A city of sidewalk cafes

The number of outside seating areas in bars and restaurants has doubled in Madrid But the result has been an increase in complaints about noise

La Cantina terrace bar, inside the Matadero cultural center in Madrid.
La Cantina terrace bar, inside the Matadero cultural center in Madrid.CARLOS ROSILLO (EL PAÍS)

"The other day I saw customers sitting outside a bar on Jorge Juan street smoking, with a look of great satisfaction on their faces," said Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón a little over a year ago. The former Madrid mayor, now justice minister in the Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy, at that time, according to his own words, had little else in his mind other than continuing in his former post although his esthetic ambition for some time had been to guide the capital's traditional panorama toward more chic urban models, such as that of Paris.

Gallardón, mayor between 2003 and November 2011, took full advantage of the anti-tobacco law passed by the former Socialist government in January 2010. If customers wished to smoke in an establishment, they should be able to do so outside.The politician, who has never been pictured with a cigarette in his hand, dreamed of a capital with glass gazebos in the nouvelle vogue style and sought the complicity of the hostelry sector to achieve it. As has occurred on so many occasions, he got halfway there.

Madrid continues to bear little resemblance to Paris in this respect, among other reasons because it is also forbidden to smoke in the glass-fronted exteriors of the capital's bars and restaurants. But terrazas - seated areas on the sidewalk outside of establishments - have proliferated, bringing with them evident benefits but also a not-inconsiderable string of drawbacks.

In 2009, City Hall recorded the existence of 1,996 terrazas in the city center, a number which mushroomed to 3,244 the following year. Provisional numbers for 2011 ascend to 4,100. Between 2007 and 2009, Madrid's public coffers were swelled to the tune of 4.7 million euros per year just by the increase in applications for licenses. In 2010 the rise was 21 percent, representing 5.6 million euros. The estimated income from this sort of license in 2011 is more than six million, following an annual increase in applications of 7.4 percent.

A year ago, Gallardón altered the city bylaws in line with European Union guidelines for the service industry, making the concession of licenses for terrazas more flexible. Among other tweaks to the regulations were the elimination of the requirement to homologize chairs, tables and other furniture; hotels were permitted to open terrazas; and more significantly, the new regulations authorize the use of heating devices with the aim of extending the period of operating hours. This last point meant just one thing: patio heaters. Or as they are known in Madrid: mushrooms.

The abundance of these apparatus is now so widespread that in some Madrid streets it is almost warmer than staying at home in winter. A not-so-cold war has developed between neighboring establishments with the deployment of ever-more refined heaters and leather cushions on chairs to lure in customers.

City Hall took in about six million euros in 2011 in 'terraza' license fees

With regard to urban furnishing, although there is nothing written into legislation that obliges a bar or restaurant owner to acquire identical seats and tables, the precious zeal of the former mayor prevailed. "Establishments must send photographs of how the terraza will look in order to obtain municipal authority, which in some neighborhoods is very strict," says La Viña, the principal regional association for the hostelry industry, which groups together more than 3,000 businesses. La Viña points to emblematic city squares such as the Plaza Mayor or Santa Ana, where an eclectic amalgam of street furniture that was at best untidy was transformed into an agreeable uniformity that has in recent times begun to regress once again.

In a city where spring and autumn are not habitual visitors - "nine months of winter and three months of hell" is a popular refrain - terrazas give Madrileños an excuse to forget about the much-anticipated rain that never comes, taking breakfast with company, sipping a vermouth or watching as the nights roll out.

Outside of the summer months, terrazas can open from 10am until midnight. In high season - March 15 until October 31 - opening hours are extended until 1am on weeknights and 2.30am on Fridays, Saturdays and days that precede a bank holiday, of which there are plenty in Madrid.

However, following complaints from residents about the noise from terrazas in streets below their homes at night, the municipal government this week approved a noise protection plan reducing the closing time in the noisiest areas by an hour, and by half an hour in areas considered less noisy. The closing time in the off-season has been reduced by an hour in all areas. Restrictions were also imposed on the opening of new bars in the most saturated areas.

Paradoxically, the proliferation of terrazas is an institutional antidote to the outlawed practice - but one that continues apace anyway - of botellón, the traditional pastime among young people whereby vast groups drink in the open air. Neighborhood associations, bar owners and the city administration are at least in agreement on this point; botellón is one of main factors in nocturnal noise-production.

Business associations estimate that some 100,000 people between 14 and 30 years of age take to the streets each weekend across Spain to partake of alcohol purchased in shops and supermarkets, a practice that is unlikely to cease any time soon with youth unemployment at almost 50 percent.

Terrazas also act as a buffer against urban degradation. City Hall approved the construction of newspaper stand-cafeteria concessions in three city center squares in 2010 of up to 100 square meters.

The Madrid terraza and roof bar season officially began on March 15. Enjoy it like the people Gallardón commented on in Jorge Juan street last year. Who knows, you might have been one of them. Here are some of the more popular Madrid spots.

- La Cantina.The Matadero Madrid (Paseo de la Chopera, 18) conceals a small terraza with colored chairs and tables. Located next to the Cineteca, La Cantina opened in November 2011. Specialty: home-made lemonade (3.30 euros).

- Javier de las Muelas Dry, Gran Meliá Fénix. On the corner of the Castellana and the Plaza de Colón, this terraza within the Meliá hotel is open year-round from morning to late night, serving classy cocktails (13 to 15 euros) and delicatessen snacks, such as mini-hamburgers and oysters. A bar counter keeps tab of each dry martini served and you can take away a certificate with your number on it.

- Madrid Río Cafeteria. Alongside the Dominique Perrault-designed Arganzuela bridge lies one of the terrazas springing up on the capital's refurbished river walkway. Open from 10am until 8pm, the place is abuzz with people coming and going, soaking up the sun and a beer for 2.50 euros.

- Mercado de San Antón. In the middle of the achingly fashionable Chueca district, the Mercado (Augusto Figueroa, 24) is en vogue and always bursting at the seams. Beers go for three euros and its specialty mojitos for nine.

- Gaucafé. The building hosting Gaucafé (Tribulete, 14) dates from 1729 and was renovated in 1999 having been destroyed during the Civil War. On the fourth floor, the roof-top terraza affords fine views and when illuminated at night is "marvelous," says a client. More eatery than bar, the menu of the day costs 12.80 euros and the kitchen offers a wide range of exotic dishes ranging from five to 20 euros in price.

- La Terraza de Arriba. Perched on the seventh floor of the Óscar hotel in Chueca (Vázquez de Mella, 12), this terraza offers views of city center landmarks, and gin and tonics and daiquiris (13 euros) served on lounge chairs around the swimming pool.

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