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Spanish people will tell you that while the rest of the world lives to work, the people of Spain work to live. Nowhere is that more evident than in the capital. If you could only visit one city in Spain, then Madrid would have to be the place, for it is here that all the country comes together in a wonderfully diverse mixture of excitement and pleasure. Its unrivaled number of bars, cafés, discos, restaurants, and live music venues, combined with the typically Spanish manner to enjoy them, makes this the place to come for unbridled fun. Above all, and it will become clear after little time, Madrid’s main attraction are the Madrileños themselves with their freespirit and love of life. Although historically not in a league with Paris, Rome or even Barcelona for sights per se, there is still plenty to keep you busy intellectually, with the Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen Bornemizsa museums ranking as some of the best in Europe. Recently completed restorations have now given the city a brilliant shine.

Sol – The heart of it all! Puerta del Sol is where you should start your tour of Madrid. Expect to find hustle and bustle, meeting points, traffic terminals, noise, shops, news stands, as well as wonderful 19th-century buildings, cafés, bars, restaurants and people moving about. From this point your feet can take you anywhere. Head up Calle Mayor and find Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Villa as well as the old historic district. Take Calle Arenal and visit the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and Teatro Real (Opera House). Go up the opposite Carrera de San Jerónimo and you will find the Prado or stroll down Alcalá to take in the grand bank buildings and Retiro Park.

Castellana– Very much the backbone of Madrid and much more than a wide, tree-lined street, this boulevard is so long that it has three official names. Come to relax, take a coffee break or sightsee. Starting from the Atocha train station, stroll up shady Paseo del Prado and take in two of Madrid’s most famous art museums: the Prado and the Thyssen Bornemisza. Also in the area is the Real Jardín Botánico (Royal Botanical Gardens), which features numerous exotic plant species. Continue up until you reach the Plaza de Cibeles where you will encounter the grand, Palacio de Telecomunicaciones which looks slightly like an ornate wedding cake and dwarfs the ornate Goddess Cibeles fountain in front of it.

Suddenly, the stretch turns into Paseo de Recoletos. A great place to take a relaxing stroll or, better still, stop into the Café Gijón for a café con leche (white coffee) over intellectual debate. There are frequent book and craft fairs along this part of the Castellana so check the local listings for times and dates. Continuing up, you will pass the massive square and monument to Columbus and the Bibilioteca Nacional (National Library). At this point, the street officially becomes the Paseo de la Castellana and is busy with the hustle and bustle of traffic. This section of the avenue features Real Madrid’s home, the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and various banks.

Gran Vía – This is yet another long avenue with a character that totally contradicts Castellana’s: very busy and noisy, with swarms of locals and tourists as the traffic buzzes by. Look up and admire all the eccentric 20th-century architecture vying for your attention. Built during the Franco era, you will find every style represented, from Neo-baroque to Art Deco. As you follow the Gran Vía all the way from Calle Alcalá to Plaza de España, take note of the grand old movie houses, some of the last of their breed which continue hiring artists to paint original movie posters and with only one giant screen. Other buildings to watch out for are the elegantly domed Edificio Metrópolis at the Alcalá intersection, and the monstrous Telefónica building halfway down.

Madrid de los Austrias – This is old historic Madrid. It’s a great place to just walk around in and lose yourself amongst the cobbled winding alleys, iron balconies and leaning old buildings. It’s easy to imagine you’re back in 18th century setting about to visit the King, especially at night when the street lamps give the place an even more romantic feel. Named after the Austrian Hapsburgs, this zone is also an elegant place to enjoy dinner or a drink. Within this neighborhood, visit the Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, the Opera House, great Basque restaurants and elegant cafés.

La Latina (The Rastro) – Just next to Madrid de los Austrias, this old district is notable for its huge array of bars, cafés and restaurants and Spain’s largest flea market, the Rastro. Every Sunday morning until the early afternoon, you will find vendors selling everything from gracious antiques to old junk.

