[tweetmeme] I’ve only lived a quarter of its life, that’s around 25 years of walking, running, skating, dodging, pushing, insulting, staring, flirting, eating, vomiting… god what haven’t I done in the Gran Via? Probably fucking… although that’s so accessible & affordable nowadays that it wouldn’t surprise me if some of you have.
Madrid’s Gran Via (literally Great Way) is neither the longest or widest street in Madrid, yet the great amount of shops, theatres, cinemas & cafés have turned it into the most popular street in the Spanish capital.
The plan to create a broad boulevard through the centre of Madrid was conceived a century ago in 1907, and work began three years later. It was inspired by the grand avenues of Paris, but ended up looking much more American than French.
The idea was to link the growing neighbourhoods of Salamanca to the east of the city with Argüelles in the west, as well as opening up the cramped centre. Back then, the heart of Spain’s capital city was a dark labyrinth of twisting lanes, which had been expanding in a totally unplanned way for four centuries.
As urban development goes, this was a pretty drastic scheme. Clearing the path for the new road meant demolishing more than 300 houses and dozens of little shops. 14 entire streets disappeared, and more than 30 were affected by the work.
Let’s have a quick walk starting in Plaza España shall we? I’ll point ya to those “must” places to visit the next time you bump into this busy street.. or its surroundings, because La Gran Via is more than just a mere avenue.
We’re hungry, and in the need of some nice & affordable Chinese food…. so I propose to visit what some call the “Blade Runner” shop…. A tiny underground corridor inside a Parking with one Chinese shop & its restaurant …. Nice and very very affordable. Now that our stomach is full we better get started… we’ll have to walk for 1,3KM until we get to the other end, Plaza Cibeles. Not very long, but you could spend easily a whole day in it…
As we walk up, on our left side the Coliseum Theatre proposes the first of the many musicals & shows which have transformed our street into the “Madrilian Broadway”… “Chicago”, not the first time is performed in this street… not long ago it was the Beauty & the Beast and in a few months time…. “a saber”. Madrid’s musicals are obviously adapted for the Spanish audience but that doesn’t make them less exciting, most of the original directors from Broadway or the West End come over here to make sure the quality & magic of the original attraction are scrupulously respected. We might buy some tickets (20€) for tonight, or better wait & see what’s the rest of Gran Via’s offer.
Reaching the corner of this block we’ll find the first sign of cultural decadence that has quietly & quickly transformed the GV into a shopping mall rather than the cinema & theatre venue it once was. A Friday’s replaced in 2007 one of those mythical (probably also one of the least well-known) cinemas that once brightened this street: Cine Azul, a cozy but highly respected theatre for its eclectic film selection. The first loss of many… we’ll come back to that later on, when we reach Callao square.
Mmmmmmm already feeling thirsty? We might just need to walk a few more meters until the Museo del Jamón (Ham Museum), what we could consider the typical Madrid fast food restaurant…. ask for a caña (a really cheap cold beer… probably 1-2€) and they’ll give you a free tapa, some “jamon, chorizo, salchichon” or maybe some “cortezas”. There are several across Madrid, and it’s always a guarantee of cheap cold beer & free tapas plus you can always buy pretty good Spanish Jamon & other Ibericos.
Once refreshed and back to the street we’ll keep walking up leaving Garcia Molinas street on our left….ahhh how many nights might I have partied there at sala “de Nombre Publico” (Coppelia, Low, One…) where the air conditioning never worked…. or at “Le Garage”, hidden just in front by the underground parking (now closed boooooo).
That’s more than 5 years ago so… keep walking, leaving the Gran Via theatre on our left and the famous Lope de Vega on our right and right before reaching San Bernardo street we’ll have some time for visiting two of the most famous shoe shops where you’ll be able to find good quality (not cheap however) Mallorcan & Valencian shoes… Lurueña & Carmina. Right in front and in case you didn’t have that caña before we encourage you to have a coffee at the Nebraska cafeteria and its 70s Americanish style… not elegant at all, expect something more shabby but still…. it’s iconic.
Oh look! We’ve reached San Bernardo with its bars, comic & book shops and the nearest 24/7 food store (for those crazy party nights at Gran Via) and from the same zebra crossing Flor Alta street ends, with the European Design Institute & its “private” soirees…. free catering, free alcohol… if you have the occasion (usually many Thursday – Friday nights) try to gatecrash … no-one will notice if you say “I’m an architecture / design student” and you’re wearing trendy clothes 😉
We’ve spent too much time on this end side of Gran Via, so we’re not stopping until we get to its second main square… Callao, which luckily for us has become a 100% pedestrian square. Nice huh? (ok we’ve missed another theatre and a couple of cinemas, especially the Capitol which opened in 1933… and still resisting!!).
Here you’ll find one of the most representative buildings & cinemas of the Gran Via: the Palacio de la Prensa which still keeps a tradition that most cinemas in this capital have lost: hand-painted posters on their billboards announcing the films. Not that long ago all cinemas in this street kept that tradition, unfortunately it’s something way too expensive these days and most cinemas have now abandoned this artistic practice to cut expenses. Sad.
