Wednesday, May 25, 2016

To Explain Spain: Madrid - 2

To begin with, I have come to believe that simply learning why Madrid is where it is, is the key to understanding thousands of things about Spain, the key to understanding the past, present and future of one of the European Union's most important countries, with deep ties, linguistic, cultural, political and financial to all of the United States of America's southern neighbors.

There are masses of "facts" about Spain on the Internet: just reading what Wikipedia has to say about it could keep you busy for quite awhile. I'm not going regurgitate all of that here. What I'd like to do, within my limited abilities, is to give you some sort of feel for the place, a point of view to take with you before you get immersed in all the multitude of facts and cliches about Spain's culture and history. So if and when you really do begin to study, all that you learn might fall more easily into place.

What do I mean by the "feel" of the place?

When Spanish people who are going to the States ask me what they should see or do there, I tell them that the USA is more or less like it appears in the movies (except there are no subtitles), that American food is the same junk you can get on practically any street corner of the world and that the only thing they can't get from the films or McDonald's is the feeling of America's unbelievable size and distances. What I tell them to do is to spend a week or two in a Greyhound bus crossing "fly over America". The fatigue in their back muscles and the pain in their nether regions, combined with the conversations they will have with their continuously changing and almost always chatty seat mates... while crossing the Great Plains, day after day, will teach them more about America than reading dozens of books, or more correctly, help them make some sense of all that they read.

This, their own private "road movie", will make them "feel" America.

Short of that sort of direct experience of Spain, my readers will have to make do with what follows:

Getting Started

In the first chapter of this series we looked at a map of the population density of Europe, where we saw that the greater part of Spain and nearly all of its center is as sparsely populated as the outback of Sweden or Finland or the forests and western Steppes of Russia... or the Alps.  And we saw that floating in that emptiness, like an asteroid, is a city of over three million people with a population density comparable to London or Paris.

To put that emptiness into physical context, lets look at a relief map of Spain. Madrid being the tiny, red, dot in the middle of it all.
Relief map of Spain - Madrid, the Red Dot in the Middle                   

Looking at the relief map, the sparse population of the center of Spain makes sense, what is hard to understand is why there is this huge city in the middle of what looks like a moonscape. 

Also going there by land is uphill all the way. 

Examine this list of European cities by elevation over sea level.

1-Kruševo, Macedonia 1,350 m (4,430 ft)
2-Andorra la Vella 1,023 m (3,356 ft)
3-Madrid 667 m (2,188 ft)
4-Pristina 652 m (2,139 ft)
5-Sofia 580 m (1,900 ft)
6-Bern 542 m (1,778 ft)
7-Munich 519 m (1,703 ft)
Wikipedia - List of European Cities by Elevation 

Today's Spain is crisscrossed with modern superhighways and high speed trains, but this is a very, very recent development, even as late as the 1970s getting to Madrid from abroad or even from the Spanish periphery by car or even express train... any way except by air was a tedious ordeal.

Imagine during the centuries of Spain's imperial splendor, with no navigable river in sight, what it was like getting to Madrid on horseback, by stage coach or even on foot!

So then, the question arises: why is a city of over three million people and the political, cultural, communication and financial capital of a country of over forty million people and once the capital of one of history's largest empires, so high up in the middle of nowhereDS

(To be continued)

No comments: