Not far from Madrid, Toledo is an easy and beautiful day trip from Spain’s capital city. Holy Roman emperor Charles V established his court here in Toledo in the 16th century, giving the city its nickname, the “Imperial City.” Toledo is a city that has given birth to kings and queens, nobles and commoners alike – even the famed artist El Greco comes from this desert gem. Toledo is a place with a long heritage, vastly effected by its mix of the three dominating cultures of the Iberian Peninsula: Christianity, Islam and Judaism – not to mention functioning as the Visigoth Capital from 542 – 725 AD. In existence since before Roman times, it is little wonder that this desert city was recognised by UNESCO. Wander the lovely streets, casting your eye at the diverse architecture inspired by its various cultures before heading to the very top of the city for a terrific panoramic view of Toledo and its surroundings. Neither small nor large, Toledo is easy enough to explore on foot (if you don’t mind hills and steep roads!), but nor is it too small to get bored.
Pro tip: Perhaps you might want to try some tapas or paella while you’re here! Toledo has many small family-run restaurants in which to do so. Wear sturdy shoes – the streets are cobbled, uneven and sometimes steep. Trains run hourly from Puerta de Atocha station in Madrid, with a 30 minute duration. Check Renfe’s website for more info.
Unique, isn’t it? This squat, sunburnt little Romanesque tower and 12-sided polygon of a church on the outskirts of Segovia is impressive – and not the least because it dates back to the Middle Ages – the 13th century in fact. And who founded it? Why, none other than the infamous Knights Templar! More simply called “The Templars,” were a Catholic military organisation founded in 1139 by the pope. Most people know that they are closely tied to the Crusades to the Holy Land but what is less known is that they became very wealthy and therefore very powerful due to their role involved in the Christian bourse. Though the Templars are among some of the most skilled fighters of the Middle Ages (a fact that modern day video game Assassin’s Creed has exploited), roughly 90% of their order weren’t fighters. While the combatants where wrestling for the Holy Land, the non-combatants were slowly making a power play. It was they who put in place the economic infrastructure such as banking, loans, investments and the creation of landed estates (essentially paving the way for feudalism, and one might argue, capitalism) – all of only made them more rich. Part of their money went to building shrines to their movement – churches dedicated to the Holy Land they held so dear. One such place was the Church of Vera Cruz – a fantastic example of the kind sanctuary they perfected and how it differs from later churches. In fact, scripture from the Holy Land is inscribed at the alter of this little Spanish church. However, the Templars’ reign was short-lived. Such wealth gave them power, and power made them detested. Once they lost the Crusades, it was quite easy to demonise them – especially it you owed them money. One of those in their debt was none other than King Philip of France who took advantage of their fall from grace to blame, torture, and murder them to avoid repayment on his debt, forcing Pope Clement the V to disband them in 1312. The Templars disappeared in the early 1300s but they left behind a mysterious legacy – one that continues to inspire goosebumps to this day….
Pro tip: The Church of Vera Cruz lies just outside of the cluster of buildings in the historic centre. It’s open Tuesdays 16 – 19h and Wed – Sun from 10h30 – 19h (closed midday from 13h30 – 16h). Admission is a modest €2.
Rivendell? Gondor? Narnia? Hogwarts? Sadly, no to all. However magical it looks, this is no fantasy world but instead the Spanish town of Ronda is a magical city set deep in the sunburnt deserted landscapes of Andalucia, optimistically built onto a cliff split by a colossal gorge. The two sides of Ronda are tethered together by this stunning bridge known as Ronda’s Puente Nuevo. The newest of the three bridges that crosses the breathtaking El Tajo Gorge carved by the mighty Guadalevin River, Puente Nuevo was finished in 1793 after a long 34 years of construction. It is a master of engineering and an impressive work of architecture, calling in at a shocking 66 meters long and 98 meters high, built straight into the solid rock of the El Tajo Gorge. The small window just visible in the side of the bridge was once used as a prison – with condemned prisoners simply thrown from their cells to meet their doom on the rocks at the bottom of gorge a la Vlad Tepes Dracula. Today, it is both tourist attraction as well as a fully functional bridge, connecting forevermore both halves of the city of Ronda, capital of the famous Pueblos Blancos.
