There are many advantages to living in Madrid. For a Spanish city, it’s big, it’s bustling, and it’s diverse. But one of my favorite aspects of Madrid is its location. By design, the capital of Spain is almost equidistant from every corner of the country; to drive from Madrid to Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque Country, and to Galicia all take roughly the same amount of time. And transportation isn’t hard to find; the city is well connected by rail, highway, and plane to every corner of the country. Travel is cheap, easy, and fast.
As a consequence, there are a great many excellent day trips you can take from Madrid. I’ve already written about some of them: Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial. Each of those is interesting enough to merit an entire post. In this post, I want to talk about some of the perhaps lesser-known cities for day-trippers. I’ll start at the very beginning, with my first trip inside Spain.
Alcalá de Henares
As soon as I got to Spain, I blabbed to everybody I met that I had read Don Quixote. I was very proud of this, for I thought it gave me some kind of badge of honor in Spanish culture. And indeed, a few people seemed genuinely impressed—though less so when I told them I read it in English.
“Ah, so you like Cervantes?” a friend of ours said.
“Oh yes, he’s excellent.”
“You should visit Alcalá de Henares, then. It’s where Cervantes was born.”
“Yeah, check it out. You can get there on the Cercanías for free with your metro pass. Take it from Atocha.”
This was only our second week in Spain, and we were still a bit disoriented by our surroundings. The prospect of taking an actual trip in Spain seemed almost Herculean, an added challenge to the day-to-day struggle of navigating our new city. But I was determined to get culture, by hell or high water; so as soon as we could, we made it to Atocha station and took the Cercanías to Alcalá de Henares. (For once in our lives, we found the train without a problem.)
The train was too full for us to sit down. We stood by the doors, both of us swaying nervously with the ever-present anxiety you feel when in a strange environment. I was looking forward to seeing the area around Madrid, but the windows were smudged and dirty; and the view, from what I could see, wasn’t much anyway. Meanwhile, I’d terrified myself by reading online stories about the ingenuity of pickpockets in Europe, and couldn’t stop casting interrogative glances at all the passengers around me, wondering whether any of them were thieves eyeing me up, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Station after station went by, and I was paying fierce attention to all of them, paranoid that we would miss our stop and get hopelessly lost. It’s really exhausting traveling somewhere totally new—it is for me, at least—because you can’t take anything for granted. The doors of the trains work differently; the seats are arranged differently; the automatic announcer is speaking a foreign language. Added to this, I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong by accident, breaking the train etiquette of Spain and drawing everyone’s attention to myself. It’s pretty amusing to me now, as I look back after three months; but then it was just stressful and scary.
We arrived. After some confused mucking about, we began making our way to the center of town. Neither of us had Spanish SIM cards yet, so our phones didn’t work. We just followed the crowd, who all seemed to be walking in the same direction. The city seemed rather ordinary at first—though even this was interesting to me, since I hadn’t seen any city in Spain besides Madrid yet—but soon something caught our eye. It looked like a little castle, with a tower on one end and a tiny battlement at the top of a square structure.
But what really made it stand out was the intricate ornamentation. The façade of the tower, for example, was covered in swirls. It was quite pretty. Although we didn’t know this at the time, it’s called the Palacete Laredo, and is one of the sites in Alcalá.
Looking at my photos of it now, I can tell that it was built in a Neo-Mudéjar style, with crescent arches and a domed minaret. The top of the main building, however, is not Neo-Mudéjar in style, but rather looks like a small copy of the Alcázar in Segovia. In fact, the more I look at my pictures, the more of a stylistic jumble the place appears, with all sorts of different elements mixed together. Of course, at the time I just thought it looked weird. (As I see from looking at the Spanish Wikipedia, there’s a museum inside, though the place when closed when we got there.)
We kept going, following the trickle of pedestrians into the center of town. Eventually the buildings started to look older; the streets were narrower here and paved with stone. But what most caught our attention was a big beautiful bird, sitting on top of an old church. It looked so incongruous and stood so still that we were convinced it was fake—that is, until it twitched its head. When we got a bit closer we could see it had built a big, bushy nest up high on the building.
