Autumn in The Gardens of Aranjuez

Apollo Fountain in the Isle Garden

Aranjuez is not on the typical tourist’s radar.  I’ve seen it mentioned in our guide books but they don’t give any specific information on it.  It seems to be more of a day trip for the local folk.  It’s widely known for it’s strawberries, asparagus, and most importantly, it’s palace and gardens.  It’s not far from Madrid and it’s easily accessible on the local commuter train.  When it’s strawberry season,  you can actually take the Strawberry Train to Aranjuez (which I might have to do someday if I can find someone else who wants to take it with me).  It sounds interesting and yummy, despite being touristy.

After our now habitual Spanish breakfast (pastries & coffee), we caught the next train to Aranjuez.  The countryside getting there was not particularly attractive.  It was mostly hilly, dry and industrial.  However, as we approached the town, there were all of a sudden irrigated fields, gardens, and trees.  Aranjuez is the last city on that train line and once you get there, it’s like stepping into an oasis.  There are wide, tree-lined streets and sidewalks which lead you directly to the center of town and palace.

Interestingly enough, this palace was designed by the same two gentlemen that designed El Escorial (the HUGE monastery).  However, this palace is much more attractive.  I read it is incredibly beautiful on the inside, but we weren’t really interested in seeing the inside this time because it’s the palace gardens that are listed as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape Site, and I love gardens.  We decided to check out the gardens by the palace first then, if we had time, we’d walk around the town.

Ducks on the River

The gardens looked more like something I would expect to find in France  – not here in such an arid part of Spain.  There were trees and shrubs and fountains everywhere!  We must have seen 40-50 different fountains that day.  My favorite fountain was the guy sitting on the wine barrel (although Apollo was looking mighty fine).  The gardens are huge and geometrically designed.  The walkways were going off in every direction.  Most people had maps, but we just wandered around slowly and discovered all the treasures hidden inside.

The Isle garden (with most of the fountains) is actually on a manmade island on the Tagus river (that’s the same river that runs around Toledo).  There were lots of birds and ducks and a couple of little water falls along the river.  It also looked like you could do boat trips or kayak on some parts of the river – I’ll have to do some research on that.  I know there is a hike in the area, and it looks like it would also be an ideal place to do some biking.

Robert at El Rana Verde Restaurant

Before we knew it it was lunchtime (2pm).  We learned the hard way that you don’t want to be late for lunch in Spain or you won’t find an empty restaurant.  I only knew about two restaurants in town (both were listed in my hiking book).  We found one right away and it was right on the river.  We decided to give it a try even though it looked pretty fancy (the waiters wore suits).  We were unsure at first, but we ended up having a great waiter (yes, in Spain! where they are notoriously known for being awful).  There was a huge Spanish family (22 people) dining beside us so I thought for sure we’d be forgotten, but he was right on time with everything and very friendly.  We each ordered the “Menu del Dia” which included a starter, a main course, a dessert, and a whole BOTTLE of wine – all for only 15 euro ($20).  This may have been the best bargain meal I’ve ever had.  I really wanted to take pictures of our gourmet dishes, but I felt it was inappropriate in a place this nice….maybe when we get our iPhone (then it will be less conspicuous).

After our 2 hour lunch we headed out to work off some of those calories, but the clouds were rolling in, so instead, we skipped the city and briefly peeked into the Prince’s garden.  After a few sprinkles of rain we thought it best to head back to Madrid.  Our timing was perfect, the train was there just waiting for us.  🙂

We both really loved Aranjuez.  It’s beautiful, laid back, and it seemed to be the most ‘authentic’ Spanish experience we’ve had so far.  It’s amazing how different this town was from Toledo.  I’m finding that every city, town, and suburb here is different.  Each has their own personality, their own foods, their own look, and their own vibe.  I can’t wait to visit some more.  I feel like a little kid in a candy store!

