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Comunidad de Madrid : The Region of Madrid
The Comunidad de Madrid is one of the smallest of Spain’s seventeen regions in purely geographical terms, but of course it includes the nation’s capital, and the metropolitan area is home to almost 6.5 million people, or one seventh of the entire national population.
Despite this, the region in which the capital is located is not entirely urban, as it is in the cases of Paris or Greater London. In Madrid the majority of the inhabitants live in apartments and flats, and as a result the city itself occupies a far smaller area than London. Within Madrid there is a high concentration of monuments, museums and sightseeing opportunities, but around it the high mountains and open countryside are home to the region’s three World Heritage Sites (the monastery of El Escorial, the old city of Alcalá de Henares and the landscape around the Royal Palace of Aranjuez).
Geographically, the nation’s capital is located practically in the centre of Spain, and is the highest capital city in Europe at more than 660 metres above sea level. This affects the climate, and while the summer heat is enough to drive all those who can get away to the coasts, in winter snow and sub-zero temperatures are the norm.
The existence of a region and province of Madrid is a relatively new phenomenon, dating only from the late 19th century, since for much of its history the city was included in the kingdom of Castile, but nonetheless the historical and cultural identity of the area can be seen through a brief summary of its history. This dates back to early human settlements in the valleys of the Rivers Manzanares, Jarama and Henares, attested to by cave paintings and Bronze Age ceramics from 2,000 years BC which have been found in Ciempozuelos.
During the rule of the Romans the area of Madrid was part of the Citerior Tarraconense province – in a reversal of the current situation, Madrid was under the rule of Catalunya! – and the most important settlement was that of Complutum, which later became Alcalá de Henares. Other Roman towns existed in the sierra between Segovia and Madrid and in Titulcia, in the south of the modern-day region.
After the Romans withdrew, though, the area was largely disregarded by the Visigoths and depopulation ensued. Complutum was left to its own devices, and not until the Moors built a series of infrastructures to protect their city of Toledo in the 9th century was there a resurgence. One of these defensive bastions was the fortress community of Mayrit, the forerunner of the city of Madrid: only a short stretch of the old city walls from this era remains, on the Cuesta de la Vega at the end of the Calle Mayor.
Madrid was re-conquered from the Moors by Alfonso VI in 1083, Alcalá de Henares was taken in 1118, and the following centuries were ones of re-population, especially in Buitrago del Lozoya, Alcalá de Henares and Talamanca de Jarama.
In the 14th and 15th centuries the monarchs of Castile began to enjoy the abundant hunting in the forests of central Spain, and the Royal Palace of Aranjuez was built by the Catholic Monarchs. San Lorenzo de El Escorial followed, and the University of Alcalá de Henares was founded in 1508. All of these led up to Felipe II’s decision to make Madrid his capital city in 1561, by which time the local countryside was already dotted with hunting lodges, palaces, summer retreats and palaces frequented by the rich and powerful.
This was a brave decision on the part of the king. There were only around 15,000 inhabitants in Madrid at the time, but over the next two centuries the population, infrastructures, economy and prestige of Madrid all grew into the role bestowed upon it by Felipe. The “Community of Madrid” was recognized in 1833 as one of twelve provinces in Spain, and the same boundaries were maintained in the democratic Constitution of 1978.
The city of Madrid now lies in the heart of the region, bordered by the mountains to the north and north-west and the River Tajo to the south and south-east. The mountains reach a height of well over 2,000 metres above sea level, and there are opportunities to ski in Navacerrada, in the Sierra de Guadarrama between Madrid and Segovia. This uneven terrain means that the climate and landscape vary considerably between the cool, rainy, mountainous north and the warm, dry, flat lands of the south. In the city itself the summer heat can be extremely uncomfortable, and despite the attractions of air conditioning on the Metro and easy parking many visitors prefer to avoid the months of July and August.
Madrid may not always have been the capital of Spain, but now it has all of the attractions and institutions typical of any major European capital. The most visited among these are the Reina Sofía Museum and the Prado art gallery, although the variety of reasons for visiting is reflected by the fact that the Warner Brothers theme park, the Royal Palace and the Santiago Bernabeu football stadium (home to Real Madrid) also receive around a million tourist visits every year. Outside the city itself the El Escorial monastery and Alcalá de Henares are very popular destinations, and although it is often assumed that most foreign tourists in Spain head for the coast, the region of Madrid normally welcomes between 4 and 5 million every year: the Costa Blanca attracts a similar number of visitors from abroad.
Most of these visitors include a tour of monuments, emblematic squares (Plaza Mayor, Playa de los Cibeles, Puerta del Sol) and the Retiro park in their itinerary, but the location of the city means that National and Regional parks are also within striking distance, and trips out into the countryside are popular. The National Parks of Guadarrama and Peñalara and the Regional Park of the Cuenca Alta del Manzanares are all reminders of the fact that Madrid is surrounded by untamed countryside and spectacular landscapes, and eagles and boars are common sights in the mountains. There are also seven nature reserves in the region.
