Love Letter: Madrid’s Pedestrian Streets

Madrid’s heart — her epicenter, undisputed city nucleus — is the plaza at Puerta del Sol. Couriers once traveled Europe to deliver the world’s news here at the Casa de Correos. A sidewalk plaque marks the plaza as the nation’s kilometer zero. City addresses begin here, as do measurements for Spain’s grid of radial roads.

From Puerta del Sol branches a network of pedestrian streets. The biggest head north: Calles Preciados and Carmen side by side to the Callao plaza, Montera northeast to Gran Vía, where it morphs to Fuencarral for mysterious reasons of its own and remains car-free almost to the Tribunal metro. Westerly walkers will find Calle Arenal, which leads to the palace. The easterly Plaza del Ángel does not start precisely at Sol and is also not entirely car free, but still counts; it morphs into Calle de las Huertas, and can be hiked east all the way to the Prado.

Puerta del Sol facing north to Preciados on Constitution Day

Puerta del Sol facing north to Preciados on Constitution Day, 2016

More than three kilometers, all told, if one throws in a few additional here-and-there blocks scattered in the central city labyrinth.

‘Fantastic Pedestrian Life!’ blogged I after my summer, 2016 move-in, but also wondered how long I would remain impressed. Certainly, the pedestrian streets teemed in July, when a tourist or native could stroll in warm daylight at 21:30. But winter would bring freezing temperatures, occasional snow, sunsets before 18:00. Things were likely to settle down.

Autumn came, my first in the city. Tourists now strolled Sol in sweaters, down vests, fingers stuffed in pockets, shoulders hunched in fall gusts. Squealing children chased drifting brown leaves on Plaza España. Then December, colder than any I remembered in San Francisco. One frosty morning I counted only a handful of fellow pedestrians on a nearly deserted Calle Arenal, and felt confident: the off-season had arrived. Madrid would hibernate.

But Madrid refused. Or, more accurately, it conceded to winter far less ground than expected, and conceded it only occasionally, like a fighter who astonishes an adversary not by eluding a blow but by shrugging it off. The pedestrian streets were quieter now, unquestionably, Huertas especially, but any rumor of afternoon sun could bring back the crowds. On December 6 I threaded an astonished path through a Calle Preciados throng denser than any seen in July. The 6th turned out to be Constitution Day, a holiday, a one-off, but Madrid seemed to find many excuses for lesser but still similar one-offs on dry January and February afternoons. I thought often of walking Fuencarral with a GoPro strapped to my head, to have a video to show disbelievers: Would you look at these Madrid crowds! In February! At 9°C!

Then spring came, and the feeble ‘off-season’ had ended. By summer I wondered if the whole planet hoped to converge on the city. Humanity poured in: from Barajas airport’s four terminals, from the rail platforms of Puerta de Atocha, from bus bays at Avenida de America, from freeways. Peregrinos may march here overland through Casa de Campo, for all I know. Visitors queue for tickets at the Prado and Royal Palace, snap selfies at Puerta de Alcalá, but — if able-bodied — inevitably find their way to the pedestrian streets, too, to join the procession.

Preciados, Carmen, Montera and Fuencarral seem to jam first, then Arenal, and Huertas last. On peak days the mass may feel unsatisfied with streets designated as car-free, conspire to appropriate others. Fuencarral accepts autos at the intersection of Hernán Cortés; the pedestrian army tourniquets itself there onto narrow sidewalks, or tries to; the Tribunal station-bound walker either accepts a glacial pace or steps treacherously into traffic. Gran Vía now sports double-wide sidewalks, thanks to a 2018 makeover; the year before, I twice descended to subway platforms to wait for a 3 metro, rather than brave sidewalk-blanketing masses in the mere five hundred meter Gran Vía walk from Plaza España to Callao.

I came to see the fluid, ever-changing central-city-wide procession as a triumph, an improvisational parade celebrating victory in a battle that parade members had fought and won without knowledge. Modern life would not rob the twenty-first century human of some essential pleasures that are wholesome, ancient and free. He would not wither sickly in a velvet-handcuffed cocoon of video games, Netflix streams, porn downloads, or be penned into meager street fractions not consumed by the car. No; she would get out in the sun and open air and use healthy limbs to walk freely for pleasure among others of her species, as did and as had her fellows and primogenitors on the Arbat, Charles Bridge, Kärntner Straße, the banks of the Seine. Big Brother hadn’t won, at least not yet.

* * * * *

One afternoon on Preciados I noticed that everyone in sight looked younger than me.

