A Travellerspoint blog

Spain

An Iberian Exploration: Toledo and Madrid

The drive into Toledo was nothing like the approach into the great cities of flat Andalusia. The city appeared to us from far away like an apparition, a magical kingdom floating above the horizon and topped by an amazing castle. By now we were used to the daunting experience of driving into the historic center of a Spanish city, but it didn't make our arrival to our hotel next to the cathedral any easier. Fortunately we didn't get lost and none of the narrow passages were completely unnavigable so we arrived safely with a minimum of hair loss. We had spent most of the day walking around Córdoba and on the road so we only had time for a short walk in the center and dinner at our grotto-like hotel restaurant before bed.
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In the morning we made the obligatory visit to the 13th century Gothic cathedral which sat just outside our door. The belltower was quite different from the Muslim-styled versions we had seen in Andalusia. Aside from that we were already cathedraled out from our stay in Andalusia and only took a cursory look around the interior.
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We began climbing uphill through the winding streets of the Casco Historico until we reached a scenic viewpoint from which we could see the roof of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside. We could also see a bend of our old friend from Lisbon the Tagus River. Eventually we reached the surprisingly expansive Plaza Zocodover where we stopped for lunch.
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At the top of the hill we were close to the Alcazar that crowns Toledo's iconic layout but as in Córdoba we gave it a miss. Instead we descended all the way back downhill almost to the river where we admired the Gothic revival facade of Toledo's School of the Arts.
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That day we had our shortest drive of the trip so we were still feeling energetic when we arrived at our place in central Madrid. Our experience in Córdoba hadn't soured us on Airbnb and the apartment in Madrid was a huge improvement. We'd learned from our bad experience and had been much more selective this time around. After we were settled we browsed for tapas around Puerta del Sol. The wide pedestrian streets were packed with people despite the winter chill.
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We began our one full day of sightseeing at Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Old Madrid. This enormous square dates back to the 15th century when it was used as a market. The square is now an expansive open space enclosed by classic three-story residential buildings including the beautifully-painted Casa de Panaderia. Plaza Mayor is a hub of tourism which sustains the surrounding arcades full of overpriced cafes and the many street performers who ply their trade on the cobblestones. By far the most entertaining of these to us was a supremely talented giant soap bubble artisan who specialized in enclosing entire humans within his diaphanous creations.
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Eating at one of the tourist traps in the plaza was out of the question, but fortunately we were just a few steps from Mercado de San Miguel, which may have been Ground Zero for the food hall movement when it opened in 2009. Here we had our choice of some of the freshest seafood tapas we had encountered in Spain thanks to the seafood market that was in the same building. It was quite a bit more expensive than the average lunch in Madrid but it was worth it. The awesome experience of eating at a selection of different restaurants in a market atmosphere awakened a love of food halls that has taken us to similar venues around the world since then.
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After the Mercado we continued a little further west to the Royal Palace of Madrid. We're not big fans of historical landmarks so we just admired the beautiful buildings and gardens from the outside and let Cleo stretch her legs in the central plaza.
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From the palace we set off on a long meandering walk north of the center that took us through the beautiful Malasaña and Chueca neighborhoods. These cosmopolitan areas were filled with the classic, ornate multistory buildings that Madrid is famous for.
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Eventually we found ourselves at Mercado de la Paz in Salamanca. This was a much different environment from Mercado de San Miguel in that it was clearly there to service a very discriminating but local clientele. There were very authentic tapas places in and all around the market and late afternoon was prime time for eating in Madrid.
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A straight shot south brought us to Puerta de Alcalá, the Neoclassical gate that marks the entrance to Retiro Park. El Retiro occupies a large chunk of central Madrid and is renowned for its extensive gardens, the Crystal Palace, and the Alfonso XII monument. During the summer the steps of the monument are packed with readers and sunbathers, lazily observing the myriad rowboats in the adjacent lake, but on this cool winter evening we had the park largely to ourselves. We took advantage of an empty bench to consume the irresistible fruits we had purchased at the market.
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We had made the most of just one full day in Madrid, submerging ourselves in markets and atmospheric streets without wasting precious time inside buildings and museums. In the morning we returned to Mercado de San Miguel. It was just too good to pass up compared to the pedestrian tapas offering in the touristic center. After bidding farewell to Plaza Mayor and its entertainers we set a course for the Portuguese border far to the west. Our Iberian road trip was rapidly approaching its conclusion.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:29 Archived in Spain Tagged toledo travel spain madrid family blog iberia Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Cadíz and Córdoba

