Arab Emir Mohamed I (852-886) ordered a fortress to be built on the left bank of the Manzanares River, at the centre of the Iberian Peninsula. He named the settlement ‘Magerit’ and in it lay the seeds of Madrid. Traces of the flourishing Moorish town remain in the Muralla Arabe (Arabic Quarter), where a section of the town wall is still standing, and in the mudéjar architectural style of Madrid’s oldest church, San Nicolás de las Servitas.
Magerit was an instantly attractive location and Christians and Arabs fought bitterly over the territory until Alfonso VI settled matters with a decisive victory in the eleventh century. In the sixteenth century, Madrid’s location in the heart of Spain led Philip II to move the country’s capital from Toledo up to Madrid – at 650m (2132ft) above sea level it is the highest capital in Europe. The historic relocation of 1561 set the foundation for the modern city, now Spain’s financial and political capital, home to the Parliament, Senate and Royal Family, and to the extraordinary cultural riches of the Golden Triangle: the Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen museums.
With a population of over three million, modern Madrid is Europe’s fourth largest city, (after London, Paris and Milan). Finally released from the repression of the Franco era (1936-1975), Madrid is more than ready to launch into the Movida (roughly translated as the ‘Movement’) and vivir a tope – live life to the full. The 2800 hours of annual sunshine, twinned with the local need to be seen to be having the best time, turn the streets into centres of activity and public display. Madrid’s infectious street fiestas punctuate the year: Holy Week processions; May’s bullfighting season; summer’s celebration of gastronomy, bullfighting and music; and the exuberant religious festivals of autumn. Even outside fiesta season, life is a celebration in the streets of Madrid.
While anxious to be ‘modern’ in clothes, outlook and lifestyle, Madrileños remain fiercely traditional. They cling to their customs more than their cosmopolitan rivals from Barcelona – 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 (Metropolis of Madrid) stretches over 8000 sq km (3090 sq miles), the centre is easily explored on foot. Contrast is provided between the narrow, labyrinthine streets of medieval Madrid and the straight, grand boulevards of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which attempted to inject an element of grandeur into this slightly chaotic capital. Each barrio (district) has its own distinctive atmosphere – with Lavapiés, Malasaña and Chueca making up the Old Madrid of the early Hapsburgs.
The heart of the city is the Castilian-Baroque Plaza Mayor, linked by the Calle Mayor to the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s ‘mile zero’. The city’s main street, the Gran Vía, is lined with cinemas, department stores and bank headquarters. Fashionable Madrid lies in the Salamanca Quarter, crossed by the boutique-lined Calle de Serrano, while business is conducted along the north-south Avenue Paseo de la Castellana, crowned by the leaning ‘Puerta de Europa’ twin towers – a daring architectural design and tremendous sign of confidence in Madrid’s future.