Magerit, ‘land rich in water’. This is what the Arabs called this area, located on the central plain of the Iberian Peninsula, close to Sierra de Guadarrama, where King Phillip II of Spain later established the royal court. Afterwards, it grew into the big city we know today. The first historical record of Madrid dates back to the year 865, when Emir Muhammad I commissioned the construction of a fortress in the village of Mayrit, on the banks of the river Manzanares. ‘Mayrit’ means ‘plenty of waterways’ which is why the city’s first recorded coat of arms read, ‘I was built on water / My walls are made of fire / This is my flag and my coat of arms’. Madrid belonged to the Islamic world until 1083, when Alfonso VI of Castile took over the city.
Few vestiges have remained from this era. On Calle Mayor, next to the Institute of Italian Culture, there used to stand the Grand Mosque and, most probably, as in every Muslim city, the souk. On the site of the former mosque rose the Church of Santa Maria, of which some remains can still be seen. Close by, on Cuesta de la Vega, there are parts of the old town walls that enclosed the medina or citadel. It was inside these walls that the Christians found a statuette of Virgin Mary with a candle that had been burning for over 400 years at the time they seized the area. Almudena, derived from the Arabic al-mudayna that translates as ‘the little city’ or ‘citadel’, has since then been the name mostly used by Madrilenos to refer to the Virgin.
In the Medieval district of Madrid you can go to the National Archaeological Museum and experience a really interesting collection of decorative objects from the Visigoth Kingdom of Toledo to the Late Middle Ages. The rooms dedicated to Medieval and Renaissance art in the Lazaro Galdiano Museum and the Prado Museum are well worth a visit too.
MADRID BY DAY – The Royal Palace, whose architect drew inspiration from the sketches by Bernini for Paris’s Louvre, is a must-visit in a tour of traditional Madrid. You can’t miss taking pictures in Plaza Mayor or the Kilometre zero marker in Puerta del Sol, from which the national roads starting in Madrid fan out. The plaque is located facing the former Royal Post Office building, currently home to the Regional Government of the Region of Madrid.
The square is the epicentre of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Madrid. On 31st December every year, people gather to watch the huge clock that dominates the square ticking down to midnight. El Oso y el Madrono, a statue depicting a bear eating from a strawberry tree that also appears in the city’s coat of arms, is also in Puerta del Sol.
On your walk towards El Retiro Park, you’ll see the Cibeles Fountain, one of the symbols of Madrid, and Puerta de Alcala gate, a triumphal arch that is one of Madrid’s most photographed landmarks. If you’re an art lover visiting the capital of Spain, the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum (MNCARS) are places you can’t miss. The stars of the collection in the Prado are Goya’s The Nude Maja and Velazquez’s Las Meninas, while the collection at the Reina Sofia includes Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, an artwork that can be described as a synthesis of the Avant Garde Movement. In this moving painting, the artist conveys the suffering caused by the bombing of Guernica in 1937.