It felt odd to return to Cadíz, a compact city we felt we'd fully explored a week earlier, but we hoped that the Carnaval celebration would make the detour worthwhile. The sight of the same hotel we'd stayed in before and the familiar streets of the old town reminded us that every place we ever visited continued on with its own existence parallel to ours even after we had moved along and rarely thought of it. We went out for a walk and found that while the streets of the Casco Historico may have been the same the atmosphere was quite different. The old town was already packed with revelers in the early evening, many of them in colorful and creative costumes. As the sun went down we made our way to the ancient city gate where a crowd was gathering to watch the Carnaval parade. The floats and revelers had already begun to pass through the gate and the joyous procession continued for another hour. After dark we returned to the crowded alleys around the market and found them approaching a state of bedlam. We held out as long as we could but soon it became apparent that inebriation was becoming the dominant theme and we retired for the night.
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The next morning the drunkenness had thankfully vanished but there were still plenty of festivities and costumed characters roaming the streets. This was the fourth Carnaval I'd experienced on three continents and it was amazing how completely different they all had been. The Cadíz version was more reminiscent of Halloween street parties in major American cities than it was of the Carnavals I'd seen in South America and Trinidad. The vibe was awesome and the setting in the Casco Historico was unbeatable.
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The Mercado Central was closed but vendors had set up shot in the surrounding arcades so that we were able to put together a delicious meal of crabs, shellfish, oysters and sea urchins.
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We hung around the Casco Historico the rest of the morning soaking up the atmosphere and participating as much as we could without ever understanding exactly what was going on. Large crowds gathered wherever there were open spaces and it seemed like things were gearing up for another huge parade but eventually we decided we had seen enough. We still had Andalusia's last great Moorish city ahead of us. We gathered the car and the suitcases and set a course for Córdoba.
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In Córdoba we experimented with Airbnb for the first time. Driving through the narrow streets in the historic center was another hair-raising experience. One corner was so tight that it was impossible to negotiate. We had to turn in the opposite direction and then circle a block to get back on the right track. We found ourselves in a somewhat cramped and dingy second-floor apartment that wasn't a very good omen of what we might expect from Airbnb. The sunset brought with it the chilliest weather we'd experienced on the trip thus far and after dinner we kept our evening walk brief. One highlight was the restored Puerta del Puente which marks the entrance of the old city for travelers arriving via the Roman bridge.
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It turned out that the shabbiness of our accommodation should have been the least of our concerns. On the coldest night of our trip we found ourselves without any heat whatsoever. We had enough blankets and clothing to keep the kids warm but Mei Ling and I shivered through the night with little sleep. In the morning we were glad to pack our belongings and be shut of the place forever. After breakfast in the municipal market, we strolled the colorful streets around the center. Córdoba had a distinctive atmosphere from the other Andalusian cities with whitewashed buildings and colorful trim that reminded us of the Algarve.
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The focal point of the historic center is La Mezquita, an important mosque during the Moorish epoch of Andalusia. After Córdoba was reconquered by Castile the mosque was reconsecrated as a Christian church and a cathedral was erected in the center, but much of the original Islamic structure was left intact, The incongruous result is famed for its great hall supported by an array of stone columns connected by arches with distinctive red and white stripes. The minaret of the mosque was demolished and replaced with a towering classically Spanish cathedral belltower.
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Córdoba has its own Alcázar but with limited time and fresh off visits to the castles in Sevilla and Granada we contented ourselves with a visit to the outer walls. Close by is the city's restored Roman Bridge which crosses the Guadalquivir, the same river which later passes through Sevilla. Here the river was muddy and brown in contrast to the blue-green we had seen in Sevilla. We ended our visit to Córdoba with lunch in the Juderia, the city's ancient Jewish quarter which is filled with narrow cobblestone streets decorated with colorful trim and wrought-iron balconies. The neighborhood contains many relics of its former Jewish identity from the days of the caliphate including a synagogue and a statue of the philosopher Maimonides.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 09:03 Archived in Spain Tagged travel cadiz spain family carnaval carnival cordoba blog iberia Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Gibraltar and Granada

