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Madrid guide
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Last updated : Nov 2009
Madrid Travel Guide
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According to the Arab chroniclers, it was in AD 852 that the Emir of Córdoba, Mohamed I (AD 852–886), ordered a fortress to be built on the left bank of the Manzanares River, the geographical centre of the Iberian Peninsula. He named the settlement ‘Mayrit’ and in it lay the seeds of the city now known as Madrid. Traces of this flourishing Moorish town survive to this day, in a section of town wall, muralla Arabe, near the Royal Palace, as well as in the mudéjar architectural style of Madrid’s oldest church, San Nicolás de las Servitas.

Mayrit (or Magerit) was situated in a strategically important location and Christians and Arabs fought bitterly over the territory up until late in the 11th century, when Alfonso VI finally settled matters by capturing the Alcázar after a 3 year siege. However, it would be another 500 years before Philip II took the historic decision, in 1561, to move his capital from Valladolid to Madrid.

Today, Madrid remains Spain’s financial and political core, home to the Cortes (Parliament), Senate and Royal Family, as well as the extraordinary cultural riches of the Golden Triangle, the Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza art museums.

With a population of just under three million, Madrid is Europe’s fourth largest city, after London, Paris and Milan, and its highest capital, at 650m (2132ft) above sea level. The repression and torpor of the Franco era during 1939 until 1975 are now all but forgotten by Madrileños who, perhaps more than any other Spaniards, are determined to vivir a tope (live life to the full). The craving for conspicuous enjoyment, not to mention the 2800 hours of annual sunshine, turn the streets into bustling centres of public display.

Madrid’s infectious and colourful fiestas punctuate the year, with each barrio (district) trying to outdo the other in its celebrations. The highlights include Reyes Magos (Feast of the Three Kings), Carnival, the religious processions of Holy Week, the San Isidro festival in May (the beginning of the bullfighting season) and Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve), when the Puerta del Sol becomes the focal point during several hours of uninhibited partying.

Visitors should also look out for some of the major cultural festivals, notably the Veranos de la Villa in summer and the autumn Festival de Otoño, embracing film, theatre, dance and music of every description. Although Madrid’s climate is more extreme than other Spanish locations, the warm dry summers and cool winters still allow for many alfresco activities.

Although anxious to appear ‘modern’ in clothes, outlook and lifestyle, Madrileños are fiercely traditional, clinging to their customs more noticeably than their cosmopolitan Barcelonese rivals do. Most choose to live at home until marriage, divorce remains controversial (particularly in high society) and the family surpasses everything.

While the Comunidad de Madrid (Madrid Province) stretches over 8000sq km (3090sq miles), the city’s historic heart is easily explored on foot. The narrow, labyrinthine streets of the medieval quarter contrast with the grand boulevards, laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries, the period when Madrid began to take on the trappings of a modern capital. Each barrio (district) has its own distinctive atmosphere, Lavapiés, Malasaña and Chueca being the oldest and most interesting.

Many visitors first get to know the central area, known as the Madrid of the Austrias (a reference to the Hapsburg era), situated roughly between the Palacio Real and the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s ‘mile zero’. It is only a short walk from here to the city’s main street, the Gran Vía, lined with shops, banks, offices, cinemas and bars.

Fashionable Madrid starts with the Salamanca district and the boutiques of Calle Serrano, while the modern business quarter extends along the north–south axis, known as the Paseo de la Castellana. Distinguished by its skyscrapers and impressive office blocks, this is where the multinationals have their headquarters.

At the far northern end of the Paseo de la Castellana are the ‘leaning towers’ of the Puerta de Europa (Gateway of Europe), a daring display of architecture symbolising the city’s confidence in its future. Indeed, Madrid has already launched its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, which would not only win the city some desirable developments and revenue but also award Madrid the status of one of the world’s major players.
Useful travel links
Madrid Tourist Board Official website for Madrid Tourism