Madrid bids to bring back 'the stroll' by taming its fierce drivers

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The Independent Online

In a project compared in scale to the rebirth of Berlin, Madrid is to undergo a transformation to make its world-class art galleries more accessible and relaunch a historic boulevard for pedestrians to savour the traditional pleasures of strolling, socialising and showing off.

In a project compared in scale to the rebirth of Berlin, Madrid is to undergo a transformation to make its world-class art galleries more accessible and relaunch a historic boulevard for pedestrians to savour the traditional pleasures of strolling, socialising and showing off.

The Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira – who recreated Lisbon's historic Chiado district after it was gutted by fire in 1988 – has won a competition to humanise the area around the Paseo del Prado.

The boulevard is hemmed in by 10 lanes of fiercely moving traffic, making any attempt to cross from the Prado museum to the Thyssen-Bornemizsa gallery across the highway a life-threatening experience.

Even those creeping along the pavements are dizzied by clouds of pollution and battered by noise. The area contains Spain's three most visited museums (the third is the Reina Sofia) and is dubbed by the authorities the Golden Mile, or "the golden triangle of art". This is the spot most visited by anyone setting foot in Madrid. But pedestrians here feel oppressed, treated like unwelcome intruders in a cityscape dominated by motorists.

Now Siza plans to widen pavements, sacrifice traffic lanes, create a bus lane, divert traffic to widened underpasses nearby, bury bus stations and carparks, and pedestrianise side streets, especially the historic Cuesta de Moyano whose ranks of foldaway wooden bookstalls will occupy the centre of the street instead of skulking on the pavement.

Building work may take 10 or 20 years and fling the city centre into a chaos of potholes and mechanical drills – something Madrileños are hardened to. But the reform reflects belated recognition that this corner of Madrid gave birth to the stroll.

The Paseo de Prado was built to tame open meadows ( prado) east of the Spanish capital, and here began the stroll, or paseo, as a national art form involving hissed compliments, fanwork, dressing up, flaunting, flirting and intrigue. "The crush is so great," wrote the 19th-century French traveller Théophile Gautier, "that you can scarcely put your hand in your pocket to take out a handkerchief. You tread on people's heels and follow the crowd as if queuing for the theatre ... The Prado is one of the liveliest spectacles you can see."

People even sat out on chairs to watch – a tradition that may revive.

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