Friday 6 March 2009

1492 and all that

When I was young and naive – about four years ago – when I was about to make my first, and I thought only, trip to Spain, (My goodness, if I had only known then what I know now!), I downloaded from the internet a street map of Madrid.

I can’t help it. I’m a guy and we like maps. Before I had even climbed aboard the plane for Madrid I knew my way around the city streets and the wonderful metro. The map only lied in one respect. That piece of paper is flat and smooth and Madrid – isn’t.

They say Rome is built on seven hills. I think they lost count when they built Madrid.

But I digress.

So there I was, young (!) and naïve and with zero knowledge of Spain, it’s history and especially its language and staring at this map. In the centre was a Plaza called “Colon”, which I am ashamed to say I mispronounced. I thought, you don’t need to be an explorer to discover this city, but a proctologist!

Well, four years on and older and wiser, well at least more knowledgeable, I know that the plaza Colon celebrates the voyage of Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colon as he is called here, and his discovery of a few islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Jeez, if only he had gone a bit further. He might have found something even bigger.

(There is a story told that the ancient Vikings were actually the first to discover America – but had the good sense to keep quiet about it!)

The Plaza Colon is a place where the Spanish gather. It was where thousands followed the advance of the Spanish football team on huge TV screens during last year’s Eurocup and where the victorious team received the accolades of their countrymen on their return. It is where the king takes the salute on Spain’s national day. And it is where many sit on sunny days and take their lunch.

Over these scenes of celebration or mundane munching Cristobel Colon stands high on his column, gazing ever westward, and surveys the traffic passing along the adjacent Paseo de la Castellana. And also keeps an eye on my bank, which just happens to be opposite. Behind him flies what is reputed to be the largest Spanish flag anywhere. The day that I took my photographs was very windy and displayed the flag to its full extent, but normally it sags rather sad and forlorn from it high flagpole.

To the east of the Plaza rests (it is the only word to describe it) a huge block of rendered concrete set in a watery pool on which inscriptions tells of those who went with Columbus and what they did. Unfortunately, this monument is surrounded by the (I hope) temporary offices of the construction company in charge of creating a speedier route between the railway stations of Atocha and Chamartin, ands so is obscured.

The four faces of the base of his column tell the story of his life, but the story of his journey is told much more graphically underground. Because, like most of Madrid it seems, (and there’s a post coming about this very soon), under Madrid lies another Madrid, and under the Plaza Colon is a theatre and arts centre. Named for the prolific Spanish actor, writer and director Férnan Gómez it hosts many of the most celebrated plays in the Spanish language.

The covered pavement outside its entrance, where there is a small plaza under the plaza!, is also home to a few of the sin techos, (without roofs) or the homeless. But I can see there point, because I too took refuge there this week when it rained. And there I found a huge mural depicting Columbus’s voyage. You cannot see it from the street, which is why I am writing about it. One of Madrid’s little surprises!

All the information you could need is there: The dates of embarkation and return; the dates of discovery; and the routes followed by the Pinto, the Niño and the Santa Maria.

Incidentally, if you cross Castellana to the foot of the Torres Colon, you will find one of the most amusing sculptures in the city. I have no idea of its real name, but I call it “Naked Vanity”. My pictures will show why.

So I became a little more educated this week and, of course, I now pronounce the name of the Plaza correctly!


  1. The story I heard was that Mr and Mrs Noah didnt know what to do with the droppings of all the animals in the arc so they rolled up all the sh*t and pushed it overboard.
    1n 1492 Columbus discovered it.

  2. Despite having a map of Madrid, a picture of the chocolate shop (ONLY chocolates in abundance), and an amusing attempt to ask a doorkeeper in my EXTREMELY limited Spanish....I never did find this wonderfully interesting chocolate shop. Now I don't even remember where I thought it was but I remember seeing the Colon bus signs all over the area.

  3. least Colon is pointing the right way in Madrid. In Barcelona, you may know, he seems to be pointing SSE towards Africa!