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Re-wilding the Manzanares River
Helping an urban channel mostly return to nature
Hello! Yes, Diverge is back and hopefully now on a real schedule. Apologies for a too-long absence.
Spring was kind of strange, between a messed-up knee; studying for a Spanish fluency exam; aftereffects of our not-friend COVID (didn’t get sick but just grumpy and out of sync); and as some of you know, contributing a lot to the International Newcomers Club newsletter. All of that technically over or sorted out, now “only” have two UNED distance learning courses, a Camino trip in September, and a virtual walk around Iceland – 65% done!
For some ongoing summer news, see the end: theater in Madrid, Almagro and Mérida, for example, plus the always good PHE photo exhibits.
TONIGHT: Noche de San Juan! St. John Eve! This is a sanitized version of the pagan Midsummer Night (which just happened), but to make it more acceptable to the modern world, the celebration is on night June 23-24, the night before St. John day. While theoretically in the name of a saint, this fiesta is obviously pagan in origin, with bonfires and different rituals to celebrate the shortest night of the year, a few days off the solstice in an attempt to make it more Christian. In addition to the bonfire itself, the brave or the foolish can leap over the fire seven times for good luck. People also write negative things on paper and burn the paper in the fire, to do away with those specific things or with bad luck in general. There are big celebrations in some coastal cities and towns (Gijón usually has a bonfire on the beach), in and in the villa of San Pedro Manrique, province of Soria, where they walk across the embers of the bonfire barefoot. (yes, really, and they don’t get burned). That’s just a few: any other cities and towns have official San Juan celebrations. In Madrid celebrations are unofficial but tolerated – at least in the past – and usually take place more or less behind San Francisco el Grande church on calle Bailén, after sundown on June 23.
On to our topic for the day: Rewilding the Manzanares
In case you didn’t know or had forgotten, Madrid has a river: the Manzanares. Sorry, Manzanares, I love you as much or more than most locals, but you are not the majestic river of other European cities, like the Tiber, Seine or Thames. But you’re ours, and you are just as important in Madrid history as those rivers are for their cities.
Our river is not inside the city, but was the western border when the Madrid was founded as a Muslim military outpost. (That was around 850 – empire builders like to claim that Madrid was already a town but that probably isn’t true, even though remains of Roman villas have been found nearby.) Just east of the river there’s a fairly steep bluff with a good view of the Guadarrama mountain, currently the site of the Royal Palace and Cathedral, but originally site of the Muslim military fortress that was the beginning of the city. That bluff is not visible unless you’re down by the river or in the Vistillas park on the south side of the Viaducto bridge looking at the back of the Cathedral and a little to the left of the Cathedral – or now you can see the western view towards the river from the fence between the Cathedral and the Palace. As the city grew, it had to grow east because of the riverside bluff, but as centuries passed, the river and its surroundings continued to be part of city life as site for agriculture, clothes-washing by traditional washerwomen, and recreation / strolling for locals. And the river never lost its use as western protective border for the city: during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) Francisco Franco’s attacking forces were slowed and constrained by the Manzanares. The city remained loyal to the legally elected government, while Franco’s rebel forces controlled most of the Casa de Campo park just on the other side of the river; they only had a small bridge upstream from the Puente de los Franceses railway bridge to supply their extended position in the Complutense University. Without the river they might have taken the city in the early days of the war.
So just what is and where is the Manzanares? To start, it is a completely “madrileño” river, starting in the Ventisquero de la Condesa snowfield just under the mountain most locals call the Bola del Mundo – that’s the first biggish mountain east of Navacerrada pass, with a red-and-white TV repeating station that looks like a rocket from a distance. From there, the river flows south through La Pedriza Biosphere reserve, two reservoirs and part of the Pardo nature area before reaching the northwest edge of Madrid-city. After flowing through the city, it continues south to meet the Jarama river near Aranjuéz, just before the Jarama meets the Tajo (Tagus). The total length is 92 kilometers / 57 miles.
Since the Manzanares is basically a medium-size mountain stream, the amount of water is extremely variable: barely a trickle in the summer (especially in a dry year), and a raging torrent at spring snowmelt time or if there has been a heavy rain. That can cause some issues in a city, so different projects throughout the centuries tried to tame the river, none successful until the 1940-1950’s project which channeled the river between high stone walls from Puente de los Franceses in the north to Legazpi in the south. That’s almost seven kilometers, and included seven dams, mostly moveable, curved metal barriers across the entire river channel that can be raised or lowered to control the water flow.
That mostly tamed the river, so no more flooding, which allowed urbanizing what was previously the river floodplain. Keeping the dams closed in the summer meant there was actually water in the river, even though it was dead, still water and not very clean, thanks to the lack of water purification systems until a lot later. Stinky and probably not healthy, but visually, there was water in the river. And visuals are important, right?
