Spain is famous for its plazas. Often thought of as places where thin, glamorous, hot-blooded Spaniards pass the night on wicker furnished terraces with large glasses of rioja wine, tapas in shallow terracotta bowls and the light humming of flamenco guitar in the background. Yet as you arrive in Madrid via the southern gateway to the city, Atocha, the first plaza you encounter is rather underwhelming to say the least.
Plaza Juan Goytisolo or more popularly known as the plaza Renia Sofía, is plain and dull. On one side you have the first of Madrid’s famous golden triangle of art galleries. Formerly a teaching hospital, and apparently still haunted, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is a large grey monolithic building that looks as if it’s been dressed up in a tacky colourful ball gown for a night on the town. Since opening it has been extended with a glass building which skirts around it on the far side near the busy road. Here there is a picturesque library, an art bookshop and a modernist restaurant that belongs in a James Bond film from the early 00’s. Clipped on to the face of the building like large dangling earrings, the two large crystal prisms which contain elevators that move art lovers around the different levels of the gallery (and ghosts too so I’m told!). On the far side you have Madrid’s Royal Conservatory where teens can go to learn a musical instrument to the highest standard. The rest of the plaza is surrounded by a two star hotel that no one seems to stay at, a bank that never appears open and ever changing restaurants and novelty shops.
Previously housing blocks stood here but they were demolished which is why the road names still happen to be here and probably why no one can decide if it’s a plaza or just a walk through. The floor has been raised to accommodate for the underground car park, which has resulted in the two ugly metal elevators that access the car park in the centre of the unevenly paved plaza. When it isn’t filled with promotion led ‘art’ installations (one I went to was trying to convince people that plastic waste in the sea wasn’t a problem), or a plastic ice rink at Christmas, you can find this square filled with tourists trying to find their idyllic plazas hoping that their hot iberian weekend plans have not been crushed the minute they set foot here. If you come here at 6pm on a weekday you can see a queue of cash smart tourists and Spaniards hoping to avoid the extortionate twenty euro entrance fee to the gallery and get in for free during the last two hours of the day.
Whilst this plaza may not be the best first impression, it does have a certain history that is not often associated with the grandeur of the Spanish capital. Outside the museum stands a replica of Alberto Sánchez’s oddly named surrealist sculpture El pueblo español tiene un camino que conduce a una estrella (The Spanish people have a path that leads to a star) This elongated 12.5 meter sculpture was originally shown at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris where the republican government at the time were trying to raise awareness, and raise funds, for the ongoing civil war at the time. The sculptor was one of thousands of Spanish republicans that would leave Spain to live in exile following the Francoist’s victory in 1939. The sculpture, which looks like several baguettes squished together, is adorned with a red star at the top. It represents the Spanish people’s struggle to get through the civil war (and hopefully reach socialism which still hasn’t happened). The museum also houses one of Spain’s priceless pieces of artwork: Picasso’s Guernica.
Following the declaration of civil war by the rebel coup plotters;the republican forces needed to raise awareness. This started in Paris with Picasso whom they asked to paint a large scale painting for the same international exhibition. He was living in Paris at this time and was gaining popularity for his cubist style. Picasso would paint one of the most harrowing and important paintings of his life. The Guernica is named after the small town in the Basque country that had been completely decimated by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe in one of the first ariel bombing campaigns of its type. This bombing shocked the world and is considered by many to be a war crime. Picasso captured the horror of the bombing in his black and white cubic representation. When the Nazis occupied Paris and asked him if he was the artist responsible for the piece, Picasso quickly replied ‘No, you are’. Following Paris it was taken all around the world and eventually ended up in New York. Picasso stipulated before he died that the painting should not return to Spain until democracy had been established. Some dispute the return of the painting as when Spain did transition back to democracy in 1978, it did so with a monarchy attached. Being as Picasso was a card carrying member of the French communist party, I think he would agree it hadn’t been fully restored. Sadly Picasso never got to return to his homeland before his death in 1973 just two years before the death of Spain’s dictator.
The modern art museum itself is representative of a whole intelectual art scene around Madrid which is heavily concentrated in the narrow streets that run parallel to the museum leading to the neighborhood of Lavapiés. This zone is slowly being gentrified by Airbnb, urban/poverty tourism and the middle class bohemian types and expats that move here to try and create some form of artistic career.
This micro tribe of thinkers, artists and poets is encapsulated by Ben Lerner’s book Leaving the Atocha Station. In his semi-autobiographical book Ben explores the freely uptight culture of this poser group which one always aspires to be part of, and even if you were, you’d never feel totally accepted. The plaza itself is also the ceremonial home to bipartisanship political system splitters Podemos, who would celebrate their early electoral success in this square.
The neighborhood of Atocha has been home to several stories of radicals reclaiming their democratic rights. It was the starting point for the International Brigades, the 60,000 volunteers that came from abroad to defend democracy in Spain when other countries were too cowardly to support the country being attacked by fascists from Italy, Germany and the country’s own army. From here they marched to the centre of Madrid and helped defend the capital. It was one of the last cities to fall at the end of the war. Later after the death of Franco in the mid to late 1970s, around the corner on Calle Atocha, several lawyers working for the labour union CCOO were gunned down by far right gun men. At the time Spain was transitioning to democracy and the Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez who was overseeing the process was under pressure from both sides of the political spectrum regarding the legalization of the Spanish Communist Party. Many say that it was the left’s peaceful march with the bodies of those lawyers at their funerals that convinced him to legalize the party over the Easter holidays. Even now on most weekends of the year, large groups of protesters meet at Atocha to peacefully walk to the heart of the city at Puerta del Sol.
