Los Toros de Guisando

One of the carved bulls outside San Mart ín, Spain - a precursor of the modern bullfight. (JAMES FLINT)

One of the carved bulls outside San Martín, Spain - a precursor of the modern bullfight. (JAMES FLINT)

Madrid - fantastic nightlife, wonderful food, mind-blowing museums, all this is a given. But it's hard to spend any length of time in the city - or in any part of modern Spain - without confronting the fact that contemporary Spanish life seems such an extraordinary living testiment to the many cultures that have washed through the Iberian peninsula over the last two or three millennia. Perhaps the most apparent of these is the blend of Moorish and Christian culture that largely shaped modern Spain, writ large in the architectures of nearby tourist towns like Toledo. But it's possible to trace Spanish cultural influences back much further than that - and if you're in Madrid with an afternoon to spare, there's a very pleasant and little known way of doing just that.

At the side of a quiet country road just outside the village of San Martín de Valdeiglesias, itself an hour or so on the bus from Madrid's Estación Sur, stand four stone bulls, Los Toros de Guisando, beaten by the weather into soft rounded shapes, heads bent low by time. Carved and placed here over two thousand years ago, these bulls are in fact among the oldest surviving monuments anywhere in Spain.

Unfortunately, nobody quite knows who built them. They date from at least the 2nd century BC when the region was occupied by a Celtic people, the Vetton, who had arrived from Northern Europe around 700 BC. Originally a warlike, nomadic crew, the Vetton must have liked the Alberche Valley because they settled here and even started to interbreed with indigenous groups like the Carpetan, whose lands lay to the immediate south.

When the Romans invaded under the command of the famous General Scipio Africanus in 218 BC the Vetton - who had in the meantime become a tribe of stock raisers and cereal growers - rediscovered their violent roots and retreated to their fortified hill settlements - or 'castros' - from where they put up a strong resistance. Legend has it (there's always a legend) that on Scipio's death the Vetton rose up in such great numbers that a special force had to be despatched from Rome under the command of one Captain Guisando, who in 133 BC razed the Celtiberian stronghold of Numancia to the ground and commemorated his victory over by ordering the four stone bulls to be carved.

Whether this is true or not is moot: similar statues of bulls and pigs have been found in the region, and it seems likely that like these Los Toros were linked to Vetton religious practices concerning the animals which, by dint of their ability to be domesticated, had enabled them to give up their nomad wanderings and start a proto-urban civilisation. But either way, once defeated the Celtiberians took fairly readily to the Pax Romana and it's accompanying Romanised lifestyle, and Numancia was soon rebuilt with straight streets, a forum, baths and an ampitheatre for bloodsports.

At some point during this later period, someone carved a cryptic piece of Latin graffiti into the first of the stone bulls. Although it's meaning has been lost, the echos of this little piece of historial trivia can, incredibly, still be heard today. For on your return to Madrid if you get yourself over to the Plaza de las Ventas and buy a ticket to the bullfight, you'll get see the living remains of that strange splicing of Celtiberian bull worship with the ceremony and circus of Roman colosseum culture, 2133 years ago. 

- Timeout Magazine, August 1999