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Botellón: Spain’s love-hate relationship with drinking in the street

11 September 2016
Botellón on Ribera de Curtidores during Fiesta San Cayetano

Botellón is a favourite pastime in action, but it’s seriously testing the innate Spanish tolerance for noise and is causing friction across the full breadth of society.

Before reading about Madrid’s buzzing botellón sites, it’s important to understand that many of them are illegal and are an area of great controversy. Far from condoning illegal drinking in the streets, this article aims to explain changes within Spanish culture by looking at an example of self-conflict. It also provides a snapshot of a phenomenon that may one day cease to exist but that, while it still continues, joins up the dots of the Spanish charisma that this city thrives on.

THE STORY OF BOTELLÓN

For sure people have been drinking in the street forever, but the current wave is believed to have emerged in 1980s Andalusia in protest at extortionate drinks prices. However, the origins of botellón as we know it may not be entirely Spanish. When the crippling dictatorship came to an abrupt end, Spain was finally able to look to its European cousins and observe many new liberal practices such as wearing bikinis, eating meat on a Friday and binge drinking. Post-Franco, tourism from places like the UK, Germany and Norway boomed and brought with it the unapologetic technique of drinking to get drunk. Evidence of this imported culture may lie in the predominant botellón beverages  mixed drinks – something more traditionally seen in colder northern European countries.

Mobile phones and social networks could be the reason why botellón exists at such a large scale. When Generation X were young, they didn’t have the ability to send bat-signal-style messages out to their friends – drinking in the street was a far more casual, spontaneous affair.

Although botellón can be seen as a cheap alternative to drinking in bars and clubs, it’s arguably an activity in its own right. Drinking in the street allows you the freedom to get an unlimited amount of your friends together on any given night, and of course you’re sitting outside and enjoying the fresh air. You can eat whatever you want from wherever you want, mix drinks to the strength you like, and there’s no kick-out time.

The stereotypical botellonero is a teenager, but nowadays a growing share of the fines for botellón are issued to 30-somethings: perhaps another barometer of the Spanish financial crisis.

“THE BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE”

It’s Saturday night and 21-year-old Toni and his amig@s head to the supermarket and all chip in for a bottle of vodka, a couple of bottles of coke and a bag of ice to make mixers. Abonos jóvenes in hand, they ride the Cercanías to Sol like no one’s watching. They park themselves up at a square and sit cross-legged on the ground with their guitar and a cajón. On a hot summer night on Plaza Juan Pujol, the singing and dancing is contagious and all the other botelloneros get involved. The buzz in the air is electric – tonight will be a time of their youth that they’ll all look back on fondly.

“ANOTHER SHIT NIGHT’S SLEEP”

Jose Luís and his wife have just gone to bed but can’t get to sleep. The sound of flamenco guitar, clapping, glass bottles rolling on cobbles and animated conversation penetrates the window which Jose Luís has closed because of cannabis smoke drifting into the bedroom. Eventually, at around 4 am, they get to sleep. In the morning, he pops out to pick up some bread, steps over a smashed bottle and groans at the mess. That afternoon, Jose Luís leans out of his balcony window and breathes a sigh of relief to see the street cleaners come and do their magic, but wonders why his taxes are going towards picking up the rubbish of irresponsible youths.

THE SOLUTION

Perhaps it’s botellón’s un-Spanish origins that mean it doesn’t quite fit with Spain’s well-established culture, and perhaps tensions run high with local authorities because botelloneros aren’t spending any money in the local bars and restaurants.

The truth is, botellón could be a great thing, when it’s not on your doorstep. So what can be done? The solution is designated botellón zones known as botellódromos. These street drinking zones are in non-residential areas and are monitored by local authorities. There’s one on the grounds of the Complutense University, which in 2006 hosted Madrid’s macro botellón event – a flashmob of street drinkers who wanted to protest against the restrictions on drinking in the street.

Another solution is the increasing number of guerilla gardens owned by local neighbours, where anyone and everyone can respectfully enjoy botellón. And the best thing about all of these places? They’re nice and far away from Jose Luís and his wife’s flat, so they can finally get a decent night’s sleep.

MADRID’S ILLEGAL BOTELLÓN SPOTS

These spectacles feature in this article purely so that you can witness and understand the issue under debate.

Plaza de San Idelfonso and Plaza Juan Pujol in Chueca/Malasaña seem to demonstrate the power of the masses. Police cars can be parked on the square with policemen in direct view, yet people continue their botellón session with not a care in the world.

Plaza de Arturo Barea (formerly known as Agustín Lara) is a popular botellón spot on most nights of the week, but on a sunny afternoon, if the conditions are right, this can happen:

Botellón on a spring Sunday afternoon on Plaza Agustín Lara, Lavapiés

Botellón on a Sunday afternoon on Plaza de Arturo Barea, Lavapiés

Again, the police may be present, possibly undercover, but this doesn’t stop a single street drinker, even though many of them are already sitting on a pending fine – that’s the risk many are willing to take so that botellón lives on.

During fiestas such as La Paloma and San Cayetano, the streets are closed to traffic and cast open to the liberated street drinker, who wastes no time getting stuck in. And it’s controlled: there are Portaloos, police and street cleaners throughout the night.

Botellón on Plaza Cascorro during Fiesta San Cayetano

Botellón on Plaza Cascorro during the Fiesta de San Cayetano

Botellón on Ribera de Curtidores during Fiesta San Cayetano

Botellón on Ribera de Curtidores during the Fiesta de San Cayetano

The evidence is in and the jury is out – many people love botellón and want it to live on, but it must be practised responsibly. The solution of botellódromos seems ideal in many ways, but with so many rules, will the essence of this Spanish phenomenon be lost? The battle is still silently(/noisily) being fought and it could be years before a winner is decided, but whatever happens, let’s hope that Spain stays true to its love of street life.

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