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De Madrid al Cielo — After Madrid, next stop Paradise

Spain's capital and largest city, home to 3,500,000 madrileños. Madrid is situated high up on the plains of Castile. At 2,200 ft above sea level, it is the highest capital city in Europe. Just to the north are the Guadarrama Mountains, snow-capped in winter. Madrid is more or less slap bang in the center of the country. The (insignificant) river that runs through it is the Manzanares. Madrid is searingly hot in summer and can be bitterly cold in winter. Its overcrowded, buzzing streets throb with life 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. At the same time, Madrid claims to have more green space than any other city in the western world. In terms of its museums and cultural attractions, Madrid rivals—perhaps even surpasses—any other city you can imagine. Its nightlife is legendary.

Madrid is not one of Europe's most beautiful cities, in the league of Paris, Rome or Barcelona. Of course, it has its beautiful parts (the barrio de Salamanca, the Paseo del Prado, the Retiro, the old town surrounding the Plaza Mayor and the Plaza de la Paja etc.) and it certainly has its share of splendid buildings such as Atocha Station, the Palacio de Comunicaciones, the Palacio Real, the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas and many more. But Madrid's appeal does not lie in grand architectural set pieces or in its world-class array of museums and cultural attractions. It is its seductive lifestyle that sets Madrid apart: its limitless choice of restaurants, cafes and bars, to be found at every turn, its brimming vitality 24 hours a day, its thoroughly appealing mix of traditional, conservative Castilian values and outrageous modernity, its cosmopolitan distillation of every side of the Spanish people. Here be gatos madrileños (this is the name given to Madrid people born and bred), peasants from La Mancha, Catalans, Basques, gallegos, extremeños and Andalusians. Madrid is the financial center, the political center, the cultural and intellectual center, the social center, the commercial center of Spain though, very importantly, it must share some of these accolades with Barcelona. (What Madrid doesn't have, Barcelona has in abundance, and vice versa. Some people say that if Madrid and Barcelona were one city, they would make the greatest capital in the world.) Madrid seems to be a city of immense energy, constantly growing, constantly buzzing with life. But to its great credit, it is also a city of parks and quiet places where you can go about your business at your pleasure and at your leisure. In short, it is an ugly but joyous capital city, one of the most exciting that Europe has to offer.


The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain  "Nueve meses de invierno, tres meses de infierno", the saying goes, "nine months of winter, three months of hell." The truth is, that's a little extreme. Certainly, Madrid can be stiflingly hot in July and August, and in a harsh winter, you might see a sprinkling of snow on the rooftops for a couple of weeks, but all in all the weather here is as near Californian perfection as Europe gets. A typical year:

March  Temperature 40F to 60F
Daily Hours Sunshine 7
Monthly Rainfall 3"

April  Temperature 45F to 65F
Daily Hours Sunshine 8
Monthly Rainfall 2"

May  Temperature 50F to 70F
Daily Hours Sunshine 9
Monthly Rainfall 2"

June  Temperature 57F to 83F
Daily Hours Sunshine 11
Monthly Rainfall 1"

July  Temperature 65F to 97F
Daily Hours Sunshine 12
Monthly Rainfall 0.5"

Synchronize your watches  Local time is 6 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 2:00pm in New York City, it's 8:00pm in Madrid. There is no time difference between Spain and France. Portugal is one hour behind Spain, so if it's 10:00pm in Madrid, it's 9:00pm in Lisbon.

Money, money, money  The Spanish unit of currency is the Peseta. As throughout Europe, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money in the local currency whenever you need it. You will never have a problem locating a suitable ATM machine. If you do need to change dollars (cash or traveler's checks) into pesetas, try to do so at a bank. You can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks and you should always keep your passport handy. Bureaux de Change tend to give a slightly worse deal. Some shops, especially touristic ones, will accept American currency or traveler's checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a much worse rate than you would from a bank. The same goes for hotels that are willing to change money for you, and even if they will do it, it's usually cash only, not traveler's checks. Bank opening hours are 8:30am to 2:00pm Monday through Friday. The American Express office in Madrid is located on Calle de los Jerónimos near the Parliament building Las Cortes.

