Author: Katherine L. Hester
A flower stand that beckons to passers-by with its array of colourful bouquets and a churros kiosk redolent with frying oil both jockey for position on the sidewalk in front of hospitals San Carlos and Fundación Jiménez Díaz in Moncloa. A milling throng of people, both whole and hurt, indicates the presence of a bustling urban medical facility nearby.
But a short walk up the service road between the two hospitals takes you far away from the sound of traffic and sirens. There, one of the feral cats that is a fixture of the area emerges from the bushes to lead you to a high flat vantage point overlooking wasteland.
In the late 1800s, the Universidad Complutense outgrew its buildings in the center of Madrid and land was allocated for a new campus at the city’s western edge. Overlooking the Sierra de Guadarrama to the west with glimpses of Madrid apartment blocks to the south, many of the buildings in Ciudad Universitaria are boxy and Bauhaus-influenced.
In 1936, just a few years after they were built, the Spanish Civil War began. By November of that year, Ciudad Universitaria, as well as Parque del Oeste directly south of it, were on the front lines. The Nationalists and Republicans shot at each other from adjacent university buildings.
The Santa Cristina asylum for the poor, also located on this site, would be so damaged by the fierce shelling that after the war it was demolished and the Museo de América was built in its place.
A small replica of the sort of galleon Columbus sailed across the Atlantic sits in front of the museum’s massive facade. The back of the museum, however, tells another story.
Worn paths strewn with broken bricks, bits of marble, litter and syringes crisscross the dusty land behind the building’s graffiti-scrawled bricks. A small temple-like structure draws the eye to the highest point. Inside it stands a battered five-foot tall white marble statue of the Virgin Mary, votive candles and carefully tended five-gallon buckets of red roses at her feet.
The most-told legend about this statue is that at one point during the war, a nun was praying at the feet of the asylum’s marble statue of the Virgin Mary when the statue spoke, urgently warning of an incoming bomb. The asylum was hit; the nuns and Mary survived.
At some point afterward, Nationalist soldiers dragged the statue from the battered building into their trenches. Though damaged — a bullet caused Mary’s noseless state — the statue survived. At war’s end, she was placed into a grotto dug into the battle-scarred hillside and watched over by neighbourhood children. In the 1950s, the structure that protects her from the elements was built. Sixty years later, she overlooks a Madrid that contains both construction cranes and decay.
A few footnotes have to be added to this version of history. Though several pre-war photographs show a blurred statue on the grounds of the asylum, there’s no definitive evidence that a statue of the Virgin Mary stood inside the building either before or during the war. When the protective structure was dedicated in 1954, newspaper coverage mentions that the statue had been mutilated by “red shrapnel,” as did an early plaque, since replaced.
Just to the northwest of the Ermita de la Virgen Blanca, the land pitches downward into ill-kempt Parque Jaime del Amo, the location not only of botellones but also of an easily-missed, hollowed-out crater left by the detonation of a war-time mine dug by Asturian miners to weaken Franco’s defences, who were positioned in the Hospital Clínico.
The bulbs in the streetlights dotted throughout the park have been broken out, only adding to its desolate air.
The past was anything but quiet here, but in modern times, this area has become a tranquil spot beyond the reach of the clamour of daily life. Scrubs-clad hospital workers unwrap bocadillos on the benches set around the virgin’s temple. Hospital visitors stroll the paths, taking in both the statue and the view of the mountains. Families stop to puzzle out the almost-obscured plaque located at the statue’s feet.
Some visitors feel, not wrongly, that this land could be better enjoyed if it were landscaped and maintained. But as cities and countries around the world grapple with the dilemmas created by monuments built in earlier times, this largely forgotten no-man’s-land becomes a particularly resonant historical artefact.
This may not be one of Madrid’s prettiest spots, but it is one of its more poignant ones, mutely reminding us of the complexity of the history that lies, literally, beneath our feet.
Katherine Hester is American writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2019, she has lived in the Gaztambide neighborhood of Chamberí, where she is always on the lookout for the hyper-local, independent, historic, or quirky aspects of Madrid. Her website is katherinelhester.com.