After completing a fabulous UK vacation, we moved onto a thorough exploration of Spain. We visited Barcelona, Malaga, Valencia, Seville and Madrid. I think out of all of them, Madrid was our favourite. Madrid was little more than a farming town on the arid central plains of Castile when Felipe II plucked it from his royal cap in 1561 and proclaimed it home to the Spanish Court. Ever since then man-made Madrid, which took the reins of Spain’s Golden Age, hasn’t stopped growing and asserting itself. Though one of Europe’s youngest capitals, it’s had time and the ambition to rival Spain’s more historic cities, including Seville and Valencia. Today it is Spain’s political and economic hub. Only Barcelona matches its metropolitan importance.
Behind Felipe II’s royal decree lay a clear logic: Madrid, smack in the centre of Iberia, would promote the monarchy’s authority over regional power bases in a newly unified Spain. Today, Madrid is that cohesive centre and more. It is a city to which people have migrated from all over Spain in search of new opportunities; a place where few people claim deep roots.
Yet at the centre of the modern metropolis, a region of just over 6 million people, its medieval heart lies almost untouched, the alleyways silent at night. For while Spain has leaped forward economically since the 1970s, Madrid is no less characteristically Iberian for that and revels in its traditional way of life. Once, its immigrants were from the Spanish countryside. Today, its newcomers more often come from Latin America and Eastern Europe, but their new customs and fiestas are equally absorbed into the local pattern of life.
‘De Madrid al cielo’ is a popular saying, which means ‘From Madrid, one step to heaven.’ As western Europe’s highest capital, Madrid boasts spectacular sierra skies and autumn sunsets, captured by Velázquez in his paintings.
Other regions of Spain, such as Catalonia and the Basque country, are more proudly independent in their traditions. Barcelona, Granada and older Castilian court cities possess greater architecture. Many smaller Spanish cities have finer historic quarters. But Madrileños don’t begrudge those places anything. Their city may be a planned bureaucrat’s town, but its buzzing quality of life keeps Madrid just one rung down from heaven, or so the local saying goes – and many Madrileños believe it.
In recent years the city has nurtured Spain’s most sophisticated cultural life: opera, theatre, zarzuela (a form of light comic opera), contemporary dance, jazz and rock, film, circus and graffiti. All have found new audiences here, as has flamenco, Spain’s most unique art form.
But Madrid’s single greatest cultural draw remains its cluster of superb art museums. On the grand Paseo del Prado are three of Europe’s finest: the world-class Museo Nacional del Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, currently home to Pablo Picasso’s monumental painting, Guernica. Madrid’s collection of Spanish Old Masters – Velázquez, El Greco, Goya, Zurbarán and more – is unrivalled.
Gregarious at heart, Madrileños are night creatures, hopping in and out of tabernas (cave-like taverns), restaurants and bars for tapas, Spanish wine and animated conversation until the early hours. The movida of the early 1980s, a spontaneous burst of creative nightlife, has given Madrid a name it works hard to maintain. Nightlife still starts and goes on late – very late– with after-hours clubs and bar-hoppers.