There's something about Madrid that's not quite right. Capital cities are built on huge great rivers, in estuaries, on the coast, or alongside particularly fertile land or prosperous mining. But not Madrid. Madrid doesn't make sense. Its river, the Manzanares, is frankly rubbish and nothing grows round here – except for tower blocks.
Stuck on the barren Castilian plain, landlocked miles from the sea (miles from anywhere, in fact), Madrid is Spain's capital because, well, because it's in the middle. It's the capital on a monarch's whim, imposed on the whole of the peninsula by Philip II's arbitrary decision in 1561. Since then everyone else has had to suffer, Madrileños included. Madrid, so the saying goes, has "nine months of winter and three months of hell."
That's not quite true, but they have a point. Due to the fierce heat, Madrid's practically deserted in August. But no self-respecting football fan would even dream of visiting until the season starts at the very end of the month anyway. By then, the air cooling but warm, tables still set up outside every bar, Madrid is a wonderful place to visit, for so many reasons.
For its atmosphere, its art (the Reina Sofia, which boasts Picasso's mammoth Guernica, the Prado and the Thyssen are amongst the world's finest), its people, its elegance, its marcha - even if the all-night city is slowly being strangled, few restaurants open before 10pm and few venture out before midnight. And, of course, for its football.
MEET THE TEAMS
Never mind the historical or geographical inaccuracy, Madrilenos love nothing more than a battle to the death between Vikings against Indians. They are the nicknames of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, clubs with contrasting identities and very different fates – a divide similar to Manchester's, but far more political.
Real Madrid have long been seen as the establishment club; as the puppets of General Franco, led by hardline right-winger Santiago Bernabeu, aided by the government and fearful (or bent) referees.
Certainly, Franco sought to make political capital out of Real Madrid's European Cup successes at a time when Spain was internationally isolated – "Real are the best embassy we ever had," said one minister – but branding them the regime's team is harsh. Nonetheless, such perceptions have had an important impact on the city's footballing identities, tapping into self-perception. And reality.
The Bernabeu is majestic alongside banks and businesses on the classy Castellana while the Calderon can be found beside a brewery; Real draw greater support from outside the capital, while Atletico draw theirs from the working-class south of the city; Real's players are superstars, Atletico's players... aren't.
All that feeds into the myths, reinforcing them: Real as the power, Atletico the people; aristocracy against workers; right against left (even though it's Rayo Vallecano, largely ignored, who are the capital's true revolutionaries); the real city of the south against the swish, sanitised north; the favoured against the persecuted; the media darlings against the unfashionable battlers; galacticos against mere mortals.
So much of it is nonsense, but who cares when it whips the city into a frenzy? With so much at stake, it's no wonder Atletico-Real engulfs everyone in the capital. The city's other clubs have to fight not to be ignored. Don't make the same mistake – they, too, are well worth a visit. For more details, see the club pages (links at bottom of this city guide).
Madrid became Spain's capital in 1561, on account of its central location, as Felipe II sought to create a symbol of unification and centralisation. There he could communicate more easily with even Spain's extremities. Today Madrid is a successful, cosmopolitan city with a population of around four million.
As is common with big cities, the outskirts are dreary and seemingly endless, yet the centre is more alluring. Here the old architecture complements the new, although there is little to compete with the ancient cities of Seville, Granada or Salamanca.
Through the years the Spanish royals have collected some of the world's finest art, which are today housed in the Prada gallery. Not a city to rest on its laurels, Madrid has added two other impressive galleries – the Thyssen-Bornemiza and the Sofia – which both display modern masterpieces.
The inhabitants – los Madrilenos – are fanatical about sport. However, football dominates and there is an official Real Madrid mega-store (Avenida Concha – 0034 914 587 422), where you can kit yourself out in the club's new shirt and pretend you supported them long before the Galacticos arrived. As for nightlife, Madrid is arguably the most vibrant city in Spain, perhaps even Europe.
People stay out partying well into the madruga (a word referring to the period between midnight and dawn). The city offers hundreds of bars and clubs, but if you want something more Spanish, you may be tempted by Madrid's flamenco bars. Having gone through a renaissance during the 1990s Madrid now vies with Seville as the nation's flamenco capital.
Aeropuerto de Barajas (16km east of the city), from here take Metro to city centre. Be warned that during rush hour the 20-minute journey can take up to an hour. A shuttle bus from the terminal departs every 10-15 minutes.
Hertz, Atocha station, (0034) 915 681 318.
Madrid Tourist Board: 636, Plaza Major 3, www.esmadrid.com, (0034) 915 881.
Chucking out at 11pm? Not likely in the Spanish capital, where it's not uncommon to get caught in a traffic jam at 4am! Most bars and disco-bars only get going at 11pm and will stay open until 2am or 3am at the earliest, while las discotecas don't get going until around 1am. Leave your Nikes in the hotel as most clubs have strict dress codes, and carry enough cash to cover admission fee (3-18 euros, though this will often include a free drink). For more information check out www.clubbingspain.com, though Madrid's best are:
Joy Madrid, c/Arenal 11. Like being trapped in a copy of Hello/¡Ola! Joy Madrid is an exclusive where you'll see models, musicians and other famous faces (15 euros entry fee).
