Central Europe: Plzeň

Central Europe: Plzeň

After seeing everything I wanted to see in Prague, I still had a day to spare before moving on to Nuremberg. Luckily there are some excellent day trips from the Czech capital. There is Karlovy Vary, an attractive town near Prague with famous hot springs, which several people had recommended to me. There is also the Sedlec Ostuary—a world heritage site—a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones in a church in the town of Kutná Hora. But after looking over these and more options, the beer lover in me won out: I had to go to Plzeň.

With a population of about 170,000, Plzeň is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic. For much of its history Plzeň was significant as a trade post near the German border. But in the 19th century the city’s importance considerably grew. First, in 1842 the city’s iconic export was invented: Pilsner beer. Shortly later, the city underwent rapid industrialization, turning Plzeň from a rural outpost into a city of factories and breweries.

Getting to Plzeň from Prague is straightforward. I boarded a commuter train from the central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, which took me to Plzeň in around an hour. I did not give myself enough time to buy my ticket, however (there are no machines, so you need to wait in line to buy from a person), so I had to rush to catch the train. The only way up from the station to the platforms was on a slow-moving automatic walkway, which was so full of infuriatingly relaxed and immobile people that I had to wait, biting my lip, as the walkway took me forward at around 2 mph, while the train was on the verge of leaving. When I finally reached the end I bolted up the stairs to the platform, running and jumping onto the train just as the doors were closing. Indeed, I had gotten on so fast that I was not even sure it was the right train. But I was in luck.

Unfortunately for me, however, by the time I pulled my stunt all the seats in the train were taken. I had no choice but to stand. So I made my way to the dining car, ordered a coffee, and got out my Kindle to read. I was trying to get through Rousseau’s Emile, but the Romantic philosopher was quickly getting on my nerves and I had trouble paying attention. Time passed this way until, feeling peckish and needing a distraction, I decided I would try the train’s goulash. This is a type of strew, originally from Hungary but now popular throughout Central Europe, made with meat, veggies, and flavored with paprika. It was my first goulash experience; and—contrary to what you might expect from a dining car—it was actually quite good.

Pilzen_entrance

Once arrived, I wasted no time in going to Plzeň’s biggest attraction: the Urquell brewery. The word “Urquell” can be roughly translated as “the source,” and it is appropriate: for it is this company that invented the iconic pale lager, or pilsner beer, which has proven immensely influential. It is said that two-thirds of the beer produced in the world is an adaptation of this Czech invention. And, indeed, every country seems to have its own version of a pale lager: China’s Tsingtao, Japan’s Sapporo, Kenya’s Tusker, Mexico’s Pacífico, America’s Budweiser, Spain’s Mahou. The world cannot seem to get enough of this sour beverage.

Pilzen_glasses

To enter the brewery one must pass through the festive main gate, designed to look like a triumphal arch. In the ticket office there is a large display of antique brewing methods, complete with life-sized sets and dummies. I queued up and bought a ticket for the next English tour—for which, luckily, there was still a spot remaining. Soon I was in a tour group, ready to explore the birthplace of pale lager.

Our tour commenced with some elaborate ceremonial glasses, made on the occasions of visits by European monarchs to the brewery. Then, after explaining something of the history of the place, our guide took us to see some antique carts, train cars, and trucks used to transport Urquell beer back in yonder days. A bus then picked us up and drove us to the bottling plant.

Pilzen_oldtruck

I am always impressed by industrial processes like this. I think of Adam Smith and his pin factory, and marvel how such marvelously complex solutions can arise for such simple challenges. In this case the challenge is to put beer into a bottle or a can. The solution is a massive facility—noisy with mechanical racket, steamy with sweat and spillage, buzzing with electricity and life. We watched the action from an elevated platform. People in waterproof suits marches around the factory floor, while giant conveyor belts swept hundreds of bottles into metal apparatuses—rinsers, inspectors, vacuums, palletizer, depalletizers, feeders, inspectors, packets, dispatchers—each of which performs one specialized function at lightning-fast speed. To put this into numbers, the bottling line can church out 120,000 bottles per hour, and the canning line 37,000 cans per hour. We have come a long way.

