Moorish Mayrit

Madrid missed out on the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans who arrived and influenced so many other corners of early Spain. Nor was it ravaged by the subsequent destructive Visigoths and Vandals, for the simple reason that the place barely existed, periodic primitive settlements apart, until 854. That was the year the conquering Moors -- having set up their capital in southerly Córdoba -- arrived in the center of Spain and built a wooden qasr, or alcazar (fortress), in a place they called Mayrit, or Magerit (both of which mean "many springs" in Arabic and refer to the abundance of underground streams in the area). Poised on a rocky ridge where today's Palacio Real now stands, this was just one of a line of defensive watchtowers aimed at protecting Islam territory from northern invaders. Mayrit grew from these simple beginnings into a township of over 7,000, holding firm against increasing Christian attacks before Ramiro II briefly occupied the place, and Alfonso VI of Castile definitively conquered it and Toledo in 1086.

Christian Colony

The rough and ready township, filled mainly with agricultural laborers whose activities are still reflected today in such names as Plaza de la Paja (Square of Straw), was renamed Madrid, and though it suffered occasional Arab sieges, it held out as a Christian outpost that encouraged religious colonists to come and build churches and monasteries. One of the earliest of these -- dating from 1217 -- was the Friary of Saint Francis of Assisi, constructed on the site where the big domed church of San Francisco el Grande stands today. Some Moors -- known as Mudéjares -- stayed on and helped build the San Nicolas de los Servitas and San Pedro el Viejo towers, whose architectural styles bore their name. These little churches are the oldest in Madrid and provide a charmingly evocative visit today, as does the nearby narrow-laned villagelike zone of Morería -- just across the road from Vistillas Park -- where a tiny, but productive, Jewish community also lived.

The growing burg became a strategic crossroads, linking the center of Spain with the south and west, and was officially given the status of a town in 1202. Madrid played a more important role in affairs of state after the perambulating cortes, or parliament, which followed the kings from one township to another, met here for the first time in 1339. By the 15th century, Madrid was a key trading center with its own modest marketplace erected on the very site later taken over by the Plaza Mayor. A new stronger wall was built, whose main entrance was the Puerta del Sol -- today at the very heart of modern Madrid.

Catholic Capital

In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile married, uniting the country's ever-squabbling and fragmented Christian provinces into a single country for the first time. Together they created the Spanish Inquisition to enforce primacy of Catholicism and to persecute or drive non-Catholics, Jews, and Moors out of the country. Twenty-three years later, two key events in Spanish history occurred: The last Arab stronghold was defeated in Granada, and Columbus's first voyage to the Americas laid the foundations for a far-flung empire that would bring wealth and power to Spain during the following centuries.

Madrid (pop. 20,000) then was still only of interest as a royal hunting area (especially in the El Pardo parkland north of the city, which today contains a host of protected wildlife), but its life was transformed in 1561 when the obsessively bureaucratic Philip II made the town his capital for the simple reason that it was the geographical center of the country. The number of inhabitants expanded fourfold, to over 80,000, in barely 40 years, and some of the city's finest sights still standing today, including the Plaza Mayor, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, and beginnings of the Retiro Park -- next to the now disappeared Palacio del Buen Retiro -- were built. Philip also commissioned a vast, chilling architectural masterpiece, El Escorial, 50km (31 miles) north of the capital as his organizational power base. From here, he tried to quell the Protestant revolt in the Netherlands, return England to Catholicism by marrying Mary I ("Bloody Mary") and wooing her half-sister Elizabeth I (who rebuffed him), and authorized the disastrous 1588 Armada invasion, which began the downturn of Spain's role as an international power.

Madrid Then & Now: From Autos de Fe to Portrait Paintings -- Madrid's most magnificent square is unquestionably the Plaza Mayor, right at the center of lovely old Austrias district. Its classical rectangular shape -- surrounding colonnaded walkways -- and striking steel gray Castilian rooftop spires have made it one of the most photographed sights in Spain. A few centuries back, the ruthless Inquisition used this splendid location to put nonbelievers (real or imagined) to death by burning them at the stake; tournaments and corridas (bullfights) held here around the same period were also a bit violent. Today, in contrast, all is peace and light. The Reyes (Three Kings) processions start from here every January 6, and a range of concerts and exhibitions entertain the public sporadically year round. The innumerable cafes and restaurants around its edges are perennially busy; and on weekends, aficionados can buy stamps and coins from an array of stalls located under the colonnades.