As we moved on, following the throng of people wherever it seemed thickest, we eventually found ourselves in a dense crowd. Little shacks were set up all over the place, selling cheese, sausage, olives, nuts, spices, tea, wooden bowls, leather bags, colorful scarves, cheap jewelry. Not only that, but all the people in these shops were dressed up in funny outfits, like they were in Medieval times. Was Spain always like this on the weekends? I was both excited and terrified—excited to see a slice of Spanish life, but now scared more than ever about being pickpocketed.
We rounded a corner and came across an outdoor restaurant. Dozens of tables and chairs were gathered under a tent. Several harried men in ridiculous costumes—looking like court jesters, with striped red and white shirts and big puffy hats—were running left and right, carrying massive trays of food. Outside the tent was the cooking area, where a large circular charcoal grill was covered in sausages, meats, fish, and vegetables of all kinds. Immediately I felt very, very hungry. From the shops were hung all manner of flags and banners painted with signs from medieval heraldry—black, yellow, and red.
Every new street we entered was more packed than the last. Soon it dawned on us that this wasn’t at all normal, but was some kind of special festival. (Actually, as we later learned, this was the Medieval Market, which was held from October 8 to 12.) As if to confirm our suspicion, a group of men dressed up like medieval soldiers, with fake swords by their sides, paraded through the crowd while another man, dressed in rags, pretended to be a lunatic. One of the soldiers held him by a rope, while the maniac ran after people in the crowd (mostly women), gargling his throat and reaching out his dirty hands. Another soldier was beating a big bass drum, while they all shouted things that I couldn’t understand.
We wandered along this way, two bewildered Americans, absolutely intimidated by our surroundings, until eventually we were standing in front of a couple of statues. I immediately recognized these as being Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; both of them were sitting on a bench, and seemed to be having a damned good time. In between the knight errant and his square there was a space on the bench where tourist after tourist was lining up to have their picture taken. I would have had my picture taken, too, if I wasn’t so afraid that my phone would disappear as soon as I took it out of my pocket.
Behind the bench was the Cervantes House. We got on line and went right in. It’s quite a small place, actually. In the center of the house is a little courtyard, around which every room is situated. The insides of these rooms were furnished to look like they would have during Cervantes’ lifetime. I have to admit not much caught my eye, except perhaps the old kitchen equipment. It was more rewarding just to pace about, thinking that I was standing in the very place where Cervantes, that master of masters, entered into the world. This feeling was so strange to me that I’m not sure I quite took it in. This was perhaps the first appearance of “European Travel Syndrome” in my life. You simply can’t have an experience like this in New York.
In just half an hour, we were out in the street again. We didn’t know anything else to do except walk around, seeing as much of the city as we could. Many of the buildings were impressive; but at this early stage, we didn’t really know how to go about visiting buildings or even how to look at them. In fact, what I most remember were not the buildings themselves, but the dozens stork nests sitting snuggly on rooftops, their bushy lairs looking somehow both ridiculous and majestic.
Eventually, we decided to sit down to eat in one of those tent restaurants. The waiter ran up to us, his floppy hat thrown over to one side of his head, and asked us in a slew of Spanish words what we wanted. We ordered two things, and he was off. At this point, we were so clueless in Spanish that most of the time we didn’t even know what we were ordering in restaurants. This was a classic example: We asked for “pimientos fritos” thinking they were french fries; five minutes later, the waiter dropped a plate of fried, salted green peppers on our table. I know, I know, this is a ridiculous mistake, not least because “potato” is “patata” here—not hard to guess.
The upside of our ignorance was that we ended up learning a lot about Spanish food, since we accidentally ate a lot of it. These pimientos were a case in point: we loved them, and pimientos now are one of our staple dishes. Really, if you’re in Spain and you can’t speak Spanish, just go into a restaurant and order whatever sounds interesting. All the food is good here.
After eating the pimientos, and then following it with a plate full of chorizo and tomato sauce on bread, we began to walk around again. But I’m afraid we didn’t do much of interest; and in an hour, we were on our way back to the train station to return to Madrid.
