Wednesday 5 October 2011

Madrid Suburbia - On Route 66

By Richard Morley.

The Poet Antonio Machado claimed there were two Spains. He was writing about the divide caused by the Civil War, but as I wrote in my last post, there are still two Madrids: The one the tourist experiences and the one in which we live. The visitor knows the centre of the city including the infamous “Three Ps”. Away from that centre they would get a different, and more truthful perspective of the city.

So, putting shoe-leather where my mouth is, I thought I would take my little camera out there and actually show you. And Antonio Machado’s quote is apt because my first expedition led me to his eponymous calle and Metro station.

We are in the extreme west of the city proper. A few hundred metres west the concrete and brick open up to green countryside. Golf courses and the “Hipódromo de la Zarzuela”, Madrid’s horse racing course, find their home here among the rolling hills where, after a half hour’s walk you can forget the city exists.

Here, the city is bounded by the multi-laned M30 ring road. And the city comes right up to its edges.

Exiting from the metro station, serving the two Colonias of Saconia and the charmingly named Valdeconejos, or “Valley of the Rabbits”, we find a broad, open road  lined with well spaced and modern apartment blocks. These buildings utilize modern materials in bright and light colours. No grey granite canyons as seen in the centre. Between road way and residences lie green, grassy gardens and children’s play parks.

The road runs along a natural valley that exits from a tunnel that brings the traffic underground from Castellana. Thanks to this program of taking the traffic under the city these residential areas are mercifully free from exhaust fumes and grid-lock. Yet, not too far away the looming bulks of the Cuatro Torres peer over the roof tops.

You are out of the city, but still part of it. The metro will have you in Sol in twenty minutes. As Mason Cooley wrote, “A suburb is an attempt to get out of reach of the city without having the city be out of reach”.

 Looking across the valley to the Barrio del Pilar.

On either side of that valley the land rises quite steeply, revealing a cascade of apartment blocks, one behind the other. A lot of people live here.

This is a recent development. As we climb the sides of the valley we begin to find older areas. Here are found the abominations of sixties concrete and glass. Architecture can easily be divided into three classes: The Good, The bad and the Ugly. These older apartment blocks are not pretty. They were built, at a price, to house a rapidly increasing population. The passing years have lent a maturity to the streets. The shops, the bars, those little plazas where the old relax in the sun and the young play, give a sense of community. There is nothing for the tourist to see, but this is where we live.

New development in the Valley of the Rabbits has basically reached its western limit, but head north and there is lots of space.

I work a bit in the northern suburbs and so come with me on a journey.

Heading to the northern end of the Paseo Castellana the traveller arrives at the plaza Castilla. This is deemed a gateway out of the city.  The leaning towers of the KIO buildings are a more modern expression of the historical Puertas of Alcala and Toledo, but perform the same function. After seemingly endless years of construction the Plaza now boasts a modern public transport interchange boasting three metro lines and countless town and country bus routes and is one metro stop from Chamartin mainline railway station.

I could have taken the metro the four stops to Tres Olivos, but instead chose to take the bus. Just about the first things we pass are the towering Cuatro Torres. Built to take advantage of a business boom that now will arrive later than planned these buildings are magnificent. Approaching two hundred and fifty metres in height their glass shimmers in the sun. As they stand on the highest part of the city their pinnacles are higher above sea-level than any other building in Europe. On cloudy days the tops just disappear.

Apartment blocks give shade on a sunny day.

Opposite them, we turn sharply and enter the Colonia of San Cristobal that I wrote aboutlast year. Crossing the M30 we head into Fuencarral and already the city of Madrid is forgotten. The winding streets and low old buildings betray its earlier independence from the city. You could be easily passing through an old English Market town built years before town planning was a reality. Through the built up area and now we pass into new developments and eventually into Tres Olivos.

Built in a natural hollow the concept is interesting, but lacking in imagination. A wide elliptical plaza fill the bottom of the hollow with streets radiating away in higher concentric ellipses. Around the plaza, cutting it off from its surroundings, stand two rings of high apartments. East and south the concentric streets boast modern “Chalet” (and in Spain they pronounce the final “t”) style housing with walled suburban gardens.

