It’s an exciting night for football as four top teams compete for a semi-final place in the UEFA Champions League.
Indeed, as I write this, two quarter-final matches are minutes away from kick-off, with sights firmly set on a semi-final place in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. Will Atlético Madrid defeat their arch rivals, FC Barcelona? And with Lisbon’s Benfica come out on top against Bayern Munich? Only time will tell…
Yet move away from the on-the-pitch activity and with attention turned to the host cities of these sporting giants, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon and Munich all have much to offer those in search of a short break. In the first of two blogs, I take a look at Spain’s number one and two cities, both fabulous destinations in which to spend a few days, Madrid and Barcelona.
Becoming Spain’s capital city during the Habsburg era in 1561, today, Madrid is a modern, vibrant city where its historic centre houses atmospheric Bourbon squares, hidden, narrow alleyways and impressive medieval buildings.
Exploring the city is easy, thanks to the concentration of tourist must-sees within a relatively compact area. The Puerta del Sol marks the very epicentre of Madrid and it is from here that all distances are measured. Highlights include the Casa de Correos, a beautiful 18th-century building once the city’s post office but later the HQ of Franco’s secret police. You’ll also find a bronze statue of Madrid’s official symbol, a bear eating the fruit from a strawberry tree.
Head along the Calle Mayor and you’ll arrive at Madrid’s most important landmark, the Plaza Mayor, the public meeting place of the city and home to a continuous sweep of arcaded buildings in which kings were crowned, bulls were fought and executions took place but where today, it plays host to cafés, restaurants, markets and festivals. Continue west along the Calle Mayor and you’ll reach the striking Royal Palace, the largest palace in Europe, next to which lies the Plaza de Oriente, lined with over 40 statues of past royalty and formerly the meeting point of General Franco and his supporters.
East of the Puerta del Sol is the artistic heart of Madrid, with the city’s principal three art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia – all lying along the Paseo del Prado. The Prado is famed as Madrid’s premier tourist attraction and houses one of the oldest – and greatest – art collections in the world, particularly its Flemish and Spanish collections. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is best known as the home of Picasso’s Guernica, but also houses works by other well-known Spanish favourites including Dalí and Miró. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza meanwhile contains an impressive ensemble of art dating from the Renaissance all the way through to modern 20th-century art genres.
In a privileged position on the north-eastern coast of the Iberian peninsula and the shores of the Mediterranean, Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain both in size and population. Thriving capital of Catalonia, Barcelona is a truly vibrant place to be and the most prosperous commercial centre in Spain with a sophistication and cultural dynamism way ahead of the rest of the country. There is a curious yet wonderfully appealing contrast between the maze of narrow, winding streets and the grid-like layout of the Eixample, the urban planning “Enlargement” project of the end of the 19th century.
No stay in Barcelona is complete without a stroll down La Rambla running from Plaça de Catalunya down to the port. It is a unique, lively and colourful boulevard packed with buskers, living statues, flowers, birds, newspaper stands and bookstalls. Another must see is La Sagrada Família a truly awe-inspiring site. The life’s work of Barcelona’s favourite son, Antoni Gaudí, the magnificent spires of the unfinished cathedral imprint themselves boldly against the sky with swelling outlines inspired by the holy mountain Montserrat.
Also worth a visit are La Pedrera, another Gaudí masterpiece built between 1905 and 1910, and Montjuïc, the hill overlooking the city centre and home to fine art galleries. The city also boasts a variety of superb museums, notably the Museu Picasso but also galleries dedicated to Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies.
And, a pre-requisite for football fans, a tour of the Camp Nou, home to FC Barcelona and Europe’s largest club, is an absolute must!