A city for all reasons

Last Updated 19 April 2014, 13:35 IST

Rain spangled the city that had changed the image of the globe. It drenched the 635-metre-high Meseta, the plateau, of Madrid. Framed in the window of our room, that first night, it fell like silver feathers on the highest capital in Europe.

The nocturnal Madrilenos were in pursuit of their gently ebullient animacion, which they value so much.

We were tempted to join them but we’d had a long flight from Delhi, so we decided to rest and recharge our batteries to the level of the tireless Madrilenos.

It was a good decision. We strode down the broad Alcala, past beds of tulips blazing red and gold, the colours of Spain.

Unlike the cold, grey, granite metropolises of the northern lands, Madrid is soulfully Iberian: a Catholic country with distinct Islamic undertones.

Religious melting pot

For many centuries, Spain had been a Muslim nation under a North African people referred to as the Moors.

In 1083, their fort of Marjit fell to the Christians.

They realised that Marjit, later renamed Madrid, was ideally placed to become the capital of the country.

King Charles III restored the international stature of Spain and made Madrid into one of the most graceful capitals of Europe.

At the end of our walk, we entered a large and regal parade ground. On one side was a church in which the last royal wedding had been held. On the other side was Spain’s impressive Royal Palace.

We entered the palace and were astounded by its uninhibited, often overstated, opulence.

The ground floor was, clearly, a functional area from where visitors ascended a sweeping marble staircase.

The superb paintings on the ceilings can be admired as impressive works of art, but they also speak of the mindset of Spain at that time.

The halls and chambers with the richest decorations are attributed to Charles III.

The Throne Room was finished in 1772 during his reign and glitters with gold-framed mirrors and furniture.

The crest above the thrones show two pillars representing the Pillars of Hercules, which were said to have marked the limits of the world.

When Christopher Columbus sailed beyond this dreaded landmark, Spain proclaimed proudly that it had gone beyond the boundaries of the classical world.

The Pillars of Hercules with spirals around them were incorporated in its royal crest.

While the Palace is a great repository of the decorative and classic arts, Spain’s soaring religious shrines are also a treasure-trove of its artistic achievements.

One such revered place is San Francisco el Grande, built on the site of a hermitage made by the most unassuming of Christian saints: Francis of Assisi.

The basilica, however, is neither humble nor unassuming. As expected, it was consecrated during the reign of Charles III in 1784.

The paintings behind the main altar, famed by gilt pillars, are beautiful and refer to various beliefs associated with St Francis.

We were, however, particularly intrigued by the Chapel of the Forgotten Virgin or of Carlos III. Clearly the emperor had no doubt that God had a special regard for him.

In 1771, when his grandson was born, he founded the Order of Carlos III. The central mural depicts the perceived rejoicing in heaven when the Order was instituted!

Crowning the altar, however, is an ancient statue of the mother of Christ referred to as ‘The Forgotten Virgin’.

Not that we could forget any of the old churches of Madrid; they blazed with the gold brought back by their conquerors.

Spanish conquistadors implanted their flag in distant lands.

Following the trail blazed by their commissioned navigator, the man we call Christopher Columbus, they added the Americas to the globe of the world.

They also brought home much of its treasures.

Happy stomachs

From the Americas, the galleon-borne conquerors also brought chocolate to Europe. In Cacao Sampaka, we sipped hot chocolate, nibbled at delectably bizarre anchovy chocolates and even chocolates with a curry flavour.

Eating in Madrid seems to be more an occasion for social interaction than a response to hunger.

A beautiful, grandmotherly woman in a bakery plied us with pastries to make up for her lack of English. In Café de Oriente, a vaulted, underground restaurant, famed chef Roberto del Moral created gastronomic wonders for us, including canelon de mango.

And in a night filled with wine and snacks, we went tapas-bar hopping.

Centuries ago, a wise old king had decreed that alcohol could not be served in bars without accompanying tapas nibbles.

Tapas bars are noisy, friendly and civilised.

So, too, was a vibrant street market. A stall displayed a butterfly-bright array of hand-fans.

Outside another stall, a statue of Jesus looked down in compassion over a portly man chomping on a hamburger, while appreciating the senoritas undulating by.

And a vendor had posters of bullfights, promising to print your name on it to proclaim your reputation as a matador.

Sporting with bulls seems to be a cultural motif with people of the Mediterranean-Egyptian-Cretan-Iberian-Dravidian bloodline.

We came across another example of this bull-motif in the Archaeological Museum. There, in a special gallery, they have replicated the famous Altamira Caves.

In the diffused light of this subterranean place we stood in awe at a rock painting of a great bull timelessly thundering across a Stone Age world.

At the end of our tour, we drove up to Gardens of Ferraz.

From its wooded hill we gazed over the timeless domes and the bustling capital of Spain.

It was a clear day and there was no rain in Spain.

(Published 19 April 2014, 13:32 IST)

Follow us on