Elizabeth Nash: Journey into the underworld

Madrid Notebook

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I don't drive in Madrid. There's no point if you value your life and don't mind taking the Metro. It's quite fashionable to say how awful the roads are, how incomprehensible their signs, how brutish the drivers, how unbearable the noise and the pollution.

But I had a pleasant experience the other day of being driven through the new six-lane megatunnel that sweeps beneath the south of the city, absorbing vehicles that used to choke the roads on either bank of the Manzanares river.

The traffic was fluid, the pace stately, the air breathable. This unexpected, even shocking, transformation of what I'd accepted as normal is explained by subterranean speed limits of between 50 and 70kph, rigorously enforced via hundreds of cameras and radar checks. Road signs are still overloaded with information, though, and so close to their target that you may easily miss the turn-off, but that also helps curb the speed.

The megatunnel has produced benefits above ground too. The Manzanares is not the Seine, or the Thames or the Tiber. Rather, it is a line of spit, wrote the 17th-century satirist Francisco de Quevedo, where frogs and mosquitoes die of thirst. Alexandre Dumas, who planned to write about the Manzanares, "couldn't find it".

When the handsome Segovia bridge was built in 1583, Lope de Vega, Spain's Shakespeare, advised the authorities to sell it, or buy a river. For centuries the only people who paid it any attention were washerwomen who hung their laundry along its banks, before these were asphalted over.

Today's buried motorway has freed space for a riverside park. Trees have been planted and footbridges built to link northern and southern banks. It's still mostly a muddy wasteland, but promises cycle tracks and green promenades. For the first time in history, Madrid is turning to face its river. I won't be driving there, but I might venture a bike ride.

Signature dish

Some call it art, but Madrid's conservative deputy mayor Ana Botella, wife of former prime minister José Maria Aznar, condemns graffiti as "a social stain", whose perpetrators face a €6,000 fine. But grafiteros are fighting back. A collective calling itself the Ana Botella Crew have been out and about spray-stencilling Ms Botella's signature all over the city's walls, just at eye level.

Poetry in the everyday

A Swiss friend who's lived here for decades collects unusual names of Spanish villages for their poetic beauty. At a packed poetry slam in Madrid's avant-garde, arty bar Libertad 8, Werner stood up and intoned the sonorous ancient names: Ballesteros de Calatrava, Moraleja de Matacabras, Peñaranda de Bracamonte, Campillo de Ranas, Valdoviño, Cariño, Sil... , and won first prize.

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