It’s difficult to imagine Madrid without Gran Vía, the grand boulevard lined with towering belle-époque facades that climbs up through the centre of Madrid from Plaza de España then down to Calle de Alcalá. But it has only existed since 1910, when it was bulldozed through what was then a labyrinth of old streets. Fourteen streets disappeared off the map, as did 311 houses, including one where Goya had once lived.
Plans for the boulevard were first announced in 1862 and so interminable were the delays that a famous zarzuela (satirical musical comedy), La Gran Vía, first performed in 1886, was penned to mock the city authorities. It may have destroyed whole barrios, but Gran Vía is still considered one of the most successful examples of urban planning in central Madrid since the late 19th century.
One eye-catching building, the Edificio Carrión was Madrid’s first pre-WWI tower-block apartment hotel. Also dominating the skyline about one-third of the way along Gran Vía is the 1920s-era Telefónica building, which was for years the highest building in the city. During the civil war, when Madrid was besieged by Franco’s forces and the boulevard became known as ‘Howitzer Alley’ due to the artillery shells that rained down upon it, the Telefónica building was a favoured target.
Among the more interesting buildings is the stunning, French-designed Edificio Metrópolis, built in 1905, which marks the southern end of Gran Vía. The winged victory statue atop its dome was added in 1975 and is best seen from Calle de Alcalá or Plaza de la Cibeles. A little up the boulevard is the Edificio Grassy, with the Rolex sign and built in 1916. With its circular ‘temple’ as a crown, and profusion of arcs and slender columns, it’s one of the most elegant buildings along Gran Vía.
Otherwise Gran Vía is home to around twice as many businesses (over 1050 at last count) as homes (nearly 600); over 13,000 people work along the street; and up to 55,000 vehicles pass through every day (including almost 185 buses an hour during peak periods). There are over 40 hotels on Gran Vía, but sadly just three of the 15 cinemas for which Gran Vía was famous remain.