And the biggest desecration (but logic evolution) comes in the form of an H&M, number 37. This impressive building (from 1928) used to house the gorgeous Cine Avenida and whether we like it or not it won’t be coming back. Luckily enough the Swedish retail giant decided to respect the original structure of the theatre, so if you pop in, you’ll still recognise the marble stairs & marble pillars which led to the second floor and the boxes and the stalls on the ground floor.
The following stop right after Cine Avenida is another historical… the Palacio de la Musica (Music Palace). When they closed it last year rumours quickly appeared … was it H&M’s main competitor Zara who had bought it? another retailing multinational? Oh dear…
But no, for once they’ve done the correct thing. A local bank foundation is transforming it into what it was originally… a musical auditorium, and no, no more cinema but we’ll gain a second floor plus access to the terrace!! Those spring nights in the Music Palace terrace are seriously going to rock! We’ll still have to wait until 2012 to enjoy it.
Ending this block, once again, the Inditex empire has opened one of its branches: Ohsho and right in front at the other side of the Gran Via a massive Zara witnesses hundreds of addicted consumers looking for their latest collections. Gran Via has become the one of the most coveted streets for retail brands in Madrid; Zara, H&M, Mango, Sfera, Nike,.. and as soon as other theatre, cinema or venue falls they’ll be there, waiting for a nice spacious building.
In this first perpendicular street “Mesonero Romanos” on the left, leaving Zara behind and without going too much into detail (we won’t leave the Gran Via, don’t worry) you’ll find Flamingo’s club, another renown disco with its poppy “Ocho y medio” nights or its “Dark Hole” Gothic parties. If you’re adventurous enough… by the end of the street you’ll get to Desengaño, a hub of prostitution but at the same time vibrant night-clubs, trendy shops & restaurants…. you could basically live the real Madrid only by visiting this street (ok, I’m exagerating).
We deserve a break! Let’s head to Palazzo, Italian ice-creams which have been here for several decades still resisting to all those Star Bucks & Ben & Jerry’s. My favourite… milky rice, although white chocolate or “leche merengada” are just as delicious … mmmm. OK cross to the other side, quick! To one of Europe’s biggest book shops, “La Casa del Libro” (house of books) with a bit of tradition and a large choice of stories… you might just want to spend half an hour picking, sitting down & glancing through all sorts of publications.
After that “cultural” mini-break let’s start moving towards one of the most popular landmarks of this street: Gran Via’s underground exit with Montera street on one side and Fuencarral at the other. The Telefonica Building (the first skyscraper built in Europe in the 20s) which has now become some kind of Telecommunications museum (also the Telefonica Foundation is here); at the other side of the street we find, again, an Inditex heresy: a Bershka at the place of the mythical Madrid Rock.
The Madrid Rock is one sad story like many here at the Gran Via. Once the most iconic & representative music shop for music-lovers & exigent album collectors the owner of the local decided 5 years ago that it wasn’t profitable enough, the money Inditex offered was a great amount of cash, enough to forget what this iconic shop represented. More than just a shop, Madrid Rock was a shelter for those rainy days when meeting by the metro station. Another sad story.
Right next to it the most famous fast-food chain in the world, a McDonalds, but not any McDonalds. This Gran Via McDonalds keeps the Art-Deco structure & ornaments from the 30s making it a very posh fast-food spot. And while we leave Montera street on our right (currently the prostitute alley in the city-centre) we’re approaching the last bit of Gran Via, but also the most architectural impressive & beautiful part of it.
El Chicote is one of the most famous bars in Madrid and certainly a very recommended visit for a cocktail or two (so we’ll leave it for later on). Hemmingway used to get drunk here; they’re so proud of its history they’ve kept the same décor since the day it opened back in the 30s. It’s one of those places the stars used to go to, and there are stories of every Hollywood pin-up coming by whenever they were in town to drink in one of the cozy little alcoves.
Just after Chicote’s block you’ll find La Estrella building and the Grassy block with the restaurant where we’ll be having dinner: Gula Gula. This is not just a simple “creative cuisine” restaurant. A couple of shows every night, cabarets, drag-queens, surrealistic situations and a great risk for you to get caught in the middle of this madness (30€ though… but a great time).
Last but not least we find the impressive Metropolis building, built in 1907 it has a clear French inspiration, designed by Jules and Raymond Février for the insurance company La Unión y el Fénix. It is currently owned by another insurance company: Metrópolis Seguros (the most beautiful buildings of this city are either owned by Banks or Insurance companies…).
And here finishes our quick journey through one of the busiest & most exciting streets in Madrid. The guys at El Mundo have compiled & created a pretty decent file with the history, interviews & really nice 360 views of the Gran Via. Even if you don’t understand Spanish we highly encourage you to visit their website, it’s our gift for your eyes.