Central Spain, Madrid
The capital of Spain, Madrid, is situated in the centre of the country, surrounded by the regions of Castilla-Leon and Castilla La Mancha. It's the highest capital in Europe at 646 metres above sea level and has cold winters and extremely hot summers, making the best time to visit in the early spring or autumn when it is pleasantly warm and bright. It's a great city for a short break with so much to see and do and whilst most of the sights can be easily explored on foot there is also a cheap and efficient metro system for when the going gets tough.

Spain's proud and vibrant capital is home to the Spanish parliament, Royal Family and a wealth of architectural and cultural treasures. It is also a city in transformation, with major investment going into its historic heritage and many buildings being carefully cleaned and restored. Among the city's fine buildings, one of the most visited is the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) built on the site of the ancient Alcazar which burned down in 1734. Although not used by the present Royal Family as a residence, it is still used for state occasions and for public guided tours. The showcase of Madrid's historic heritage is the Plaza Mayor, the beautifully preserved 17th Century main square which lies in the old quarter. It was completed under Philip III whose bronze equestrian statue is located in the centre of the pedestrianised plaza. One of the finest buildings in the Plaza is Casa de la Panadería, home of the Bakers Guild. Built in the Flemish style, its twin towers and façade are ornately decorated with colourful fresco paintings. Originally used for bullfights, tournaments, and even public executions, the square is now a popular place to meet or to sit and watch the world go by from one of the many outdoor cafes which line the square. On Sunday mornings a market is held which sells old coins and stamps, and in the period leading up to Christmas the square hosts a colourful flea market where all types of Christmas decorations can be bought. Not far from the Plaza Mayor is the Mercado de San Miguel, last of Madrid's iron and glass markets and where the locals come to buy their groceries. Madrid's most famous treasures lie in the golden triangle of museums, the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia, where some of the world's greatest art collections can be seen.

A short distance away lies Madrid's main park, the Parque del Retiro, a perfect place to rest after visiting the museums. It's a popular place for families especially on Sundays when pavement artists emerge and puppet shows and circus acts are staged and there is also boating available on the lake. 'Madrileños' certainly know how to enjoy themselves with bars, restaurants and clubs open until well into the early hours and colourful carnivals and festivals taking place throughout the year. For shopaholics Madrid also has some of the best shopping in Spain with a huge range of shops to suit all budgets. The main shopping areas lie in the Puerto del Sol area where you can find the well-known department store, El Corte Ingles, and Barrio de Salamanca, the 'chic' shopping area, also known as the golden mile, but don't forget to bring your credit card! For a complete contrast, El Rastro is a vast flea market where just about anything can be found for sale at bargain prices.

Outside Madrid, there are several popular day excursions. One is to El Escorial, the palace and monastery built for Philip II as a retreat from the city and another is to Aranjuez; a fertile oasis bordering Castilla La Mancha. Here you will find the 18th Century Palacio Real (Royal Palace) built by Spain's Bourbon Kings in a style reminiscent of France's Palace of Versailles and acres of wonderful gardens. Also popular with Madrileños at weekends is the pretty little town of Chinchón whose main square is regularly used for bullfights and concerts and where a passion play is staged at Easter.

The rest of CENTRAL SPAIN covering the regions of Castilla y Leon, Castilla La Mancha and Extremadura, lies not only in Spain's geographic heartland but also at the centre of its cultural and historic legacy. In the north of this area is the mainly flat and semi-arid region of Castilla y Leon, also known as Old Castile, which is Spain's largest region. Here the landscape is dotted with many preserved castles and fortified towns which have given the region its name. Castilla y Leon is also rich in cathedrals, monasteries and Renaissance architecture with several towns declared world heritage sites. Segovia is one of the region's most interesting towns, famous for its Roman aqueduct, gothic cathedral and fairytale castle. Not to be missed is the historic walled town of Avila, the highest town in the region and birthplace of the mystic St Teresa, one of Spain's famous patron saints. Also worth visiting is the beautiful 'golden' city of Salamanca which has one of Europe's oldest and prestigious universities, and some fine examples of Renaissance and Plateresque architecture. In the far north of Castilla y Leon are the cities of Burgos and Leon which are on the pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago, and worth visiting for their magnificent gothic cathedrals.

Located between Madrid and Andalucia, in the centre of the Iberian peninsula is Castilla La Mancha; land of the legendary Don Quijote. Although surrounded by mountains the landscape here is mostly flat and barren, but the region does have several places of major interest for the tourist. Toledo, one of Spain's most historic cities, can be reached easily from Madrid in about an hour. It sits on a hilltop surrounded on three sides by the river Tagus and is dominated by its impressive Alcazar fortress which can be seen from miles away. Toledo's great wealth of monuments, a legacy of its diverse cultural history, has led to the city being declared not only a national monument but also a World Heritage Site. The artist El Greco came to live here and many examples of his work can be seen in the city's churches and museums. Another interesting place to visit is the charming city of Cuenca famous for its vertical 'Hanging Houses' and nearby Ciudad Encantada 'enchanted city' with its lush waterfalls and surrealistic sculptures of eroded rocks.

In the far west of Spain, bordering Portugal, lies the less well known region of Extremadura. Here the landscape is much greener and mountainous and there are several nature reserves including protected areas where rare flora and fauna can be seen; the Monfrague Natural Park is renowned for its amazing birds of prey and is popular with birdwatchers. The capital of the region is Merida, an important Roman city with many fine examples of Roman architecture including a Roman bridge, now used as a footbridge and the remains of aqueducts, a theatre and amphitheatre. Cáceres, is another town worth visiting, especially its old quarter, enclosed by Moorish walls and great watch towers. Within the walls there are winding cobbled streets and many perfectly preserved Renaissance mansions and palaces and beyond the walls, steps lead down to the Plaza Mayor the main focus for entertainment in the town. Other places to visit are the charming town of Trujillo, birthplace of the conquistador, Francisco Pizarro and Plasencia a good base for exploring the natural delights of northern Extremadura.