Storks, Cervantes, and a University: Alcala de Henares

White Storks on Top of the Buildings

While I’m working on our posts from Barcelona, I figured I should publish our post on the place we went the weekend before.

Alcala de Henares is an interesting place for many reasons.  First, is it’s university.  Alcalá de Henares was the world’s first planned university city… the first city to be designed and built solely around a university.  It has served as the model for many other university towns in Europe and the Americas (UNESCO World Heritage Website).  All universities before this one existed because there was a city already there.  That fact alone put it on my ‘must see’ list.  I must admit though, neither one of us thought the university itself was that special.

What we liked much better was the medieval part of the city that was next to it.  The old, narrow, cobblestone streets, the buildings with lots of ironwork, and the huge covered sidewalks.  It reminded me of New Orleans, but cleaner and nicer.  There were so many churches, convents, and monasteries in that area that steeples and spires were sticking up all over….making for some beautiful photo opportunities.  And on the tops of these classic old buildings were (what I enjoyed the most about this city) – the beautiful white storks.  The city claims to have some 90 pairs of storks living there.  Just about every time we looked up we could see them either in their nests or flying around.  Some buildings would just have one nest, but most had more.  There were 14 nests on an old building beside the Archbishops Palace.

Statue of Cervantes in front of his house

There are lots of other interesting things about this city.  It was here at the Archbishops Palace where Christopher Columbus met with King Ferdinand for the first time and planned his excursion to the West.   Catherine of Aragon was born in the Archbishops Palace as well (she ended up being the first wife of King Henry VII of England).  And guess who else was born in this town?  Cervantes, the great Spanish author of Don Quijote.  The main plaza in the city’s center is named after him and you can visit the house he was born in.  On the second floor of his house are old editions of his books (in many different languages).  The oldest one we saw was 1605.  There are also two child saints (Justus and Pastor ) buried in the cathedral.  The city has Roman, Moorish, and Jewish history associated with it as well.  We briefly stopped in the archeological museum which displayed various mosaics and artifacts from these and earlier settlements dating back more than 2,000 years.  Everything we saw was very interesting and educational.  In a way, I felt like I was in school all day.

Stork nest on the Archbishop’s Palace

The last thing we decided to do before heading back home was have lunch.  This city still preserves the old Spainish tradition of getting a free tapa when you order any drink. The inside of the restaurant we ate at was beautiful: brick archways, wooden beams on the ceiling, a copper bar, chandeliers, and old wooden tables (I really should have taken a picture).  I ordered a glass of wine, and got some ham croquettas and french fries for free!  Robert ordered coffee and got a plate of ham, eggs, and potatoes for free!  We could have chosen from a number of different tapas – including hamburgers, calamari, salmon sandwiches, etc.   Our total lunch bill ended up being only 5.50 euro (about $6.50) – not bad for Europe.

Alcala was a much bigger city than the places we have been visiting.  It is definitely interesting and the most lively and youthful place we’ve been so far  – I’m so glad we went.  However, other than the storks and free food, I’m not sure there is anything here that would keep bringing me back….unless I was 20 years younger.  It’s a great college town but it’s definitely geared more toward singles and young couples.

 

 

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

A Tremendous Time in Toledo

Alcantara Bridge – An Entrance into Toledo

There seems to be a heated cyber debate as to which city is better, Toledo or Segovia.  While I have not been to Segovia yet, I can say that Toledo should not be missed.  It is an easy 30 minute non-stop train ride from Madrid to the base of the city’s historical center, and there is so much to see and do. It warrants at least two full days.  We only went for a day trip this time but we will definitely be going back at some point to spend a night.

Actually, what I consider to be one of the most beautiful things Toledo is it’s surroundings.  The Tagus river (which is the longest river in Spain) nearly surrounds this hilltop city, creating a little canyon around it.  In the past it played a strategic role in the city’s defense, today it just adds to it’s charm.  The views from anywhere along the river are amazing and if you just want to take a stroll or do some fishing, there is a lovely walking/biking path around the base of the hill.

Robert in Toledo

While most people take the bus to the main plaza from the train station (which is beautiful btw), it’s just as easy to walk.  In 10 short minutes, the walk brings you to one of the two beautiful old bridges that cross the Tagus: the Alcantara bridge.  From here, there are wonderful views of the Alcazar, parts of the old wall, the medieval castle of San Servando, and of course the river.  We went thru the keyhole shaped entrance at the other side of the bridge which lead up LOTS of steep steps until we reached the old part of the city very near the main plaza.  After walking around the city all day, one thing becomes very apparent: it’s a steep, hilly city built with lots of rocks and bricks.  I’m really glad I wore my walking shoes!

Our goal this trip was to get to know the city and avoid other tourists as much as possible.  I think we did a pretty good job considering it was a Saturday.  We managed to visit two museums (El Greco and Santa Cruz), one mosque (Cristo de La Luz circa 999AD), the oldest synagogue in Europe (Santa Maria Blanca), one church (San Ramon), both historic bridges, the Puerta Bisagra and the Puerta del Sol.  We literally walked all over the city. In the process we ate pastries, did some window shopping, had a deliciously long Spanish-style lunch (with a bottle of wine), bought some mazapan (Toledo’s traditional sweet), and took LOTS of pictures.

