Archive for history

Madrid by Metro

Happy Hundredth, Metro de Madrid!

Well, sort of. Construction started in 1917, but the actual opening was two years later.

Getting the subway project started wasn’t easy. King Alfonso XIII (great grandfather of current King Felipe) added a million pesetas of his own fortune to the kitty to get things going – and cut the ribbon on the first 3.5 kilometers of Line 1 in 1919. It was a revolution: Sol – Cuatro Caminos in under ten minutes, instead of at least thirty minutes by tram. Line 1 was lengthened to Atocha almost immediately, and Line 2 (Sol – Ventas) followed shortly thereafter.

Of course the original subway was different: only four cars per train, train doors that opened by hand and fares that varied by distance travelled. Not to mention the stylish tile decoration in the stations, created by Antonio Palacios to help travellers over the claustrophobia of underground travel (this architect also designed Madrid’s Central Post Office, Bellas Artes and Maudes hospital).

Except for a few slow periods, the subway has continued to grow since those first kilometers. Since the 1980’s the growth has been constant – record-breaking in the late 1990’s – up to current track length of about 294 kilometers and 13 lines, second only to more populous London here in western Europe.

Veteran Line 1 isn’t the longest of Madrid’s subway lines, but it links train and bus stations, shopping areas, cinemas, restaurants, well-known sights and some fun lesser-known sights, so it has one of the highest user rates of all the lines: over 100 million people / year.


Read on to learn how the central part of line 1 can help you explore Madrid.

Chamartin, history: Originally a village north of Madrid where the wealthy “got away from Madrid”; village annexed by Madrid in 1948. Today: Train station for long distance and commuter lines.

Plaza Castilla, today: Underground commuter bus station for many points north, many city bus lines at stops on the surface; “leaning towers” just north of the roundabout-square.

Tetuán, history: This neighbourhood started in 1860 as a military camp for the victorious Spanish army after a war in Africa. The camp ended up being semi-permanent and infrastructure and population sprang up around it. The metro arrived in 1929, which helped consolidate the neighbourhood. Today: Tetuán is one of Madrid’s multi-cultural neighborhoods, this one mostly Latino; South American restaurants and shops abound just off main north-south street Bravo Murillo

Estrecho, today: Fun, almost unknown museum at calle La Coruña 18: Museo Tiflológico. Run by the Spanish Blind organization ONCE, this little gem has models of monuments from Spain and other countries, and an amazing section of artwork by the blind.

Cuatro Caminos, history: Ever wonder about the name of this square? The “four streets” are Santa Engracia, Bravo Murillo, Reina Victoria and Artistas, as Raimundo Fernández Villaverde was created after square was named. Today: important metro transfer – with endless escalators for line 6. Maravillas market on Bravo Murillo is one of the city’s best.

Rios Rosas, today: Old Canal de Isabel II water deposit (brick tower built 1865-1876) is an exhibit venue, worth visiting just to see how the space is used. Don’t miss the very top floor. Geology fans: Geominero museum at Rios Rosas 23 – exterior of the building is gorgeous.

Iglesia, history: Original name of this station: Martinez Campos. Today: Sorolla museum at General Martinez Campos 37. Excellent pastry shops near this stop!

Chamberi, history: Chamberí station was closed in 1966; after that, this “ghost station” was barely visible in the tunnel between Iglesia and Bilbao. Today: Now a mini-museum, with original decoration and advertising posters in ceramic tile. Guided visit (free, in Spanish), video and station visit with trains whizzing by behind a glass partition. Fun even without great Spanish. Access: glass structure on corner of Santa Engracia / Luchana. Open Thursday to Sunday, get current schedules by searching Metro Madrid Anden 0.

Bilbao, history: Site of one of the gates in the last line of city walls, called the “Snow Pit Gate” for the pre-refrigerator ice houses nearthe square. Today: best access for eating and drinking around Dos de Mayo, nearby cinemas, and one end of fashion street Fuencarral (other end is Gran Via).

