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Madrid, Spain: Plaza Mayor, Statue of Felipe III
updated 9/18/2006 3:17:23 PM ET 2006-09-18T19:17:23

Sitting in Sol or Sombra at the Bullfights: With origins as old as pagan Spain, the art of bullfighting is the expression of Iberian temperament and passions. Detractors object to the sport as cruel, bloody, violent, hot, and savage. Aficionados, however, understand bullfighting as a microcosm of death, catharsis, and rebirth. These philosophical underpinnings may not be immediately apparent, but if you strive to understand the bullfight, it can be one of the most evocative and memorable events in Spain. Head for the country's biggest plaza de toros(bullring) at Ventas (on the eastern border of Madrid's Salamanca district close to the M-30 highway). Tickets are either sol (sunny side) or sombra (in the shade); you'll pay more to get out of the sun. Observe how the feverish crowds appreciate the ballet of the banderilleros, the thundering fury of the bull, the arrogance of the matador -- all leading to "death in the afternoon." Peak time for attending bullfights is during the capital's San Isidro fiestas in May, when 4 consecutive weeks of daily corridas feature some of the biggest names in the bullfighting world.

Seeing the Masterpieces at the Prado: It's one of the world's premier art museums, ranking with the Louvre. The Prado is home to some 4,000 masterpieces, many of them acquired by Spanish kings. The wealth of Spanish art is staggering -- everything from Goya's Naked Maja to the celebrated Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) by Velázquez (my favorite). Masterpiece after masterpiece unfolds before your eyes: You can imagine your fate in Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights or recoil from the horror of Goya's Disasters of War etchings. When the Spanish artistic soul gets too dark, escape to the Italian salons and view canvases by Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, and Botticelli. Be warned, though, that a quick run-through won't suffice: It would take a lifetime to savor the Prado's wonders.

Feasting on Tapas in the Tascas: Tapas, those bite-size portions washed down with wine, beer, or sherry, are reason enough to go to Madrid! Spanish tapas are so good their once-secret recipes have been broadcast around the world, but they always taste better at home. A tapeo is akin to a London pub-crawl -- you travel from one tapas bar to another. Each has a different specialty. Tapas bars, called tascas, are a quintessential Spanish experience, be it in Galicia, Andalusia, Catalonia, or Castile. Originally, tapas were cured ham or chorizo (spicy sausage). Today they are likely to include everything -- gambas (deep-fried shrimp), anchovies marinated in vinegar, stuffed peppers, a cool, spicy gazpacho, or hake salad. To go really native, try mollejas (lamb sweetbreads) or criadillas (bull testicles). These dazzling spreads will hold you over until the fashionable 10 p.m. dining hour. The best streets for your tasca crawl include Ventura de la Vega, the area around Plaza de Santa Ana or Plaza de Santa Bárbara, Cava Baja, or Calle de Cuchilleros. Calle Hartzenbusch in Chamberí district also has some tempting locales.

Lounging in an Outdoor Cafe: In sultry summertime, Madrileños come alive on their terrazas. The drinking and good times can go on until dawn. In glamorous hangouts or on lowly street corners, the cafe scene takes place mainly along an axis shaped by the Paseo de la Castellana, Paseo del Prado, and Paseo de Recoletos. The Paseo del Pintor Rosales on the western edge of Argüelles district, near the teleférico and overlooking the Casa del Campo, also bids an attractive tree-fringed collection of open air cafes; and down at the southern end of Lavapiés the colorful Calle Argumasa has recently spawned a fashionable spill of lively al fresco bars. Wander up and down the boulevards and select a spot that appeals to you. For traditional atmosphere, the terrazas at Playa Mayor -- though shamelessly touristy and pricey -- win out.