Inside San Ramon Church

We also saw lots of places we will try to visit next time we are there including the famous cathedral, the monastery, and the Alcazar (military museum).  By the end of the day, I noticed something interesting about this town.  Though it’s very compact, every section of the old city has it’s own personality.  The west side was more open and park like, while the center was compact and dark (the narrow, curvy cobblestone streets and alleys challenged my navigational skills several times).  The Jewish Quarter was very quiet and reserved, whereas the main plaza was loud with lots of activity.  This will all be highly useful information when I go to book our hotel.

The Narrow Streets of Toledo

Just think about it: There is more than two thousand years of history within the walls of Toledo, and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  All the civilizations that lived here (the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Jews, and Christians) left a wealth of treasures for us to enjoy in the forms of architecture, art and culture.  I can’t imagine someone not liking this city – as there is something for everyone.  The only area that didn’t really appeal to me was around the main Plaza which was way too ‘touristy’ –  too many shops, advertisements and even a McDonald’s.  I know others like that sort of thing though.

Right before our train left for Madrid, we had a taxi take us to the other side of town across the river, so we could get a view of the whole city.  It is an incredible sight to see…no wonder El Greco painted it. 🙂

Click on the photos to see more pictures of Toledo.

The Cathedral

The Alcazar

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!

The Monastery in San Lorenzo de Escorial

Basilica Dome at El Escorial

We were looking to get away from the city again and see a little bit of fall color so we went to the town of San Lorenzo which is about 45 minutes away from Madrid.  We arrived around 10:00 am and made a quick stop for some delicious pastries and coffee before heading out to see the sights.  It was a beautiful cool Sunday morning as we walked through the very quiet streets of this picturesque town.  I use to think the Japanese were late risers, but the Spanish have them beat.  They don’t wake up until about noon!

The main attraction here is the Monastery, El Escorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built during the reign of King Philip II in the mid 1500’s.  When it was built, it was the largest building in the world for quite a long time.  The outside is very stark and boring looking – reminds me more of a prison.  It’s in an extremely pretty area though and it really stands out.  They don’t let you take pictures inside the complex, so in order to see what it looks like on the inside, you will have to click the link above or, better yet, go see it for yourself.

El Escorial Monastery

Overall, it’s really impressive.  To adequately see the whole place, it takes 3-4 hours and you have to follow the arrows or you will get lost.  It’s so large, it actually houses several museums, a palace, a mausoleum, a church, a library and a school all in one.  They should sell multi-day tickets.  You have to be FAR away if you want to get a picture of the whole place.

If you pay the fee to go inside you get to see a collection of tapestries and a huge painting by El Greco, followed by the Museum of Architecture which includes drawings that were used to design the building as well as the materials they used to build it…it’s pretty amazing.  Then there is the never-ending art gallery.  While Philip II was known to be a fairly modest and simple king, he loved art and collected over 1,500 paintings and commissioned some 500 frescos (the frescos are fantastic).  I’m not sure we saw that many but it sure felt like it.

View of Countryside & Gardens from Palace

Next we saw the palace and royal living quarters.  That wasn’t very exciting.  It was mostly just rooms with furniture and a few decorations.  There was one wooden door however that had exquisite detail all over it which looked like something probably done in Japan or China.  We also got to see King Phillip’s room – preserved exactly the way it was the day he died – kinda creepy.  The views out the palace windows of the gardens and surrounding countryside were beautiful though.  I did manage to sneak in a couple pictures of that!

The coolest thing in the whole place was by far the solid pink & black marble hallway and staircase which descended deep into the Pantheon.  This solid marble circular room contains nearly all the Spanish Kings from the last 400 years!  Standing in the center of all those black marble & gold caskets was a bit intimidating.  There are only two spots left – and they are for the current king’s parents.  The current and future kings of Spain will have to be buried somewhere else.

Mausoleum of Past Kings & Queens of Spain (from a postcard)

We passed thru at least a dozen other tomb “rooms”.  They housed all the other royal family members including princes, princesses, husbands, wives, infants and children.  It gets pretty depressing after a while.  The most bizarre tomb we saw was for the infants which is oddly shaped like a wedding cake.

We proceeded onward to the grand hallway and staircase,  the old chapel, the huge basilica (in which Mass was being held), and finally the library.  The library is considered to be one of the most important historic libraries in the world. It supposedly contains about 45,000 works from the 15th and 16th centuries, and thousands of manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish.  It is a beautiful library, but it didn’t feel that big or that old.  It didn’t even smell old (like the Trinity Library in Dublin did).  It’s nearly in mint condition.  The bookcases are beautiful and the ceiling is strikingly bright and colorful – decorated with frescoes related to the the seven liberal arts.  It was fun to try and find them!

The town of San Lorenzo

We were finally finished and we were exhausted.  We had originally intended to take a hike next but we just didn’t have the energy.  There were other buildings included in the visit too (which are set in the gardens and countryside), but we didn’t have the energy for that either.  We also wanted to see The Valley of the Fallen which was close by.  There’s just so much to see around here!   I guess we will just have to come back. 😉

To see some more pictures click on the picture.

Monastery Tower

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