In 1919 – the year of its inauguration – Madrid’s metro consisted of just one line with eight charming little stations. Almost 100 years later, this vast subterranean labyrinth is the seventh-longest underground system in the world and hosts around two million journeys every day.
Like so many of the 621 million travellers each year, I would often pass the time by burying my head in a book – my personal favourites being those about Madrid’s history. But recently I started to notice that Madrid’s history was all around me: from centuries-old features and spooky stories to history in the making with futuristic technology and stunning street art adorning station walls.
Buy yourself a €1.50 metro ticket and gain access to these 10 curious subterranean sights…
This is my favourite line, and it’s also the oldest. I love the original tiles that are still visible in parts, particularly beside the turnstiles at Tirso de Molina station. But did you know that the architect who styled these stations was also behind the Palacio de Cibeles, the Círculo de Bellas Artes, the demolished Hotel Florida and the disused Gran Vía metro entrance?
The designer was Antonio Palacios, and he was brought in to get madrileños on board with travelling underground. Inspired by the Paris metro system, Palacios drew up plans to glamourise the Madrid metro. The station tunnels of line 1 featured vaulted ceilings and walls clad in shiny blue and white tiles, as well as ornate sculptures that have impressively stood the test of time.
Almost 100 years later, we can see his designs perfectly preserved inside Estacíon Chamberi, a ghost station converted into a museum. I’ve spotted other traces of Palacio’s work on the platform walls at Cuatro Caminos and Pacífico. I also recall that, during works on Bilbao’s station platforms a few years ago, his iconic blue and white tiles briefly re-emerged (vintage adverts and all) only to be entombed once again behind bright yellow panels. Perhaps we’ll see these old walls again one day – I’d love to see them restored.
THE LOST & FOUND BILLBOARD
Throughout Madrid’s metro network, dozens of visible portals to bygone eras remain visible. As you transfer between lines 1 and 4, you’ll spot an enclave with faded retro lettering. This concave billboard was hidden by a partition wall until its discovery during works 20 years ago. I wonder what else hides behind the metro walls…
GHOSTS OF THE METRO
Madrid has a thing about building on top of cemeteries because, well, cemeteries used to be absolutely everywhere. The then-abandoned graveyard of former municipality Chamartín de la Rosa lies beneath Chamartín station in the north of Madrid.
Just a few metres behind the yellow platform walls of Tirso de Molina metro lie the disturbed remains of around 200 friars – a gruesome discovery made during this station’s construction in 1920. Some commuters say they can still hear the ghosts of these souls while waiting for the last metro home.
Did you also read in Volume II of Madrid’s Lost Stories that the first passengers of line 3 were dead? The metro was used to safely transport victims of the Spanish Civil War out of the city to their graveyards. It was nicknamed “the metro of the dead” by the people sleeping on the station platforms, who had sought refuge from the fighting going on above.
It addition to being accidental gravediggers, Madrid’s construction workers are also some of our best archaeologists.
As you descend down into the Cercanías station of Sol, you’ll spot the ruins of a 15th-century church that once watched over Puerta del Sol. Around 10 years ago, the foundations of this church were uncovered, causing huge delays to the construction works.
Ruins of a 16th-century fountain were discovered during renovation works at Opera and are now displayed in situ inside the station.
If you think that’s old, fossils dating back 15 million years were uncovered during the construction of Carpetana. Remains of these prehistoric beasts can be seen on display inside the station entrance.
FRANCO’S STATION TO THE COUNTRYSIDE
From Plaza de España (once famous for housing the deepest escalators in Europe), travel two stops west on line 10 and you’ll emerge into the Spanish countryside.
Nestled among tall trees and bristly shrubs, Lago feels a world away from the bustling city just a kilometre to the east, and this was in fact the intention: the Franco administration wanted a station that reflected the great achievements of Spanish agriculture. Passengers can still escape the city and resurface into village-like surroundings to enjoy the monthly Feria del Campo – even if it is a throwback to Spain’s dictatorial past.
THE ‘SPACE’ STATION
Let’s fast-forward to the futuristic terminal station of Valdezarza – the latest addition to line 7.
Twenty-eight years ago, line 7 was extended to Moncloa’s most deprived neighbourhood, Valdezarza, with the intention of giving its residents better access to the economic powerhouse that is central Madrid. Valdezarza is also one of my favourite stations on the Madrid metro network because it’s like something out of The Jetsons.
As I disembark the metro and start to climb the escalators, I begin to imagine myself ascending towards the top deck of an outdated space station. Picture 1960s curves, steel walls, tonnes of concrete, and glassed-in circular apertures offering views through the floor to the track below.
Described at the time as “a mixture of design and necessity”, the station is topped by two massive skylights, illuminating the platform from 25 metres above. Fun fact: these skylights were also how the tunnelling machine was removed.
FLAMENCO MEETS STREET ART
In March 2015, a year after the death of beloved flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía, a brand-new station named after him was inaugurated on line 9. Bringing a modern twist to this icon of traditional music, two local street artists painted a 300-metre mural of Paco in the station.
Their artwork can be seen all over Madrid, with Okuda’s most notable piece on the corner of Calle Embajadores, 35, in Lavapiés.
Their collaborative mural of Paco de Lucía is unmissable and deserves a special visit simply to admire this striking painting of the soulful gaditano (a man from Cadiz) keeping watch over his station’s passengers.
THE CONTROL ROOM
The control centre for the entire metro network is located on line 1 at Alto de Arenal. As the delicate nerve centre for 295 stations and 287 km of track, it’s naturally hidden from view and so not exactly a sight per se. But photographs of the interior reveal a vast array of screens and maps – like something straight out of Star Trek. At any point while you’re travelling on the metro, it’s pretty cool to know how much work is going on in the background.
THE 100-YEAR-OLD CARRIAGE
In a nod to its antiquity, Alto de Arenal also has one of the Metro’s earliest carriages on display. As you ascend the escalators, you’ll spot this 1928 wagon sitting proudly on its own piece of track. Meanwhile, its modern-day relatives go about their business several metres below.
The burgundy carriage is lit from within, and it’s easy to make out the interior, where passengers once sat. Spot the 1931 logo on its side: an art deco pair of Ms encased within a large C, which stands for Companía Metropolitano de Madrid. Despite this temporary shift to a more fashionable logo, Madrid has stayed relatively loyal to its original metro logo design, as seen in this illustration below…
THE OLD PLATFORM CABINS
These little station offices are very much endangered, with most of them now being completely unused.
Some still exist, however, such as this one on the platform at Chueca.
ONE MORE THING…
You may have noticed that the trains on the metro travel on the left, just like in the UK or India, whereas everything overground is configured to run on the right. It was only in 1924 – five years after the metro opened – that Spain made the official switch from left to right. The metro decided to stick with the old rules, serving as yet another curious relic from Madrid’s fascinating past.
This article was written in collaboration with Melissa Dura, a history enthusiast and lover of all things Madrid. Visit her corner of the internet, Thinking Spanglish, where she writes about the curiosities she encounters on her journey to becoming truly immersed in Spanish life and culture.