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
El Escorial: Best for bygone royalty
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Aranjuez: Best for regal gardens
With two large, flower-filled gardens and excellently-preserved royal
architecture, the town of Aranjuez is
the perfect spot for a day of nature and relaxation -- conveniently located
just 50km south of Madrid. Spend
the morning wandering through the expansive Jardín del Príncipe,
a free garden completed in
1808 under the rule of Carlos IV. The
bubbling brooks and many statues act as perfect photo backdrops, and wedding
parties can often be seen snapping flower-side shots while strolling through
style at El Castillo de 1806,
an upscale restaurant with a cavernous brick interior, located between the Jardín del
Príncipe and Jardín de la Isla. A starter of grilled octopus, an
entrée of oxtail stew, and a creamy chocolate soufflé for dessert is
After a peaceful
morning, seek out an afternoon of excitement. Plaza de Toros is no longer a regularly
functioning bullring, but the tour guides paint a vivid picture of the Spanish
sport’s brutal glory days when regulars such as Ernest Hemingway would come to watch
the fights. The ring's hospital for injured bullfighters is still intact,
and the deep scratch marks from the bulls’ horns are still visible along the
ring’s wooden perimeter.
Trains leave from Atocha every two hours and
the ride takes approximately 45 minutes.
Toledo: Best for mountainous
town, 90km southwest of Madrid, is a unique mix of many Spanish
traditions. Souvenir stores sell swords, a popular weapon in Toledo during
the Middle Ages and the centuries-long battle in the Iberian Peninsula; bakeries
are chocked with marzipan, a sugary treat originally made in the Jesus and Mary
Monastery of Toledo many years ago; and Gothic-style religious buildings line
each block. A substantial portion of Toledo is on a steep incline so be sure to
wear a good pair of walking shoes.
day exploring the 15th-century Santa Iglesia Cathedral
Primada de Toledo, a quintessentially Gothic church. The intricacies of the stained
glass windows along with the Chapel of Treasure’s bejewelled Monstrance de Arfe
-- a massive, towering structure of gold, silver, and gems that is used in
Toledo’s annual Corpus Christi festival -- are well worth the entrance fee. Not
far from the cathedral is the Museo El Greco, where many of the famous 16th-
and 17th-century Spanish painter’s works are now on display,
including the Apostolate series and the San Bernadino altarpiece. The artist
also lived in the house for a cumulative 27 years over the course of his career.
In Toledo, though,
the best part of the city is not found in the manufactured and man-made areas. Instead,
walk down a gruelling stone-step path to the river for one of the best views in
the province of Castile-La Mancha. The Tagus River weaves through steep
and rocky cliffs covered in greenery and Toledo seems to tower above the river
valley. Once back in the city centre, visit Bar Ludeña (10 Plaza de la
Magdalena; 925-223-384), where a steady stream of tapas is available for those
who order drinks.
Trains leave from Atocha approximately
every hour and will get you to Toledo in 33 minutes.
Chinchón: Best for old town glory
The trip to Chinchón
is an experience all on its own. The bus winds 45km through the hilly Spanish
countryside, providing panoramic views of the landscape as Madrid’s skyline gives
way to arid countryside.
The best way
to spend a day in this 15th-century town is by finding the most
comfortable seat in the square and settling down to watch local life pass by. The
onion seller pulls his worn trolley through the square as the locals approach
him to chat about their days. The artisanal bread maker sells loafs shaped
like hearts and shields. Little boys kick a soccer ball around a dirt-packed
field, dodging the donkey cart that hauls children around the heart of Chinchón.
The small town is perfect for an afternoon of light reading and people
watching. And with the low-cost bus ride, it is well worth the trip.
The 337 bus, run by an independent
company called La Veloz, leaves from the Conde de Casal stop in Madrid (914-097-602; Avenida del Mediterráneo 49) and reaches Chinchón in
approximately 30 minutes.