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Notes on the Geography of Spain: Madrid

"The more Madrid is known, the less it will be liked." It's not what we have learned to expect from tourist guidebooks, but it's what we find in one of the best guidebooks of all time, Richard Ford's A Hand-book for Travellers in Spain (1845). Ford goes on to say that Madrid "as a residence [is] disagreeable and unhealthy, alternating between the extremities of heat and cold, or, according to the adage, three months of winter and nine of hell...." Never short of jabs, Ford wrote that "those who soonest shake the dust off their feet, and remain the shortest time at Madrid, will probably remember it with most satisfaction."

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The historic core of the city, Madrid Centro, lies east of the Manzanares, a tributary of the Tagus, which eventually reaches the sea at Lisbon. For centuries, visitors joked that the Manzanares was a pitiful excuse for a river, but a combination of reservoirs above and below the city has converted the stream into a linear pond, here canalized as it flows past Vicente Calderon Stadium, home of Atlético Madrid.

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The view downstream includes the augurish El Puente Arganzuela, designed by Dominique Perrault and opened in 2011. A lot of money has obviously been spent shaping the landscape here, but much has also been spent in ways that cannot be seen, because long stretches of M-30, Madrid's inner orbital or beltway, run in tunnels alongside the river. Some four billion euros were spent putting it underground.

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Tunnels run, for example, under the old Puente de Toledo, the bridge from which the preceding photos were taken. The Manzanares is now confined under two of the bridge's nine arches, but visitors in times past said that it could easily fit under one. Here's an example: Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, an American naval officer who anonymously published A Year in Spain (1836), praises the bridge "which would do honour to the Hudson or the Susquehannah." He goes on to say, that "when we crossed it, one of its nine noble arches would have been sufficient to allow the passage of the Manzanares; for it flows in a narrow bed of shingle, in the middle of the ravine." He then repeats a common joke about a person who "had seen many fine rivers that wanted a bridge, but here was a fine bridge sadly in want of a river, which he thought it would be a very good idea to sell in order to buy water." Ford, who came by a few years later, wrote that the Manzanares was "entitled a river by courtesy, because it has bridges, which most running waters in Spain have not." He suggested that visitors who happened to be in Madrid during a rainstorm "should run quickly down to see the river before it is gone...."

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The bridge was designed by Pedro de Ribera and completed in 1732. A recent historian (and architect), Fernando Chueca Goitia, calls it "a really monumental construction, considering the narrow bed of the Manzanares, though the main objective was not so much to build a bridge as to safeguard the watercourse and create an entry worthy of the capital." The bridge, he continues, was "conceived with a town-planner's eye for grandeur."

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Ford naturally disagrees. "Nothing can be in more vile taste," he writes. Perhaps he had in mind the paired statues of San Isidro (St. Isidore) and St. Maria de la Cabeza, who both stand under shrines midspan. Like the bridge, the shrines were by Ribera, though the statues were not.

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Isidro, despite his fine dress, was a 12th century peasant and is today the patron saint of both farmers and Madrid.

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Maria de la Cabeza.

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Maria was the wife of Isidro, his widow, and of course a worker of miracles.

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Old photographs, for example one in Albert Calvert's Madrid (1909), show streetcars running across the bridge, whose surface has now been pedestrianized.

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From the east end of the bridge, the Calle Toledo emerges from a tunnel and leads very nearly in a straight line to the center of the city, about two kilometers ahead.

What lies there? A paymaster wrote to Philip II in 1559 that "everyone says this town of Madrid, ennobled with sumptuous and regal buildings, is the one favored by your Majesty...." That sounds promising, but, as Goitia wrote, "Madrid has always been a city contemptuous of its past, more interested in modernization than in conservation, eager to destroy the visible stages of her progress, lacking in a spirit of continuity and in tranquillity, all characteristics that have made it what it is today, a capital city of few and scattered monuments which hardly ever form a coherent whole, of ill-defined urban unities which, if they ever did exist, were quickly wiped out in its burning desire for constant renewal." And you thought that Richard Ford was acerbic.

