Sitting in Sol or Sombra at the Bullfights
With origins as old as pagan Spain, the art of bullfighting is the expression of Iberian temperament and passions. Detractors object to the sport as cruel, bloody, violent, hot, and savage. Aficionados, however, understand bullfighting as a microcosm of death, catharsis, and rebirth. These philosophical underpinnings may not be immediately apparent, but if you strive to understand the bullfight, it can be one of the most evocative and memorable events in Spain. Head for the country's biggest plaza de toros (bullring), at Ventas (on the eastern border of Madrid's Salamanca district, close to the M-30 highway). Tickets are either sol (sunny side) or sombra (in the shade); you'll pay more to get out of the sun. Observe how the feverish crowds appreciate the ballet of the banderilleros, the thundering fury of the bull, the arrogance of the matador -- all leading to "death in the afternoon." Peak time for attending bullfights is during the capital's San Isidro fiestas in May, when 4 consecutive weeks of daily corridas feature some of the biggest names in the bullfighting world.
Seeing the Masterpieces at the Prado
It's one of the world's premier art museums, ranking with the Louvre. The Prado -- which saw a bright and innovative expansion in 2007 -- is home to over 4,000 masterpieces, many of them acquired by kings through the ages. The wealth of Spanish art is staggering -- everything from Goya's Naked Maja to the celebrated Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) by Velázquez (my favorite). Masterpiece after masterpiece unfolds before your eyes: You can imagine your fate in Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights or recoil from the horror of Goya's Disasters of War etchings. When the Spanish artistic soul gets too dark, escape to the Italian salons and view canvases by Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, and Botticelli. Be warned, though, that a quick run-through won't suffice: It would take a lifetime to savor the Prado's wonders.
Feasting on Tapas in the Tascas
Tapas, those bite-size portions washed down with wine, beer, or sherry, are reason enough to go to Madrid! Spanish tapas are so good their once-secret recipes have been broadcast around the world, but they always taste better at home. A tapeo is akin to a London pub-crawl -- you travel from one tapas bar to another. Each has a different specialty. Tapas bars, called tascas, are a quintessential Spanish experience, be it in Galicia, Andalusia, Catalonia, or Castile. Originally, tapas were cured ham or chorizo (spicy sausage). Today they are likely to include everything -- gambas (deep-fried shrimp); anchovies marinated in vinegar; stuffed peppers; a cool, spicy gazpacho; or hake salad. To go really native, try mollejas (lamb sweetbreads) or criadillas (bull testicles). These dazzling spreads will hold you over until the fashionable 10pm dining hour. The best streets for your tasca crawl include Ventura de la Vega, the area around Plaza de Santa Ana or Plaza de Santa Bárbara, Cava Baja, or Calle de Cuchilleros. Calle Hartzenbusch, in the Chamberí district, also has some tempting places.
Lounging in an Outdoor Café
In sultry summertime, Madrileños come alive on their terrazas. The drinking and good times can go on until dawn. In glamorous hangouts or on lowly street corners, the cafe scene takes place mainly along an axis shaped by the Paseo de la Castellana, Paseo del Prado, and Paseo de Recoletos. The Paseo del Pintor Rosales, on the western edge of the Argüelles district, near the teleférico and overlooking the Casa de Campo, also has an attractive tree-fringed collection of open-air cafes; and down at the southern end of Lavapiés, the colorful Calle Argumasa offers a fashionable spill of lively alfresco bars. Wander up and down the boulevards and select a spot that appeals to you. For traditional atmosphere in a historic setting, the touristy but fun terrazas at Plaza Mayor win out.
Shopping the Rastro
Madrid's main flea market has been a local tradition for 500 years. Savvy shoppers arrive before 7am every Sunday to beat the rush and claim the best merchandise. It doesn't really get going until about 9am, and then it's shoulder-to-shoulder all the way down Calle Ribera de Curtidores. Real or fake antiques, secondhand clothing, porno films, Franco-era furniture, paintings (endless copies of Velázquez), bullfight posters, old books, religious relics, and plenty of just plain junk, including motorcycles from World War II, are for sale. These streets also contain some of the finest permanent antiques shops in Madrid. But beware: Pickpockets are out in full force. More than a few mugging victims have later found their purses here for resale -- thoroughly emptied, of course. (Shoppers will be pleased to know that earlier plans to move the Rastro from its handy central location to Mercamadrid, the city's outlying wholesale market, have been indefinitely shelved.)