Years passed, Spain changed from dictatorship to democracy, people started speaking up and finally City Hall started listening. The Manzanares needed help. Purification plants above and below the city were the first logical – and much needed – step, but the Manzanares needed more.
Enter two forces that affected the future of the Manzanares: a mega-project to bury the part of Madrid’s M-30 ring road that runs right along the river, and create a riverside park on top of the tunnel – that project coincided closely with the section of the river channeled in the 1950’s. The idea was not only to bury the ring road and thus improve the quality of life along that mega-highway, but also to integrate the river and the Casa de Campo park into city life. That project was long (2005 – 2011 for construction), complicated, and expensive, but the completed park was a roaring success from the very start. The other force was a lot of pressure from environmental groups for city hall to “re-wild” the river. City hall might have done it anyway, but having a fabulous riverside park along a sick, stinky river was not a good image, so the re-wilding process finally got started in 2016.
The first step was easy: open all the dams and let the river run free. That went on for perhaps two years so the river could make some of its own decisions, then river experts stepped in to help. The over-wide artificial channel was narrowed in some places with rocks, and the islands or sandbars created naturally by the river enhanced with sand or dirt. Appropriate riverside vegetation was also added, sometimes on the edges of the channel and sometimes on the islands – mostly rushes, grasses and willows.
And yes, the re-wilding has been a success. If you can ignore the walls of the channel, now if you stand on a bridge and look at the river it looks almost natural. You can actually see the bottom of the river, the water flows wiggle-waggle and ever-changing like a river should flow, and it’s fun to see the water level change constantly with the seasons or with the amount of precipitation. The biggest indicator of the newly wild river is that there are now lots of water birds, including egrets and cormorants as well as a variety of ducks, geese and (get this) seagulls. Under study: stocking the river with native kinds of fish.
Manzanares, it’s wonderful to see you almost as wild in the city as in the meadows in the mountains near your birthplace. My apologies in the name of the humans that channeled you and dirtied you, and my thanks to the environmental groups that worked so hard to convince City Hall to let you run free. Here’s hoping that your wilding will continue to be successful.
What’s on in and near Madrid, summer 2021.
Photo España 2021 (PHE21) International photo exhibits, many venues, many artists, many styles. This is a should-see if you are at all curious about photography – and in addition to specific exhibits, there are some conferences and master-classes by different kinds of experts. The website has a list of exhibits so you can browse and choose, but one you might want to consider is the Ouka Leele (Spanish woman photographer) exhibit at the always-fabulous Círculo de Bellas Artes – and once you’re in the building, check out the other exhibits, there’s usually several going on (see what’s on here: https://www.circulobellasartes.com/ ) . Going up to the roof is an extra fee, but the charming cafeteria on the ground floor is available to anyone, once inside the building. Where and when: many venues around the city. Until September 30. More info including the list of exhibits: https://www.phe.es/festivalphe/
Madrid’s summer cultural program Veranos de la Villa / Summer in the City. Usually has theater, dance, music and multiple venues inside and outside, and by groups both Spanish and international. More info here, don’t delay getting tickets if there is something you want to see. More info: https://www.veranosdelavilla.com/es
Theater festival in Mérida (Badajoz province). Mostly classic theater, as in, Greek and Roman, some later plays and music. Venue: the Roman theater. Try to plan some extra days to see the Roman sites in the city, as well as the museum, but plan your visits for cooler times of day since Mérida can be quite warm in summer. More info https://www.festivaldemerida.es/
International theater festival in Almagro (Ciudad Real province). This used to be only for classic Spanish theater in an 17th century-style theater, but the festival has gotten a lot bigger and now includes different kinds of theater, international groups and different venues. The town has other things: lovely main square and local craft is handmade lace (encaje de bolillos). Info on the theater festival https://www.festivaldealmagro.com/ Info on the town: https://www.turismoalmagro.com/
Medieval fair in Ávila: Called Mercado de las Tres Culturas / Three Cultures Market for the three major religions that got along quite well in Medieval Spain. YES!!! This fun event will happen this year, though it may be scaled down from previous years. In the past, city sets up three neighborhoods (Muslim, Jewish, Christian), locals dress the part and there’s a market in the main square. Past events have also included street theater, appropriate music in the three neighborthoods, and even falconry. This is a should-see, this year or another time, Ávila is a perfect place for this kind of event. Info for this year https://celtadigital.com/mercados-medievales/avila/ Another website now showing 2019 but may update later, or give you an idea of what festival is like: https://www.avilaautentica.es/eventos/mercado-medieval-avila-xxiii-edicion-685