They're both dismissing five centuries that began in the spring of 1561, when Philip II, ruler of Europe's greatest empire at that time, moved here from Toledo. Was it a sensible move? There was little on the site, save a fortress begun in the 8th century by the emir of Cordoba. Was the city's centrality on the Iberian Peninsula reason enough for the move? Ford argues forcefully to the contrary: "The gross mistake of a position which has no single advantage except the fancied geographical merit of being in the centre of Spain, was soon felt.... Philip II had neglected the opportunity of making his capital of Lisbon, which is admirably situated on a noble river and sea; had this been done, Portugal never would or could have revolted, or the peninsula been thus dissevered, by which the first blow was dealt to Spain's greatness: thus to Madrid, and its Monkish ulcer the Escorial, is the germ of present decay to be traced." Ford beats his subject mercilessly. "Like everything else in ill-fated misgoverned Spain, whose sun has long stood still, it [Madrid] has been outstripped even by our provincial cities."

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A few minutes' walk from the bridge, this is the Puerta de Toledo. Goitia calls the architect, Antonio Lopez Aguado, a "cold and conventional academician." The city has several other triumphal arches, some older but at least one newer than this.

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Translation: "To Ferdinand VII, the most desired, twice king of the Spanish, for having excised the tyranny of the Gauls. The Council of Madrid (has erected this) monument of faith, victory, and prosperity, A.D. 1827." Ferdinand ruled momentarily in 1808 but than again from 1813 to 1833. Napoleon held him captive during the interregnum.

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Set into the other side of the arch: the same St. Isidro and St. Mary seen on the bridge.

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Rather than continue straight to the city center, we're going to do a circumambulation from about 7 o'clock on an imaginary and fairly elastic clock face around to 2. Then we'll slide down one of the clock hands and look around the center. We'll never be more than a mile from it.

Here we are at 8 pm, just a five-minute walk from the Toledo Gate. This is the church of San Francisco el Grande, begun in 1761 and completed in 1784. Built on the site of a just-demolished Franciscan convent, it's often described as Spain's version of the Pantheon. The design was by a Franciscan brother, Francisco de las Cabezas.

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The mildly daring facade is from 1780 and is the work of Francisco Sabatini, an Italian in the service of Charles III, who made him his Great Master of Royal Works.

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Stepping aside for a moment, here is the church of St. Justo y Pastor, built with the same convex facade but 40 years earlier. Completed 1743.

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The interior of San Francisco dwarfs Rome's Pantheon.

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The main chapel, with an altarpiece painted by Goya, is here brightly but briefly lit for a tour group.

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Ribs of a chapel.

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The dome and cupola.

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A chapel apparently showing the irresistible advance of Christian forces against Islam.

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A closer look at what might as well be a cowboy movie.

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We've arrived at 9 o'clock and the Almudena Cathedral. The name refers to the Virgin of Almudena, which is interesting because that name comes from the Arabic al-mudayna or fortress. An ancient Muslim fortress was just about here, overlooking the river, but the cathedral is very recent, begun only in 1883 to a design by Francisco de Cubas. Work was halted during the Civil War and not resumed until 1950, when Fernando Goitia (the historian and architect) modified the design to more closely match the Royal Palace, which stands opposite and faces the cathedral. It's hard to believe that the building was not completed until 1993.

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Bronze doors show figures of the time.

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Queen Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. Along with the ecclesiastical vestments, there are neckties and eyeglasses. Look closely enough, and you might spot a ball-point pen.

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Despite the Gothic lineaments, the ambience is strictly modern.

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Roof of the nave.

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The cathedral entrance faces the royal palace, which replaced an older one that burned in 1734 and which itself replaced the Muslim fortress. Goitia calls it "Madrid's outstanding building, huge and majestic." Writing as an architect, he calls it "one of the strongest and most solid constructions ever put by man, a really cyclopean achievement."

The usually dismissive Ford admits that the palace is "certainly... one of the most magnificent in the world." He suggests that tourists should "visit it also at moonlight; then, in the silent death-like loneliness, the pile looms like a ghostly thing of the enchanter, or a castle of snow." So much for romance. Returning to form, Ford writes that the entrance gate, shown here, "disappoints." He adds, astutely, that "nothing is more tiresome than a palace."

Work in any case began in 1738 to a design by Giambattista Sacchetti, and the building was executed in a combination of white Colmar limestone and gray Guadarrama granite. Sacchetti celebrated Spain's imperial history by adding up top statues of Moctazuma and Atahualpa. Were they noticed? By 1764, Charles II was resident, and the building continued to serve as a royal residence until 1931. It is now primarily a museum but is also used on state occasions.

