Madrid is the vivacious, teeming, always beating heart of Spain. Long stifled under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, Madrid Spain has enjoyed a rebirth of political and social freedom during the last quarter century not witnessed since the Spanish capital's golden age in the sixteenth century.
Contemporary Madrid is a sprawling, modern city with a population of three million. While the suburban areas are awash in uniform, concrete apartment buildings, the city center of Madrid Spain is a delightful mix of narrow alleyways, gourmet restaurants, and world famous modern art and Renaissance museums. Everyone arrives in the capital with varied pictures of Madrid Spain in their mind, yet the city always shows you something new, something you missed or hadn't expected.
Compared to Barcelona, and the historic cities of the south, Madrid offers fewer architectural sightseeing opportunities. However, the dearth of architecture is more than compensated for by the world famous museums that are the chief cultural attractions in Madrid. Your Madrid Spain travel plans should include amply time to explore the city"s museums. Though Madrid Spain has nearly two-dozen museums that are worth a look, tourists with a week or less should concentrate on the city"s big three: the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza.
El Museo del Prado was originally commissioned as a museum of natural science. Instead of scientific enlightenment, the Prado is today a showcase of artistic achievement. Even avowed museum-a-phobes should spend a day appreciating the works of Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, Bosch, Titian and Botticelli.
But if these past masters leave you yawning, check out the collection of modern art at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. This converted hospital focuses its collection on three of Spain's greatest modern masters—Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Joan Miro, as well as other Spanish artists. The museum"s showpiece is Picasso's Guernica, which depicts the horrors of the Nazi fire-bombing of the Basque town, Gernika, during the Spanish Civil War.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza is among the newest art center attractions in Madrid. The museum occupies the eighteenth-century Villahermosa Palace on the Paseo del Prado. An ambitious undertaking, the Thyssen-Bornemisza traces the development of western art from thirteenth-century Italian Gothic to twentieth-century Pop art.
One of the bloodiest and most breathtaking art forms in Madrid is the bullfight, or corrida de toros. It is important to remember that the bullfight is not a sport, but an artistic spectacle with a tragic ending. Nowhere in the world is bullfighting better than at Madrid's Las Ventas Arena in the Salamanca district. The corrida takes place every Sunday afternoon from April to November.
But more than bullfighting and masterpieces of art, it is the madrilenos (locals) themselves that overshadow all the other attractions in Madrid. Like New Yorkers, or Parisians, madrilenos are an exuberant passionate people. And from the nightclubs to the universities, the bullring to sidewalk cafes, there is a feeling that Madrid really is the center of it all.
Top image: Edgardo W. Olivera (flickr)