On Sunday 2 May, just two nights before the Madrid election, a group of activists broke into a derelict hotel in the centre of Madrid. Upon entering, they found 112 abandoned en-suite bedrooms, a decaying Andalusian patio, three large salons with a hundred wooden chairs, a sturdy stainless steel kitchen and an overall perfect space to build the newest generation of grassroots social project La Ingobernable (The Ungovernable).
La Ingobernable began in 2000 with the aim to fill the support gap caused by Madrid’s shrinking public services. This independent collective provides information, advice and support in housing, mental health, gender violence, immigration and more, depending on the skills of the volunteers involved. As they’ve grown, so has their need for space.
In the last four years, La Ingobernable has occupied three different buildings in the centre of Madrid.
In 2017, after four years of dereliction, a 3,000m² building (originally the headquarters of UNED and then a health centre) became La Ingobernable’s first permanent residence. Within just a month of moving in, La Ingobernable had already organised 135 activities and, after two years, it was estimated that more than 100,000 people had attended over 170 monthly activities. The building also served as a logistics centre during the feminist strikes of 8 March in 2018 and 2019 and La Ingobernable quickly became synonymous with Madrid culture.
The centre was evicted on 13 November, 2019 by a police operation which began at 3 am and involved 130 officers. In June 2020, the superior court of justice of Madrid declared that the eviction was illegal but the groups had already made plans to occupy another building on Calle Alberto Bosch, behind the Prado. It had been empty for five years and was owned by the Ministry of Justice but, on 14 March of last year, when State of Emergency began, the ministry began an eviction process and the building was evicted on 22 April 2020 with nobody inside at the time due to confinement.
After the eviction, the collective moved online until State of Emergency was coming to an end. That’s when they found Hostal Cantabrico.
Until the hotel’s closure in around 2014 (there’s a calendar in the kitchen open on the month of September 2014), this no-frills hotel located a stone’s throw from Puerta del Sol brought in guests with the most no-frills strap-line:
This simple hostel is located in Barrio de las Letras. The 112 welcoming rooms offer a perfect place to relax at the end of the day. This accommodation does not accept pets.
TripAdvisor seems to think Hostal Cantabrico is still open and gives it a less than average 2.5. The reviews make for an entertaining read too – here are some highlights:
Overall, the worst accommodation I have ever stayed at but the location is excellent.
If you like back street dirty grottos with rude service then this is the place for you!
The food always arrived cold and in a puddle of moisture on your plate.
The single beds we had were very short and our feet hung off the end (I’m only 164 cm tall), and were very hard and you could feel the springs poking into you.
The street outside has a very busy bar/ restaurant that seems to stay open until around 6:30 am and it’s absolutely impossible to sleep as there is constant shouting/singing/screaming etc. from people outside.
And now for the best worst one…
We dreaded going back to our room at any time of the day.
It wasn’t long after this final review that Hostal Cantabrico closed its doors for good, meaning no more entertaining feedback but also no more guests, staff or any form of life whatsoever apart from the odd swift that chose to build its nest in the corner of a window.
The five-storey building quickly entered a state of dereliction and the top floors began to crack and crumble – a somewhat intentional move according to its most recent occupants.
“Leaving a building like this empty for five years is speculation,” explains Serlinda, an activist at La Ingobernable who’s showing us around the building at Calle Cruz 3-5.
[Property speculation: Tenants are evicted and the property remains empty for years until demand in the local area increases, and therefore rental prices increase. At this point, the empty property is put back on the market at inflated price. This practice is employed by individual owners, vulture funds and also banks.]
I ask Serlinda how the group originally entered the building on May 2 and, even though she explains that they didn’t have the keys, the rest was “un secreto”.
But once in, it could take up to 18 months to be evicted and La Ingobernable will know this.
The decision to occupy this specific building will have been carefully calculated. Spanish law states that squatters can be removed within 48 hours, unless they change the locks, which I cannot confirm in the case of La Ingobernable. It’s also more difficult to evict squatters when the entry occurs without intimidation or violence, and even harder to evict the occupiers if the owner reacts with intimidation or violence. The Spanish law on squatting also prioritises privately owned properties, not those owned by banks or real estate companies like Hostal Cantabrico, which is just one of many properties owned by three brothers.
Hotel Cantabrico/La Ingobernable is owned by the Fernández Luengo brothers (Marcos, Alejandro and Daniel), better known for being the owners of Marco Aldany, the chain of hairdressers. The Fernández Luengo family have a real estate empire called ZZ Inmobilari Próxima, where the three brothers and their parents have a net worth of €12 million in land and another €58 million in property. The family are presumably seeking court order to evict La Ingobernable but, as their case is low-priority, La Ingobernable has time on their side.
La Ingobernable want to continue their work and are already running workshops.
“Eventually, we want to offer each room as a space to carry out our activities,” explains Serlinda, referring to an upcoming mental health workshop. In Spain, therapy is rarely offered on the public healthcare system, with patients who can’t afford a private therapist often being prescribed anti-depressants as an alternative. “On Wednesday, we already have a group therapy session for those who can’t afford it.”
The Centro branch of well-known anti-eviction association PAH will be moving in too as part of La Ignobernable’s vision of becoming an incubator for grassroots movements and collectives: “This will be a self-developing space where you come, receive support, and then also learn how to offer support,” explains Serlinda.
We head into the kitchen and meet Gabi, who tells us, “Food is a basic right for a decent life that is being violated, especially as a result of the health and social crisis. We want to set up a neighbourhood food bank and also hopefully cook hot meals in this kitchen.”
The kitchen seems relatively small given the number of guests the hotel once fed. Perhaps this is why the reviews were so bad, but I predict this won’t be what future diners say, hundreds of whom will soon be receiving free hot meals cooked in this kitchen when it’s up and running.
See the rest of La Ingobernable’s new home…
Urban property speculation and therefore the limited availability of neighbourhood spaces have made it difficult to have physical meeting places. Social centres – illegally occupied or not – are essential for neighbourhood organisation and empowerment. These places are also free of the capitalist welfare system, conservative charity and paternalistic structures, where a culture of resistance born from a struggling community can thrive.