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!
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Best to begin by watching the eight minute film screened in the bright cafe at the entrance.
You learn that these Grade 1 listed Edwardian gardens, filled in in the 1940s, remained lost, even in local memory, until 2000 when a new owner began excavating.
Then wander through the gardens, finding lakes, fountains, a bog garden, horticultural surprises at every turn, even a croquet lawn. Most amazing are the subterranean grottoes, ferny and mossy, with tiny streams and little niches.
Though smaller in scale, these gardens have everything offered by historical garden sites. The plant sale is good, parking is free, the welcome is great. What more could you ask?
A unique and exquisite 17th century Dutch water garden whose canals and ponds full of water lilies and lawns bordered by attractive topiary are best seen from the first floor of the summer house at the far end. A walk around takes you to a variety of herb and vegetable plots and a stunning display of very old espaliers. There are no cafe facilities on site but picnics on the lawns are encouraged.
First week in August every year. A mgnificent four or five days of activities for everyone. There are painting and drawing competitions, a puppet theatre and a parade of the gigantes for the children; a temporary fun-fare at one end of the beach offering attractions to all; sardanas, habaneras and flamenco for traditionalists; and a greasy pole, swimming events and cycling competitions for the more adventurous. But the highlights enjoyed by everyone are the four open air dances on the paseo (midnight to 3,4 or 5am) to a variety of bands/groups; the carrefoc, an explosive fire run with devils dancing through the streets breathing fire and hurling bangers and jacky-jumpers everywhere; and the spectacular, ear-bashing fireworks display in the bay on the last night, watched by thousands seated on the beach or the promenade wall. An exhausting but exhilarating four or five days.
Sant Feliu de Guixols, about 25 miles from Girona
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Alcala de Henares, 30 minutes from Madrid, has much to boast about. It has the longest colonaded Calle Mayor, dating from the 16th century, in Spain; the oldest comedy theatre in the country, the Corral de Comedias, dating from 1601, but only recently discovered and restored and now open for performances and to visitors; the oldest women's hospital in continuous use since 1483; the Casa Natal, the birthplace of Cervantes, beautifully restored and housing a fascinating collection of editions of Don Quixote in various languages; and a Museum of Sculpture in the Open Air displaying 50 or more sculptures in various materials and styles, claimed to be the largest in Europe. A fine Archaeological Museum, a very old University and the Monasterio de San Bernard are additional attractions. If you have the time to pause there are a number of cafes, bars and restaurants under the arches of the Calle Mayor and in the Plaza Cervantes, the most interesting (and priciest) being the Hosteria del Estudiante, in the University precincts but run by the Parador chain. And if you still want something else you can go on the "ruta de las ciguenas" and see the storks and their nests,high up on the roof tops.
20 plus miles east of Madrid. The trains from the capital run frequently and stop on the edge of town.
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Enjoy an unrivalled view of the still magical Pompidou Centre from the cafes and wine bars opposite, as the external escalators whisk visitors to the top. Or people-watch the many hundreds who throng the square every day from the cobbled slope at one end, itself always packed with people of all nationalities. Better still, buy a baguette and sit on the edge of the pool in the adjacent place Igor Stavinsky and follow the progress of the zany, multi-coloured, mobile statues and fountains, all linked to works by Stravinsky, as they spray their water everywhere. Fun for the children and a delight for adults too.
Piazza and place Igor Stravinsky outside the Pompidou Centre in the Beaubourg.
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People pass through Malaga, but do they know that it has two fabulous museums, an impressive cathedral, an Arab fortress and palace as good as any outside Granada, clear blue seas and miles of sandy beaches lined with chiringuitos serving fresh sardines. And in this top spot the top street is Calle Granada, running crookedly from the Plaza del Independencia to the Plaza de la Merced. It is where the Malaguenos go, especially at night, to visit their favourite tapas bars. There are many, but chief among them are La Campana - tiny, crowded and noisy - which serves superb fresh fish at knock-down prices; Piyayo, across the road, more up-market with seats outside; and the renowned El Pimpi, a vast rambling place full of different sized rooms, full of Spanish character and Spanish people. Try them all.
Calle Granada nº35, 29015 Malaga, Spain
+34 952 219 202
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Calle Granada 36, Malaga, Spain
+34 952 220 096
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Calle Granada, 62, 29015 Malaga, Spain
+34 952 228 990
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A magnificent square with some of the most beautiful 16th century, Renaissance buildings to be found anywhere in Spain. Stand and admire the elegant facades of the three Palacios, the double belfry church of Santa Maria with its superb cloisters, the Antiguo Posito or old granary, the Carcel de Obispo or bishops prison and the truly remarkable Capilla de Salvador. Where you can, go inside, especially the Palacio de Condestable Davalos, now a superb parador.
Google map: bit.ly/jmT8Mb
The Museum of Spanish Abstract Art houses a magnificent permanent display of abstract painting and sculpture by some of the best modern Spanish artists, such as Chillida, Saura, Tapies and, our favourite, Zobel - works of light, contrast and wonder.
Temporary exhibitions of world artists offer further delights, but perhaps the greatest of all is the museum building itself - the Casas Colgadas, the 15th century houses of stone, wood and plaster hanging over the Hoz gorge. It sounds incongruous but sympathetic reconstruction provides spacious display areas in a contemporary style. And there are the vertiginous views over the gorge. In all, a surprise and a triumph.
Casas Colgadas, 16001 Cuenca
+ 34 969 21 29 83
Google map: bit.ly/eAd4XI
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