The Bear of Madrid

One of the first things we read about Madrid in our guidebook was that there was a statue of a bear in Puerta del Sol. When I looked at the map of Madrid, I knew I would cross this vast square multiple times. So we never looked for the statue, we just came across it. It is hard to miss, with the number of tourists standing around taking selfies. We had to stand in a queue to take our selfie.

Why a bear? The origins of this symbol are as obscure as the name of the city. All that we know today is that as early as 1212 CE, the soldiers of Madrid fought under a banner which showed a bear with the symbol of the constellation of the big dipper on it. Ten years later, a strawberry tree had been added to the coat of arms of Madrid, to assert the city’s ownership of forests around it.

Since I’d only seen wild strawberries growing on the ground before, it was a personal discovery that strawberries grow on trees, which may be too high for children to reach. It was also a bit of a stretch of the mind to imagine that strawberries grew around Madrid. The scorching heat that dogged our days in Madrid must then give way to cooler winters.

The statue in Puerta del Sol was unveiled as late as in 1967. The bronze and stone work is by the Spanish sculptor Antonio Navarro Santafe, who specialized in animal figures, and whose fame seems to rest mainly on two public sculptures of bears he made. Both can be seen in Madrid, Oso y El Madrono (Bear and Strawberry Tree) in Puerta del Sol, the other in the Parque de Berlin. It seems that he modelled both after a bear caught near Madrid and imprisoned in the zoo in the park of El Retiro in Madrid. I also found it interesting that Navarro Santafe renders the foliage with much less detail than the bear. On the other hand, my photos of real bears do not show the rippling muscles that this one has.

As you can see in the featured photo, Madrilenos never stop working on the statue. Apparently it was moved around inside the Puerta del Sol while it was being remodelled a few years ago. I took the photo as the square was being spruced up during the Madrid Pride events of 2017. In its unsmiling way, Madrid is quite a welcoming city.