I recently started this blog and an Instagram profile to share some history stories that I’ve come across since moving to Madrid.
One of the hardest things was deciding what to call it. I spent ages trying to think of a word, pun or quote that would cover what I wanted to do.
The problem was, what I wanted to do was quite random. There wasn’t really a set theme, time period or place, just some interesting bits of history that I discovered.
So when I came across this quote by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), I decided it was perfect. Stanhope was a British statesman, diplomat, and writer, who travelled extensively and had a keen interest in history.
It sums up the often confusing, random and accidental things that have happened in the past and why it’s hard to get your head around history sometimes!
So, check out my Instagram and please comment below with your favourite random fact about history!
A white van is parked under a bridge while two city council workers collect old cardboard boxes, plastic bags and other piles of rubbish. Dog owners let their excited pets off the lead to run around and chase each other. A skateboard park with ramps covered with graffiti sits unused, on this cold Thursday afternoon in February at least.
I could be describing any park in any Spanish city, right? Actually, I’m talking about a river.
Flowing down from the Sierra de Camarolos mountains, the Guadalmedina river runs for 47km straight through the city of Málaga, and into the Mediterranean sea. It divides the city into two halves, with the elegant historic centre on its left bank packed with international visitors, even on a windy winter’s day.
But no-one is coming to the Costa del Sol to admire this natural attraction. In response to frequent and fatal flooding incidents the river was canalised in the mid 20th century to control the water flow. Over the years this piece of well-intentioned engineering has become a source of embarrassment for the local Malagueños, who have called it a ‘scar’ and ‘eyesore’ in the articles I’ve read. You can’t blame them for feeling a bit ashamed, channels of murky looking water are surrounded by wild shrubbery, scruffy, cracked and grafittied walls and piles of rubble. This gives the whole area an atmosphere that’s both dubious and a bit sad, totally in contrast to the lively, friendly and well-maintained city centre.
But there is a ray of hope. In January 2022 the Andalucian local government announced a 7 million Euro project to redevelop this long neglected river area. The new project, named ‘Water and Life’, is organised in a number of stages. The first phase, to be completed in 2023, involves creating 5km of new accessible paths and lighting installations, along with planting over 5000 new trees and shrubs along the northern section of the Guadalmedina valley. The river part should look like, well, a river and not a storm drain, with a natural flow that can be controlled safely in a region that still suffers from flash flooding. Only one year ago, a woman had to be rescued by firefighters after being trapped in the usually dry riverbed. Every first Wednesday of the month, the Limonero reservoir upstream opens its flood gates for routine maintenance, and the subsequent torrent of water trapped the unsuspecting walker.
I really hope that this new park can be as successful and popular as the Madrid Rio Project that I frequently write about. That project has shown that a carefully thought-out redevelopment, with the right mix of greenery and usable public spaces, can be a real asset for a city. It could also learn from that project’s failings too. For example there are currently no plans to have separate cycles lines along the Guadalmedina, an error that I lament every time I walk (or cycle) along the Manzanares. The area will also need to be publicised to tourists too, with adequate information and signage from the city centre, something that Madrid’s council has yet to achieve in my opinion!
Keeping an eye on this project gives me a great excuse to visit Málaga again anyway, as does eating some espetos: the famous sardines on a skewer cooked on a fire on the beach. It was too windy when I went…
What does a medieval castle in a small Spanish town and a modern housing estate in Madrid have in common? You might be surprised to learn that both are linked to the last Empress of France: Eugenia, the Countess of Montijo.
To use her full name: María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick, this daughter of Spanish nobility was born in Granada in 1826. Eugenia had a rather adventurous youth before marrying Napoleon III, France’s first President and the last Emperor of the French during the Second Republic from 1852-1870. A well travelled woman, she had an interest in international politics, fashion and art and lived a life that is worthy of several blog posts and probably a Netflix series.