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The north face.

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We've come to the Plaza de Espana, at 10 o'clock. It's a neighborhood of office and residential buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries, but the main feature of the plaza is the Cervantes monument. Ford is in high form: "Spain, having denied bread to Cervantes when alive, has recently given him a stone... He is dressed in the old Spanish costume, and hides under his cloak his arm mutilated at Lepanto, which he never did in life, it being the great pride of his existence."

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Several buildings face the plaza. Among them is this one, completed in 1899 by the Compania Asturiana de Minas, an international coal- and zinc-mining company. An iron-framed structure faced with stone, brick, and slate, it was the work of the company's manager, Manuel Martinez Angel, who shaped it to fit its unusual site. Abandoned for many years, it was renovated after 2000 by the Kalam construction company and sold to Mutua Madrileña. Though rented for occasional events, it mostly sits empty.

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On the other side of the plaza, the Casa Gallardo was completed in 1915 by Federico de Arais Rey for Asuncion Gallardo as an apartment building with two very generous apartments on each floor.

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The building rising behind the Cervantes Monument is the Edificio España, completed in 1953 and at the time Spain's tallest building. Owned from then until 2005 by Metrovacesa, which used it variously for offices and apartments as well as for a Crowne Plaza hotel, the building was sold to a French company, Gecina, then to Santander Real for 389 million euros. Despite plans to convert it into luxury apartments, as of 2012 the building was empty.

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We pass now from 11 to 1 o'clock along the Gran Via, created in 1911. Goitia writes: "The Gran Via was Alfonso's great internal structural reform, but it was not completed until the period of the Republic. The intention was to open up a road linking east with west, cutting through the old city to relieve the traffic that inevitably had to pass through the Puerta del Sol. The idea was a good one but its execution leaves much to be desired." This building is the Hotel Atlantico, built by Joaquin Saldaña in 1920 for the Marquis of Falces. Though it soon became a hotel, the original idea was an apartment building, again with two apartments per floor, except for the top floor, where the marquis would live. A central courtyard gives light to the inner rooms.

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The Hispanic Housing Bank building was designed by Emilio Ortiz Muller and rebuilt after being damaged in the 1930s. Unless one counts the arch, the only ornament is the rooftop statue, of bronze. By Victorio Macho, it shows El Romano, a man holding overhead a model house.

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Goitia complains of the "banal eclecticism of the kind that triumphed, for instance, in the Gran Via... [where] the pressure of economic interest began to raise the maximum height of buildings and so the first American style skyscraper, with touches of Spanish baroque about it, appeared to house the Bell Telephone Company...." You don't have to look far to find that building. Meanwhile, as Goitia writes, the street "designed as a clearway for through traffic has become the most congested and chaotic zone in the town." Forty-odd years later, the street is still jammed.

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The Gran Via begins here at the intersection with the much older Calle de Alcala. The Beaux-Arts Metropolis Building opened in 1911, while the Gran Via was being developed. The design for the Metropolis was the subject of a competition won by Jules and Raymond Fevrier; the owner was La Unión y el Fénix, an insurance company. The result was a Beaux-Arts landmark with Ganymede and a Phoenix atop a partly gilt dome. The figures atop the columns represent Mining, Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce. Since 1972 the building has belonged to Metrópolis Seguros, which has renovated the building.

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An entrance.

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The cubic office of the Spanish branch of the Bank of the Rio de la Plata, designed by Antonio Palacios and completed in 1919. Palacios would have a major hand in shaping this part of Madrid. Since 2006, the building has been the home of the Cervantes Institute, which promotes the Spanish language worldwide.

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The Cervantes Institute is at one corner of the major intersection where the Alcala crosses the Paseo del Prado. Call it two o'clock. In the middle of the intersection, which is called the Plaza de Cebeles (sometimes called the Plaza de Castelar or Plaza de Madrid), there is a fountain with a statue of Cybele, goddess of fertility and emblem of the city. Installed in 1794, the statue was by Ventura Rodríguez.

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Also facing the fountain is the Banco de España, completed in 1891 to a design by Eduardo de Adaro. The bank sits on the site of the former palace of the marquis of Alcañices.

