Madrid’s Gran Via is famous for being the Spanish street that never sleeps. Literally meaning the ‘Great Way’, this commercial centre of Madrid is heaving with popular retail and restaurant chains in amongst some of the most grandiose buildings in the city. Bustling with cosmopolitan ambience, the vivacious spirit of Spain is probably more palpable here than anywhere else. People of diverse cultures weave around each other laden with shopping bags, as a constant stream of traffic honks past. At night, tourists hop between the street’s diverse bars and clubs, guided by neon lights and the illuminated monumental buildings.
Gran Via can be likened to New York’s Broadway or London’s Oxford Street, but its unique important history and lavish architecture are unrivalled.
The creation of Gran Via was intended to modernise Madrid, putting it on a par with the great capitals of Europe. The city was previously very dense with narrow streets and few large public spaces, unfit for its rapidly expanding society. King Alfonso XIII ordered that a thoroughfare be built to join Barrio Salamanca with Arguelles, opening up downtown Madrid to the rest of the city.
The major construction project began in 1910, and involved the demolition of over 300 buildings. The older streets were sliced straight through, creating acute angles and pointed corners where neighbouring blocks terminated. Architects were given the opportunity to design impressive buildings in styles that characterise the era, ranging from Art Deco to Neo-Baroque. Landmarks such as Edificio Metropolis, Edificio Grassy (see top photo) and the Telefónica skyscraper were built, contributing to what is architecturally one of Madrid’s most interesting streets.
The final section of Gran Via was completed 21 years later, measuring 1,316 metres in total from Calle de Alcala to Plaza de España. Large and luxurious stores, hotels, theatres, clubs, casinos, bars and restaurants soon filled the street, immediately transforming Madrid. The creation of Gran Via and its numerous tourist-focused establishments was a sign of modernity that slowly spread throughout the city. The first telephone booths, shopping centres and automobile dealers sprung up on its sidewalks.
Gran Via reflects the history and change in the city that grew from 600,000 inhabitants in the early 20th century to over 3.2 million today. The street has undergone several name changes in its time (both official and unofficial), reflecting Spain’s political status throughout history. Prior to the Civil War it was called CNT Avenue in honour of the Workers’ Party, but was later renamed Avenida de Rusia (‘Russia Avenue’) due to Russia’s support for the Spanish Republic. It was also known as Artillery Avenue when Franco’s forces bombed Madrid. Bullet holes from Civil War battles are still visible in the Grassy building.
The name Gran Via was not born until 1981, at the time when the socialist mayor restored the names of many streets.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s Gran Via reached the height of its greatness; its numerous establishments of glamour and luxury were the places to be seen in. Unfortunately the street has somewhat degraded since then, with many of the beautiful old theatres and cinemas having been turned into shopping malls, and fast-food joints taking over. But it remains to be one of Madrid’s most important shopping areas, with many retail chains at their best here. The Inditex group recently re-opened Zara at number 34 (Madrid’s answer to the Zara flagship on Fifth Avenue, NY), despite the still ongoing slump in consumption and commercial real estate market difficulties.
After enduring several commercial shockwaves, Gran Via is now going through a noticeable resurgence. Proof that a new golden age is being revived can be shown by the increase in shop rental prices. International tourists, since increasing their spending, are the main reason behind the restoration and are now the important focus of businesses here.
One of the oldest surviving luxury stores, and the best exponent of elegance and refinement in this heart of Madrid, is Loewe (featured “Gran Via Back to Back II).
The disparity between the grandeur of Gran Via’s original buildings and the tawdry souvenir shops and tourist-crazy restaurants that now occupy many of these buildings actually makes it a fascinating street to stroll along. It is a place where tradition and modernity are intertwined, encompassing the vivacity and diversity of classical and modern Madrid.
The Gran Via is a unique showcase of early twentieth century trans-Atlantic architecture. It is an arresting mix of French, German and American architectural styles of that era, with the influence of American skyscrapers predominating.
Gran Via is buildings and people. There’s no time of the day or night when no perky crowd can’t be found walking down the brightly-lit street, by sun or by the colorful neon.
Louisa has a BSc in Psychology from the University of Exeter in the UK and is now doing a Master’s in Management in Bath. She loves to travel and explore new cities, and can’t keep herself away from music festivals.
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