he was born (in 1893) in Valencia and arranged to die (in 1978) in Alicante. Whether by whim or perhaps through a feeling of homesickness for Catalonia, when he designed his garden in 1925 he stocked it with plants indigenous to the Mediterranean coast.

The name, Quinta de los Molinos, comes from the wind driven pumps that extracted the water for the estate.

I know nothing about the names of plants or how they grow, but I like surrounding myself in their tranquillity. The nature of Cort Boti’s selction of trees and plants meant the park reached maturity quite fast and in places seems overgrown and tangled. The park authority must work hard to maintain it, but it is far removed from the showpiece landscaping of the Retiro.

Also, before I get too bucolic I should mention that despite the peace you can find there, the grounds are over-looked by high apartment blocks and that at the northern end the city encroaches, as the agreement between Cort Boti’s family and the Madrid Ayudamiento allowed for some land to be retained then sold for building.
Apartment blocks peer down through the trees.

The land dips and rises, the paths take unexpected turns. When I explored a charming small gateway I found myself cruelly cast out into the real world of suburban street life. But there are hidden corners where I found a student spread out with his books and unwittingly intruded on a courting couple’s privacy. There are areas to sit and think and flowerbeds to contemplate.

A small pond with a central fountain cast my mind back immediately to a similar area in the park in my English home town. A stream bed lies nearby; dry when I went, but showing signs of activity when it rains. And just beyond that a small grotto for secret trysts and, unfortunately, graffiti artists handiwork.

The secret grotto cut into the rock.

"Welcome to the Jungle". I am pleased to see the Graffiti painter learned something at school.

It is a well used park. Footpaths criss-cross the grassed areas to allow passage from one barrio to another. Joggers run and dog-walkers amble. A row of exercise apparatus runs along a wide path along the central crest. They come with instructions though I saw no one using them.

This is not the Retiro. This a simple open area for the use of the people. One of the intentions of this blog is to show that Madrid is so much more than the three Ps of Prado, Palacio Real and the Plaza Mayor. Here you could have a completely undisturbed picnic. A sign warns of squirrels, though I saw none. It is well out of the centre of the city, yet just eleven stops from Gran Via on the metro line 5.

All you have to do is find it.

The Entrance to the Park.