searching for history in modern Madrid

Madrid Travel Blog

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the heart of modern Madrid: Puerta del Sol

As I wrote in "no offense, Madrid...", I'm a Barcelona person. Part of it is certainly because I'm a medievalist. In the 13th century, Barcelona was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean, while Madrid was a bump on a log. Madrid didn't come into its own until it became the Spanish capital in the 16th century, and the city's monuments reflect their disparate histories. When I had a few hours to kill in Madrid before catching my train back to Barcelona, I cracked open my Lonely Planet and decided to go digging for some history underneath the very modern city that is Madrid!

I started out in Puerta del Sol, Madrid's central plaza.

the best hangover prevention in Spain, from the Chocolateria San Gines
It's perhaps best known for its giant ad for Tio Pepe brand sherry. Its name ("Gate of the Sun") is a little confusing since there's no gate there today, but the eastern entrance to the city walls did once stand there. From Sol, I walked down Calle del Arenal, took a left at the Church of San Gines (near the famous chocolate shop of the same name), crossed Calle de Alcala, and ended up in the beautiful Plaza Mayor. This 17th-century square used to host executions, but now just mainly serves as a high-priced sunny spot for tourists to sit in. Further down, Calle de Alcala becomes Calle Mayor, and runs by Plaza de la Villa. Here I saw the town hall, also 17th-century.

The narrow streets south of the town hall took me into the moreria, or Moorish quarter, where the city's Muslim population lived after Madrid (called al-Majrit in Arabic) was retaken by Spanish Christians in the 11th century.

Church of San Pedro el Viejo, with its distinctive Mudejar-style belltower
The current Church of San Pedro el Viejo was built on the site of one of the town's mosques. Muslims living under Christian rule were called Mudejars in medieval Spain, and this church was built in the brickwork style typical of their community. The Church of San Andres sits on the Plaza de la Puerta de Moros ("Plaza of the Moors' Gate"), another reminder of the old moreria.

More of Madrid's most important sites can be found in what used to be the Moorish quarter. Heading east from San Andres and crossing Calle de Bailen, you will arrive at Las Vistillas, a magnificent terrace overlooking the gardens of the Royal Palace. There's a nice view from here of Madrid's cathedral, La Almudena, which is just a bit further north along C/ Bailen. The current building dates from the 19th and 20th centuries, but a thousand years ago, another one of Muslim Madrid's mosques stood here.

the terrace at Las Vistillas, with the cathedral in the background

Continuing along Bailen, beyond the cathedral, is the Royal Palace (Palacio Real), constructed in the 18th century. Even before Madrid became the royal capital in the 16th century, the kings of Castile and Leon had a castle here, which they had captured and modified from the Spanish Muslims. The current king and queen of Spain have never actually lived here, preferring a smaller palace (La Zarzuela) on the town's outskirts, but the Palacio Real is still used for ceremonial purposes and is open to the public. On the eastern side of the palace is the elegant Plaza del Oriente, which contains statues of dozens of Spanish monarchs, nobles, and heroes -- a veritable history lesson in itself!   

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the heart of modern Madrid: Puerta…
the heart of modern Madrid: Puert…
the best hangover prevention in Sp…
the best hangover prevention in S…
Church of San Pedro el Viejo, with…
Church of San Pedro el Viejo, wit…
the terrace at Las Vistillas, with…
the terrace at Las Vistillas, wit…
the Tio Pepe ad in Puerta del Sol
the Tio Pepe ad in Puerta del Sol
open-air bookseller off Calle Aren…
open-air bookseller off Calle Are…
Plaza de la Villa; the town hall i…
Plaza de la Villa; the town hall …
Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor
painted facade on Plaza Mayor
painted facade on Plaza Mayor
classically Spanish craftwork -- t…
classically Spanish craftwork -- …
Church of San Andres
Church of San Andres
the Royal Palace
the Royal Palace
Plaza del Oriente
Plaza del Oriente
Madrid
photo by: vulindlela