A visit to these sites will provide a day of contrasts. In San Lorenzo de El Escorial is the monastery/palace created by Philip II as the last resting place of his parents, Charles I of Spain (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and Isabella of Portugal. Now the mausoleum holds the remains of all but two Spanish kings, their wives, children and near relatives. Enjoy the views of the Sierra de Guadarrama and visit the library, the Hall of Battles, the Art Gallery, the domestic apartments and the gardens. Of particular interest is the royal bedroom, with its window onto the high altar of the Basilica so that Philip could observe mass from his sick bed.
Six miles from El Escorial is the Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen). The National Park holds the remains of 40,000 Spaniards who died in the Civil War (1936-39). The basilica built on General Franco’s orders between 1940 and 1959 is in the grandiose style so typical of 20th century totalitarian regimes. The vast cathedral tunnelled into the mountainside, with a 150m. cross above, serves as the tomb for the dictator and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falange party, executed by the Republicans in 1936. It remains controversial, with disputes over the working conditions and the number of Franco’s prisoners of war who died during its construction, as well as the location of Franco's tomb. The Basilica was closed in 2009 by the socialist government, only to be reopened in 2012 by the current conservative Popular Party government. A visit will give you plenty to think about.
Both are about 50 kms from Madrid. A suburban rail line from Atocha station or the 664 from Moncloa bus station both take about an hour to reach El Escorial, though the bus drops you much closer to the monastery. Public transport to The Valley of the Fallen is more difficult. Buses leave from El Escorial but often leave you with a long walk to the monument. Check before you travel. Organised guided tours are available and may ease travel issues.
Google map: bit.ly/Yw9vnB
Just two hours from Madrid by train Ávila is a real medieval gem. It boasts the most complete Romanesque city walls in Spain and walking on top of them gives you a real feel for the days of El Cid and the vast Castilian plain. The city is crammed with Gothic churches and the cool vaults of the Cathedral are a welcome relief on a hot summer’s day. Known as the City of Stones or Saints Ávila’s most famous inhabitant was Saint Teresa, who gave her name to the delicious sweet pastries known as Yemas. These are found in many pastry shops the best being the famous La Flor de Castilla.
Start early and take a 30 minute train journey to Segovia for a day bursting with history. The first view of the vast Roman aqueduct, built with 25,000 granite blocks with no mortar, is breathtaking. The Alcazar with its towers, throne room and Hall of Kings, has a superb location and views to match; no wonder it became a favourite residence of Castilian monarchs. Visit the cathedral, other fine churches, the Jewish quarter, or just explore the streets to soak up the medieval atmosphere and take in a museum. Don't ignore the temptation to have a drink/tapas in a bar or enjoy a meal in one of the restaurants serving regional specialities, such as suckling pig.
AVANT train: Madrid - Segovia, 12.50 Euros.
Google map: Google map: bit.ly/XMhZMe
Situated metres from the Prada is Madrid’s Atocha station. While it seems a shame to leave the shops and cafés of the station, you won’t regret getting the train to Toledo. Walk up from Toledo’s little station, high over the river Tagus winding its way to Lisbon and into the ancient capital. Get way from the crowds and meander through the quiet little streets, as good as any Tuscan hill town. El Greco came here in 1577 and didn’t leave. Who can blame him? The massive cathedral is the seat of the Primate of Spain.
Don’t bother with a farewell drink in the overcrowded main square. Stroll back to station and refresh yourself in the peaceful garden of the station café.
You’ll be back in Madrid in time for free evening entry to the Prada before joining the Madrileños for another late night.
The Romans knew a thing or two about locating cities and never more than in selecting the most specular site in Spain for Segovia.
Getting there is simple, a quick journey on Madrid’s excellent metro, a late breakfast at Chamartin station and take a frequent train to Segovia.
A short bus ride takes you to the foot of the Roman aqueduct which was still in use until the end of the 19th century. A short walk through the walled city gates will take you past the 16th century city cathedral and on to the fairy tale Alcazar. Swallow your disbelief for the 19th century reconstruction and take in the amazing view.
This still leaves plenty of time to dawdle on the way back, be awed by the aqueduct again and get back to Madrid in time for a gentle stroll to decide on tapas venues.
Google map: Google map: bit.ly/XMhZMe
Manzanares el Real is a village located 50km to the north of Madrid by the Pedriza protected park, amid a stunning landscape. The village has lots to see including the Mendoza Castle, one of the best preserved medieval fortresses in Spain. You will also enjoy the old castle ruins (Castillo Viejo), the Cañada Real Bridge, the church of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, founded in the early 14th century and the first paper factory in Spain.
Manzanares el Real offers a wide variety of local cuisine and leisure activities such as Medieval Weekends, a Tapas Fair and all the annual local festivities.
Bus No.724 from Plaza de Castilla (50 minutes journey approx)
The castle is open from October to May (10am to 17pm) and from June to September (10am to 18pm). Mondays closed.