At ground level the blocks surrounding the plaza contain small shops. Several are out of business and boarded up giving a slight air of dilapidation. This is a residential area. Commerce tends to be limited to groceries, hairdressers, and banks. Perhaps it was better before the metro with it fast service into the city opened, but now it seems a little forlorn.

The plaza rejoices in the name of the “Ronda del Ingenioso Hidalgo”. Of course, a reference to that fabulous knight, Don Quijote. Knowing that whoever gets the job of naming Madrid streets tends to go in themes I looked around for other street names. Working concentrically outwards I found the “Ronda del Caballero de la Mancha”. Hey! Wait a minute. Surely these are both names for Don Quijote? But moving on the next street was named for his horse, Rocinante, but then I discovered the “Calle del Caballero de la Triste Figura”.  That’s another name for the ingenious knight. Either the person who names streets was being very ingenious him or herself, or just being plain lazy. Or perhaps they just feed Spanish literature into a computer and expect it to come up with random, or not so random as it turns out, street names.

Either way it would annoy the heck out of me if I had to write ““Ronda del Caballero de la Mancha” or “Calle del Caballero de la Triste Fugura” every time someone wanted my address. My landlady agrees and thanks providence that our address is a single two-syllabled name.

Eventually other Quijote characters popped out of the street naming procedure. There is the “Calle del Caballero de los Leones”, “Calle del Caballero de los Espejos”, and the Calles “de Casildea de Vandalia”, and “Bella Altisidora”, but those last two are the same person as well! No surprise then that I eventually came across the “ Bar Quijote”.

However, repetitive street naming aside, this small neighbourhood seems a pleasant place to live. The streets give a sense of space and respectability. Climbing quite a lot of steps I arrived in neighbouring Fuencarral park that looked down on it all and gave splendid views across the city to the south. Then I wandered up to the Tres Olivos Metro Station that did have three trees planted outside although none were actually olives and went on to the next part of the suburbs I want to show you.

Fuencarral Park. It's difficult to escape the Cuatro Torres, even this far out. 

But before I do: That bus route I took to get there? Well, I got my pics – on route 66. Sorry about that!

It’s just two stops on the metro to get to Las Tablas. Again the central area is a large ellipse bisected by the crossroads of two underused four lane highways. Las Tablas is very new. The first time I visited most of it was under construction. Some still is! There are no suburban “Chalets” here, but gated blocks of six and seven storey apartments encircling their own private gardens. Some boast swimming pools and tennis / paddle courts and lawns for relaxing and taking the sun. Ideal for raising small families in relative security as one of my students, a very recent mother of twins, is doing.

 Las Tablas

The apartment blocks are pleasing on the eye, if not beautiful, and the spaces between blocks is immense with plenty of sunlight and a sense of total unconfinement. If it wasn’t so far out of the city I would move there. You really need a car, and then, with the M40 encircling the neighbourhood just a few hundred metres away, you can get anywhere quickly. If you don’t have a car then there are three ways to get into town: Bus, Metro and Metro Ligero, or the over-ground light railway.

Madrid boasts three lines of light railway. There are two quite long ones to the west of the city, leaving from the Colonia Jardin, that will take you a long way out of the city. The line that arrives at Las Tablas is comparatively short, only nine stations and half of its route is actually underground, putting the “light” railway in the “dark”, so to speak. The trains consist of five short, flexible carriages, enabling them to be steered around some quite tight bends.

This line, 1, of the metro ligero takes you from Las Tablas into the city where it connects with lines 1 and 4 of the real metro. I write “real” as the metro ligero reminds me a fairground ride; Not very fast and you feel every bump and twist as you seem to chug along, but it’s clean, comfortable and very well air-conditioned and so a pleasure to use and, unlike the metro, enables the passenger to view the city passing outside.

 Ranks of Apartment Blocks in Sanchinarro

Line 1 takes you through the neighbourhood of Sanchinarro. It is here the northward expansion of the city began. Old Madrid slowly merges into new. Narrow streets become wide thoroughfares. Mature publics gardens are replaced with scrubby, sapling planted, open spaces. But most of “old” Madrid here is scarcely more than fifty years of age, so the next generation will enjoy it.

Most of the apartment blocks are around eight stories, but soaring above them is a building that up until recently intrigued me. Seen from a distance from the inside of the metro ligero, the “Mirador Building” is fascinating.

