Saint’s blood, nun’s pastries, and Arab walls

Every July 27th in Madrid there is an event where a vial of blood is taken out of it’s preserved case, liquefied in front of masses of devotees, and then once the day is over, taken back to coagulate and preserve itself for many years to come.

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The legend is that this is the blood of Saint Pantaleón, who was executed by a Roman emperor in 305AD. Pantaleón was a doctor who had heard of a God who was supposedly quite powerful. One day he was faced with a boy who had just died from a snake bite and he challenged this God – he said, if there really is a God then let this boy be saved and the snake perish. Miraculously, the child was revived and the snake suddenly died. Pantaleón was so moved that he decided to convert to Christianity. Once the Emperor found out, he had Pantaleón publicly tortured and decapitated. After the execution, Christians carefully collected the blood of the martyred saint and their descendants have preserved the sacred blood for thousands of years since.

We weren’t able to see the sacred blood today because the monastery was already closed but this is the doorway to the Real Monasterio de la Incarnación, where the vial is kept. There is also a crypt filled with glass shelves from floor to ceiling displaying relics from various saints – hair, fingers, skulls, teeth, arms, you name it – collected since 1616.

UPDATE: We saw the sacred blood. Dean and I arrived at the convent around noon on a Saturday, just in time for the one-hour tour (in Spanish). The reliquary did have an impressive collection, including the blood of San Pantaleón. There was a thriving market for saint’s relics back then, since people thought the bones had the same miraculous powers of the saints. At one point there were so many fake relics being manufactured that each of the saints would have had to have around 800 bodies, so the tradition became less popular once people realized they were being fooled.

Speaking of saints, there is a very prominent saint in Madrid, possibly the patron saint, San Isidro. His remains are supposedly incorrupt, and taken out on rare occasions (possibly this coming July 2012 for the anniversary of a battle where he miraculously appeared 40 years after his death, and gave the king strategic advice).

The body is reputedly kept in this ornate gold and silver casket above the altar of the Colegiata de San Isidro el Real (Calle de Toledo 37). To learn more about the saint and his many miracles, there is a museum dedicated to him (Plaza de San Andrés 2).

Around the corner from this church is the Convento de las Monjas del Corpus Christi, whose cloistered inhabitants are called “Las Carboneras” (The Coal Women) due to their discovery of a painting of the Virgin Mary in a coal bin, which is now hanging in the church. The nuns also happen to sell delicious pastries. If you’re in Madrid and get the urge for some blessed “dulces”, definitely follow these steps:

1. Find this door. It’s on Plaza del Conde de Miranda 3. Cloistered nuns have lived here for hundreds of years, in much the same manner as they did during the Inquisition. There are 37 other nunneries in the city, and many of them specialize in their own types of pastries.

You’ll see this number on the wall when you’re in the Plaza. It’s literally around the corner from Mercado San Miguel (which is a perfect place for lunch before visiting the convent for dessert).

2. Ring the second bell. You have to ask the nun that answers the bell to be let in. I said, “Buenas días, queríamos dulces.” and she proceeded to tell me to push open the door and come in.

3. You’ll wind through the narrow hallways to get to this ancient lazy-Susan looking contraption. If you get lost, follow the sign for “torno”. There is a menu on the wall with things like pastas de almendra and naranjines, but you can also buy the box of pastries, like we did. The nun made it really easy for us and put two boxes on the turntable.

4. Put the money on the turning shelf and take your goods!

5. Eat them. 8 euros for the box but worth every penny. They are delicious. Nothing too fancy, just sugar and deliciousness.

Moving on to non-religious related items… I’m obsessed with discovering the relics of ancient Arab fortifications around Madrid. Thousands of years ago Madrid was inhabited by the Moors who built a defensive wall around the city. During construction of the modern city, many remnants dating back to the 9th century of the boundary wall have been found, some in the randomest places. Here is how you can find them:

Probably the best-preserved segment is in the park of Emir Mohamed I behind the Almudena Cathedral. Also the location of the annual summer music festival in Madrid.

Every 60 feet along the wall there was a watchtower, one of which can be discovered in a relatively new parking garage under the Plaza de Oriente. You can either take the stairs into the garage or the glass-walled elevator. It’s the oddest discovery in an unpleasant space filled with cars and smelling of paint, to witness one of the ancient archaeological treasures of Madrid. Apparently it is the only remnant that was saved from destruction when the garage was built, thanks to objections from people of Madrid.

The next two portions of the wall take a little more work to find. They are on Calle de la Cava Baja 10 and 30, both in the ground floor area of residential buildings.

Here’s the thing: you have to be buzzed in by one of the tenants in order to see the sites. Kind of a challenge, but it just adds to the adventure. Luckily someone was coming out of both locations just as we were approaching, so with a swift explanation the tenants agreed to let us pass.

Passing through a nondescript hallway leads you to the open stairwell area with a towering portion of the wall. This is also the moment that Dean accidentally broke off a piece of the wall, which proceeded to crumble into a million pieces.

This is the view from Cava Baja 10. I wonder what it feels like to live in a building with remnants of a wall that’s over 1,000 years old. Then walking outside onto one of the most bustling streets in Madrid. Cava Baja is very famous for the tapas crawl, “ir de tapas”, when Madrileños wander from bar to bar ordering small plates of food and cañas (small beers), because each tapas bar has its own delicious specialty. I’m waiting for a local to lead us on this tradition because the idea of squeezing into the crowded bars and having no idea how to order is terrifying.

Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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