No room for a balcony romance

Charging for access to property with a view of Madrid's Sol square is now lucrative

Reporters and photographers are willing to pay to get good views of protests there

An image taken from the roof of an apartment in Sol after the 15-M encampment had been cleared. / CARLOS ROSILLO

The phone rings.

- Hello?

- I've talked to the boss and renting the balcony will cost you 700 euros for the entire day. For shorter demonstrations, it's 150 euros per hour. And if you need to show up on the spur of the moment for spontaneous protests, then it's 200 euros for the hour.

A worker at an office in one of the buildings facing Puerta del Sol lists the prices a television producer would have to pay to use one of its balconies to cover street marches in the heart of Madrid. Getting the best shots comes at a price, and quite a high one at that, at a time when Sol is bubbling with protests over government spending cuts.

The odd balcony was already being rented out for the New Year's Eve celebrations, but the May 15, 2011 protests that started the grassroots 15-M movement (and spawned similar movements such as Occupy Wall Street) were a watershed for the terraces and balconies of the square that hosts kilometer zero, from where all road distances in Spain are measured.

That's 500 euros per balcony. If you want to use all three, it's 1,500"

Before this, the media used to ask permission from hotels, office spaces and private homes to get a better perspective of what was going on at street level. The answer could be yes or it could be no. There was no talk of money. But these days, the answer tends to come with a figure attached to it.

"That'll be 500 euros per balcony. If you want to use all three, then it's 1,500 euros," says the owner of another business located on the fourth floor.

Sources at a production company that supplies several media outlets with footage, and who would rather remain anonymous, said they have borne witness to the change. After 15-M, this company decided to seek a permanent office rental to cover all subsequent events in Sol. They found one.

"We were faced with news stories that needed to be told, and this rooftop is perfect," said the sources. From this privileged vantage point, more than one news outlet, both national and international, has photographed and filmed the scene down below. The BBC and Al Jazeera are just two examples.

Aïman Zoubir, a correspondent for the Arab network in Madrid, also tried to rent office space in Sol. But they were asking for 1,700 euros. "In the global protest of October 15, we were forced to wing it. We managed to get into a lawyer's office - he let us film for free, but warned us that if we wanted to do it again we'd have to pay," explains Zoubir.

We were forced to wing it. We managed to get into a lawyer's office"

Adriana Ortiz was a news writer with Diario Crítico when the first anniversary of 15-M came around. It was the weekend of May 12, 2012 and Ortiz was desperately seeking a balcony to cover the marches. She called every hostel and hotel in the square. "Everything was booked solid," she recalls.

So at 5pm she grabbed her computer and her camera and headed out to Sol to try her luck. "I walked into a hostel with a vestibule on the third floor and three balconies from which you get a view of Puerta del Sol. One balcony was occupied by CNN. I took the one next to them. They asked me for 100 euros, and when I complained that it was a bit expensive, they replied that it was a way to recoup some of the losses caused by the protests."

"The CNN guys were asked for around 250 euros," she adds.

A spokeswoman for a public television network says that instead of paying money, they trade balconies for publicity. The cheapest ad is 300 euros.

A photographer from the Mexican news agency Notimex says he paid 60 euros to take pictures from a balcony in the area. "There was a photographer from Reuters and another one from AP with me. Between the three of us, we paid 180 euros," he explains.

But some balconies are not available at any price. There are owners who feel it is not worth it to let anybody up. Others only allow one photograph to be taken.

"Photographers are self-employed, that is why I don't charge them," says the owner of one of the hostels in the square. What she wants is for the protests to end. "This could kill our only source of income: tourism," she says.

Spontaneous protests are increasingly frequent, and calls to meet in Sol spread like wildfire on social networks. It looks like for the time being Puerta del Sol will continue to be the capital's hotspot - and the media will continue to follow the unfurling events from the vantage points of its balconies.

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