8— It was 10:30 p.m. on a recent Friday and the Plaza de San Ildefonso
was packed with a young party crowd.
''This is the place to come to hang out and to be away from parents,''
said Paula, 16, sitting with a group of friends from school. She
brushed her hair back and lighted some hashish.
A friend mixed a fresh glass of calimocho, a fifty-fifty blend
of red wine and Coca-Cola and passed it around. Everyone drank except
for the couple who had been kissing for the past 20 minutes without
coming up for air. The sound of bongos gave the growing din a rhythm
that echoed off the buildings around the square.
''Nothing ever really happens,'' said Paula, who said she went
to the plaza every weekend night, ''but I totally like it here.''
When she tried to stand up a few minutes later, the hashish and
wine overwhelmed her and she sagged to the ground. As she lay there,
cheek to pavement, her friends gathered around, calling her name
and shaking strength back into her rubbery limbs.
Around them, the party continued, as it would until 6 a.m. That's
when the last revelers catch the first subway home and the city
cleaning crews wash away the night's stench with high-pressure hoses.
Meeting friends for a drink in public places is mushrooming among
young people, who see it as a cheap evening out, or a first stop
before heading out to more expensive dance clubs. This fiesta of
teenagers and college students, repeated on public squares all across
Spain, is called el botellón, the big bottle.
As the gatherings have gained in popularity -- on the big nights
it can be hard to find a place to sit down -- the noise and filth
that the botellón generates has raised tempers in this otherwise
''The noise wakes me up 40 times a night,'' said a 73-year-old
woman whose apartment overlooks a popular square. ''My husband has
had to move to a back room to sleep at all.'' Like some other residents
of the neighborhood, she identified herself only by her first name,
Eduardo Dominguez, a neighbor with 3-year-old twins, said he dares
to take them to the square only in the afternoon.
''Don't even think about coming here with kids after 10 p.m.,''
he said. ''It's full of people and trash and broken bottles. There
Signs hang out of windows around the squares, with foot-high letters
begging the crowd below for No More Noise and Bongos No. Residents
have demanded that the mayor of Madrid spend an evening with them,
to see how bad it is, but the complaints have had little impact
and the city is unsure how to combat what it considers essentially
harmless youthful exuberance.
''We can't take legal action against them,'' says Carlos Martínez
Serrano, a city official who handles botellón complaints for central
''Any restriction of liberties would affect us all.''
So the city has largely been reduced to playing busboy to the party,
hiring extra cleaning crews to pick up the tons of broken bottles
at dawn and wash away the debris.
The problem, the authorities say, is that the botellón crowd isn't
doing anything illegal -- or at least nothing that they want to
crack down on. Drinking in public is legal, possession of small
amounts of hashish has been decriminalized, littering is tolerated
and loitering in public squares is considered a basic civic right.
Laws on under-age drinking are rarely enforced.
''In the culture of Spain,'' said Isabel Paris, a sociologist,
''life takes place in the streets, and alcohol has never been seen
as a bad thing.''
So as young people practice being Spanish, the neighbors are left
with ear plugs and restless nights.
The revelers know they're bothering the neighbors. ''I complain
when I'm the one trying to sleep,'' said Isabel Bueno, 19, having
a few drinks before heading to a bar. ''But when I'm here, I don't
Without specific crimes to crack down on, the police are reluctant
to act. Carmen, 61, whose apartment overlooks the square, has pretty
much stopped bothering to call them.
''When you call the first time, they get your name and phone number,''
she said. ''Now when I call, they just put me on hold until I hang
Convenience stores that sell liquor and snacks have sprung up around
the public squares. The big seller is red wine in one-liter boxes
that cost 50 cents each. Although there are fights and occasional
trouble, the overall atmosphere is friendly.
Neighborhood groups are now fighting for a more active solution.
Manolo Domingo Delgado, owner of a pastry shop near the square,
has founded a group to organize residents against the botellón.
Neighborhood patrols and public protests worked when addicts and
drug dealers threatened to overwhelm his neighborhood five years
ago, he said.
''This is just as bad as it was then,'' he added. ''Business in
the neighborhood suffers. People don't want to go out. The urine
is damaging the buildings.''
But this time around he is not optimistic. ''What they're doing
is essentially legal,'' he said.
Ms. Paris, the sociologist, sees the botellón as a delayed reaction
to the authoritarian Spain of the recent past. ''People that lived
through the post-Franco exuberance in the late 70's are now much
more permissive with their kids,'' she said.
The only way to solve the botellón problem, Mr. Serrano said, is
''These things go like a pendulum. Let's hope it just goes out
As dawn broke across the square, Paula and the rest of the party
had straggled home. The cleanup crew once again washed away virtually
all traces of the night before, and neighbors, at least briefly,
regained control of the area. But traces remained. The pavement
was wet and a bit sticky. A few bottles lay in the gutters. A statue
of a rebel hero had napkins stuck to his face.