This was in early autumn of 2016, a few months after I’d arrived in Spain. The descriptions that follow are inexact; I don’t remember everything described, not after more than two years, have permitted myself to flesh out some details. I know that I was still busy with settling-in chores in those days: back-and-forth with the international mover, a hunt for a storage locker. I might have spent the morning on phone calls and online research, had finally let blue skies and bright sun tempt me into a stroll outdoors. I likely stepped off the metro at Callao, ascended to the plaza fronting the Corte Inglés that photographers visit for shots of the Schweppes building, and it was as I navigated a diplomatic path south among the cheerful pedestrian armies that this memory begins, because on this day in this place my roving eyes could find no face my senior.

I continued south toward Sol, among couples, singles, slow-stepping family groups. Hopefully I scanned the kinetoscopic array of unrecognized faces flowing toward, near, beside, and around me, searching for gray hair, wrinkles, a stoop; the colossal scope of their unknown-to-me lives seeming to arc up to intersect with mine for our seconds within eye shot of each other before they passed, disappeared in the flowing crowd, likely never to be seen by me again. Chicos and chicas on the prowl, undoubtedly, jaunty in reproductive cycle full bloom, muscled, black-haired, ivory-toothed, swaggering; a hijab’d Muslim mom, sad-eyed, beside glued-to-móvil hubby; coal-skinned manteros, Europe’s underdogs, in threadbare t-shirts; a grim-faced busker, perhaps — unsmiling, in off-stage mode — toting an accordion.

Wasn’t anyone here older than me? Certainly I saw elders on the pedestrian grid often enough. But not today.

The crowd slowed as it approached Sol, tourniquet-clotting near the mouth of the Plaza, shuffling on millipede legs. I looked at a little girl riding above the crowd on Daddy’s shoulders, leaning over his head like a pillion rider, pudgy infant fingers curled in his black beard.

I was old. She certainly would have judged me so; in this crowd, so would have most others. The young now occasionally offered me their seats on the metro. I wasn’t planning to live to 120, or close to it. Statistically, indisputably, however young I felt: most of my life was over.

Suddenly, not unpleasantly, I beheld my own triviality. The world had never needed me for anything. It permitted me to exist on its surface as one sentient organism among billions. I’d had my turn with youth, as these surrounding multitudes now took theirs. But that youth had passed; eventually, my life would, too. In death I would soon enough be anonymous, unknown — a series of database records, low-res archived .pdfs of past passports, drivers’ licenses — as I was now anonymous and unknown in this distant European city I had chosen as home. I didn’t matter. In the long term, no one did.

Sol. The crowd dispersed, diffusing onto the broad plaza like molecules of dye in water. I saw the fountains, Carlos III statue, Tio Pepe sign. I walked aimlessly, among tourists, idlers, cliquing teens; past guide touts, sorrowful gypsies offering rosemary twigs, costumed animal character actors (a panda, perhaps, or Elmo; waddling ponderously, offering hugs); aware by then that the moment would be important for me, drinking in sights and sounds.

Life. By the plaza’s west fountain a separate crowd thronged five deep around a street performer. Curiously I stared over the heads of the fluid, milling crowd, glimpsed the star’s head as he gyrated furiously about his self-made stage, expert, mad, confident, regaling his audience with shouts, jokes, dares. Only the best and the bravest buskers dared impromptu comedy or magic acts. He was good, had to be; look at the crowd! The blanket or basket he had set out for tips likely brimmed with euro notes. Mothers would press coins into their children’s fingers, beam as their young waddled solemnly to the blanket to pitch in their share. How fat might be the busker’s haul, for a few hours work! He could live Riley’s life, take his act to Barcelona, Paris, Rome. The world was his oyster.

Life. Near the Carlos III statue a band — a Mariachi group, I think, regulars at Sol, in black Charro jackets — played for a smaller crowd, a tune simultaneously sprightly and sad, with violins, bright horns. Behind them a derelict shuffled precariously across the plaza on ragged shoes, filthy, wild-haired, muttering to himself through scabbed lips. Little older than thirty, already on the way out. Had he been molested, beaten, abandoned in youth, or simply doomed by bad choices and bad DNA? Soon it wouldn’t matter. Savage life would devour him, pull him into non-existence as a rip current might drag a sick child into the remorseless sea, might administer a merciful anodyne only in a sleepy fog preceding death. The flesh scarred in his tragic life would stink as it decomposed, as a frugal and incurious nature reclaimed its molecules for other uses. Soon he would be a database record, too, an archive of European IDs, arrest reports, institutionalization records.

Life. The late afternoon sun bathed the bustling, buzzing plaza in warm amber shades; sunset wasn’t far away. I raised my hand, stared at the age-weathered skin as I flexed my fingers. This I had. Life offered no proof of heaven, hell, reincarnation, afterlife, or even meaning, but I had this, certainly, and had it still: Consciousness. Awareness. My chance to exist.

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