Photographs by David Bacon

Descending the long escalator into Madrid’s Sol metro station, I try to imagine what it was like during the Civil War.  Even this far undergroound, the boom of howitzers, the howling sirens and the earth shaking under the bombs had to have been terrifying. 

Like so many European metro stations, this one holds memories of war.  Moscow and London both endured the rain of exploding terror from the Nazi Luftwaffe, while below people slept on station platforms to escape it.  But before they struck those two cities, from 1936 to 1939, Nazi planes made Madrid the target for the world’s first bombing of a civilian population. 

Madrileños held off the onslaught of Franco’s fascist armies for three years.  They found shelter from the bombs in the 32 stations already built on the metro’s three lines by the time the war started.  Hundreds of those who perished under the fascist assault were taken in subway cars to graveyards outside of the city in trains nicknamed the “metro of the dead.” 

Barcelona’s metro started operation just five years after Madrid’s, in 1924.  Its metro stations provided the shelter from March 16-18, when Mussolini personally ordered Italian bombers to flatten the city.  In twelve raids over those three days 979 people died.  Over 200 raids followed and three times as many lost their lives.

I didn’t expect Barcelona’s metro stations to be halls of memory, but you can take the subway to the Barceloneta station.  There, in the city museum along the waterfront a few blocks away, the Civil War is not forgotten. Old photographs honor the Catalan independence leaders executed by Franco after the Republic fell. 

You might think that after Franco finally died, and fascists no longer controlled Spain, the cities might have painted murals in the metro stations.  There they might provide a new generation a vision of their own heroic, bitter history.  There are none, however – a strange and disturbing absence.

You may not see much of the past in the metro stations, but you do see the people of these cities as they are now.  The metro is full of working people and students.  It’s not a system for the rich, who have redesigned cities for the convenience of cars and individual means of transport.  Subways are collective, and they are cheap.

The Madrid and Barcelona metros go everywhere.  Their many lines are the cities’ veins and arteries and people their bloodstream. Madrid has 13 with 276 stations, and Barcelona’s 8 lines stop at 165. 

If, like me, you look a little lost at first trying to figure out the ticket machine, a metro worker will usually appear at your shoulder, explaining the cheapest way to buy your fares.  They’ll also warn you about the regulations.  It’s warm in the stations and on the trains, so young people often show some skin, but I still wonder what inspired one prohibition. “Travelling without footwear or without covering the torso or lower part of the body” is a serious violation,

Today metro systems have spread across the world.  Some 195 cities in 62 countries have one.  China has some of the biggest, and the most recent, with 278 lines in 45 cities.  The Shanghai metro alone, which opened in 1993, has 499 miles of track and provides 2.8 billion trips a year.

The Spanish trains look new as well, and the stations are clean and modern.  These photographs of the riders of today are a window into the present, showing the Spaniards as they pass under the ground to their work, recreating their cities every day.  Photographs taken today can’t present the reality of what the metro endured, and how it must have appeared over 80 years ago.  But they do provide this vision of place and the people who inhabit it.  With imagination, the open a path into their history.

Permission given by David Bacon

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