Retiro Park – Escape the city in this huge, lush, green Parque del Buen Retiro (Good Retreat Park). Do what the Madrileños do: Buy a bag of sunflower seeds or fried corn kernels, or kikos, dress up in your Sunday best and stroll down the long paseo (promenade) in front of the beautiful pond overlooked by a statue of Alfonso XII. On sunny days, you can rent a rowboat (watch out for the pesky splashers!), or you can enjoy one of the numerous magicians, folk musicians, Michael Jackson wannabes dancing away and poets (who will reject any donations under 50 pesetas!) performing on the promenade. The best way to enter this park is off of Calle Alcalá as you pass by the monumental 19th century Puerta de Alcalá. Watch your bags if you enter by the metro station, or if leaving at night. Right outside the boundaries of the park is elegant Salamanca, which features several up-scale boutiques and art galleries.

Moncloa and Argüelles – Nightlife, nightlife and more nightlife! This zone is dominated with great bars and tapas joints that don’t even open until 9pm or later. A student enclave, come prepared to encounter a lot of enthusiasm.

Huertas and Plaza Santa Ana – This is yet another great spot for cafés, bars and nightlife action. It is centred around Plaza de Santa Ana. Located close to Madrid de los Austrias, this is also the place to go to see live music. The crowds here are 20 to 30-somethings. Here you will also find typical bars like Viva Madrid and Los Gabrieles, decorated in beautiful tiles and serving great cocktails and sangría. Or go to the traditional Cervecería Alemana for crowds, beer and tapas. Café Central is another perfect stop for coffee during the day or live jazz at night.

Malasaña and Chueca – This is a fairly quiet area during the day, with winding streets and 19th century architecture. At night it transforms itself into the perfect ‘wild night on the town.’ Young and old alike mix in a strong concentration of bars, discos and cafes. Malasaña is dominated by Plaza Dos de Mayo, while Chueca is the epicenter for the city’s gay population. Discos like Black & White are great places to meet people while dancing or taking in a drag show!

History of Madrid

How did this generally insignificant military outpost become the capital of the world’s largest and most powerful empire? Central location played a part, but the sole whim of one king laid the foundation of Madrid’s history, which basically parallels that of Spain itself.

Historians have attempted to trace Madrid’s origins back to the Roman era, but no real significant evidence exists. Although believed to have descended from a Roman town named Mantua Carpetana, more archeological relics have been found to support the fact that a continuous civilization has existed in this area as long as any in Europe (though apparently with no or little Roman ancestry). Many of these artifacts and other prehistoric treasures can now be found at the Museo Nacional Arqueológico.

As obscure as Madrid’s origins may seem, however, it is probably safe to say they can be definitely traced back to the Moors. By around the middle of the 9th century, Mayrit, as Madrid was then called, served as an important military outpost, positioned to keep a watchful eye as the Christians attempted to reclaim Iberia. Perfect for this role, a castle was positioned atop the rock where the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) now stands, commanding a strategic view of the main pass leading down from the Guadarrama mountains. A part of the original castle’s foundation have been recently excavated next to the palace. You can still see, however, the last remaining bit of the old Moorish walls that once surrounded the city, just below Almudena Cathedral.

Christian forces unsuccessfully attacked Mayrit around 932 and then again in 1047, as it served as a launching pad for expansion into the north. It wasn’t until 1086, however, that Alfonso VI was able to capture Madrid along with Toledo. For decades, the city (still a village) was constantly beseiged and under attack. Campo del Moro (Moor’s Field), found just beneath the Royal Palace, for example, was so-named after one particular episode where the Moors camped out below in their attempt to recapture Madrid.

By the late 13th century, it was just another medieval village with a population of under 4,000 inhabitants. What remains from this epoch are the San Nicolás de los Servitas and San Pedro el Viejo churches, both found near the Plaza de la Villa, along with a handful of other buildings in Old Madrid.

