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!

The Countess, the castle and the colonia. 

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The castle of Belmonte in Castilla-La Mancha

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. 

The housing estate of Colonia Parque Eugenia de Montijo. 

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. 

A school stands on the site of the original house

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/

History Lives in Carabanchel

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‘Evocati Apri Sciponi’ and their great headgear.

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.

The ‘Terra Carpentana’ group show off their gladiator kit.

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. 

‘Bjornland Hird’ demonstrate life of Scandinavian and Iberian peoples from the 9th to the 11th Centuries 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.

‘Hispania Romania’ show us how it’s done.

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. 

Roman building remains have also been found under the church.

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.

Local history groups are keen that the prison’s history is not forgotten.

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.

Pig Out! – The porcine traditions of La Alberca.

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You’d better get saving your pennies if you want to buy the finest quality ham

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.

The black hooves are an indication of high quality

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.

I can still smell it now…

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.

The carved granite sculpture sits outside the church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

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. 

Touch, if you dare…..

Seeing San Isidro 

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Entrance to the San Isidro Church on Calle de Toledo.

WARNING: THE PICTURES IN THIS POST SHOW HUMAN REMAINS

The smell of incense and the sounds of Mass float out of the side door of San Isidro Collegiate Church on Calle do Toledo, as a long queue shuffles past. People of all ages and backgrounds came last week to see just one thing: the remains of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro Labrador. 

The queue went around the side of the church along Calle de la Colegiata.

This lowly farm worker, who was born between 1070 and 1082, (biographical details of his life vary according to the writer, as they always do) has over 400 miracles attached to him, many related to producing water, a vital asset in Madrid’s dry climate. His ‘incorruptible’ body has been the alleged source of much healing over the centuries, with Kings Felipe III and Carlos II just two of the royals who attributed their recovery from illness to his post-mortem intervention. 

2022 is the 400th Anniversary of his canonization as a saint by Pope Gregory XV, and one of the few occasions where the public can see his body for themselves (the last was in 1985) hence the hundreds of madrileños patiently waiting in the evening sun. 

After entering the church, the queue continues to the left of the altar and into a small chapel, usually partially hidden behind closed metal gates. Painted statues of Isidro and his wife Maria (more on her in another article) look down patiently on the visitors. The line is encouraged to move through quickly, with a very tall bearded Policía Nacional officer gently but firmly saying “vamos saliendo, por favor” to those who stand around a little too long. Church volunteers hand out prayer cards and shush anyone thought to be chatting unnecessarily.

I stand at the back, observing the visitors. Some sit on the pews in quiet prayer, some take a quick glance and hurry out and the kids mostly look bemused at the whole situation. 

The remains themselves lie within a wooden coffin, decorated with worn and faded red velvet and tarnished ornate silver mounts and handles of typical late Rococo style. They presumably date from the 1760s when Isidro’s remains were brought to this church. Two straps of conservation tape keep the side of the box together and it is lined with white satin and what looks like acid-free tissue paper (my curator’s eye never misses these details!). The man himself lies open-mouthed with his head tilted to one side. Only one tooth remains, the rest have been removed as relics and his mid-section is modestly covered with the coat of arms of his home city. Flowers and bouquets surround the coffin and add colour to the somber spectacle.

After a brief trip to Almudena Cathedral (home of Madrid’s female patron, a statue of the Virgin of Almudena), San Isidro has now been hidden from our eyes once more. Although it’s likely to be a long time before the citizens of Madrid can see him again, Pope Francis has declared the next 12 months to be the Holy Year of San Isidro, so the events and activities should offer plenty of opportunities to pay tribute to this humble patron.

To see more objects and stories related to San Isidro and Maria, I’d recommend a visit to the Museum of San Isidro: The Origins of Madrid near La Latina.

Also check out my previous blog post: Toledo Bridge and San Isidro