As we rode into Madrid one of the first things we saw was a gigantic banner hanging from City Hall simply stating “Refugees Welcome”. It was a heartwarming yet sober reminder of the Syrian crisis on the forefront of the international arena, that is currently dividing countries, politics and people. While historically Spain does not have an inviting refugee policy, current pressure from the public and local governments has helped change the views of the usually conservative Spanish administration, who indicated that it would accept the requested refugee quota of 15,000 by the European Commission. It is an appropriate gesture of how to face a humanitarian crisis with exactly how it needs to be addressed – with humanity.
Madrid, the capital of a country that wears its heart on its sleeve, epitomizes an infectious passion for life. The city overflows with joy, enthusiasm and richness for the living of every day to the fullest. Not only that, Madrid is also rich in artistic culture, tradition, opulence and grandeur, from the Grand Via to the Museo del Prado, the Almudena Cathedral to the Royal Palace, all within walking distance of each other.
We stumbled across Madrid’s Naval Museum, which turned out to be a really interesting few hours. The Spanish Navy was one of the most formidable in the world, defending a vast trade network across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between the Americas, Europe and Asia, the most famous of voyages being that of Christopher Columbus. Madrid’s Naval Museum is one of the best in the world, with twenty-four rooms chronologically ranked from the 15th Century and the time of the Catholic monarchs, right up until present day cutting-edge maritime advances, with original maps, paintings and massive replicas of war ships. Admission is free.
We were also lucky enough to be in town to witness Madrid’s annual migration procession. This procession celebrates and defends shepherd’s rights to use ancient grazing routes for seasonal livestock migrations from the cool mountainous North of Spain to the warmer flat pastures in the South, allowing the animals to feed throughout the winter whilst the pastures are covered in snow. The movement is called transhumance and in Spain it involves around a million animals, mostly sheep and cattle.
Every year shepherds drive a flock of about 2,000 sheep through the main streets of Madrid, a symbolic nod to seasonal livestock migration routes that existed well before modern-day Madrid, whose urban sprawl is in the way of two north-south routes, one dating back to 1372. A traditional toll of 25 maravedis is paid by the chief herdsman outside the front of City Hall, for the flock to pass through.
The flock is surrounded by well wishers, traditionally dressed in Spanish rural attire, accompanied by musicians, dancers, and sheep dogs. The air is filled with the sound of clanking bells which are tied around the sheep’s necks, castanets, clapping and traditional song. The sheep themselves are actually quiet, possibly wanting the whole thing over and done with so they can get back to the fields.
Major landmarks and avenues are blocked off from traffic for this procession, but Madrid has the procedures down to a fine art. Within a few minutes the sheep have moved on, leaving nothing left but a few muddy hoof prints and small calling cards of the animal variety. To be quickly and efficiently followed by the annual migration of the city cleaning crew.