Walking Madrid’s city walls

From the perspective of a medievalist, Madrid doesn’t necessarily have a lot to offer.  Like many big, modern cities, Madrid has had much of its past paved over, rebuilt, dismantled, or otherwise sacrificed in the name of progress.  The same sort of thing has happened in Paris, London, etc.  The problem for Madrid is somewhat compounded by the fact that medieval Madrid was simply not a very large city, with few significant monuments or landmarks.  The ones it did possess, like its castle and mosque, are today buried under their later replacements, the Palacio Real and the Almudena Cathedral.

So there is not a lot left of Mayrit, which was never really much more than a frontier fortress of al-Andalus.  It was largely a product of the military organization of the emir Muhammad I (852-886), who fortified the region both to defend against Christian incursions from the north and to pacify internal disorder, a regular issue for Córdoba.  But, as an al-mudayna (fortified precinct, from whence the term Almudena comes), Mayrit was surrounded by walls.  Some of them are still visible below the cathedral.

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Ninth century walls visible in the very modern Parque Muhammad I, below the Almudena cathedral.

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Another angle

The park also features a scale-model of the city and its original walled precinct.

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Model of walls, Parque Muhammad I

The walls were expanded considerably in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after Mayrit passed into the hands of Alfonso VI of Castilla/León, along with the rest of the taifa of Toledo in 1085.  The circuit of those walls is visible in the layout of the streets which run from the Parque Muhammad I, south across the Cuesta de la Vega, and then southeast towards Calle de los Mancebos.

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A bit of the wall is visible on Calle de los Mancebos

The wall then turns east through what is now the Plaza de San Andres (the original incarnation of the church was at the edge of the city walls), and then directly through the Museo de San Isidro. The museum has a nice exhibit on the walls as well, but it is not clear whether the famous campesino saint himself lived outside or inside the walls.  The museum preserves a chapel which is said to stand on the site of his home, which lays inside the circuit of these twelfth-century walls.  The walls would have been built right in the middle of the Isidro’s lifetime (1070-1130).

The walls continue down the Calle de Cava Baja, with the curve of the street quite clearly conforming to the old fortifications.  The trace of the walls is preserved in the playground which lies between Cava Baja and Calle del Almendro 17.

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The shadow of a tower in the playground brickwork.

The route of the wall continues onto Calle Cava de San Miguel, and crosses the Calle Mayor somewhere around the Plaza Comandante las Morenas. It then proceeds straight downhill along Calle de la Escalanita, where again the layout of the street clearly reflects the course of the wall.

 

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Old fortification stones visible in the side of the extant buildings on Calle de la Escalanita.

The walls then turn across the Plaza Isabella II, likely right through the current Royal Opera House, and then reconnect to the old fortifications in the Plaza del Oriente.  One of the towers which connected the Andalusian walls to the Christian-era walls is visible in the parking garage underneath the Plaza.

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Tower and corner of the walls in the Plaza de Oriente parking garage.

Walking the circuit of the walls is a great way to get a sense for the size and layout of medieval Madrid, and to also get a clear sense of how the city expanded in the sixteenth century.  It was also a nice chance to get to know the neighborhood of La Latina  a little more.  Next post is on the origins of the neighborhood’s name.

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