|How did this generally insignificant military
outpost become the capital of the world's largest and most powerful
empire? Central location played a part, but the sole whim of one king laid
the foundation of Madrid's history, which basically parallels that of
Historians have attempted to trace Madrid's origins back to the Roman era,
but no real significant evidence exists. Although believed to have
descended from a Roman town named Mantua Carpetana, more archeological
relics have been found to support the fact that a continuous civilization
has existed in this area as long as any in Europe (though apparently with
no or little Roman ancestry). Many of these artifacts and other
prehistoric treasures can now be found at the Museo Nacional
As obscure as Madrid's origins may seem, however, it is probably safe to
say they can be definitely traced back to the Moors. By around the middle
of the 9th century, Mayrit, as Madrid was then called, served as an
important military outpost, positioned to keep a watchful eye as the
Christians attempted to reclaim Iberia. Perfect for this role, a castle
was positioned atop the rock where the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) now
stands, commanding a strategic view of the main pass leading down from the
Guadarrama mountains. A part of the original castle's foundation have been
recently excavated next to the palace. You can still see, however, the
last remaining bit of the old Moorish walls that once surrounded the city,
just below Almudena Cathedral.
Christian forces unsuccessfully attacked Mayrit around 932 and then again
in 1047, as it served as a launching pad for expansion into the north. It
wasn't until 1086, however, that Alfonso VI was able to capture Madrid
along with Toledo. For decades, the city (still a village) was constantly
beseiged and under attack. Campo del Moro (Moor's Field), found just
beneath the Royal Palace, for example, was so-named after one particular
episode where the Moors camped out below in their attempt to recapture
By the late 13th century, it was just another medieval village with a
population of under 4,000 inhabitants. What remains from this epoch are
the San Nicolás de los Servitas and San Pedro el Viejo churches, both
found near the Plaza de la Villa, along with a handful of other buildings
in Old Madrid.
The Royal Court and a New Capital
Madrid's royal stock began to rise by the 14th century, and the city would
eventually become the seat of the Royal Court. Although social unrest
dogged the monarchy, they looked to the growing city as a prestigious
retreat. By the 15th century, Madrid had become a center for trade and
finance, and it was around this time that the original sites for the
Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor began to take shape. At this point, the
kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by Isabel and Fernando, and a
period of relative political stability began. This was also the time of
the 'discovery' of the New World by Columbus and of the expulsion of the
Jews from Spain.
Madrid would finally be declared capital of the Spanish Empire in 1561.
Madrid's population was then about 15,000-strong.
In the year 1700, Felipe V was crowned king. The city had been completely
forgotten about and nothing had been reformed since the reign of Felipe
IV, leaving Madrid in a generally bad state. This made it even more
comparable with Versailles, from where Felipe V actually hailed. During
his rule many buildings and monuments were built, and impressive
engineering projects undertaken, such as walling off the Manzanares river
(to make it look "grander"). The Marquis de Vadillo together
with the architects Teodoro Ardeman and Pedro Ribera were in charge of
this last project. These three men are also responsible for many of the
baroque masterpieces built in Madrid under the Bourbons. A few outstanding
works include the Puente de Toledo bridge, the San Fernando Hospital and
the Monte de Piedad building, amongst others.
Even after all these changes, the Bourbon monarchs remained
dissatisfied and sought to create even more. The now-destroyed Alcazar did
not convince them, given that it only reminded them of the previous
dynasty. As a result, they decided to move their residence to the Granja
de San Ildefonso, a new palace which was to be constructed according to
In 1759, Carlos III was crowned. He would later be considered the best
mayor Madrid had ever had. He not only completed La Granja, but also
undertook to completely remodel Madrid. This is how the Prado Salon was
born. This area stretches from Plaza de Cibeles to Atocha station. Other
monuments include Neptune's Fountain and the grand Puerta de Alcalá.
19th-century Decline and Restoration
This period can be divided into two parts, the first being one of general
decadence. This period began with the French invasion and Joseph
Bonaparte's 'destructive' policy. He commanded that the churches and
buildings he regarded to house a threat to France be demolished. This only
gave Madrid a more desolate air. However, when Fernando VII took over the
throne, everything was returned to the Church, and the reconstruction of
all that was lost during the Wars of Independence began.
Between this first period and second era, Queen Isabel II was in power.
This period doesn't exactly fit into either of the other two.
Nevertheless, two important developments occurred at this time: the
creation of the Isabel II Canal and the arrival of the railway.
During the second period, Madrid slowly regained its lost urban
splendour. The growth of the bourgeoisie resulted in the construction of
some smaller palaces. Two beautiful examples from this period are the
Palacio de Linares and the Palacio de Gaviria. An urbanisation project,
known as the Castro Plan, was also undertaken. Madrid was growing and soon
new neighbourhoods appeared outside the old town. Chamberí, Argüelles
and Salamanca are three. The latter had a particularly important impact on
life in the city, as only those of a certain status were permitted to move
Madrid closed out the 19th century with the same feeling of defeat felt by
the rest of Spain over the loss of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico,
the last remaining colonies of the Spanish Empire. In 1902, Alfonso XIII
was crowned king and a new period of parliamentary monarchy began which
would have to deal with the economic and political crisis inherited from
that disastrous year, 1898. Meanwhile, the Modernist movement barely
penetrated deep down into the social-cultural divides within the country.
