Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Madrid free walking tour I.

Have you ever heard of free walking tours? These are run in most of the big cities in Europe and they are, as the name indicates, free. Well, nothing is free in life so this is how it works.

Usually when you pay for a city tour you pay around 40 euros or more to a company who will give a fraction of that to the tour guide. The guides therefore work for peanuts and say the same things all day every day. You can imagine it gets pretty boring after a while. This is why somebody came up with the idea of free tours. You don’t have to pay anything up front. You go on the tour and you pay at the end as much as you think it was worth for you. They guide gets all the money therefore the better tour he or she gives, the more money they get potentially, right? It’s in the guide’s interest to make the tour fun and interesting for you and you can decide how much you want to give for it later.

I had already attended three free tours in Barcelona so before we moved to Madrid I made sure we had one lined up for us. I think it’s a great way to find out about a place and these tours are full of interesting and fun titbits and bits of gossip that otherwise you would only know about after searching for them. I decided to share the best of these and show you Madrid from a different angle.

Plaza Mayor
It all starts at the Plaza Mayor. This lovely square is full of lovely buildings and under the gorgeous arches many cafes and restaurants wait for you.

 It is unsurprisingly full of tourists and only tourists, this is a square where no Madridian goes if they don’t have to. We find that the reason originates from a few hundred years back. In the old days there was a certain smell in the square that kept people away. Nobody knew where the smell came from but people started to avoid the Plaza and the trend is still continuing up to today. But why was this square so smelly?

In the middle of the square you find a statue of a king on a horse. Apparently when the statue was built the horse’s body was hollow and they left its mouth open. Little birds found this little gap and through this they flew in but couldn’t fly out! This was the result of the smell. Later they had to do some work around the statue and that’s when they noticed the source of the smell. They eventually cleaned it and closed the horse’s mouth but they couldn’t change the local’s ways.

The world’s oldest restaurant
Just outside of the Plaza Mayor there’s a restaurant that is apparently more than 300 years old, the Restaurante Botin. It is so old that it even had a place in the Guinness Records book! Apparently Hemmingway, Goya and many famous people favoured this little place.

In front of every restaurant that is more than 100 years old there’s a little plaque on the floor. If you prefer places with the ambiance of the old ages, look out for these little signs on Madrid’s streets.  

Madrid’s symbol: the bear and the tree
Many people wonder about the strange coat of arms that Madrid chose for itself. The explanation has two parts, let’s start with the bear.
In the medieval times, when people still thought that the Earth is flat, the people of Madrid looked up at the sky and what constellation did they see? The bear. They thought that because the constellation is right above the city it justly belongs to them so they quickly adopted it as their symbol. The fruit on the tree actually make up the stars of the bear.
The second part, the tree also has a story that made us all smile. Apparently when the plague broke out in Madrid, nobody knew how to cure it. They tried many different methods but nothing worked … until somebody thought of feeding the sick the fruit of the madroño tree. And it worked! The fruit saved the people of Madrid and to honor this event, they put the tree up in the coat of arms, too.
How did this magic happen? Well, they say that the ripe fruit has quite high alcohol content that acted as a disinfectant and helped to cure the illness.

How did Madrid become a capital?
The reason is actually quite simple. The capital was Toledo before but as Felipe II had a misunderstanding with the Bishop of Toledo he decided that he’s going to make another capital. Not far from there lay the little town of Madrid. The place looked inviting as it was the centre of the country and the location was strategically desirable, too. Therefore the king packed up all his stuff and all his retinue and all his retinue’s stuff and moved to Madrid.

However that small town was not able to house that many people! What did the king say? Everybody with a house had to half their living surface and give half to the king’s people. This was of course an outrageous decision and the people tried to find a way out of it. And they found something. The law said they had to half their house IF it can be halved equally. What did the clever Madridians do? They made sure that none of the houses could be equally divided. To make it obvious from the outside, too, they put windows all over the place on the wall! These houses are called the casas de malice or ‘houses of malice’. 

This movement got so out of control that by the 18th century 80% of the houses looked like that! Finally the government stepped up and during the urbanisation they changed most of them. Nowadays there are only three left and we visited one of these.

I will continue the list tomorrow.

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