Twenty stories high and looking like it was built from left over Lego blocks I am sure that this is a design you either love or hate. Designed to be a self-contained vertical village it has an open area for kids to play in (on) on the twelfth floor. It is a plaza with amazing views I am sure, but as to whether it fulfils that purpose, (is there a bar, fountain, swings and climbing frames?) I am not sure. Walking round it I found just one entrance which seemed severe and unwelcoming and resembling the entrance stairway to some science fiction spaceship. It is a building out of the pages of Brave New World. I personally don’t think it belongs in this one.

I am not sure how it fits into the categories of Good or Bad, but now I have seen it close up, I am convinced it is Ugly. As the link here says, it is certainly innovative and striking in its outward appearance, but some have remarked it’s not really suited for its purpose. I can see what Prince Charles of England means when he speaks of a “carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend” while describing a modern extension to one of London’s classic buildings. The Mirador Building in Madrid is not beautiful and not in the right place. It is totally out of keeping with its surrounds.

But as the tall apartment blocks of old Madrid testify, going up is the only solution to a housing crisis where space is limited. (Ask those living on Manhattan in New York!) When the building boom began in Madrid in the fifties and sixties it suffered from the same architectural solutions that were being muted in other cities across the world. Steel, Glass and reinforced concrete were regarded as low cost solutions whose problems and lack of aesthetics did not truly become apparent until time had taken its toll.

When I wrote about the “Colonias” of Madrid  I applauded the movement towards low cost housing. But that was on a small scale. The greater problems that came mid-century together with the new “wonder” building materials, contrived to produce slums for the future. This is evident in parts of Madrid today, such as in San Blas and the Barrio del Pilar (which do have better examples of building design before anyone complains) and the Barrio of Conception, which I can unfortunately see from my apartment fifth floor window.

 Bad and Ugly in The Barrio de Concepción

Same Barrio, but better.

Today’s buildings appear to have had more thought gone into their outward appearance (mostly), although residents in them complain of paper thin adjoining walls, and are a far cry from those depicted in Pedro Almodovar’s film, ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, which was filmed, incidentally, in those same ugly blocks in the Barrio de Conception. Greater planning control and more rigorous building regulations might mean that today’s solution to housing results in a more attractive city.

Unlike cities in the UK, Madrid does seem to be avoiding inner-city blight with the flight to the suburbs, for which we can thank the tourists who come to see “Historical Madrid” and the young and not so young who keep the barrios of Chueca and La Latina alive as there is precious little night life in the suburbs. Which perhaps means that Madrid has struck the right balance. Although it might keep the Metro running a bit later to allow us to get back home.

But most of us can’t afford to live in the centre. The “afueras” (outskirts) offer affordable, secure housing at a good price. I hope some of what I have shown you here demonstrates that. I only went, out of convenience, to three districts. There are many more just as good. Perhaps the more enlightened visitor might like to board the metro ligero and see them now, before they too become “Historic Madrid”.

PS The visitor who would like to explore more but needs to be pointed in the right direction might like to read these other posts:


  1. This is great, Richard! It is nice seeing so much more thought put into the architecture. For the old eyesores, it's funny, but I like saying, they were never pretty, just new! I wonder how long they will survive.

  2. Great post, you're spot on about these places being a tale of two cities. Here in Caceres, Extremadura it's just the same. You've actually inspired me to take my readers on a similar tour!

    Can't wait to hit the ground running in Madrid either.

  3. Interesting article. There's also some interesting development taking place near Valdebebas (out by the airport) including a huge forest park something like 5 times the size of the Retiro.

    However my main gripe with the new flats in places like Las Tablas is that many of them are "pisos de protección" - i.e. subsidised by the tax payer to help the young buy a flat (and the devloper sell one). I don't have a problem using tax payers money to house the less fortunate - but in these cases they are large modern flats with swimming pools, consierges, and all the mod cons, etc that often get bought up and (ilegally) sublet out by young people who could afford a more modest house anyway.

  4. Nice pics, many places you show I would probably not have seen even though I am living in Madrid! Very interesting.

  5. REally like this inside inside view of Madrid. Places even the locals hardly visit. Very interesting your view of Madrid.