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.


  1. Can we please visit this when I next come to Madrid? I was told that Madrid was to get it's own beach but didn't think it would actually happen - it now has everything that anyone could possibly want. Viva Madrid!

  2. As usual, an excellent article and I think that the elders of Madrid should assign you a “bicycle for life” in appreciation of the great PR you have given the area and development – something for me to look for when next I am there.

  3. Muy completo Richard! Buen reportaje,

    Un abrazo,

  4. I shall definitely be paying this a visit when I next get over there, which I was hoping to be later this year. On the issie of pedestrians on cycle lanes, we have some Cycle Lanes in Solihull, UK. The council have coloured them and white lined them and even drawn bikes on them as well as the signs. Now to the mum with 3 kids and a pushchair, it seems that walking on the normal path is too difficult to navigate the pushchair and kids through the busy sidewalk. Answer to mum is to use the cyclepath. Result is carnage, tootling along on my bike, suddenly mum decides, without looking, to just commandeer her own pushchair path. Kids, bike, bags everywhere. It really is an issue keeping pedestrians off the path because it is unsafe for both parties. Signage is not an answer as pedestrians have their mind on other things. Planners in the UK seem to think drawing a white line on a pavement in city areas will work when it clearly doesn't.

    I enjoyed your article as always Richard.


  5. Interesting reading (as usual), and the redeveloped riverside does indeed look impressive, but I can't help but feeling that Spain's love of unneccessary construction (Such as the many pointless airports) are largely to blame for their economic difficulties. Many projects are simply a case of vanity and not sanity. I doubt such post-2008 project would get any near to being approved these days.

  6. I live next to the park in Arganzuela and I'd been looking forward to it for years. It has improved our lives - we can take our child out to play and go for evening strolls (it does get too crowded at weekends though). I also think that the tunnels have improved traffic flow (though I have no data). My only concern was the way the construction was carried out: they just bulldozed the place and cut off whole neighbourhoods from public transport without any consultation. And the surrounding areas were full of rubble and dust during those years. I think this park will generate revenue for Madrid - now certain barrios have become desirable where before they were plain ordinary, and they will attract money.

    But if you think this was a big project, wait until you see what they'll do to the area around Chamartín station (with a budget of €11bn)

  7. "years of no practise" Ouch! Please note that practice spelled with a C is a noun and practise spelled with an S is a verb. You're an English teacher, I see, so hopefully you knew that. We'll put it down to a typo...