Tough economic times and a desire for freedom have driven young Spaniards out of the bars and onto the streets. Rambunctious revelers are subjecting local residents to noise levels of up to three times the legal limit.
Drinking outdoors means avoiding the markups in a bar
The La Latina neighborhood of Madrid's Old Town is famous for its high concentration of tapas bars. However, they are shunned by thousands of young drinkers who gather instead in the scenic plazas and winding streets of the city center.
It's a phenomenon Spain has fittingly dubbed botellon, or "big bottle."
"This is one of the typical places in Madrid to go out," said Elena, a biology student in her early 20s, while drinking rum and coke outside with a group of friends on a Sunday night. "There are people with guitars and there's a great atmosphere. It's nice, really the true Madrid."
Sitting cross-legged in a raucous circle, the five students said that when they go out, they gravitate to the pavement, where they feel less inhibited. As midnight neared on Sunday in this densely populated area, the group got progressively louder.
"No, you really don't think about the neighbors," Elena said, her friends shouting and yelling around her. "Sometimes you try to be quiet, but it's difficult. But neighbors can call the police so it's better not to be screaming."
Fines go uncollected
Young people don't want to be told what to do, where to drink and how much to pay
The municipal police can fine street drinkers up to 360 euros (around $475). They have issued 22,000 fines since January, though only a fraction of them are actually enforced. Also, offenders can choose to attend a talk about alcohol addiction instead of paying up.
A police car drove past Elena and her friends, but ignored them and continued on to the next botellon spot, next to a 17-century church at Plaza de la Cebada. There, a small group of women in their late 20s sat quietly sharing a liter of beer.
Two of them were unemployed - like over 40 percent of young Spaniards. They explained that they were simply looking for cheaper nights out.
Arif, a 24-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh, was on-hand to supply precisely that. He was one of half a dozen men laden with plastic bags who were working the square that night. He said in broken Spanish that he had no papers to work legally, but managed to earn enough money selling drinks to pay for food and rent.
Business was going well that night - not surprising, considering a beer from Arif cost just one euro, compared to four euros in one of the many bars in this upwardly mobile district. But, with his illegal status, it's also high risk job. Arif and the other vendors vanished seconds later, when police entered the square.
The freedom to choose
The two officers half-heartedly emptied a bottle of beer on to the pavement, dished out some warnings, and the square cleared in a matter of seconds as drinkers picked up their bags and ambled off.
Five minutes later, the police left and the square filled up once more.
"I think it's a policy of persecuting young people to force them into habits sanctioned by the authorities," said Nacho, a 24-year-old engineering student who had resumed drinking whiskey and coke out of a plastic cup. "They are forcing us to go to the bars they want, at the times they want, to pay the prices they want - we can't pay those prices. We'd prefer to meet up in an environment we have control over."
Nacho said most young Spaniards can't afford their own homes. The high cost of living, low wages and a stagnant, unsubsidized rental market mean the plaza is a good, non-commercial meeting place for many.
Outdoor parties can reach volume levels deemed unhealthy
Unhealthy noise levels
The botellon is making nights unbearable for residents who have the misfortune to live in the zones where people chose to congregate.
"It's difficult to avoid the botellon in my neighborhood," explained Esteban Benito, the vice-president of a residents' association in Chueca, a district famous for its gay nightlife. "Many people have chronic problems getting to sleep - they take sleeping pills or sleep with ear plugs, but nothing can shut out the racket."
Half a million Madrid residents suffer from noise pollution exceeding 65 decibels, the maximum limit recommended by the World Health Organization. The situation in Chueca is particularly acute.
"People come with powerful sound systems and dance on top of their cars," said Benito. "They see this as a zone of freedom, but they don't think about the freedom of those people trying to get to sleep."
Benito said residents were at breaking point, sick to death of the noise - which is sometimes triple the legal decibel limit - and the mess drinkers leave behind. He also warned of an epidemic of out-of-control, underage drinking and said the law is far too lax.
'A game of cat and mouse'
The municipal police charged with stamping out the botellon acknowledged that it is a mammoth task.
"We have done a lot of work but the magnificent weather here is not in our favor," said Rosa Maria Duran, deputy inspector general for Madrid. "It's a bit like a game of cat and mouse. We have certain permanent positions where we stop botellon from starting up but now we have the new phenomenon of botellin, or 'little bottle.' Young people are spreading out throughout the district."
Neighbors aren't happy about the mess left behind by outdoor drinkers
Duran highlighted her force's prevention work in schools but added that they had not given up. She expressed her hope that the next generation would find different ways of having fun.
And it may not be entirely wishful thinking. A regional health survey has recorded that teenage drinking is down in Madrid.
Benito was doubtful about these statistics. But his campaigning has started to bear fruit. Madrid's municipal authorities have now upped fines to 600 euros for drinkers guilty of noise pollution.
In the plaza, Nacho and his friends had agreed that young people could drink more responsibly and should respect the neighbors - but they were adamant that prohibition would never work.
Author: Hazel Healy
Editor: Kate Bowen