Touring Spain

It Takes a Village

The atmosphere resembled a free-wheeling Wild West town.

Madrid may be a sprawling, energetic city today, but it was an unlikely choice to be named Spanish capital in the 16th century—and nobody was more astonished than the residents themselves. In 1561, it was a small provincial outpost, hardly larger than a village, when King Philip II sent a letter announcing his royal court's imminent arrival. Local Castilian aristocrats had to scramble to purchase enough banquet food just for their monarch's table, and they (like the rest of Spain) were baffled to learn that Philip decided to remain permanently.

Unlike the great cities of Toledo and Seville, Madrid had no cathedral, no grand avenues, no university; it didn't even have one of the new-fangled printing presses, considered a symbol of progress at the time. But what it did have was its central location; from Madrid, letters could reach any point in Spain within five days. King Philip was a devout Catholic, painfully shy and austere; he had no talent for leading armies into battle and he also disliked traveling, so had decided to run the ever-expanding Spanish Empire by royal decree. A prince among bureaucrats, it was said that he would deal with 400 complex documents a day. As soon as the news was out, the once-sleepy Madrid was flooded with wealth of the court and its noble hangers-on; the city quickly became an enormous construction site, resulting in the ornate palaces and majestic and fabulously wealthy convents that we see in the historical center today.

Philip's rather dull, methodical nature did not make Madrid a quiet place—far from it. Hordes of artists and writers seeking wealthy patrons followed the aristocracy, as did as con-men, petty criminals, prostitutes, and famous picaros, Spanish adventurers who lived on their wits. The atmosphere resembled a free-wheeling Wild West town. One writer, Antonio Liñan y Verdugo, penned a guidebook in 1620 for gold-digging Spaniards flocking to the city, called Guide and Advice to Strangers Who Come to the Court. His description gave a more vivid idea of Madrid than history books. He suggested that Madrid had become a vice-ridden "Babylon" filled with tricksters and illusory wonders—"dreamed-up marvels, fairy-tale treasures and figures like actors on a stage."