The joy of servitude  A tradition of tipping according to set rules in the way it's done in Northern Europe or in the U.S. does not exist in the Mediterranean. Basically you should tip according to satisfaction and moderately. It is normal to tip between 5% and 10% to taxi drivers, hairdressers or waiters. If there is already a service charge included in your restaurant bill, just round it up a little to something that feels appropriate. If you are just getting a drink at a bar it is not necessary to leave a tip.

Not another 5 minute walk  Your feet, naturally, will be your prime means of transportation through Madrid. The city's finest sights are generally fairly concentrated in a small enough area, making walking between them both a possibility and a pleasure. It isn't always the case, though, and when the time comes that your feet start to object and then actively rebel, there are various easy alternatives that will appease your aching, blistered toes. They are these:

1) Going Underground: The Madrid Metro system is comprehensive, excellent, cheap and relatively safe. You will undoubtedly be using it during your stay here. Stations are marked above ground with signs displaying a red diamond in the center of which is emblazoned the word Metro on a blue background. All the lines are colorcoded and numbered. Tickets can be purchased either from the agent or the automats in the stations. Carnets of ten tickets (valid also for the buses) at reduced prices are also available at the stations. The system works just like the Paris Metro. You should know the number of your train and the final destination in the direction you wish to take (eg. Línea 4, dirección Esperanza) and the stop at which you wish to alight. If you need to make a connection to another line at one station, just look for the signs saying correspondencia, follow that sign to the appropriate platform (eg. Línea 10, dirección Canillejas) and get on the train. The Metro runs from about 6:00am until 1:30am.

2) On the buses: You're not likely to be using the buses unless you have a particular desire to or unless you are taking the night bus (el Buho) home after a raucous night out. They don't generally go anywhere useful where your feet or the Metro don't. The cost is the same as the Metro and your Metro tickets are valid for the buses as well (except on the night buses which require a separate ticket). You can also buy individual tickets from the bus driver. They are usually very crowded so getting on and off at the appropriate place can be a considerable achievement. Good luck.

3) Big Yellow Taxi: All taxis are white (not actually yellow at all) and, fittingly enough, are marked TAXI. They congregate at taxi stands at all major squares or can be hailed in the street. Look for the Libre sign in the window. Taxis are metered so the fare should be clear. You need never be paying more than about $10 maximum for a journey within town. Don't be alarmed if the driver seems to be taking you round the houses. That's just the nature of Madrid's arcane and complicated one-way traffic system. If in doubt about the quality of your Spanish, write the name and address of your destination down and show it to the driver. An English-speaking taxi driver is a rare thing in Madrid. It's normal to tip the driver about 5 to 10%. Remember that taxis are fairly cheap, honest and safe so their use is highly recommended if you feel the need.

The mailman cometh  Mail service to and from Spain is good but expect at least five days delivery time for airmail. By far the easiest place to buy stamps is from an estanco (kiosk) which you will find all over the city. They are all up to date with postal rates so you need not worry that you have the right denomination stamp. The main post office, the Palacio de Comunicaciones, by the Fountain of Cibeles (Metro Banco de España) is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday to Saturday. You can't miss it: it's enormous, stupendously decorated and just about the most impressive building in the entire city. This is the place to go if you want to send a parcel home before you depart yourself. Naturally, you can buy stamps here as well.

Please wait while we try to connect you  As usual, the golden rule is never call home from your hotel. It will cost a fortune. Public telephones are easy to find and easy to use. They generally accept both Spanish coins and Spanish telephone cards. Using coins tends to be expensive so have plenty of 25 and 100pta coins with you before you start. Cards (tarjetas telefónicas) are more convenient. You can buy them in denominations of 1,000 and 2,000 ptas (the 2,000 pta card gives you an additional 100 ptas worth of call time free). They can be bought from any post office or from any estanco (kiosk). Dial 0 0 for international access, then l for the USA followed by the area code and number.

The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from Spain is 900-99-00-11. For MCI it is 900-99-00-14.

Home, sweet home  The address of the American Embassy in Madrid is
Calle Serrano, 75
Tel. 577 40 00


It's sleepy time down south  The hardest thing for an American to get used to about shopping in Spain is the Spanish timetable. The Spanish are so famous for their mid-afternoon break that their word for it (siesta) has become international idiom. Many madrileños shrink with horror at the thought of a northern European or American working day with just one hour for lunch, no long break and no chance to sleep off the rigors of the previous evening. When the weather gets hot in the height of the summer it is unthinkable for a madrileño to be slaving in the shop at 2:00pm or 3:00pm. It's simply a waste of time to go for an afternoon's shopping at these times (unless your destination is one of the big department stores like the Corte Inglés which stay open continuously from l0:00am to 8:00pm). Just about everything will be closed. This even holds more or less true of the Puerta del Sol, the biggest and busiest shopping area in the country. Normal shopping hours are between 9:30am and 1:30pm and then again from 4:00 or 5:00pm until about 8:00pm, Monday to Saturday. Most stores are closed on Sundays.

When in Spain  Buy Spanish. Anything typically Spanish or made in Spain is going to be a bargain here. Take your pick from a list like this: gorgeously decorative fans, extravagant flamenco costumes, lacy Spanish shawls (mantillas), stylish and high-quality leather bags and purses, intricate damascene jewelry, bullfight paraphernalia and just about anything in ceramic, including the world-famous Lladró porcelain. Shoes are also great value in Spain.

At the heart of the metropolis  At the very center of Madrid, where the statue of Madrid's emblem, the Oso y Madroño (the Bear and the Tree), stands and from where all distances in Spain are measured, is the Puerta del Sol. Ten Metro lines and four main traffic arteries converge here. On New Year's Eve, it seems as though all Madrid converges here to celebrate. Big political demonstrations always take place here. Every day, tourist and locals alike congregate here in the thousands because the pedestrian streets stretching up from the Puerta del Sol to the Plaza de Callao make for shopping heaven. Everything is here, from the flagship store of Spain's biggest and best department store chain, the Corte Inglés, to small shoe stores, bookshops, music and video stores, gifts and souvenirs, ceramics, leather goods (at fabulous prices), whatever you can think of. Once you get here, you won't want to leave. (Metro Sol or Callao)

Lifestyles of the rich and famous  For clothes shopping, the nicest shopping area of all in Madrid is the stately avenue of Calle Serrano and its surrounding streets like Goya, Claudio Coello and Ortega y Gasset. Here you'll find not just exquisitely-tailored couture at lunatic prices in the boutiques such as Loewe, Yves St. Laurent, Prada, Chanel, Escada, Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani and Hermès but chic, young clothes from Madrid's vibrant fashion scene (Zara, Don Algodón, Mango) and other international names such as Benetton, Stefanel or Sisley. On the Calle de Goya, there is another huge branch of El Corte Inglés. The Serrano area can be very expensive, especially in the Calle Ortega y Gasset (Madrid's equivalent of the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, Sloane Street in London, New York's Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive in L.A.), but if you look around, you can just as easily find the stuff to suit any budget. It's quieter than the Puerta del Sol and less frenetic, and because the crowd is all local, it can also feel just that little bit more authentic. (Metro Serrano, Juan Bravo or Goya)

Anybody wanna buy some fleas  Then head to Europe's largest flea market, El Rastro, at least if you happen to be in Madrid on a Sunday when it all comes together between sunrise and noon in the crowded streets and alleyways around the Plaza de Tirso de Molina. When you're bored with the hushed atmosphere and plush carpeting of those Calle Serrano boutiques and anxious to get your claws into some real deals, you'll find anything here from a Baroque triptych to pirated tapes of Enrique Iglesias and his venerable father Julio. There's a lot of genuine junk here, but if you search hard you can really do well. It's fun, raucous and constantly buzzing. Remember to keep a close eye on your possessions, though. The Rastro is a bit of a mecca for the local pickpockets. (Metro Tirso de Molina)


The Big Three  Madrid is one of the world's greatest museum cities. Its fame rests on three museums (by no means the only ones in the city) which together form the so-called triángulo de arte or triangle of art. You can't fail to miss the Prado. If you get a chance, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza are definitely the best of the rest and well worth a visit.

1) Museo del Prado: This is the ultimate place of homage for lovers of Spanish painting. See the army of portraits by El Greco (including one of the great writer Miguel de Cervantes), all dressed in black with white collars, all bearded, pale-faced and piercing-eyed. See his religious pictures, peopled with elongated figures of saints and their slender feminine hands, whose very appearance elevates them above the ordinary crowd of this world. Next is Murillo, the painter of Madonnas, saints and angelic children, whose brush is imbued with an all-embracing love of humanity. Many say that Diego de Velázquez is the greatest painter of them all. Fifty of his masterpieces are on display here, including the world-famous portrait of the family of King Philip IV known as Las Meninas. His greatest successor as official painter to the Spanish court was Goya, the brilliant and versatile genius of 18th-century painting. The unparalleled selection of his works here runs the gamut from joyous innocence to profound cynicism, from downright sexy to the horrors of war, from love of his fellow man to the depths of internal despair. What's more, if you get the chance, there's a lot more to the Prado than just Spanish painting. The Spanish monarchs were avid collectors of Italian and Flemish painting as well, so add a couple of Titians, a Rubens or two and a smattering of Hieronymus Bosch to your visit so as to complete the picture of one of the greatest art museums in the world.

Open Tuesday through Saturday 9:00am to 7:00pm, Sunday 9:00am to 2:00pm, closed Mondays.

(Metro Atocha or Banco de España)

2) Centro de Arte Reina Sofía: Located in a beautifully converted hospital building just off the Paseo del Prado, this fairly new museum is dedicated to the art of the 20th century. Outstanding are the collections of the three "greats" of modern Spanish painting:

Joan Miró - the master of Catalan surrealism, let's call his work playful, childlike, dreamlike, whimsical, humorous, magical, colorful, bright, spontaneous and rhythmical.

Salvador Dalí - lunatic, genius, charlatan, self-publicist, populist, draughtsman extraordinaire. Take your pick. Dalí was all of these.

Pablo Picasso - the presiding genius of 20th-century art. His work spans and defines just about every significant "ism" of modern painting and sculpture, from his early naturalist phase through Cubism to Surrealism and Expressionism. The highlight of the museum is his epic painting of the Spanish Civil War and probably the single most famous work of art of the modern era, Guernica. Don't miss this vast canvas, painted in black and white and shades of grey. It depicts the horrific attack on the small town of Guernica in 1937 when, for the first time in modern history, an air raid deliberately attacked and destroyed a civilian target. The incident, brought home in all its horror, shocked the world. The painting illustrates the chaotic brutality of war, the shattered lives, emotions of despair, anguish and disbelief. In the midst of it all is a flower, symbolizing hope.

Open Mondays and Wednesday through Saturday 10:00am to 9:00pm, closed Tuesdays, open Sundays 9:00am to 2:00pm (Metro Atocha)

3) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: This is the newest and the least known museum of Madrid's big three, but that's not to say it isn't worth it. All it means is that the crowds aren't there and you can view its masterpieces in peace. It is located on the Paseo del Prado, almost opposite the Prado itself, in the beautiful Villahermosa Palace. This is a private collection, the richest and most extensive in the world after the Queen of England's, and was donated to Spain in 1993. Its eclectic works reflect the tastes (and the limitless bank accounts) of Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son. It contains works from the 14th century to the present day. Whatever your own tastes, they are catered for here. There is everything from Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and van Dyck to Mondrian, Picasso, Magritte, Rothko and Jackson Pollock via the English landscape painters of the 18th century and one of the best collections of French Impressionists to be found outside Paris.

Open Tuesday to Sunday 10:00am to 7:00pm, closed Mondays. (Metro Banco de España)


Move over, Bill Gates  Not even he could manage a house quite like this one. The Palacio Real was the old palace of the Bourbon kings of Spain. In fact, it still functions as the state residence of King Juan Carlos I. Since he and his family don't actually live here but at the nearby Zarzuela Palace, you can see the rooms where foreign dignitaries are feted by the Spanish royal couple. When the Bourbon kings Carlos III and Carlos IV built the palace in the mid 18th century, the idea was to "out-Versailles"" Versailles. In some ways it really worked. The palace's greatest appeal lies in the magnificent decoration of the rooms you'll visit, at times simply breathtaking. Among the highlights are the Gasparini Rooms (the private apartments of King Carlos III) with their exuberant Rococo detailing; the splendidly regal Throne Room; and the vast Banqueting Hall, with its table almost the size of a football field seating 140 people.

The last king before Franco, Alfonso XIII, used to say he infinitely preferred life in exile in Rome's Grand Hotel because, unlike at the Palacio Real, at least the breakfast coffee was still hot when it arrived. You'll see why it took so long when you've walked a few miles of corridors on your guided visit. After all, it does have 2,800 rooms! (Don't worry, you'll only see about 30.) At the ticket office on the Plaza de la Armería you go through an airport-style security check and are required to deposit any bulky items like backpacks in the cloakroom. Remember, outside the Prado, this is Madrid's top attraction, so give yourself plenty of time and expect crowds. You may be waiting as long as 40 minutes to buy your tickets, and then almost as long again for the 45-minute guided tour to start. Also be sure to check that the palace is open to the public on the day you want to visit. If there happen to be any kings or queens, presidents or prime ministers, popes or dalai lamas visiting on the same day as you, you won't be allowed in. (Metro Opera)

When you're very good at sewing  To build magnificent residences such as the Palacio Real was a herculean task and to outfit them was an even greater one. In fact, this responsibility was handed over to the fábricas, schools modeled after those founded by Louis XIV for the decoration of Versailles nearly a century earlier. Here, the best craftsmen were gathered and given the best conditions in which to practice their skill. Carpets and tapestries were produced in the Real Fábrica de Tápices. Goya himself used to work here as a young man. The products were legendarily beautiful works. You can see some examples on display but what's even more interesting is to observe the actual artisans plying away in this living museum. (Metro Atocha)

The loveliest square in the world  The Plaza Mayor may no longer be the heart of Madrid life —that mantle has been taken over by the Puerta del Sol— but this quiet, grand and austerely beautiful square, is and always will be symbolic of the city and at the heart of Spanish history. It was built in the 17th century under King Philip III, whose equestrian statue dominates the center of the square. This was where the Inquisition held its macabre autos-da-fé in which heretics were burned at the stake; three monarchs were proclaimed king here, Philip V, Ferdinand VI and Charles IV; one royal wedding was held here, in 1629; bullfights took place here until 1847; criminals were executed; fireworks were displayed; moments of national celebration focused on this place. Today, the Plaza Mayor has a more sedate role in madrileño life. On Sundays it is the scene of Madrid's coin and stamp market. Around Christmas, a lovely market is set up devoted to the oncoming festivities. At any time of year, the square is a fine sight to behold and a delightful (if pricey) place to sip a café con leche and watch the world go by. (Metro Sol)

Walk like an Egyptian  It may be a bit of a surprise to come across a genuine Egyptian temple in the middle of a park in the center of a city over a thousand miles away from Egypt, but there is one. It's called the Templo de Debod. This austere and hauntingly beautiful building from the 4th century BC once graced the banks of the Nile. When they built the Aswan Dam in the 1950's the temple had to go. If it hadn't been rescued it would have been under water by now. As a gesture acknowledging the Spanish contribution to the building of the dam, the Egyptian government gave it to Spain. The temple, subtly carved in shallow relief, stands with two of its original gateways and is reflected in the waters of its pool. This is the perfect place to sit and contemplate life's mysteries. How do Spaniards stay up so late and get up so early and still function? Why do they eat so much seafood in a city so far away from the sea? From the terrace there is a beautiful view across the river Manzanares to the parkland of the Casa de Campo and as far as the Guadarrama Mountains. This is the place to watch the sun go down. A few steps to the left and the panorama extends citywards on to the Palacio Real, the Opera and the dome of the Cathedral. (Metro Ventura Rodriguez)