Google map: bit.ly/ZxKlUV
Easy 50 minute bus ride from Madrid. Go to see the unique cobbled Plaza Mayor with its whitewashed houses and wooden balconies then stroll through the narrow streets perhaps up to the Iglesia de la Asuncion to see a Goya painting. Or else sit under the arches of the plaza and enjoy a glass of anis in its ancestral home, before lunch in one of the many restaurants. Recommended are the Meson Cuevas de Vino with its own bodega or the more reasonably priced Meson del Duende. There is also a very attractive parador nearby housed in a sixteenth century monastery with a good restaurant.
Chinchon. 30 miles south east of Madrid. Easily accessible by bus. Frequent and regular service.
Google map: bit.ly/12j9JCW
Take the train from Atocha - either a slow 90+ minutes relaxation through the stunning forests and little villages of the sierras, or a fast 30 minutes zipping you to your destination. Then bus to the foot of the absolutely stunning 1st century Roman aqueduct; and a slow walk up the calle Juan Bravo, passing mediaeval casas and plazas, to the Plaza Mayor and the huge Gothic sandstone cathedral, with its myriad of buttresses. A pause here for refreshments under the arches or a lunch in the many restaurants in and around. For a glass of Douro and a tapas or a full meal in the restaurant try Jose and Maria round the corner (my favourite). Then a stroll down to the fantasy Alcazar, all turrets and towers, with its stunning views over the barren plain. On the way back slide down the left of the Cathedral to take in the Juderia and the synagogue. A walk outside the walls will take you back to your bus and on to the train and the beautiful journey home. A grand day out!
Google map: bit.ly/XMhZMe
With its fairy tale castle and abundant historic churches the small town of Segovia is a pleasant day trip from Madrid. The real star of the show however is the world's largest and best-preserved Roman aqueduct towering over the town centre. With typical Spanish nonchalance there is very little fanfare just an incredible sense of history as you admire this amazing ancient structure nestling cheek-by-jowl next to unassuming cafe bars. A word of warning. The mountain setting is beautiful in the winter but beware the biting cold wind.
Google map: bit.ly/XMhZMe
Hilltop town favoured by the Etruscans and wealthy Renaissance families who valued the cooler climate. Well preserved Roman Theatre and other ruins in the archaeological park with lots of Etruscan artefacts in the Civic Museum. A Combo ticket also gives admission to Ethnographic Missionary and Bandini Museums (small but worth it for the painted panels).
Eating wise there are two good restaurants (l'Polpa particularly good) at the bus terminus on Piazza Mino or take a picnic on the panoramic terrace with wonderful views of Florence.
Take bus no. 7 either from outside the main railway station or from Piazza San Marco - about three an hour. Lots of hairpin bends up to the town. Double decker Florence sightseeing bus also goes there.
Piazza Mino, 21/22, 50014 Fiesole, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/XDwbVI
Just an hour's drive north-west of Madrid is the ancient city of Segovia, which stands proudly beneath its splendid cathedral. Nestled under the city's imposing roman aqueduct sits Meson de Candido, a family owned restaurant attracting food-lovers from far afield. Upon the recommendation of our local friends we dined, like everybody else that afternoon, or so it seemed, on the house's speciality, "cochinillo" or roast whole suckling pig. The waiters and chefs alike are proud of this dish, and so they should be. Cooked in vast, traditional ovens (ask nicely and you may get treated to a tour of the kitchen, as we did), the pork is a delight. Start with Granja, a local white bean soup, and savour the surprise "sorpresa" pudding, a gorgeous cakey, eggy, ice-creamy affair. If you're in Madrid and have a spare day, then Segovia is a glorious city of romance that you must visit, especially in late summer: potter, enjoy the sun and most importantly, make the most of what Meson de Candido has to offer. You won't regret it! Food and wine all in for around 35 euros.
From the Castle of Mendoza to the stunning scenery of La Pedriza, Manzanares El Real has a lot to offer. Film set to the romances of Castillian Spain, Spaghetti Westerns and Spartacus, it combines magnificent sixteenth century architecture with breathtaking mountain and lake scenery, and a village to boot with all the traditions and festivals of a people proud of their heritage.
A day trip to Alcala de Henares. An alternative to religious Spain but with plenty of culture and history. It is both the birthplace to Spain's Shakespeare (Cervantes) and home to one of Europe's oldest universities. South of the station is the interesting old town with a couple of museums dedicated to Cervantes, the charming University of Alcala and the oldest surviving theatre in Europe, recently renovated. It is very well served by rail from Atocha (every 15 minutes or so) and is close enough to round off a trip to Alcala de Henares by returning to Atocha and heading in to the Retiro Park for a relaxing drink and tapas alfresco in one of the many outdoor cafes. While perhaps not as pretty as Segovia it is more manageable and interesting.
Alcala de Henares is about 30 km west from Madrid. Nearest train station - Alcala de Henares
Google map: bit.ly/16Xmcxi
I lived in Madrid for three years and frequently took family and friends to visit Toledo, Segovia and El Escorial. All three are rightly popular but if you want to escape the tourist crowds head to Avila on a week day. A beautiful walled city, with nesting storks and an imposing cathedral. It takes about an hour and half to reach but the views from the train make it a picturesque journey. Once there Avila is replete with cute bars and restaurants serving the delicious local speciality cordero asado (roast lamb, Spanish style). Sip a vino tinto in the Plaza Victoria after seeing the sights - the convent of Santa Teresa and the Romanesque cathedral. You can also walk round part of the city's walls which offer views far beyond the city.