Gibraltar is one of the more unusual places in Iberia. Aside from the fact that most of its area is occupied by a gigantic monolith, Gibraltar is also the only overseas territory that still exists within continental Europe. Spain was forced to cede it to the British in the early 18th century to end the War of the Spanish Succession, one of many humiliations the British visited upon their continental rivals over the centuries before the rise of Russia forced the two old enemies together. This quirk left over from an ancient war became strategically important during World War II when Gibraltar became a staging ground for British military operations against the German military despite Spain being sympathetic to Hitler. Spain continues to have aspirations to reclaim the territory but these have been dampened by the overwhelming desire of the natives to remain under British rule. In a 1967 sovereignty referendum, only 44 out of more than 12000 inhabitants voted to rejoin Spain.

We parked our car on the Spanish side of the border to avoid any delays at the border and then walked a mile down the featureless road past the airport towards the end of the peninsula. The sheer limestone face of the eastern side of the Rock loomed ahead of us ominously. Once we were past the border the ocean breeze felt so good that we continued all the way through the town to Europa Point at the southern tip of the peninsula. Here we found the surprising Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a gift from the King of Saudi Arabia that is one of the largest mosques in a non-Islamic country.
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We doubled back into town towards the cable car base station. As we were painstakingly ascending the road a van stopped alongside us. The driver called over in a British accent and asked if we wanted to join a tour of the Rock. We politely declined, telling him we were on our way to the cable car. He shook his head and told us that the cable car wasn't running due to high winds. We looked at each other dubiously. We were barely feeling a breeze and it seemed like a typical tour operator trick to tell us the cable car was closed. He must have guessed what we were thinking because he immediately said that down here we had no idea how strong the winds were at the top. He quoted us a price that really wasn't too bad so we didn't have much to lose by joining the tour. We were pretty tired of walking anyway.

The van took us first to the viewpoint at the Pillars of Hercules monument followed by the entrance chamber of the St. Michael's Cave complex. These touristy stops hadn't been on our agenda for the day but we took it in stride as part of the overall experience. The real prize was the view from the top of the Rock, where the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the Mediterranean like rippled glass. Shipping vessels slowly pushed through the shadows of the clouds without a visible wake. To the north were the airport and the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, a sight that resembled the view from the window of a landing airplane.
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At the summit we also encountered the Rock's famed population of Barbary apes who came to the van en masse in hopes of being fed. Our guide was a good citizen and followed the directive not to feed the animals, but that didn't stop them from jumping on the roof of the van and positioning themselves very close to us. The animals are actually macaques and not apes, and their origin is uncertain although they lived on the Rock long before the first humans arrived. Decades of close contact with humans has made the monkeys quite bold and one even leaped onto the back of someone else in our group. It was neat to have this unexpected encounter with the wild animal kingdom but we had to be watchful of our babies in this unpredictable environment.
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The van deposited us in the center of Gibraltar's old town which might have passed for any small English town except for the congested pedestrian street filled with brand name boutiques and of course the Rock looming in the background. We ordered lunch at a pub which looked promising but turned out to be horrendous slop that would have embarrassed any self-respecting English publican. If there was more to see in Gibraltar we missed it because we had a three hour drive ahead of us to Granada.
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We couldn't appreciate Granada on the drive in because it was pouring rain. We went straight to our hotel in the center which occupied several upper floors of a high rise and once again I left the family in the car while I checked in. The hotel didn't have any parking and the receptionist showed me on a map of where I could find a subterranean garage. She must have seen the expression on my face as I contemplated hunting for my destination through the narrow old streets in the downpour and offered to have someone park the car for us. That brightened my mood considerably and made me very appreciative of the hotel which was otherwise quite ordinary. She broke out a couple of umbrellas and we hustled everyone inside while the porter drove off with our car.
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By the time we were settled the rain had died down somewhat although there was still a constant drizzle. Between our plastic ponchos, a large trash bag, and an umbrella from the hotel we were able to jury rig enough protection to keep ourselves dry while we explored. We quickly found a pedestrian street lined with crowded little restaurants and enjoyed the best tapas of the trip thus far. The old Muslim quarter of Albayzín was very atmospheric at dusk, somehow somber and energetic at the same moment while shrouded in a light mist. We found a terrace with an excellent view of the majestic Alhambra stretched across the top of its hill.
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On the way back home Cleo's stroller abruptly disintegrated. One of the struts had been bent in Morocco and the metal framework finally gave way on Granada's cobblestones. I was able to tow her stroller backwards until we reached the edge of the modern city where we miraculously found a small department store that was open with a large selection of strollers. They even had a toy one for Cleo to play with. We found one that was somewhat more expensive but definitely superior to the one we'd destroyed with the added benefit of a transparent rain cover.
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Another benefit of the hotel was that they arranged tickets for us for the Alhambra on short notice. We hadn't been aware that reservations sometimes need to be arranged days in advance although I'm not sure if that's typically the case in winter. This sprawling fortified Moorish palace is the best known building in Andalusia and one of the pre-eminent tourist destinations in all of Spain. The Alhambra was converted from a hilltop fort into a Royal Palace in the 14th century, after the reconquest of Andalusia was nearly complete and Granada remained alone as a Muslim state subject to Castile. Once the last Muslims were expelled or forced to convert in the late 15th century, the Alhambra was converted into the Royal Court of the Castilian king with many Renaissance-style alterations to the palace. The enormous complex contains many separate buildings and courtyards in a juxtaposition of different architectural styles. We started our exploration in the Generalife, the main garden of the palace complex. Although it was cloudy and murky it wasn't hard to see the gardens' magnificence. There was an enchanting combination of the elements of vegetation, water, and architecture that made the gardens very enjoyable to explore.
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The palace itself was also very impressive but had a sterile feel that we hadn't experienced at the Alcazar of Sevilla. Perhaps it was because there were more areas which were roped off and inaccessible,but the Alhambra felt more like a museum. We felt that the artwork had been more beautiful and intricate at the Alcazar as well. We spent some time passing through the different sections of the palace and admiring the views of Albayzín below us but we didn't linger much longer than we felt obligated to.
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We spent the afternoon exploring the more modern part of the town center. This was more similar to other major Spanish cities such as Madrid and Valencia with majestic Victorian multistory buildings and colorful townhouses. Despite the rain which never stopped completely for more than a few minutes at a time we were impressed by the energetic vibe of the city and the way that tourism didn't seem to dominate the atmosphere the way that it did in the center of Sevilla.
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The next morning we got an early start because we had to drive all the way back across Andalusia for our second visit to Cádiz of the trip, this time to experience their famous Carnaval.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:13 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Sevilla and Cádiz