The oasis in the heart of the city  Madrid is blessed with one of the most attractive city center parks in Europe, the Parque del Buen Retiro: This enormous park once belonged to the rulers of the country whom you can see immortalized in graceful statues which line the sleepy alleys. It was here, in fact, that they came to "retire" from the busy life at court and the suffocating summer heat of the palace. Imagine festive lawn parties and elegant promenades, maybe even an intrigue or two during coquettish games of boules on the lawn. Well, times have changed and you don't have to be a Habsburg nowadays to enjoy a boat ride on the picturesque artificial pond, el Estanque, to have your hair braided, your name carved in a grain of rice or your fortune told by a local gypsy woman. You don't have to be a Bourbon to stroll among the pretty fountains, to admire the Retiro's loveliest architectural landmarks, the 19th-century exhibition halls, the Palacio de Velázquez and the beautifully restored Palacio de Cristal, to rest at the foot of the grandiose equestrian monument to King Alfonso XIII, or to sip at a refreshing glass of horchata (a delicious kind of almond-flavored milkshake) in one of the park's many cafes. (Metro Retiro)

Madrid's answer to the Sistine Chapel  If you just can't get enough of Goya, even after your visit to the Prado, your next port of call should be the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. Here he painted on the cupola his finest frescoes, in the amazingly short time of just four months. They illustrate the story of the miracle of St. Anthony of Padua, but the figures who populate the work have nothing to do with medieval Italy. They come directly from eighteenth-century Madrid society, in all its aspects from low life to high society, thus leaving the viewer with a perfect picture of Goya's contemporaries and life in the Spanish capital as it was lived 200 years ago. This pretty little chapel also contains the body of Goya, whose remains were transferred here from Bordeaux where he died in exile in 1828. At least it contains most of his body: his head is elsewhere. (Metro Príncipe Pío/Norte)


To Americans and northern Europeans, Spanish food and the Spanish way of eating can be very unfamiliar but also truly appealing. Spanish food is distinctly Mediterranean (everything with garlic and olive oil) and very varied, as you would expect in a country of such regional diversity: from the mariscadas (seafood platters) of Galicia to the pescaitos fritos (little fried fish) of Andalucía; from the cordero asado (roast lamb) of the Castilian plains to paella valenciana (rice sprinkled with saffron and decorated with anything from peas to chicken to shrimp, or all of these); from the migas of Extremadura (fried bread crumbs) to the the big roasts of beef in Navarre or the Basque Country. What's more, you can get it all in Madrid.

Born to snack  Most unfamiliar of all—and most delightful—is the tradition of tapas. These are appetizers which you can find lining the counter of most bars. They come in tapas (small saucers, just enough to taste) or raciones (slightly more substantial). Often, one small tapa (of olives or patatas ali-oli, for example) is served free with a drink. They are perfect for a snack lunch, and they are also cheap. You can get just one for a short hunger stop or a selection to make a fine meal. They can serve to fill in the long gap between lunch and dinner, as most restaurants generally open late in the evening (9.00pm normally, 8.00pm at the earliest).

This is a fairly typical tapas menu which you are likely to see in a Madrid bar:

Tortilla (the famous Spanish omelette, made with eggs, potatoes and olive oil)
Chorizo (a kind of spicy sausage)
Patatas bravas (fried potato wedges smothered in a hot sauce)
Calamares (batter-covered squid deep-fried in olive oil)
Ensalada rusa (a mixed vegetable salad in mayonnaise)
Chipirones en su tinta (baby squid cooked in their own ink)
Aceitunas (olives: you are, of course, in Spain)
Albóndigas (meatballs)
Gambas al ajillo (shrimp deep-fried in olive oil with lots of garlic, served sizzling hot)
Morcilla (blood sausage, made with garlic and rice, the speciality of Burgos)
Pulpo gallego (octopus, in olive oil with onions and sea salt)
Jamón Serrano (delicious lean cured ham)
Queso Manchego (Spain's most famous cheese)

¡Buen provecho!

