Wednesday, May 17, 2006

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MADRID

I am in the world's oldest restaurant in Europe's highest capital, a city of 3 million people that was once the centre of a mighty global empire.

The restaurant is called Botin and it is at Cuchillleros 17, Madrid Centro. It dates back to 1725.
Madrid is 2,120 ft above sea level.

I am eating excellent roast pig in a room with wood-beams and tiled floors.

"Is Madrid safe?" I ask my dinner guest Carlos, a middle aged academic who looks like Salvador Dali.

"It is safe, if you are careful about the traffic and AIDS. Very few people ever get killed by terrorists."

"Who are the terrorists?"

"Most well-informed people believe that it is western governments who organise the terror. Sometimes they recruit Muslims for minor roles."

"Why would the CIA and its friends want to bomb Madrid or Casablanca?"

"The US wants to send more and more troops into North and West Africa. They've already sent troops into Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Niger, and they're already working with the security forces in Morocco and Algeria. The US Sixth Fleet may be moving from Italy, to the southern Spanish port of Rota. Why? The US National Intelligence Council believes that by 2015 West Africa will supply 25% of the oil used by the US. Why the bombs? They give the US an excuse to send in the troops. It's just like in Afghanistan."

"But the bombs let the Socialists take over."

"The CIA, and its friends in the Spanish security services, may have miscalculated. They may have thought the Spaniards would rally to the Popular Party. But how do you know that the Socialists are not controlled by the CIA? Back in 1982 the Socialists promised a referendum on whether or not Spain should rema in in NATO. After winning the elections in 1982, the Socialists under Felipe González adopted a pro-NATO stance. They signed an agreement for the renewal of the US military bases in Spain."

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Crime -

Watch out in hotel lobbies, airports, train and bus stations, on public transport, in supermarkets and car parks. Take particular care in the Puerto de Sol and surrounding streets including the Plaza Mayor, the Retiro Park and Lavapies.

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ARRIVAL-

I flew into Barajas Airport 13km northeast of the city. The metro took me from the airport into the city centre (about 30 minutes).

HOTEL -

I stayed at Opera Hotel, a clean, relatively cheap hotel in a central location near the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor and the Metro system, a five minute walk to the central shopping area.

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MARCH is a good time to visit Madrid. The freezing winter weather should have ended and the great heat of summer has not yet have arrived. February and March have 'carnivale'; the Fiesta de la Comunidad de Madrid is on 2 May and the Fiestas de San Isidro is on 15 May.

In June-July the city's districts celebrate their various saints' days.

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WALKING

I explored Madrid on foot, walking between the Royal Palace and Madrid's forest, the Parque del Buen Retiro.

The 18th century Royal Palace, open to the public, is grand, elegant and magnificent. It should be viewed from both back (North) and front (South). Don't forget the red and gold throne room inside and the gardens outside. Look out for Tiepo lo ceilings, frescoes by Tiepolo, paintings by Goya, Rubens, Valezquez, and El Greco and various rococo decorations.

The Prado has Velázquez, Goya and da Ribera, as well as Flemish and Italian masters.

Finally, I took a stroll in Parque del Buen Retiro. There is a rose garden and a boating lake and there are busk ers.

Also worth visiting - the Puerta de Atocha train station which has a tropical garden and the Plaza de Cibeles

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Madrid nightlife does not start until 11-12:00.

The streets surrounding Cheuca subway, made famous by the movies of Pe dro Almodovar, are full of life.

The working class district of Cheuca, north of Gran Via, has Tapas bars, restaurants, discos and bars.

Plaza de Cheuca, the centre o f the gay community in Madrid, has fire-eaters and musicians. The LL Bar, at midnight may have a flamenco drag queen.

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History

The emir of Córdoba is said to have built a fortress on the future site of Madrid in AD 854. It was one of a string of forts marking the frontier between Al-Andalus in the south and the Christian kingdoms to the north.

Madrid's Muslim era ended in 1085 when King Alfonso VI of Castile won control.

Isabel and Ferdinand united the Castilian and Aragonese Crowns in 1474.

Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, fell in 1492.

In 1492, Columbus set sail on the journey that would bring vast wealth to Spain.

Isabel and Ferdinand's grandson, Carlos I, succeeded not only to the throne of Spain but also to that of the Austrian Habsburgs, becoming Holy Roman Emperor over lands stretching from Austria to Holland and from Spain to the American colonies.

Carlos' son Felipe II made Madrid the capital of Spain in 1561.

Over the next hundred years, Spain became poorer, due to a series of wars and massive inflation caused by bringing in much gold from its colonies.

Habsburg Spain came to an end in 1700 with the death of Carlos II.

Spain was defeated at Trafalgar in 1805; it lost its American colonies; and was taken over temporarily by Napoleon.

There followed various coups involving 'fascist' and liberal wings of the army.

Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the imperialist USA.

In the early 20th century, opposition to the monarchy continued to grow.

In 1930 a republic was declared.

The country was split between right and left.

The National Front was beaten by the Popular Front in the elections of February 1936.

Three years of civil war began in July 1936 when troops in North African led by the fascist General Franco rebelled against the government.

Madrid held Franco's fascist nationalists at bay until 1939.

Under the fascist dictator Franco, Madrid's poor suffered poverty and repression.

Franco died in 1975, having earlier named Juan Carlos, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, his successor.

Under King Juan Carlos, Spain became a democracy.

The Pentagon has an interest in Spain.

In 1981, there was an attempted military coup in which the CIA allegedly played a part.

Most of the Spanish people were reportedly anti-NATO.

After winning the elections in October 1982, the Socialists 'changed their position and the new government of Felipe González quickly adopted a pro-NATO stance. Three months later they signed an agreement for the renewal of the US military bases in Spain.'

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