Pro Tip: The Puente Nuevo bridge is best seen from below. Descend along a narrow path that leads down the side of the gorge, but beware, the path is eroded and in poor condition so be sure to wear proper hiking gear.
Andalucia is one of Europe’s most enchanting places. Vast tracts of farmland stretch to the horizon, dotted with snug farmhouses tucked among the golden and chocolate-coloured foothills. Rugged landscapes colour the foreground while the jagged spires of the Sierra Nevada Mountains set the backdrop. Beautiful Andalucia is home to the famous pueblos blancos, the magnificent white villages peppering the golden brown hills of southern Spain. In this region, time seems to slow to a standstill. People take time to live their lives slowly, to appreciate the simple joys of everyday. Groves of oranges and olives climb the sunburnt slopes until they finally disappear over the hill crest. The over-abundance of oranges and olives, not to mention tomatoes, grapes, almonds, cereals, and sunflowers is evident – pop-up open air markets are everywhere, in each village. Old wooden tables groan under the weight of the fresh produce – aficionados of the farm-to-fork movement at its purest! Vineyards, too, abound in Andalucia and further afield in Spain. It’s easy to find good yet cheap wine (no need to ever spend more than €10 per bottle…). Better yet, enjoy a cold glass of delicious sangria while basking under the Andalucian sun in villages like Grazelama, Zahara de la Sierra, or the town of Ronda. There are a lot of incredible places to watch a sunset, but the green and golden checkered fields, bone-white villages and rugged landscapes – not to mention the cloudless skies – make for some pretty spectacular performances. Best enjoyed with a sangria in hand…of course.
Toledo: one of Spain’s great, ancient, international cities. Though not large, Toledo is a magnificent and historical place. The sand-swept, hilltop town sometimes seems like something out of Game of Thrones’ imaginary Kingdom of Dorne. Regal yet humble at the same time, Toledo provides sweeping views of the beautiful Spanish desert spilling away from its gates. Within its’ streets, cozy restaurants, cheery cafes and sunny terraces invite visitors to take a break from admiring the city’s varied architectural styles (influenced by the different civilizations that once called Toledo home) for a cold cerveza, a sample of Spanish tapas or perhaps even Valencian paella. Sometimes known as the “Imperial City” for hosting the court of Charles I, it is also interestingly enough known as the “City of the Three Cultures” due to significant influence by historical co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Each of these cultures have left their mark on magical Toledo, including this church here which was built in Mudejar (Islamic) style, modeled on an ancient mosque in the same area. And if all that wasn’t enough, Toledo is also the adopted city of the Cretan artist, El Greco!
Tumbling hazel hills rise and fall along this Spanish road in Spain’s southern-most, most populous, and second-largest region, Andalusia. Blazing hot during the day, chillingly cold during the evening, Andalusia is as bizarre as it is beautiful. While tints of green fleck the landscape (as seen here), there is an overwhelming difference between these rolling hills, and similar such hills just on the other side of the Pyrenees. Andalusia has a rugged sort of beauty that is sometimes difficult to understand at first….but the more time spent in this warm, dry part of southern Spain, the more delicious dishes you try, the more fun, happy Spaniards you meet, the more adorable villages you discover, the more realise there’s no place like Andalusia!
Literally split in two by a massive cliff, Ronda is considered the capital of the Pueblos Blancos region of Andalucia (southern Spain). And Ronda is drop-dead beautiful! The white cliff dwellings are picture-perfect, the atmosphere is chill, the sun is shinning, the sangria is pouring. Ronda has the heart of a village – and the size of a town! Obviously, the canyon, El Tajo, is what truly makes this town stand out. A famous scene in Hemingway’s ForWhom the Bell Tolls relates how Fascist sympathisers were tossed off a cliff in a fictional Spanish town during the Civil War (1936-9) – and many claim that Hemingway used Ronda as a model for his fictional story. Nearby, there are also fascinating and well-preserved ruins of the Arab baths. As the whole town is built precariously into this cliff and mountainous region, you’ll have to navigate winding roads, hairpin turns and narrow bridges crossing deep gorges to approach the baths. But despite any falling Fascists or narrow gorges, Ronda is one of the prettiest Spanish town – and that’s saying a lot!
More Beautiful Small Towns and Villages in Sunny Spain