The most exciting way to discover Madrid

In Madrid, 'nine months of winter, three months of hell.'

The most exciting way to discover Madrid is from above: from the last balcony of one of those enormous buildings that the town boasts -- and indeed has a copyright in, so that Barcelona and Valencia have to make do with a smaller number of floors. The capital is a swirl of movement as one looks down: trams, two-decker buses like the London ones -- fiery monsters that leap into action at the signal of a rattle, slowly-moving women, well-dressed men (in the heart of the capital the sloppy-Joes suddenly pull themselves together). Then, lifting your head and looking beyond the line of roofs, you see the beginning of the golden fields, and the peasant at the plough. The land completely encircles the town, as if it were a castle. On one side, you see the golden line of the vast yellow plain with the low hill called the cero de los angeles, which marks the geographical centre of the peninsula; and on the other, the blue line of the Sierra. In winter, Madrid is only an hour away from the ski-centres.

Madrid seems to have escaped the leprosy common to most capitals, namely suburbs. However, they do exist. In earlier days Madrid was the administrative centre, but it has only comparatively recently become a full-fledged capital and industrial centre. More than 35 per cent of the active population today consists of factory-workers. Great strides have been made by the metallurgical, electrical engineering and chemical industries. The working population, which already exceeds the half-million mark, has changed the face of the city since the time of Charles III, whose enthusiastic building schemes were on neo-classical lines. In the suburbs there is in fact an accumulated misery. 'Mud in the winter, dust in the summer,' as the Patriarch Bishop observed; and they have given rise to what is called 'chabolismo'. In Madrid there are more than a hundred thousand homeless people in the decayed, dilapidated, ill-paved and ill-lit quarters of Cuatro Caminos or Carabanchel, which -- as Cervantès would say -- are the seat of every discomfort.

But the tourist who is aiming for the heart of Madrid, the Gran Via, the fountains, the Puerta del Sol, won't see any of this. The Puerta del Sol is a small chaotic and un-square square which is the despair of motorists and traffic-police. It has been the hub of Spain for over 150 years. It was here that the chisperos (the men and women of the streets) fought against Murat's cuirassiers in 1808. It is here that most of the pronunciamientos have been made. In 1936 many of its houses were blown up by the bombs, and some of the bomb-craters were as deep as the underground railway. The old house that chimes the hour is the former General Post Office, later the Ministry of the Interior and now Police Headquarters. Every year, on the night of 31st December when midnight strikes, Spaniards come here to observe the old tradition of eating a grape for every stroke of the clock. A small milestone marks the centre of the Puerta del Sol. It is from here that all the roads set out for the four corners of Spain.

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