Welcome to Confused Heap of Facts!

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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!

I also do walking tours and have an audio tour of the Madrid river area- more information on the page here.

Conquerors and Quesos: Tourism in Trujillo

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The church of San Martin of Tours sits at the corner of Trujillo’s Plaza Major

The month of May offers a few public holidays here in Spain (for the San Isidro Festival, check out this article). I planned a short break to Extremadura in western Spain with a few friends and of course, we visited the classical historical towns of Mérida and Cáceres. It was my first time enjoying this land steeped in history with breathtaking Roman ruins, Arabic walls, and Renaissance palaces.

It also just so happens that the first week in May is the Trujillo National Cheese Festival, a showcase for the finest of Spain’s dairy produce. Honestly, this was the main reason my friends and I decided to go, although I just about love history more than I love cheese…

The festival has been held since 1986 in the small town of Trujillo, which has another claim to fame as the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador whose actions ended Inca rule in Peru.

The Pizarro Problem

Pizarro was born in the 1470s to army officer Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisca González, a poor local woman. In fact, Gonzalo had numerous legitimate and illegitimate children with a few Trujillo women, including four half-brothers who would all end up grabbing money and power in Peru. Three of them died in violent ways, not uncommon in the back-stabbing world of international politics: Juan was hit by a rock during a siege, Gonzalo Jr. was executed by decapitation, and Francisco was assassinated. Only Hernando got to shuffle off quietly in his Spanish hometown.

During the cheese festival, Pizzaro looms over a sea of stalls. The feathers on his helmet make him look slightly demonic. Make of that what you will.

But it’s Francisco whose fame has lasted the longest and who gets a statue in Trujillo’s picturesque Plaza Mayor. He’s shown in the usual way: suited up in full armour on a mighty steed and wielding a sword of Toledo steel. However, this statue was not produced by a proud Spanish craftsperson, but was cast by American sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey (1879-1922). He was also a polo player, so it’s no wonder he’s most famous for his well-executed equestrian works.

This statue was, in fact, one of three similar pieces made at the same time. As statues usually reflect a contemporary political situation, rather than saying much about the subject themselves, one of them has had its own colourful history. As Rumsey was born in Buffalo, New York, the local art gallery has installed one version outside, which (at the time of publishing) is still there. The other is in Lima, the capital of Peru, a city founded by Francisco himself and where he met his bloody end. In 2007, it was moved out of the main Pizarro Plaza (now called the Peru Plaza) after years of protest and was replaced by the Peruvian flag. It now sits in a more out-of-town location, its long-term fate yet to be decided. Legend has it that the statue wasn’t even Pizarro anyway, but was originally supposed to represent another infamous conquistador, Hernan Cortes. However, even back in the 1920s, the Mexicans didn’t want it.

Trujillo has kept its statue and markets itself as the birthplace of Pizarro, with one of its attractions a house-museum (which I didn’t visit) purported to be the family home, extolling the ‘adventures’ of their native son and showing collections of contemporary objects.

There is speculation over whether the Pizzaro family even lived here, and it seems unlikely the space was shared by the wife, mistresses and ALL those kids…

The Cradle of Conquistadors

However, Francisco Pizarro isn’t the only one still getting an honorable mention in the region. Extremadura is legendary for being the homeland from where many fellow so-called ’explorers’ of Spain’s colonial history set out. Several distant relatives of the Pizarros were born here, including Francisco de Orellana, who mapped and named the Amazon River, Hernan Cortes, whose bloody exploits ended the Aztec empire in Mexico, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, whose crossing of the isthmus of Panama possibly made him the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. These are just some of the ‘Conquistadores extremeños’ who all hail from this area, which begs the question: why?

There are numerous theories, with most linked to the fact that it has been one of Spain’s poorest regions for centuries. Many feel Extremadura peaked during the Roman era when the silver mines created jobs and generated enough wealth to build the spectacular buildings in Mérida, now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

But outside the main cities, the region itself remained on the margins of Spanish prosperity. Its clay soils were bone dry in summer and saturated in winter, making the agricultural life back-breakingly hard with little reward. This accompanied a strong tradition of military expertise, with families having plenty of fighting practice forwarding the ‘Reconquista’ against Muslim rule and pushing back the Portuguese who hoped to make their nearby kingdom that little bit bigger.

With few opportunities at home to make a good living, it’s no wonder the state-sponsored expeditions and the chance for glory (and gold) in the New World were so appealing to ambitious young men.

Selling Extremadura

Extremadura in more recent times hasn’t fared much better. One of the biggest but least populated regions to this day, the economic statistics make for a depressing read. Extremadura is the only region of Spain officially categorized as “less developed” with a 44% unemployment rate for young people. Despite a high-speed train from Madrid to Badajoz currently under construction, transport links remain poor (a local joke goes: ‘Trains in Extremadura go at three different speeds: slow, very slow, or not at all’). Combine this with mass youth emigration and swathes of unmanaged forest leading to frequent wildfires, and it’s no wonder the tourist companies have turned to other ways of attracting visitors and their money.

Hence the ‘Land of the Conquistadors’ branding I found when doing my pre-visit research. The tourist literature is littered with words such as “illustrious,” “magnificent,” “daring,” and “proudly remembered” in describing the ‘conquest’ of South America. I can only assume they are marketing this at visitors who like their history covered with a thick layer of whitewash; they are certainly not going to attract the Latinx market. A quick look into how many modern Peruvians view Francisco Pizarro can be summed up as a ‘bastard, illiterate pig farmer who shamefully tricked and brutally murdered Inca ruler Atahualpa and thousands of others, before getting what he deserved at the point of a knife.’

A Whey Forward…

So, it’s probably a safer bet to promote gastro-tourism, and in a region where 50% of the land is still given over to agricultural production, selling the region’s food culture seems a more palatable option. In recent years, the tourist authorities have created the Ruta del Queso (the Cheese Route) that works with 140 different local businesses including farms, dairies, restaurants, and hotels to boost rural economies by offering tasting experiences and promoting these dairy delights.

Just a few of the cheesy tapas on offer..

This leads us back to where we started: the Trujillo Cheese Festival. With visitor numbers of over 100,000 expected over the five days, we opted to visit on the opening Wednesday. It was fairly packed, but we were still able to savor plenty of the 300 cheeses on offer from all across the country. I ended up buying a blue sheep cheese from Galicia but was very tempted by the Torta del Casar, the area’s most famous cheese, made from raw sheep’s milk infused with thistle whey. You enjoy the tangy flavor by spooning its gooey contents straight out of the wheel, and it is one of four local kinds of cheese honored with the ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (DOP) mark.

If Extremadura aims to ride towards a future where its agricultural and culinary offerings take centre stage, providing sustainable economic opportunities and celebrating a heritage that everyone can enjoy, that’s a new world that would definitely leave a more pleasant taste in the mouth.

Eating a whole Torta del Casar would be a glorious adventure!

The Aguas of Aragón

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The main thermal fountain echos the 14th century castle that towers above the village

You’ve almost certainly heard of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and perhaps the Roman Baths in the (aptly named) English city of Bath, but many don’t know that you can also indulge in a therapeutic soak right here in Spain.

Natural warm springs are caused by water seeping through cracks in granite rocks and being heated by the Earth’s core (and that’s all the science you’ll be getting – this is a history blog after all!). Ourense in Galicia is the most well-known spa town, but La Rioja, Catalonia and Granada are also home to a few hot spots. 

Last week I was in one of these resort towns: Alhama de Aragón. Nestled in a narrow canyon along the Jalón river, the village has always been well positioned on important trade routes. Now on the main road from Madrid to Zaragoza (with cargo trains rattling through almost 24 hours a day) its healing waters were first documented by the Romans. Sadly, none of the facilities of Aquae Bilbilitanorum as they called it survive today, but I was fortunate to enjoy bathing in somewhere almost as historic. 

