Are you a galactico? Do you deserve appreciation and reward? If so, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid is your spiritual home. This 80,000-seat downtown stadium is the headquarters of the world’s most successful soccer club, Real Madrid. Players who have plied their trade here represent a roll call of soccer’s superstars, known as the galacticos: Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham. This is the ideal place in which to celebrate success.
Match days at the Bernabéu are unforgettable. The entire city seems to buzz with anticipation. As kick-off approaches, the metro lines converging on the stadium are jammed with people wearing the team’s famous white shirts.
You can join the masses, adding your voice to the clamor in the bleachers as the match ebbs and flows. Or you can savor the spectacle from the refined vantage of a VIP box. Either option is available as part of an incentive tour to Madrid.
On days when there is not a game, behind-the-scenes tours of the stadium are available, enabling you to put yourself in the boots of some of the most highly-paid sportsmen in the world. The Real Madrid Museum, featuring trophies and memorabilia from the club’s glittering history, is the second-most-visited museum in the city.
Madrid’s top museum is the Prado, housing the world’s premier collection of Spanish art. Take an evening tour, when the daily crowds have subsided, and marvel at the dazzling array of instantly recognizable masterpieces, including what is regarded by many critics to be the greatest painting in the history of art, Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez.
The Prado is one of a cluster of renowned galleries in Madrid’s Golden Art Triangle. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum boasts a fine collection of 20th-century art, while the Queen Sofía Museum is home to Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica. The newest gallery, opened in 2007, is CaixaForum, a contemporary exhibition venue occupying a disused 1899 power station which — thanks to an innovative renovation by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron — appears to float above the adjacent street.
When visiting Spanish cities, you must adjust to a different daily rhythm. Lunch will usually be taken in mid-afternoon, and many of the best restaurants do not open for dinner until 9 p.m. Food here is more than just something to eat: It is a social occasion. Often you will begin the evening in a succession of tapas bars, each with its own specialty.
Barcelona has an especially vibrant tapas scene. In the company of a knowledgeable local guide, you will find yourself crisscrossing the city to sample particular tapas dishes. And then, late in the evening, you will finally settle down to the main meal.
By night, Barcelona is colorful and dynamic. Those two characteristics also define the city in daylight. This is the home of the most sculptural of architects, Antoni Gaudí. His incredible buildings are dotted across the city. The most breathtaking is his cathedral, Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882.
Barcelona has its own share of world-famous museums, including galleries dedicated to Picasso and Joan Miró. A fun way to get between the main attractions is in a self-drive GoCar, a two-seater open vehicle equipped with talking GPS that provides an audio tour as you drive. Group GoCar tours can be arranged in advance.
Barcelona and Madrid are linked by Spain’s high-speed railway, the AVE. The intermediate stop between the two cities is Zaragoza, which is a destination in its own right. Zaragoza boasts a scattering of breathtaking new buildings designed by superstar architects such as Zaha Hadid, the legacy of its role as the host city of Expo 2008.
The former Expo site is now a water-themed public park with attractions that include an aquarium and a canal with artificial rapids for whitewater rafting (the ideal activity for an afternoon of group bonding). On the opposite bank of the Ebro River is Zaragoza’s historic old town, dominated by the incredible, multi-towered Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. One of the towers is open to the public (access is by rickety elevator) and provides a bird’s-eye view of the city.
The juxtaposition of old and new in Zaragoza is dramatic, but as you soon discover when you travel around this country, it is typical of modern Spain. After the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain threw off the cultural and political restraints of its past and embraced a new age.
Perhaps the most spectacular metamorphosis took place in the Mediterranean city of Valencia, formerly a dour working port. When the city’s Turia River — which had been responsible for catastrophic floods — was permanently diverted to the south, the former riverbed was transformed into a landscaped park interspersed with futuristic buildings, many of which were designed by world-famous architect (and native Valencian) Santiago Calatrava.
One of Calatrava’s tours de force is the Valencia Opera House — officially, El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía. A gala evening at the opera makes for a magnificent highlight of an incentive tour to Valencia, topped off with a late dinner at one of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants. The interior of the Opera House is as mind-boggling as the exterior. Just listen to the gasps as people enter the auditorium for the first time, and pity the poor performers who must compete against it for your full attention.
If sport is your thing, Valencia has no shortage of annual international events around which to build your visit, including the Formula 1 Motor Racing Grand Prix, the Motorcycle Grand Prix and the Valencia Tennis Open. Alternatively, if you enjoy a great fiesta, then time your visit to coincide with Fallas, the spectacular street festival of fireworks, firecrackers and burning wooden statues that takes place in March.
Fallas is a noisy manifestation of the romantic passion for which Spain is renowned. And no city in Spain is more romantically passionate than Seville. Situated among the dry hills of Andalusia, this is the birthplace of flamenco. To experience this emotional combination of music and dance in its authentic setting, cross the Guadalquivir River from the old town and immerse yourself in the bars of the former gypsy district of Triana. As the drinks flow, you will probably be persuaded to participate.
The perfect antidote to a night of music and dance is a morning spent in the silent skies above Doñana National Park southwest of Seville. By balloon, you drift high above one of Europe’s most important wetlands. Spain’s other side is revealed: a land of beauty and tranquillity.
This is a country of immense vistas, beautiful coastlines, snow-capped mountains, sun-burnished plains, historic cities, vibrant culture and friendly people. Few countries are as richly rewarding as Spain.
For information about incentive travel to Spain, visit www.spain.info.
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