Madrid​. A capital built for a King

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Madrid​. A capital built for a King

Some capital cities of the world sprang up near natural harbors and have long served as bustling ports. Others are situated at well-used river crossings and grew to prominence almost inevitably. Many European capitals have been important cities since Roman times. But Madrid, the capital of Spain, is an exception. The town had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in 1561 when it suddenly rose to prominence.

The reason was simple. Philip II, king of Spain and of a vast overseas empire, had grown weary of moving his court from one city of Castile to another. A keen hunter, he wanted to have his permanent court located at a convenient distance from his favorite hunting grounds. Madrid met that requirement admirably, and the town also had good water, room for expansion, and fertile farmland in the vicinity.

Once the decision was made, Philip initiated a building program to make Madrid a suitable capital. Later Spanish kings also embellished the city, creating a unique connection between Madrid and the monarchy. By the 17th century, Madrid had become the largest city in Spain. Today it is a thriving modern metropolis of over three million people.

Because of Madrid’s close connection with Spain’s royalty, many of its historic buildings are related to the two main dynasties. The oldest part of the city is called Madrid of the Austrias, dating from the Austrian, or Habsburg, dynasty of the 16th and 17th centuries. Subsequent additions became known as the Madrid of the Bourbons, the present dynasty that dates from 1700.

Over the centuries, Spanish kings promoted or financed the construction of many of the capital’s stately buildings. Their priceless collection of paintings now forms the nucleus of Madrid’s national art gallery. And extensive royal property in the Madrid area eventually became the city’s principal parks and leisure areas.

A Green City

Because of the royal interest in hunting and gardens, an ample greenbelt was already conserved when Madrid began its modern expansion. Despite rapid urban growth in recent decades, a huge wedge of parkland extends southward from the sierra practically to the gates of the city center.

One of Madrid’s parklands, a former royal hunting ground called the Casa de Campo, is located near the royal palace, and it now houses a modern zoo. To the north of Madrid lies a vast area of indigenous oak forest known as the hill of El Pardo, which reaches to within six miles [10 km] of the city center.

Philip II established the limits of this game park not long after making Madrid his capital. A royal hunting lodge, first erected by his father, still graces the park. Now this forested area has become a regional park that offers protection to two of Europe’s most endangered species, the Spanish imperial eagle and the European black vulture.

Retiro Park was formerly a spacious royal garden in the center of Madrid, where the royal family staged bullfights and even naval battles. The public were allowed access to the park in the 18th century, provided they were suitably attired. Now, of course, the dress code has been relaxed, and Madrileños (citizens of Madrid) throng this popular retreat every weekend. A crystal palace, built of wrought iron and glass, and a semicircular colonnade overlooking a boating lake are just two of its attractive features.

Charles III, an 18th-century king who took a keen interest in art and science, established the Royal Botanic Gardens alongside Retiro Park. For the last two and a half centuries, the gardens have specialized in the flora of Central and South America.

The Avenue of Art

Thanks to the generosity of the Spanish royalty, Madrid also houses one of the most important art galleries in the world. The Prado Museum was erected on the orders of Charles III, known to history as a notable mayor of Madrid. The art collection is essentially that of the Spanish monarchs, who began collecting artwork over four centuries ago.

In the 17th century, the court painter Velázquez not only painted masterpieces himself but also scoured Europe to buy up fine paintings for his royal patron, Philip IV. In the following century, Francisco de Goya became the official court painter. Not surprisingly, the Prado owns many masterpieces painted by these two renowned artists.

Two other highly regarded art collections—the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía National Museum—stand on the same tree-lined avenue as the Prado. This elegant street, dubbed the Avenue of Art, is also studded with many of Madrid’s famous statues.

Like many cities, Madrid has seen its ups and downs. The capital was under siege for most of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), and some of the bullet marks of that conflict can still be seen on the monumental arch known as the Puerta de Alcalá. Nevertheless, from the outset, the city’s founders wanted Madrid to be a cultured town where people could get along together.

Madrid’s charter, dating back to 1202, stipulated among other things that citizens could not engage in duels, bear arms, or utter profanities or insults. They were also expected to keep the town clean, to avoid defrauding fellow citizens, and to keep wedding expenses reasonable. In line with such wishes, Madrid today is a clean city—although wedding feasts have become somewhat costly! Visitors who want an inexpensive meal may want to try some typical tapas, small morsels of tasty food that are served with a cold drink in many establishments.

In recent years Madrid has expanded considerably. It now has an efficient transportation system and all the necessary infrastructure to take care of the millions of tourists who visit each year. Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Spain and other countries will visit the city in July and August. The Witnesses plan to hold an international convention in one of Madrid’s large soccer stadiums. Many of those who attend will thus have an opportunity to see for themselves the capital that was built for a king.


The Royal Palace. Probably the most impressive building of Madrid, this palace stands on the site of an ancient Moorish citadel around which Madrid was first built. It serves important State functions, although since 1931 it has not been used as a royal residence. Formal gardens stretch from the palace down to the river below.

Aranjuez Palace. Aranjuez lies about 30 miles [50 km] south of the capital, alongside the river Tagus. Its fertile surroundings and milder climate made it a favorite site of Philip II, who initiated the palace construction. The palace and its attractive gardens were completed in the 18th century by Charles III.

El Escorial. Philip II began construction on this huge monastery, library, mausoleum, and palace complex soon after he made Madrid his capital. Over 20 years in construction, it became the hub of Philip’s empire, an austere retreat where he could work undisturbed. It conserves one of Spain’s most important collections of manuscripts, including some medieval Spanish versions of the Bible.

El Pardo Palace. This royal hunting lodge is located within the regional park that adjoins Madrid. The father of Philip II built the original structure, and the interior patio dates from that period.

In La Granja de San Ildefonso, 50 miles [80 km] to the north, lies a more sumptuous palace. It was built by Philip V in imitation of the Palace of Versailles, where he spent his infancy. Its elaborate gardens and fountains contrast with the vast pine forests that cover the surrounding mountains.

Cortesía del Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid


Plaza Mayor (1). For over three centuries, this square has served as a marketplace and as the principal site for such public events as bullfights, coronations, and executions of so-called heretics. A painting in the Prado Museum (2) depicts a vivid panorama of the Plaza Mayor during a large auto-da-fé, or public trial of heretics, held in Madrid in 1680.

The town hall stands in the Plaza de la Villa, the charming ancient square where the first official town meetings were held. The square is ringed by ancient buildings and still preserves the flavor of 16th-century Madrid. Not far away, the visitor can see the Puerta del Sol, the busiest square of the city and the starting point for all roads radiating from Madrid to the provinces. Such landmarks belong to the oldest part of the city.

As Madrid expanded, kings of the Bourbon dynasty—notably Charles III—built or promoted other monuments, often following the architectural styles of the Bourbons’ native France. Some examples are the Royal Palace, the National Library (3), the Municipal Museum (4), the Fountain of Cybele (5), the Fountain of Neptune, and the Puerta de Alcalá (6).

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