The Royal Court and a New Capital
Madrid’s royal stock began to rise by the 14th century, and the city would eventually become the seat of the Royal Court. Although social unrest dogged the monarchy, they looked to the growing city as a prestigious retreat. By the 15th century, Madrid had become a center for trade and finance, and it was around this time that the original sites for the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor began to take shape. At this point, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by Isabel and Fernando, and a period of relative political stability began. This was also the time of the ‘discovery’ of the New World by Columbus and of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Madrid would finally be declared capital of the Spanish Empire in 1561. Madrid’s population was then about 15,000-strong.

In the year 1700, Felipe V was crowned king. The city had been completely forgotten about and nothing had been reformed since the reign of Felipe IV, leaving Madrid in a generally bad state. This made it even more comparable with Versailles, from where Felipe V actually hailed. During his rule many buildings and monuments were built, and impressive engineering projects undertaken, such as walling off the Manzanares river (to make it look “grander”). The Marquis de Vadillo together with the architects Teodoro Ardeman and Pedro Ribera were in charge of this last project. These three men are also responsible for many of the baroque masterpieces built in Madrid under the Bourbons. A few outstanding works include the Puente de Toledo bridge, the San Fernando Hospital and the Monte de Piedad building, amongst others.

Even after all these changes, the Bourbon monarchs remained dissatisfied and sought to create even more. The now-destroyed Alcazar did not convince them, given that it only reminded them of the previous dynasty. As a result, they decided to move their residence to the Granja de San Ildefonso, a new palace which was to be constructed according to Franciscan canons.

In 1759, Carlos III was crowned. He would later be considered the best mayor Madrid had ever had. He not only completed La Granja, but also undertook to completely remodel Madrid. This is how the Prado Salon was born. This area stretches from Plaza de Cibeles to Atocha station. Other monuments include Neptune’s Fountain and the grand Puerta de Alcalá.

19th-century Decline and Restoration
This period can be divided into two parts, the first being one of general decadence. This period began with the French invasion and Joseph Bonaparte’s ‘destructive’ policy. He commanded that the churches and buildings he regarded to house a threat to France be demolished. This only gave Madrid a more desolate air. However, when Fernando VII took over the throne, everything was returned to the Church, and the reconstruction of all that was lost during the Wars of Independence began.

Between this first period and second era, Queen Isabel II was in power. This period doesn’t exactly fit into either of the other two. Nevertheless, two important developments occurred at this time: the creation of the Isabel II Canal and the arrival of the railway.

During the second period, Madrid slowly regained its lost urban splendour. The growth of the bourgeoisie resulted in the construction of some smaller palaces. Two beautiful examples from this period are the Palacio de Linares and the Palacio de Gaviria. An urbanisation project, known as the Castro Plan, was also undertaken. Madrid was growing and soon new neighbourhoods appeared outside the old town. Chamberí, Argüelles and Salamanca are three. The latter had a particularly important impact on life in the city, as only those of a certain status were permitted to move here.

The Republic
Madrid closed out the 19th century with the same feeling of defeat felt by the rest of Spain over the loss of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, the last remaining colonies of the Spanish Empire. In 1902, Alfonso XIII was crowned king and a new period of parliamentary monarchy began which would have to deal with the economic and political crisis inherited from that disastrous year, 1898. Meanwhile, the Modernist movement barely penetrated deep down into the social-cultural divides within the country. In Madrid in fact, the only building representative of this movement is the Palacio de Longoria, currently the headquarters of the Sociedad General de Autores, and a good example of the changes taking place architecturally at the turn of the century. Only one urban redesigning plan was under way in Madrid, adding excitement to the general monotony of the times: the Ciudad Lineal (Linear City) as envisioned by engineer Arturo Soria. It was a modern and unique concept, breaking with tradition and which helped keep the city busy well into the new century.

Besides Ciudad Lineal, which was begun in the 1890s, the most distinguishing event in this early part of the century was the construction of the Gran Vía, from Alcalá street to the Red de San Luis, the network of streets which end on Montera street. Architects from different countries and architectural schools set up shop in Madrid and got down to work, achieving the elegant result we can see today.

