Monday 20 June 2011

Not a quiet revolution.

By Richard Morley.

The times they are a-changing.

Something is happening here is Spain, and I am not sure what it is.

Now, not being a native, but a guest, I do not feel it has been appropriate for me to take sides with the “indignados” (the indignant ones) who have recently been encamped in the Pueta del Sol here in Madrid and in public squares around the country. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion.

Before moving to Spain permanently I would compare the control being imposed by central government on the people of the UK with the relative laissez faire attitude of the Spanish authorities. However, recent events here, for whatever reasons, have inculcated a feeling that the state is sticking it’s nose in where it’s not wanted. And in the minds of those who can remember a time when the Government very much imposed its will on the populace, this latest interference is not welcome. Particularly when the activities of that government seem to be doing nothing to relieve the very real and current concerns of a nation with massive debt, high unemployment, and a lack of confidence in the future.

Even though the next general election will probably see a change of political will in congress, the indignados don’t think that will change the direction in which the country is going.

Of course, part of the problem does not lie with central government, but with each of the autonomous regions where each  creates their own problems. The workers’ unions must also take some of the blame. The “sindicatos” have been engaged in negotiations with the government in order to come up with some sort of policy that would make the creation of jobs easier. The employers say that the cost of employing people is high under current legislation and the social packages Spanish workers are entitled to make it expensive to fire people also. As the sindicatos have been refusing to relinquish workers rights and the employers have also dug their heels in, the negotiations reached an impasse. As the government want to be seen doing something, they will now impose an employment policy that no one will agree to.

Last year Esperanza Aguirre’s Comunidad de Madrid said it would cut fifty-eight legal steps from those needed to create a new business. They cut fifty-eight! How many are left? A friend of mine involved with starting a new business here in Madrid can answer that. Too damn many!

Many are not taking those steps. The ex-construction workers who want to put a roof over their family’s heads and food on their table can’t afford the luxury of time or the cost of legally starting a new business, so the lamp post are adorned with computer printed, or hand-written, advertisements for their services to decorate your home or replace a kitchen or bathroom. I am sure that most cannot afford the €3000 payment that must be made when starting any form of business, or the very high social security payments demanded of the self-employed. Not being legal, I doubt they are declaring their earnings for tax. They can’t legally take on employees either, so the unemployment numbers don’t get reduced and the hacienda, the tax office, loses revenue. But to make the process easier would mean that government funcionarios, civil servants, (a misnomer in many cases!), and notarios would have nothing to do. Except get a proper job, of course!

So, the indignados have been protesting. Firstly in the month long encampment that formed in Sol and other plazas around the country. Then in small demonstrations everywhere and culminating last weekend in street protests all over the country. They claim to want “Democracia, Ya!”, or democracy now, but enticed voters to spoil their ballot papers at the recent local elections. I don’t follow that. A young protester that recently gate-crashed the inauguration ceremony for the swearing in on the newly elected representatives of the Comunidad and managed to demand from Señora Aguirre what right she had to represent all the Madrileños as voter turn-out was far from 100% and there were so many spoiled papers. She replied that, “This is a free country and …… each is entitled to vote ……. and the nature of elections is to renew the mandate of those who had done a good job and throw out those who had a done a bad one.” She went on to remark that voting was the one important responsibility of a country’s citizens. I agree and will also say that those who did not vote, or enticed others not to vote, were not supporters of democracy.

As Winston Churchill said (I think) “democracy has many faults but it’s better than the alternative”.  

The protesters’ camp in Sol had their own problems with democracy. They had lots of noisy protests, but couldn’t actually agree an anything. Apparently their decisions needed everyone to agree. Just one dissenting voice meant they would not reach concensus, because the voice of the majority was not the voice of all. As Abraham Lincoln remarked, “…….. you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. In a democracy the minority have to lick their wounds and wait for their turn.

But whatever the demonstrators protested about, they did it very noisily. Walking though Sol one Saturday evening at the height of the protests I was struck by the sheer volume of the voices raised in anger and was pleased that I wasn’t living in that neighbourhood and trying to get to sleep. It would have been impossible. And it would have been impossible for four long weeks. The erection of the encampment brought with it, despite the best efforts of the organisers to impose some order, a hygiene problem and restricted free passage though, and free use of, the Plaza. Many businesses reported a severe drop in trade because the “Democracia, Ya” protesters had imposed their own, un-elected will on the area.

And just as an aside here, When I wandered though the encampment which was set up to highlight and publicise the plight of so many, I noticed many notices restricting the taking of photographs. What were they afraid of? Surely they wanted all the publicity they could get? If you want someone to take notice, you have to stand and be counted.

However, Spain is, whatever the protesters say, a democracy. They have the right to protest and freedom of speech. Having lived and worked in countries where neither of these things is a “right” I probably value them more highly than those under forty here do. Perhaps they should ask their parents and grandparents what the country was like before 1975.