A dip with El Cid

The Baño del Moro y la Mora have medieval walls, but have probably been enjoyed since Roman times

Underneath the hotel we were staying in, lies the Baño del Moro y la Mora: the Baths of the Moors. These two green and white stone grottos with natural waterfalls have been used since at least the 11th century. It’s no surprise that the famously bath-loving Islamic rulers of Spain found this place, and enjoyed its benefits until their defeat by King Alfonso I in 1120. In fact, the village’s name Alhama, comes from the Arabic word for bath: hamaam. 

The baños’ waters (at a constant 32°) contain salts, magnesium, calcium and potassium, and claim to reduce blood pressure, heal skin and boost circulation. I certainly felt better after my 30 minutes of wallowing, as I’m sure did previous visitor and historical celebrity: El Cid. More myth than fact surrounds Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar: the military leader who exploits saw him fight for both Christian and Muslim rulers. However we’re fairly sure that in the 1080s he and his soldiers enjoyed these very same baths, in between raids, battles, and other activities that worked up a sweat.

A Luxury Lake

The hotel has a large complex of 19th century buildings; some open, some in various states of repair

The next high point for Alhama was in the 19th century when the trend for bathing in miraculous waters swept once more across Europe. The largest hotel in the village still stands as a testament to this health boom. Built in the 1860s, the Termas Pallarés Spa still has an air of faded elegance, from a time when ladies with white parasols could take a respectable plunge, surrounded by Classical statues and crystal chandeliers, while getting very excited about taking a ride in one of Spain’s very first elevators!

You can walk freely around the lake, but have to pay a fee to go in

Once frequently by Spanish royalty, this ‘balneario’ can also boast the largest thermal lake in Europe. This two-hectare natural pool has crystal blue clear water and would have been tempting if it hadn’t been 9° outside, blowing a gale and raining most of the time. My fault for visiting at Easter when the weather is traditionally cold and wet.

(Not) getting your hands dirty

The laundry is decorated with photographs of local women dressed in period costumes, which is a nice touch.

The waters here aren’t just used for leisure though, but have a practical purpose. I was very excited to come across a ‘lavadero’: a traditional laundry. Recently renovated, this long, roofed building contains a deep trough with sloped slides, where women would dip and scrub clothes and household linen. It’s still used occasionally to demonstrate this centuries-old skill; backbreaking work probably made slightly easier by having warm, healing waters to work with. You can watch a video of a similar laundry in use here by Spanish ethnographic filmmaker Eugenio Monesma.

Like many Spanish villages, Alhama has suffered from declining tourism and a lack of investment, all too evident in the empty, rundown buildings and quiet streets (the population has halved in the past 60 years). As I’ve talked about before, these little corners of Spain have great potential, both for heritage tourism and as a gastronomic draw (the local specialty is Frutas de Aragon: candied fruit covered in chocolate). With the added benefit of having thermal waters, Alhama should be poised to have the visitors flow in once again.

Pablo Zárate’s mural has been given a cheeky addition…

Go Fish! The Burial of the Sardine

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While other people start Lent by pretending to give up certain foods, all over Spain we like to celebrate the end of Carnival season with an event involving a fake fish, men in capes, bagpipes and giant dancing figures. Welcome to the Burial of the Sardine!

Every Ash Wednesday in Madrid, (and across Murcia, Tenerife, and Barcelona) there is a lively funeral procession. For a fish. Bear with me, there is a method behind the madness…

A Large Scale Event

The festivities start in the morning in the centre of Madrid, and by about 6pm everyone has gathered on the banks of the Manzanares River, at the twin chapels of San Antonio de la Florida (one dates from the 1790s and has precious Goya frescos, the other was built in 1928 as a ‘spare’ for services). When I arrive teams of people are assembling processional giants: costumed figures which are found throughout European folklore. Made from a wooden frame with a papier-maché head, their bodies are covered in regional clothing, including a ‘chulapo’ and ’chulapa’: the traditional costume of Madrid’s working people.