Tribunal, history: San Fernando hospital was built to attend 3,000 patients and functioned until 1922; gave the subway stop its original name of Hospicio. The building is a Madrid history museum since 1929. Today: Interesting museum with good permanent collection and temporary exhibits (don’t miss the model of Madrid).

Gran Via, history: This emblematic street is fairly new, built 1910 – 1931. Subway stop Gran Via (original name Red San Luis) is right next to Madrid’s first skyscraper: Telefónica building on corner of Gran Vía / Fuencarral, completed in 1929. Today: The Telefónica building has excellent temporary exhibits, and a telecommunications. Gran Via is another shopper’s street – but watch out for pickpockets.

Sol, history: Although outside the medieval city, Sol has long been the bustling center for traffic, pedestrians, “Kilometer 0” for Spain’s radial highways, and the first major transfer point for the subway (lines 1,2,3). Remodelled and reorganized more than once over the centuries; site of all kinds of historic events. Today: Pedestrian shopping area on Carmen, Preciados and Monter north to Callao and west on Arenal to Opera. Best subway access for Plaza Mayor and for Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Alcala 13), also for Santa Ana tapa area and movies in English at Yelmo Ideal Cineplex.

Tirso de Molina, history: Original name Progreso (old name for Tirso de Molina square); the name of square and metro stop changed in 1939, shortly after dictator Francisco Franco’s victory in the Civil War. Madrid lore has two ghost stories for this station: one story claims that the bones of monks who lived in the convent that used to be in this square are under the subway platforms, placed there by the workers who built the station (and the other ghost story is too creepy to tell here). Today: The recent renovation of this square created a pleasant space with outdoor cafés and a flower market. Access to the Rastro flea market.

Anton Martin, today: One of Madrid’s first movie theaters (Cine Doré, Santa Isabel 3) is now the “Filmoteca”, running several sessions of different movies every day. Great prices and even cheaper with their ten-punch deal. Rooftop movies in the summer. A must-do for movie fans!

Atocha, history: The old part of Atocha train station was inaugurated in 1892, serving as a station for about 100 years until the new station took over. Today The old station is a greenhouse – a good place to relax before traveling or after a visit to the nearby art museums. New train station for long distance (including AVE) and commuter lines. NOTE: Direct-access metro stop Atocha RENFE better for the station, as old Atocha stop is across many lanes of traffic. Near Atocha / Atocha RENFE: Art museums Reina Sofia, Prado, Thyssen. Anthropology museum, Botanical Gardens, Cuesta Moyana bookstalls, Retiro Park.

Menéndez Pelayo, today: access for Tapestry factory and museum (Fuenterrabia 2)

Pacifico, history: Opened in the early 1920’s on the edge of the city. The “Nave de Motores” generating station, created to guarantee electricity for the subway via a combination of huge engines and transforming power from electrical companies is nearby. Today: The electrical station is newly open as a mini-museum (see Chamberi). Pacifico is an important metro transfer, one stop from Mendez Alvaro (South Bus Station/commuter train station).

Madrid, March 2004


As a long-time expat, I frequently get questions from newer arrivals about things that have happened in Spain during my time here.

Eventually I will post a summarized, personal history, perhaps including what led me to try a breakfast sol y sombra (usually only for crusty old men or tough working guys) or a bit about my bohemian attic apartment.

But for now, I’d like to share something about the 2004 train bombs in Madrid. This piece was written immediately after the attacks to explain the situation to concerned family and friends, especially for people reading articles in the international press, many with an inaccurate “spin”.    I  have not changed anything in this piece (except correcting a few typos), though it was tempting. But I wanted to leave it as a historical reflection on a major event in recent Spanish history.

As always, when learning about tough or unfamiliar issues, it is a good idea to read from a variety of sources and know who is writing and where they’re coming from. Please read other sources to balance what follows, which tries to be fairly unbiased person-in-the-street account — but doesn’t always succeed.