Barnon, c/Santa Engracia. "Could you sign this for m... erm, my little boy?" Favourite haunt of Real Madrid footballers.
And finally, what better way to finish the night than with a visit to the Chocolateria San Gines (c/del Arenal), where you can refuel with Chocolate con Churros.
The Bernabeu stadium and trophy hall tour is a must for all self-respecting football fans, though you may never see your own bedraggled club through the same eyes again. Unsurprisingly, the museum presents an entirely biased and self-congratulatory view of Real's history, but you'll start to understand the magnitude of the Madrid giants. Cost 9 euros, call (0034) 902 291 709 for tickets and information.
SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
High-maintenance girlfriend? Madrid is home to Spain's top designers, including:
Adolfo Dominguez, c/Jose Ortega y Gasset 4. Expensive, but it also offers a cheaper line.
Sybilla, c/Jorge Juan 12. Spain's very own Vivienne Westwood.
There are dozens of fiestas in Madrid throughout the year, some covering the entire city, others reserved for single barrios (districts). One of the biggest and best is the Fiestas de San Isidro (the city's patron saint) which takes place on May 15 and centres on Plaza Major. It's a two-week carnival of bands and parades which heralds the start of the bullfighting season/bloodbath.
Snowboarding and ski-lifts won't be the first things to pop into your head when you think of famously hot Madrid, but many Madrilenos set off each winter for day trips to the nearby resorts of Navacerrada and Valdesqui. Expect to pay between 25-30 euros for a day pass (or just 12 for beginners) plus ski / snowboard and boot hire.
Take an old wooden steam train from Madrid to Aranjuez, and wander through the gardens of the 18th-century palaces, eating fresas con nata (strawberries and cream). A €22 ticket gets you a return trip, free strawberries, entry to the palaces and guided tour.
Explore Madrid with the interactive map below; click a club badge for a club guide.
FURTHER AFIELD: AROUND MADRID
If you're staying in Madrid for any length of time, the hustle and bustle of the busy city life – not to mention the searing heat in summer and the never-ending partying – can take their toll. Fortunately, the area around the capital isn't short of places for the day tripper.
FURTHER AFIELD: TOLEDO
Situated 50km south-west of Madrid, Toledo has a reputation as one of Spain's greatest cities. Though the reputation is somewhat underserved, the city is well worth a visit – preferably for an overnight stay.
Toledo is floodlit at night and with the crowds gone becomes an entirely different place. It offers an ample selection of low cost accommodation. Two of the best value are:
£ Fonda La Belviseña, Cuesta del Can 5. (0034) 925 220 067
££ Hotel Imperio, c/Cadenas 5-7. (0034) 925 227 650
Of the many sights, you shouldn't leave without seeing the marvellous paintings by El Greco (found in various museums including the Casa y Museo del Greco, entry 3 euros), the cathedral, the synagogues and the Alcazar fortress. One of Toledo's charms lies in simply wandering around and relaxing so don't overdose on "sights". A good rule when visiting Toledo is: don't rush.
FURTHER AFIELD: LA GRANJA
Just 10km outside the town of Segovia (itself 50km north of Madrid) rests La Granja, an extravagant palace built by Felipe V. Drawing justifiable comparisons to Versailles, La Granja overlooks acres of woodland and manicured gardens. In fact, the mountain setting is so idyllic you may be tempted not to actually enter the palace at all. Those who do venture inside (tickets cost £5 and the guided tour is compulsory) are not disappointed, however.
Outside, a selection of the garden's many spectacular fountains are switched on over the weekend and on Wednesday evenings, but it's the three Saint days – May 30 (San Fernando), July 25 (Santiago) and August 25 (San Luis) – that are unmissable when all the fountains are switched on together for spectacular display.
The postcard village of San Ildefonso de la Granja nearby has bars and restaurants and some comfortable accommodation. For a friendly reception try Hotel Roma (c/Guards 2, (0034) 921 470 752).
FURTHER AFIELD: RIOFRIO
When Felipe V died, his widow Isabel feared she would be banished from La Granja by her stepson Fernando VI. So, taking no chances, she decided to build another luxurious palace, Riofrio, to escape the wrath of the young King. When Fernando himself died soon after, he left La Granja to Isabel's son Carlos III.
Riofrio therefore remained uninhabited until Alfonso XII moved in many years later, and promptly died himself. The palace was therefore for many years something of a white elephant. Today, with its neat gardens and deer park, the Riofrio is a pleasant tourist spot. Entrance to the grounds is 5 euros plus 2,50 toll for cars.
For regular updates on the crazy world of Spanish football, see our blog La Liga Loca
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