The Giants and Big Head figures require an expert team of builders

Each figure has one person inside and they twirl around as they walk

On the other side of the road, underneath the statue of Goya, stand a group of ladies dressed for a real Spanish funeral. They are smiling now, but later, they’ll join the parade and get very method: wailing and crying over the late, lamented fish (only breaking character occasionally for a giggle and a chat).

Classic funeral wear for the sophisticated Spanish lady
The Alegre Brotherhood inspect the fish (for what I’m not exactly sure..)

The guys at the centre of all this fun are The Alegre Brotherhood (La Alegre Cofradía del Entierro de la Sardina). These men have been the guardians of this tradition since its post-dictatorship revival in the 1980s. Decked-out in black, with top hats and red-lined capes covered with silver badges, they enjoy showing off the famous, dead sardine (actually made of wood). The little blue star of the show is dressed in its own black outfit and lovingly placed inside a satin-lined, hand-painted coffin.

Go with the flow

The parade begins and crosses the river over the Victoria Bridge. The Brothers swing the coffin around on four chains, singing and passing sweets out to the children in the crowd. A troupe of bagpipers and drummers temporarily makes you feel like you’re in Scotland, but of course, these are traditional musicians from Galicia.

The Lume de Biqueira Pipe Band has played at festivals all over the world
The participants have a quick drink and a cigar before carrying on to the Casa de Campo

At nightfall, the procession reaches the Casa de Campo park, where the fish’s Last Will is read, its mortal remains are laid to rest, and a big bonfire is lit to symbolise renewal and rebirth.

Fishy Origins

If this all sounds a bit crazy and a lot of fun, well it is! As usual with these traditions, no one is exactly sure where it all started. One story is that in the 1770s King Carlos III ordered a load of fish for the beginning of Lent, but they arrived so rotten and stinky, he ordered them to be buried outside the city walls by the river. The funeral bit comes from the misery of thinking about burying all that free food, or that everyone is sad over the end of carnival season. Some say it has links to pagan rituals marking the end of winter, or, (highly likely) it’s a biology student prank from the 1800s, to have a funeral for the fish you are about to dissect sounds like a brilliant idea, after one too many cañas.

Whatever its origins may be, the festival was revived in post-dictatorship Spain and is alive and kicking today.

Which is more than we can say for the fish. 😭

Spanish painter Fransisco Goya created a painting of this festival around 1812, check it out here.

A Tale of Two Puertas

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The Puerta de Alcala in 2022. A floral decoration in front reads PATRIMONIO MUNDIAL
The Puerta de Alcalá in 2022, before restoration.

Built within 10 years of each other and sitting 33 kilometres apart, stand two stone structures that are not only connected by a road, but by name, use, and having a touch of the Roman influence about them.

Confusingly, the Puerta de Alcalá is in the middle of Madrid and the Puerta de Madrid is in the nearby ancient university city of Alcalá de Henares. The latter is most famous for being the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes; the writer of that classic of Golden Age literature and bane of every Spanish schoolkid: Don Quixote.

Access all Areas

Watercolour of the Puerta de Alcalá by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada y de Lezama. Painted around 1930. The gate in the background has walls either side and metal gates in the arches. People dressed in 18th century clothing are strolling through the streets and there are carts and carriage. White canvas market stalls sit to the side of the road, along with a few cows.
Watercolour of the Puerta de Alcalá by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada y de Lezama. Painted around 1930, it’s actually showing how the area might have looked at the end of the 1700s, with the metal gates and walls controlling access.

