Thursday, July 30, 2009

"My walls are fire"

How to view a section of the medieval city wall of Madrid, with a side order of onion rings.

[A section of the wall built in the 1100s is now in the basement of the Foster's Hollywood Restaurant at Plaza Isabel II, across from the Ópera subway stop. Photo by Sue Burke, taken from the doorway of the women's restroom.]


Ye who come as tourists to Madrid will see little from Madrid's medieval days. Mostly this is because there never was much to see. Madrid was a tiny town.

Sometime between 850 and 886 A.D., Emir Mohamed I of Córdoba ordered the construction of a military fort at what is now the site of Madrid's Royal Palace on a bluff overlooking the Manzanares River to guard the mountain passes of Somosierra, Tablada, and Fuenfría. The zone was filled with springs and rich, moist soil, and soon a Moorish and Arabic-Christian farming community of about 2,000 people grew up, protected by stout walls.

During the Reconquest, two Christian kings failed to take Madrid, but King Alfonso VI of Castilla y León finally negotiated its surrender in 1085. The city grew as Christians repopulated the region. A new, larger defensive wall was erected during the 1100s similar to the one still standing around Ávila, with between 60 and 190 towers.

It surrounded a town of perhaps 4,000 people and 35 hectares (0.13 square miles), of which only 20 were occupied by buildings; the rest of the land held lush vegetable gardens.

Madrid's central location, defensive importance, productive farms, and nearby hunting made it a favorite for royalty, and the town grew fast. In 1561, Felipe II designated it as the permanent seat of the royal court, and by 1597, the city had 90,000 inhabitants. It currently has 3.2 million — 5 million if you count the suburbs.

During those centuries, Madrid suffered disasters, destructive wars and insurrections, and successive renovations by kings, emperors, and ambitious mayors who aspired to a modern and majestic city.

What little that survived from medieval times tended to get lost in the shuffle. In fact, any Spanish city that could afford it knocked down its city walls and rebuilt outdated buildings when they were no longer needed. Many lovely historical locales that now attract visitors had fallen into poverty and couldn't remove or replace their useless old architecture, though these days it generates tourism, income, and home-town pride.

Almost nothing remains of the Madrid's city walls, grand though they had been. A small section of the Moorish walls just south of the Almunena Cathedral in Emir Mohamed I Park is being rehabilitated using Economic Stimulus Plan funds. (The economy tanked last year in Spain, too.) Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón also hopes to improve access to the bits of the Christian wall that still remain, hidden within apartment complexes or other buildings that, as the centuries went by, were built right over it.

One place to see a fragment of the wall is in the Foster's Hollywood Restaurant kitty-corner from the Royal Opera Theater: Foster's is a successful Spanish chain founded in 1971 by four Californians living in Madrid. It features movie-theme decor and American food like barbecue and Tex-Mex, and the building it's in significantly predates the restaurant.

Its section of the wall, about six meters long and one meter wide, stands alongside the narrow hallway to the rest rooms in the basement; successive rebuilding of the area has raised the ground level quite a bit. Bright lights illuminate the wall like a museum display, although nothing tells passers-by what they're passing by. The striking arched brick doorway probably led to a guard tower.

The stone is flint, which was common in the area and frequently used in construction. Groundwater flowed freely in medieval Madrid, so residents could find a well anywhere they dug. This led to the town's medieval motto:
"Fui sobre agua edificada, mis muros de fuego son." I was built over water, my walls are fire.

As ye heard in Tuesday's post, Amadis of Gaul will vacation during August and return in September with more chivalrous adventure on Tuesdays and commentary on Thursdays.

Remember that this blog is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0, so feel free to use your spare time to copy, distribute, display, share, or perform all or any part of it, or to create derivative works — for non-commercial use. Just say where you got it. If you want to do something commercial, I can be very reasonable.


  1. I wrote about another bit of the wall in this entry in my LiveJournal blog:

  2. That's brillant ! I will go to Foster's right tonight. Thank you for the information !

  3. Hope you had a wonderful evening. They're finding more of the wall in the construction work for the expanded Opera subway station across the street from the restaurant, and it might be put on display in the station when they're all done.

  4. Thank you, here's a blog entry largely inspired from yours, but I'm afraid it is mostly in french...