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


  1. What a wonderful post! I love it! I love the part about the fin de semana and dicienbre...Quite clever! Then the part about the colonias. We used the Colonia Jardin stop all the time, it never occurred to me that it was named after that neighborhood with those little houses...Thanks for sharing!

  2. Waiting for the next one, Richard

  3. @ Fernando. Why be so impatient? Sit back, re-read and enjoy. I have only just put this post up. I am not a writing machine. Besides - have you read ALL I have posted? Go back and enjoy that too.

  4. This is the kind of interesting observation that I am always glad to find.

  5. @Richard. ¡Jo, que bronca! I just meant that I liked the topic. I wouldn´t mind living in the yellow cottage in the Colonies.

  6. The Fin de Semana homes remind me of the little weekend homes and gardens people have in Hamburg Germany.

  7. Like the idea a lot of all the different street names .

    Good posts . well done .


  8. Interesting post and (as ever) a great historical photo. I discovered quite a few of these colonias on my (unsuccessful) quest to buy a cheap house to do up. I nearly bought one in la colonia ferroviarios in Moratalaz (built for rail workers) but somebody beat me to it :-( . The decent colonias such as Iturbe (where I think one of the royal princesses lives) and Retiro were way too expensive for me.

  9. Nice posting and photographs, Richard. We post some Madrid Photographs at Nomads Paradise and the rest of its travelling story at Enchanting Gaia. We love Madrid though only thing we can't keep up is its MRT/Train/Subway. Mama mia, steep elevation and boy no elevator or lift, gosh we both old! LOL

  10. Very nice and Informative post i like this,Keep