Fluctuating Fortunes

Just over a hundred years later, the French-raised Philip V became king and was challenged for the throne by the archduke, Charles of Austria. The resultant War of the Spanish Succession caused Spain to lose Flanders, its Italian possessions, and Gibraltar (still held by the British today). The "enlightened" Charles III (1759-88) next countered these overseas disasters by dealing effectively with Madrid's social and economic problems, cleaning up the "dark, foul-smelling" capital by building sewers, introducing street lights, constructing monuments, and creating the Palacio Real, wide tree-lined Paseo del Prado, and the incomparable Botanical Gardens.

Thanks to his weaker successor Charles IV, however, Napoleon was allowed to place his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne in 1808, triggering the horrific Peninsula War. Madrileños put up a spirited but hopeless resistance against these superior odds -- notably in Malasaña district's tiny Plaza del Dos de Mayo, where a brave but thwarted uprising took place (immortalized by Goya in his El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid masterpiece, which graphically portrayed the executions that took place the following day) -- but it took another 4 years for allied forces, under the duke of Wellington, to drive out the French and restore Madrid, and Spain, to the Spaniards.

Spain's subsequent constitutional monarchy slowly collapsed in the midst of ecclesiastic conflicts, a financially crippling war in Morocco, and the rebellion of Spanish colonists, which led the United States to step in and relieve Spain of the last of its colonies -- the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba -- in 1898.

In reaction, Madrid saw the birth of a temporarily brilliant intellectual and artistic movement, known as the Generation of '98, in which such great writers as Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado, Ortega y Gasset, and Valle-Inclan attended tertulias in grand old Madrid cafes, of which only Café Gijon and Café Comercial still stand. Visit them today to sip a coffee and imagine these Hispanic counterparts of Balzac and Baudelaire discussing art at corner tables savoring café or anis.

Madrid Then & Now: Rebelling & Revolting -- The main impression you have of the tiny Plaza Dos de Mayo in Malasaña -- an old Castizo (traditional) district of narrow crisscrossed streets sandwiched between the bustling Gran Vía and elegant Chamberí -- is that it, too, is totally devoted to hedonism. Few squares so small can be so crammed with people knocking back cervezas and copas de jerez with such abandon. But on May 2, 1802, this square was the setting for an altogether more serious event. That was the day the citizens of Madrid rose up, bravely but futilely, against the occupying Napoleonic forces. They had no chance against such well-armed, disciplined troops and were quickly repressed. The next day, many executions took place in the square: Events were graphically recorded by Goya in his famous El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid painting, in which a lone central figure surrounded by his doomed companions howls his last act of defiance against the French rifle squad. The only acts of revolt today are the occasional late-night botellón, in which boisterous youngsters bring bottles of wine and whiskey and mix them with Coca-Cola to form a dire beverage called calimocho and live it up till dawn -- much to the consternation of local residents.

Rise of the Right

After the cortes, or parliament, was dissolved in 1923, General Miguel Primo de Rivera formed a military directorate. King Alfonso XIII and his family fled when Primo de Rivera resigned and the subsequently formed republic ran the country, slowly disintegrating from liberalism into anarchy, and finally leading to the growth of the ultraconservative Falange party (Falange española, or Spanish Phalanx) -- modeled after Italy and Germany's fascist parties. The country was split down the middle, equally between left and right, and political violence was common. On July 18, 1936, the army, supported by Mussolini and Hitler, tried to seize power, igniting the Spanish Civil War. General Francisco Franco, arriving by plane from Morocco, emerged as leader of the Nationalist (rightist) forces; and Madrid, controlled by the popular front, endured a brutal siege that lasted 28 months. By 1937, the republican forces were cut in two, and Madrid was left to fend for itself, as the popular front had already moved to Valencia for greater safety. Though larger in numbers, the republicans were divided and poorly organized, no match for the well-oiled, single-purposed fascist machine. On March 28, 1939, 200,000 nationalist troops marched into Madrid, meeting no resistance. The war was over the next day, when the rest of republican Spain surrendered. The war lasted 2 years and 254 days, costing some one million lives.