But did they have the right to disturb the sleep and business life in Sol during their month long protest? You see, while the authorities let them do what they wanted, those same authorities are prohibiting loud music in the street in Chueca during Gay Pride weekend – because the local residents have complained.

And it’s not just Chueca. Over thirty barrios that traditionally have “fiestas patronales” such as the Verbena de Poloma in La Latina, in Tetuan for the Fiesta de Victoria and for the Fiesta de Carmen in Vallecas. All of them are being reviewed regarding the loudness of the entertainment that will now be allowed. A spokesman for the barrio of Tetuan commented,”…. In the first week of July there will be concerts and fairs in the plaza de Remonta. Of course they are noisy and some residents have already complained”. But “What would become of Madrid without the streets fairs?” said Fernando Garcia of the Cuatro Caminos neighbourhood association.

Suddenly Madrid’s, and Spain’s, live and let live attitude is undergoing a sea change. After years of smoking being allowed everywhere, now we have had to adjust to being restricted. Most of us smokers have happily taken that on board, but it must have affected sales as twice in two weeks the price of cigarettes came down recently.

Yes, that’s right. They came down! Amazing.

My recent remarks regarding a speed restriction on cycling in the new cycle lanes in Madrid Rio meant that I watched with some amusement interviews with cyclists on TV last week. They were angry. “Six kilometres an hour is hardly enough to allow you to balance”, claimed one. Another, echoing my point, argued that painted lines delineating walkers from those on wheels was the sensible solution. One more made the point that the cycle lanes were designed for the users to enjoy exercising on their machines and introducing ridiculous speed limits was not a proper solution. After all, they are called “Cycle Lanes”. Were these of a similar age to the young “indignados”? No, they senior citizens wanting to enjoy a bike ride in the sun.

The smoking restrictions, noise controls (on a normally noisy city), reduced speed limits on the motorways and now other petty rules are seen by many here to be unwarranted intrusions into the citizens’ right to enjoy life. Non-smokers, those wanting peace and those who like to walk without fear of accident will all have their opinions – as do those who think otherwise.

Shouldn’t we all learn to live together?

Sunday 12 June 2011

Madrid New Riverside Park - Madrid Rio.

By Richard Morley.

Six years ago when I first came to Madrid I  had no idea the city had a river. Today’s metro maps feature a zig-zag of pale blue giving an impression of the river’s route, but this doesn’t appear on maps until after 2007. The free street map given away by the tourist office also showed a blue squiggle in its bottom right corner with the word “Rio”, but no actual name. The delights of the Prado, the Plaza Mayor, Sol and Gran via are so far removed from the watercourse that the river hardly registered in the mind. While Paris and London were built on the flood plains of their great rivers early settlements in the Spanish capital tended to be on the high plateau, which was probably much better for defence than confined in the river valley.

While it might have supplied water for a small community, the Manzanares River has never carried enough water to provide for a thirsty city. I admit to having been rather scathing about the waterway in past posts, referring to it, ironically, as the “Mighty Manzanares” and quoting the wag of a couple of centuries ago who wrote that “The Manzanares is eminently navigable by a coach and horses”.

Could it be that the city was a little ashamed of its river?

Certainly the history of the river seems to be one of slight utilitarian use to the city and so little regarded as to be isolated between the north and south bound lanes of the M30 ring road. The river ran, hidden,  between them. In short, compared to the other delights of this wonderful town, the river was far from being regarded as one of  its attractions.

It was the forgotten river.

That has now changed! But it took a while.

In 2006 I made a friend who told me she lived close to the Puente de Pragua in an area of the city I had not visited before. So now I had a new part of Madrid to discover. My trusty Michelin Map told me to head on metro line 5 to Piramides and cross the river by the Puente de Toledo. What a terrible scene of devastation awaited me.

In 2004 a decision had been taken to redirect the M30 underground. Madrid’s alcalde, (mayor) Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, or at least his advisors, had determined that the motorway was “a barrier to movement in the urban areas it ran through”. The old road was anyway in disrepair and it was thought that tens of thousands of vehicles polluted the air and the waters of the river.

I could have agreed with this. I live on the other side of the city where the M30, all eleven lanes of it, does not exactly contribute to a healthy atmosphere.

Diagram of a section of both tunnel and Park. Walking through the new park you have no idea of the traffic passing below your feet.

The project began in 2005, using one of the largest tunnel boring machines in the world, and was opened to traffic on the 5th of February 2007. I had arrived on the river bank at about the halfway point in its construction. It was a mess.

I took photos. See the “before” pictures in this sequence.

But now look at those I took a couple of weekends ago. The river banks have been transformed into a rather wonderful park known as “Madrid Rio”. It’s all very new and immature at the moment, but the trees will grow, the stone will develop lichen and the yellow cycle-paths stain.

This project has not been cheap. The tunnelising of this section of the motorway cost €237 million out of a total project budget of €3.9 billion. The actual cost of this new green area seems to be buried somewhere within those figures.

