Madrid Madrid


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Publisher Description

“From Madrid to heaven, and in heaven a spy-hole to look at Madrid” is the vaunt of the inhabitants of the Spanish capital. This pride has its justification, for Madrid is a fine city, remarkable for its position on a plateau over two thousand feet above the sea, famous for its progress during the eventful eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and interesting by reason of the great names in the arts and literature inscribed upon its records. Madrid for the writers of the Romantic school was as charming as all other things Spanish; for de Musset it was “princesse des Espagnes” and “blanche ville des sérénades.”

Few towns in Europe are situated amid so many natural hindrances to development as Madrid. It stands south and east of the bleak mountains of central Spain, upon one of many exposed and almost treeless uplands, where the winds of winter and early spring sting and bite, and the sun in summer sheds pitiless heat, which dries up the blood and disposes to languor. So fickle is the climate of this lofty region that, even in the height of August, it is never quite safe to discard the capa after sundown, for, during the hottest day, a sinister and gelid breath may assail one at the street corner with a menace of chill to the lungs. Yet Madrid is not unhealthy. It is dry, invigorating, swept by mountain breezes, bathed for long periods in brightest sunlight, and free from the contamination and depression of smoke. With proper provision against the variations in temperature, one may enjoy a full measure of health and live to an advanced age in this city of the hills. The more dangerous kinds of fever are uncommon in Madrid; the chief risk to health is in the sudden keen air that brings a shiver when the body has been scorched by the sun, and one turns to seek the shady side of the street.

Rio and Cabarras, two Spanish historians, speak of the bad odours and the dirt of Madrid in the seventeenth century. This reproach was, however, removed in the time of Henry Swinburne, an intelligent traveller, who visited the city in 1776. “The appearance of Madrid,” writes Swinburne, “is grand and lively; noble streets, good houses, and excellent pavement, as clean as it was once dirty.” In earlier days it was not thought necessary to wash the thoroughfares, because the purity of the air was an effective antidote to the evil of the filth and the smells. Rio, for example, advances the opinion that the invigorating mountain breezes are a sufficient purification.

The clear quality of the Madrid sunshine is a compensation for the treachery of its winds. There are but few sunless days. “The sky at Madrid is almost always clear and serene,” wrote Laborde, in 1809. The heights of the Guadarrama are too far from the city to throw their shade upon it, and the brilliant sunlight pours down and floods the streets and squares, and penetrates every dwelling. Looking upon the wide, rolling, hillocky country from the outskirts of the city, you have a marvellous vista, full of colour, glow, and the grandeur of huge sunlight spaces. The sky is almost perennially deep blue; but at times there are vast masses of purple cloud above the horizon, whose passing shadow produces changing effects of light and darkness upon the far-stretching landscape, and adds a sternness to the sierra.

For a long period this part of Castile was ravaged by the fellers of trees. The farmers aimed besides at the extinction of all kinds of birds, under the delusion that every bird is harmful to crops; and in the conduct of this warfare the axe was laid to the roots of millions of trees, so that no harbour for small birds might remain. This clearing of the forests destroyed the natural barriers against icy winds, deprived the land of all shade, made deserts in place of groves, and affected the climate and rainfall. A wiser policy was instituted in later years, and now a number of large plantations have grown up in the environs of the town, and the once denuded hillocks and bare gullies are here and there clothed with shady coppices. For the rest, the herbage of these grey uplands yields moderate pasturage for sheep in summer.

Madrid lacks the dignity and beauty which a wide river lends to a city. The little Manzanares is not an imposing flood. It can scarcely rank as a river. The handsome Puente de Toledo spans the stream, and gives a touch of the picturesque to its muddy flow; and there is also the well-constructed Bridge of Segovia, with many arches. These gave rise to the now venerable joke that it would be better to sell the bridges and buy some water with the proceeds.

22 August
Library of Alexandria

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