After the Palacio Real, the next thing to see was the famous Almudena cathedral - the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid. And it was pretty easy to find too! Just turn around - and there it is!
This place is unusual in the sense that it is quite a new cathedral - not even a hundred years old. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. I found this very interesting - why should a 1000 year old kingdom (the ‘reconquista’ happened in the 1000s, when the Christians kicked out the Muslim moors) - and a 500 hundred year old capital (Madrid replaced Toledo as the capital in the 1500s) not have an ancient cathedral?
The answer is deceptively simple - money! Even though Spain created an empire in South America and built more than 40 cities overseas during that century and plenty of cathedrals and fortresses, the cost of expanding and keeping the Empire came first and the construction of Madrid's cathedral was postponed.
Therefore, the seat of the Church in Spain remained in Toledo and the new capital had no cathedral. All other main Spanish cities had centuries-old cathedrals and Madrid had its own old churches, but the construction of Almudena only began in 1879 - even though they had been waffling about the idea since the 16th century.
They finally bit the bullet and started construction in 1879 - and decided to make up for lost time by making it the largest cathedral in Europe - if not the world! Since the Palacio Real was built on the ruins of an old Muslim fortress, the cathedral was also built on the remains of a medieval mosque which was destroyed by the Christians during the reconquista in 1083.
‘Was it just a pile of rubble for 500 years?’ I wondered idly. ‘Was it a ruined eyesore when the Palacio was built in the 1700s? Did people climb on top of a rubble heap to watch the great fire of 1734 that destroyed the royal palace?’
Anyway - the Spaniards got to building it in 1879 - but then got rather busy in fighting their civil war, and construction halted for years and years, till they again got on with the job - in 1950!
And we complain about long construction stoppages in Mumbai today!
Anyway - the cathedral was redesigned to be in the same architectural style as the Royal palace opposite and so they make a nice matched pair now. The cathedral was completed in 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. On 22 May 2004, the marriage of King Felipe VI, then crown prince, to Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano took place at the cathedral.
The good thing about it being such a new building is that there are a lot of modern elements, especially in the artwork like the stained glass. The Neo-Gothic interior is uniquely modern, with chapels and statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to "pop-art" decor.
The name of the cathedral had also intrigued me - as Almudena sounded a lot like ‘Al Madina’ - a very Muslim name. It turned out that the church is dedicated to Mary as the ‘Virgin of Almudena’ - Its name derives from the Arabic term of Al Mudayna, or the citadel…so I was right - in a way.
The story goes that the residents of the town had sealed up the statue inside a wall tp protect it from capture or desecration when the Muslim forces were besieging it in 712 - and after the Christian forces re conquered the town 300 years later - the stones hiding the statue miraculously crumbled and revealed the statue.
I really liked the cathedral - the mixture of the old world design with its soaring high walls and neo-gothic interior and the modernity of the stained glass art was amazing.
I remembered to take off my cap too - the last time I was in Spain, I thought that it was compulsory to cover your head inside a church, and so hunted out a cap and put it on, and an irritated church official came and told me to take it off!
May the Virgin of Almudena bless my trip!
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!