Where the “press” is cited, it is usually the major daily newspaper EL PAIS or sometimes the Yahoo news services, which select articles from most of the world news services.

Summary of situation: Train bombs went off in Madrid on March 11, just three days before the national elections of March 14, 2004. 
Thursday, March 11, 2004: At about 7.40 – 7.45 AM bombs went off on four different commuter trains: one in Atocha station, one just outside Atocha station, one in Santa Eugenia station and another in the commuter stop El Pozo del Tio Raimundo. Several trains had more than one bomb. All the trains were on the Guadalajara – Alcalá de Henares – Madrid Atocha train line, very heavily traveled at that time of day with workers coming into the city from outlying areas.

Atocha station, where two of the attacks occured, is the main commuter station in Madrid’s heavily used commuter train system, with ten platforms running trains about every 3 minutes, connections to the subway and nearby connections to city bus lines.

That first day, the deaths were counted at more than 180; later the toll would rise to 201 and finally return to 191 once all the DNA testing was complete. There were more than 1800 injured.

As usual, the first assumption was that the attacks had been commited by ETA, the Basque terrorist group. But from the very beginning there were indications that ETA was not responsible: the attack was not their “style” (too indiscriminate, no advance warning, wrong kind of victims), and the controlled explosion of a bomb that did not go off seemed to indicate a type of explosive that ETA does not use. Furthermore, the head of the illegalized political party associated with ETA condemned the attacks, something they had never, ever done after an ETA attack. He went so far as to state categorically that it was not ETA and suggest the possiblity of an Islamist fundamentalist attack. To people outside Spain, this may not sound important. To people in Spain who know ETA’s usual style, this is a very important point.

On the morning of that first day a white minivan was found near the train station in Alcalá de Henares, containing some clothes, detonator caps, remains of an explosive and a Koran tape in Arabic; a witness had seen three people in the van early in the morning and later remembered them because they were wearing face masks that seemed too warm for the weather. One of the people headed for the train station carrying a backpack or large sports bag of some sort.

Thursday evening, an unexploded bomb was discovered in a sports bag in a police station. The bag was collected at one of the bomb sites as belonging to a victim and was discovered when a cell phone began to ring. The alarm clock function of cell phones was the detonating mechanism for the other bombs; for some reason bomb didn’t go off in the morning nor in the evening. The type of explosive and the way the bomb was put together became important clues for the police investigations.

More and more things seemed to point away from ETA. In a memo to the Basque press the organization denied any participation in the attacks. However, about 5.30 PM the Spanish Department of State sent a circular to Spanish ambassadors world-wide stating that ETA was the prime suspect. The government (Partido Popular or “PP”, center right) continued to maintain that ETA was suspect number one, though other clues were also being investigated, for several more days.

Almost immediately after the morning attacks, all of the final political campaign acts for Sunday’s elections were canceled. Politicians across the spectrum started calling for all voters to participate in the elections, some adding qualifying statements like: vote, but don’t let the attacks change your vote; vote, for yourself and for those who no longer can.

Some comments suggested that it would have been wise to postpone the elections until people had calmed down and the perpetrators were clear. But according to experts quoted in the Spanish press, the Constitution has no mechanism for postponing a general election in this kind of situation, without declaring a state of emergency. An even more convincing argument was that postponing the election would give the wrong message to the terrorists and to the world.

Friday, March 12: Memorials began springing up at bomb sites. Mass demonstrations against terrorism drew more than 11 million people in all the provincial capital cities; that about 25% of Spain’s population of about 41 million people.

The PP government continued to insist that ETA was suspect number one, though they admitted other possibilities were also being investigated.

Saturday, March 13, “Thinking day”: On the day before elections in Spain, no political acts are allowed. This is the day people should digest all the information they have received during the campaign, and if they haven’t already decided their vote, make their choice.