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Another building faces the fountain. Now the office of the mayor of Madrid, the building opened in 1919, the same year as the Bank of the Rio de la Plata building. It was in fact by the same busy architect, Antonio Palacios. Until 1907 it housed a post and telegraph office and was called the Palace of Communications. From its churchy appearance it gained the nickname "Our Lady of Communications."

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Two hundred meters farther up Alcala, this is the Puerta de la Independencia, completed in 1778 by Francisco de Sabatini, the same who two years later would finish the facade of San Francisco el Grande. The gate was built in honor of Charles III, who had become king in 1758 and who had arrived in Madrid along this route a year later. The gate had no defensive purpose, and although it replaced an earlier one, even that earlier one had been part of a wall that, in Ford's words, "might be jumped over by a tolerably active Remus."

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The old city wall was demolished in 1857, and the city then began rapidly expanding in new subdivisions such as Chamberí, Argüelles, and (here) Salamanca. The street is still Alcala; the church, from 1910, is that of San Manuel y San Benito; the bit of greenery on the right is the edge of the Retiro Park.

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The park's Puerta de Hernani. The Retiro goes back to the 15th century. A royal palace here was abandoned in the 17th and finally destroyed during the French occupation at the start of the 19th.

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The Paseo Republica de Cuba. Ford writes, "It is a place to study costume and manners, and to see those antediluvian carriages and ridiculous coachmen and grotesque footmen to match, caricatures which with us would be put in the British Museum...." The park has changed since then, not only socially but physically. Goitia writes that "the latest changes have ruined the 16th-century character of the landscapes."

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The grandest feature in the park is the extravagant memorial to Alfonso XII. It was the result of yet another competition; the winner was José Grases Riera. The monument was inaugurated in 1922, more than 35 years after the king's death.

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Figures of Peace, Freedom, and Progress rim the pedestal of the equestrian statue. Peace is shown here, in bronze. Freedom is on the left.

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We've come back to the Metropolis at the junction of Alcala and the Gran Via.

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Across the street is the Circulo de Belle Artas, a private, non-profit cultural center that goes back to 1880 but has been housed here since 1926 in another building by Antonio Palacios. The octagonal tower of his Palace of Communications can be seen in the distance; his Rio de la Plata Bank building is across the street.

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Mackenzie wrote in the 1820s that he came to the Alcala. "Here we found a number of asses which had brought lime to the city. The commodity was piled in a heap, and the owners were sitting on the bags, dozing, or singing songs, and waiting for purchases; while the donkeys, covered with lime-dust, were lying as motionless as the stones beneath them, or standing upon three legs, with heads down and pensive. Having turned to the right, we went in the direction of the Puerta del Sol, looking attentively on both sides to the balconies, to see if there were any with white papers tied to the rails, to show that there was a room to be let" (I, 128).

Less than a decade later, Ford wrote that the Alcala was "one of the finest streets in Europe." By 1900 streetcars ran up and down. By then, the buildings seen by Mackenzie and Ford were being demolished and replaced. The tower of the Circulo de Belle Artas is in the distance here. The building under the globe is the Alcázar Theater. The building with the quadriga is the 1923 Bank of Bilbao Building by Ricardo Bastida y Bilbao. (Merged repeatedly, it is here signed BBVA for Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.) On the right is the Banco Espanol de Credito.

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Dueling ornaments.

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The Banco Español de Credito, or Banesta, was completed in 1891 as the "Palacio de la Equitaiva" for the insurance company of that name. Before becoming a bank building in 1920, it was an office building and the residence of the architect, José Grases Riera, the architect who designed the Retiro monument to Alfonso XII.

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Detail of the bank.

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Stepping aside for another moment, this picture is a reminder that the Spanish government could provide comparable buildings for its ministries, in this case one facing the Atocha Station, near the Retiro.

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The bank buildings of the Alcala can be seen in the far distance, as Alcala leaves the Puerta del Sol. The name Sol comes perhaps from a vanished gate with a picture of the sun. Sol was in any case rebuilt about 1860 and is now fan shaped, with the curved edge shown here. Ford, who saw it before the reshaping, called it the heart of the city, "where all the greater arteries of circulation meet and diverge." Mackenzie says the same: "Go where you will, almost, you must pass through the gate of the Sun, for here you can choose a street that will lead you directly to the place of which you are in search; and, put yourself into any street in the extremities of the city, it is sure to discharge you here. In this way all Madrid passes daily through this centre of circulation; so a that a stranger may station himself here and see the population of the whole capital passing, as it were, in review before him" (I, 131).