Sunday Strolling in the Retiro
Spread across 140 cool hectares (350 acres) in sweltering Madrid, Parque del Retiro was originally designed as the gardens of Buen Retiro palace, occupied by Philip IV in the 1630s. In 1767, Charles III opened part of the gardens to the general public. Only after the collapse of Isabella II's monarchy in 1868 did the park become available to all Madrileños. Statues dot the grounds (a towering 1902 monument to Alfonso XII presides over the lake), which also contain some 15,000 trees, a rose garden, and a few art galleries. The best time for a stroll is Sunday morning before lunch, when vendors hawk their wares, magicians perform their acts, fortunetellers read their tarot cards, and large Disney-style moving models of Tweety Bird and Bugs Bunny delight the kids. You can rent a rowboat and laze away the morning on its glittering waters, or take a short trip around it on a solar-energized pleasure boat. Don't be tempted to try and catch any of the silvery carp that dart below you, though. It could earn you a fine.
Picnicking in the Casa de Campo
On a hot summer day, enjoy an alfresco repast in the shade of a fragrant pine in the heart of Madrid's largest park and look back at the shimmering city skyline. Afterward go boating on the lake or take the kids to the zoo or Parque de Atracciones. You can get here by teleférico chairlift, travel via the metro to Lago, or enter the park through its easterly gate after crossing the River Manzanares from Príncipe Pío.
Nursing a Drink at Museo Chicote (tel. 91-532-67-37)
The 1930s interior at Madrid's most famous bar looks the same as it did during the Spanish Civil War. Shells might have been flying along the Gran Vía, but the international press corps covering the war drank on -- a tunnel is rumored to have connected it with the vintage Bar Cock on a parallel street, handy if they felt like a change of scene and didn't want to risk stepping into the street. After the war, the crowd of regulars included major writers, artists, and actors, including the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. By the late 1960s, it had degenerated into a pickup bar frequented by prostitutes. Today it has regained the joie de vivre of yore and is one of the smart, sophisticated spots to rendezvous in Madrid.
Experiencing the Madrid Night Scene
The 1980s expression movida, roughly translated as the "shift" or the "movement," referred to the world of arts and entertainment released from practically all restrictions and censorship after the death of repressive dictator Franco. Then it covered all aspects of local life, encompassing a wide range of social projects and progressive causes. Today's movida is simply a lively, nonpolitical fun scene that doesn't really get going till after midnight, and even later on weekends. Madrileños hop from club to club as if they're afraid they'll miss out on something if they stay in one place too long. To truly catch a whiff of the Madrileño action, head for the lively nightlife areas of Chueca, Huertas, and Malasaña, and the big clubs around Calle Arenal.
Wandering around the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales
A haven of unexpected peace in the bustling heart of Madrid, barely a stone's throw from the Gran Vía, this charming, medieval former palace was converted into a monastery in the 16th century by Philip II's sister Juana. Ornate frescoes, Flemish tapestries, and paintings by the likes of Titian and Zurbarán fill its chapel-lined interior. Only 20 visitors are allowed in at a time, so be prepared to wait.
Exploring the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (49km/30 miles north of Madrid)
Philip II, who commissioned this monastery in the 1530s, envisioned it as a monastic fortress against the distractions of the secular world. More awesome than beautiful, it's the world's best example of the religious devotion of Renaissance Spain. This huge granite fortress, the burial place for Spanish kings, houses a wealth of paintings and tapestries -- works by everyone from Titian to Velázquez.
Strolling through the Palacio Real at Aranjuez (48km/30 miles south of Madrid.)
In sharp contrast to the Castilian austerity of El Escorial, this sumptuous baroque-classical Bourbon palace, located in a richly fertile valley surrounded by a sun-soaked limestone plateau, boasts a hedonistically warm ambience. So do the magnificent French-designed 16th-century gardens whose tall trees extend for miles alongside the deep flowing Tagus River and shelter the tiny neighboring Casa del Labrador summer palacete.
The Best Train Ride
An old narrow-gauge railway takes you up 1,500m (5,000 ft.) through giant pinewoods from Cercedilla to the hamlet of Cotos, which enjoys winter skiing and summer walks up to the 2,300m (7,500 ft.) Peñalara, the highest point of the Guadarramas.
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