Sizzling, landlocked Madrid gets cool new 'beach'

Madrid residents, who suffer searing summer heat in a city that is several hours from the coast, will be able to cool off at their own "beach" in a vast new park that opened to the public Friday.

The Madrid Rio (Madrid River) project is a new green belt that runs eight kilometres (five miles) and covers 120 hectares (300 acres) along the banks of Manzanares River in the west of the city.

It includes sports and cultural facilities, shaded walks, 30 kilometres of bicycle paths, children's playgrounds, cafes and restaurants.

But the jewel in the crown is a "city beach", similar to the one that opened on the River Seine in Paris in 2002, and which features three large shallow pools with fountains and jets of vaporized water surrounded by grassy areas.

Hundreds of Madrid residents gathered Friday morning in warm sunshine as the last section of the park opened to the public, under a massive futuristic grey steel footbridge.

A spokeswoman at the city hall said the "beach" itself will not be open for several days as work has still to be completed.

The sprawling park offers a shady breath of fresh air in the Spanish capital, where summer temperatures often soar above 40 C (100 F) and which lies 350 kilometres from the coast, and the beaches that Spain is famed for.

"It's a wonderful place of tranquility," said Fernando Lopez, an unemployed 38-year-old who had come to see the park open. "All Madrilenos can enjoy it."

"It's great as there were no public play areas here before," said Marta Sanz, 40, a local resident, as she watched her five-year-old son use one of the eight huge slides that cover a rock garden by the beach. "When the beach is finished we'll be there."

More than 25,000 trees and thousands of shrubs were planted and 11 new footbridges constructed to connect the working-class districts of Carabanchal and Latina with the city centre. Some of the historic old bridges on the Manzanares were also restored.

The river itself - a target of derision by residents for decades - has also had its water quality improved, and the flow increased from what was previously just a trickle through a muddy riverbed in parts. Swimming however is not permitted.

Part of the city's M-30 ringroad was rerouted and now passes underneath the Madrid Rio project to make way for the massive new development.

The project, seven years in the planning and construction, stretches from the Arganzuela park in the south, which includes the Madrid Matadero contemporary arts centre, formerly the city's slaughterhouse, up to the vast Casa de Campo, Madrid's main park, in the west.

Friday's opening came during campaigning for May 22 regional and municipal elections, and any official inauguration ceremony was therefore barred by law.

But Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, of the conservative opposition Popular Party, has tied himself firmly to the project and predicted it will become "the reference point of a new Madrid".

Spain's ruling Socialist Party has noted in turn that it was partly financed by central government.

Ecologists in Action, an umbrella group of environmental groups, however has condemned the transformation of the M-30 and the fact that it was carried out "without an environmental impact assessment."

"The expansion of the M-30 means even more cars are going through in Madrid, which is the worst possible strategy to reduce the problems caused by the car," said a spokesman, Paco Segura.

Local residents however are delighted.

"I have the great fortune to live just 200 metres (yards) from the Madrid beach," said Arturo Gonzalez, a businessman.

"I have had to absorb all the particles and dust during the construction, so now I'm here to enjoy the completed work."

"It's tremendous, the whole area has been transformed," said Jose Lozano, 67, who has lived in Carabanchal for 28 years. "I am going to take advantage of all of it, including the beach."

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