In addition to evaluating Spain’s progress in the previous four years and all the campaign promises, people now wanted to know as much as possible about the attacks to factor in that information and cast their vote for the government that would lead Spain for the next four years. Basically, if ETA committed the attacks, people might lean more towards the PP, as that party had achieved some important victories in the fight against Spain’s own terrorist group. But if the attacks were committed by an Islamist terrorist group, people might tend not to vote for PP, believing that PP support of the Iraq war had brought Islamist terrorism to Spain.

That said, it should also be emphasized that Spanish participation in the Iraq war was not the only issue in the campaign, nor even the most important issue. The attacks brought the war back to center stage, and reminded voters that the PP government had supported the war against massive public opinion, never really giving a solid explanation of the reasons for that decision.

The attacks were awful but probably did not determine most people’s votes. However, the attacks did bring certain issues to the attention of the voters. One issue was the Iraq war. Another issue is the people’s right to receive timely and correct information from their government.

In the aftermath of the attacks, a lot of people saw a dynamic that the ruling party “Partido Popular” had used in the past: controlling or manipulating information that the Spanish people felt they had a right to know. As well as the Iraq war, timely access to information was an issue during important crisis like the Prestige oil spill in northwest Spain and the plane crash that took the lives of 60 Spanish military returning from a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Some people might say that controlling information was an ongoing policy of the PP government, not just in times of crisis but on a daily basis.

Even given the need to maintain some discretion in the first stages of an investigation, people wondered if PP might not be acting in their own best interest by insisting on the ETA theory and not informing the people of the progress of the investigation of the Islamist clues. All this came to a head on the day before an election, an election that would decide what party would govern Spain for the next four years.

Even without the attacks, 2004 – 2008 was going to be difficult: social and environmental issues in Spain, a new phase for the EU, a tough global situation. Add the need for healing after a major terrorist attack and the importance of the elections becomes even greater. And the importance for voters to feel they were making the best possible choice even more apparent.

On Saturday at about 4.00PM, five men were arrested, three from Morocco and two from India. These arrests were made possible by following the clues given by the unexploded bomb discovered on Thursday. Early in the evening, a caller notified the local television station that a video tape would be found in a trash can near the mosque and the city funeral home; that video claimed responsibility for a group affiliated to Al Qaida. Though it would take some time to check the authenticity of the video, the case for an Islamist fundamentalist attack was beginning to look very strong.

Most people feel that the PP government took an unusually long time to announce these new leads. Under pressure, they finally made an official announcement around 8.00 PM, long after the press and the major opposition party (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, center-left) knew about the information. Some cynics say that the PP would have liked to keep that information quiet until after the elections.

It had also turned out that the explosive used was not the kind that ETA always uses, something so typical of that terrorist group that it is considered part of their “style”. According to EL PAIS newspaper, the information about the kind of explosive used was apparently misrepresented to the German intelligence service and police force, who later expressed their indignation at what appeared to be a lack of cooperation between European police forces.

In the meantime, the citizens of Madrid had heard about this new information and congregated in front of the PP headquarters on Genova street. Chanting “manipulation of information” and “we want to know the truth before we have to vote”, this group grew all afternoon and later reappeared at 12 midnight in the centrally located Puerta del Sol, from where they returned to the PP headquarters to continue calling for the truth.

This was apparently a true spontaneous demonstration, organized by internet and cell phone messages and not a “political concentration” called by the PSOE as the PP claimed. That may not sound very important, but for a political party to call a demonstration on “thinking day” was very serious indeed; thus it is an important distinction. PP accused the PSOE of organizing the demonstration, which PSOE vehemently denied.

As another part of this protest was a round of pan-beating, a noisy, low tech but very satisfying way to express an opinion, if participating in a street demonstration is not a viable option. Originally called in Barcelona, the pan-beating spread like wildfire across the country and in some places went on for a long time. In some neighborhoods, not a sound was heard. My street was cacophony, as was the multi-cultural Lavapies area where some of the day’s arrests had been made.

