All Ways Spain – Madrid Gran Vía

Europe’s comfortable capital city

Lon­don may be big­ger (twice, in fact), Rome more ancient (just the 2359 years head start), Berlin more impos­ing, and Paris more chic, but of the five big Euro­pean nations, it is cer­tain­ly Spain’s cap­i­tal city, Madrid, that wins most plau­dits as a live­able city, for vis­i­tors and res­i­dents alike. Exter­nal polls reg­u­lar­ly reaf­firm the opin­ion of the madrileños them­selves that Madrid is one of the most com­fort­able large cities one could live in, rank­ings con­sis­tent­ly plac­ing it in the top twen­ty in the world. One of the rea­sons is undoubt­ed­ly the cli­mate: over 300 days of sun­shine a year and an intense blue sky. Madrid also has a cul­tur­al vibran­cy and a 24-hour lifestyle that one does not find in many oth­er cities – lead­ing it to be dubbed “the city that nev­er sleeps”. Fur­ther­more, despite a total munic­i­pal pop­u­la­tion that is nowa­days nudg­ing over 6 mil­lion, Madrid gives the sense of being some­thing of a large vil­lage, with the locals espe­cial­ly warm and wel­com­ing to the fair­ly recent influx of peo­ple from all over the world. It is also a well-run and wealthy city, third only in terms of GDP behind Lon­don and Paris in the EU, and despite Spain’s recent eco­nom­ic down­turn Madrid still exudes a dynamism and pros­per­i­ty to set along­side its his­to­ry and cul­ture.

It is undoubt­ed­ly art that draws most vis­i­tors to Madrid. In the so-called “Gold­en Tri­an­gle of Art” one finds per­haps the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of Euro­pean art any­where in the con­ti­nent, divid­ed between the world-famous Pra­do Muse­um, the mod­ern art col­lec­tion of the Reina Sofía Muse­um, and the Thyssen-Borne­misza Muse­um, which com­ple­ments the oth­er two with its mix­ture of late medieval and con­tem­po­rary art. These three cov­er prac­ti­cal­ly all Span­ish and Euro­pean art from the 12th to the 20th cen­turies, from Velázquez to Picas­so, Tit­ian to Miró, and it would take days to exam­ine their trea­sures in detail. Most vis­i­tors con­tent them­selves with some self-edu­cat­ed wan­der­ings but a pri­vate guide, expert in art his­to­ry, can add immea­sur­ably to the expe­ri­ence of see­ing and under­stand­ing these great works.

Beyond the “name” gal­leries and muse­ums, Madrid has a series of new, quirki­er, inde­pen­dent arts cen­tres. Fore­most is the Caix­aFo­rum which, although based in an avant-garde con­struc­tion using the shell of an old indus­tri­al build­ing, exhibits ret­ro­spec­tives of artists from ear­li­er times and has evolved into one of the most-vis­it­ed muse­ums in Madrid. In the south by the Man­zanares riv­er is the gigan­tic Matadero com­plex, an old meat mar­ket and slaugh­ter­house con­vert­ed into a stun­ning mul­ti-pur­pose arts cen­tre host­ing tem­po­rary instal­la­tions, con­tem­po­rary the­atre, cin­e­ma and dance, work­shops, lec­tures, dis­cus­sions — even Bicy­cle Main­te­nance class­es! Oth­er gal­leries, with more clas­si­cal col­lec­tions, include the love­ly Sorol­la Muse­um, an ele­gant old man­sion where the high-ceilinged rooms dis­play the paint­ings of Joaquín Sorol­la, a pro­lif­ic c.19 painter whose upbeat and colour­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tions of every­day Span­ish scenes gained him great pop­u­lar­i­ty; the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Fine Arts of San Fer­nan­do, dat­ing back to 1744 and still teach­ing aspir­ing artists today, locat­ed in a grandiose Baroque palace and with an impres­sive col­lec­tion of Renais­sance and ear­ly mod­ern art (plus works by Goya, who used to be the academy’s direc­tor); and the Lázaro Gal­diano Muse­um — the pri­vate col­lec­tion of the mil­lion­aire Gal­diano, one of Spain’s most pas­sion­ate col­lec­tors of art, Old Mas­ters includ­ed, housed in a beau­ti­ful palace on the posh Calle Ser­ra­no.

Oth­er notable Madrid land­marks include the Roy­al Palace, with its opu­lent tapes­tries; the Roy­al The­atre with its restored 1850 Opera House; the expan­sive green “lung” of the city, the Buen Retiro Park, found­ed in 1631; a large and eclec­tic spread of nation­al muse­ums, and the old Hab­s­burg quar­ter cen­tred around the impos­ing rec­tan­gle of Plaza May­or.

In addi­tion, as befits one of Europe´s great­est par­ty towns, there are end­less bars where you can have a “caña” (lit­tle beer) and tapas in the many dif­fer­ent “bar­rios” of Madrid: La Lati­na, Chue­ca, Lava­piés, Sala­man­ca, Malasaña, among oth­ers. For a more peace­ful moment, rest in one of the green areas of the city such as the Buen Retiro park, Casa de Cam­po, Par­que del Oeste or even take a stroll along the Riv­er Man­zanares, where eight kilo­me­tres of riv­er park­land and urban beach­es were recent­ly restored. How­ev­er, to gain some respite from the bus­tle of this ener­getic city, a good plan is to head out into the moun­tains, just one hour away, and breathe the fresh air or vis­it the mag­nif­i­cent his­toric towns of Madrid’s sur­round­ings, such as Segovia, Ávi­la and Tole­do.