The small Manzanares River running through the Spanish capital might not be impressive to visitors accustomed to images of other European metropolises. Throughout history, Manzanares, resembling more a stream than a river, has never been of particular importance, but it did determine the emergence of a settlement on the site of today’s Madrid.
A small village was established as a Moorish citadel overlooking the river in the 9th Century. Manzanares may have also determined the city’s contemporary name; the Moors referred to it as al-Majrit, meaning ‘the source of water'.
The town was controlled by the Muslims until 1085, when it was taken over by King Alfonso VI. Over time, Madrid became a quite prosperous economical and cultural centre. However, in the 16th Century it still wasn’t among the country’s major cities; all the greater was the astonishment of the general public when the King Philip II decided to move the capital there from Toledo. This gave Madrid a reviving boost and it quickly became Spain's largest trade and economic centre.
In the 18th Century, the Bourbons adorned the city centre with a number of spectacular Baroque buildings, such as the Royal Palace. Over the following centuries, the city bloomed economically, though it still wasn’t the major cultural trendsetter that its inhabitants wished it to be. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s heavily tarnished the city in the psychological sense, but it was spared the destruction of World War II. The 1980s brought a long-awaited event, as Madrid became the birthplace of a major cultural movement known as movida madrilena, which made it an important spot on the cultural map of Europe.
Contemporary Madrid is a city of stark contrasts. One of its best-known residents, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote that Madrid is hardly likeable during the first visit, because it has none of the look that you’d expect of a typical Spanish city. Situated in the very heart of continental Spain, every year it challenges its residents to endure cold winters and scorching summer heat. Yet, when you get to know it, you’ll see that it combines the best characteristics of all Spanish cities.
Compared to other cities in Spain, Madrid isn’t that rich in historic monuments. What it prides itself on is an impressive set of excellent museums which makes the city a top European destination for art buffs. The famous Golden Triangle of Art is situated along the Paseo del Prado and is comprised of three museums. Best-known is the Prado Museum, featuring such visual delights as Goya's ‘La maja vestida’ and ‘La maja desnuda’ as well as Velázquez's ‘Las Meninas.’ The other two pillars of the Triangle are the Reina Sofia Museum, home to Pablo Picasso's ‘Guernica,’ and the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, based on a private collection.
Cultures have mixed in a unique way since the very beginnings of the city; thus, it was destined to become a melting pot of customs and traditions, boasting a top-notch cultural scene. At night, a crowd of revelers takes over the streets, filling the popular pubs and clubs around Plaza del Dos de Mayo, Puerta del Sol and Huertas. At midnight, when most of the capitals on the continent grow silent and fall fast asleep, life in Madrid has only just begun.
Along with several other Spanish cities, the capital is one of the few places in the world where you can get stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of the night. It’s recommended that visitors bear in mind the specific daily routine of the locals, and adjust to it. Otherwise, it’s not too hard to find yourself desperately looking for an open restaurant in the early afternoon, in the middle of siesta time, or at 8pm, before anything opens for the late Spanish dinnertime.
Madrid is the capital of a country whose trademark image in the world is that of a brave bullfighter facing a bull as the audience of a packed bullring holds their breath. Madrid is home to the largest and most famous Plaza de Toros in Spain. Known as Las Ventas, it was built in 1929 in the Neomudejar and can hold up to 25,000 spectators. The bullfighting season lasts from March to October. During that time, fights are held every Sunday and public holiday, and every day during the annual Festival of San Isidro.
Your exploration of the Spanish capital is best concluded at one of the city’s cosy restaurants or friendly tapas bars, where you can sample the culinary delights for which the city and the region are famous throughout the world. Don’t miss a chance to indulge in the thick and filling cocido madrileno (a stew of chickpeas and meat), callos a la madrilena (a seasoned tripe soup), as well as a wide assortment of traditional cheeses and delicious meats produced in the city.
Specialties from Madrid are best accompanied by a glass of the excellent Navalcarnero wine or the favorite local alcoholic beverages, Anis del Toro or Chinchon. Typical desserts include strawberries from Aranjuez, watermelons from Villaconejos, and a range of sweet treats prepared for various occasions, such as the Christmas turron of almonds and sugar and the Halloween huesos de santo, literally translating as ‘bones of the saint'.