Summer Palace in Aranjuez

Our Restaurant on the River

Fall Sweets! – Balls and Bones

Bones, Balls and Banana Bread

One of the little joys of being in Europe is the pastry shops.  Every town seems to have it’s own ‘special’ sweets.  Some are available year-round and others are available only during certain times of the year.  Everything looks so wonderful!

We’ve been going out for evening walks just about every day and we pass lots of pastry shops along the way.  After drooling for several minutes, we’d leave with nothing.  Well, one time we finally broke down and bought a bunch of stuff.   Now we have a new addiction.

Recently we bought what we jokingly call: “Balls and Bones”.  The “balls” look like munchkins and they are filled with different flavored creams.  They are actually called ‘Bunuelos de Viente’, or in English : Fritters.  These are darn good!  We absolutely LOVE these.  I think about them all day.  I really hope these are seasonal or we are in big trouble.  We’ve had the chocolate, the vanilla cream, the Dulce de Leche, and the whipped cream filled (which tastes like a mega cream puff!).

Cream filled Fritters

Inside of Bunuelos de Viento

Inside a ‘Hueso de Santo’

The “bones” are the white skinny things that are filled with different fruits or fillings.  The outside tastes like an almond flavored pie crust.  The lady in our pastry shop told us they are only available around All Saints Day and that they are called ‘Huesos de Santos’ or ‘Saint’s Bones’.  We’ve tried the coconut, chocolate, strawberry, carmel, and apricot.  They are very different than any sweet we’ve ever tried.  They are good but no where near as good as the ‘balls’.  I think they just take some getting used to.  The almond pastry has an entirely different taste than butter pastries – they are not as sweet and the flavor is pretty strong.  I like them, but Robert would much rather have my homemade banana walnut raisin bread. 🙂

I can’t wait to see what comes out for Christmas!

Hiking in Madrid – Collado Mediano

Collado Mediano Area Hike and Mountains

After 3 weeks of walking on sidewalks, hearing sirens, seeing mostly buildings, cars and people, and stressing out about finding an apartment, it was time to get out of the city.  I had initially planned on just taking the train up to the mountains when I suddenly stumbled upon a website about Hiking in Madrid.  I hadn’t even thought about hiking here but it turns out there are lots of mountains and river valleys nearby so why not?  It would also be a great way to get some fresh air, meet some more people, and get more comfortable using our great local transportation.

I contacted them to get more information on upcoming hikes and I went to the local bookstore to pick up a copy of their book.  Their Saturday and Sunday hikes both sounded great.  Robert had some work to do on Sunday so we opted for Saturday’s hike.  For 10 euro (plus transportation) we met at the bus station at the pre-arranged time and we were taken to our destination outside the city to hike for 3-4 hours – lunch and a drink afterward are included.  There were 28 people that went that day.  Most of them live in Madrid.  Most of them spoke both Spanish and English.  They were of all ages and from all over.  Someone even brought their dog.  We had people from Israel, Britain, Mexico, Lithuania, the US, and other parts of Spain.

Our Hike Reminded Me a lot of Arizona

This particular hike was about 45 minutes outside the city near the small town of Collado Mediano (which means Middle Valley).  When we arrived in town, we had a 20 minute break to stock up on water, get breakfast, use the bathroom and check out the town before heading out.  The croissants we had was SO good, we should have bought more.

We headed up and out of the village.  There were trails going in every direction (many mountain bike trails), so it was good to have someone point out which way we were suppose to go.  Our hike was pretty much straight up hill to the top.  The rock outcroppings, vegetation and mountains here remind me a LOT of southern Arizona.  It was plenty hot that day too – which also reminding me a lot of Arizona.  Next time we go, I’ll know to bring extra water and another back pack.

