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Madrid Spotlight

This tapas-eating, flamenco-dancing, culture-rich city is the soul of Spain

By Anja Mutic

November 8th, 2006

Madrileños are known to proclaim desde Madrid al cielo! (Madrid is the closest you'll get to heaven) about their hometown. Think what you will of the platitude, but there's no denying that the vivacious Spanish capital has a lot going for it, including some of Europe's top museums, best food, and most happening nightlife. Its longtime rival, the laid-back Catalan city of Barcelona, may have its Mediterranean and multiculti vibe – but Madrid alone is the soul of Spain. And now there's even more reason to visit this landlocked city in the middle of the Iberian peninsula: Recent years have seen new restaurants, hotels, and bars diversify the landscape, offering something for both hedonists and culture-vultures alike. Even the traditionally homogenous ethnic tapestry has been diversifying of late, thanks to a steady influx of immigrants from Africa, South America, and Asia. Yet, beneath all the newness, Madrid remains the quintessence of Spain, with its tapas bars, flamenco halls, and radiant energy.

The city's districts, called barrios, reveal many Madrids: the hectic behemoth of Gran Vía Avenue; the Habsburg-era facades of the historic quarter around Plaza Mayor; the slowly gentrifying working-class neighborhood of Lavapiés. Its illustrious trio of word-class museums - the Prado, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza - is reason enough to come to this city that ranks as Europe's highest, sunniest, and greenest capital. Rambling through these venerable art institutions, with a jaunt to the Royal Palace and Retiro Park, can easily fill a three-day sojourn. If your visit falls on a Sunday, make sure to squeeze in a morning browse around the legendary Rastro flea market. With five days on your hands, you'll be able to explore the city's many neighborhoods during the day – from elegant Salamanca to edgy Malasaña – and partake in Madrid's famous nightlife, sampling fantastic tapas at age-old taverns and hitting the bars and clubs come midnight. A week will give you plentiful time to explore the city's endless barrios, while away entire afternoons at cafés, treat yourself to sweet siesta time, stroll through parks, and let your hair down come nighttime.

Madrileños are a friendly and outgoing bunch, but speaking English is certainly not among their fortes. If in a communication bind, you’ll be better off approaching the younger crowd who are more likely to know a few words of English. The Spanish tend to be impressed by even the clumsiest attempts at gracias (thank you), hasta luego (see you later), and por favor (please); so brush up on the basics, pack a phrasebook and you're in for a fun time – prometemos (we promise)!

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