At the center of Madrid’s radial road network lies one of the busiest places in the city – Puerta del Sol. The plaza in the heart of Madrid is one of the most symbolic places, visited not only by tourists but also by protesters, who famously flooded the square with tens of thousands of anti-austerity youths in May of 2011. But at the east end of the Puerta del Sol there is a tribute to another famous symbol of the city – the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree.
Keen eyes will recognize the figures from other parts of the city. El Oso y el Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree) is the official city crest of Madrid, and can be seen on everything from manholes to the logo for one of Madrid’s two football clubs, Atlético de Madrid. However ubiquitous the symbol may be, the two articles it displays are conspicuously absent from the city itself: neither bears nor strawberry trees are commonplace anywhere in the capital province. Just how did this become the centerpiece of the Madrilenian cityscape?
The origin of the Bear and the Strawberry tree
The bear has been a part of Madrid’s coat of arms since at least 1212, when troops from Madrid were first recorded in history as carrying a flag showing a bear with the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major, or larger bear in Latin (also known as the Big Dipper in North America). This may come from Ursalia, the name given to Madrid during the Roman period, or it may simply have been a reference to the bears that were common in the surrounding woods at the time. These bears have long been driven out of the area, if not completely eliminated.
As for the strawberry tree (Madroño), it was added to the seal in 1222, when a dispute between the church and the city council was resolved by King Alfonso VIII. Both parties laid claim to the forests and fields in the area, which were a vital resource. The king decided that the trees and land would belong to the city, while the animals would belong to the church. That way both groups are responsible for the upkeep of the area. Satisfied with the ruling, the city immediately altered its crest to include a tree. The bear was also changed to a standing position, the same composition as today.
Are madroños the same as strawberries?
Strawberry trees are no longer common around Madrid, and their fruit is different than the garden strawberries found in grocery stores. Madroños (the fruit of the strawberry tree) are small, round, red berries, and taste similar to figs. They are used for jams and beverages, as well as a liqueur by the same name. In fact, the mature fruit contains some alcohol, and ingestion can cause intoxication. Perhaps that explains the tree’s popularity among medieval Madrileños.
Nowadays el Oso y el Madroño are a well established emblem of the city. The seven stars of the Ursa Major are also found on the flag of the Community of Madrid, and also represent the seven administrative areas of the city. This image welcomes and bids farewell to travelers on Madrid’s many highways, a subtle nod to the history of the metropolis.
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