View of the valley

We had a great time.  It was exactly what we needed.  Good exercise but very relaxing at the same time.  The views along the way were great.  We could see the world’s largest cross in the Valley of the Fallen off in the distance.  We could see the many surrounding mountains, several reservoirs, and other towns and villages dotting the countryside.  We eventually found a nice shady spot in the pines to have our lunch (which was peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and chips).  We had lots of interesting conversations that day and met lots of interesting people.  Eventually we headed down the mountain – which was easier.  It was mostly a long winding path back down the side of the mountain we climbed.  There were thunderstorms in the area which cooled the temperature a bit and provided us with much needed cloud cover.

When we returned to Collado Mediano, we had to wait over an hour for the next bus to Madrid.  Which was great actually, because we were thirsty.  And here in Spain there’s nothing better than just sitting outside at one of the local taverns and having some drinks and tapas.  And that’s exactly what we did!

For more pics, just click on the photos.

Croissants!

Largest cross off in the distance

 

House Hunting Headache in Madrid

View from our bedroom window: Lots of Parks, Plazas, and a Palace!

As soon as we landed in Spain we couldn’t wait to start looking for a place to live.  After simply taking over a previous teacher’s residence in Japan we decided this time it would be fun to look for our own place.  We were able to research all the different barrios of Madrid and view lots of apartments for rent on the internet before we landed so we felt like it would be pretty easy to find a place once we got there.  We would even have people helping us with scheduling and looking at potential places.  We weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to live downtown or near the school but we knew we’d be happy either way.  We were very flexible and therefore thought we’d have lots of options.

Shopping galore on Grand Via in Madrid

We were warned it would be HOT and we’d be doing LOTS of walking so we were ready for that. What we were not prepared for was the fact that 90% of the Spaniards are on vacation for the whole month of August, thus making it very difficult to look at rental properties.  Every day we would make a list of 15-20 potential places to look at and end up only being able to view only 3 or 4.  We also weren’t aware that they doctored their photos to make their places look a whole lot nicer than they actually are.  Needless to say, after 4 days of searching and mostly seeing less than desirable options, we were very frustrated.  The one place we were interested in, no one could get ahold of the owners since they were in Mexico.  We decided to rent a serviced apartment for a week so we could continue our search.  We then realized it would be at least another week before people would return from vacation AND that we had to find a place sooner rather than later (since we had to register our permanent address within a month of landing in Spain).  We went into panic mode and started looking at ANYTHING that was available for viewing.

Luckily, we ran across a place that we liked.  We initally hesitated because it was smaller than we wanted (1 bdrm vs 2 bdrm), but everything else about it was great.  We figured we should try to reach the owner since that seemed to be the biggest hurdle.  After finally finding someone that could get us the owner’s contact number, we learned they were on vacation too; however, they were answering their phones and email and one of the owners even spoke English (a British woman who married a Spaniard).  This was a BIG positive.  She was extremely pleasant to deal with and very willing to work with us.  She still keeps in contact and has even added additional items to the apartment for us.

Our Complete Functional Kitchen 🙂

The rent was a bit more than some of the other places we were looking at, BUT we didn’t have to pay an agency fee (equal to one month’s rent) and they only wanted 1 month deposit (rather than 3 or 4).  The apartment is on the 26th floor so it has incredible views of the city.  It was totally remodeled last year.  The price also includes a great 24 hour gym, internet, TV, and a community room we can reserve for parties.  It’s close to a couple big parks, the new river walk, lots of shopping, and even downtown.  We really like the neighborhood and it’s very convenient for Robert to get to work.   Another great thing about our new place is that (unlike Japan) we actually have a real kitchen so we can cook! 🙂  We had to wait a week to move in but that was ok.  Once Robert started working, I continued to look at a few other places (just for the heck of it), but I never found anything that I liked better.

I’m not sure if we’ll stay here the whole time we are in Spain or if we’ll eventually look for another place but for right now it’s great.  I know one thing, I’ll never get tired of the views.

Here are a couple more views of the city:

View of the Northwest part of the city from the Gym

View of the Southern Part of the City from the Community Room

One of the many beautiful sunsets from our dining room. 🙂