Spain

Madrid & Central Spain

Madrid is not a city of half-measures: Europe’s highest, greenest, youngest, sunniest capital likes to boast Desde Madrid al Cielo (‘from Madrid to Heaven’) with its matter-of-fact assumption that when you’ve seen Madrid, the only place left is Heaven. Perversely, the city is almost as famous for what it lacks as for what it boasts – there’s no great river, no architectural marvels, no immediate picture-postcard charm. But what it does have, it has in spades: a fabulous collection of Western art held in the great triumvirate of the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofía, and an intense nightlife that makes most other cities look staid and past it.


The streets where Cervantes and Lope de Vega bickered and which later provided Goya with a backdrop for his paintings of local fiestas are still the heart of the city and remain delightfully walkable. A deliberately aimless stroll will throw up an outrageously lavish doorway, a Moorish flourish on a former belltower, or a boho-chic café set in an old pharmacy advertising laxatives in 19th-century tiles. The Spanish gift for combining tradition and modernity with such effortless aplomb reaches new heights in Madrid, a city in which miracles can still happen in one part of the city while a glossy new nightclub is being toasted in another.

Madrileños abandon the capital at weekends for their second homes in the pretty mountain villages of Navacerrada and Cotos, where there is plenty of hiking, climbing and even skiing. Backed by a startling mountainous backdrop, Segovia is one of the loveliest cities in Spain, famous for its sturdy Castillian cuisine and the vast Roman aqueduct. Ávila, known as the ‘City of Saints and Stones’, is quieter and more contemplative, hemmed in by a remarkable ring of medieval fortified walls. 


Behind it stretches the wild and remote Sierra de Gredos, a spectacular mountain range with tiny stone villages and excellent hiking trails. When the kings and queens of Spain wanted respite from the capital’s burning heat, they took themselves off to palaces and hunting lodges: the Habsburgs preferred the sombre austerity of El Escorial, but the Bourbons built fanciful Baroque extravaganzas at La Granja de San Ildefonso and Aranjuez, and surrounded them with exquisite gardens. The extensive gardens of Aranjuez are especially beautiful, a rare and refreshing oasis of green in the burning Castillian plain. The ancient university town of Alcalá de Henares was the birthplace of Cervantes, whose home has been converted into an engaging little museum, but the old streets are still smattered with magnificent Renaissance architecture. The hilltop city of Toledo remains the most popular day-trip from Madrid and with good reason: Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Jews and Christians have all left their mark on this famously tolerant and cultured city and the tiny streets and passages which twist around the enormous cathedral are still redolent of the city’s glorious past.


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