With all eyes on Spain, I assess Madrid’s City Break Credentials.
It’s certainly been an eventful 24 hours in Spanish history! No sooner had King Juan Carlos signed the official papers seeing him abdicate his throne after a 39-year reign, Spain’s national football squad were rather unceremoniously dumped out of the World Cup after back-to-back defeats, the first massive upset of the competition so far, especially when you consider they were defending champions! So as King Felipe VI ascends to become the new Spanish monarch and the streets of Madrid swell with those seeking a glimpse of their new king, I take a look at the many attractions of the Spanish capital – a thoroughly appealing destination for a short break.
The city of Madrid became Spain’s capital city during the Habsburg era in 1561, when Felipe II moved the seat of government to the geographic centre of Iberia, from where he could receive the fastest communications from each corner of the nation. Today, Madrid is a modern, vibrant city where its historic centre houses atmospheric Bourbon squares, hidden, narrow alleyways and impressive medieval buildings.
Exploring the city is easy, thanks to the concentration of tourist must-sees within the relatively compact area between the Palacio Real and the Parque del Buen Retiro. The Puerta del Sol marks the very epicentre of Madrid and it is from here, a popular meeting point and shopping centre, that all distances are measured. Highlights include the Casa de Correos, a beautiful 18th-century building once the city’s post office but later the HQ of Franco’s secret police. You’ll also find a bronze statue of Madrid’s official symbol, a bear eating the fruit from a strawberry tree.
Head along the Calle Mayor and you’ll arrive at Madrid’s most important landmark, the Plaza Mayor, the public meeting place of the city and home to a continuous sweep of arcaded buildings in which kings were crowned, bulls were fought and executions took place but where today, it plays host to cafés, restaurants, markets and festivals.
Continue west along the Calle Mayor and you’ll reach the striking Royal Palace, from where the newly-crowned king and his family today greeted his subjects. With 2,800 rooms, it holds the title of being the largest palace in Europe and plays host to one of the world’s largest collections of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores, in addition to an impressive armoury. Next to the Palace lies the Plaza de Oriente, lined with over 40 statues of past royalty and formerly the meeting point of General Franco and his supporters. You’ll also find here Madrid’s opera house, the Teatro Real, whilst for beautiful sunset views, visit the adjacent Jardin Cabo Naval.
Head east from the Puerta del Sol and you’ll soon find yourself in the artistic heart of Madrid, with the city’s principal three art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia – all lying along the Paseo del Prado. The Prado is famed as Madrid’s premier tourist attraction and houses one of the oldest – and greatest – art collections in the world, particularly its Flemish and Spanish collections. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is best known as the home of Picasso’s Guernica, but also houses works by other well-known Spanish favourites including Dalí and Miró. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza meanwhile contains an impressive ensemble of art dating from the Renaissance all the way through to modern 20th-century art genres.
Just a stone’s throw from the Prado, Buen Retiro Park is unquestionably Madrid’s most popular public garden. Centred round the majestic Alfonso XII monument, in turn overlooking a lake replete with rowing boats, the park blends formal French-style gardens with natural landscapes and comes to life at weekends when madrileños and tourists alike flock together to enjoy its many façades. Highlights include its stunning glass palace, the Palacio de Cristal; a Rose Garden complete with its statue of Satan, The Fallen Angel; and a carved mural of Dantés Inferno.