As I am slowly discovering, Madrid has an inexhaustible wealth of day trips. I have already written posts for my four favorites—Toledo, El Escorial, Salamanca, and Segovia—and another four great trips: Ávila, Chinchón, Aranjuez, and Alcalá de Henares. Now I must add to this already long list: Manzanares el Real.
Manzanares el Real is a small town north of Madrid, situated at the foot of the Guadarrama mountains. The only way to get there on public transportation is by bus line 724, which you take from the Intercambiador at Plaza de Castilla.
On the advice of a classmate, GF and I decided to spend a Sunday morning of an otherwise lazy weekend on a trip there. It was a dreary February day, cloudy and drizzling. The bus ride was unremarkable, taking us through several of those nondescript Spanish villages that always manage to disorient me, since they look so similar that I cannot tell whether I’ve seen them before. I spent most of the ride reading, anyway. To be exact, I was reading Hemingway’s famous guide to bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, which was appropriate, since our route took us past a bullring and a statue of a matador.
In forty minutes we arrived. Our first stop was the tourist office, where a very friendly women gave us a map and marked it up with sites to see. In retrospect, I am deeply impressed with her for being so enthusiastic; there are not very many things to do in Manzanares, but she squeezed every last drop out of the possibilities.
Our first stop—and, indeed, the only reason we made the trip in the first place—was the castle. Manzanares is home to one of the best preserved and most picturesque castles in Spain, the so-called “New Castle.” (It was built in the 15th century. We will meet the “old” castle later.)
The castle is surrounded by a wall, full of narrow slits for archers, that wraps closely around the perimeter. The castle itself has a square layout, with a small appendage in the back. Tall towers stand over each corner. Its symmetrical form, gray granite façade, and curving walls combine to form a surprisingly pretty building.
After some mucking about trying to find the ticket booth, we bought tickets and went in. To be frank, I am not sure I would recommend doing this. There was not very much on the inside of the castle. In the lower level were a few panels of information; and in upper floors, there were old bedrooms and living spaces with period furniture. But neither of these were memorable. The only thing worth seeing was the view from the top of the castle. You can walk all around the roof, going from tower to tower. On one side you can see the town, and the mountains beyond; on another side, the nearby reservoir.
We were outside again in less than an hour. Now what? We looked at the map the woman at the tourist office had given us. The only thing that caught my attention was the aforementioned “Old Castle.” This is about a ten minute walk from the New Castle, across the Manzanares River that runs through the town. It would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. Hardly anything remains. At first glance it is just an empty, grassy field; the only indication that there used to be a castle here is a small granite wall, no more than five feet tall.
From there, we followed a road the woman recommended, which took us out of the town and towards the reservoir; the idea was to get away from the city, so we could get a good photo of it. On the way, we passed by the town cemetery. The gate was open, nobody was standing by, so we walked in.
I had been wanting to visit a cemetery since I came to Spain, and this was the first opportunity that presented itself. I was interested in cemeteries because, before coming here, I gave a tour of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to a family from Madrid. During the visit, they kept remarking how different American cemeteries are from Spanish ones.
They were right. While Americans cemeteries can look like parks, their Spanish counterparts are totally devoid of vegetation. Instead, the dead are interred in stone sarcophagi that sit on top of the ground, or they occupy a slot in a large stone wall. For me, the place had a much more somber feel than its American counterparts. There was nothing alive in there except us.
We left and kept going along the road. Soon we crossed a bridge that took us over the reservoir, turned around, and admired the view. It was still a drizzly, dreary day, but the grey rainclouds brought out a special charm to the landscape. On the banks of the reservoir, amid the pools of water, white cows were grazing. Beyond was the town, nestled at the foot of a craggy mountain, a mass of jagged grey slithered up into the mist.
These strange rock formations are known as La Pedriza, and compose one of the biggest granite ranges in Europe. Aside from their bizarre and beautiful shapes, they provide excellent rock climbing opportunities—not that I would know.
We took some pictures and then headed back into town to the bus station. The surrounding area actually looked like it had some nice hiking paths; but I hadn’t brought the shoes or the willingness to go on a hike. We went to the bus stop.
While we waited for the bus to arrive, I admired some of the storks who made their nest on a tree nearby. This was the first time I heard the strange clacking noise that storks make by rapidly beating their beaks together, as they arch their heads so far back that the tops of their skulls touch the backs of their long slender necks. (Storks don’t have vocal chords, so clacking their beaks is the only way they can “call.”) I thought the sound was coming from a motorcycle engine at first, the noise is so strange and harsh. Doesn’t it damage their beaks to snap them together so forcefully? Spain is full of mysteries.