Old Madrid, Spain: Finding Ancient History in Today’s City

One really awesome thing about places like Madrid with thousands of years of history is that their history will always show up for ever. Think about it - when something is a part of your life for a significant amount of time, it never just...goes away. It stays there. Maybe it’s not as much in-your-face anymore, but it’s always there.

I know. Deep, right?​

But I do promise that I’m still talking about places, not people. And right now, I’m not talking about just any place. I’m talking about old Madrid, Spain, and the seriously amazing history behind it. Don’t turn up your nose, yet; I hated history in school, too, but I promise this is legitimately interesting.​

Old Madrid’s Hanging Ham​

If you take a stroll through the streets of Madrid, Spain, take a gander at the bars and restaurants you pass. It’s not hard to find one that’s hanging ham from the ceilings. It always just seemed so quintessentially European to me, y’know? Like, we’ve all seen those pictures on Instagram and those scenes in movies that involve bars that are apparently really proud of their ham?​

As it turns out, they do this for a reason, especially in old Madrid.​

The Spanish Inquisition reared its ugly head in old Madrid in 1478. If you don’t already know, the point of the Inquisition was to create a Catholic population. Until then, there had been a few different cultures and religions in Madrid - namely, the Moors and the Jewish. So for a few hundred years, Madrileños had to learn to either become Catholic, or pretend.​


How do you pretend to be Catholic?​


Well, if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you eat pig. Or, in this case, you decorate your house with it. You hang dead pigs from your roofs and your ceilings and your places of business, and proudly proclaim “oh yes, of course I’m Catholic! Don’t you see all this pig everywhere that I’m eating?” When the authorities ran around smelling people’s breath to confirm that they had eaten it (yes, literally), they were safe.​

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Now, the Spanish Inquisition was the reality of life in old Madrid for about 400 years. Old habits die hard. At this point, it’s really just a part of everyday life.​

Felipe III in Old Madrid’s Plaza Mayor​

King Philip III horse statue in Madrid, Spain

While you’re in Madrid, you’re going to end up in Plaza Mayor. It’s just going to happen. It’s one of the city’s major social centers. When you’re there, notice the statue of the man on the horse. This is Felipe III, a 16th century king who moved the capital city from Toledo to Madrid.​

I can admit that this just looks like another statue. Nothing against it, but there’s a million and a half of them around Madrid. And yeah, at this point it is just another statue (sorry King Philip, I mean no offence!). However, a long, long time ago, this statue was more than just a statue.​


It was haunted.​


For quite some time, there wasn’t a soul who would approach it. Well, maybe nobody except the bugs, which there were definitely plenty of. And, well, when you’re in Medieval Madrid and there’s a statue of a dead guy that reeks of death and is constantly surrounded by bugs, the only logical reason you can think of is that it’s haunted.​

Enter Francisco Franco and his 20th century dictatorship. At this point in old Madrid’s history, there was a habit of destroying relics of old Spanish monarchs. There came a time where King Felipe III just had to go like the rest of them. Protesters came ‘round, overturned the statue, and then got a nice little surprise: hundreds of old, decaying bird bones!​

As it turns out, old Madrid had a bird problem. That bird problem was that they kept flying into the statue, but couldn’t find their way out. When the birds died and the Spanish sun came out...well, you get the picture. It’s okay guys, guess it’s not haunted anymore!​

Old Madrid’s Motto and its Origins​

Okay, so we’re in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Go for a little walk outside the square and you’ll find a wall with the following quote: “Fui sobre agua edificada mis muros de fuego son”. This translates to “on water I was built, my walls are made of fire”.​

Backtrack to the 9th century, when the Moors came north from Africa to settle in old Madrid. The Moors came to Madrid for a very good reason: water. Considering Madrid is smack dab in the middle of Spain, it’s hard to come by water, which is an important part of life. So what did they do? They built the capital right on top of it. On water I was built.​

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Now, keep in mind, 9th century Spain (or any 9th century country, really). The purpose of settling a place is to defend it from attackers. Everybody was always attacking everybody else - everybody wanted land, and all they had to do was kill you and take it from you. But oh, the Moors were smart. They knew what they were doing.​

So, the city had walls, right? I mean that’s how they marked their territory and protected it. As long as nobody gets past the wall, you’re good to go. What’s really fun is walking behind the Almudena Cathedral and seeing the last part of this wall that’s still standing today!​

Well, back then, you only had so many materials to choose from to build stuff yet. Wood was used most of the time, since it was so cheap to buy and transport (and also explains why so much history has been destroyed by fires). Not for a city’s wall, though. No, the Moors used flint. What happens when an arrow whizzes by and touches flint? You get fire. My walls are made of fire.

Fun facts are my favorite, especially when it comes to ancient history. Leave a comment below with your favorite historical tidbit!​


Old Madrid, Spainold Madrid, Spain

Comments

  1. That is such interesting information. I love learning about diffferent aspects of culture and a country like that. The hanging ham history is really quite interesting. It’s always intriguing to find out something that seems so innocent has a fierce history like that.

  2. Madrid is really very nice town, with a perfect combination of culture and the modern life as well. I found this article really interesting since i have been once here but didn’t stumble over a hanging ham. I have aunt that lives there, so on my next visit i will ask to try that for sure

  3. I haven’t been to Madrid, only Barcelona but even in the same country these two seem different! I am interested to know these fascinating facts about Madrid. The Spanish Inquisition was really something I do not want to relive today. Just imagine hanging hams and smelling one’s breath to know if one eats pork! I wonder if there were vegetarians before?

  4. I haven’t been to Madrid, only Barcelona, but even in the same country these two are really different. Happy to learn about the fascinating facts about Madrid. Just imagine hanging hams and smelling one’s breath to know if one eats pork ! I wouldn’t want to live during the Spanish Inquisition. What if someone is a vegetarian?

    • I don’t think you’re going to like my answer! It’s no different than if someone were allergic to ham. Unfortunately, they weren’t very open minded…

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