Separated from Castile and Leon to the north by the Sistema Central range of mountains, which rise to over 2,500 meters, Madrid is the capital and the largest city in Spain. It was not until 1561 that it became the center of political power in the country, when Felipe II moved his court to the city after a fire in Valladolid. Prior to that it had been an unexceptional rural backwater under Muslim, and then Christian rule, and boasted a population of only about 30,000 people.
It rapidly grew, but not to sudden overwhelming dominance; in an 1857 census the province had the fifth largest population in the country, behind such powerhouses as Oviedo. At the turn of the twentieth century Madrid was still the third largest province behind Barcelona and Valencia. But Spain was about to undergo massive urbanization from its overwhelmingly rural demographic. Between the years 1900 and 2000 the populations of Barcelona and Valencia each tripled in size, but Madrid underwent a six-fold increase, from 540,000 to almost three million people. Today Madrid is the province with the largest population in the country.
The grand and austere architecture of the center of the city leaves a lasting impression, while further out the city underwent an expansion upon grid lines after losing its city walls in the mid nineteenth century. More recently, regeneration projects transformed some buildings such as the Atocha station, which now features a 4,000 square meter tropical garden, and a memorial to the 191 victims of the 2004 terrorist train attacks. The park of Buen Retiro is the nicest urban park in Spain, once part of a huge palace complex in which mock naval battles were held on the rectangular lake.
The capital is well served with museums and cultural centers, but the real attraction of Madrid is its hustle and bustle. Despite the recession there is a sense of opportunity in the city not found everywhere in Spain. Eating and drinking starts late and finishes the next day and there is never a shortage of places to choose from, as Madrid claims to have the highest number of bars per capita in Europe.
In close proximity to the capital are two other monuments that speak to the history of the country. The first is El Escorial, a vast complex some forty-five kilometers north-west of Madrid, functioning as a monastery, palace, church, pantheon of kings, and library. It was built by the Hapsburg King Felipe II (Philip II) in the mid-sixteenth century, and is an impressive, if somber, piece of work. Fashioned from granite it measures 207 x 161 meters, with a 92 meter high basilica, and its impressive stats include some 24 kilometers of corridors, 2,673 windows, 1,200 doors, 300 monastic cells, 88 fountains, and 86 stairways. The indisputable highlight, however, is the Pantheon of kings, a sixteen sided polygon chamber with a conical ceiling holding the sarcophagi of most of the kings and queens since the middle of the sixteenth century.
The other is the the Valle de los Caidos, the “Valley of the Fallen,” the Catholic Basilica and Francisco Franco’s vision for a monument to commemorate the dead of both sides from the Civil War, a “national act of atonement ”. Construction commenced in 1940, and was completed nineteen years later, often using political prisoners as slave labour. The site is constructed in granite in the side of a mountain overlooking a protected woodland of 3,360 acres, and features a 150 meter high cross towering over a thirty-thousand square meter esplanade, which leads to the doors of the gloomy and threatening nave of a basilica carved some 262 meters into the granite mountain. In addition to the tombs of Francisco Franco himself and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish fascist Falange party, the bodies of about forty-thousand of the civil war fallen from both sides are buried here, an act that remains a continued source of pain for the families of the Republicans, and a point of national discord.