After three calm days of small towns we found ourselves back in a major city again. We arrived in Sevilla a little over an hour after crossing the border into Spain. Our hotel in the historic center had advised us that GPS would misdirect us but the detailed instructions they had provided didn't serve us much better. The maze of narrow one-way streets was even more complicated than in Lisbon and a good deal more crowded, but at least there were no winding alleys that deadended at the top of a hill. Eventually we found the hotel and disembarked. Our location couldn't have been better, smack in the middle of Sevilla's pulsating touristic core and a hundred meters from the legendary cathedral.
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Once we were settled we couldn't wait to get out and explore. Sevilla's old town manages to accommodate its deluge of tourists very tastefully, providing appealing pedestrian streets and outdoor restaurants without the gaudiness that afflicts many other popular European cities. We realized as much as we tried we couldn't walk more than a block away from the hotel without getting lost, but that was probably the most efficient way to explore the city. At the bank of the Alfonso XIII Canal is the medieval Moorish Torre del Oro. One of the most famous cultural aspects of Sevilla is flamenco and it wasn't long before we came across a performance right on the street.
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Although the restaurants in the Casco Antiguo looked appealing their menus and reviews didn't match so we decided to walk a few blocks north to a tapas restaurant that seemed to be a better bet. Here we found Las Setas, a huge wooden sculpture in Plaza de la Encarnación that is formally known as Metropol Parasol but acquired its nickname from its resemblance to a clump of giant mushrooms.
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Dinner was good although I've had better tapas in my hometown of Miami. During the night my stomach was very upset and I didn't get much sleep. I'm not in the habit of blaming any gastrointestinal problems on the local food but I'm fairly sure the trouble this time came from eating beef tartare at dinner. I had almost exact same problem after having beef tartare my first day in Paris as well, although I've eaten the raw meat dish countless times at home without any problem. This time I learned my lesson and never again tried beef tartare in Europe. In the morning I was still queasy but not enough to get in the way of walking to Mercado de Triana for breakfast. Sevilla is a great city for food markets but unfortunately at this time I hadn't developed my travel research skills extensively and we only had one on our list. On the long walk to Triana we passed by Sevilla's brightly-painted bullfighting ring, known as the Real Maestranza.
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Crossing the Puente de Isabel II into Triana we might have been forgiven for thinking we were crossing the famed River Guadalquivir, the only major navigable river in Spain. In fact it was the Canal de Alfonso XIII that runs along the old course of the river before it was diverted away from the city center to avert flooding. A similar phenomenon occurs with the Alte Donau Canal in central Vienna which many mistake for the Danube. Welcoming us to Triana was the Capilla Virgen del Carmen. Although reminiscent of 16th century Mudéjar architecture, the colorfully-tiled chapel was built less than a century ago.
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The two hundred year old Mercado de Triana is located at the foot of the bridge. The current version of the market was inaugurated in 2001 and blends modernity and tradition in a very pleasing manner. I was still feeling the effects of the previous night's gastronomic misadventure and even the appetizing sights of the market couldn't awaken my appetite, but Mei Ling did quite well with the Sevillano specialty of stewed snails.
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We didn't stay long in Triana because we still had the city's major sights ahead of us. Seville's cathedral is reminiscent of Spain's other majestic Gothic cathedrals but what sets it apart is its sheer size. At the time of its construction it replaced the Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world and it still holds that title, although there are now two basilicas which are larger. The cathedral stands alone in a large plaza without any other significant buildings to detract from its magnitude. The vast edifice has fifteen different entrances, each with a unique ornate design. In front of one entrance is a replica of the Giraldillo weather vane that crowns the belltower. Inside the cloister is an orderly array of the famed Seville orange trees surrounding a central fountain.
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It's just a two minute walk from the cathedral to the other star of the Casco Antiguo, the Real Alcázar. Although this castle has a Moorish appearance similar to other Spanish Alcazárs, most of the structure was built after the Christian reconquest of Andalusia in the Mudéjar architectural style. Inside the castle the exquisite details in the cavernous rooms and courtyard are breathtaking. The Celebration Room has enormous tapestries and colorful tile designs that extend seven feet up the walls.
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Behind the castle a lengthy loggia extends into the gardens, allowing visitors an elevated view of the beautiful landscaping without exposing themselves to the elements. The exterior of the loggia is encrusted with mortar outcroppings designed to give the appearance of the wall of a cave, hence the name of Grotto Gallery.
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We spent the majority of our time at the Alcázar exploring the extensive gardens but I'm sure we only discovered a fraction of the many separate sections of the estate. Overall I would be hard-pressed to compare the Alcázar unfavorably to the Palace of Versailles, and it was certainly much less crowded and onerous. Cleo was thrilled to get out of her stroller and we even found a hedge maze which she thought was hilarious.
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On our final morning in Sevilla my stomach was settled so we decided to return to Mercado de Triana. This time we had identified our favorite seafood vendor and we had a plan. We bought whole sea urchins and cut them open and ate them right at the stall for an appetizer, then had a full meal at the best of the little restaurants in the market.
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As we were on our way out of town we had more time to explore the neighborhood of Triana. Triana was originally a separate city from Sevilla and maintained its independence until the first bridge to be built across the Guadalquivir made Sevilla's expansion inevitable. Few tourists make it this far from the Casco Antiguo, making Triana an excellent spot to absorb an authentic Andalusian urban vibe. There is plenty of energy in the streets, but the sidewalk cafes are filled with locals and the colorful building facades are more representative of neighborhood pride than commercial hustle.
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One of my regrets from the trip is that we didn't stop in Jerez for a few hours en route to Cádiz. Since that trip we've made a regular practice of stopping over in cities that we otherwise couldn't have fit into our itinerary and it has worked out quite well. I looked at Jerez a little more closely after we returned home and it was clear that we shouldn't have missed it. We also managed to drive past Ronda, one of the most uniquely beautiful cities in Spain, so I have no doubt at least one more trip to Andalusia lies in our future.

