Madrid became Spain’s capital simply by virtue of its geographical position at the heart of Iberia. When Felipe II moved the seat of government here in 1561, his aim was to create a symbol of the unification and centralization of the country, and a capital from which he could receive the fastest post and communication from every corner of the nation. The site itself had few natural advantages – it is 300km from the sea on a 650m-high plateau, freezing in winter, boiling in summer – and it was only the determination of successive rulers to promote a strong central capital that ensured Madrid’s survival and development.
Today, Madrid is a vast, predominantly modern city, with a population of some four million and growing. The journey in – through a stream of soulless suburbs and high-rise apartment blocks – isn’t pretty, but the streets at the heart of the city are a pleasant surprise, with pockets of medieval buildings and narrow, atmospheric alleys, dotted with the oddest of shops and bars, and interspersed with eighteenth-century Bourbon squares. Compared with the historic cities of Spain – Toledo, Salamanca, Seville, Granada – there may be few sights of great architectural interest, but the monarchs did acquire outstanding picture collections, which formed the basis of the Prado museum. This, together with the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, state-of-the-art homes to fabulous arrays of modern Spanish painting (including Picasso’s Guernica) and European and American masters, has made Madrid a top port-of-call on the European art tour.
Aside from these heavyweight cultural attractions, there is a host of smaller museums and palaces which can be almost as rewarding. Sports fans will inevitably be drawn to the Santiago Bernabéu, home to one of the most glamorous and successful clubs in world football, Real Madrid, while a scattering of parks and gardens provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
However, monuments and sights are not really what Madrid is about and as you get to grips with the place, you soon realize that it’s the lifestyle of the inhabitants – the madrileños – that is the capital’s key attraction: hanging out in traditional cafés or summer terrazas, packing the lanes of the Sunday Rastro flea market or playing hard and very late in a thousand bars, clubs, discos and tascas. Whatever Barcelona or San Sebastián might claim, the Madrid scene, immortalized in the movies of Pedro Almodóvar, remains the most vibrant and fun in the country.
The city centre is also now in better shape than for many years as a result of the impact of a series of urban rehabilitation programmes – funded jointly by the European Union and local government – in the city’s older barrios (districts). Improvements have been made to the transport network, with extensions to the metro, the construction of new ring roads, and the excavation of a series of road tunnels designed to bring relief to Madrid’s congested streets. The area around the River Manzanares, in particular, has been subject to an ambitious regeneration scheme aimed at turning the river into a focal point for leisure and recreation. The downside to all the redevelopment is that the city still appears to spend much of the time belly-up because of the interminable roadworks and civil-engineering projects.
A brief history
Madrid’s history dates back to the ninth century when Muslims established a defensive outpost on the escarpment above the River Manzanares which later became known as “Mayrit” – the place of many springs.
It remained a relatively insignificant backwater until 1561 when Felipe II designated the city his imperial capital by virtue of its position at the heart of the recently unified Spain. The cramped street plan in the city centre provides a clue as to what the city would have been like at this time and the narrow alleys around the Plaza Mayor are still among Madrid’s liveliest and most atmospheric. With the Bourbons replacing the Habsburgs at the start of the eighteenth century, a touch of French style, including the sumptuous Palacio Real, was introduced into the capital by Felipe V.
It was the “King-Mayor” Carlos III, however, who tried to convert the city into a home worthy of the monarchy after he ascended to the throne in 1759, ordering the streets to be cleaned, sewers and lighting to be installed and work to begin on the Prado museum complex.
The early nineteenth century brought invasion and turmoil to Spain as Napoleon established his brother Joseph (or José to Spaniards) on the throne. Madrid, however, continued to flourish, gaining some very attractive buildings and squares, including the Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Santa Ana. With the onset of the twentieth century, the capital became the hotbed of the political and intellectual discussions that divided the country; tertulias (political/philosophical discussion circles) sprang up in cafés across the city (some of them are still going) as the country entered the turbulent years of the end of the monarchy and the foundation of the Second Republic.
Madrid was a Republican stronghold during the Civil War, with fierce battles raging around the capital as Franco’s troops laid siege to the city, eventually taking control in 1939. The Civil War, of course, caused untold damage, and led to forty years of isolation. The city’s great spread to suburbia began during the Franco era and it has continued unabated ever since, with unbridled property speculation taking its toll on the green spaces that surround the capital. Franco also extended the city northwards along the spinal route of the Paseo de la Castellana, to accommodate his ministers and minions during development extravaganzas of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Spanish capital has changed immeasurably, however, in the three decades since Franco’s death, initially guided by a poet-mayor, the late Tierno Galván. His efforts – the creation of parks and renovation of public spaces and public life – left an enduring legacy, and were a vital ingredient of the movida madrileña “the happening Madrid” with which the city broke through in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, the centre-right Partido Popular has been in control, bringing with it a more restrictive attitude towards bar and club licensing. Unfortunately, there has also been a simultaneous tendency towards homogenization with the rest of Europe as franchised fast-food joints and coffee bars spring up all over the place. Nevertheless, in making the transition from provincial backwater to major European capital, Madrid has still managed to preserve its own stylish and quirky identity.
Top image: Cibeles fountain © dimbar76/Shutterstock