The Plaza Mayor has as exciting and tumultuous a history as any iconic square in European towns. Reconstructed several times after it was built in the 16th century, it has been home to a multitude of events.

Madrid overwhelms any visitor with the sheer beauty and splendour of its architecture. On our first day in Madrid, I tell Arturo Ortiz Arduan, Tourism Counsellor at the Spanish Embassy in India, that from my first visit to Madrid in 2008 I don't remember seeing a single ugly building in the Spanish capital. He smiles and says, “That is because people don't think of Madrid as having any special or spectacular architecture.”

Strategically located in the centre of the Iberian peninsula, 646 metres above sea level, you only notice the undulations in a city “where everyone loves to walk”, while walking uphill. The old town of Madrid, with its narrow cobbled streets, gives you the sight, sound and feel, the aroma and ambience of a typical European city oozing art, culture, music, warmth and love for life, and of course food and wine!

Iconic 16th Century Square

As we amble through the buzzing Plaza Mayor, a major tourist attraction that is visited by thousands, what immediately strikes is the warmth and vibrancy of the city. Oh yes, at 28 deg Centigrade, it's a warm day alright; the locals, who had faced rains only a week earlier, are delighted with the sun, and are out too, filling the bars and restaurants along with the tourists. Even during working days, a two-hour lunch is sacrosanct for Madridians.

The Plaza Mayor has as exciting and tumultuous a history as any iconic square in European towns. Reconstructed several times after it was built in the 16th century, it has been home to a multitude of events: bullfights, soccer games, public executions, particularly during the Spanish Inquisition. The central square is surrounded by private residences and pretty balconies open out to its sprawling area. Apart from traditional shops and cafes, its major icon is a bronze statue of King Philip III at the centre of the square, constructed in 1616.

An estimated 8 million tourists walk through Madrid's streets every year, but around 58 million visit Spain annually. After Zoya Akhtar's delightful film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara “that we supported, there has been a marked increase in Indians visiting Spain”, says Arduan. He estimates that last year about 70,000 Indians visited Spain. His embassy issued 30,000 visas, but then people with Schengen visas issued by other member-countries too cross over into Spain for a few days.

“We are aggressively promoting Spain to Indian tourists and this year we expect to issue 40,000 visas.”

I tell him about the tediousness and hassles of getting Schengen visas from India, and his embassy, along with Italy, tops the charts on what is termed “sheer harassment” by both travel agents and Indian tourists”. Arduan smiles and says he is only too well aware of such complaints, but says illegal immigration is an even bigger problem during these tough economic times “because all immigrants, including illegal ones, have legal rights to welfare measures such as free education and health benefits”.

A long haul!

Well, the Indian tourists flocking to Spain come from the upper classes and many of them want to follow the mesmerising, beautiful road trail taken by the three friends in the Hindi movie. “But though in the film, that looks like a short time, we explain to them that they can't do the whole route as it will take many, many days,” he adds.

Arduan says tourism is the highest revenue grosser in Spain bringing in a precious €50,000 million every year, contributing about 12 per cent to the GDP. Of the 58 million tourists that Spain sees every year, about 10 million come from Britain and 10 million from Germany. France and Italy send several million each, and apart from the Americans and the Japanese, Indians and Chinese are now preferring Spain as a travel destination.

While the American tourists prefer Madrid and Barcelona, Asians prefer Barcelona as the primary city, while those from Northern Europe head straight for the sun and the beaches… the Catalonian coast!

Well, the six journalists Spanish Tourism had brought in, obviously to tap further the promising Indian market, were most happy to be charmed and energised by what Madrid had to offer… an unforgettable lunch at the Botin restaurant founded in 1725 by the Frenchman Jean Botin, a visit to the Prado museum and an incredible evening of Flamenco. But more of that later.

(To be continued)

rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on May 16, 2012)
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