Explore the Spanish capital and you’ll find a city vigorously reinventing itself. Highways have turned into inviting parks, abattoirs are becoming art spaces, and once-neglected cinemas now host restaurants and bars
Words: KEVIN EG PERRY
Photographs: ADRIENNE PITTS
The New Culutre
LAIDBACK SURF ROCK echoes around a vast iron-framed train shed, once part of the Delicias station near the centre of Madrid. The music, a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s These boots are made for walkin’ by local band Pauline & The Big Kahunas, mingles with the sounds of curio hunters discussing their finds. Beside vintage trains from the city’s railway museum, hundreds of stalls dot the platforms, selling everything from cheese and bread to intricate diorama dollhouses. This is Mercado de Motores, Madrid’s hippest fleamarket.
First held in 2012, it has boomed, and now attracts around 50,000 people a month, creating not only a new shopping culture for Madrid but also opportunities for designers. Itziar Aristrain was a journalist before starting Pichí Pichá, which sells pinafores.“You find things here you can’t find anywhere else. I had the idea for this shop, and six months later started the business. We’ve just celebrated our one-year anniversary. It wouldn’t have worked without a market like this one.”
Born and raised in Madrid, 29-year-old Itziar says this is just one example of how her city is changing. “Madrid is becoming more European,” she says. “The best things from across the continent are coming here, like new markets and street food. It’s becoming more popular to spend time out and about. The city is more open-mindedand cosmopolitan.”
It has become commonplace for art and cultural spaces to spring up in former industrial sites. A short walk south of El Matadero is a cultural centre in a 1920s abattoir. You still enter through thick curtains of hanging plastic strips but, these days, you’ll find a cinema behind them, as well as internationally minded art galleries. There’s so much room inside El Matadero that artistsoften come to live on site, and have space to pursue their most ambitious ideas.
Closer to the centre of the city is Sala Equis, an old cinema that once showed adult movies (hence the name: ‘Room X’). Casting off its past, it has become one of Madrid’s edgiest hangouts, the upper floor converted into a 55-seat boutique screening room showing art-house fare. Nowadays, if you see a nipple, you can be assured there’s a plot justification for it. The main space has been converted into a laidback bar, where hip young things lounge about in deck chairs, half-watching the soundless classic movies projected overhead.
“Sala Equis has been a phenomenon,” says Sara Morillo, a journalist who has worked with the cinema since it first reopened in November 2017. “A big supermarket company wanted to buy this space but, instead, we’ve made it into a place that creates a sense of community. This kind of attitude is important to preserve the essence of Madrid. We don’t want to look like London, or New York, or Los Angeles. We want to preserve our authentic spirit, and we do that with places like this.”
The New Outdoors
WHEN ALEXANDRE Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, visited Madrid during the 19th century, he wrote that Plaza Mayor had ‘the most beautiful and best-painted vault’ he had ever seen. He meant the vast Spanish sky. “Dumas understood that our sky – with its stars and clouds – is very charming,” says Ana Llorente, a tour guide and history professor at the Centro Universitario Villanueva, gesturing upwards. “At these moments you realise how wonderful the sky over Madrid is. It has a kind of magic.”
Madrid’s climate and atmosphere tend to lure visitors outside, and a modern-day Dumas would have plenty of options for stargazing, including the Picalagartos Sky Bar. “This is a new concept for Madrid,” says Ana, standing near the edge of the rooftop bar belonging to the NH Collection Madrid Gran Vía Hotel. She gestures down over Gran Vía, one of the city’s most important thoroughfares. “Perhaps, as a city, we wanted to find ways to take advantage of every corner, and we were also seeking a bird’s eye view. From here, you can see the contrast between different buildings, from towers based on the skyline of Manhattan to the orange, tiled roofs over there that could be in a small town in Castile.”
Madrid’s new landscape isn’t just about new vantage points. Whole sections of the city have been overhauled to create more outdoor space. The most ambitious project is Madrid Río Park, which was begun in 2005. A six-mile stretch of highway in the centre of Madrid, beside the Manzanares River, was effectively buried underground in a warren of tunnels, and the resulting space became a green park that pulled together neighbourhoods previously separated by the road. Wander through it today and you’ll see people rollerblading through manicured gardens, pass skate parks and tennis courts, breathe in scents of pine trees and lavender, and hear birdsong. Splashing about in the river itself are species of swans, ducks and silver herons, newly restored to their natural habitat. “Ten years ago, the whole area was considered the outskirts of Madrid,” says Ana. “Now it has become a place for couples and young families. It represents a renewal of somewhere that was not used by madrileños.”
Impressively, 45 per cent of Madrid is considered to be green space, the second highest proportion of any city in the world (Prague is number one). But not all of its communal spaces are parks. El Campo de la Cebada stands out as exciting, partly because of its newness and partly because of the sheer variety in how it is used. The area inside the graffiti-spattered walls has become a venue for everything from basketball matches to political rallies. Located a mile north of Madrid Río, adjacent to the old farmers’ market at Plaza de la Cebada, the space was created almost by accident when the local authority demolished an old swimming pool and ran out of money to pay for its replacement. It is a place, locals say, created ‘for and by neighbours’. Madrid’s love affair with the outdoor life is clearly about having a place for citizens to come together.