Shopping the Rastro: Madrid's flea market represents a tradition that's 500 years old. Savvy shoppers arrive before 7 a.m. every Sunday to beat the rush and claim the best merchandise. The teeming place doesn't really get going until about 9 a.m., and then it's shoulder-to-shoulder stretching down Calle Ribera de Curtidores. Real or fake antiques, secondhand clothing, porno films, Franco-era furniture, paintings (endless copies of Velázquez), bullfight posters, old books, religious relics, and plenty of just plain junk, including motorcycles from World War II, are for sale. These streets also contain some of the finest permanent antiques shops in Madrid. But beware: Pickpockets are out in full force. More than a few mugging victims have later found their purses here for resale -- thoroughly emptied, of course. Note: The town hall has recently expressed an interest in moving the Rastro to Mercamadrid, the city's biggest wholesale market located in an industrial estate on the outskirts of town. Their rationale is that there'll be more space to move around, though to get there visitors will have to take the cercanías (suburban) train. Current waves of protests both from vendors and regular visitors will hopefully thwart this uninspired and unpopular proposal.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

Sunday Strolling in the Retiro: Spread across 140 cool hectares (350 acres) in sweltering Madrid, Parque de Retiro was originally designed as the gardens of Buen Retiro palace, occupied by Philip IV in the 1630s. In 1767 Charles III opened part of the gardens to the general public. Only after the collapse of Isabella II's monarchy in 1868 did the park become available to all Madrileños. Statues dot the grounds (a towering 1902 monument to Alfonso XII presides over the lake), which also contain some 15,000 trees, a rose garden, and a few art galleries. The best time for a stroll is Sunday morning before lunch, when vendors hawk their wares, magicians perform their acts, fortunetellers read tarot cards, and large Disney-style moving models of Tweetie Pie and Bugs Bunny delight the kids. In 2003, after being drained and closed to the public for over a year, the park's famed lago (lake) was reopened with a pristine new supply of water, a replenished fish population, and smart new borders and jetty areas to accommodate the barcos (boats) beloved by Sunday rowers. Now once again you can rent a boat and laze away the morning on its glittering waters.

Picnicking in the Casa del Campo: On a hot summer's day enjoy an al fresco repast in the shade of a fragrant pine in the heart of Madrid's largest park and look back at the shimmering city skyline. Afterward go boating on the lake or take the kids to the Zoo or Parque de Atracciones. You can get here by teleferico chair lift or by metro to Lago.

Nursing a Drink at Chicote (tel. 91-532-67-37): The 1930s interior at Madrid's most famous bar looks the same as it did during the Spanish Civil War. Shells might have been flying along the Gran Vía, but the international press corps covering the war drank on -- a tunnel is rumored to have connected it with the vintage Bar Cock on a parallel street, handy if they felt like a change of scene and didn't want to risk stepping into the street. After the war, the crowd of regulars included major writers, artists, and actors. By the late 1960s it had degenerated into a pickup bar frequented by prostitutes. But today it has regained the joie de vivre of yore and is one of the smart, sophisticated spots to rendezvous in Madrid.

Experiencing the Movida: We can't tell you exactly how to go about this. Just go to the center -- the movida will seek you out. Very roughly translated as the "shift" or the "movement," movida characterizes post-Franco life in Madrid, after Madrileños threw off the yoke of dictatorship and repression. In a larger context, the movida is a cultural renaissance affecting all aspects of local life, encompassing a wide range of social projects and progressive causes. Movida is best experienced around midnight, when the city just starts to wake up; the action centers around hipper-than-thou places with names like Kapital (tel. 91-420-29-06) or The Room at Stella's (tel. 91-869-40-38). The latter is a weekends-only after-hours special that opens at 1 a.m. and closes at 7 a.m.! Madrileños hop from club to club as if they're afraid they'll miss out on something if they stay in one place too long. To truly catch a whiff of movida, head for the lively nightlife areas of Chueca, Huertas, and Malasaña, and the big clubs around Calle Arenal.

For a complete listing of what to see and do in Madrid, visit the online attractions index at Frommers.com.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

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