The palace with many names: Palacio de Cibeles, Catedral de las
Comiunicaciones, Palacio de Comunicaciones
by Jack Wright
Madrid is a historic and historical capital city prodigiously dotted with memorable landmarks. Though relatively new (it was inaugurated in 1909), one of these landmarks is the Palacio de Cibeles (Cybelle’s Palace), known variously in the past as the Catedral and, later, the Palacio de Comunicaciones. A lovely example of the architectural eclecticism that flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is built on the southeast side of the famous Plaza de Cibeles.
The importance of the palacio could be gauged by the fact that no less than King Alfonso XIII and his wife Queen Victoria Eugenie attended its inauguration.
The Fall and Rise of the Palace
From the outset, the palacio operated as a modern distribution center for post, telegraphs and telephones, and was supposed to symbolize national progress, modernity and the regeneration that was taking root in the media and among the intelligentsia. Living up to its name, the Catedral de Comunicaciones became the international headquarters of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) just one year after its inauguration. But because of its central location, the palacio lent itself to other variegated usages through the years, some of truly historic significance. For example, the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed on 14 April 1931 at the Plaza de Cibeles, the flag of the Republic raised on the façade of the palacio. Upon that proclamation, the sword of Damocles fell on the throne of Alfonso XIII with a deafening bang.
The Republic was the offshoot of the municipal elections held in April 1931 which were taken as a plebiscite on the monarchy. This “plebiscite” yielded an overwhelmingly hostile vote against the monarchy. However, the Republic’s impassioned reforms to right historical grievances as fast as possible met with strong resistance from entrenched interests. Just five short years later, in July 1936, the “Nationalist” faction (the word was coined by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels to refer to the military rebels) staged a coup d’état against the socialist Republican government. The rebels reckoned the transfer of power would be swift. Instead, it precipitated the long drawn-out Spanish Civil War.
During the Civil War (October 1936 to April 1939), the Nationalists, led by fascist wannabe Generalissimo Francisco Franco with the help of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, laid siege to Madrid as part of the military campaign to overthrow the progressive Popular Front government. The Palacio de Comunicaciones came under heavy fire; today, bullet holes can still be seen on the building’s white façade almost as though they were a memorial to the fight that the Republicans had had to put up against the military insurgents.
And yet, despite the bombings of Madrid by the rebel armies and their allies, mainly the Nazi Condor Legion hellbent on testing the efficacy of the new weapons that came out of the German re-armament, and who targeted civilian populations as a military method – despite the strategic location and political symbolism of the Palacio de Comunicaciones – the Palace did not sustain major damage.
After the victory of the Nationalist armies on 28 March 1939, following the relentless Siege of Madrid, the Generalissimo wasted no time implementing a brand of dictatorship steeped in ferocious National Catholicism (nacionalcatolicismo).
A new dawn that didn’t look promising
Time never did stand still. It never does. Even the nearly four decades of the Franco dictatorship foundered and got buried with the die-hard Caudillo who died in 1975, despite the best efforts of the dictator’s generals and his all-powerful wife, Maria del Carmen Polo, to perpetuate the dictatorial regime. Surprisingly, notwithstanding the bloody Civil War that placed Franco squarely at the helm of a fascist government and seemed to have consigned Spain to the bottomless pit of the twentieth-century Dark Ages, the country transitioned almost seamlessly to parliamentary democracy at the head of which is a Borbon monarch.
Democratized, Spain joined the European Union and became not only a modern state but also a modern economy. Soon, the services housed in the Palacio de Comunicaciones became obsolescent, swept aside by the rapid development of information and communication technologies and EU directives that culminated in the mandatory opening up of the postal market in EU member states to competition by 1 January 2011.
Before this, Spain’s postal sector, the Correos, which was a public-sector entity, enjoyed a privileged 95% share of the postal market. Its legal monopoly was buttressed by a postal network that covered the entire country. However, in line with EU directives, Spain adopted a new basic law, Law 43/2010 of 30 December 2010, putting an end to Correos‘ traditional monopoly.