But whatever the cost, Madrid has a new park and the statistics are astounding.

23 new pedestrian bridges have been constructed.
3,200,000 square metres of new green areas have been developed.
26,263 new trees have been planted.
30 kilometres of cycle lanes and pedestrian paths
11 play spaces for kids
6 quiet spots for the elderly

Competitions were run in schools to find out what the kids wanted to have and it truly is a place for all the family. I am particularly impressed with the way the play areas, safely placed under the traffic overpasses have been used to provide shade and how the bridges themselves are used to secure the chains for incredibly high swings and some form of bouncy elasticised activity for which I have no name, but it involves strapping yourself to a bungee cord crucifix and bouncing around on a trampoline. It looks fun.

And very energetic!
 The Puerta de Toledo. Now cleaned and open to pedestrians.

Unfortunately I am no longer a kid. I prefer something a little more relaxing, and the new walkways through newly planted woods and flower gardens provide just that. A walk along the river bank with a friend would be the ideal way to spend an evening.

But the aforementioned friend had other ideas! (And not for the first time do I wonder why I seem to choose my friends from sadists!) “Madrid Rio is seven kilometres long. We should cycle. There’s a place we can rent bikes,” she announced, cruelly.

There is, and you can find it here.

 The Puente de Segovia with the Catherdral and Royal palace in the background.

It’s five minutes walk from the Puente de Segovia. It says on their website you could get there from either Príncipe Pio (Metro lines 6, 10 or R(from Opera) or Puerta del Angel (L6). Trust me when I tell you to only use Puerta del Angel, unless you want to walk what you will later be cycling.

 Not a sight you will ever see again. The author on a bike beside the Manzanares River. Note the upside down boat bridges in the background.

I calculated I hadn’t actually ridden a bicycle for fifteen years, but riding a bike is like, er, riding a bike. You don’t forget how it’s done, even if ones backside has become used to more comfortable seats.

It was a warm, sunny Saturday evening. My friend and I were not the only people to consider a camino along the river bank a good idea. This was disadvantageous to our bike ride. During my first visit, on foot, to Madrid Rio a couple of weeks previously I had thought that the bikers were a little inconsiderate in wanting to cut a swathe through the massed ranks of us walkers. Now the foot was on the other pedal. The walkers were getting in the way of us bikers. For this I blame the ayuntamiento. Whoever decided that allowing pedestrians and those on wheels to share the same space needs seriously to think again.
 The most modern of the new bridges accross the Manzanares. This is, officially, El Puente Arganzuela. It allows crossing between either side of the river in the new Parque Arganzuela. For strength it uses a helix design and so I think it should be known as el Puente del Sacacorchos, or "Corkscrew Bridge".

Spanish walkers spread themselves, as anyone who’s tried to walk along Gran Via will attest. Threading a strange bicycle while still a bit wobbly through years of no practise was precarious to say the least. I did not want a confrontation with a mother, or worse, an abuela, after little Juan or Jauna had been crushed under the wheels of my machine. What should have been done, of course, and has been done on the newly constructed cycle lanes in my part of the city, is to designate areas. A simple painted line is all it would take. Indeed, they have actually made this designation on one of the new bridges, but the pedestrians took no notice.

However, breaking news: Today it has been announced the Señor Ruiz-Gallardón, the aforementioned mayor, has decided that the solution to this is to restrict the speed of cyclists to six kilometres and hour. It will be interesting to see how this is enforced as the cycles we hired did not have any method of measuring out speed so arguments with uniformed park police pointing accusatory fingers could come to an impasse. Maybe we shall have to have a man with a red flag walk in front – or will that just add to the log jam?

But, pedestrian / bicycle gridlock aside, it was fun to ride these new lanes. The main problem is in the area now known as the parque de Aguanzuela, where most activity seems to take place. Once past that and it was almost the joys of the open road, cycling along side the river as far down as Legazpi / Usera.

Now the park is open the sluice gates have been raised and the river has an appearance of actually containing water. It’s not very deep water as exposed sandbanks attest, but it’s a far cry from the polluted days of before. Mother ducks led lines of chicks, a heron stalked the sandbanks and near the Puente del Rey a fisherman looked optimistic.

 While construction was going on the Ermita de Virgen del Puerta was buries in a sea of rubble. Now it is approchable though broad green parklands.

In a two fingered gesture to past criticism, most notably in a twenty year old pop song by the Refrescos which proclaimed the many attractions of Madrid but bewailed the fact it had no beach. “Vaya, vaya, No hay una playa en Madrid”, the song’s chorus proclaimed. This is no longer true. As part of the new park, Madrid has a beach – of sorts.

But some don’t need one. A stretch of grass will do. Crossing the Puente de Segovia one warm and sunny Monday afternoon I spied two bikinied young ladies working on an early tan. Encouragement indeed, if any were needed, to pay Madrid’s new attraction a visit.

Who needs a beach when a lawn will do. Bikinied ladies work on their tan bedside the river.