Madrid Travel Guide

Madrid is Spain's headiest city, where the revelling lasts long into the night and life is seized with the teeth and both hands. Strangers quickly become friends, passion blooms in an instant, and visitors are swiftly addicted to the city's charms. Madrid may not have the Roman origins that get city historians hot and bothered, and it may be a comparative parvenu, selected from rural obscurity to become the capital only in the second half of the 16th century, but it oozes an ebullience that rarely fails to move.

You will find the city centre so thronged so late into the night, as though some unwritten law forbade sleeping before dawn. Ambitious programs to modernise the city are afoot, but the gatos (locals) of Madrid can rest assured that their town remains as refreshingly unlike Paris, London or Rome as ever. Madrid has always been a city of immigrants and transients, and the result is an unusually open and accessible city. To experience Madrid is to explore its restaurants and eateries, prop up its countless bars, and be swept up in the nocturnal madness of its music scene and clubs.

Facts at a glance

Area: 607 sq km
Population: 3 million
Country: Spain
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Telephone Area Code: 91

Madrid's origins are probably as an Islamic garrison. Convention has it that the emir of Córdoba established a fortress on the future site of Madrid in AD 854. Known as Magerit, it was one of a string of forts across the frontier land between Al-Andalus in the south and the Christian kingdoms to the north.

1085: Madrid's Muslim era ended when hegemony over the region was handed to King Alfonso VI of Castile. Although its population is thought to have numbered around 12,000 at this time, the town's status remained only marginal.

1348: Municipal power was concentrated in the hands of a small number of local families, who managed to hold on to their position when royally appointed governors attempted to wrest control.

1474: While Madrid remained on the fringe of things, Isabel and Ferdinand united the Castilian and Aragonese Crowns.

1492: This year fel lGranada, the last Muslim stronghold on the peninsula, and in the same year, Columbus set sail on the journey that would bring Spain untold wealth. Isabel and Ferdinand's grandson, Carlos I, succeeded not only to the throne of Spain but also to that of the Hapsburgs, becoming Holy Roman Emperor over territories stretching from Austria to Holland and from Spain to the American colonies.

1561: Carlos' son and successor, Felipe II, appointed Madrid the permanent seat of the royal court. Underdeveloped Madrid offered plenty of room for expansion, as befitted the capital of an empire, but Toledo, the more likely contender, was forever miffed. Concerned with the business of empire, Felipe neglected his new capital, and it remained a chaotic medieval nightmare for its 25,000 inhabitants.

The country's rulers retreated to their capital, creating a fantasy land of sumptuous palaces and churches. Over the next century, Spain proceeded to go to pot, bled dry by a succession of wars and massive inflation caused by its looted colonial treasures. Madrid became a city of immigrants, with the population blowing out to 150,000 by 1656; however, such numbers existed only because of the presence of the court. The squalor in which the bulk of the people lived made a mockery of such splendour.

1700: Hapsburg Spain came to a whimpering end with the death of the sickly Carlos II. A succession of reformist rulers saw Madrid finally lose its reputation as Europe's filthiest city, but attempts at land reform failed, with the region continuing to be an essentially poor country ruled by a big-spending royal court.

1805: The scene was set for the final blows: the crushing of Spain by Britain in the Battle of Trafalgar; the loss of its American colonies; Napoleon's occupation of Spain; and the ensuing Peninsula War for independence, which was sparked by the people of Madrid and left the city exhausted and facing starvation.

19th-century: Society in Madrid remained dominated by the landed aristocracy, with the poorer classes still living in single-storey slum housing and a full quarter of the working population employed as servants in aristocratic households.

1837: A burgeoning middle class emerged, when Church property was expropriated by the government. It's estimated that some 1600 Church properties were destroyed in Madrid in the first four decades of the 19th century alone, leaving the new bourgeois to pick up the pieces, and later art historians to gnash their teeth and weep. Thanks to an injection of foreign (mostly French) capital, living conditions were improved with the introduction of street paving, gas lighting, sewage and garbage collection.

1873: Politically, things were a mess, with alternating coups between conservative and liberal wings of the army followed by the shortlived republic and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1875. Spain ended the century ignominiously, losing its navy and remaining colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines) to the USA imperialism.

20th century: The first decades saw improvements in Madrid such as the electrification of the tramlines, the creation of the Gran Vía and the inaugural metro line.

1931: Inward migration caused the city's population to double from a 1900 figure of half a million to almost one million. With housing shortages chronic, Madrid's politics were becoming radicalised. Opposition to the Crown and calls for constitutional reform were growing louder, socialists leading the way under the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and General Workers' Union (UGT).

1930: A repressive six-year military dictatorship was finally ended by Alfonso XIII, and the ensuing municipal elections saw a coalition of republicans and socialists carry the day.

Three days later, the second republic was proclaimed. Universal suffrage was introduced, Alfonso XIII fled the country and Madrid was officially recognised as the capital of the Spanish state. Joyful abandon was sadly shortlived, however, as party infighting, calls for revolution, a series of crippling strikes and the bloody suppression of a miners' revolt by troops led by General Francisco Franco saw the country precariously poised between right and left.

1936: The situation reached boiling point when the Frente Nacional (National Front) was pipped to the post by the left-wing Frente Popular (Popular Front) in the elections of February. Three years of seemingly inevitable bloody civil war were inaugurated in July 1936 by rebellious North African garrisons, led by Franco.

1939: In March Madrid held the nationalists at bay until the surrender, with fighting heaviest in the northwest of the city.

1960: The victorious Franco made Madrid his home, ushering in decades of poverty, repression and chronic overcrowding. Economic woes lessened due to increased foreign investment but discontent was on the rise.

1975: Franco died, having earlier named Juan Carlos, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, his successor. With King Juan Carlos on the throne, Spain made the transition from dictatorship to democracy with the appointment of a moderate conservative government. Opposition parties and trade unions were legalised, and a new constitution was written.

1979: Madrid's first free municipal elections were held, and power has since been shuffled between left-wing and right-of-centre councils.Recent years have seen the revival of artistic and cultural activity in the city, the restoration of the old centre, and improved public transport and public housing.

2004: In March the city was rocked by a series of terrorist bombings on the train system that left 200 people dead.

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