Get the train from Chamartin in Madrid to Avila then jump on a local bus, ten minutes into the centre.
Google map: bit.ly/135ObbZ
This town, 45km from Madrid, is recognizable in the distance by its houses clustered together on hilltops. Chinchón has much to offer for a day out and lots of sightseeing.
Chinchón has a beautiful medieval square formed by houses of two and three floors with running balconies, which has been the scene of a great many events, presentations and even movies. The square turns into a bullring during the town fiestas. It hosts nice mesones where you can taste typical tapas including “Chorizo al Infierno” (grilled chorizo).
As well as its characteristic Plaza Mayor, with its wooden balconies and flat galleries, you should also visit the church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (1534-1626), which was sacked and burned by Napoleonic troops in 1808 and which hosts the magnificent painting of La Asunción de la Virgen, painted by Goya (Goya’s brother was a priest in this church). The old Convent of the Augustine nuns (from the 18th Century) has a beautiful cloister and has now been turned into a Parador where you can go for lunch or dinner or even stay the night.
Other buildings of interest are: the convent of the Nuns of the Order of St. Clare, from the 17th century; the clock tower, belonging to the old parish church of Nuestra Señora de Gracia and the remains of a 15th century castle, rebuilt between 1590 and 1598 by the third Count of Chinchón and also burned in 1808 by Napoleonic forces.
The Train de la Fresa (Strawberry Train) is a historical, cultural and gastronomic route between Madrid and Aranjuez which runs from the end of June until mid- July and from the 1st of September until the end of October. This journey, which started in 1851, transports you to an old age of train travel on an early 20th Century coal engine train trough scenic countryside. Ideal for families or for an interesting day out to Aranjuez.
It leaves from the Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum) at Atocha Station (Paseo de las Delicias 61) and takes about an hour to arrive into Aranjuez. During the trip, stewardesses dressed in period costume go round the train distributing boxes of strawberries for passengers to taste. The views from the train are of the beautiful countryside outside Madrid. Travellers are then taken by coach to Aranjuez for a guided visit to the Royal Palace, its beautiful gardens and the Museo de Faluas. Travellers can choose to remain in Aranjuez and return back to Madrid on a normal service train using the same ticket.
Aranjuez has many interesting sights, including the Royal Palace with its Royal gardens and the "Casita del Labrador" (Farmer’s House) a Royal pavilion built by King Charles IV.
Tren de la Fresa (return) tickets are around €29 for adults and €21 for children between 4 and 12 years old. Children under 4 years old travel free if they sit on their parents’ lap. The ticket includes the free guided tour of the palace and museum.
Controversial but astonishing underground basilica set at the end of a breathtakingly peaceful valley of pine trees. Originally conceived as a memorial to those who died in the civil war this huge edifice houses General Franco's remains. Built with the conscripted labour of political prisoners this is an uncomfortable but awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience. Combine it with a trip to the altogether more mainstream royal palace at El Escorial about 10 miles to the south.
About 50km NW of Madrid off the AP6 motorway just south of Guadarrama.
Google map: bit.ly/10WxVZ3
For a guaranteed pick-me-up after our long winter head to Brodie Castle in Moray for a fix of bright yellow sunshine. The park around the castle has thousands of daffodils, part of the National Collection and some of them very old cultivars. Warm yourself up in the tearoom with some excellent homebakes before heading to the Culbin Sands for more colour - this time big blue skies and miles of white sands. End your day at The Loft at East Grange with an organic beer from the Black Isle Brewery and good, local produce. Winter blues replaced with spring colour!
An amazing traditional ryokan in the heart of the preserved area of Kyoto (the next street along is where you can spot geisha in the evenings)
It's a prime spot for shopping for lunch at the amazing department store food halls, a walk along the river, transport links and also very close to some of the most beautiful shrines.
They provide a traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner in your room. We were blown away by the daily variations.
Dinner was an experience I want to repeat - outstanding.
The staff were also incredibly helpful in creating a vegetarian option for my mother and were really concerned about giving her the best they could.
The service is incredible, the atmosphere fantastic, and I wouldn't miss the opportunity to experience a tea ceremony in the ryokan's own tea house located in the courtyard.
229-2 Nishinocho, Yamato-Oji Higashi-Iru, Shinmonzen, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0088
In Castle Hedingham, Essex not only can you explore this magnificent Castle, you can walk around the beautiful grounds filled with daffodils and bluebells in spring time. There are lots of events that take place here, from jousting tournaments to wedding fairs. A short walk away brings you to the village pub 'The Bell.' This family pub serves hearty, excellent value meals and stocks local ale and ciders. If the pub isn't your thing there is a lovely tea rooms opposite serving up light lunches and home-made cakes.
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