With the demand for postal, telephone and telegraph services languishing, the Palacio de Comunicaciones in all its palatial dimensions became a white elephant notwithstanding the fact that it was declared Bien de Interés Cultural (Patrimony of Cultural Interest) in 1993. It was time to entice housemates to the Palacio.
A new tenant
The signing of the Collaboration Protocol between the City Council of Madrid and the Ministry of Finance in 2003, which called for the optimization of the use of certain buildings in Madrid, breathed new life into the Palacio de Comunicaciones. Since the City Hall and the municipal administration had grown considerably, it was decided that the seat of the municipal government, which was then in the medieval Casa de la Villa, be relocated to the grand Palacio de Comunicaciones. The Office of the Mayor was moved to the palace in 2007, the City Council holding its first session there in 2011.
It was around this time that the Palacio began to lose its iconic identity as Correos. As such, in the mind of the public, it was no longer the Palacio de Comuncaciones. It simply became known as the Palacio de Cibeles because it is located in the Plaza de Cibeles.
More tenants infuse new dynamism into the old Palacio
To simplify matters, the Palacio de Cibeles should just be called the City Hall. But there are other occupants of the palace and to do so would misrepresent the true situation. The CentroCentro, an 8000 sq m cultural and entertainment center offering a wide range of activities that reflect the contemporary life in Madrid, occupies the first, third, fourth and fifth floors of the Palacio. Thanks to the CentroCentro’s dynamic agenda, many different things go on simultaneously at any given time: concerts, art exhibits, movies, workshops, presentation programs, guided tours. . . Presently, the Monet exhibition is a most outstanding event there.
The CentroCentro is a fabulous cultural complex comprising
> the former Patio de Operaciones de Correos y Telégrafos (Postal and Telegraph Operations Center) now a tourist information center; the Cafeteria-Restaurant Colección Cibeles; and the Centro de Interpretacion del Paisaje de la Luz, a didactic center where one discovers the values enshrined in the Paisaje de la Luz (Landscape of Light) made up of the Paseo del Prado, the barrio of the Jeronimos, and the Retiro. The Paisaje de la Luz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
> the impressive Galeria de Cristal (Crystal Gallery), an alleyway formerly used by mail delivery vehicles now covered with an immense glass dome. It has become a place for performances, meetings, movies and celebrations.
> the Auditorio Caja de Música (the Music Box Auditorium). Located below the Galería de Cristal, it is a venue with a more intimate seating capacity for presentations, concerts and conferences.
There are also the Palacio de Cibeles and the Terraza Cibeles restaurants on the sixth floor, and the Mirador Madrid (Madrid Look-Out) in the palace tower for a spectacular view of the city, on the seventh floor accessible from the sixth.
Images: Wikimedia Commons
> Featured image (Palacio de Cibeles)/Diario de Madrid, CC BY4.0
> Alfonso XIII/Kaulak (1862-1933), PD
> Italian biplane fighter/Author unknown. Found in file Savoia-Marchetti SM.81. Created 1950. PD.
> Franco on Renacer/Biblioteca Naional de España. Source: https://hemerotecadigital.bne, CC BY-SA4.0
> Spanish postage stamp/Correos España. Source: scan of original. PD in Spain via Spanish Royal Act 1/1996.
> Email header/Sfng, CC BY-SA3.0
> Second Spanish Republic flag/Un Ribero, CC BY-SA4.0
> CentroCentro occupies several floors/Diario de Madrid, CC BY4.0
> Alberto Ruiz Galardon/w.es:Usuario Barcex, CC BY-SA3.0
> London. Parliament. Reflections on the Thames (1905), PD in Spain, USA, France and other countries
> Plaza de Cibeles seen from the City Hall/Miguel Diaz, CCC BY-SA2.0
> Galeria de Cristal/Ruben Vique, CC BY2.0
> View from Mirador Madrid/epanto, CC BY-SA2.0
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