Sunday, March 14, election day: The front page of most of the newspapers had huge headlines about Saturday’s arrests and the video tape. In EL PAIS newspaper, some foreign journalists working in Spain reported having received telephone calls from the government informing them that the attacks were work of ETA, citing reasons that were incorrect. Some newspapers also carried yet another denial by ETA of their participation in the attacks.

The PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, center-left, opposition party until the elections) won the elections by popular vote and has the largest block in Congress but not the absolute majority. The PP (Partido Popular, center-right, ruling party until the elections) is the second party, with a strong minority. Compared to the 2000 election, it is interesting to note that the 2004 results show the PP only lost about 693,000 votes, while the PSOE gained about 2,989,000 votes.

Some of the PSOE gain might have been former PP voters, but most was probably from people who did not vote in 2000, which had one of the lowest voter turnouts since 1977, Spain’s first election after Franco’s death. Some of those people had probably already decided to vote before the attacks, unhappy with the way the PP was handling important issues. Other people may have decided to vote immediately after the attacks, as a way of supporting the democratic process and protesting against terrorism. Still others may have decided to vote based on the way PP handled the aftermath of the attacks. It is doubtful that many (if any) made that important decision based on fear.

In the period right after the elections, some international press and some groups in Spain claimed that the attacks changed the results of the elections and insinuated that the election result was somehow invalid or that the Spanish people voted out of fear instead of with their heads.

That analysis is not fair to Spanish voters, who are quite capable of making their choices based on mature analysis of multitude of factors and not just based on one isolated event, as tragic as it may be. The voters acted not out of fear of terrorism but in legitimate exercise of their democratic rights, voting out a government that no longer represented the majority opinion.

Information published several days after the elections seem to support this analysis. The very last polls (taken too close to the elections for the results to be published) showed very little lead for the PP. In a poll taken after the elections, voters were asked specifically whether the attacks changed their vote. Ninety percent claimed they had already decided before the attacks occurred.

The polls published before the attacks indicated that the center-right Partido Popular (PP) would probably win the popular vote and have the most seats in Congress, but would lose their absolute majority of 2000-2004. The polls suggested that the second major party, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), would continue to have a strong minority block. The other minor parties, including regional parties and a leftist coalition, would continue more or less as usual, with a minority of seats but as important allies for passing legislation if no party has the absolute majority.

But most of the polls stated that the undecideds, the new voters and especially the people who don’t always vote would be crucial in the outcome of the 2004 elections. That appears to be what happened. Based on information from the Monday edition of EL PAIS, voter participation was 77.22%, up from 68.71% participation in the 2000 elections.

Another factor that may have given the PSOE some votes, without taking any away from the PP, is what Spaniards call the “useful vote”. People who do not really share the ideology of the major parties (PP or PSOE) face a tough choice: vote for a minor party that does express their ideology but has little or no chance of making a difference in Congress, or vote the major party that is the closest to their ideology just to make sure that party has more seats than the other major party. In the 2004 elections, the leftist coalition Izquierda Unida (IU) lost four seats. That coalition is PSOE’s natural ally on many issues and some IU voters may have chosen to vote the “useful vote” this year: PSOE.

The final makeup of the 2004 – 2008 Congess is 164 seats for PSOE, 148 for PP and the remaining 38 seats spread among ten smaller parties (in 2000 – 2004 it was 183 PP, 125 PSOE and 42 for minor parties). Generally speaking, in Spain the members of Congress are expected to vote their party line and not their individual opinions; thus the importance of the makeup of the legislature.

The PSOE leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (often called just Zapatero in the press) has said that he will not form a permanent coalition with any party to reach an absolute majority, a tactic the PP used in the 1996 – 2000 legislature when they did not have the absolute majority. Instead, Zapatero has said he will try to govern by consensus, looking for support among the minor parties when it is needed, depending on the issues being discussed. That may be a little clumsy for passing difficult legislation, but could also be considered a more pluralistic system that guarantees more points of view will be heard.