Pilzen_bottlingplant

From here we were transported back on the bus, herded into a large elevator—the largest in the Czech Republic, they said—and then shown a film about Pilsner Urquell’s origins, which was projected on a semicircular screen while we sat on a rotating platform. In this film we were informed that the inventor of pilsner beer, Josef Gross (a German), created the beer in response to growing dissatisfaction among the populace with the top-fermented beer. (The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, which occurs at a relatively high temperature.) In response to this, Gross developed a bottom-fermenting beer, which uses a different sort of yeast that requires a lower temperature. And so, pilsner beer was born.

Pilzen_hops

Then we were shown an exhibit about the four ingredients of beer: malt, water, hops, and yeast—with examples of each. I did not know that malt is not a specific type of grain, but is instead any cereal grain (usually barley) which has been made to germinate by soaking in water, and then dried. I tried chewing on a piece of malt; it’s rather hard. But I particularly enjoyed the chance to sniff and taste the hops. As you may know, beer hops are made from crushing up the flowers of the hop plant. The final product looks an awful lot like marijuana, but smells delightful—the floral, bitter, and richly complex flavor that is most notable in strong indian pale ales, though less apparent in pale lagers.

Then we were led into the old factory, no longer in use. The brewing process, however, remains the same; and so the guide (with the help of a video) took us through the steps to make pilsner beer. First, after being mashed, the malt is put into these big copper kettles filled with water; the resultant mixture is called a ‘wort.’ The wort is gradually heated, which converts the malt’s starch into sugar. Then, to kill off unwanted bacteria, the wort is boiled through a process of siphoning off thirds, heating the portion, and then reintroducing it into the main kettle for it to be repeated.

Then this wort is siphoned off into stainless-steel drums—to filter out the solid bits of barley, I believe—and then on to the hopping kettles. Hops are put in and removed three times in 90 minutes, while the liquid is boiling. After that the liquid goes on to a fermentation tank, which is stored outside, where the yeast is finally added. (This is that “bottom-fermenting” yeast I mentioned earlier.) To achieve the right flavor, the temperature of this container must be kept within fairly strict boundaries. And controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky, since fermentation itself generates heat. The fermentation process takes some few days, if memory serves, and the final product contains both alcohol and carbonation.

This isn’t the end of the process, however, since then yeast must be filtered out, the beer left to age in barrels, and then the final product is pasteurized to ensure longevity. All this was explained to us as we explored the old and then the current factories, both of which are impressive places. I especially liked the futuristic look of the new factory, with shiny copper kettles in a tiled room. But this wasn’t the end of the tour.

Pilzen_brewery

Finally we were led down into the cellars. Underneath the complex, you see, is a massive network of tunnels carved into the ground—miles and miles of them. These were used to keep the beer at a controlled temperature as it aged in barrels. Apparently a rather cool temperature is needed, so ice would be dumped into a massive room at the end of the hall, whose proximity would cool the rest of the network. It must have been chilly indeed, since even without the ice the tunnels were many degrees cooler than outside. (Nowadays the beer is aged in another way, and the tunnels are unused.)

Pilzen_barrels

This is where our tour ended. But not without a tasting, of course. Two bearded gentlemen poured each of us (there were around 30 on the tour) a glass of pilsner beer. It was unfiltered, meaning that the yeast was still in the beer, which gives it a cloudy look. Now, here I have to admit that I am not particularly fond of lagers, and I especially dislike pilsner beer. To me its defining flavor is sourness—lacking the sweetness of wheat beer, the bitterness of ales, and the smoothness of dark beers. But I will drink a pilsner and enjoy it, of course, since any beer is better than none.

The tour was over, having taken about 2 hours. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in beer and brewing.

Pilzen_tunnel

I had some time before my return train to Prague. First I ate lunch at a place called the PUB Plzeň, which has great hamburgers. Then I went to see Plzeň’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew. The church has only had cathedral status since 1993, and underwent major renovations and expansions at around that time. As it stands now, the cathedral is an attractive building, both inside and out. But the best part of the visit was ascending the hundreds of steps up to its bell-tower. One must pay a special price to do this, of course, and undergo some claustrophobia, vertigo, and exhaustion on the twisting and narrow stairs. But the view of the surrounding city and countryside is worth it. I particularly admired Plzeň’s main square, which is extremely pretty, full of brightly painted old apartment buildings and futuristic fountains.

Now it was time for me to go. Unfortunately I did not have time to see Plzeň’s Great Synagogue, the second-largest in Europe (though nowadays only about 70 Jews live in Plzeň). But at least this time I got a seat on the train, from which I could appreciate the rolling grassy countryside of the Czech Republic. It is a beautiful country.

