Madrid overview

Post-Franco, the heart of Spain throbs to a new rhythm

Madrid overview Statue of Don Quixote - © iStockphoto/Ken Sorrie
By Sally Davies

Madrid has had a host of identities since men first settled the fortifiable site by the shallow River Manzanares. From Roman waystation and Arab garrison town to the hub of perhaps the most powerful global empire the world has known, and from there to a war-torn wasteland – few other European capitals can claim a past anything like as chequered. Its history is a complex mosaic of peoples and cultures, and its present reflects that complexity.

Post-Franco explosion

In the 21st century, the city is re-inventing itself yet again, and exploring Madrid today brings the visitor face to face with all the achievements and dilemmas of 'la transición': the post-Franco explosion of ideas and expression of newfound freedom. Nowadays the heart of Spain is throbbing to the rhythm of a fresh pacemaker. There are new inhabitants, new infrastructure and new habits, bound together by an enduring sense of historical continuity. The old and the new are bubbling together, mostly harmoniously, and madrileños are as interested to see the results as any visitor.

Reminders of the past

Reminders of the past are everywhere and it's hard to know where to begin: you can't ignore the Prado, Thyssen or Reina Sofía, housing some of the finest collections of art anywhere in Europe, and Sunday isn't Sunday in Madrid without a visit to the Rastro fleamarket and a leisurely breakfast vermouth in a nearby bar. 'Madrid de Los Austrias', the grand Habsburg-created area east of the Plaza Mayor, breathes the 17th and 18th centuries from every cobble, while the Retiro beckons with its acres of green space and neatly manicured walkways.

Design & innovation

But the new clamours for attention as well: the Jean Nouvel-designed extension to the Reina Sofia museum, opened in 2005, is as courageously incongruous as it is successful, and the renovation and pedestrianisation of the network of narrow streets round the Puerta del Sol have made walking through the area infinitely more pleasant. Even Richard Rogers' award-winning new terminal at Barajas airport is worth a shuttle ride when you arrive. New investment, fresh faces and what seems to be a never-ending economic boom have energised Madrid and its inhabitants. The city continues to relish its substance and renew its form. If you've never been, it's a must. If you knew it before, you'll be astonished at the changes.

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