Madrid, a city of culture: Journey with the History Guru to England and Spain

Posted on Jan 30, 2012 in category


Catching the yellow ‘Airport Express’ bus was great value @ 2 euros. Queue early, as seats are limited. The bus has several stops along the way to Atocha Station where we tried to catch a taxi. The taxi driver refused to take us to our apartment as the meter fare would have been too small and he’d lose his spot at the front of a long taxi queue!!

The result? An uphill walk! On the ascent we discovered the Reina Sofia Museum (‘I shall return’, I thought!). Our apartment was situated in one of Madrid’s famous narrow streets that are decorated with tiny wrought-iron balconies. We found ourselves close to the old Jewish quarter of Lavapiés - now sadly fighting a bad reputation for crime. The landlord assured us that the area was safe and he encouraged us to be adventurous. We took his advice and soon hit the narrow, graffiti-laden streets of central Madrid.


‘Home sweet home’ in Madrid!

Madrid originally called ‘Mayrit’ (place of many springs) was a small Muslim settlement settled in A.D.900, a relatively late and uninspiring beginning. Overshadowed for many decades by Toledo, Madrid owed its rise to Phillip II’s decision to move his court from Toledo to Madrid in A.D.1561. Although it’s uncertain why Phillip II moved to Madrid, several possible reasons include: his wife’s loathing of Toledo’s weather (it was a very cold winter that year!), Phillip II’s loathing of the Bishop of Toledo’s influence and finally, a lack of water from Toledo’s river to sustain a growing imperial court.

The 17th century was the ‘Golden Age’ of Madrid and Spain. Wealth from the Spanish colonies in the New World poured into the coffers of the Spanish royalty and nobility. This wealth is still evident today in ‘Huertas’ district of central Madrid, also known as "El Barrio de las Letras" (literary Madrid). Here Spain's most celebrated ‘Golden Age’ writers lived and worked such as Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca and Tirso de Molina.

Plaza de Santa Ana (mecca of Madrid’s tapas bars), Plaza Mayor (surrounded by 237 balconies), the Paseo del Prado with its famous Prado Museum and the Botanical Gardens (worth a visit on a Sunday) all grace this area.

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Above is the facade of the ‘Casa de la Panaderia’ (Bakers’ Guild, A.D.1790) in Plaza Mayor.

The ‘Casa de la Panaderia’ building has been restored several times due to fire, it’s also had several functions over the years including the Academy of History and the exterior murals were restored in 1992. What a beautiful building. Ole!

For a virtual panoramic view of the Plaza Mayor see:


A plush tapas bar off Plaza Santa Ana

‘Tapas’ derives from the Spanish word meaning ‘to cover’. Legend has it that King Alfonso X of Castile (A.D.1221-1284) became sick but recovered after eating small portions of food. He ordered all sherry tavern owners to provide small portions of food to their customers. Food usually took the form of a slab of bread, slice of cheese or ham that covered the glass stopping insects from spoiling the fun.


Sherry is a must try – cultivated grapes, as opposed to wild indigenous grapes, were first introduced by the Phoenicians from the Levant in the late 11th/early 10th centuries B.C. For a detailed analysis of Phoenician settlement in Iberia see:

For a description of vine cultivation in the Jerez region by Columella, a Roman writer, see:*.html

Wine presses from the 4th century B.C. have been excavated in Castillo de Doña Blanca, just 4 km from Jerez de la Frontera, now Spain’s premier sherry producing region. It was the Moors who called this part of Spain ‘Seris’ pronounced Sherish. Evidence for the Moorish origin of the word ‘sherry’ can be found in the map by Muslim geographer, Al-Idrisi, who was commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily in A.D.1150.


Another good sherry yarn involves Magellan’s trip in 1519 to circumnavigate the world – he spent more money for the voyage on sherry from Jerez than on armaments! Touche!

- Julian Jeffs, Sherry (2004)

For a detailed history of sherry


The last dedicated, authentic sherry bar in Madrid, ‘La Venencia’. Highly recommended but don’t break the rules: no singing, no inside photos and no smoking!! Thanks must go to James B, an expat. Aussie, his vivacious wife and their knowledgeable American English teaching friend whose generosity made our sherry stop so informative and enjoyable. Muchas gracias!

Apart from the many nuances of sherry, expat James B. also informed me about ‘The Lady of Elche’ sculpture, a late 5th or early 4th century B.C. Iberian sculpture believed by some to be ‘Tanit’, goddess of Carthage. Other interpretations include a priestess or a noble woman. Although quite recently labelled a fake by some art historians, scientific analysis of paint used on the sculpture has supported its authenticity. ‘The Lady of Elche’ resides in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for a complete renovation.


‘The Dama de l’ Elche’ found in L'Alcúdia in 1987, sold to the Louvre and returned to Spain by the French Vichy government (they did something right!) - Wikimedia Commons

See: (short video on ‘The Lady of Elche’) (an interesting website of the archaeological site)

For an interesting article on the role of the female gender in Iberian religious art 

Replacing the original 15th century palace that was destroyed by fire, the ‘Palacio Real de Madrid’ or Royal Palace was built by King Phillip V in A.D.1538-1555. Although infrequently used by the present Royal family, the palace is known for its paintings by Velázquez, Caravaggio and Goya.


For a virtual panoramic view of the ‘Palacio Real de Madrid’ see:

After a short tour of the nearby cathedral, we headed for a restaurant owned by a local family. Spanish is not my forte so the menu totally disarmed me but the owners’ suggestions were superb. Well fed, we hit the sack early in order to be ready, willing and able for tomorrow’s early rise to catch the fast train to Toledo.

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