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.
Wait… Egypt in Spain? Why yes indeed. Madrid’s Parque del Oeste houses the ancient Egyptian Temple of Debod. Originally constructed in Aswan, Egypt in 200 BC and dedicated to Isis, the UNESCO temple had to be moved in 1970 as result of the Aswan High Dam project which created the artificial Lake Nassar in the temple’s original emplacement. The decision was made to donate the Temple of Debod to Spain in graditude for Spain’s aid in saving dozens of the ancient sites and monuments from the reservoir created by the dam. Though the only Egyptian temple in Spain (strangely enough!), Debod Temple has sister temples that you may have seen, each donated for the same reason as Debod. Notably this includes the Temple of Dendur located in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Temple of Ellesyia in Torino (Italy) and the Temple of Taffeh in Leiden (Netherlands). Parque del Oeste, not too far from Madrid’s Royal Palace, is a lovely spot for a walk by day – but it is the soft glow of the setting sun and the romantic glow of moonlight that shows the Temple of Debod in its best light. Under a brilliant crescent moon, gaze upon the ancient temple reflected into the pool encircling the monument.
Pro info: Parque del Oeste is located a short walking distance from the city centre; closest metro stop is Principe Pio. Entry free. Best visited at night when the tombs are lit up!
“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá.
Pro tip: Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid stations Atocha or Chamartin , if you buy tickets from the machine. Madrid stations aren’t always manned, and buying tickets can be complicated, so be sure you leave extra time to buy tickets
A sort of Spanish Versailles, Aranjuez Palace is a massive royal complex roughly an hour from Madrid, though it is lesser-known than its French counterpart. A former royal residence established during the era of Philip II in the early 1500s, the Palace of Aranjuez once functioned as a seasonal residence, inhabited by the royals and their entourage each springtime. Encapsulating the utter extravagance and overabundance of the wealth, power and influence the royal family once held, the palatial space allowed them to host enormously opulent and excessive Great Gatsby style parties. Though today the Spanish royal family is little more than a symbol, it is still a powerful symbol of conservatism, religion, and traditional values, not always keeping up with the modern world. Today however, the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a UNESCO protected site, is open to the public as a museum, displaying art, furniture, royal artefacts and more, offering a cheeky peak behind the royal curtain of what being part of the Spanish royal family and its court actually meant. To get there, take the local commuter train from Madrid’s central stations to Aranjuez and walk 15 minutes to the palace at the centre of town; last entry is one hour before closing.
No matter when you visit Madrid, you are guaranteed sun and heat–even during a sunset such as this. While this makes a nice change from places where it rains or snows often, or others where it is cold most of the year, it can sometimes be too hot. However, the Spanish lifestyle is adapted to work around the heat. Most businesses are closed at midday and this time is instead set aside for eating. In Spain, mealtime is a sacred time of day. Mealtime is for eating, socializing, enjoying life, and you can in no way force a Spaniard to curtail this sacred ‘moment’ (which can sometimes last 3 hours!). Another way to escape the heat is to move everything back a few hours so that dinner is now later, around 10 pm. ‘Afternoon’ activities–like a stroll through the park, a beer at a bar, a quick shopping trip to the mall, dinner on a terrace, etc…this is all done during twilight or even after night falls. While still hot, this at least eliminates too much direct sunlight. Some would even say that twilight is the loveliest time of day!
While actual trees are less-than-numerous in Madrid, street-performers are on every corner–and sometimes, they dress up like trees! Unlike many countries where the vast majority of those on the street sit on the corner with a pitiful sign that begs for money, the majority of the buskers in Madrid and other Spanish cities sell (knockoff) products, create a performance, play music, or merely dress up in insane costumes for tourist photo-ops. No where else can you find so many of active buskers. Not only that, but the creativity of some of them is mind-blowing! This tree-man here is one example of many, and while he doesn’t do a whole lot more than stand there, as one walks down the main street to Puerta del Sol, your neck starts to hurt from all the swinging back and forth to stare at the interesting and fascinating costumes these people have created. Madrid (alongside Barcelona’s Las Ramblas) is surely a Museum of Truly Spectacular Buskers. And quite often, one has to see them to believe them!
This regal plaza is one of the Spanish capital’s two main squares (the other being Plaza del Sol, literally the epicentre of Spain, as it is located in the very centre of the city/country). Plaza Mayor, however, is even more beautiful than its sister. Dating back to the 1500’s and the reigns of both Phillip II and Phillip III, the plaza was designed to augment the beauty of Madrid after the king decided to make Madrid the new capital. Over the years, Plaza Mayor has seen everything from public markets, street fairs, bullfights, demonstrations, public executions, football matches (not sure how that one worked out), and trials of the Spanish Inquisition. In the beginning, it was called Plaza del Arrabal, and was once the meeting point for tradesmen pouring in from the then-larger city of Toledo. Today, these four beautiful, 5-story walls of this amazing Spanish square marks the very heart of Madrid, and Spain itself.