"What hell [Metro] line 1. Walk downtown. I don't understand how so many people want to get into that hornet's nest," José Andrés writes to a friend around 11:00 in the morning. Although there were still hours to go before the streets reached their zenith of occupation, the centre of Madrid has become the stage on which a human tide stages that impressive staging that is repeated year after year with the start of the long weekend of the Constitution.

"Traditionally, these are the dates when there are the largest crowds in the centre of Madrid," say sources from the Municipal Police. National holidays, Christmas shopping trips and foreign tourists make up the three ingredients of a cocktail in which not even the thermometer deters people from pouring into the streets and entering the heart of the city.

Walking on Metro line 1 between Menéndez Pelayo and Tribunal, the crowds are more than evident from the Atocha Renfe station. It is one of the main reception enclaves for travellers arriving in Madrid, with a constant traffic of people dragging trolleys and suitcases. However, this is merely an appetizer of the real tumult that is yet to come.

As you walk up Calle Atocha, the bars are full of people eating or ordering beers. "I went out for a moment because I had to go down to the supermarket to buy some Coca-Colas for the grandchildren and I stopped by the bar to say hello. Otherwise, these days, I don't even step foot on the street because everything is impossible. It seems that people are paid to go out today," complains Carlos, a resident of this central street for five decades.

A little further up, the Plaza de Jacinto Benavente becomes a viewpoint from which to catch a glimpse of Sol and Carretas Street, where the enormous human tide forms a dreamlike, almost hypnotic choreography. "We're not used to seeing so many people," says Juan, who arrived a few hours ago driving from Segovia with his wife and two daughters. "We took the opportunity to come for a few days with the car to my brother-in-law's house, in Carabanchel, to do Christmas shopping because the children don't have school today [Wednesday], Thursday or Friday," she explains.

A family with plans identical to those of many visitors from provinces bordering Madrid, who take advantage of these days to make a getaway to the capital, but without spending the night in the town. "Try to buy a bus or AVE ticket to or from Segovia," Juan tempts us. Then he takes out his mobile phone and shows the timetable selection screen where the "Not Available" sign is displayed on the vast majority of routes.

Hours later, once we had crossed the crowd of Sol and gone up a crowded Preciados street to Callao, we repeated the experiment that Juan has taught us, sitting in a Burger King (where miraculously there is a place to eat) with other cities near the capital such as Ávila, Toledo or Soria. The result is pretty much the same in all cases.

After regaining strength, back to the street. Walking is not pleasant on a day like today. The options are to move to the rhythm of the crowd or to be permanently dodging people loaded with bags in which they store their purchases. On Gran Vía, an elderly lady is sitting and there is some commotion around her. "Are you okay?" we asked. "Yes, son. I just got a little dizzy," he replies. "I'm not surprised, because this, more than Madrid, looks like one of those videos in which you see people, people and people crossing in the cities of Japan," concludes a spontaneous who joins the group.

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