It was a bit rainy and overcast the day my friend Anne and I rode the circular bus to meet her husband, Luis, for lunch. We were headed to a restaurant located in a new park called Madrid Río, which, to be honest, I didn't even know existed. Luis had chosen the restaurant and neither Anne, a professor of linguistics at Saint Louis University Madrid, nor I had eaten there before. After we got off the crowded bus, Anne told me a little bit about the new park and how it had dramatically changed the surrounding neighborhoods, once ignored and on the downward slide. As we walked down a wide set of steps into the park, I looked around at the dense housing adjacent to the park and had a sudden appreciation for a civic project that transformed the front yards of thousands of homes from a noisy, dirty highway to a green, healthy park. Already I was impressed.
We walked with great anticipation into the airy and bright Café del Rio, where Luis was waiting patiently, as we were quite late, thanks to the crowded, slow-moving bus. "You've had lunch already?" Luis asked with his dry sense of humor.
The restaurant was busy, even if the weather was not an attraction, and the roofdeck was closed of course, but one could imagine sitting up there on a sunny day, having a long Spanish lunch and enjoying the views of the Royal Palace and the spires of the Almudena Cathedral, a modern Gothic behemoth that serves as the seat of the Catholic Diocese in Madrid.
The park, it turns out, was created after the mayor and city council of Madrid decided to bury part of a highway and connect the city's River Manzanares to various neighborhoods near the Príncipe Pío metro stop. Sound familiar, Philadelphians?
For decades now, Philadelphia has been talking about creating a park above Interstate 95 to connect the Delaware River to the eastern neighborhoods of the city. Maybe Mayor Jim Kenney and some council folk should take a trip to Madrid.
The Madrid Río project cost 6 billion euros, most of which was spent on building tunnels so the highway could be buried. It was a civic project, not a public-private partnership, as is popular today.
It all began In 2003, when the Madrid city council voted to move part of the M-30 ring highway underground and build a 3.7-mile-long park above it. The mayor, Alberto Ruíz Gallardón, championed the public works project and had little patience for the slow process of courting private donors, according to press reports. By 2008, construction had begun and in 2011, the park was complete with a "beach," sports and recreation areas, 11 new footbridges, 8,000 pine trees, and 17 play areas. A controversial metallic footbridge represented one of its few artistic forays. The park connected poor neighborhoods with the more affluent ones and one stated intention was that all of Madrid would walk, exercise more in the out-of-doors. A sign states the goal. "Walking People" Yes, in English.
We had a delightful and entertaining lunch (the fish was fabulous) and I was so taken with the park that I returned the next day to walk around some more. People were jogging, riding bikes, doing all the healthy things open spaces and parks encourage urban dwellers to do. Sure the trees were still young and, compared to the mature beauty of magnificent Retiro Park, Madrid Río was sparse. But give it a few years and it will be grand. And, unlike Schuylkill Banks in Philadelphia, Madrid Río is a wide park with bike paths that leave a lot of room for pedestrians. Even on a warm sunny day, I could imagine that one would not feel as if they were about to be run down by speed-demon bicycles.
As always, I get a little lost and as I wandered through the park, I had no idea where I was headed, but eventually I began to tire and looked for an exit. Finally, I found a street that looked inviting and left the park to try to figure out where I was and how I might get back to Malasaña and my apartment. But once I was at the corner of the intersection and waiting for the light to change, I looked up and to my happy surprise, I saw a sign that said Casa Mingo. Seems I ended up at just the right place on the Paseo de Florida. Casa Mingo is one of those enduring places where Madrileños and tourists alike are willing to stand in line for a table. It doesn't hurt that it is near the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, where Goya painted the chapel's ceiling and dome frescoes, which I had enjoyed seeing on a previous trip.
Wow! As it was about 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I thought it might be possible to stop in and eat at the beloved Casa Mingo, a rustic Asturian restaurant founded in 1888 and famous for its roasted chicken and ciders. After all, 1:30 p.m. is early for a Spanish lunch, so I thought it might not be too crowded. Wrong, very wrong. Every single table was filled, the bar was two deep and there was a long line of folks waiting for tables. I don't even like roasted chicken that much, but, as I was there, I was determined to have some. You can have lunch standing at the bar, but you have to go over to a little booth, pay for the chicken and carry it back to the bar. There you can order from a variety of ciders and they will serve you, as always, tapas (the free type); mine happened to be a small slice of fresh bread topped with cabrales, a blue cheese from Asturias. Others were served cider-soaked chorizo. I guess the waiter intuited that I'm not much of a meat eater. Anyway, the chicken was so incredibly delicious, I couldn't really believe it. I took some home and it tasted just as good cold as it had when it was hot, fresh from the roaster. Getting lost, it seems, works out okay most of the time.
As with most places in Madrid, I can't wait to return to Madrid Río, which has been celebrated with an array of architectural prizes. Even Barcelona, Madrid's forever competitor (not just in soccer or fútbol as they say in Spain), was impressed with how quickly Madrid Río materialized and the civic determination it took to make that happen.
So, thank you, Luis, for the introduction to a grand park and one more item on my long list of things to love about Madrid!
For more information on Madrid Rio, please go to http://www.archtalent.com/projects/madrid-rio.
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