|According to the Arab
chroniclers, it was in AD 852 that the Emir of Córdoba, Mohamed
I (AD 852–886), ordered a fortress to be built on
the left bank of the Manzanares River, the geographical
centre of the Iberian Peninsula. He named the settlement ‘Mayrit’
and in it lay the seeds of the city now known as Madrid.
Traces of this flourishing Moorish town survive to this day, in
a section of town wall, muralla Arabe, near the Royal Palace, as
well as in the mudéjar architectural style of Madrid’s
oldest church, San Nicolás de las Servitas.
Mayrit (or Magerit) was situated in a
strategically important location and Christians and Arabs fought
bitterly over the territory up until late in the 11th century, when
Alfonso VI finally settled matters by capturing the Alcázar
after a 3 year siege. However, it would be another 500 years before
Philip II took the historic decision, in 1561,
to move his capital from Valladolid to Madrid.
Today, Madrid remains Spain’s financial and political core,
home to the Cortes (Parliament), Senate
and Royal Family, as well as the extraordinary
cultural riches of the Golden Triangle, the Prado, Reina
Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza art museums.
With a population of just under three million, Madrid is Europe’s
fourth largest city, after London, Paris and Milan, and its highest
capital, at 650m (2132ft) above sea level. The repression and torpor
of the Franco era during 1939 until 1975 are now
all but forgotten by Madrileños who, perhaps
more than any other Spaniards, are determined to vivir a tope (live
life to the full). The craving for conspicuous enjoyment, not to
mention the 2800 hours of annual sunshine, turn the streets into
bustling centres of public display.
Madrid’s infectious and colourful fiestas
punctuate the year, with each barrio (district) trying to outdo
the other in its celebrations. The highlights include Reyes
Magos (Feast of the Three Kings), Carnival,
the religious processions of Holy Week, the San Isidro festival
in May (the beginning of the bullfighting season) and Nochevieja
(New Year’s Eve), when the Puerta del Sol becomes the focal
point during several hours of uninhibited partying.
Visitors should also look out for some of the major cultural festivals,
notably the Veranos de la Villa in summer and the
autumn Festival de Otoño, embracing film,
theatre, dance and music of every description. Although Madrid’s
climate is more extreme than other Spanish locations, the warm dry
summers and cool winters still allow for many alfresco activities.
Although anxious to appear ‘modern’ in clothes, outlook
and lifestyle, Madrileños are fiercely traditional,
clinging to their customs more noticeably than their cosmopolitan
Barcelonese rivals do. Most choose to live at home until marriage,
divorce remains controversial (particularly in high society) and
the family surpasses everything.
While the Comunidad de Madrid (Madrid Province)
stretches over 8000sq km (3090sq miles), the city’s historic
heart is easily explored on foot. The narrow, labyrinthine streets
of the medieval quarter contrast with the grand boulevards, laid
out in the 18th and 19th centuries, the period when Madrid began
to take on the trappings of a modern capital. Each barrio (district)
has its own distinctive atmosphere, Lavapiés,
Malasaña and Chueca being
the oldest and most interesting.
Many visitors first get to know the central area, known as the Madrid
of the Austrias (a reference to the Hapsburg era), situated
roughly between the Palacio Real and the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s
‘mile zero’. It is only a short walk from here to the
city’s main street, the Gran Vía,
lined with shops, banks, offices, cinemas and bars.
Fashionable Madrid starts with the Salamanca district and the boutiques
of Calle Serrano, while the modern business quarter
extends along the north–south axis, known as the Paseo
de la Castellana. Distinguished by its skyscrapers and
impressive office blocks, this is where the multinationals have
At the far northern end of the Paseo de la Castellana
are the ‘leaning towers’ of the Puerta de Europa
(Gateway of Europe), a daring display of architecture symbolising
the city’s confidence in its future. Indeed, Madrid has already
launched its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, which would not
only win the city some desirable developments and revenue but also
award Madrid the status of one of the world’s major players.