My Favorite International Cities #5 - Madrid
First published July 28, 2021 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
Even though I have only been to Madrid three times, it is one of my favorite cities. I love its open spaces, its ambiance of activity and bustle, its enthusiasm, its late nights and its food…and Sangria.
Madrid is the second largest city in the European Union and EU’s third largest economic center. It is the banking and economic center of Southern Europe and the 8th most livable city in the world. Despite some high rises, Madrid has maintained old world charm even though serving as the center of most of Spain’s business and its central government.
The word “Madrid” has mixed origins: Celtic, Latin and Aramic. Madrid has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years and served as both a Roman and VisiGoth center, but not well recognized until about a thousand years ago in the early middle ages.
The Muslim Moors (Turks/Arabs) first civilized Madrid, establishing it as important defense for their cities, anchored by Toledo, later Grenada, in southern Spain and eastward; Spanish power was centered in Segovia and Moorish power in Toledo. Eventually, Madrid became part of Spain with full charter granted in 1202 (Alfonso VIII) but not recognized as a full city until 1346 (Alfonso XI). Some government moved to Madrid in 1309 but it did not become the Capital of Spain until 1561 (Philip II). The Moors were defeated in 1492 and completely gone by 1609. During the European wars of the modern era, it bounced around between the French, the English, the Portuguese and the Austrians, finally back under firm Spanish control by 1710 (Phillip V) and over the next 50 years was turned into a “real” capital city. Two curiosities in this more modern era: there was a major local revolt when the authorities tried to ban large hats and long coats (both used to hide weapons and so banned) and the French returned in the Napoleonic era (1808) to be finally expelled in 1823, although the French also helped to maintain the traditional Spanish royalty during the “cloak revolt.”
The new Spanish Constitution of 1931 made Madrid Spain’s formal capital. Improvements were made in sewers, streets, lighting and mass housing and architectural projects. Roads and rails were developed to connect outwards to all of Spain. Business grew particularly banking, insurance and telephone. But the Spanish civil war nearly destroyed the city, with General Franco’s forces seizing power in March 1939. Full democracy in the city was not restored until 1979. The central Spanish government is in Madrid with the Royal Zarzuela Palace ( the King is largely ceremonial), the Moncloa Palace for the Prime Minister’s Residence and his Council of Ministers, The Cortez Palace and the Senado Palace for the Lower and Upper Chambers of Parliament. Over the last forty years the city has seen massive growth with immigration, expanding economy, diverse culture and public education. Although it is also racked by the regional curses of drug abuse, unaffordable housing, alcoholism and gambling. The city remains about 70 % catholic although 70% non-practicing.
Madrid is walkable, if you like very long blocks, but also enjoys an excellent tram/train system. Ask your hotel about passes, although not strictly enforced. Start at the central Park El Retiro with accompanying Royal Botanical Gardens – this is one of the largest city parks in all Europe (Madrid has more trees than any other European city and the most green space per person). The park has been developed over 400 years and managed by the city since 1868. You can stroll or bicycle its 350 acres, home to some of Spain’s oldest trees, several palaces of the famous Sophia museum, grand statues and monuments (including the world’s only statue of Satan - the Fallen Angel), a Zoo, several restaurants, a Cultural Museum, a Library, folks playing chess, kids just playing, a grand lake with rental boats (even my teenage boys liked these boats), a marvelous arboretum, the Glass Palace, a huge monument to Alphonse III looking across the lake to one to Isabella II (Galapagos Fountain), a grand puppet stage, a private hunting preserve (Ferdinand VII) and lots of flowers chosen to the season. Walk beyond the park to the Royal Palace compound, also huge with government offices, official Royal residences and a grand museum. Other famous museums in Madrid, all near by, but on the opposite side of the Park, include the Prada, the Modern Art Museum, the Sophia complex, the National Archaeological Museum, the Royal Academy, the Caixa Forum, the Sorolla, the Cerralbo, the Museum of the Americas, Museum of Natural Sciences, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid museums include about ten others, lesser, but still important, and hold some of Europe’s most important art, artifacts and antiques, from Spain of course, but also across all Europe. I suppose the most famous works include The Immaculate Conception, the Judgement of Paris, the Garden of Earthly Delights and Guernica (banned for a time). Don Quixote was partly written and then published in Madrid; Don Juan is from here.
Love bull fights?, go to the Las Ventas, the largest ring in the world seating about 25,000 people; I have been there (you have to take a tram) and toured it, but I have never seen a fight there (although I have seen several fights in Mexico and southern France). Bull fighting has lost some luster over the years, but still very popular in Spain; the bulls are raised mostly by wealthy families along the Spanish-French border and the meat put to noble purpose, feeding orphans and convents.
And you must attend a Flamenco concert or show; most are in large halls with served dinners; the closest to the stage, the most expensive. Avoid the street vendors, but your hotel can arrange tickets and large venues will even come to pick you up in a van. Cigars, Sangria and cameras are all a must.
The Spanish love tomatoes in all its forms; well, not so much in the north. Tomatoes on bread, toast, soups, seafoods, as sauces, everywhere, all the time. Only the Sangria usually has no tomatoes, but of course full of fruit. Go to France for other sauces and Italy for creams. My favorite Madrid restaurants include Trattoria Pulcinella, Astor, Cerveceria Cano, Beytna, Juan, Saona, Ojala, Viajero, Habanera, Botin, Lateral and Casa Toribio. The Paella is always great and comes in various styles and seafoods, although probably more popular in Barcelona, but must be had, no matter the city, with Sangria.