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The capital of Spain is bustling mix of old and new, with fancy tapas bars lining the historic Plaza Mayor and boutique stores throughout the city acting as a counterpart to the antique wares found at Sunday’s mile-long El Rastro market. But just an hour train ride away, much of Madrileño culture remains untouched by modernity. Step abroad the Renfe, Madrid’s train network, to enter the world of Antonio Machado, King Philip V and El Greco.
El Escorial: Best for bygone royalty
San Lorenzo de El Escorial, or simply El Escorial, is a small mountain town 55km northwest of Madrid that exudes imperial wealth and provides a glimpse into the lives of 16th-century Spanish royalty.
Start the day with a 10 am tour of the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a fortress that once served as both a monastery and a royal palace at the same time. Inside is one of the most famous rooms in Spanish royal history, the Pantheon of the Kings, where past rulers such as Philip V and Ferdinand VI are buried. While many of the tombs are occupied, others remain ominously vacant, waiting to be filled by current and future members of the royal family. The palace’s Regia Laurentina library is also worth a stop for its ceiling art, which rivals Italy’s Sistine Chapel, and its beautiful collection of Arabic, Latin, and Spanish manuscripts, which number in the tens of thousands and date back to the 15th Century.
After strolling the palace grounds, head down the mountain to the 18th-century Casita del Príncipe, a home built by Juan de Villanueva, one of the best-known architects of Spanish Neoclassicism, for Charles IV, Prince of Asturias, when he was heir to the throne. The Casita del Príncipe and the surrounding gardens are perfectly groomed, providing plenty of cool shade in the summer months.
After a morning of strolling through the Spanish countryside, head over to La Cueva, a cosy restaurant that echoes de Villanueva’s elegant architectural style. Located just a quick walk from the palace, the restaurant is an ideal spot to delve into a plate of prawn croquetas or Iberian chorizo.
For locations close to Madrid, the Renfe has a sub-network of local trains, the Cercanías. These trains leave from Atocha, one of Madrid’s two railway stations, and the journey to El Escorial takes one hour and six minutes.
Segovia: Best for Roman architecture
From the grandeur of El Escorial’s massive monasteries to the impeccably preserved Segovian aqueducts, Madrid's environs are packed with architectural wonders. Just more than 90km northwest of the Spanish capital, the aqueducts in Segovia were built by Romans over the course of the 1st and 2nd Centuries and remain some of the best-preserved structures in Spain. The conduit structure encompasses the circular, 15th-century town, whose centre is dominated by the Cathedral of Santa María (Marqués del Arco; 921-462-205). Built over the course of more than 200 years, the cathedral was finished in 1768 and is now the cultural focal point of Segovia. On the perimeter of the city lies the Alcazar, a stone fortification that has served as a castle, state prison and military academy. Climb the 152-step turret for spectacular panoramic views of the town, cathedral and the surrounding countryside.
As you head back to the city centre, stop at the former home-turned-museum of famous Spanish poet Antonio Machado (Desamparados 5; 921-460-377). Born in 1875, Machado was part of the Generation of 1898, a group of Spanish writers, philosophers and artists who were very active during the Spanish-American War.
Afterwards, soak up the city’s noticeable energy in the Plaza Mayor, next to the cathedral, where locals linger to hear the cathedral’s bells chiming or stay for a spontaneous concert in the plaza's central gazebo. For dinner, try a traditional Segovian dish of roasted pig at José María, a famous hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the heart of the city.
Trains leave from Atocha to Segovia almost every hour. There are two train options, the regional and the avant, or express train. While the regional train costs fewer euros, it is also an extra hour and twenty minute commute both ways. The avant train will get you to Segovia in 27 minutes.