In Madrid in fact, the only building representative of this movement is
the Palacio de Longoria, currently the headquarters of the Sociedad
General de Autores, and a good example of the changes taking place
architecturally at the turn of the century. Only one urban redesigning
plan was under way in Madrid, adding excitement to the general monotony of
the times: the Ciudad Lineal (Linear City) as envisioned by engineer
Arturo Soria. It was a modern and unique concept, breaking with tradition
and which helped keep the city busy well into the new century.
Besides Ciudad Lineal, which was begun in the 1890s, the most
distinguishing event in this early part of the century was the
construction of the Gran Vía, from Alcalá street to the Red de San Luis,
the network of streets which end on Montera street. Architects from
different countries and architectural schools set up shop in Madrid and
got down to work, achieving the elegant result we can see today.
During General Primo de Rivera's dictatorship (1923-1930), construction
on the university campus, Ciudad Universitaria, was begun. Plans for this
campus dated originally from Alfonso XIII's time and were based on the
prototypes being built in Europe and the United States at the time.
In April, 1931, the people of Madrid celebrated the victory of the
Republicans in the elections held after Primo de Rivera stepped down from
power. The capital's streets were overflowing with people, especially in
the symbolic and central Puerta del Sol, a gathering point for thousands
of Republicans celebrating the Declaration of the Second Republic.
The Civil War
Change, however, was not readily accepted by the Spain of those days. This
was a period when liberal and conservative governments changed hands fast,
without guaranteeing the stability long sought after. Eventually, the
enormous divide separating one and the other side led to the bloody civil
war which began on July 18, 1936 after Francisco Franco's coup d'état
against the Republic. The war dragged on until April 1, 1939, when the
area controlled by the Republican forces, after years of agony, had been
reduced to the centre and southeast of the peninsula. After Franco's
forces seized Madrid at the end of March, they knew they had won the war.
During the 3 long years of the war, Madrid had been under constant
siege. The streets were battlefronts. One of the neighbourhoods in the
capital most punished by the invading forces was the area leading from
where Plaza de España is today, along Princesa and Rosales streets up to
Parque del Oeste, then the outskirts of the city. In the city centre, the
situation was very different. In 1937, the Republicans, aware of the
danger the city faced, had the symbol of the city, the Cibeles statue,
covered and protected against enemy guns. Photographs from that period are
incredible: the Puerta de Alcalá without the Torre de Valencia behind it
and Cibeles just a mound as it was protected by bricks and sandbags
against obus missile attacks. The end would, in this case, justify the
means. The Neptune fountain on Paseo del Prado, in front of the Hotel
Ritz, was also 'buried', while the Plaza Mayor and the façade of the
municipal museum were also protected. Unfortunately, the Republicans,
cement barricades and their cries of No pasarán (They shall not pass)
could not stop the advance of the Nationalist forces.
The 50s and 60s
After the war, reconstruction of Madrid followed the guidelines set out in
the General Plan for the Organisation of Madrid. The Gran Vía was
finished and the massive influx of immigrants from other areas of the
country -even poorer than Madrid- began to give shape to the immense city
which Madrid would become in little time.
In the 60s, entire new neighbourhoods were built on the outskirts
(spreading out further and further into the plains) and the economy began
to grow as a result. All the while, speculation became a habit within the
construction sector. One example of this was the terrible transformation
taking place along the Paseo de la Castellana. Many palatial mansions were
demolished to make way for taller and more modern buildings in line with
the times, the constructors chosing to ignore the historical value of the
buildings being destroyed.
Madrid slowly woke up from the post-war period and undertook an urban plan
to try and repair a lot of the buildings affected by the war. Since 1975,
Madrid's 'skyline' has been through many changes. The Gran Vía is no
longer the elegant avenue it once was, but a great commercial and busy
street. The Paseo de la Castellana, once the residence of the wealthiest
bourgeoisie in the city, has been taken over largely by banks and
embassies on both sides. However, areas like Chueca, which had been
completely neglected by the local authorities and taken over by drug
dealers and junkies, have now completely changed. Thanks to the gay
community, for example, Chueca is perhaps one of the liveliest and
vanguard neighbourhoods in the city today.
Several other major construction projects have also been carried out,
including the Picasso and KIO Towers in more recent years. As well as the
fantastic expansion of the Madrid metro system (it has to be said!),
numerous building façades have been redone and the number of green areas
in the city has increased (parks, trees on almost all streets, fountains).
The KIO Towers, however, are the true representative of modernity in
Madrid and its openness to new change (while not to everyone's aesthetic
liking). They represent the single most important event in Spain in the
last few years: Entering the European Union and the Euro zone. That's why
these leaning towers are also known as the Puerta de Europa (Gateway to
Europe), a medieval name for a modern outlook.