Cádiz isn't one of the most well-known Spanish cities but it has several unique characteristics. It is the oldest city in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians who gradually migrated from the Middle East across northern Africa before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. The city is also practically an island, being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip barely wide enough to accommodate a beach and a highway. The strip may technically be a tombolo, a sandbar that connects an island to the mainland, but I was unable to find any reference to corroborate that theory.
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The modern portion of the city that is closer to the mainland is largely composed of unattractive block housing and has little of interest to travelers aside from a beach. The landscape changes dramatically on the other side of the old city wall remnant known as Puertas de Tierra. Here in the Santa María barrio the streets become narrow cobblestone alleys that feel like canyons between solid walls of antiquated four-story buildings. Further towards the end of the peninsula the streets of the historic district become mercifully wider and there are some open squares to alleviate the claustrophobia, but overall the impression of the Casco Antiguo is one of extreme density of buildings and population. I think it would have felt quite dystopian if it wasn't so beautiful.
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Our hotel in the center of the Casco Antiguo had no parking, so after depositing the bags I found the municipal lot which had been constructed to fit as many cars as possible into the smallest possible space, thereby leaving almost no margin for error. I scraped the side of the car while foolishly attempting to maneuver into a space front-end first instead of reversing, which infuriated me after we had survived our trial-by-fire in Lisbon without so much as a scratch. I put aside my annoyance with myself so that we could enjoy our evening walk around the historic center.
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A bright, sunny morning chased away the ominousness of the old town. Our focus was on the Mercado Central, renowned for its fresh Atlantic seafood. The singular market was designed in Neoclassical style by native son architect Torcuato Benjumeda in the early 19th century. Produce stalls fill arcades arranged around the central market hall, which has the appearance of a ancient temple supported by Roman columns. Within the hall we weren't disappointed by the beautiful display of fish and crustaceans.
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In the arcades surrounding the market we found vendors selling bags of beautiful, plump live snails. Our appetites thoroughly awakened, we found a seafood restaurant where they agreed to grill the fish and boil the mantis shrimp we had bought in the market. We regretfully took our leave of Cadíz but not before making a reservation for the night after our stay in Morocco for the Carnival celebration.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:38 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Madrid and trip conclusion