Reading over what I just wrote, and comparing it to what I find online about Alcalá de Henares, it’s obvious to me that we left most of the main sights unseen. Oh well, next time. But it was a fantastic stroke of luck to arrive on the very weekend when they were having their famous Medieval Market. And as I look back on it, this trip seems to presage our whole time in Spain so far: we arrive clueless and unprepared, and yet everything works out marvelously. Traveling in Spain is, in fact, a lot like ordering in a Spanish restaurant: even if you have no idea what you’ll get, you can be sure it will be delightful.
“Just once, I’d like to begin a blog post without our travel troubles!” I said to my girlfriend as we walked around, confused and lost, looking for the bus to Chinchón. We’d just walked fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, and were heading back to the metro station now.
“Shut up,” she said. “I have it here on my phone.”
Indeed she did; and we were soon standing by the appropriate bus station near Conde de Casal, waiting to go to Chinchón.
Chinchón is a small town—its population is about 5,000—just south of Madrid. It isn’t the home of any big castles or cathedrals; it isn’t the place to take the best photos or hear the best music. Rather, Chinchón is a place to sit and eat, and that’s what we planned to do.
After an hour on the bus, we arrived. Immediately we headed for the plaza mayor, the most famous place in the town, a five minute walk from the bus stop.
This was the first week of January. We had this week off for Tres Reyes, the Spanish holiday celebrating the three magi who visited infant Jesus. Instead of giving presents on Christmas, this is the day when most gifts are exchanged. And lucky for us, the combination of Christmas, New Year’s, and Tres Reyes makes for a long, long holiday.
We’d just gotten back from our Christmas trip to Andalusia, and were thirsting to see more of Spain. Unfortunately, Madrid and its environs are a good deal colder than the south of Spain. We were freezing. Added to this, the weather was awful that day, overcast, windy, with a bit of rain. It was the kind of dull, dreary weather than can make the Taj Mahal look dreadful.
But the plaza mayor of Chinchón didn’t look dreadful at all. It looked positively cute. Identical white buildings with green balconies and tiled roofs surrounded a circular area in the center. This area was filled with sand. A few guys were selling donkey rides to kids, leading a long train of donkeys with excited children bouncing on top of them around the square, while their parents walked cautiously beside. A plastic Christmas tree decoration sat in the exact center. Every building had a restaurant or two, which was good because we were already quite hungry.
Man of this century that I am, I looked on my phone for the restaurant with the highest rating: it was called La Villa. Of course it was expensive (for a Spanish restaurant). But it was the new year, and we felt like living high.
I’m glad to report that I absolutely stuffed myself, and then ate some more. The house red wine was also just fantastic, dangerously so, for I drank too much of it. After I ate and drank my fill, we ordered dessert—also great—and then asked for the check. This came with two complementary shots of Chinchón, which is the local liquor, apparently. Since my girlfriend can’t drink, I had to have both shots. It was strong, I tell you, and had a subtle liquorish flavor, a bit like Jägermeister. As we walked out, we noticed a bunch of black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls. Closer inspection revealed that they were of bull fights in the plaza mayor of Chinchón. Apparently, it was originally a bullring, which explains its symmetrical layout.
After this, there’s not much to tell. Stomachs painfully full, we waddled around town a bit. We found a castle, ruined and empty, which we couldn’t enter. There were several churches, closed to visitors. And then there was a view of the countryside beyond, rendered a bit dour by the weather. An hour later we were waiting at the bus stop with a bunch of chatting old ladies, and an hour after that we were sitting at home, drowsy, relaxed, ready for our next trip.
“Oh God, not again! Why can’t we get anything right?”
We were standing in front of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. It was big but not imposing, perhaps because of its playful pink color. The building’s two wings seemed to stretch toward us like a man reaching for a handshake. On the top of the building the Spanish flag was fitfully blowing in the wind.
“Why!?” I whined. “We managed to come the only day that it’s closed! Why didn’t I just check the hours? This always happens!”
It was Monday, the only day of the week that the palace isn’t open for visits. We’d just taken the train from Atocha station in Madrid. It was the day after our trip to Chinchón, and the weather was still gloomy and overcast. I wasn’t in a good mood.
