Madrid: A fabled city boasting bullfights and fiestas
While Spain is a treasure-trove of culture drenched in historical pageantry and brimming with flamenco, bullfights and fiestas, the capital has been described as 'the fable of Europe'.
Welcoming, cordial, free and peaceful and universal, the prevailing spirit of the city is festive and its bustle is contagious.
Nobody is a foreigner in this melting pot of cultures where all of the three million inhabitants are known simply as 'los madriles' - and anyone spending some time in the city finds it difficult to leave.
From a tourist's perspective, too, Madrid's forcefulness and personality make it an unforgettable city. Throw in a remarkable collection of museums and galler ies housing the artistic legacy of Goya, Velazquez, Picasso and Dali; stroll through the beautiful parks and gardens pondering the romance of Don Quixote, Papa Hemingway and the International Brigades.
Then embrace the wild nightlife and the capital becomes an extraordinary destination.
The most fitting place to start getting to know Madrid is at Puerta del Sol - Sol, as it is known to locals.
This is the centre of the enormous metropolis, the gateway to Gran Via's round-the-clock action and the magnet for visitors and locals alike.
Close by is one of the greatest art galleries in the world, the Museo del Prado, where Goya and Diego Velazquez are not surprisingly well represented.
For the more avant garde, visit the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), housing historic antique collections and some of the most elaborately decorated walls and ceilings imaginable.
As lovers of Hemingway novels will doubtless be aware, Madrid is also home of the world's largest bullring, Plaza de Toros Monumental de las Ventas, and is one of the best places to see a bullfight.
Soccer-fans, on the other hand, may prefer to catch a match if local favourites Real Madrid or Atletico de Madrid are playing at home.
On a Sunday morning, the en tire city appears to converge on El Rastro, which must rank as one of the biggest flea markets anywhere.
Every visitor should also make a point of enjoying some of Europe's most beautiful parks and gardens.
For historic reasons the park of El Buen Retiro, which was begun in 1625, is the best-known for both size and its beauty. It contains two remarkable buildings: the Palace of Velazquez, with outstanding brickwork and tiles, and the so-called Crystal Palace, a jewel of Spanish architecture made of iron and glass.
Conveniently, the park can be toured by hiring a horse-drawn carriage. In the new Tierno-Galvan Park, meanwhile, a plane tarium projects the constellations as well as creating the sensation of time-travelling though space and the Milky Way.
Nightlife runs the gamut from theatre, opera and outdoor concerts to discotheques, music halls, pubs, disco-pubs, cafes and casinos.
A popular local saying refers to denizens of the dark who 'begin their day at night'. Some cinemas even screen movies at dawn, when the squares and boulevards are still full of life.
Shopping in Madrid centres on the Gran Via, the Salamanca area (Serrano) and the Castellana, where large stores are found in the company of the best boutiques. Jewellery, fashion and furs are per haps the most tempting possibilities.
As for dining, Madrid has plenty of 'local' restaurants serving the tastiest specialties of traditional Spanish cuisine. Basque and Catalan specialities stand out, as well as paella from Valencia, the fabada (white beans) from Asturias or the cold vegetable soup known as gazpacho from Andalusia.
The capital's own speciality is the famous Madrid stew made of chick peas, potato, meat, a piquant sausage called chorizo and black pudding. Tripe, suckling pig and a soup called 'a lo tio Lucas' are other local dishes, while nearby regions are represented by the roast pig and lamb of Segovia and Arevelo, stewed partridge and 'liebre a la cazadora' (hare) from Toledo; and the goat stew, trout and river crab of Guadalajara.
For dessert, there are the famous marzipans of Toledo and Madrid sweets called 'bartolillos'.
A visit to Madrid would not be complete without touring nearby 'world heritage' sites of historic interest.
Most notable are the walled city of Avila ('The land of songs and saints'); Segovia, with its Roman aqueduct and 2,000 years of history; El Greco's Toledo, with its magnificent Gothic cathedral; as well as the Monastery of El Escorial, a former royal residence that has been dubbed the 'eighth wonder of the world'.