During General Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923-1930), construction on the university campus, Ciudad Universitaria, was begun. Plans for this campus dated originally from Alfonso XIII’s time and were based on the prototypes being built in Europe and the United States at the time.

In April, 1931, the people of Madrid celebrated the victory of the Republicans in the elections held after Primo de Rivera stepped down from power. The capital’s streets were overflowing with people, especially in the symbolic and central Puerta del Sol, a gathering point for thousands of Republicans celebrating the Declaration of the Second Republic.

The Civil War
Change, however, was not readily accepted by the Spain of those days. This was a period when liberal and conservative governments changed hands fast, without guaranteeing the stability long sought after. Eventually, the enormous divide separating one and the other side led to the bloody civil war which began on July 18, 1936 after Francisco Franco’s coup d’état against the Republic. The war dragged on until April 1, 1939, when the area controlled by the Republican forces, after years of agony, had been reduced to the centre and southeast of the peninsula. After Franco’s forces seized Madrid at the end of March, they knew they had won the war.

During the 3 long years of the war, Madrid had been under constant siege. The streets were battlefronts. One of the neighbourhoods in the capital most punished by the invading forces was the area leading from where Plaza de España is today, along Princesa and Rosales streets up to Parque del Oeste, then the outskirts of the city. In the city centre, the situation was very different. In 1937, the Republicans, aware of the danger the city faced, had the symbol of the city, the Cibeles statue, covered and protected against enemy guns. Photographs from that period are incredible: the Puerta de Alcalá without the Torre de Valencia behind it and Cibeles just a mound as it was protected by bricks and sandbags against obus missile attacks. The end would, in this case, justify the means. The Neptune fountain on Paseo del Prado, in front of the Hotel Ritz, was also ‘buried’, while the Plaza Mayor and the façade of the municipal museum were also protected. Unfortunately, the Republicans, cement barricades and their cries of No pasarán (They shall not pass) could not stop the advance of the Nationalist forces.

The 50s and 60s
After the war, reconstruction of Madrid followed the guidelines set out in the General Plan for the Organisation of Madrid. The Gran Vía was finished and the massive influx of immigrants from other areas of the country -even poorer than Madrid- began to give shape to the immense city which Madrid would become in little time.

In the 60s, entire new neighbourhoods were built on the outskirts (spreading out further and further into the plains) and the economy began to grow as a result. All the while, speculation became a habit within the construction sector. One example of this was the terrible transformation taking place along the Paseo de la Castellana. Many palatial mansions were demolished to make way for taller and more modern buildings in line with the times, the constructors chosing to ignore the historical value of the buildings being destroyed.

Madrid slowly woke up from the post-war period and undertook an urban plan to try and repair a lot of the buildings affected by the war. Since 1975, Madrid’s ‘skyline’ has been through many changes. The Gran Vía is no longer the elegant avenue it once was, but a great commercial and busy street. The Paseo de la Castellana, once the residence of the wealthiest bourgeoisie in the city, has been taken over largely by banks and embassies on both sides. However, areas like Chueca, which had been completely neglected by the local authorities and taken over by drug dealers and junkies, have now completely changed. Thanks to the gay community, for example, Chueca is perhaps one of the liveliest and vanguard neighbourhoods in the city today.

Several other major construction projects have also been carried out, including the Picasso and KIO Towers in more recent years. As well as the fantastic expansion of the Madrid metro system (it has to be said!), numerous building façades have been redone and the number of green areas in the city has increased (parks, trees on almost all streets, fountains). The KIO Towers, however, are the true representative of modernity in Madrid and its openness to new change (while not to everyone’s aesthetic liking). They represent the single most important event in Spain in the last few years: Entering the European Union and the Euro zone. That’s why these leaning towers are also known as the Puerta de Europa (Gateway to Europe), a medieval name for a modern outlook.