BY ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA
SPAIN enjoys a pride of place in the world. And this is for many reasons. It is one of the most developed world economies with a thriving tourism that is ranked second globally and the leading destination in Europe.
Regarded as a prime city in Europe, Madrid, with its enchanting features that span politics, history, business and economy, tourism, arts and culture, sports and entertainment, events management and festivals, is a fascinating site for many, particularly tourists from across Europe and other parts of the world.
Madrid is Spain’s capital city as well as its economic nerve centre. It also enjoys the presence of royalty as it is home of King Carlos Juan.
LOCATED in the Iberian Peninsula, about 646 metres above the sea level, the city, which became capital in the 16th Century, is about eight hours drive from any Spanish city or region.
With a population of over six million comprising people from about 172 nationalities, Madrid is rated the third most important city in Europe after London and Paris. It is also the fourth largest financial city in Europe with a thriving economy.
Its tourism industry accounts for over 14 million of the 60 million visitors to Spain yearly. The country has one of the largest numbers of World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) with most of them in Madrid.
Of the 600 buildings categorised as cultural heritage sites, 350 are museums and galleries including the famed El Prado, the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art and the Thyssen-Bornemisza as well as ARCO, the modern art fair; Five World Heritage Sites – Alcala de henares, Aranjuez, Avila, Segovia and Toledo all located within 100 kilometres of the city;
It also boasts of about 174 (4-star) hotels, 20 (5-star) hotels besides numerous apartments and budget style hotels. It also has a large array of greens made into theme and leisure parks, entertainment and sporting facilities with Real Madrid Football and its ‘out of this world’ stadium – The Santiago Bernabeu, being its most iconoclastic symbol.
In terms of access, Madrid is believed to have one of the world’s highest air links, with the Barajas Airport boasting a capacity of 120 landings/take offs per hour and raking in about 70 million passengers yearly. It is ranked fourth in passenger traffic and eight in cargo haul with a direct link to 34 destinations in Spain and 155 global links.
Capital of tourism industry
The city is home to the Headquarters of UNWTO, the world body responsible for global tourism development. It is no wonder that the Secretary General of UNWTO, Dr. Taleb Rafai urged participants at the recently concluded International Tourism Trade Fair (FITUR 2010) held in Madrid to take time out to enjoy the tourism ambience of the world’s warmest and welcoming tourist sites.
The city’s inhabitants know this too, and they display it whenever the opportunity knocks. They take an immeasurable delight in travelling within the city and its regions. Fernando (Torres, the Liverpool Football Club star), a cab driver, who drove me to the airport on the day of departure, revealed that he has travelled extensively.
“Round the globe?”
“No,” he said. But with pride and smile etched on his face, he breathed!… “Round the city of Madrid.”
Going on the historical route of Madrid in the open-rooftop tour bus of Madrid Vision, was elevating to the spirit.
The rich history that has been preserved over the years in its architecture, music, art, dance and the people in their daily chores washed up.
The route, which stretched to about 21 different circuits, saw us encountering historical buildings and landmarks, which are a combination of churches, squares, monuments, parks and city gates.
The endless list include the Royal Palace, the Almudena Cathedral, Puerta del Sol, the captivating Plaza de Oriente and the Palacio Real, which is the largest Royal Palace in Western Europe.
There is also the Plaza Mayor, a magnificent Castilian square dating back to the 16th Century. There is Puerta del Sol, which is Madrid’s centrepiece and Spain’s spiritual heart. It is from this square all points on Spain’s six major national roads are measured while the Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s main shopping streets connecting the spacious Plaza de España square with the magnificent old city gate of Puerta de Alcalá brims with life always. What an amazing and interesting sight to feast on.
The city also parades an alluring array of art museums with the Museo (Museum) del Prado regarded as one of the world’s premier galleries, particularly for European art. Of all the historical sites in the city, El Prado Museum Fine Art has an amazing history, as it is the world’s largest art gallery.
Among its exhibits are sculptures, drawings, coins and other ornamental works of art of great value. It is said to house the largest collection of paintings numbering over 8, 600 with less than 2,000 on display due to space constraint.
The Reina Sofia Museum is another treasure house to view as it houses Picasso’s astounding work “Guernica” while the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of the most important private collections in the world, make up Madrid’s unique avalanche of art collections.
Others are San Franisco el Grande, Plaza Major, Puerta de Sol, Puerta Toledo, Tearto Real and Palacio Real. Most of these historical structures, which still retain their original texture and architectural feel and design and other others modified over times, a visitor is taken on well-blended tour and narrative of Spanish past.
Route (Ruta) two, which like Route one runs for about 75 minutes, is as extensive as it can get, taking one through some of the most modern and cosmopolitan structures and attractions of the city. Perhaps the most outstanding of them is Real Madrid Stadium, The Santiago Bernabeu.
Meandering through the 15 different enclosures of the route, one comes across such other majestic attractions as Plaza de Cibeles, Paseo del Prado, Plaza de Colon, Nuevos Ministerios, Museo Lazaro Galdino, Alcala and Puerta de Acala.
Woven into the route are other appealing spots such as shopping mall, exhibition centres, theatres and cinemas, restaurants and leisure outlets of different classes.
The distinctive nature of Madrid is such that a visitor can begin to define the many offerings along certain sections and compartments, such as:
Dining out: One can’t easily miss the presence of both Spanish and continental wines and foods in the city. For those with continental taste and appetite for a blend of culinary delight, this is one city to visit. There are lots of friendly packages available to choose from. Perhaps it would not be a bad idea to try Tapa Tours for a taste of Spanish wines and foods including a combination of meal with some flamenco.
Shopping Out: Shopping out is a delightsome activity in the city with its heavy presence of classy outlets. However, for many people, the Sunday morning market, which in the local parlance is known as the ‘El Rastro Flea Market,’ is a pleasurable site to mingle with the locals and other visitors to the city. Places like the city mall also provide good options to explore.
Nightlife: This is a city that never sleeps (the Spanish would say it has “mucha marcha”). Nightlife is a simmering affair here in Madrid with its numerous spots. . There are different classes of bars, restaurants, disco halls, pubs, flamenco and dance halls. Live band tradition is also well and alive in the city with different bands and artistes both local and international making the rounds.
For a Nigerian visitor, you are sure to have a good measure of the country in Atocha area of the city. As they say in local parlance — Qué lo pases bien! (Have a good time).
I also had opportunity to tour neighbouring towns and villages such as Avila, Toledo, Segovia, El Escorial and the nearby Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caidos) — all interesting places with timeless historic town centres, great museums