In search of a place to pee in Madrid

The Spanish capital has a population of 3.2 million but just 25 public restrooms

A public WC in Madrid’s Plaza de Ópera.
A public WC in Madrid’s Plaza de Ópera.Santi Burgos

Around a million people pass through the center of Madrid each day, many of them visitors from overseas. What happens when they want to go to the bathroom? City Hall provides just eight portable public WCs in the heart of the Spanish capital, along with four fixed public restrooms in the Retiro park. The only real option if you’re caught short in the city center is to head into a bar. If you’re lucky, the owner won’t notice you sneaking in, although more and more establishments are now locking the doors to their restrooms, and applying a customers-only policy, which means ordering a drink or something. The other, increasingly common, alternative is simply to urinate in the street.

This is having a very negative impact on hygiene in the city, particularly in the center” Esteban Benito, Chueca residents’ association president

Esteban Benito, president of the residents’ association of Chueca, one of the capital’s most-visited neighborhoods, is angry about the lack of public WCs. “This is having a very negative impact on hygiene in the city, particularly in the center,” he says, explaining that there are around 12 people living in the Plaza de Chueca who urinate up against trees planted in the square. “People living on the lower floors cannot open their windows because the smell is so strong, particularly now with the summer heat,” he says. “The last places to close do so at 6am, and at that time, the neighborhood is awash with urine.”

Benito says he doesn’t understand why, if urinating in the street is prohibited by law, more people are not fined: local laws allow municipal police officers to issue sanctions of between €751 and €1,500; but they rarely do.

The lack of public restrooms in Madrid – 25 WCs in the whole of the capital, although others are being installed – contrasts with Paris, where there are more than 400 public bathrooms, complete with disabled access and automatic cleaning systems. Aside from the four installations in the Retiro, Madrid’s WCs are all cylindrically shaped, dark-green cabins run by billboard and advertising space management company JCDecaux, which recoups the cost of maintaining with advertisements. They cost 10 cents to use, although bus drivers can go in for free.

Benito says he doesn’t understand why, if urinating in the street is prohibited by law, more people are not fined

Barcelona faces a similar problem. New Mayor Ada Colau installed six public restrooms earlier this month as part of a pilot scheme that runs until mid-September. “They are temporary and have been placed in areas where there have been the most complaints from residents,” says a City Hall spokesman. The majority of the public bathrooms in this city of 1.6 million people – Madrid has a population of 3.2 million – are located in parks and gardens (107) and along the beach front (130). Like Madrid, most people simply nip into a bar if they need to go.

Juan Carlos Rodríguez, who spends his working day cleaning Madrid’s streets, says a bar is the only realistic option for him: “My boss doesn’t like it, but I have to pee somewhere.”

Rosa Molina, a civil servant, agrees: “When you’re outside, what are you going to do? The only option is a cafeteria.”

María Luisa Fernández, a senior citizen who spends a lot of time in the city center, says she uses bars, typically ordering a soft drink to gain access to the restrooms. “If you’re a tourist, you accept that it’s another thing you’re going to have to pay for, but if you live here, it really makes you angry to have to pay for it,” she says.

More people than we might imagine are affected by the lack of public bathrooms, says one medic

Dr José María Adot, one of Spain’s leading urologists, says more people than we might imagine are affected by the lack of public bathrooms: up to 16 percent of the population have a hyperactive bladder, then there are men with prostate problems, the disabled, pregnant women, not to mention Madrid’s several thousand taxi drivers, who also need a place to pee.

The four restrooms in Madrid’s Retiro park are open from 9am to 9pm. On Sundays and public holidays, long lines form outside: “The girl who cleans them works every day, but she only cleans them once a day,” says a worker in the park, adding: “But it’s not her fault!”

A woman passing by who overhears the conversation notes: “Those bathrooms smell awful, it’s really hot in there and it makes you want to vomit.” The worker points out that the public restrooms in the Retiro were installed in 1935 and have not been overhauled since then, despite frequent complaints and requests from the public to install more WCs in the park.

Madrid’s first public restrooms appeared in the mid-19th century thanks to an initiative by the Duke of Sesto. They were installed in the Puerta del Sol and other main squares, such as Callao and Tirso de Molina. One might reasonably have expected more to be built, given the capital’s considerable increase in population since then. But in fact, the opposite has happened.

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