From Islamic origins to saintly bones, to mind blowing miracles, here are a few surprising things you didn’t know about Madrid.
Its name derives from Arabic
Top of our list of things you didn’t know about Spain’s capital is that its name derives from Arabic. The settlement was chosen for its strategic position high above the Manzanares by Mohamed I of Cordoba in the latter half of the ninth century. Its abundant underground springs also made it a wise choice and it was this feature that inspired its first name: Mayrit. Mayra referred to water channels, which Muslim hydro engineers built to harness this resource and irrigate the citadel and surrounding fields. The “it” part added to the end meant “place of”. When the Christians invaded in 1083 these underground springs were still flowing and the town’s motto became: “I was built on water, my walls are made of fire.” To find out what that last clause meant, go to this post.
It was riddled with secret tunnels
The area underneath Plaza Mayor used to be a literal den of thieves, with criminals disappearing into a maze of tunnels that lay beneath. No one knew the origins of these tunnels, but they could well have been created by those Arabic hydro engineers back when Madrid was part of Al-Andalus. Sadly, apart from the Cuevas de Luis Candelas, the ones under Plaza Mayor have long been demolished to make way for an underground car park. However, a couple of interesting ones remain: the first being an underground escape tunnel built by Joseph Bonaparte from the palace out to the Casa de Campo and the second, a network of bunkers under Cibeles.
It is the site of a yearly miracle
Next up on our list of things you didn’t know about Madrid is an honest to God miracle. Every year on July 27 crowds and TV crews gather outside the Royal Monastery of La Encarnación to witness the miraculous transformation of the blood of Saint Pantaleon from solid to liquid. Whether this is a genuine miracle or the work of nefarious nuns is up to you to decide!
It is home to the bones of Saint Valentine
The bones of Saint Valentine are housed in a small church in Chueca, which also incidentally blesses pets and provides a refuge for the city’s homeless. Inside a golden case on a red velvet cushion sit a skull and other assorted bones that were gifted to Carlos IV by the pope after being discovered in Roman catacombs. However, as several other churches also claim to have old Saint Val’s bones, we think the pope was pulling a bit of a fast one here!
It is the highest capital in Europe…
…well, the highest capital after Andorra la Vella, but as Andorra is a country invented by millionaires solely for the purposes of tax avoidance, I think we can safely claim this one for our list! The fact that the city sits pretty high up at around 657 metres above sea level is the reason why its winters can be so brutal. This is also the reason why runners new to the city often find themselves getting out of breath faster than usual, a problem that vanishes once you become acclimatized. Another cool thing about the city’s high altitude is that Retiro’s statue of Lucifer actually sits at 666 metres above sea level, whether by accident or maleficent design, we are not quite sure!
Up for hearing more Madrid trivia? Why not book yourself in for a tailor-made walking tour of Madrid with me, the author of The Making of Madrid?