“Shut up,” my girlfriend said. “It’s not a big deal.”
We began walking around, somewhat aimlessly. In the area surroundings the palace there is lots of monumental architecture, with large open courtyards surrounded by stone walls; rounded archways line nearly every surface, which along with the reddish color gives the complex a unified aesthetic. But I wasn’t in the mood for appreciating architecture.
“We’ve been in this country for months,” I said. “And still we mess up even these basic things.”
“It’s not a big deal,” my girlfriend said.
By now we were standing in front of the Iglesia Real de San Antonio, and I was still sulking.
“This sucks,” I said.
“Come on,” my girlfriend said. “Let’s go eat.”
We walked into town, found a restaurant, and sat down. The food was surprisingly good, and also cheap. By the time I finished, I was in a considerably better mood. And in that spirit, we went off to see the gardens.
It was a miserable day for this. The trees were bare and skeletal; the flowers were nowhere to be seen; the place was empty and desolate. The wind was blowing freezing air, the endless gray clouds cast a dreary shadow over everything, and in general the world looked bleak.
The only light relief from this brooding picture were the geese. At least, I think they were geese, though they didn’t look much like the Canadian geese I’m used to. There were dozens of them sitting in the river. And as we passed by a few geese wandering around the park, they began honking at each other. It was a comical sight. It looked like they were having a petty argument, and perhaps they were.
With nothing much to interest me, my mind began to wander. We’d just begun watching Kenneth Clark’s landmark television documentary, Civilisation; and that program had brought to the fore a question I’d long thought about.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” I said. “It’s supposed to be good for you in some way to travel to all these famous monuments. You see these beautiful buildings and paintings, and ostensibly the experience ennobles you. But how, specifically does that work? How does it improve people to appreciate fine architecture, for example?”
“Uh, well it’s historically significant, and it’s important for people to understand history.”
“That’s true. But it seems that it’s something more than just history. After all, you could just read a history book. Why do people spend all this money to visit places so they can see fine architecture?”
“Because it’s nice to look at?”
“I guess. But lots of things are nice to look at. Lots of celebrities, for example, are nice to look at, but nobody thinks looking at celebrities makes them ‘cultured’.”
“And of course, seeing beautiful art doesn’t necessarily do anything for you. If somebody is naturally uninterested in or insensitive to fine art, he won’t be improved no matter how many museums you force him through.”
“So it seems to have something to do with the appreciation of beauty. If you can appreciate beauty, and you see something beautiful, it improves you in some way (supposedly). But how?”
By now she had completely zoned out and I was talking to myself. I gave up and started turning over the question in my mind. But I didn’t make any progress, and soon my mind was someplace else.
We kept going, crossed a bridge, and found ourselves walking along a road lined with sycamore trees, their overhanging branches leafless and emaciated. To our left and right were fields of farmland—empty.
More than anything else I’ve seen in Spain, this wintry and desolate landscape reminded me of home. I felt like I was in upstate New York, taking a wintertime stroll. The wind whipped up and send a chill to my bones.
A wave of homesickness came over me as I walked. What am I doing here? Where am I headed? I don’t know. What is my mom doing? And my brother? What’s happening with my friends? Don’t know, either. What will happen next year? What will I do when I get back home? And when will that be? How will I be changed? And how will home be changed?
The road extended into the distance, empty and dreary. And as I looked down that road, I could imagine nothing but sadness ahead of me. This sadness wasn’t just for myself. I was seized by that tender, reflective melancholy—what Virgil calls “the tears of things”—when you realize that the universe is indifferent to your happiness, that all pleasure is temporary, that death is permanent, and that all your hopes and dreams, and those of the people you love, might come to nothing. It’s the realization—so painful we do our best to forget it—that tragedy is an inevitable part of life. And though this fact is unbearably sad, it is the source of beauty; for beauty is so precious because, like all things, it is doomed to pass away.