As perhaps befits the capital of Spain, the most important fiestas and celebrations in the city include the bullfights, especially those of the San Isidro fiestas in the month of May. The Las Ventas bullring is the largest in the country, and in the running of the bulls in San Sebastián de los Reyes the region also hosts the second most important celebration of this kind in Spain (exceeded in popularity only by the San Fermines in Pamplona).
The older city of Alcalá de Henares boasts popular fiestas which date back to 1184, and the Easter Week celebrations in Chinchón and Villarejo de Salvanés are also particularly well-known for their representations of the Passion of Christ.
If the history, monuments, museums, landscape, nightlife, fiestas and art galleries are not enough to make Madrid worth a trip, then it still has another weapon in its armoury with which to attract visitors: food. The city has not only imported specialities from other regions of Spain – despite its distance from the coast it is said that the best fish and seafood in the country are available in Madrid’s markets and restaurants – but has also exported firm favourites to the rest of the country. These include the universal potato omelette and “churros”, the sweet fried dough pastry sticks typically consumed as a weekend breakfast with thick hot chocolate.
Another typical dish is “cocido madrileño”, a stew based on chickpeas with meat, chorizo, morcilla and bacon, which is ideal to warm up on cold winter days, but of course these days the eating establishments in Madrid are cosmopolitan and international: there are even English restaurants!
Bar and café culture is an essential part of life in Madrid, and it is here that the tapas can give a real taste of what makes the Madrileños tick. Whether accompanied by soft drinks, coffee, beer or the aniseed liquor of Chinchón – dangerously delicious! – the visitor with time on his or her hands is advised to spend time in Madrid sitting on a terrace watching and listening as the locals go about their daily routine.
Much of this daily routine revolves around sport, a subject about which a large sector of the population is fanatical. Apart from the eternal football rivalry between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid there is also huge support for basketball, cycling and tennis, and although Madrid has repeatedly failed in its bids to host the Olympics there can be fewer more sports-orientated cities in Europe. Adventure sports such as climbing, skiing, rambling and others are also immensely popular as the city dwellers welcome chances to get out into the mountains nearby.
A visit to the city can be organized by area or by topic. Some prefer to devote a day to the “Barrio de los Asturias”, which includes the part of the city which developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. This area includes the Palacio Real, the Opera, the Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, the Almudena Cathedral and the Plaza de la Villa, and small specialist shops still supply fans, hats and other items reminiscent of a bygone age.
The Barrio de los Borbones (also known as the Barrio de Salamanca) provides a contrast. This is the part of Madrid dominated by the Retiro park and the best known brand name shops, as well as the Plaza Cibeles, the botanical gardens, the Plaza Colón and the most important art museums, such as the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía.
Another route to follow is from north to south along the main thoroughfare of Madrid, the Paseo de la Castellana, which for the southern half of its length changes its name to the Paseo de Recoletos and then the Paseo del Prado. As well as numerous banks and embassies, this single avenue is home to the Kio towers, the Plaza Colón, the Plaza de Cibeles, the Thyssen and Prado museums, the national archaeological museum, various government Ministries, the Palacio de Linares, the Café Gijón, the Torre Picasso, the Santiago Bernabeu stadium and dozens if not hundreds of outdoor café and bar terraces.
Madrid’s shops, of course, offer just about everything, and the nearer one gets to the city centre the more apparent it becomes that the whole area is like one big shopping centre. In the exclusive atmosphere of the Barrio de Salamanca and Goya some of the best-known designer names have established their Madrid emporia, including Vittorio & Lucchino, Adolfo Domínguez, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, Chanel, Gucci and Lacoste, and the main El Corte Inglés is also in this zone.
For a contrast, a visit to the cosmopolitan Chueca soho area is recommended: here avant-garde fashion mixes with tattoo parlours and live street music. There is also a daily market nearby in Fuencarral, but for lovers of open-air shopping the must-see market is held on Sunday mornings and public holidays in El Rastro, in the streets around Ribera de los Curtidores. To describe it as a “flea market” seems uncomplimentary: dating back to the mid-18th century, it is now home to 3,500 stalls, many of them selling leather goods, antiques, textiles and collectables. In many ways it is similar to the Portobello market in London or the Waterlooplein in Amsterdam.
On the western edge of the city centre is the enormous park, formerly a royal hunting estate, of the Casa de Campo. This huge green area covers 1,722 hectares, making it six times larger than Hyde Park in London, and without a doubt the most spectacular way to reach it is to take the cable car across the River Manzanares from Paseo del Pintor Rosales. The Casa de Campo is like a natural park in the heart of the city, and is enjoyed by many Madrileños at weekends, and the prestigious sports club at the northern end includes a golf course on which the Spanish Open has been held on various occasions.
The city of Madrid is something of an amalgam of the elements of different areas of the country, as is fitting for its central location. The industry of the north, the passion and flair of Andalucía, the relaxed attitude of the Mediterranean and the tenacious determination of the mountain areas of the country have all come together in the capital, where flamenco and bullfighting sit alongside art galleries and opera in peaceful co-existence.
The region of Madrid contains more than just the city, though. The climate is also a mixture of those found in other regions, from the baking summers to the bitterly cold winters, and to fully appreciate the rich variety of the capital city of Spain visitors are advised to take a trip out into the countryside which surrounds it.
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