Pilzen_city

The Monastery of El Escorial

The Monastery of El Escorial

The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is by far the largest monastery in the country. Indeed it is one of the grandest buildings period. The whole structure of El Escorial is so grandiose that it seems to take up more space than the little town that surrounds it (which is also called El Escorial). Though ensconced in this village, the monastery sits isolated and alone, cordoned off by official buildings that separate it neatly from rest of the town. It is a world unto itself.

El Escorial is perched up in the Madrid Sierra—the same mountain range as Rascafría and Cotos—surrounded by the beautiful forest of La Herrería. It can be easily visited in a day-trip from the center of Madrid, either by bus (line 661 or 664 from Moncloa) or by train.

elescorial_background

As one approaches the entrance of the monument, the mountains comes into view, looming beyond, with clouds hovering menacingly over their peaks. The building’s massive form and commanding position high up in the mountains, overlooking the surrounding plains, reveals its origin and function. Though a monastery, the primary purpose of El Escorial has from the first been as a Royal Residence. It was built during the reign of Philip II, one of the most powerful rulers in Spain’s history and indeed the history of the world. For this was the apex of Spain’s might, both on the European continent and worldwide as a colonial superpower.

elescorial_reflection.jpg

Nevertheless, such a wild, gloomy, and isolated place (for there was no village here when construction began) is not an obvious spot for a palace. El Escorial seems to exemplify Philip II’s reputation as a dour, dedicated, and antisocial ruler, the personification of the Counter-Reformation. Yet for my part I can see why such a busy and harried man—he ruled over a considerable slice of the world, after all—would want a peaceful place to which he could retreat and focus.

Construction of El Escorial began in 1563. The monastery owes its design to Juan Bautista de Toledo, whose death prevented him from seeing through its completion. That was left to his more famous pupil, Juan de Herrera, whose style has since become synonymous with the Spanish Golden Age, and which has since been imitated in many modern Spanish buildings. The gargantuan heap of stone was completed in 1583, having taken less than 21 years to complete.

elescorial_pano

Visitors of El Escorial follow a prescribed route through the old hulk. Exploring the monastery for the first time can feel like getting lost in a labyrinth, so many twists and turns does the path take. The visit can also be rather overwhelming, since there are so many things to see: famous works of art, royal apartments, an emormous basilica, the royal mausoleum, and more.

Weyden_Christ_on_the_Cross_with_Mary_and_St_John

The first stop on the itinerary was a chamber dedicated to a single painting: El Calvario by Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. (In English, the painting is simply called The Escorial Crucifixion.) The painting is kept in a darkened room, surrounded by information about its history and the costly restoration  needed to rehabilitate the time-worn work. As one would expect from a Van Der Weyden crucifixion scene, the painting is a masterpiece. It fully exemplifies the painter’s talent for creating solid, voluminous forms. The work does not so much convey movement and passion, but calm resignation, quiet tragedy, and somber stillness.

Near this room is the stairwell that leads into the Bourbon apartments. For me this is the least interesting part of the monument, looking for the most part like generic palace rooms. But there are some excellent tapestries on display, some of whose designs were drawn by Goya.

Philip II
Philip II

The next stop is the palace of Philip II himself. Though ornate, these rooms are more tasteful and bare than the Bourbon palace. Some items deserve special mention. There is a clock in the study with a little torch attached to the front of it, so you could see the time at night—the original version of a backlit watch. Yet perhaps the most scientifically significant item on display is Philip II’s wheelchair. The king had a bad case of gout, you see, which caused severe swelling and arthritic pain in his feet and legs. The chair has both arm- and leg-rests to elevate his sore limbs, but would require attendants to move it. History aside, the chair is a rather pathetic reminder that nobody, not even kings, are immune from sickness.

Rollstuhl_Koenig_Philipp_1595
A drawing of the king’s wheelchair

There were portraits and paintings adorning every wall: some depict members of the Hapsburg dynasty (each equipped with their distinctive chins); some are religious paintings; several are maps; and some are paintings of palaces in Spain, including El Escorial itself. In two of the rooms there is a sun dial, a metal strip on the floor, marked at intervals, with a little hole in the ceiling above. I think one would have to close all the windows to use it.

