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Friday 3 April 2009

Eternal Flame

Top Ten competitions abound. Rail enthusiasts have had another to discuss recently: most beautiful stations. Brits can feel proud: St Pancras International, as it now calls itself, won.

Further down the list was Madrid’s Estacion de Atocha. This entry can only be for the conversion of the old station’s train shed into an open space – the “palm house”. For most who transit Atocha on a daily basis, the idea of the place as top ten material will be seen with a mixture of disbelief and grim humour: those travellers are commuters using the Cercanias, or suburban, station, its low level platforms covered over by the long stay car park and lending a dark and stygian atmosphere. It was here that some of the March 2004 bombs were detonated.

The following year, we in the UK became the next target for the Al Qaeda franchise. Here, too, were underground explosions, terrible loss of life, worlds disrupted. Here we have had the debate, and it still rumbles on: how do we remember our loss?

In Madrid, the problem was straightforward: any idea of a memorial or place for reflection in the station area at Atocha was out. This is where people are on the move, and even at the stand up snack bars you don’t linger for long. There is no space for quiet reflection. But the need to remember was there. After all, 192 lives had been lost.

The solution you will find in the nearby Parque del Retiro. Here, between the Porta Angel Caido and La Chopera, is a newly formed green hill – yes, a green hill without a city wall – surrounded by water, lovingly tidied and constantly guarded, called Bosque del Recuerdo. That’s “Forest of Remembrance” in English.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia inaugurated this area of remembrance a year on from the bombings, accompanied by many other dignitaries, but there were no speeches, just five minutes of unbroken silence.

Every victim is remembered here: there are 192 trees, 22 olives and 170 cypresses. Each day, many from Madrid and elsewhere visit, making the short climb to the top of the hill, there to pause and remember.

I am happy to admit that I am one of them.

[The inscription in front of the Bosque del Recuerdo can be seen here, and there is a general view here]

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