Madrid is the capital of Spain. The city has a population of approximately 3.3 million, but the metropolitan area has over 6 million inhabitants.
Madrid is a modern city that has preserved many historical buildings. Its major landmarks include the Royal Palace, the Almudena Cathedral, Puerta del Sol square and the Prado Museum. Travelers need to know that the currency in Spain is the Euro (€), cars drive on the right side of the road, and the electricity is 220 Volts at 50 Hz.
The Iberian peninsula was dominated by the Romans around 200 BC. The name España (Spain) derives from Hispania which was the Roman name for the area. Germanic tribes conquered the region in the Middle Ages and were later displaced by the Moors. The Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella fought the Moors and unified Spain. The kingdom became a maritime world power that colonized much of the New World and spread Catholicism and the Spanish language.
There are still bullfights in Spain, but the practice of teasing a bull and then killing it as an entertainment spectacle is decreasing. Many people consider bullfighting cruel and dangerous. Still, silhouettes of the bulls abound in highway advertising signs, posters and souvenirs of Spain.
The Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of King Juan Carlos and the Royal Family, but they do not reside there. The palace is used only for official ceremonies, cultural exhibits and tours. The palace was built in 1764 on the site of a 9th-century fortress.
The Almudena Cathedral directly faces the Royal Palace. The construction of the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena started in 1879. The cathedral was built on the site of a medieval mosque that was destroyed in 1083.
The central door of the cathedral is an impressive high-relief bronze sculpture of the adoration of a crucified Christ with angels hovering over the crucifix.
Many people in Spain are fervently Catholic and believe in miracles. Madrid has a church called the Basilica of Jesus of Medinaceli located near the Prado Museum where people line up for blocks to come and kiss the foot of a statue of Jesus. It is said that the petitions of those who kiss the foot come true. The statue was sculpted in Seville in the 17th century and was sent to a Spanish fortress in Morocco. The statue was captured by the Moors, and it was taken back to Spain only after it was ransomed by the Trinitarian monks. When the church permits access to the statue, there is a person in charge of wiping the foot after each kiss to prevent germs from being transmitted from one person to another.
Madrid is always in motion. The downtown area is lined with stores, restaurants and bars. The narrow streets for pedestrian traffic are filled with people at all times of the day.
In downtown Madrid it is better to take public transportation or walk. It is very difficult to find parking on the street and it is expensive to park in a garage.
When I visited Madrid, I needed a car for day trips to Segovia and Toledo. Rather than rent the car for two days and pay for the parking, it was cheaper to return the car after Segovia and rent it again the next day to go to Toledo.
The Puerta Del Sol square is where the action is in Madrid. There are restaurants, pastry shops and tapas bars all around. A major retail store, El Corte Inglés, and many other shops are also close by. Sometimes, political protests are organized here. Everyone at the Plaza del Sol is going someplace else, but the square is always crowded because the area has a high population density and there is a major metro and train station here.
Spanish Food is as varied as the different regions of Spain. Gazpacho, which is a cold tomato soup with various condiments, is a popular dish. Fabada Asturiana is a tasty hot bean soup made with large white beans. Paella, a Valencian specialty, is a rice dish similar to a pilaf that may have seafood, sausages or chicken. Spaniards like to eat late. Many restaurants only open for dinner around 9PM.
Ham is a favorite food in Spain. There are many types of ham. Some hogs are fed only acorns and their meat is specially prized. Jamón Serrano is a kind of dried ham similar to Italian prosciutto. The name "serrano" refers to the mountains (sierra) because the cold mountain air helps in the curing process. Madrid has many specialty stores that sell only ham.
There are restaurants called "Paellador" that specialize in making paella. Some of the choices include a variety of seafood such as a combination of shrimp, mussels, clams and octopus, or a mixture of sausages and seafood, or chicken pieces. Paella is frequently flavored with olive oil, garlic and saffron.
Tapas can be any type of appetizer served in a small dish. Some of the choices may be marinated fish, meatballs, stewed vegetables, etc. Usually, you order tapas as a snack to accompany your beer, sangría or other type of drink.
About 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Madrid there are two sites that should be visited. One is El Escorial which is the castle where many Spanish monarchs are buried, and the other is Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) which is a Catholic basilica and monumental memorial in the mountains not far from El Escorial.
El Escorial functions as a monastery, royal palace, museum, and school. The building was completed in 1584 under King Philip II of Spain. The rooms in the palace have beautiful tapestries covering the walls. The chamber used as the bedroom of King Philip has his bed. The tour guides explain that the bed is small because Europeans of the middle ages were relatively short compared with modern people. The beautiful paintings on the walls, the frescoes in the ceiling and the well-tended gardens make El Escorial a worthwhile tourist attraction.
The huge cross on top of the granite mountain at Valle de los Caídos was conceived to honor and bury those who fell during the Spanish Civil War. A large underground tunnel was carved out of the mountain for a basilica. The underground basilica has the tomb of the Spanish general Francisco Franco although he did not die during the war.
The Valley of the Fallen is sometimes a gathering for political activists. There are many Spaniards who would like to go back to a firm-handed management of the Spanish government similar to Franco's to counteract the divisive forces of separatists who want to create Basque or Catalan territories with independent governments.