Did you know?  Madrileños, in spite of living nowhere near the sea, eat more seafood than any other people in the world, with the exception of the Japanese.

Can you figure out?  Why the Spanish, whose cuisine seems so adventurous and interesting, have the most boring desserts in the world?

Can you survive...  The onslaught of cholesterol contained in a harmless-looking breakfast of churros y chocolate?


Because Spain is a Catholic country, all feast days and holidays of the Roman Catholic Church are official national holidays in Spain. On top of these, Madrid celebrates its own huge fiesta during the month of May when the Fiesta de San Isidro has the whole city celebrating the anniversary of the city's patron saint for over two weeks. This is when the really big bullfights take place in the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas. As in France and Italy, it seems as though all of Spain takes its vacation in August, so during that month, Madrid can sometimes feel like a ghost town.

Here is a list of all the public holidays in Madrid:

January 1 (New Year)
January 6 (Epiphany)
Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday
May 1 (Labor Day)
May 15 (San Isidro)*
July 25 (St. James' Day)
August 15 (Assumption)
October 12 (El Pilar)
November 1 (All Saints' Day)
December 6 (Constitution Day)
December 8 (Immaculate Conception)
Christmas Day
*Madrid only

Spanish fiestas are an intoxicating mixture of religious observance and endless, loud, exuberant partying. People will dress up in their local traditional costumes, dance the local traditional dances and party all night. In the afternoon, they head to the bullring...

¡Olé!  The bullring in Madrid is the number one venue in Spain (followed by Seville), for size, atmosphere, beauty, knowledgeability of the crowd and quality of the corridas. It's called the Plaza de Toros Monumental de las Ventas, or just Las Ventas for short. If you happen to be in Madrid on a Sunday between March and mid-October—and if you don't mind a little blood and gore—then you shouldn't miss a bullfight in these splendid surroundings. You'll have a hard time securing tickets during San Isidro, but otherwise it should be no problem. Bullfighting is no mere sport for the Spaniards—it is an institution. It just might be a key to understanding what Spain is all about: in the crowded tiers of the arena is displayed the gamut of Mediterranean emotions from love, passion, and honor to anger, fury and fanaticism. Pick your seat according to your budget: sol zones (in the sun) are cheaper than sombra ones (in the shade) but keep a good picture-taking angle in mind. This is one of the most photogenic things you'll see on your trip. The elaborate parades will keep you snapping left and right. See the special cityfact essay The Spanish Bullfight. (Metro Ventas)

The lords and ladies of the dance  The corrida is over, you've had a quick drink and a round of tapas, taken a little paseo and eaten a paella dinner. Now, it's off to the tablao for that most quintessential of Spanish experiences, an evening of Flamenco music and dance. It's a must for any visitor to Spain. The venue is small, dark and intimate. A guitarist or two sit in a chair against the back wall of the stage. Gradually, the dancers appear. The women may be dressed in flamboyant, colorful, flowing dresses; the man will be wearing tight, black clothes. Shoes are heavily heeled. The dancers are muscular but lithe. Their faces are engraved with the traces of lives lived at the height of emotional expression. The music is rhythmic, complex, fast and inviting to the dance. The singing is harsh, strained, powerful and emotive. The dances are at once melancholy, exuberant and seductive. Perhaps this is why they are such a perfect expression of Spain and Spanish life.

Of costumes and castanets  Flamenco may be quintessentially Spanish but it's also 100% southern, from the region of Andalucía. If you want to see something in the evening which is really typical of Madrid, check in the local "What's On?" guides like the Guía del Ocio to see if there's any Zarzuela playing. In the summer, they often have open-air performances in the Madrid's amusement park, the Parque de Atracciones in the Casa de Campo. It's a kind of 19th-century Spanish light opera, musetta in a mantilla. The tunes are catchy, the costumes are great and the atmosphere is 100% Madrid. OK, so the stories are stupid, but what does that matter? If you get the chance, it's a great way to spend a warm summer's evening in Spain's capital city.


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