In this pensive state of mind, perhaps just a result of the weather and the new year, we walked down the long road, turned a corner, and kept on going. We talked about our plans for next year, and expressed anxiety about how we’d cope if we had to go long distance. And then we fell into silence as the leaves crunched underneath our feet and the light leaked out of the sky, and we said little as we dragged our weary feet to the train and left.
Our trip to Ávila was a whole lot more successful.
Early in the morning, we took a train from Madrid to that splendid city. Ávila is the capital of the eponymous province; it sits in the south of the autonomous region of Castille y León, and houses a population of 60,000. Of course, I didn’t know a bloody thing about the place when I booked the trip, but by now I’m sure you’ve come to expect that.
The train ride was stunningly lovely. It made its way northwest of Madrid, passing town after town until we got to El Escorial. As we went by, I relished the chance to see the monastery again, if only in the distance.
Now we were in the Guadarrama mountains. Through the window I could see valleys, far below us, green but nearly treeless. Far in the distance the sun hung above the horizon, glaring yellow. Underneath was a sea of clouds, apparently sitting at ground level. Occasionally a derelict farmhouse or a stone fence could be seen, and once or twice I spotted a few cows, looking tiny and delicate in the valleys below. We passed through several tunnels, and eventually a city could be seen up ahead, which grew nearer and nearer until the train slowed to a stop.
We were in Ávila. We walked out of the station and into the city center, and in just five minutes we were face to face with the one of the gates of the city walls. It was an impressive sight: two towers flanked the door, two rows of battlements above. I imagined what it would’ve been like to be the poor soldier trying to break in these walls. Arrows, stones, and other projectiles would rain down upon you as soon as you came near. It would be a pretty wretched day. I wonder how generals went about conquering places this well fortified? The only safe way seems to be a siege: starve them out. I tried imagining what it would be like to be a peasant, stuck inside a besieged town, watching the supply of grain and fresh water gradually dwindle. I suppose war is hell for everyone involved.
We walked around the wall until we found the entrance to climb up. A few euros exchanged hands, and soon we were standing on the walls of Ávila. They’re impressively well-preserved. To my eye it seemed that they could’ve been built yesterday. But according to Wikipedia, they were constructed from the 11th to the 14th centuries. The walls are thick and tall, and seem strong enough to withstand even a cannonball—not that I’d know. We walked and walked, circumnavigating half the town. Red-thatched roofs of houses stood in the foreground, while in the background, far away, thin white clouds hovered over the mountains
My girlfriend absolutely loved the walls. She smiled like a five year old at an amusement park as she peered through the battlements, her hair waving in the wind. I was in a bad mood again: I was hungry. I absolutely hate being hungry. I’m ashamed to say this, because it underscores how easy and prosperous my life has been, but I feel acutely miserable if I wait too long between breakfast and lunch. I get so sour that even the most interesting and joyful experiences seem dreadful.
So as soon as we had walked the kilometer of wall from start to finish, and climbed up and down our fair share of stairs, we headed to a restaurant. And for whatever reason, I decided that we would go to the top-rated restaurant in the city: El Restaurante Bococo.
We sat down for the Menú del Día—which was a bit pricey, but not overly so. Little did I know what awaited me.
First the wine. Two orders of the menú came with a bottle of wine; and since my girlfriend can’t drink (it’s genetic), it was up to me to drink all of it. Granted, we didn’t have to order it in the first place; but I’ll be damned if I pass up a free bottle of wine. We didn’t have all day, so I had to drink pretty quickly. Bottoms up.
Then the food. As usual, I nibbled on the bread as soon as it was brought out. Normally, the portions aren’t that big (for an American) so I don’t worry about filling up my stomach a bit. But I knew I was in trouble when our first dishes were brought out. Each of them was big enough to share. After eating both—a soup with pork, sausage and beans, and fried eggs with pieces of foie gras over potatoes—I was comfortably full. Then our main dishes arrived. We had both ordered steaks, and they were massive. I was determined not to let any of the food go to waste, so I started determinedly stuffing piece after piece down my throat, hoping to outrace the signals of distress emanating from my stomach. Steak, wine, steak, wine, until my stomach felt like it would burst. Then, I ate some more.
