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Madrid

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Madrid

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About Madrid

The charm of the old quarters, the exquisite blue of the skies, the colour of the street life and the vibrance of the long, long night: these are a few of the attractions of Spain's capital. Think of Paris or Rome, and familiar images spring to mind. But Madrid is more elusive, and a city which takes getting to know. With so many other destinations in Spain to lure the holidaymaker, it may well be Europe's most undervalued capital. In the past few years, democracy has brought a new dynamism to the capital which was created on the caprice of a king in 1561, and the landmark year of 1992 added further attractions.

Sixteenth-century Madrid was a placid farming community within sight of the Sierra de Guadarrama. The high terrain with its clear, dry air and the dense surrounding forests had once attracted the Moors, who built a fort called Magerit on a rise over the Río Manzanares. It was captured by the Christians in 1083, but the two religions coexisted in relative tranquillity, remote from the politics and fervour of other Castilian cities.

When Felipe II proclaimed Madrid the capital, reluctant courtiers speculated that it was simply because the town was convenient to his royal palace at El Escorial. Nevertheless, noble houses, convents and monasteries were hastily assembled in order to be near the new circles of influence. As the city grew, uncontrolled cutting of forests for construction led to erosion, drought and an increase in temperature.

After the Habsburgs, the Bourbons were horrified by the state of the 18th-century capital. The streets were filthy and crime-ridden; the housing squalid; the churches gave no sign of the artistic treasures within. The Bourbons set about putting that right.

Civic improvements weren't always received gratefully by madrileños. Carlos III believed that the long capes and broad-brimmed hats worn by Spaniards were conducive to Madrid's many cloak-and-dagger incidents, but his decree that citizens wear European short capes and tricorner hats caused a mutiny ending in bloodshed. Joseph Bonaparte initiated a programme of trees and open spaces, but he had been brought to power by a revolutionary invasion, and his beautification efforts earned him the nickname of “Rey Plazuelas”, the Courtyard King.

By the turn of this century, imposing bank buildings along the Calle de Alcalá marked the capital's growing financial power. Sweeping boulevards and monumental fountains had given Madrid a truly majestic appearance, yet she couldn't quite shake off her cow-town reputation. Basque novelist Pío Baroja called Madrid “an overgrown village of La Mancha”.

Officially, this city of almost 4 million inhabitants is still called by its Habsburg title of “Village and Court”, and in spite of Madrid's avant-garde arts scene and sophisticated nightlife, many regard it still as a mass of villages. Madrileños are known for being open and unaffected, and those very traits have eased the city's rapid political and cultural transformation.

At 600 metres (2,000 ft) above sea level, Madrid is the highest capital in Europe. Pollution from the city's 2 million vehicles and the continuing use of heating oil have made the air rather less champagne-like than it was said to have been in the 19th century, when European princesses often came to Madrid to give birth, but on a clear day the Sierra de Guadarrama seems within walking distance.

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