Soon after the elections, voices were raised supporting the PSOE and their plans for Spain. But the PSOE has also been reminded, by the people who voted them in, that they can also be voted out if they do not fulfill their promises. Crowds of young people chanted: “don’t fail us, don’t fail us”.

Quite conscious that democracy works just like that, the PSOE has promised to do the best they possibly can. The issues are tough. The people will be watching. PSOE has four years to prove they can do the job.

Where does Spain go from here?
A personal reflection from shortly after the attacks: In the time after the attacks, I was very proud of Spain’s solidarity. The volunteer effort was amazing: huge lines of people waiting to donate blood. Neighbors to the bomb sites taking down blankets, water and food, for the victims and the rescue squads. People taking the injured to hospitals in their cars. Taxi drivers offering free service to the families of the dead and injured. A hotel owner offering his establishment for families of dead and injured. Doctors and rescue personnel of all sorts reporting for work while off-duty, or staying on after the end of their 24-hour service. Not to mention the massive peaceful demonstrations, memorial sites and banners expressing people’s feelings.

Especially wonderful to see (for an expat who occasionally gripes about Spain’s lack of organization) was the excellent emergency relief plan. It was in place and worked like clockwork, coordinating all sorts of details including getting information to families as to in what hospital the injured were located. Websites and reinforced emergency phone numbers were fully functional within hours of the attacks.
As tragic as this event was, it is final proof that Spain has come of age as a modern, democratic country.

Afterword: please remember that this was written ten years ago. Many, many things have happened in Spain since then. But I wanted to leave this as a historic document to try to give the immediacy of that tragic event.


Starting in the middle of the story, a bit of history: After the Muslim invasion of 711, medieval Iberia was divided into Christian and Islamic territories. At first, the Christians only had a bit of northwest Iberia, but soon started the Reconquista (Reconquest) to win back the peninsula from the Muslims. That took almost 700 years, until Granada was taken in 1492.

At first glance, the Reconquista looks like a religious conflict, but in fact it was more about power and economics than religion. We might also ask ourselves about reconquering territory after so many years; perhaps the Muslims were as Iberian or almost as Iberian as the Christians after all that time? Today some historians call the Reconquista an extended civil war between different cultural groups.

That sounds pretty violent, but for many years medieval Iberia (not yet Spain) was a truly multicultural society, with religious freedom for everyone, and a lot of mutual respect. Spanish has a fabulous word for that: convivencia , which I like to call “with-living” (con=with, vivir= to live): that’s a lot better than just tolerance, where my way is the right way, but I let you do your thing because I’m a good person.

Convivencia meant that the three major monotheistic religious (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) got along pretty well, each with their customs, but all respecting the other groups. There were some rules, of course: Christians in Islamic Iberia had religious freedom, but might not be able to build new places of worship, might not have access to the best jobs, might pay higher taxes and of course, should not blaspheme against Islam. Similar policies would have been in place in Christian Iberia; Jewish people lived in both territories, also with some limitations.

Convivencia worked pretty well for quite a long time – but it eventually did fall apart. Still, it’s fascinating to think about that getting-along and wonder if there is any way to make it happen again. (want to know more about convivencia? There are two good medieval history books on reading list, see Books link in navigation bar).

The M-Words: Within that multicultural society, different cultural groups had different names, the most frequently used names all starting with the letter “M”. I’m not enough of a linguist to know if there is a hidden reason for that, but nothing obvious jumped out at me when looking up the etymology of these words in the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary.    Here’s a summary of the different cultural groups in medieval Iberia.

Mudéjar, from Arabic word mudaÿÿan (or mudaggan), meaning domesicated or under domination. This word is for Muslims living in Christian areas as the reconquista moved south. Mostly humble social classes – farmers, builders, textile workers – probably because the skilled and wealthy moved to Muslim areas after their towns / cities were taken over by Christians. Mudéjar is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style arches and decoration in civil architectural and even Christian churches.

