So many aspects of Madrid have changed in the last decade, from the striking new riverside gardens and green areas created by landscape experts to the gleaming high-rise buildings designed by top modern architects, that visitors tend first to be surprised and exhilarated. Given some time to explore, though, they'll be comfortingly reassured by traditional sights such as the atmospheric old Austrias center and elegant Salamanca district, still the most stylish corner of town.
This creative, lively, and restless metropolis has never been one to let the grass grow under its feet. Today a vital need to move into the 21st century blends seamlessly with a need to preserve a glorious past. Even in the decades of a supposedly restrained and conservative past, when the city and its people were subjected to a ruling dictatorship and crushed by post-Civil War deprivation, when the Spanish capital assumed the cliché of a gray, gray place, Madrid never really was a quiet, depressive, early-to-bed city -- whatever people may tell you. The spirit and energy were always there, latently during the hardest times, at full throttle when life was anything like normal.
This section seeks to unravel a bit of this fascinating city's history, art, and culture by raising the question: Is there still such a person as a real Madrileño (born and bred Madrid inhabitant), given the cultural changes that have transformed a once purely Spanish city into a multinational metropolis? Read on to learn about the forces that created today's Madrid and to get a good idea of what the future holds for this intriguing and dynamic city.
Why are the bear and the madroño tree the symbols of Madrid? -- You see them everywhere -- from the small bronze statue in the Puerta del Sol (moved in 2009 back to the eastern side of the square where Calle Alcalá ends) -- to the insignia on the side of city taxis: A squat bear on its hind legs attempting to eat the berries on an equally squat madroño, or so-called strawberry tree. They are the official symbols of Madrid. But why? Opinions vary. The practical theory is that the bear, standing on its hind legs with its front paws on the tree trunk, represents possession and ownership of wood, necessary for constructing buildings. The sentimental theory is based on the fact that bears love sweet things and constantly try to extract honey from beehives. According to legend, because they suffer from sore eyes, they get stung and bleed from their wounds to such an extent that it relieves them of some of the pain. Next, they grope around desperately for a madroño tree and start gobbling the fruit, whose bitterness belies its rich red exterior (it only looks like a strawberry) and shocks the palate into further reducing the pain by the virtue of sheer distraction. So, masochistically, they rid themselves of their discomfort. The first theory makes sense as a metaphor for how Madrid has grown. The second is rather cute but doesn't seem to have any particular relevance. Take your pick.
Why has the Manzanares River had such bad press? -- The insults and quips came thick and fast in the old days when the Manzanares River was a malodorous trickle that dried up in summer. "An apprentice river," the Golden Age poet Quevedo called it, "in which the water barely comes up to the sole of my foot." Another writer claimed that "the elms that decorate its banks die of thirst, and the river itself begs for an umbrella if it rains," adding that "the Manzanares barely dampens the ground, as if a finger moistened with saliva was stroking the soil." It is said that King Fernando VII, passing one day in summer, requested his consorts to water it so that the dust wouldn't rise so much. Visiting French writer Alexandre Dumas once pleaded with a friend not to throw away the glass of water he'd half finished but to throw it into the parched and needy Manzanares. And so on.
Today, if not quite comparable with the Seine or Thames, the Manzanares looks more like a real river, thanks to diverted water channels that have helped to replenish it (although that coyly secluded location in the dip btw. the Royal Palace and the Casa de Campo still prevents many visitors from realizing it's even there). Today a whole stretch from Príncipe Pío, close to the Campo del Moro, to Puente de Toledo, just below the street where the Sunday Rastro is held, has now been immaculately laid out with gardens, trees, walkways, cycle trails, and occasional pebbled piazzas. Quevedo wouldn't believe his eyes.
Why are Madrileños known as "gatos" (cats)? -- Most people believe this stems from the fact that Madrileños like to stay up late, especially on the weekend, when many of them barely sleep. Out on the tiles with a vengeance! (Note: This expression literally means to stay up all night like cats, which are often out all night and on rooftops.) However, the official explanation is historical. During an Arabic siege at the time when the city went by the name of Magerit, a particularly adept soldier managed to climb the outer walls with the agility of a cat by inserting his dagger between gaps in the stones as footholds. The story passed into legend and the soldier and his family assumed the name of Gato. They eventually had a street -- the Callejón del Gato -- named after one of their descendants, a court poet at the time of Juan II named Juan Alvarez Gato.
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