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At long last we had arrived at our ultimate destination, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Spain. I had saved Madrid for last to keep us in a state of anticipation even as we were winding down our vacation. As with most large cities, enjoyment of Madrid is a matter of individual taste. Once the initial honeymoon of sightseeing is over, the experience depends on how one interfaces with the city. The energy, the culture, the food, even the weather come into play. This would be my third visit to Madrid and I had already seen all the touristy places like Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. I wanted to experience the modern city like a Madrileño, exploring residential neighborhoods and markets and eating like a local. Madrid was one of the forerunners of the food hall movement with the Mercado De San Miguel, which we had enjoyed on our last visit in 2014. Now there were at least three more food halls close to the center and we were determined to try all of them.

Our gamble on an Airbnb outside of the center paid off. The Salamanca neighborhood may not have been as atmospheric as Centro but street parking was relatively easy and our apartment was spacious and comfortable. It took two trips to get all our gear up to the fifth floor via the tiny elevator with a metal gate. As soon as we'd settled in, we jumped back into the car and drove to Mercado de San Ildefonso, the most promising of the new food halls I'd discovered. We found an impressive array of cuisines represented on the two floors of the establishment, with Asian and American-style food alongside the numerous Spanish offerings. The space wasn't particularly crowded but the energy was good thanks in part to an outdoor patio on the upper level as well as a stylish bar/vinoteca that offered a wide selection of wines by the glass and craft beers. We were quite happy with the results of our first dining venture in Madrid.
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An interesting development in our trip arose when my brother decided to fly over to Madrid after picking his two sons up from their nanny's home in Italy. This would make us a party of nine exploring the city, with five rambunctious kids. In the morning we decided the best option to feed everyone would be Madrid's largest market Mercado de Maravillas, in the northern neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos. Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when I maneuvered our car into one of the low metal posts that was placed along the curb, denting a front panel. I've damaged and even totaled enough cars in Europe that I refuse to let events like this ruin my day, but it was frustrating to have kept our car pristine across thousands of miles of driving only to damage it on the second to last day of the trip. The market was cavernous, as I'd expected, but it was immediately apparent that it wasn't at full strength. At least half the stalls were closed and some entire sections were almost abandoned. Many of the shuttered stalls had signs posted indicating they were closed for most of the month of August, the traditional summer vacation period in Madrid. This was unfortunate but on the bright side the market was so large that we were able to find several appetizing restaurants, mainly specializing in Latin American cuisine. Eventually we settled on a Peruvian stall where we had a satisfying meal of ceviche and anticuchos.
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Our next stop was the rooftop bar at the Círculo de Bellas Artes cultural center near Plaza de Cibeles. The drinks were ridiculously expensive and rather poorly made but the lounge chairs were comfortable and the views of Palacio de Cibeles and the rest of central Madrid were spectacular. Atop a nearby government building we could see two impressive black sculptures of horse-drawn chariots, or quadrigas.
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Returning to ground level we strolled west up Gran Vía, possibly Madrid's most famous avenue. The classical, ornate architecture was breathtaking but the midday sun was brutal on the wide boulevard and soon we had to retreat to a shadier location.
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El Retiro park began its existence in the 17th century as a private retreat for the royal family. While not the largest park in Madrid by a long shot, El Retiro probably is the best embodiment of the spirit of Madrid in green space. Two places in the park that shouldn't be missed are the beautiful rectangular lake, where sunbathers lounge on the steps of the marble Alfonso XII monument right at the water's edge, and the Palacio de Cristal. Unlike the similarly-named location in Porto, there is actually a Crystal Palace in El Retiro. The late 19th century structure is made almost entirely of glass set within an iron framework and now hosts contemporary art exhibitions. large_70f888b0-b927-11e9-876f-b1d4b52ad718.JPGlarge_AXAM7964.JPGlarge_IMG_3619.JPG