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In 1900 Sol was a very busy streetcar terminus. It is still a major transportation hub, one of the most important stations on the Madrid subway network. The commercial importance of Sol has shrivelled, however. Nagel's guidebook of 1953 says: "Only a very few years ago the Puerta del Sol was the town's commercial centre, its trading success being due to the numerous streets leading from it. To-day its importance has passed to the Gran Via."

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Charles III keeps an eye on the action.

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A score or more living statues, many in seemingly impossible poses, are more striking than the bronze ones.

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From Sol, the Calle Mayor extends west to the Almudena Cathedral. Here, a couple of blocks from Sol, it is lined with late 19th-century buildings.

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A department store, Conrado Martin.

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As usual, traffic is controlled.

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Or prohibited.

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At last, the Plaza Mayor, just off the Calle Mayor and a two-minute walk from Sol. This square is the subject of an exhaustive history, The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid by Jesús Escobar (2004). He calls the square, which has a long history but was fundamentally shaped between 1615 and 1620, "the heart of Madrid as a cultural and political symbol of Spanish Habsburg rule." Escobar says that the square was "planned and built as an urban centerpiece for a new capital envisioned by the Spanish Habsburg ruler Philip II... [and that] on most days, the plaza served as the principal market space of Madrid. Following a well-ordered arrangement, vendors brought fruit, vegetables, dried nuts, candied almonds, and other goods to sell from specially designed tables and stands. In shops located under the plaza's porticoes, merchants offered stationery, pastries, and luxury goods.... Residents of all social classes also gathered in the plaza to buy bread and meat... [M]erchants and courtiers, bureaucrats and widows alike lived in the apartments rising four stories above the ground level shops that lined the perimeter of the Plaza Mayor" (p. 1).

By 1629 Jerónimo de Quintana offered this description: "Among public buildings, that which ranks first and is the most sumptuous to be found in Madrid is the Plaza Mayor, which is also one of the most precious edifices in all of Spain.... The facades of the houses are of fired brick, each standing five stories and rising more than seventy-one feet from pedestal to rooftop. Beneath the first floor, and circling the entire plaza, are porticoes wide and tall enough for the passage of persons on horseback" (p. 206).

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The key building in the plaza is this, the Panaderia, as its name suggests originally a bread mart. If that sounds odd, it is useful to remember the words of Giovanni Botero, a political philosopher who in 1519 wrote: "There is nothing that keeps the people as happy as a good bread mart" (Escobar, 116). The mart was on the ground floor, with a royal apartment above, from which the king could watch events such as bullfights. Higher still were other apartments.

The building burned in 1672 and again in 1790. The structure surviving today was completed in 1830 by Juan de Villanueva, the architect of Charles III. Villanueva took the opportunity to rebuild the entire square with neoclassical symmetry, although he added Flemish spires to the Panaderia to accentuate its dominance. That dominance was further emphasized in 1992 by the addition of frescoes by Carlos Francos.

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The square plaza, built on the earlier and irregularly shaped Plaza del Arrabal, was planned by Gomez de Mora at the same time that the Panaderia was built. That makes the Plaza about 50 years younger than the Ordinance of Discovery, New Population, and Pacification of the Indies, the so-called Law of the Indies, the famous rules of 1573 that prescribed city planning in New Spain. Escobar points out that by the time the law was promulgated the Spanish had already begun building Mexico City, as well as Lima and Cuzco, and that in those places they built upon cities they inherited from the Aztec and Inca. He writes that Cortés and others were "moved by the planned cities they encountered in the Americas. Indeed, the urbanism that resulted from this contact between two cultures reveals a syncretic process of design... [though] it remains a difficult task to pinpoint the exact design origins of Spanish colonial town planning" (195). Escobar's point is provocative: "Artistic influence did not move only from Spain to the New World, but also in the other direction" (93).

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A flanking side of the plaza, with one of the eight arched entrances added by Villanueva by 1830. The tidy square is much more regular than the city's surrounding blocks, but the building form here set the standard for much of the city.

