Out of Spain: World's noisiest city turns deaf ear to acoustic alarmists

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The Independent Online
MADRID - With the possible current exception of Sarajevo, Madrid has to be the noisiest city in the world. Unlike Sarajevo, incoming artillery shells are not the problem. The last one came in more than half a century ago during the Civil War. Mind you, even an incoming 155mm shell would probably pass unnoticed amid the cacophony of traffic, construction work, car horns, rubbish lorries, organ-grinders, bottle-bank sadists and the noisiest places of all, the city's thousands of bars. In the Madrid bar, noise is golden. It is considered impolite, insulting, not to mention useless, to whisper.

A bar is not a bar if it does not have a television on at full volume, a slot-machine that renders endless permutations of the theme to ET, a radio sports report and customers who can shout down all of the above put together. A barman who places a glass, plate or stack of dishes gently, rather than slamming them to the limit of breakability, faces almost certain dismissal as a wimp.

A city councillor, Ana Tutor, recently drew attention to the problem, saying up to half a million residents of central Madrid - within the so-called almendra (literally 'kernel', the heart of the city) - were actually going deaf. The other half-million living within that area, whose natural boundary is considered the M30 ring road, were either suffering from or in danger of succumbing to noise-related stress, hypertension and fatigue, she said.

I can certainly vouch for that. I live in the 'kernel of the kernel', the barrio of Salamanca. At least during General Mladic's afternoon brandy breaks on the hills above Sarajevo, there was some respite. I think I can claim to live in the noisiest neighbourhood on the planet.

The barrio of Salamanca was the least noisy neighbourhood of the city during the Civil War if Hemingway's play The Fifth Column is to be believed. His reasoning was that Franco's nationalists, while laying siege to Madrid, laid off Salamanca because it was a pro-Franco stronghold and stomping ground of his so-called Fifth Column infiltrators. It has not changed that much. After all, he who wins can usually stay put.

The elderly men with the Francoesque moustaches, who walk their poodles down the Calle de Serrano, wince at the gypsies and beggars who add to the din with their violins, mandolins and organs. Salamanca's younger generation, who visit the bottle bank outside my home as others might visit a discotheque, clearly believe smashing each bottle makes the recycling job easier. Perhaps they are just getting rid of some of that noise-related stress.

The rubbish lorries, of course, have a job to do. The fact that they do it at 11pm on my street, and 1.30am on the adjacent one, has a certain logic. That, they reckon, is when most madrilenos are out wining, dining or dancing. Poorly paid, enjoying the echo of their clanging and banging along the barrio's narrow backstreets is probably the only job satisfaction they get.

Madrid's Mother of All Noises, though, is the car horn. Not so much used in anger, more as an offshoot of another local custom, double- or triple-parking. Parking by the kerb in my barrio is considered plain stupid. Double-parking is a calculated risk. Triple-parking is considered your safest bet if you want to be sure of getting out. That's where the horns come in. If blocked in, the custom is to give regular long blasts for the first few minutes. After 10 minutes, the continuous blast is acceptable, until a. the offending driver appears or b. your battery goes dead. If the latter, your problem has, in a sense, anyway been solved.

I certainly appear to be going deaf. I was barely able to pick out the graphic reference to depositing excrement on my ancestors' graves, mouthed by a fellow driver during a recent traffic dispute. Perhaps the overall racket had got to him. 'Noise is one of the most offensive things the people of Madrid suffer in their daily lives,' Ms Tutor said. 'It's one of the causes of urban stress.'

The conservative-run City Hall says Ms Tutor, a Socialist, is an 'alarmist'. Nevertheless, it has drawn up an unusual Acoustic Map of Madrid to investigate. More than 800 microphone-like devices were placed around the city centre to measure decibels. It found the average noise volume in central Madrid was more than 75 decibels - 10 decibels above the tolerance limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. A local expert, Salvador Santiago of the Acoustic Institute, was philosophical. 'It's no noisier than any other European city,' he said. 'It's just that here the levels are constant.' Comforting words.

Despite the warnings, the City Hall has turned a deaf ear to the problem. No sign yet of a return to Spain's 15th century forerunner of the MOT, when a municipal regulation banned horse-drawn carts in poor condition.

I asked Rogelio, barman in my favourite local, Pelaez, in Lagasca Street, if the noise ever got to him. I should, of course, have expected the perfectly sincere reply: 'Que?'