Today, I’m going to talk about two sites linked to Eugenia that I have visited myself. First is the medieval castle at Belmonte, near Cuenca, built in the 1450s to protect the Kingdom of Castile from multiple rival claimants to the throne. Eugenia inherited the castle from her father Cipriano Palafox y Portocarrero, the Duke of Peñaranda, but it had fallen into a bad state over the centuries. It was in fact attacked by the French forces of her future uncle Napoleon I, which might have made for a super awkward dinner party conversation. However her father had actually fought alongside the French against the Spanish in the War of Independence, losing his right eye in the Battle of Salamanca in 1821. His daughter decided to renovate the castle site in the 1850s, keeping the medieval exterior that still dominates the town today, but decorating the inside in the French Romantic style of the time in keeping with her role as Empress of the French.
When not renovating this home, Eugenia and her mother lived in a small Madrid palace in Quinta de Miranda (now in the southern neighbourhood of Carabanchel Alto). Her mother María Manuela, herself the head lady in waiting to Queen Isabel II, also had an interesting family history. Of Scottish descent, the Kirkpatricks had been exiled to Spain for supporting the House of Stuart in their dynastic claims during the Jacobite rising of the 1740s.
Their estate dated back to the 15th century and contemporary descriptions and photographs show that the palace was a two story stone house with a tower, and was full of sculptures, paintings and tapestries. Hosting many a ball and aristocratic party, the building sat in ornate floral gardens with fountains, trees and great views towards the city of Madrid.
However Eugenia’s time as a jet-setting hostess, negotiator and patron of the arts was not to last. Her husband was dethroned in 1870 after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the family fled to England. She founded the Benedictine monastery of St Michel’s Abbey near Farnborough in Hampshire, where her husband and son were buried before her in granite sarcophaguses paid for by Queen Victoria.
After Eugenia’s death in the Liria Palace in Madrid in 1920, the Carabanchel estate passed to an order of nuns. The order remained there until the 1960s, with a brief period of exile by anti-clerical Republican forces during the Civil War. A fire damaged the building in 1969 and there was an idea to turn it into a museum of Romanticism, with support from the press and the Royal Academy of History. However Madrid City Council authorised the demolition of the building (sadly typical of short-sighted bureaucracy all over world at this time) and the subsequent construction of a new housing estate that stands there today: the Colonia Parque Eugenia de Montijo.
With the house gone and very little of the estate remaining, you now need a deal of imagination to picture it in its heyday. All that is left of the grounds is a small fountain and pine trees planted by Eugenia herself. The neighbouring park, a school and the Metro station nearby bear her name, but these can only hint at the importance of this area, once the home of the last ruler of France.
For pictures of the palace and more information about the area, check out the excellent local history blog (In Spanish of course) at: https://karabanchel.com/placa-2-palacio-eugenia-de-montijo/
This Saturday, I took a short train ride, but a long trip back in time to find out more about the first inhabitants of the lively and diverse neighbourhood of Carabanchel.
Most of the dwellings in this southern barrio date from after the mid 20th century, but coming out of the Eugenia de Montijo Metro station (named after local resident the last Empress of France, more on her next week), I was faced with a scene from two thousand years ago.
A small camp of canvas tents had been erected in the park, with men and women chatting to visitors and explaining the dress, customs and equipment of Iberian history dating from the Third Century BCE to the Eleventh Century CE.
I watched three excellent presentations by dedicated enthusiasts who have obviously spent a lot of time and effort (and money, the kit is expensive believe me) to bring the past to life. The group ‘Terra Carpentana’ talked about women in Iron Age Spain. Basically they were in charge of organising feasts and religious activities, looking after relatives, and generally keeping the family, household and community together. Nothing much has changed then!
Next in the arena were ‘Hispania Romania’ with a demonstration on the realistic fighting techniques of Roman legionaries. None of this moving slowing in a clunky turtle formation thanks, that’s for sieges and the movies, these guys were pretty agile and highly skilled.
