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Madrid and Castille

By Patrick Millar , 18 November 2016

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Madrid , Castille

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Day 1  - After a busy day in the office, we caught the evening flight out to Madrid. We landed at 11pm but Madrid being a city that never sleeps, or at least doesn't go to sleep until the early hours, there was plenty of time to park the car and grab a quick midnight tapas when we arrived. Many locals were still finishing their evening meals – people here don't even think about dinner until 9 or 10 at night. Our hotel for the night was the four-star Emperador – in a great location just by the Gran Via. Unfortunately we didn't have time to enjoy the hotel’s best summer feature, the large rooftop swimming pool.   

Day 2 - The next morning we had a chance to explore some of Madrid – although I had been before I had hardly scraped the surface of the extraordinary wealth of history and art in Madrid. The Prado Museum has one of the world’s most impressive art collections from sixteenth century Flemish painters and the grand oils of Velasquez to El Greco and a wonderful Goya section. We also visited a number of our hotels, including the Cason del Tormes, a traditional three-star hotel within walking distance of the Royal Palace, and the Opera, and the Hotel De Las Letras – a more modern four star hotel on the Gran Via, which has a wonderful roof terrace bar. Our final stop was at the newly refurbished Westin Palace, opposite the Prado itself, where the spacious rooms are probably the best in the city and its famous Rotunda bar is one of the city's best places to meet.

After a quick Tapas lunch, we drove out of the city heading west. The brand new motorways were almost empty and the two and a half hours to Salamanca flew by. The late afternoon sun was glinting off the rooftops and giving the stone of the ‘new’ cathedral (built in the 16th Century) a warm glow as we arrived on the edge of the city. We were given a very warm welcome at the charming Hotel Rector, before exploring the city on foot. The streets of the old city lead up to the city’s two cathedrals (the older one dates from the 12th century), and to the elegantly proportioned Plaza Mayor with its baroque architecture including stone reliefs of the faces of various famous Spanish figures – the vandalised image of General Franco is visible in one corner still. As evening set in, the square buzzed with life as the multinational students of the city’s ancient university came out to enjoy the excellent range of tapas bars. We sampled some traditional dishes such as tortilla and delicious jamon iberico in one of the long-serving local institutions, before moving on to try modern takes on classic tapas next door. Here we sampled beautifully presented individual dishes, which we enjoyed with a glass of Rioja, for no more than a couple of euros each.   

Day 3 - Setting off from Salamanca this morning, we drove for around an hour and a half to the walled city of Avila. The first sight as you approach the town is the imposing mediaeval fortifications which still completely encircle the old city and when lit at night form the world’s largest illuminated monument. We parked on the edge of town and first visited the traditional Palacio de los Velada hotel, which occupies a prime position on the main square, next to the Gothic cathedral. From here we climbed up to the top of the walls and walked along, taking in the panoramic views of the countryside to our right and the rooftops of the town on the left, dotted with turrets and spires – it must have changed very little since construction was completed over seven hundred years ago! We came down again at the Parador of Avila, which backs onto the walls themselves, and walked back through the cobbled streets. 

From Avila it is another hour’s drive to Segovia. The impressive Roman aqueduct looms over the road, with snow-capped mountains on the horizon as we drive into the town. Segovia, although equally unknown to me before we arrived, proves to be every bit as fascinating as Avila. The highlight for me was the surreal Alcazar or castle, at one end of the old city, towering over the cliffs, which looks like a mixture of mediaeval fortress and Loire chateau! 
Our final destination for today is the former capital of Spain, Toledo, so we could not linger for long and hit the road in the late afternoon. As we circle the south-west of Madrid, we pass near the Valle de los Caidos – Francos imposing memorial to the dead of the civil war, and make a brief stop at the monolithic monastery complex at El Escorial (well worth a day trip from Madrid in itself). Arriving in Toledo as evening sets in is an interesting experience. Our hotel, the Eugenia de Montijo is in the centre of the old town, which in Toledo is a warren of medieval streets resembling an Arab medina from somewhere in North Africa more than a European metropolis. This makes it a rewarding place for pedestrians, but a nightmare for drivers, especially at night! After some circling, a significant amount of reversing, and one or two nerve-wrackingly tight corners, we manage to park the car at the hotel, and find the welcoming sight of an excellent boutique hotel. A glass of cold Alhambra beer followed by a very comfortable bed is just the remedy after a busy, but fascinating day.   

Day 4  - This morning we have the chance to explore Toledo in the daylight, and without the car! We head straight for the 13th Century Gothic Cathedral at the centre of the city. Luckily we had a map, which comes in handy when navigating the windy cobbled streets, but even when looking for the biggest building in town we needed a few friendly locals to point us in the right direction. The Cathedral itself is incredible – the elaborate Gothic stonework of the exterior is surpassed only by the glittering altarpieces inside. Despite the high Gothic style of the exterior, once inside there is a great sense of light created by the high vaulted ceiling, elaborate stained glass windows, and the unique Baroque skylight, which allows rays of sunlight to beam down directly on the tabernacle. We were almost ready to leave the cathedral, when I was walking past a small antechamber and looked in – to my surprise here was an unheralded ‘gallery’, with priceless paintings by El Greco, Goya, Velasquez and even Titian and Raphael lining the walls! 

After we had spent all morning in the Cathedral we realised that time was pressing again, so we had to leave Toledo – carefully inching the car back outside the city walls. A short drive from Toledo is the Royal Palace at Aranjuez, one of the grandest of Spain’s royal residences, with extensive formal gardens. It is an easy day trip from Madrid or Toledo, but provided a brief stop for us en route to Chinchon. We stopped in the main square of Chinchon, a rough oval which is covered with a layer of sand and becomes a temporary bullring for the town’s famous summer festivals, and enjoyed a delicious sandwich of fried chorizo in a little cafe. There is an excellent Parador here, which resembles a luxury boutique hotel in a former Augustinian convent just by the main square. Although it would have been nice to stay the night and continue our adventures in Castille the next day, unfortunately for us, we did not have the luxury of time and Madrid airport, just an hour away, was the end of the road.

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