Children play in a water fountain on the banks of the Manzanares River on July 30, 2011 in Madrid, Spain.
Credit: Dani Pozo

MADRID, Spain — Unlike many world capitals, this city could never boast of an impressive river. The narrow, often dry, Manzanares River has flowed rather hesitantly along its western edge for centuries, merging 54 miles later with the Jarama River near the town of Aranjuez. Largely unnoticed by visitors — French author Alexandre Dumas famously reported that he couldn’t find it — the river generally provoked Madrilenians’ disdain. But no more.

After eight years of construction, ceaseless disruption, and arguments about the wisdom of massive urban renewal in the midst of a recession, the city can claim a river worthy of its stature — at the cost of 420 million euros ($597 million). Though lacking in majesty, the quiet waterway has gained a wonderfully gracious and varied setting that offers land-locked city dwellers respite from the crowded, busy streets and summer temperatures that often soar above 100 degrees.

“I’d call it a miracle,” said Gines Garrido, the chief architect of the Madrid Rio Project and senior partner of Burgos & Garrido Arquitectos, on a recent walk along the riverbanks. “No one would have believed this area would someday be a place of calm, cleanliness and beauty.”

Madrid is not the only city to bury highways and free rivers in recent decades. Seoul, South Korea, removed a highway that covered its Cheonggyecheon creek, creating a sunken park that since 2005 has relieved choked downtown neighborhoods. The “Big Dig” project in Boston, Massachusetts replaced the highway overpass running along the city’s waterfront with a tunnel below and parkland above. That project took more than 15 years to complete.

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Enlarged by renovated dams, the revitalized Manzanares River travels 3 miles through 300 acres of landscaped parks and gardens dotted with distinctive footbridges, robust fountains, climbing walls, sports facilities and playgrounds. One can enjoy everything from paddle tennis to soccer, skateboarding and, soon, boating. It even possesses a beach of sorts, similar to the one that opened on the Seine in Paris in 2002, with three shallow pools, a fountain and jets of water. Eventually concerts will be held in the Plataforma del Rey and in Matadero Madrid, the old slaughterhouses turned thriving arts complex, at the new park’s southern end.

Anti-urban-renewal groups prophesized that the new greenbelt would go unused. But the new park is regularly filled with cyclists, runners, walkers and families with children. Vindicated by the project’s success, its mastermind, Madrid’s conservative mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, announced in a speech at the opening on April 15 that the river would become a reference point for the new Madrid and add to its chances of being selected as a site for the 2020 Olympics.

Garrido explained the project’s execution. “We wanted to install a dense green layer,” he said, “almost like a forest and whenever possible, use plant species associated with the river basin that could adapt to the urban landscape.” Like a sports fan proudly giving figures, he mentions that 33,000 and 460,000 trees and bushes now grace the riverside parks. But planners weren’t after a manicured look and so selected, for some areas, what he calls “handicapped” trees, which are irregular in character and look more natural. They also chose oaks, elms and other trees like those in the beautiful Campo del Moro Gardens near the Royal Palace, which sits on a nearby hill on the east side of the river.

Since the green areas cover the 26 miles of underground tunnels provided for the M-30 highway, a major challenge for the architects was finding greenery that could survive in only five feet of soil. “We were producing a landscape,” he said, “with living material over an inanimate layer.”

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The complicated setting derives from the city’s expansion. After the M-30 highway was built in the 1970s, the river became constrained on both sides by road lanes, and the riverbed became completely inaccessible and invisible. Moreover, it generated high levels of pollution, and completely cut off the working-class districts of Carabanchal and Latina from the city center. Eventually, between 2003 and 2007, the city buried the path of the M-30 next to the river, freeing hundreds of acres of unoccupied spaces. Turning to the apartment houses on the river’s edge, he said, “The people in those once isolated neighborhoods now have some of the best views in town.”

Approaching the shimmering Arganzuela Footbridge, designed by Paris-based Dominique Perrault, Garrido pointed admiringly to the two conical shapes that have been wrapped in interlocking metallic ribbons spiraling around the structure. But he became distracted by the clarity of the river below. “You still can’t swim in it,” he said, “but it’s on its way to purity. You can’t imagine how contaminated it once was. We’ve installed filters all along its course.” Ducks and geese have taken to it, swimming happily in the waters and waddling around on the shore.

Looking around at the people enjoying the afternoon, it’s possible to conjure up contemporary versions of artist Francisco Goya’s 18th-century scenes of traditionally dressed Madrilenos dancing and having picnics next to the river. Soon it will become even more evocative of that period as restaurants and cafes begin popping up throughout the parks. Certainly, if anyone knows how to take advantage of pleasant circumstances, it’s Madrilenos. They haven’t wasted a moment in rediscovering their long neglected Manzanares River.

A map of all the facilities is now available in Spanish, English, French and German from the Madrid Tourist Board’s information points, and at the site from an information center on the Puente del Rey bridge. All information — including a downloadable audio version for disabled users — is available on the Madrid Rio page of the City Council’s website and on, the official Madrid tourism website.

The park is incorporated to the GR 124 — Great Route of the European Network Paths — and can be walked in all its length, from the Manzanares el Real to Aranjuez.

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