Clusters of people dotted the iconic square of Puerta Del Sol. A conical metal structure was being set up in the middle of the plaza. It took me a while to realise what it was. A Christmas tree. Well, it was a cold Monday morning, and I was still half asleep. My friend and I had just returned to Madrid from a three-day trip across the beautiful region of Castile and Leon. Our initial plan was to head to Toledo, but it was an overcast day and we were both very tired, so we decided to remain in Madrid.
As we moved around the square, trying to decide what to do and where to go, all I could think of was; why is it called Puerta Del Sol, not Plaza Del Sol? Where on earth is the gate? Well, if I’d known the answer to that, I probably wouldn’t have ended up on a free walking tour of Madrid ten minutes later. And that would have been a great shame.
Now, allow me to make a wee confession. I first visited Madrid in 2014 during a layover on our way to Marrakech. We had around eight hours to kill, so my boyfriend, who had visited Madrid the year before, decided to give me a quick tour of the city. And I hated it. Everything looked dull, grey and… very non-Spanish.
“It’s the ugliest city I’ve seen so far,” I told Douglas on our way back to the airport.
Imagine my shock when he told me that he wanted to live there. Two years later, I was back in Madrid, marvelling at the city’s stunning architecture and wishing I could have churros con chocolate every single day.
Our guide, Tatiana, was probably the most cheerful person in Madrid on that damp November day. Originally from Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana founded Ogo Tours
together with her husband, Javier, who is from Spain. Her enthusiasm for Madrid is quite infectious. I became engrossed in the city’s history and culture within the first five minutes of the tour, and despite my poor auditory memory, Tatiana’s engaging tales and titbits of trivia about Madrid have remained fresh in my head (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post).
Confession #2: Ok, I did take down a few notes after the tour, but that was just me channelling my inner history nerd.
Well, here are some of the interesting facts about Madrid that have stuck in my memory. You can learn the rest by joining Tatiana’s tour next time you’re in Madrid – just look for a green umbrella in Puerta Del Sol (or you can book a place online).
A gate, a bear and a strawberry tree
Puerta Del Sol is the pulsing heart of Madrid. Every year, thousands of people gather in the square on Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve) for the long-held tradition of eating twelve grapes – one with each bell strike at midnight – for good luck and prosperity. Puerta Del Sol has also borne witness to various demonstrations, such as the one that took place in March 2004, when an estimated two million people took to the streets to protest against the terrorist bombings in the Atocha Station, which killed 191 people and left at least 1, 800 injured.
The square gets its name from a gate which was erected along with a fortification by the citizens of Madrid in the 16th century. The facade of the gate faced east, towards the sunrise, hence the name ‘Puerta Del Sol’. The citadel and gate were built to protect the city from banditry and armed conflicts, and were demolished when peace was finally restored to the region.
One of the main attractions in Puerta Del Sol is the statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree (El Oso y El Madroño), which might be difficult to spot among the crowds. This is the symbol of Madrid, which also appears on the city’s coat of arms. There are many legends surrounding the image of the bear. The forests around Madrid used to be populated with bears, and according to one legend, the original name of the city was Ursaria, which means ‘land of bears’ in Latin. On the coat of arms, the bear is adorned with the seven stars of the zodiac sign Ursa Major (The Great Bear).
The origin of the strawberry tree is also unclear. It is believed that the tree was chosen to be featured on the coat of arms due to its botanical name, el madroño, which sounds like Madrid. Strawberry trees were also abundant in the forests surrounding Madrid, and you can still spot a few of them around the city. Oh, and don’t let the name confuse you. The strawberry tree doesn’t really yield strawberries – its fruit looks like a prickly berry.
Hemingway’s favourite haunt
Ernest Hemingway was enamoured with Spain and made several trips to Madrid throughout his life. His immersion in local culture and history inspired him to write several stories set in Spain. One of his favourite hangouts in Madrid was Sobrino de Botín
, which is the oldest running restaurant in the world. Hemingway has spent many hours in this traditional Spanish tavern, writing stories while feasting on roast suckling pig. The final scene in his famous novel The Sun Also Rises takes place in Botin. The restaurant is also mentioned in Death in the Afternoon.
Founded in 1725, Sobrino de Botin is known for its juicy suckling pig, which is still cooked in the restaurant’s original wood-fired oven. The tavern has also retained some of its 18th-century furnishings. According to the 1987 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Goya used to be employed as a dishwasher at Botin before becoming a popular painter.