Going back a bit further, ‘Evocati Apri Sciponi’ showed us the different soldiers of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) when the Iberian peninsula saw some fierce fighting between Carthage and Rome. Spears and the deadly slingshot were common weapons here, alongside their oval shields beautifully painted with wild boars.
This was all part of ‘Carabanchel- Historia Viva’ an event to promote this area’s long historical significance. It’s not widely known that some of the oldest remains of human occupation have been excavated under this very park. A large villa and evidence of a possible settlement may rewrite Madrid’s entire Roman history, long overshadowed by the town of Alcala de Henares (known as Compultum) to the north. A local history group had displays and information about the many finds, most of which are in the San Isidro / The Origins of Madrid Museum, including a huge mosaic floor representing the Four Seasons.
Carabanchel can also boast the oldest standing building in the Community of Madrid. Just five minutes from the park is the spectacular 13th century Romanesque/Mudéjar church La Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Antiqua, a building linked to the city’s own patron saint San Isidro.
The community groups at the festival are not just concerned with celebrating the past though, they are ensuring that any future developments take into account the area’s rich history. Next to the park is the site of the infamous Carabanchel Prison, now reduced to rubble. This neighbourhood put up some fierce resistance during the Civil War, so it’s probably no coincidence that this new prison, built by 1944 by forced labour to hold opponents of the Franco dictatorship, was situated right here.
Demolished in 2008, there are plans to build on the site, and I have no doubt that residents will continue to fight to ensure that the voices of all Carabanchel’s inhabitants, from the Iron Age to the present day, continue to be heard.
Every August I visit the town of La Alberca for a language immersion programme and to escape the heat of Madrid. Nestled in the Sierra de Francia region of Salamanca, the area is named after the influx of French workers who arrived in the early 1200s. This economic migration was encouraged by Raymond of Burgundy, a French nobleman married to Queen Urraca I of León. It’s famous for its French-style medieval timber buildings, decorative doorways (check out my post from August 2021) and that most Spanish of gastronomic treats: Iberico ham.
But this isn’t any old jamon, this is the finest quality you can get; higher in fat, with a marbled texture and a sweeter taste, hence the fact it’s twice the price of Serrano ham. The local pigs are black in colour, with slender legs and less hair compared to their pink cousins. This ancient breed, represented in prehistoric Spanish cave art, is fed on an acorn-rich diet. Varieties of holm and cork oak trees cover this mountainous landscape, originally planted in the Middle Ages to provide firewood and building materials for the local farmers. The pigs have certainly developed a taste for the acorns from these trees, they can eat up to 10kg of the nuts each day while putting on up to a kilo of fat.
La Alberca certainly celebrates this famous food. Alongside pig themed souvenirs, the streets are lined with butchers advertising chorizo, salchichón and morcilla sausages, and the local specialty: the Belotta (acorn) and Pata Negra (black hoof) varieties of pork. In darkened rooms, the salt cured legs, dried for over 2 years in the mountain air, hang like giant bats and fill the air with a sweet meaty scent. At over 1000 metres above sea level, the town of La Alberca and its mountainous surroundings can boast fresh air and a cool breeze all year around.
The importance of pigs to the local economy and culture is celebrated on the 13th of June, when a black pig is released after being blessed and a bell placed around its neck. The animal, always nicknamed San Anton, roams freely around the town, being fed and given overnight shelter by locals. This life of luxury ends on the 17th of January (San Anton’s Day) when the animal is dispatched and raffled off for charity. In the past, the pig was fattened by the neighbours, and then presented to the most disadvantaged family in the village.
I’ve never actually ever seen this famous pig, it’s probably avoiding the herds of tourists that can descend on the town in the summer. I’ve also never partaken in the other local ritual, whereby couples wanting to have a baby touch the testicles of the granite pig sculpture located outside the church at midnight. There is no way I’m taking that risk, so I’ll stick to enjoying the real thing.