The war appalled the world with its ruthlessness. Churches were burned and mass executions and sundry atrocities were commonplace. Most shocking of all was the Fascist bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, which became the subject of one of Picasso's most fabled works, viewed daily today by thousands in Madrid's Reina Sofía art museum. For other invocations of this national tragedy, visitors can also travel to the awesome granite-built El Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen) outside San Lorenzo de El Escorial, whose cross is visible from miles away. To see where General Franco (whose rightwing sympathies led him to, at least spiritually, support Hitler and Mussolini in World War II), until his death in 1975, subsequently ruled the country with an iron fist for 36 stable, but oppressive, years, you can visit the grandiose corridor-filled El Pardo Palace beside the small town and protected wooded park immediately north of Madrid. Here at a desk in a surprisingly small room, like his predecessor Philip II in El Escorial, the dapper and puritanical dictator ran his own considerably smaller empire with similar cool and ruthless efficiency.

Dawn of Democracy

After the democratic 1977 elections, a new constitution was approved by the electorate and the king; it guaranteed human and civil rights, as well as free enterprise, and canceled the status of the Roman Catholic Church as the church of Spain. It also granted limited autonomy to several regions, including Catalonia and the Basque provinces, both of which, however, are still clamoring for complete autonomy.

There was one alarming hiccup. In 1981 a group of right-wing military officers seized the cortes (parliament building) in Madrid and called upon Juan Carlos de Borbon -- Franco's cultivated protégé and chosen successor or so it seemed -- to establish a Francoist state. The king, however, surprised the country by refusing to accept the mold of Franco's protégé and saved the day by allowing the fledgling democracy to overcome its first test. Under Felipe Gonzalez's subsequent Socialist administration -- the country's first leftist government since 1939 -- Spain entered the European Community (now Union) in 1986.

The '80s was a progressive decade for Madrid with a highly innovative and imaginative Socialist mayor Enrique Tierno Galván at the helm, still revered and honored with a park in his name. This was the effervescent and optimistic period of the movida when the creative arts, long repressed, exploded with an unprecedented inventive energy. It was alas subsequently dampened by his pallid and reactionary '90s Partido Popular successor Álvarez de Manzano who -- unlamented -- ceded his role in 2004 to the more dynamic and progressive Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón.

The Spanish economy now enjoyed an upswing, which created more new jobs than in any other country in the E.U. Old Spanish traditions disappeared, one by one. More families moved to the suburbs, and more women joined the workforce. A survey has revealed that only 25% of Spaniards still take the siesta. And -- shock! horror! -- Spain officially abandoned its time-honored peseta and, with an ease that confounded many, slipped seamlessly under the euro umbrella in March 2002.

All this positive progress received a sharp blow on March 11, 2004, when Al Qaeda-linked terrorists blew up three suburban trains in and near the main train station of Atocha, causing nearly 200 deaths. But the subsequent unity, resilience, and individuality of spirit of the Madrileños were demonstrated in a moving 3-million-strong demonstration the following day. "We were all on that train" became a popular slogan.

Three days later -- after 8 years in the wilderness -- the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party), under the benign and pragmatic José Rodriquez Zapatero, was reelected to power. It was an overt rejection of former President Aznar's initial insistence -- with no evidence -- in blaming the train attacks on ETA, and his contribution to the Iraq incursion, which had been clearly rejected by up to 90% of the population.

After 4 decades of violence aimed indiscriminately at the military and civil population alike, the Basque terrorist organization ETA announced a "permanent" ceasefire in 2006. They broke this vow at the end of the year without warning, bombing the car park in the Barajas airport's gleaming new terminal 4, causing 2 deaths and 40 million euros of damage. Half a dozen assassinations of police and politicians since have shown their implacable, tunnel-vision strategy. In 2008, Zapatero was returned to power as president for a second term as the country's socialist leader, albeit with a slightly reduced majority. His popularity has waned further since then, mainly due to his inability to deal effectively with the twin problems of unemployment -- which counts among the highest in Europe -- and an economic crisis that has seen the majority of the population having to tighten its belt more severely than any time since the Civil War.

There are hints not only that the conservative PP (Partido Popular) is likely to be the next ruling government, but also that the extreme right, in particular the Falange group, are still hovering in the background. Witness the 2010 suspension by a host of leading "old guard" magistrates of crusading judge Balthazar Garzón when he tried to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of citizens during the early days of the Franco regime.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.