But the most beautiful objects in those apartments, for me, are the wonderfully ornate wooden doorways that connected room to room. Without paint, the designer has inlaid scenes and decorations in the surface—floral designs and landscapes—by using lighter and darker pieces of wood. Every square inch of the doorways is meticulously detailed. Just trying to fathom how much time it would take to put something like this together takes my breath away.

Vista_del_Real_Monasterio_de_San_Lorenzo_de_El_Escorial

Galería_de_las_Batallas(Quenoteam3.0)
By Quenoteam; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Near the apartments, up a flight of stairs, is the Sala de Batallas, or the Room of Battles. It is a hallway with an arched ceiling, almost two hundred feet long. It takes its names from the gigantic and elaborate frescos depicting notable Spanish battles. Here we see charging cavalry, marching infantry, men fighting with pikes, guns, and swords; cities are besieged, ships attacked and sunk. The frescos, which are more figurative than realistic, are the handiwork of Niccolò Granello, an Italian painter who worked in Spain.

The room is a brilliant piece of propaganda, a monument to the military triumphs of Golden Age Spain. One scene depicts the Battle of La Higueruela, fought in 1431 between the forces of Juan II of Castile and the Muslim Nasrid dynasty. We also see the naval battle of Ponta Delgada, fought off the coast of the Azores islands between Spanish and French troops, in 1582. There are also numerous scenes from the Italian War of 1551, fought between Holy Roman Emperor (and Spanish king) Charles V and the French king Henry II. All of these battles were, of course, won by Spanish forces.

saladebatallas

After leaving this room, one enters a dark hallway that leads down a very forbidding set of stairs, deep into the basement of the building. At the bottom the visitor finds one of the most remarkable rooms in the whole country.

This is the Panteón de Reyes, or the Mausoleum of Kings. Here is buried nearly every king and queen of Spain since Charles V (Charles I of Spain), Philip II’s father. (The two exceptions to this are Philip V, who is buried in the palace at La Granja, and his son Ferdinand VI, who is buried in the Church of the Monastery of the Salesas Reales, in Madrid.)

800px-EscorialPanteo

The mausoleum is so extravagantly ornate that it is almost oppressive. Gold is everywhere, the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the window-panes, the columns, the angelic candle-holders, and the sarcophagi. These sarcophagi line the eight walls of the octagonal room from the floor to the ceiling, even above the door. They are made of dark Toledo marble and each has a gold plate on the front with the name inscribed.

For most of her history, Spain has followed the French tradition of only allowing male monarchs. The only exception to this is Isabel II (who reigned 1833 – 1868), whose accession to the throne caused a war, partly because of her sex. Thus, the women buried in this chamber are, for the most part, Queen consorts—the wives and mothers of kings. Another notable exception is Juan, Count of Barcelona, and his wife Maria de las Mercedes, whose remains will occupy the remaining two sarcophagi above the door. Though son of Alfonso XIII, Juan himself was prevented from ever becoming king by the Spanish Civil War, though his son did. What will be done with the remains of the Juan Carlos I (who is living, but has abdicated) and his wife Sofia, or current and future kings of Spain, has yet to be decided. It seems that Philip II did not anticipate the kingdom lasting this long.

Looking at the marble sarcophagi I wondered why all the monarchs of Spain were so short, since the tombs measure scarcely five feet. The answer to this puzzle is that the bodies are allowed to fully decompose before they are placed in the royal receptacle. This decaying is done is a special chamber called the pudridero, which lay somewhere deep in El Escorial. Only monks can visit these chambers, though presumably they do so infrequently, considering that it takes fifty years for bodies to fully decompose. This is where Juan, Count of Barcelona, and Maria de las Mercedes are now.

Few places in Spain, if any, contain such an overwhelming sense of history as this mausoleum. Some of the most powerful men and women in history lie here, dust and ashes. Rulers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century lay side by side, one atop the other.

Right next to this mausoleum is the Panteón de Infantes. The Infantes were the sons and daughters of monarchs who did not themselves become monarchs. There are six or seven different chambers, with sixty available spaces, of which thirty-seven are occupied. The most recent burial was in 1992, of Juan Carlos I brother Alfonso, who was shot in 1956 (he had been decomposing in the meantime; the Infantes have their own pudridero).

