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MADRID  

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Madrid became Spain's capital simply through its geographical position at the centre of Iberia. When Felipe II moved the seat of government here in 1561 his aim was to create a symbol of the unification and centralization of the country, and a capital from which he could receive the fastest post and communications from each corner of the nation.

The site itself had few natural advantages - it is 300km from the sea on a 650-metre-high plateau, freezing in winter, burning in summer - and it was only the determination of successive rulers to promote a strong central capital that ensured Madrid's survival and development.

Nonetheless, it was a success, and today Madrid is a vast, predominantly modern city, with a population of some three million and growing. The journey in - through a stream of concrete-block suburbs - isn't pretty, but the streets at the heart of the city are a pleasant surprise, with pockets of medieval buildings and narrow, atmospheric alleys, dotted with the oddest of shops and bars, and interspersed with eighteenth-century Bourbon squares.

By comparison with the historic cities of Spain - Toledo, Salamanca, Sevilla, Granada - there may be few sights of great architectural interest, but the monarchs did acquire outstanding picture collections, which formed the basis of the Prado museum. This has long ensured Madrid a place on the European art tour, and the more so since the 1990s arrival - literally down the street - of the Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza galleries, state-of-the-art homes to fabulous arrays of modern Spanish painting (including Picasso's Guernica ) and European and American masters.

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