Three months into my personal Reconquista, I am becoming more and more comfortable with the language every day. I am far from speaking it correctly, let alone write it, but thanks to being fluent in Italian and French, I can understand 99 %, I just reply in whatever comes in mind first. A knowledge of Spanish that extends beyond ordering a glass of vino tinto will come in handy when travelling around Spain, because regardless all the international tourism and often UNESCO funding, no explanation is ever given in English. (This statement is also true for my online banking site, cellphone provider’s site, and any other aspect of everyday life that a foreigner residing in the country may find helpful in English. Catalan, Galician or Basque? Sure, no problem. Internationally recognized lingua franca? Forget it.) However, Google, Wikipedia, WikiTravel and the lot work wonders, should you take the slightest interest in the history of places you visit.
Also, get a few things about the language right before it’s too late, you may spare yourself a couple of embarrassing situations. Most importantly, el pollo is a chicken. La polla is a cock. As in, gender-specific attribute present between the legs most men, not a rooster. La polleria, hence, is a butchery specialized in chicken and related products, not a candy shop for ladies, unfortunately. Although, to be fair, if a lady walks into any shop in Spain and asks for a cock, she is very likely to get one. It is a mistake easily made, especially if your native language doesn’t use distinguished genders for animals and inanimate objects, you do not need your colleagues to be evil arseholes with twisted sense of humour. Truth be told, I should have known better than to trust them and their language advises. Now I cannot show my face at my local butcher’s for the rest of my life, in order to avoid him exclaiming cheerfully “ah, the lady who likes cock” every time he sees me on the street. On the other hand, the look on your spanish boyfriend’s grandmother’s face when he takes you to big family lunch for the first time and you politely ask if you can eat a bit more of that “chicken”, is probably priceless. I wonder if this is where the Italian saying “know your chickens” comes from.
With the poultry sorted, let’s move on. I already established previously that there are not an awful lot of different things to do in the Capital, and although I have bought a yearly ticket to all the state-ran museums in the country (best spent 35 euro of my life), I don’t always feel like dedicating my weekends to admiring paintings. One could always go shopping, of course. It would seem that walking around Gran Via with shopping from Primark is an equivalent to flaunting a Hermés bag on Champs-Élysées. However, if one wants to maintain acceptable level of mental health, my advice would be to avoid main shopping streets on any day, but on weekends especially. Fortunately Madrid is also a conveniently located gateway to pretty much anywhere in the country and there are many beautiful and interesting places within two hours drive, usually connected by very good public transport links.
So, let’s take a closer look at the two most obvious and comfortable day-trips from Madrid: Toledo and Segovia, both UNESCO-listed sites.
Former imperial capital and seat to Carlos V´s court, Toledo is everything Madrid isn’t. Charming, medieval, transpiring centuries of history. Narrow winding streets, enchanting little squares, cafés with tables at every available public space, views over the magnificent cathedral or some other of the city’s many churches.
How to get there: 33 minutes on AVE (the fast train service) from Atocha train station (round trip around 24 euro), or a much cheaper bus service that takes about 90 minutes one way.
What to see: A short walk from the train station will bring you to the roman bridge of Alcantara, from where you can either climb up to the old town, or continue to follow the path along the Tajo river for as long as it pleases you, or simply until you find an alternative entrance to the old town through the city walls. Toledo has been under strong influence of Visigoths, Arabs, Spaniards and Jews through its existence, so literally every religious building has been a church, a synagogue and a mosque as the control over the city changed hands. The mixture of styles in the architecture of every building is beautiful. There is a tourist path throughout the city centre that will lead you around monuments. The combined ticket (a wristband) costs 8 euros and is valid for several days, so if you want to spend a weekend in Toledo, you don’t need to rush and fit all your sightseeing in one day. The monumental cathedral is not included in the ticket. You pay apart (10 euro) to visit the main nave (and possibly the tower), or you can enter for free from a side entrance, but you will only be allowed to a small fenced-off area in the side nave to pray. Toledo was also the place of residence of El Greco, one of the Spanish most significant painters. It used to be a popular belief that El Greco’s ethereal, elongated, out-of-this-world figures were owed to his strong astigmatism, but my opinion is that he just had a distinct style, not a disease. Don’t miss a visit to San Tomé to admire El Greco’s painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, a representation of local legend, that when Count Orgaz (a local pious nobleman) died, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descended from Heavens to bury him personally.
How to get there: two buses leave approximately every 15 minutes from Moncloa underground bus station (75 minutes ride, 8 euros round trip, buy your ticket in advance, or you will wait for the next available bus for about an hour), or 30 minutes fast train from Chamartín station. Buses will bring you to walking distance from the city centre of Segovia, while the AVE station is about 5 miles out of town.
Political rant intermezzo: As you head north from Madrid towards Sierra de Hoyo de Manzanares mountain range, you will see a monstrous cross on your left hand side. By monstrous I mean huge, actually the tallest memorial cross in the world. That is Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen), the monument to the victims of Spanish Civil War, built between 1940 and 1959. The memorial has always been presented as politically neutral, which is difficult to believe as hundreds of political prisoners were employed in the building process in exchange of reduction of time served (it is claimed that over 20.000 convicts were used during the works, although the official records only speak of over 200). Last but not least, the monument is also the site of Franco’s tomb (and hence the destination of pilgrimage of many nostalgics of the old regime), so the entire political neutrality idea comes across as a bit of a pisstake. Recently, the there has been a bill that orders Franco’s remains to be removed from Valle de los Caídos and it is up to the family to pick the new burial site, but I am not very prepared on the subject, so more about this when I am.
What to see: the monumental, perfectly preserved Roman Aqueduct that somehow survived the Civil War bombing untouched. Take a walk through the old town, enter all the charming little churches you find along the way, get all the way to Alcazar, a Disney-like castle at the far end of the city walls. I didn’t bother to enter it, as it looks tacky enough from the outside, but I probably will next time I am around, because me and Segovia have unfinished business. I missed out on the local culinary experience, el cochinillo, roasted suckling pig. While I do not shy away from dining alone (I actually rather enjoy it), I am not capable of eating an entire pig (albeit a baby one) on my own, therefore I will soon have to drag some dining companion along to justify a premature death of a piglet. Most importantly visit the Cathedral and climb the bell tower. Having always been a progressive country, while everywhere in Europe Renaissance was reigning supreme, Spain was still building monumental late-gothic cathedrals. This one is massive, once the tallest bell tower in Spain. Before the wooden spire that topped the tower was hit by a lightning and destroyed by the subsequent fire. I recommend climbing the tower at sunset, the views over the city under the soft light are extraordinary.
So, while I hope these tips for simple days out of Madrid come useful to some travellers, my non-vegetarian friends are to be considered prompted to come for a visit soon, because I could use some help with that piglet, before it gets too hot to even think about food, let alone lighting a fire to prepare a roast. Thankfully (always look on the bright side of life), the lack of progressivism in this country also means that there are no such things as “Dry January” or “Veganuary”, or some other attempts to make an already miserable month even more miserable. I really hope this goes for Movember, too, as I don’t particularly enjoy men looking like pedophiles for an entire month, but I only be able to tell you in 10 months. In the meanwhile, stay tuned for more.