Moriscos, from Spanish word moros (Moorish), meaning someone who converted from Islam to Christianity. This word covers voluntary conversions but also and more importantly forced conversions after the Catholic Monarchs’ conversion edict in 1502. In Aragon and Valencia regions this group was quite numerous, and also called saracenos.

Mozárabe, from Arabic Word musta´rab, meaning influenced by Arabic language / culture. This word is for Christians living in Islamic áreas; Christians living in Christian Iberia tended to regard Mozárabe Christians as too Arabized to be true Christians. The Mozárabe Christians used the older Christian religious rites even after the rest of Spain changed to the Roman rites in the 11th century – those earlier rites are still practiced today in a few places, among them the Mozárabe chapel in Toledo’s Cathedra. Mozárabe is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style architecture for churches, though most of the churches in this style are in northern Spain, built by Christians who had had lived under Islam but left those areas Christian kingdoms.

Marrano, from old Spanish and also Arabic muharram, meaning declared anathema, forbidden. This word is for Jews converted to Christianity, mostly under the Catholic Monarchs’ convert or leave edict of 1492. Another word for the same cultural group: conversos (converted). The word marrano also means pig in Spanish, an unfortunate linguistic coincidence (if not intended nastiness) for a group that might have continued to shun pork, in spite of their conversion to Christianity.

Muladí, from old Spanish and also Arabic muwalladín, meaning born of a non-Arabic mother. This word is for Christians who converted to Islam. Most of these conversions were voluntary, as the Muslim rulers respected the right to religious freedom even to the end of their power in medieval Iberia. Christians may have converted to enjoy better social situation, more access to administrative jobs, better tax situation, etc. This word was also used for children of mixed-religion couples – even today the similar word muwalladin is used for these children.

Source for lots (but not all) this post: Spanish Royal Academy dictionary If you like language this is a great website!

Warm Knees

Once upon a time…
There were mesas camillas in many homes.
People who speak some Spanish will have caught the “table” (mesa) and may even have sniffed out the “bed” in the word camilla. People who remember mesas camillas are either rolling their eyes or smiling nostalgically, depending on how fond they are of this bit of Spain’s past.
So what is a mesa camilla? It’s a round table with a heavy tablecloth down to the floor. Underneath the tablecloth hides a source of heat: originally a shallow metal tray with embers from the fireplace, later an electric unit in the same shape. Prior to central heating, this was a frequent way of heating people, if not an entire room, especially in warmer parts of Spain.
People sat around the table with the tablecloth over their legs to eat, watch TV, snooze or to play endless rounds of cards. Warm legs, knees and tummy, but possibly a cold back if sitting in a hard chair instead of a sofa or armchair. Getting up after an afternoon sitting around the mes camilla was chilly, to say the least.
Obviously there’s a fire hazard here. A friend tells of a charred wool skirt, and my own memories include a pair of melted tennis shoes that had unwisely been stored under the table (not by me!).
Undoubtably mesas camillas are still alive and well in some parts of Spain. But not in Madrid, or at least not in My Madrid. Or so I thought, but Spain’s newish smoking law has brought a timid comeback for mesas camillas.
Huh? What’s the connection?
As of January 2, 2011 all public buildings in Spain are smoke-free (one wag says it’s the only country where you go indoors for fresh air). Offices, hospitals and schools, of course. But also bars and restaurants. This was a huge change: smokers relegated to the great outdoors.
Here in Madrid, that’s not a problem for about seven months of the year, but for the rest of the year, those poor smokers would shiver at the outside cafés were it not for the gas heaters placed strategically among the tables. Other bars have added fuzzy blankets to their chairs to prevent CB (cold bottom).

And at least one café, my usual coffee bar has opted for mesas camillas to keep their smoking customers warm and happy.