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The arch separating the Plaza Mayor from the Calle de Toledo. The bridge is a bit over a mile toward the south, say seven o-clock.

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A typical stretch of the Calle Mayor, with the Almudena cathedral dome in the distance.

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A more prestigious building, now housing the Instituto Italiano de Cultura.

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A more proletarian block on Romanones, a few blocks southeast of the Plaza Mayor.

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One-story buildings like this one on Concepción Jeronima, and just around the corner from the foreign ministry, stand out because they are so uncommon. Such buildings were known in past centuries as casas de malicia, that is houses built so small that they avoided the rule that all homeowners should provide quarters for courtiers.

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No more than 300 yards from the Plaza Mayor, the Plaza de la Villa is older still. In the 1500s this was Madrid's most important civic space. A drawing from 1562 shows it including a bread mart and granary, as well as a jail and council hall. Palaces once fronted the plaza. One survives: it is the Lujan Palace, shown here with the edge of its tower.

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Restored in 1915, the tower was built in the early 1500s and is one of the few Mudéjar or Muslim-influenced structures surviving in Madrid.

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The Casa del Ayuntamieto or city hall is on the other side of the plaza. Begun in 1644, it was designed by Juan Gomez de Mora, planner of the Plaza Mayor. The doorways, Ford writes, "are later, and bad."

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The plaza has a statue of Philip II's admiral, Don Álvaro de Bazán, Marquis of Santa Cruz. Through no fault of his own, he was, as we would say today, the fall guy for the loss of Spanish ships at the hands of Sir Francis Drake in 1587. The king's displeasure was great, and Don Álvaro died the next year. His equally luckless successor commanded the armada that year.

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Here is another Mudéjar relic, the nearby church of San Pedro el Viejo. The church was rebuilt, but the tower may date to the 1300s. Goitia calls it "the best Mudéjar tower in Madrid."

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Here's another building he praises highly, the Royal Hospicio del Ave Maria y San Fernando, or Hospital of San Fernando. It was designed by Pedro de Ribera, who also did the Toledo Bridge with its midspan shrines. The style is called Churrigueresque, from the architect José Benito de Churriguera, and Goitia calls it "undoubtedly the finest example of 18th century Madrid Baroque." It functioned as a hospital from its completion in 1729 until 1922. It opened as a history museum in 1926.

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The facade is like an altarpiece focused on San Fernando, whose mundane name was Ferdinand II of Castile. He was the conqueror of Seville and Córdoba.

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Ford writes: "The facade by the heresiarch Pedro Ribera, 1726, is the pet specimen of the vile taste of the Philip V period, and certainly entitled the inventor to his admission into any receptacle for criminals or lunatics."

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Tucked into the dense urban fabric, the Church of San Isidro is historically important, even though physically easy to overlook. It was originally part of the Jesuit Imperial College. After the Jesuits were expelled from Spain, it became a parish church but was then elevated to the status of the city's cathedral, which it remained from 1885 until 1993. The architect was the Jesuit Pedro Sánchez, and he followed the pattern established in Rome's Jesuit church of Il Gesù.

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The altar. Ford is underwhelmed, as usual: "There are so very few churches worth visiting at Madrid that the ecclesiologist had better hasten to imperial Toledo...."

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What would he have made of this, the monument to Columbus that was erected in 1885 to celebrate the marriage of Alfonso XII? Columbus appears to be pointing to the New World, though his arm actually extends to the east. The monument is unapproachable today because it stands at the center of a busy traffic circle in the Plaza de Colón.

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Another recent monument, this is the Moncloa Gate, built in the 1950s to recall Franco's victory in 1936 at the Battle of University City.

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Facing it is this generic Alcázar that serves as Spain's Air Force headquarters. Goitia says that it was built as a "symbol of the Spanish empire whose glories it was desired to rejuvenate."

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Perhaps a more interesting reminder of that empire is a painting in the nearby Museum of the Americas. The painting is called "The Conquest and Reduction of the Indians of the Mountains of Paraca and Pantasma, Guatemala, 17th Century." Here is one corner of the canvas, a key.

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A Spanish vessel at the far left chases Indian canoes upstream.

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Here Indians go about their normal heathen lives.

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The Spanish arrive with Christianity.

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The Indians are converted to mission life.


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