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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.
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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 shop 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 water 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)

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