Ok, here’s a little anecdote about my neighborhood, Barrio de las Letras. A bit north of me, in the Plaza de las Cortes, is the Palace Hotel and every day at noon and 8pm on the corner of the hotel, you’ll see an odd little show with figures and loud chiming bells. The figures were made by the Spanish cartoonist Antonio Mingote to represent Goya, the Dutchess of Alba, King Carlos III, the bullfighter Pedro Romero, a peasant and a toy dog. I had no idea that this was here, but when I was walking by the other day I saw a tour group waiting across the street, just staring at this building and I thought I’d wait around to see what happened. The carillon started chiming and these figures appeared from their hiding place behind the doors. I tried to get a closeup shot of the figuras goyescas in all their glory.
Also in the Plaza, across from the Congreso de Deputados (Congress building), is this fabulous statue of the writer Cervantes. Cervantes is quite an important figure in my neighborhood, since this is where he lived and wrote his masterpiece Don Quixote. Side note: in the apartment where we are renting, our landlords have a secret stash of the book – probably four copies – under the bed. I feel like I need to read it now, even though I know the gist of the story. We also saw the amazing statue of the characters Don Quixote and his sidekick in the Plaza de España this past weekend. Definitely worth a visit.
Hans Christian Andersen, while not such a fan of Madrid, has this to say about the statue of Cervantes: “The whole monument is wanting in grandeur; one is inclined to pass it carelessly, supposing that it has been erected in memory of some military commander who has no particular claim to our admiration. But when we heard the name, we arrested our steps and gazed at it with the deepest interest; for in that figure which we saw before us we beheld a king in the glorious intellectual world, one whose works are immortal, whose name is honored in every part of the earth where literature flourishes. While in the full vigor of manhood, he bore the chains of a slave; in battle, he offered to his fatherland, Spain, his left arm: his contemporaries left him to suffer from want; they treated him with scandalous indifference; they could neither comprehend him, nor appreciate him. Now, however, a monument stands in memory of him.”
Don Quixote has been published in more editions and translated into more languages than every book on earth except the Bible. And the writer lived his life in poverty. No one even knows the exact location of his grave. All they know is that his bones rest somewhere within the Convent of San Ildefonso de las Trinitarias, which is still inhabited by cloistered nuns. However, there are many plaques and markers throughout the neighborhood that provide bits and clues into the story of Cervantes and the meaning of Don Quixote.
This ornate plaque commemorates the spot where Cervantes lived and died.
In the early 19th Century, the businessman Luis Franco was going to tear down the building in order to build a higher income building in its place. The city historian, Don Ramón (who I mentioned in my earlier post on the Houses of Malice), with the support of King Fernando VII objected to the demolition of such a historically important building and attempted to but it. He tried to explain to the owner that the building should be preserved and turned into some sort of literary establishment in honor of its famous history, but Luis Franco wouldn’t sell. He said, “Of course I know exactly who used to live here, Don Quixote. I read his book every day and I have the pleasure of owning his house. Only I will make the decision of what happens to it.” Needless to say, the building was torn down for this new one now in its place. When they asked Luis Franco if he would at least put a plaque up to state that Cervantes once lived there, he replied, “A plaque for Cervantes? I don’t even know who that man is!”
Nonetheless, a plaque was finally put up in 1834, and later on the name of the street was changed to Calle de Cervantes.
The plaque reads:
Here lived and died
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Whose genius is admired worldwide.
Died in MDCXVI
Quotes from Don Quixote in shiny gold letters are ingrained in the sidewalks throughout the neighborhood. This is on Calle Huertas, around the corner from our apartment.
And this is one of the doors of the convent behind which lie Cervantes remains, however their exact location is a mystery.
Research credit to Ocultos Madrid by Mark and Peter Besas