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.