Botin has been immortalised in several other novels. Famous author Graham Greene, who visited Madrid in 1980, makes reference to the popular tavern in one of his last works, Monsignor Quixote. Botin has also been mentioned in two novels by Frederick Forsyth,
Icon and The Cobra.
As you may guess, Botin is quite pricey, but you don’t have to dine there to see the place. If you’re on a walking tour in the morning or before lunchtime, you will be allowed inside for a quick look around.
It’s hard to believe that the colourful Plaza Mayor, with its intricate frescoes, bright red-orange walls and bustling bars, used to be the site of public executions. One of the most popular methods of execution in Spain was the garrotte, which was introduced in the beginning of the 19th century. The condemned was strapped to a stool with an iron collar around the neck, and the executioner would tighten the collar with a wheel until the condemned was strangled to death. In later versions of the garrotte, a lever was used to drive a spike or a blade through the post and severe the condemned’s spinal cord, inducing a quicker death. This method was deemed to be more humane.
Spain abolished capital punishment in 1978, after Franco’s death. The last execution by garrotte took place in 1974. The condemned were Heinz Chez and Salvador Puig Antich, who were executed by Franco’s regime for killing members of the Guardia Civil.
Bombs and flowers
On the 31st of May 1906, Madrid’s Calle Mayor was packed with people celebrating the wedding of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Victoria Eugenia. Bouquets and flowers were thrown from balconies overlooking the street as the royal bridal carriage drove past. Then tragedy struck.
A bomb was hidden in one of the bouquets thrown from the balconies. The terrorist attack was plotted by Mateu Morral Roca, a committed anarchist. Around 30 people were killed, and many others were wounded. Morral was hunted down and arrested, but he managed to escape by shooting one of the guards, only to commit suicide a while later. The top-floor balcony from which Morral threw the bomb always has a bouquet of flowers tied to the railing.
I asked Tatiana if there are people living in that flat.
Yes,” she replied, “But the occupants must always make sure that there’s a bouquet in the balcony.”
I don’t think I’d feel comfortable living in a flat that was once rented out by a terrorist who plotted and committed a crime from the very same place, but I guess some people’s morbid fascination exceeds my own.
Less disturbing facts about Madrid
Well, it would be difficult to forget the grim tales about Madrid, especially when you have an animated and passionate guide like Tatiana. As we walked through the historic neighbourhoods of Madrid, which are studded with exquisite buildings and quaint little shops, Tatiana also shared some fascinating and little-known facts about the city.
Posada del Peine Hotel in Calle Postas has one of the most striking facades in Madrid. Built in 1610, it is the oldest hotel in Spain. The building was originally a shelter for homeless people, and rumour has it that hair brushes were secured to the wall so that they wouldn’t get stolen. Next to the hotel is Antigua Relojería
, a watchmaker that has been around since 1880. In Madrid, shops that are older than 100 years have a bronze plaque at the entrance.
One of the most popular shops in Madrid is Casa Hernanz, a family-owned zapatería (shoe store) famous for its hand-made espadrilles. The shop has been in business since 1840 and still has its original long wooden counter. During the summer sales, people spend over an hour queuing just to get into the shop.
At one point on the tour, Tatiana stopped by Museo del Jamon
, a tapas bar, and peeked inside.
“Oh no! I wanted to show you something, but they’ve already washed the floor this morning,” she said, clearly disappointed.
She then went on to explain that many bars and restaurants in Madrid will have their floor covered with used napkins. Apparently, this is a very good sign. Madrileños toss their napkins on the floor when they’ve had a good meal, so the more napkins on the floor of a restaurant, the better the food.
A Spanish treat
Before leaving Madrid, I wanted to try the famous churros. On Tatiana’s recommendation, we went to Chocolatería San Ginés
, which has been serving churros since 1894. Nestled in a quiet passageway close to Puerta Del Sol, San Gines is supposed to have the best churros and hot chocolate in Madrid. In fact, the place was packed to the rafters when we got there. Churros are basically doughnut sticks. The deep-fried dough is generally prepared in the shape of a spiral, which is cut into pieces before serving.
As I sat in that quaint 19th-century cafe, dunking sugar-coated fried dough in thick hot chocolate, I realised that moving to Madrid wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.
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