By the time all the food and wine was done, I was in misery. I stood up to go, and I was so full and so drunk I could hardly suppress my groans as I shuffled across the room and out the door. You know, I pride myself in being an unusual American, but in this respect I am as American as can be. Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island, put it best:
To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one’s mouth more or less continually. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.
But I had to pay a price for this pleasure, since the rest of the day I could hardly move or think. Note to self: next time, don’t get the bottle of wine.
Still, though I was in pain, I was agreeably buzzed. This made the Cathedral of Ávila particularly moving for me. It’s a Romanesque church, built around the same time as the walls. In fact, the cathedral built into walls, making it a fortification as well as a house of God. The cathedral itself has a square, imposing, massive quality. Its plain grey façade is hardly enlivened by decoration.
The North Door of the cathedral I found particularly impressive. This door is, I believe, the most gothic in style, since its arches are pointed. As in many cathedrals, the doorway is surrounded by concentric arches, which are filled with figures. Long, drawn-out statues of saints sit below, each of them dressed in a robe; and above, in the arches, tiny seated and standing figures fly over you like little angels. In the center, above the door, is the Last Judgment. It’s quite interesting to me that, at this time, Jesus wasn’t conceived as the joyful, forgiving, kindhearted father figure he is today (at least in many parts of America); rather, he was a powerful and vengeful deity, who condemns sinners to the fire.
Another doorway was more Romanesque. Above its rounded arch floral motifs abounded; the door is flanked by two soldiers, their bodies covered in what look like fish scales, wielding shields and clubs. Statues of lions were seated on platforms to the right and left. Above the door, the window was divided into pretty swirling patterns. In a third doorway, also Romanesque, smiling demons seem to pop out of the stone, along with two curious cows heads. I’m sure these mean something, but don’t ask me.
We walked inside. I was trying my best to be alert and focused, but the wine was having its effect. I kept zoning out as I walked around the cathedral, and didn’t get the proper experience. Still, I remember being very impressed by the carvings in high-relief behind the main altar. They represented scenes of intense drama. I remember one in particular that depicted what appear to be Roman soldiers massacring women and children. Their swords are drawn, and several are stabbing or slashing down at women on the ground, whose hands are uselessly raised in defense, their faces contorted in terror. It’s a gruesome scene; and the craftsmanship is excellent. It’s a marvel to me that Europe has so many works of art of that something of this quality can be considered minor.
The rest is a blur, however, and the next thing I knew I was being whisked off to the Basilica de San Vicente. According to the Wikipedia, this is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in the country. I first noticed it when I was up on the walls, remarking to myself that it was a very pretty building, and I was gratified when I found out that it’s one of the main sites to see. According to legend, it’s built on the site where three siblings were martyred during Roman times.
More bizarre figures stand on the capitols of the columns flanking the door—sphinxes this time. Also apparent were more floral, swirling designs in the stone. On the inside, right before the altar, is a massive, elaborate cenotaph to the three martyrs, covered in painted carvings that narrate their lives from beginning to end. It was impressive. But this is the only thing that stuck in my befuddled mind, and soon we had to go.
In fact, we had run out of time. We’d spent so long at the restaurant stuffing ourselves that we gave ourselves only a few hours before our train back to Madrid. So, with much reluctance, we pulled ourselves away, passed again under the main gate of the city, and headed towards the station.
We did stop to briefly visit a monastery on the way—I can’t even remember which—but we basically ran through it. Surprisingly, there were several museums in the building. I remember suddenly passing from a stone courtyard into a room filled with glass cabinets with stuffed animal specimens inside. There were bears, crocodiles, and lions, along with birds, monkeys, snakes, and much else. The specimens looked like they had been sitting there a long time; the eyes in particular were replaced by silly-looking glass eyeballs. And since there was nobody else there, no other tourists and no staff, it felt a bit creepy to be standing in that cramped room with so many dead animals.
But now we had to run for it. We trekked up a hill and got on the train with minutes to spare. I planned to read, but fell into a deep doze as soon as I sat down. And so my drunken body was conveyed to Madrid, where I could make more questionable decisions.