by Thomas Büser
Madrid may be located on a dry plateau. But if you think there is no river here, you are mistaken.
A look at the virtual map is not exactly encouraging: the much-travelled Spanish coasts are between 350 and 600 kilometres away. Larger rivers such as the Ebro, Tajo or Guadalquivir cross the Iberian peninsula, but they consistently flow past Madrid. A European capital without any river or coastal connection at all – a complete misconception. Situated in the middle of the dusty La Mancha plateau and on top of a hill. That is Madrid. What could the Muslim builders have been thinking in the middle of the 9th century when they founded a small garrison town on the site of today’s Palacio Real, which they also gave the name “Mayrit”. Mayrit means “place of many waters” in German. Had these Arabs taken leave of their senses? Not quite. After all, there was a whole series of underground watercourses and also lagoons that fed the site. And if we zoom in a little on the virtual map, at some point a river comes into view that somehow flows through or past Madrid: the Manzanares.
At first glance it becomes clear: this river is rather a larger stream. And so there was no lack of detractors who made fun of the Manzanares. After the Hahsburgs moved their capital to the provincial town of Madrid in 1561, the arch-sarcastic Francisco Quevedo was immediately on the spot with biting scorn: not a river, but donkey piss. That was the Manzanres. And even after several star architects of the time began to change the appearance of the rivulet with imposing bridges, the mockery did not abate.
The vernacular sneered: so many bridges for so little water. But in the end, people came to terms with the inconspicuous watercourse. Laundry was washed on and in it, festivals and processions to the local saint San Isidro ran along the river banks. Even Francisco Goya immortalised the Manzanares in the late 18th century in many of his lovely genre paintings, which he created as cardboard models in the royal carpet factory. But this emotional rapprochement was short-lived. The 20th century relegated the city river to the side ditch of a monstrous bypass motorway, the M-30. For decades it was reduced to a trickle and driven out of Madrilenians’ field of vision. Between 1970 and 2008, the city really had no water left in the urban space (apart from various park lakes).
But then the revolution began. The city motorway was unceremoniously laid underground, incidentally with the help of one of Europe’s longest inner-city tunnels. Above ground, a kilometre-long green strip was freed up, which was planted into a waterfront promenade in the following years. And the Manzanares rivulet was also considerably dammed up, so that we now actually have a real river on its course between the Palacio Real and the Matadero cultural centre. A gigantic operation that ruined the city’s coffers for several generations. The richly technical name of the river system, “Madrid Río”, also highlights precisely the artificial character of the river clone. But in the end, as always, it is the paying public, i.e. the people of Madrid, who decide on the success or failure of a large-scale urban project. And the verdict seems clear: especially at weekends, a colourful crowd of walkers, cyclists, joggers, skaters, youth gangs, etc. enjoy themselves along the river. Fountains provide refreshment, cafeterías imitate the “chiringuitos” on the beach.
For me, this artificial river is a blessing. Of course, it doesn’t stand up to comparison with the Rhine and the Danube. But it is so typically Madrid. Thrown irreverently into the world, no matter what the effort. Just as the Gran Vía was cut through the jungle of houses in the old town at the beginning of the 20th century, so now a river promenade is simply being torn out of the ground. A boon for the long-neglected south of the city and actually the first positive urban intervention in generations. But Madrid wouldn’t be Madrid if the blessing didn’t also have its dark side. The capital’s inhabitants are so in need of a stroll in the fresh air that you literally can’t put one step in front of the other at the weekend. That’s when the Manzanares is a box office hit – and I either stay at home or rush into the equally crowded centre. But one thing becomes clear to me every day when I step outside the door: Madrid finally has water!