One of the pleasures of the great Spanish capital, Madrid, is its central location. From there, you can visit many exceptional sites in a few hours. Expats David Appell and Jose Balido, Tripitini travel advisors and editors, told me about a few of their favorites a short distance from their Spanish home.
(This interview is adapted from episode 65 of my travel podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Listen here for more from Madrid, or follow wherever you get podcasts.)
There are so many places to visit outside of Madrid. In about an hour you can reach the mountains, historic towns and royal palaces of the Castilla region. One is El Escorial.
Escorial is north of Madrid, about 40-50 minutes by car, train or bus. The city is home to a monastery/palace which was built in the late 16th century for King Philip II, and it was very monastic in vision. The complex is therefore extremely austere.
It’s huge, I know. And filled with art.
It takes at least two hours to cover it. So you really have to pace yourself and bring good walking shoes.
But it’s one of those places that is so atmospheric: so dark and so dark and Castilian. You really feel like you’ve been transported to another century as you walk around.
Another UNESCO site not to be missed is not far south of Madrid, the medieval hilltop town of Toledo.
Toledo is perched on a hill above the Targus River, which loops around it. The very famous view of Toledo is due to the painter El Greco, who lived and worked there. The ancient city dates back almost to the beginning of the first millennium; it was the first to be conquered by the Moors in 711, and they remained there for 375 years. It was a place of harmony and tolerance between Muslims, Christians and Jews. And he became known for learning, for religious tolerance. And this is where the term Saint Toledo comes from, because of the ability of religions to coexist.
You see mosques, synagogues, convents and narrow cobbled streets. I really recommend if you only have a few days.
Well, Segovia is a fairly easy train ride from Madrid – just over an hour, and you can cover it on foot for most of the day. It is famous for three amazing monuments. There is a Roman aqueduct of arches, with stones placed without any mortar. It has stood there without collapsing for 2000 years. I’m amazed that it was used to bring water to the city until the middle of the 20th century, I believe. So it’s just an incredible piece of ancient engineering.
There is also the huge Alcazar palace which dates from the 11th or 12th century; it was used by King Ferdinand and Isabella. Walt Disney used it as one of the models for Cinderella’s castle, full of spiers, turrets and ramparts. It’s very Castilian, very historic and definitely worth spending the time to walk around.
And the third place not to be missed is the 16th century cathedral, which was one of the last in Europe to be built in the Gothic style; very atmospheric, as you would expect.
And apart from all that, I would add the town itself: small, but so lively and joyful that you walk through the streets and the town center where the shops and restaurants are, and you can’t keep from feeling good. It’s one of those towns that lifts your spirits.
I would like to talk about Avila because it is also very close to Madrid, about an hour and a half to the west. The old town is completely surrounded by a medieval Romanesque wall started in the 11th century. It looks like something out of a fairy tale or medieval fantasy, with lots of churches and convents. One of her most famous associations is with a 16th-century nun named Saint Teresa of Avila, known for her ecstatic visions and ecstasies, including one where she supposedly visited Hell. So she became quite famous for that.
There is a small museum for her, which also includes what is said to be her mummified finger.
Alright, I can’t miss this!
One thing to keep in mind about Europe and Spain is that they have high-speed trains, like nothing we have in the United States. So that places you might not think are day trips box be day trips. One not to be missed if you have enough days would be Cordoba, which is an hour and a half away by high-speed train, and Cordoba has perhaps one of the largest mosques in the world, which is now a cathedral, although sure ; the architecture is sublimely beautiful.
Yes, many layers of architecture again, these different cultures and different religions.
JB: Part comes from the Visigoths of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.
The interior blows your mind as it is a sea of columns, columns and red striped arches. And then right in the middle of it all, they dug out a typical, pompous little Catholic cathedral space.
This is one of the best areas of Madrid – you have a wonderful city and you have these other great places to visit.