Wild-eyed gypsy singers wailing and stomping downstairs at Candela. Matador of the moment José Tomás being carried through the Las Ventas gates on the shoulders of the crowd. Tucking into plates of plump green olives at La Venencia. One of the most charming things about Madrid is that the romantic stereotypes have life beyond the tourist trail. The thing is, they’re barely a fraction of the story. For that you’d need to add traditional Asturian bars, Basque Country pintxo joints, Arab city walls, Latin American grocery shops, Chinese-run convenience stores, Irish pubs, an ancient Egyptian temple – and that’s just for starters.
It’s a situation to which globalisation is only the most recent contributor. Madrid is a largely artificial city. Though founded by the Moors in the 9th century, it only became the Spanish capital in 1561, after Philip II decided he wanted an administrative centre at the very heart of his kingdom. The decision utterly transformed the sleepy Castilian hilltown: people flooded in from all over Spain and what little indigenous culture there was got swept away by new mass entertainments, such as public theatre performances and the Inquisition’s grisly autos de fe (trials of heretics).
Today, there may no longer be ritual public humiliation in the Plaza Mayor (unless you count the street performer statues), but the madrileño habit of doing things en masse endures, whether it’s attending the huge Epiphany or carnival parades down Paseo de la Castellana, taking to the streets in their thousands to mourn the victims of the 2004 bombings, or all choosing the same day to drive off on their summer holidays. It’s a big city, but it often feels very small.
All this helps to give the place a vibrant, can-do attitude. The heady days of the Movida, the post-Franco arts movement that took new-found freedoms to their extremes – when magazine editor Borja Casani could hire out the entire chandelier-clad Hotel Palace and host a party for 3,000 hard-partying movidistas – may be gone, but the same sense of boundless possibility has now taken more grown-up forms. The vast Richard Rogers-designed airport terminal, the business district’s shiny Cuatro Torres (‘Four Towers’) development and the subterranean road network beneath the River Manzanares are just some of the ambitious building projects that have reshaped the city in recent years.
Meanwhile the legendary nightlife raves on around Plaza Santa Ana, grungy Malasaña and lively district Chueca. Also providing inspiration is that Madrid sky. On more days than not a brilliant cobalt blue, it has influenced Velázquez, Goya and many others whose works now line the Prado walls; sometimes it seems so close you could climb a stepladder and touch it. ‘De Madrid al cielo’ (‘after Madrid, there’s only heaven’), they say around here. Gazing up into the cloudless blue, it’s hard to disagree.
‘If Madrid has a specific characteristic that differentiates it from other cities of a similar size and importance, it would have to be its inhabitants: the madrileños. From every part of the peninsula or the farthest reaches of the planet, they “Madridify” themselves instantly. Arranged in groups of friends, they are sociable, carefree and vibrantly optimistic. They believe life begins when they leave work and they devote their lives to having a laugh. They are the soul of this otherwise unimportant city.’
Borja Casani, former editor of La Luna magazine, bible of the Movida
Emirates Airlines will be launching direct flights to Madrid on August 1 from Dhs3,805 return, including tax.
Where to stay
Meninas Hotel (+34 915 412 805, www.hotelmeninas.com)
4,900,000 (core city 2,823,000)
Where is it?
The centre of the Iberian peninsula, 667m up on the Castilian plateau, the Meseta Central.
Temperate Mediterranean, but the altitude can make winters extremely cold. Summers range from hot to unbearably hot, despite the relative lack of humidity.
European, Latin America, Asian (mainly Chinese and Filipino), North African, West African, Basque.
Museo del Prado, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Palacio Real, the Retiro, Plaza Mayor, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Las Ventas bullring, El Rastro flea market, Casa del Campo, Gran Vía, La Latina.
The gardens of Capricho de la Alameda de Osuna, the 2,200-year-old Templo de Debod from Egypt, La Casa Encendida, Herzog & de Meuron’s CaixaForum, the village of Chinchón, El Escorial.
Where’s the buzz?
The chic bars and boutiques between the boarded-up storefronts and fly-postered walls of Malasaña, the bars and clubs of Chueca, multicultural Lavapiés.
Moorish beginnings, Christian conquest, Philip II makes Madrid his capital, the War of Spanish Succession, Napoleonic occupation, Carlist Wars, First Republic, Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, Second Republic, the Spanish Civil War, the Franco years, return to democracy, the Movida Madrileña, the Madrid bombings.
Number of rooms in the Palacio Real
More than 3,000.
Number of visitors a year
Most famous work of art
Picasso’s Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía.
Football teams with fervent support
Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Getafe, Rayo Vallecano.
Paintings by Goya and Velázquez, The Hive, almost every Almodóvar film
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life