Step Back in Time to the Birth of Madrid's Metro

By Christine Dell'Amore
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 15, 2009

With Western Europe's second-largest subway system, Madrid has all but perfected how to vamoose. So it made sense when the Spanish capital built a museum dedicated to the Metro out of the ashes of an abandoned "ghost" station. Time travel has never been so fast or easy.

The Estacion de Chamberi museum, which opened last March, preserves a collective memory of the Metro, echoing a MadrileƱo pride in public transport I'd noticed throughout the city. The diamond Metro logo emblazons T-shirts at El Rastro, the famous Sunday market, and the main railway station houses a flamboyant indoor rain forest, complete with turtles and tropical mist. In addition, with more than 700 million riders annually, the system has a huge following.

The city resurrected Chamberi with mostly original materials in an effort to re-create its appearance from 1919, the Metro's first year of operation. The station fell into disrepair after closing in 1966, earning a reputation among locals of being haunted. Heightening the intrigue, Line 1 cars still rumble through the darkened stop. Graffiti artists have left their signature, and Chamberi's crumbling tunnels made a cameo in the 1998 Spanish movie "Barrio," about Madrid neighborhood kids.

The free museum offers Spanish-only tours, though plans are underway for English-speaking guides. I therefore arranged a tour through Madrid's tourism office, which put me in touch with a local guide and translator. A dapper older gentleman sporting a robust mustache and a dark-blue corduroy suit, Jose Fernandez seemed to hark back to an earlier era himself.

To reach the museum from Calle de Atocha, a main thoroughfare near the tourist district, we appropriately opted to take the subway, boarding at Anton Martin on Line 1 of the system's 14 lines. As we hurtled along underground, Fernandez delivered the stats: Metro has 292 stations and more than 174 miles of track and is one of the world's fastest-growing systems. He continued rattling off its virtues as we exited at Bilbao station and walked northeast on Calle de Luchana to the museum's incongruously modern entrance on Chamberi Square.

Once down the spiral staircase and into the cool quiet of the old station, we settled into a small auditorium to watch an introductory video (Fernandez translated most of the Spanish-language film). That's how I learned that Chamberi was an air-raid shelter for residents during the 1930s Spanish Civil War. After the video, we ventured into the dimly lit ticketing area. Here, early-1900s riders would have consulted the fare board -- a ticket cost as low as one peseta (about a penny) back then -- and placed their coins on the worn marble block at the ticket attendant's booth. After they filed through the narrow metal turnstiles, another attendant would "obliterate" their paper ticket (as Fernandez quaintly phrased it) to prevent reuse. As we shuffled through the low, circular halls, the white Sevillian tiles, original to the station, cast an almost ethereal glow. The whiteness, a concept of Metro brainchild and architect Antonio Palacios, was supposed to simulate sunlight and calm the jitters of claustrophobic riders.

I walked down the stairs to the platform, which was blasted with channels of rushing air, and suddenly found myself immersed in color. Across the way, a projector flashed rotating vintage advertisements on blank walls. On our side, original ads made of mosaic tiles stretched down the tunnel, some in shadow under a string of weak light bulbs.

The ads plugged items that would put passengers on track to being -- or, at least, appearing -- wealthier: clothing detergent, pocket watches, jewelry, a "laxative" that was actually mineral water from CarabaƱa, a town southeast of Madrid. "It's sold and consumed all over the world," Fernandez translated, as I imagined early-20th-century Europeans with clogged plumbing earnestly chugging the Spanish elixir.

Every once in a while a modern train would roar through the station, a three-second jolt of animated faces and vivid clothing. Then, silence, except for soft, jazzlike music and the low voices of museum guides and visitors. "Some people traveling on the Metro don't know the existence of that," Fernandez said about Chamberi, straining his voice as another coach rumbled through. "They get sometimes surprised. They see a station with low lighting, and what you see is just like a ghost station that seems we are belonging to a different period and we are traveling in a time machine." As we walked down the platform, I snapped some photos, half hoping to capture otherworldly silhouettes of women in the lace dresses and feathered hats of a long-gone era. Alas, no luck.

Back at Bilbao station, my now-expert eye picked up remnants of the old Metro: wall tiles no longer white but still there, and the large advertisements, now removable posters. I'd traveled through time and in the process realized that Metro hasn't changed all that much, if only you would stop to look on your way to somewhere else.

Madrid's Metro history museum, Estacion de Chamberi (Plaza de Chamberi, 011-34-902- 444-403, is free, with guided tours in Spanish offered on the hour. For a private English-speaking guide, contact the Municipal Office of Tourist Information (Plaza Mayor 3, 011-34-91- 366-5477, For general information on travel to Spain: Tourist Office of Spain, 212-265-8822,

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