Separating Madrid’s second worst plaza (the first being Plaza Margaret Thatcher up the road) from the road and train station is a block which contains the remains of a hotel, a bank and several chain bars and coffee shops that are forever being refurbished and changing name. All except for one place: El Brillante.
Right in the middle stands the last castizo bar in this block. Going through the centre of the building with terraces on either side, one by the road and the other in the plaza, El Brillante is a historic scene for many tales that have been told. Serving the traditional calamari sandwich with and egg cup sized glass of beer, this bar is a traditional stop for people travelling between two different points in Spain (a common complaint is that all travel to major cities has to go through Madrid). With several middle-aged balding male waiters manning the stainless steel bar, patrons can experience a little bit of old Spain that is yet to be remodeled in the eyes of our postmodern society. Although I must warn it is not for the faint-hearted.
Traditionally Spanish does not mean flamenco and a large selection of fine cheap wines. Here your average old man Spanish bar includes various types of offal as food, a small selection of beer and a no frills waiter experience that makes McDonald’s self service seem desirable. Ignoring the small used tissues and chicken bones on the floor, these antique bars are great to spend a long evening watching taxi drivers smoking and lost tourists heading to the chain bars just down the road.
Madrid is often singled out as a capital without a worthy landmark. With no Big Ben, or Eiffel Tower, there have been several attempts to satisfy Madrid’s landmark envy with little success. But the Atocha Station was in fact designed by Alberto de Palacio y Elissagu, a student of Gustave Eiffel. Originally opened in 1851 a large fire destroyed the first station when Alberto was brought into restore it. Using wrought iron as his teacher had done on the Eiffel Tower, the Atocha station was built in a similar fashion to London’s Paddington station with the iron supporting a curved glazed roof. Since it’s opening it has come to house international, national and regional trains along with a metro line, a bus station and a taxi rank. With two floors and numerous platforms the original domed roof is no longer used and the station has been extended out the back. Now the glass topped building is used as an exotic green house for the botanical garden inside where pigeons and travellers alike can relax in preparation for the next leg of their journey to begin.
The Atocha train station which gets its name from the local Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha. This area has been the site of several attacks on Madrid, the last and biggest was on the 11th March 2004 when 193 people were killed and over 2,050 injured. Several terrorists got on the regional cercanías at the town of Alcalá de Henares just outside of Madrid, they put improvised explosive devices on the luggage racks inside the trains and got off the trains. Of the 13 bombs ten exploded at various times and locations during the morning rush hour.
Around 7:37am on a Thursday morning three bombs exploded inside the Atocha station with a forth bomb programmed to explode two hours later when emergency services arrived. Thankfully it was found and safely detonated by the bomb squad. At the same time as the first bombs that went off a further two bombs detonated at the El Pozo del Tío Raimundo Station, another bomb at the Santa Eugenia Station, and 800 meters from Atocha another four bombs exploded on a train that was waiting to enter the station. Emergency services arrived at 8:00am; locals helped get people to safety whilst taxi drivers put people in their cars to take them to the nearest hospitals.
The aftermath of the attack was polemical and the government was criticised for its handling. At the time the centre-right Partido Popular were in power with José María Aznar as Prime Minister. Straight after the attack the government held Basque country based ETA responsible for the attack as they had a history of train attacks in Madrid albeit not on this scale. They maintained this theory for two days. At the time Spain was involved with the war on terror in the Middle East with the USA and Great Britain. This had not been approved by parliament and was deeply unpopular. Al-Qaeda would later claim responsibility for the attack saying that this was their motive. People were not happy with the government’s management of the attack and large protests broke out asking for the truth. Three days after the attack a general elections had been planned and went ahead. The PP, who were predicted to win the election, lost to the PSOE. This was attributed to their management of the attack by many political pundits. The new Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero pulled Spain out of the war by the end of April.
On the 3rd of April several of the attackers killed themselves when police tracked them down to their base in the south of Madrid. Using explosive vests they blew up their apartment building killing themselves and a police officer. 11 officers were also injured. Up to eight suspects are thought to have escaped.
Several monuments stand to honor this dark day. Outside the station are some twisted bits of metal from the attacks and near the road there is a 36 ft transparent cylinder that contains messages of grief sent following the attack. The messages are etched onto material that has been inflated and can be seen from the inside. The entrance to the inside of this monument is inside the station on the second floor.
As you leave the station you are met with a giant neoclassical building that is home to the ministry of agriculture. I often think that this imposing building decorated with classical statues on top is there to remind anyone arriving in Madrid that it is the seat of power on the peninsula.
During the 1960s Madrid’s first overpass for cars was built here leading giving it the nickname the scalextric of Atocha, it was later dismantled in the 80s. Today you can reach all areas of Madrid from here by car. Head south to the working class district of Vallecas or the dormitory cities of Getafe, Leganés, Parla, Fulelabrada or not so far away the neighborhoods of Usera and Carabanchel by the river. If you head north towards the Prado museum, down the side of the Retiro park, you will eventually end up passing Spain’s most exclusive neighborhood barrio Salamanca. From here on up into the north of the city, the neighborhoods are quieter; there are more individual houses when compared to the south’s blocks of flats, and this is where many multinational companies, embassies are based and the government also has numerous offices. Madrid is divided not only between the north and south of the river but between the working and middle classes, much the same as London.
Like any travel hub, here you can see where all the classes brush shoulders to go to work, go on holiday, return home after a night out, meet friends or make their way to the sales in the centre at the weekend. Atocha is a gateway to Madrid and its people.
All pictures by the author