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Travel & Holidays in later life


For Reg Butler the best seasons for visiting the Spanish capital are springtime and autumn. 

Springtime in the heart of Spain is a period of sparkling blue skies, 7 hours' sunshine daily and noon temperatures of 60 F. During November, Madrid has the best sunshine record in Europe, with 6 hours daily, though nights are chilly. 

Both seasons are ideal for sightseeing, with no need of afternoon siesta to avoid the grilling heat of summer.

Madrid has a many-sided appeal. Mainly a 19th-century city, Madrid has entire boulevards of modern apartments and a completely 20th-century University, rebuilt since the Civil War.

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Madrid's public transport system is cheap and efficient. Learn the layout of the Metro system which comprises 11 lines. For a few eros a day the Madrid Card is excellent value and is valid on all public transport in the city.

The handiest line is Number 2, which links many of the principal sights. Subway and bus routes also serve the airport, 10 miles from city centre.

Sunday morning, take Metro to La Latina and enjoy El Rastro, one of Europe's liveliest flea markets.

There are tourist information offices at Madrid airport and at the main railway station. In town, the main office is at Plaza Mayor 3, Tel: (0034) 91 366 54 77 .  

More information: Spanish National Tourist Office.


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The central Plaza de Espana features a delightful Cervantes memorial, with Don Quixote tilting at the surrounding office blocks, including a 32-storey skyscraper.

A short walk brings you to the heart of 17th-century Madrid, little changed since the Plaza de Mayor was used for burning of heretics, for tournaments and bull-fights.
Plaza Mayor
Antique stores within the Plaza arcades are filled with all the clutter of the centuries. Close by are ancient restaurants with specialities like roast suckling-pig. In cellar wine-taverns, waiters are dressed like bandits. But nobody feels robbed when pitchers of wine are so cheap.

Wandering around the rabbit-warren of old Madrid, it's easy to get lost. Cobbled streets lead into peaceful little squares and thence up flights of steps to another view.

Madrid's top sightseeing attraction is the art-lovers' paradise of the Prado Museum. This gallery, ranking among the finest in Europe, is world renowned for rich collections of El Greco and Velazquez, Rubens and Goya.

Best policy is to take the standard guided tour to find where the most famous paintings are located, and then to return another day for leisurely browsing. The gallery contains over 100 rooms.

For art lovers, Madrid is much more than the city of the Prado. One of the world's richest private art collections - owned by Baron Thyssen - moved several years ago from Lugano in Switzerland to a prestigious home in the Palace of Villahermosa, facing the Prado.

Rated as the greatest painting of the 20th century, Picasso's Guernica - based on bombing of that city during the Spanish Civil War - is located in the Queen Sofia Art Centre. The awe-inspiring canvas is protected behind bullet-proof plate glass, for it's a work that still arouses very deep emotions.

The Queen Sofia Centre is one of the world's biggest exhibition buildings for 20th-century art, rivalled only by the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It has been converted from a remarkable 18th-century building which originally was designed as the Madrid General Hospital!

Royal PalaceIn Madrid, the past and the present live most happily together. City sightseeings show you modern Madrid, but also include visits to the gorgeously furnished rooms of the Royal Palace, and to the adjoining Armoury. 

To get the most enjoyment from a Madrid break, it's worth going Spanish with 3 o'clock lunch and 10.30 dinner.

Then you can sample the cafe and tavern life of Madrid. After morning sightseeing, it's pleasant to relax with a few sherries at a pavement cafe. Little saucers of snacks - called tapas - help fight off hunger till lunchtime.

Likewise, early evening, try a Spanish tasca-crawl. Tasca is a bar or wine-tavern, with great variety of snacks displayed along the counter.

Between 7 and 10 p.m. all the central bars are thronged with local citizens - gossiping, drinking and eating the snacks. It's far better than sitting in the hotel lounge, grumbling because the restaurant doesn't open before 9.30!

Don't book full board at Madrid hotels, or even half board. Instead, break away from the 'international cuisine' of hotel dining rooms, and sample speciality Spanish food in characteristic local restaurants.

Among the most famous eating places is Sobrino de Botín (formerly Casa Botín ) Cuchilleros 17. It is renowned for its bull-fighting guests, Hemingway associations, and roast suckling pig cooked in the restaurant's original 250-year-old oven.

The best evening entertainment is featured by the flamenco nightclubs. Their basic price includes a good ration of drink, with no pressure to keep ordering more.

The singing and dancing is intensely serious, quite unforgettable in its impact. Most performances continue almost non-stop from 10.30 p.m. till 3 a.m. though most visitors check out before then.

The main out-of-town excursions are to Toledo, Segovia, and the monastery of El Escorial.

Toledo is a perfectly-preserved medieval city, with walls rising dramatically from its defensive position beside the River Tagus. The panorama up the granite hillside to the great Cathedral is lifted direct from an El Greco painting.

Close to El Greco's fine 16th-century house is a synagogue dating from 1366. Toiling uphill to the Cathedral, tourists get endless medieval views of narrow Moorish-style streets and open courtyards.

Shops are filled with damascene steel souvenirs, produced by craftsmen using the same methods of centuries ago, when a Toledo sword was Best Buy for medieval knights. Prices are geared to tourism, and haggling is essential. Madrid is much better for shopping, with fixed prices. 

Consider these alternative Spanish destinations:

CATALONIA - the inland and coastal riches

COSTA BRAVA - finding peace along the coast

MALLORCA - Breakaway to the Spanish grandee rural life

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

"Madrid Top Ten" DK Eyewitness Travel Guide - A well-illustrated and comprehensive guide to Madrid, covered district by district. 

Madrid (Lonely Planet City Guides)  - Accurate and comprehensive.

The Rough Guide to Madrid - thoroughly covers both "Madrid by Day" and "Madrid by Night" in detailed style, written by a resident.

"Time Out" Madrid - assembled by local journalists, this guidebook is very knowledgeable about wild nights and how to escape the daytime heat.

"Time Out" Madrid - the seventh revised edition, to be published in June 2007.

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