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.