Useful Notes: Madrid

A night view of the Madrid skyline, taken from a building at Calle de Juan de Olías. The picture features the AZCA business park; the Torre Picasso is the skyscraper with the architectural equivalent of Power Glows.

Madrid, the center of the Spanish world. If by "Spanish" you mean "Spain" and by "center" you mean "geographic center."

Although the area around Madrid has been inhabited since prehistoric times, Madrid itself has spent most of its existence in obscurity, and has risen to prominence fairly recently. It is among the youngest of the great European capitals. It was founded in the 9th century by a Moorish garrison, and spent 600 years changing hands between different kingdoms, both Christian and Muslim, growing in importance all the while. The ancient capital of Castile, Toledo, had its growth restricted by the river Tajo, which surrounded it on three sides.

King Charles I decided to move the capital, and chose Madrid mainly for being centrally located in the Iberian Peninsula. Since then, the fortunes of the city have mirrored those of Spain, prospering in the "Siglo del Oro" ("Golden Century", which was the XVI Century) while ruling the Spanish Empire, declining all through the 18th and 19th centuries, brutally torn apart and oppressed during and after the Spanish Civil War, and then transforming into a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, all the while engaged in a tug-of-war for power with the capitals of Spain’s various cultural factions, Barcelona most of all.

Today, Madrid is considered an Alpha World City, one of the top ten most powerful cities in the world, and is the fourth largest urban area in the European Union.

Sights you might be interested in seeing while you’re there include:
  • The Golden Triangle of Art, three museums that hold the masterpieces of many famous artists: the Prado (considered the second most important art museum in the world after the Louvre of Paris. It contains “Las Meninas” by Velazquez), the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofía (which contains the “Guernica” by Picasso).
  • The Royal Palace, official residence of the Kings of Spain and built on the site of the fortress that founded Madrid
  • The Puerta del Sol ("the Sun's Gate"), a square in the center of the city with a Hachiko-esque statue of a bear and a strawberry tree, symbol of the city and a popular meeting place. It's also very popular for being in the geographical center of the country, and the starting point of most of its radial-like road and highway network (Also known as the "Km. Zero"). One of Madrid's biggest icons.
  • The Retiro, the main city park with a rowing pond.
  • The Plaza de las Ventas, the city’s main bullring.

Getting around is unusually easy because the Madrid Metro is the 6th longest in the world, despite serving the world's 50th largest metropolitan area.

Madrid in fiction

Madrid often loses out to Barcelona for “Spanish” locals-even though Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which is a region that is quite proud of its distinct culture and language. International audiences tend to be more familiar with Barcelona because it is a major tourist destination on the Mediterranean. There is a national joke that while Madrid has the nation’s finest museums, the seat of government, and a lively nightlife, it has no beach-but Barcelona does! Madrid also isn't very photogenic compared to Barcelona. Barcelona could be described as decadent (the presence of a certain Antonio Gaudí helped to make sure of that) while Madrid is utilitarian. For example, Barcelona very nearly constructed the Eiffel Tower, and eventually built the Agbar Tower.

Until recently, Madrid's tallest building was the Picasso Tower. The Spanish government, noticing this, funded a construction boom that has added a new quartet of skyscrapers and a modern courthouse complex. Only time will tell if it garners more international recognition in the media, although the severe economic crisis the country is going through ever since 2008 surely is not helping. Even worse after 2013, when Madrid failed to be elected as an Olympic city for the third time in a row, which has turned the city into one, if not the most indebted capital city in the world.

Spanish movies will often compromise between Madrid and Barcelona, with characters moving from one city to the other at least once per film.