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Calle Colon (Columbus Street), Madrid





by Bonnie Rosenstock
8 June 1990

Do you remember, as a new arrival, walking around Madrid, open map in hand, searching your destination? You had to get through a confusing swirl of strange names, none of them pronounceable. Then if you were on one side of the street, with a saint’s name, surely the other side was named for some obscure general. Streets suddenly appeared and then ended just as quickly, turning into some “Maria de so-and-so”. Who are all these people anyway? You might have been curious enough to ask if you weren’t so frazzled or overwhelmed, or like me, late and most likely lost, going through labyrinthine mazes. The shortcut you took to save time ended in some little street that didn’t get you to the “other side”. Backtracking, you got lost again, at which point a deep breath, a low wail or a taxi solved the impending crisis.

Calle Olivar would definitely be named for an olive grove

With time, and a caña, as the Spanish expression goes, you got better at manipulating the track – at least the main thoroughfares – and with a little more knowledge of Spanish some of the words even began to make sense, i.e., the streets of Olivar (olive grove), Lechuga (lettuce), Puerta de Sol (Gate of the Sun), Botoneras (buttonmakers). Strange but comprehensible. Then you learned that Colon is Columbus (and not what it looks like in English), Magallanes is the explorer Magellan, that Gran Via was changed to Jose Antonio and then back again with Democracy restored. And some of the kings and saints got sorted out too.

Now that you’ve “taken” Madrid, it’s time for an advanced lesson, to go beyond the mundane, go back to the source and find out who or what is behind these fascinating names. That’s where “Los Nombres de las Calles de Madrid” comes in, Federico Bravo Morata’s well- written, documented and illustrated, 647-page history of the streets of Madrid. The book is more than mere recited facts: it is an historical perspective of Madrid – and thus, Spain – during many phases of its development, peppered with insights into tradition, customs and culture. It is a fascinating compendium of personalities, historical, mythical, religious, aristocratic and legendary figures, as well as geographical locations, trades, important battles and other well-placed events, which have all lent their names and distinction to the Spanish capital.

We can learn for example, that within the succinct biographies of 400 extraordinary people, no less than the streets of sic barrios are heavily weighted in favour of bullfighter names. In Villaverde we have Chiclanero, Regatero, Chicorro, Paquiro, in Parque Conde de Orgaz, look for Chicuelo, Machaquito; plus Manolete, Bombita, El Gallo, El Tato, Lagartijo, to name a few, and that “academics, scientists, philosophers, literary figures and artists have had less luck”. Lopez de Hoyos, for example, Bravo Morata writes, is “a case of an absolute disproportion between homage – one of the longest streets in the capital – while Cervantes, one of his students, rates a much smaller, albeit more central, one.”

The elegant Serrano street in the Barrio Salamanca (named after its creator), is in honor of General Serrano, who was maximum authority in Cuba, annexed Santo Domingo, and fought in the streets of Madrid in the 1866 revolution. Nearby Claudio Coello was a XVII century painter whose works hang in the Prado.

Fifteen-year old Manuela Malasaña may be the youngest entry. This madrilène was fatally injured during the events of May 2. She ignored her wound and kept fighting until there was scarcely any blood left in her body. She certainly merits both her street and barrio names.

Curious facts also gleaned. In the Barrio de Corralego, all the streets have names that begin with the letter “B”. The seemingly innocently denominated Apple Street, calle de la Manzana, near San Bernardo, was the scene of a XVI century farmworker fight over apples from Don Garcia de Barrionuevo’s orchard which got out of hand and “about which entire Madrid then much smaller and much more curious about things and events talked about for several days”. That place, not yet a street, was thereafter known as the “fight of the apples” and when buildings were constructed there at the end of the XVII century, it retained part of its name.

Map (Plan Texeira) of 1656 showing Calle San Bernardo to which Calle Manzana is perpendicular.

Foreign notables are also feted, such as Nobel Prize winners Dr. Fleming, Professor Waksman and Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. An entire page is devoted to the fascinating story of “kilometre zero”, the Puerta del Sol, which indeed had a gate oriented towards the sun in the XIII century. An additional reason for the continuance of the name was the sculptured sun on the door of the hospital which stood in the square during the reign of Charles V. And depending on which version you want to believe, the Plaza de Callao was either named for a mute, “El Callao”, who sold tobacco from Cuba there (romantic version), or for a famous battle between the Spanish and North American navies in the waters of the Peruvian port city of Callao in 1866 (realistic version). The name Lavapies has at least four explanations, all credible and entertaining.

This second edition, published in 1984, contains approximately double the streets and squares that appeared in the 2-volume edition 15 years earlier. The winds of political change, all accounted for, have altered many names, adding yet another chapter to the already illustrious and fascinating tales that are woven throughout.

“While fumbling for my change purse at the ticket window, I pulled the book out of my bag. The ticket seller spotted it and asked to borrow it for the duration of the show. It transported her to a world beyond her cubicle.”

Although the book is only printed in Spanish, it shouldn’t pose language problems for those with a fair command of the language. And, of course, Spaniards with a more rudimentary knowledge of the city will find it captivating and revealing. The most heartening personal postscript and testimonial has to do with the writing of this article. I decided to take a walking and movie break, and while fumbling for my change purse at the ticket window, I pulled the book out of my bag. The ticket seller spotted it and asked to borrow it for the duration of the show. When I recovered it later, she was all smiles and transported to a world beyond her cubicle.

I still travel through the backstreets of Madrid with city plan close at hand. But at every opportunity I carry “Los Nombres de las Calles de Madrid” and let myself get lost – lost in the rich, exciting history that was, is and continue to be Madrid.



Guidepost cover, 8 June 1990












Featured image/Alberto Caballero, CC BY2.0
Olive grove/Alisha Vargas, CC BY2.0
Los Nombres de las Calles de Madrid, Fair use
Plan Texeiro, PD
Callao cinema/Yann Croneaud, CC BY-SA2.0