Welcome to the Cañada (James Blick)

“I was cutting cheese the night before I went to the Cañada. A friend was over and I mentioned my plans for the following day. He pointed to the knife in my hand.

“You’d better take that.”

His comment, though said with a laugh, isn’t surprising given the picture that forms in the mind of many Madrilenians when they imagine the Cañada Real Galiana, a much-maligned and under-threat neighbourhood in the south-east of Madrid.

The next day, as our train pulls up in the suburb of Coslada, Susana, our guide, says, “Everyone thinks the people who live in the Cañada just throw stones at cops, sell drugs and steal copper.”

Susana Camacho works in the Cañada daily, helping its many marginalised Gypsy families. And one recent Sunday, as part of an international neighbourhood awareness initiative known as Jane’s Walk, she led twenty of us through it.

Seen from the air the Cañada is a strange sight; a narrow 15-kilometre residential strip — a single road bordered by houses and some businesses — that snakes through the landscape, following one of Spain’s centuries-old drovers’ roads.

It fell into disuse last century as livestock began being moved by truck and train. But in the 1950s Madrilenians put the ribbon of land to use again, planting kitchen gardens and orchards. Then, when the garden sheds grew into second homes, the government turned a blind eye. And soon word spread that if you built a house in the Cañada the authorities wouldn’t stop you, or make you pay for the land. Spaniards and immigrants, many of modest means, came in waves.”

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