Both gates were ordered by King Carlos III in the late 18th century as modern entry points into these once-walled cities, where taxes could be collected from those wanting to trade and travel. It’s easy to forget in these times of free movement, that up until the 1800s when the walls were removed, you couldn’t just come in and out of Madrid (or many other cities) whenever you pleased. The gates closed at ten at night in the winter, and eleven in the summer, and only opened again in the wee small hours. Between these times you had to pass through a checkpoint manned by portazguero (sort of a tax collector / security guard) who would decide whether you could come in or leave. Or not if you looked a bit dodgy.

Puerta de Alcalá

The central arch of the Puerta de Alcala covered in snow after Storm Filomena 2021.
Storm Filomena in 2021 gave us a rare opportunity to get close up to the Puerta de Alcalá without the traffic roundabout in the way.

Of the two gate, the Puerta de Alcalá is certainly better known and a lot more elaborate. Part of the newly awarded ‘Paisaje de la Luz’ UNESCO World Heritage Site, it sits on the edge of Retiro Park and provides a backdrop to countless tourist photos, for those brave enough to dash across the busy roundabout to the middle.

One of five royal gates (with around 11 other minor ones) that once controlled access to the city, and on the road that lead directly to Alcalá, it’s a mix of local materials with international expertise. The main structure of five arches was designed by Italian architect Francesco Sabatini, with the highest quality granite taken from mountains to the north around Segovia. The white carved decoration is by Spanish sculptor Francisco Gutiérrez and Frenchman Roberto Michel (they also did the Cibeles Fountain just down the road) and made from limestone from Colmenar de Orejo to the south. Gutiérrez and Michel worked together in Italy and that influence is clear. Constructed in 1778 at the high of the Neoclassical period, when the ancient world was all the rage, its carved shields, banners and figures representing The Four Virtues, are straight out of ancient Rome. 

Limestone decoration of Roman armour and flags on top of the Puerta de Alcala
Newly restored Neoclassical decoration on the Puerta de Alcalá.

The Three Million Euro Facelift

The Puerta de Alcalá in January 2024, after restoration.

If the Puerta de Alcalá is looking extra dazzling at the moment, that’s because just come out of a 3.1 million euro conservation project. Years of traffic pollution, rusting metal supports and humidity caused by a lead roof, meant that this puerta was at serious risk of deterioration. A team of expert stone masons, blacksmiths, sculptors and multiple conservators have worked for two years to restore it to its former glory. The first photo and the one above are a ‘before and after’ – hopefully you can see the expensive difference! The conservation team has said that the project was a fantastic learning experience for all involved, and the work will lead to a better understanding of historic restoration. However, it’s another council department’s job to consider the constant flow of polluting traffic that facilitated the erosion in the first place. That may be a battle for another day.

In the meantime, you can watch a video of the painstaking conservation work here.

Puerta de Madrid

The Puerta de Madrid allowed better access into the narrow medieval streets.

Its sister puerta to the north-east in Alcalá de Henares was finished in 1788, also in the Neoclassical style. However its less flashy, three-arched style means it’s probably only well-known to locals and fans of Stanley Kubrick films. Designed by Spaniard Antonio Juana Jordan, it was paid for by his long-term employer Cardinal Lorenzana, the Archbishop of Toledo. He presumably made plenty of money being the Archbishop of Mexico in the 1760s and 1770s, as he also stumped up the cash for the library and museum in Toledo.  

Alcalá was once a fairly decent sized Roman town called Complutum, in the centre of a road network that linked Zaragoza to Mérida. Its puerta may not look as ‘Roman’ as one in Madrid, but Kubrick thought it was good enough to pass for the ancient Italian city of Metapontum and used it as a backdrop for a scene in his 1960 classic ‘Spartacus’. Local residents and a Spanish army cavalry unit were brought in as extras to act as the army of rebellious slaves.

It may not be as spectacular as its grander sister in Madrid, but it’s always worth the short march from puerta to puerta (or take the Cercanias train) to visit the beautiful Alcalá de Henares.

And you know you’ve been dying to stand there and shout “No I’M SPARTACUS!”.

Fac, amice!