From the park it was a pleasant walk west into Centro, culminating at the enormous Plaza Mayor which is almost double the size of the one in Salamanca. In the cobblestoned square we recuperated from the long walk while the kids played with giant bubbles created by a street performer.
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That evening we regrouped at Platea, Madrid's most upscale food hall which offers a selection of high end plates for diners that aren't troubled about their budget. We splurged on a large and very expensive steak, sushi, and an assortment of other dishes in the noisy, neon-illuminated main floor dining area. It was a cool experience but I would rather return to Mercado de San Ildefonso on our next visit.
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I'd discovered after our itinerary was already set that our second and last full day in Madrid was Assumption Day, a major public holiday on which markets and many other businesses would be closed. In the morning we decided to try our luck at Mercado de San Antón. The food hall was open although most of the stalls offering anything substantial were shut until late morning. We stuck around long enough to get what we needed but made a mental note for our next visit that this was more of an evening place. Afterwards we drove to Templo de Debod, an authentic ancient Egyptian temple that was disassembled, shipped to Spain, and put back together in Madrid in the 1960's as a donation from the Egyptian government. The temple now stands incongruously atop the Príncipe Pío hill, surrounded by an attractive park filled with palm trees and conifers. A musician in the park was optimistically playing "Despacito" on his clarinet despite the absence of foot traffic on the paths.
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We followed a staircase down the hill which led us practically to the gates of the Sabatini Gardens, the official garden of the Royal Palace. Although the gardens seem to complement the 18th century palace perfectly, they were constructed to replace the royal stables in the mid 20th century. The kids enjoyed themselves racing around the manicured hedges and making us chase them until we were all exhausted.
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We met my brother's family at Plaza de la Armería, between the Palace and the splendid bluish-grey Almudena Cathedral. The cathedral was only completed in 1993, although its Gothic revival architecture makes it appear much older. We got the kids some ice cream and beers for ourselves and then we had to take a long walk back through the searing afternoon heat to our car. At least we could console ourselves with more beautiful classical architecture along Calle de Bailén.
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We took custody of my brother's kids for the afternoon and brought everyone to Parque Madrid Río, on the bank of the Manzanares River. I didn't even know Madrid had a river despite several previous visits to the city. It's hard to imagine being unaware of the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, or even the largely-ignored Tiber in Rome. Nevertheless, no tourist guides to Madrid make any mention of the Manzanares. Part of the reason for this is that the M-30 highway was constructed alongside the river in the 1970's, making it difficult to access and unpleasant for those who tried. In the early 2000's, the highway was rerouted underground and the reclaimed river bank was converted into a long chain of parks connected by bike paths. The largest section of park extends from the Puente de Toledo to the Puente de Praga, in the Arganzuela district south of the center. The park was very crowded due to the holiday with hordes of kids playing in the splash fountains and on long metal slides. The Arganzuela footbridge that crosses the Manzanares is an amazingly creative blend of form and function.
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We had to tear the kids away from the slides because we didn't want to miss the Assumption Day festivities back in Centro. The silver lining to the market closures was that there would be a parade, street food, and possibly rides for the kids as part of the holiday celebration. The problem was that I couldn't find anything official providing details of locations and times and I therefore had to rely on information I'd gleaned from message boards. Our best bet seemed to be a square called Plaza de la Paja, but once we arrived in the area many of the streets were cordoned off and traffic was extremely slow and heavy. We eventually found a parking spot a half mile away, and we were lucky to find that one amid a dense thicket of cars occupying every single possible space. We joined a stream of pedestrians headed towards the square, but instead we ran into a huge crowd at Puerta de Toledo that was obviously waiting for a parade. The kids worked their way to the front, oblivious to angry grumblings from mostly elderly locals, while Mei Ling and I resigned ourselves to catching glimpses of them through the packed crowd. All we saw of the parade was the tops of some banners passing by. We realized that some white canopies further up the road were likely food tents and decided to prioritize that over the parade.
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Once we reached our destination we found some very appetizing grilling going on. I saw a sign for gallinejas which I assumed were small grilled chickens and turned out to be chicken intestines once I received my order. Fortunately I've eaten intestines of practically every farm animal but chickens before so I had no problem completing my sweep. They were pleasantly chewy and savory.
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Somehow my brother with his kids managed to find us in the huge festival. He ordered way too many sausage rolls and then we treated the kids to cotton candy and a couple of rides before calling it a night. Although Madrid overall had been anticlimactic, it had been a satisfying ending to our long journey.
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Amazingly, it's taken me almost a full year from the end of the trip to complete my travel blog. While some memories have already started to fade, the passage of time has shaped my perspective on how this sixth major European road trip compares with the others. While I had expected most of our great experiences to revolve around food and wine, what actually stood out the most was the number of beautiful and walkable cities we discovered over the course of the month. Most of the best meals we had were at the night markets and food halls rather than at restaurants, so I combined the top ten list for food and experiences on this trip.

10. Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica in Zaragoza. Some of the best and most interesting tapas we had on the trip, all in one location.
9. Winery Airbnb in Lamego. Eating breakfast under a canopy of grapevines laden with heavy bunches of fruit is an experience I'll never forget.
8. Dune du Pilat. A natural wonder and an amazing experience for the kids.
7. Laguardia. The most enjoyable and lively of the many tiny medieval villages we visited in Spain.
6. Aqueduct of Segovia. A breathtaking structure that doesn't get the recognition it deserves among Europe's unmissable sights.
5. Bilbao. San Sebastian gets most of the tourist love in Basque Country, but this much larger city has the best architecture and character.
4. Bordeaux. A sharp contrast to the refinement of the wine region, this gritty and intriguing city is unlike anywhere else in France.
3. Dordogne night markets. Particularly at Montignac and Saint-Amand-de-Coly, these riotous celebrations of food and community are unmissable.
2. Valencia. My favorite city in Spain. A beautiful old town, amazing architecture and street art, a pleasant coastal climate, and the home of paella.
1. Porto. Possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. Absolutely magical, beautiful, and full of energy. We will be back.

Although I expected Salamanca and Madrid to give us a huge ending to the trip, both cities proved disappointing this time around. I'm confident that the main culprit was timing, in that August is very lethargic in central Spain due to the heat and the migration of many business owners to the coasts. We enjoyed Madrid much more on our previous visit in March despite the freezing weather. There's still plenty left for us to see in central Spain, including major cities such as Valladolid and Burgos and countless alluring small towns, which means we'll be giving Madrid another shot at a better time of year. We might combine that with a return visit to Portugal during the September wine harvest, or dedicate a special trip to the area. Either way, it will have to wait until our kids are all in college which is at least thirteen years away. Definitely a back burner project. In the meantime, I expect our next visit to Spain will most likely be a Spanish language summer immersion for everyone in Valencia.

I've fallen way behind on my travel writing, in large amount due to the sheer amount of traveling we've been doing. My next project will be to write up the six week trip in China and Japan we just returned from, followed by the shorter trips to Yucatan and Uruguay we took in 2018. Stay tuned!

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:24 Archived in Spain Tagged travel madrid blog tony gran_vía templo_de_debod friedman sabatini_gardens retiro_park Comments (0)

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