Madrid: the forgotten European capital


One of Europe’s capitals that is usually forgotten on the standard European tour that includes Paris, London, Rome and maybe even Berlin is Madrid in Spain. The city offers a lot, but does not have an iconic landmark like the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum or Tower Bridge for selfie fetishists.

The city is in every way the center of Spain, not only geographically, but also politically, economically and culturally. When most of Spain was still under Arab control in the Middle Ages, Madrid was only a military outpost. The name may have Arabic origins, but it is no longer clear what the word Madrid meant.

During the Reconquista (the Christian Reconquest of Spain which took centuries and was only completed by 1492) Madrid was liberated in 1083, but only in 1561 due to its central location under King Philip II the capital of Spain, then part of the giant Habsburg Empire, became. Large building activities, such as churches, palaces and fancy squares, which would be worthy of the capital of a world empire, were started at this time.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Spain, with its American colonies and its yield in gold, silver and other valuables, was the most powerful empire on earth, before it was dethroned by Britain and faced its slow decline. Fortunately for Madrid, the city was not badly destroyed by wars. There was indeed damage from the battles during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), but because Spain stayed out of the Second World War, the cityscape did not change so drastically and buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries dominate in the center.

You rarely see modern skyscrapers. Of course, with the tremendous population growth in the twentieth century, the city also added its suburbs with the usual concrete apartment blocks. Characteristic of Madrid are large squares with monumental public buildings, wide avenues such as Granvia, elegant parks such as the enormous Retiro Park as well as several outstanding museums.

Perhaps the main attraction is the royal palace, whose stately rooms can also be viewed. Less well known than Britain, Spain also has a royal house which, like the British royal house, also has its share of scandals. The current king, Felipe VI, succeeded his father Juan Carlos I in 2014 after the latter resigned due to corruption allegations. Felipe VI and his wife, Queen Leticia, were able to slightly restore the prestige of the royal house. The royal family themselves live in a smaller palace on the outskirts of Madrid and the royal palace is only used for large receptions and is mostly a museum.

For art lovers, the Prado Museum, in terms of quality and quantity of works of art one of the leading museums in the world, is a must. The largest collection of paintings is naturally from Spain’s golden age (1492 to 1659) as well as from later centuries, with artists such as Diego Velazquez, El Greco, Bartolom√© Murillo and Francisco de Goya being the most famous. However, there are also significant collections of the Italian and Dutch baroque period as well as of medieval paintings.

Fortunately, the museum is not as overflowing with visitors as, for example, the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London. For lovers of modern art, there is the Museo Reina Sofia, with works from the twentieth century, including the famous Picasso painting Guernica which represents the bombing of this Basque city during the civil war. Together with the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which exhibits classical as well as modern art, they form the “triangle of the arts”, because the three art museums are located diagonally opposite each other.

What also makes Madrid pleasant is that even in the center, apart from a few large avenues, there are many narrow streets, pedestrian areas and friendly squares full of bars and restaurants, where life bustles until late at night. The traditional, special shops that give a city character, such as for antique furniture, second-hand books, stamps and coins or handmade products, are still here.

Typical of the Spanish food culture tapas; plates with snacks such as smoked ham, olives, cheese, salted fish or potato tarts which are eaten with beer or wine and are particularly suitable for gatherings in a large circle. However, this is only the “warm-up” for the actual big dinner, which is only served at half past ten in the evening, a time when most Central Europeans (and South Africans) are already on their way to bed.