The most notable and impressive tomb in this mausoleum is that of John of Austria. He was the “natural” (read “illegitimate”) son of one of Carlos V. This Infante was one of the commanders of the Christian forces (composed of Spanish and Venetian galleys) against the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. (Miguel de Cervantes also served in this battle, in which he permanently lost the use of his left hand.) The commander’s tomb is excellent: John is laying down in death, his head resting on an exquisitely sculpted pillow, with a serenely peaceful and noble expression on his mustachioed face. He is dressed neck to toe in fine armor, and is holding a real metal sword.

The other tomb which impressed me was hardly a tomb at all, but an ornate mass grave. It was the collective coffin for the numerous sons and daughters of the king who had died before puberty. The tomb is a regular polygon with twenty sides and two levels, which makes for forty slots—forty young bodies. This richly decorated tomb, with the emblems of royalty painted on every side, is a monument to the advance of medical technology. For every Spanish parent nowadays is better off than were those kings and queens, buried in tombs of marble and gold, who could afford the best doctors money could buy and power could persuade.

Next I ascended another staircase and found myself in a large hallway with an arched ceiling, covered in ornamental painting. This is El Escorial’s art museum. Tastefully arranged throughout this hallway were paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, José de Ribera, Velazquez, Bosch, and El Greco—among others. Every one of these paintings has a religious theme. There were pictures of saints in the wilderness, contemplating crucifixes; of saints being martyred, a knife to their throat; of saints contemplating heaven, face upturned; of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and more. The famously pious Philip II was responsible for most of this collection.

Martirio_de_San_Mauricio_El_Greco

The highlight of the museum is likely El Greco’s Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, which Philip II apparently disliked since the painter relegated the scene of the actual martyrdom to the background.

The museum leads into the richly decorated cloister, with its walls decorated with brightly colored frescos of the life of Jesus. From here you can see the principle stairwell, whose ceiling is covered in a magnificent fresco of a heavenly scene.

Nearby is a room called the “old church,” though I admit I am not sure why. In any case, it is a bare room, the only decoration being a few paintings on the walls. The most notable of these is by Titian: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. According to tradition, St. Lawrence was killed by being roast alive on a gridiron; and while he was being killed, he supposedly called out to his torturers “I’m well done! Turn me over!” (This is part of the reason why he’s the patron saint of comedians.) Titian’s considerably grimmer version was first made at the behest of the Church of the Jesuits, in Venice. When he saw it Philip II liked it so much he asked the painter to make a copy, which still stands in the Escorial.

Titian_-_The_Martyrdom_of_St_Lawrence_-_WGA22822

Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo in Spanish) is obviously an important saint for El Escorial, he being its namesake. According to legend, the very floor-plan of the El Escorial monastery was based on the interlocking bars of a gridiron, in honor of St. Lawrence. This is untrue, apparently, though the floorplan is notably grid-like.

After seeing all this—which does not even constitute the half of the massive building—I still had not even broached the largest and grandest space in El Escorial: its central basilica.

It is as large as many cathedrals. The stone ceiling towers high overhead, covered in frescos that are difficult to clearly observe in the dim light from so far away. Paintings hang in little niches all throughout the space: including ones by Titian, Ribera, El Greco, and Zubarán. The main altar is an elegant piece that stands over 90 feet tall. False columns divided it into a dozen niches, in which are either paintings or sculptures. In the very center, below Jesus and the Virgin Mary, was another painting of St. Lawrence being burned, this one by Pellegrino Tibaldi. (The Titian painting was originally destined for this space, but it was too dark in the dim light of the basilica).

The most distinctive aspect of the basilica’s decoration are the statues flanking the main alter. These are shimmering golden sculptures of two royal families, knelt in prayer. To the left of the altar (as the viewer faces towards it) is Carlos V, his wife, and children; to the right is Philip II, two of his wives (not simultaneous), and a son. These sculptures are marvelously rich, each figure wearing finely detailed armor or ornate dress, each one draped in a cape or a robe—and the capes of the kings are painted with the royal insignia.

BasílicaElEscorialCrucifijo
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons (Author not shown)

And yet the most notable artistic work to be found in the cathedral is in a little chapel to the left of the door (again, facing towards the altar). Here you can find a life-sized, white marble crucifix sculpted by the famous Renaissance artist Benvenuti Cellini. It is here because it was given as a gift to Philip II by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The finely made crucifix is one of the few in the world that depicts Christ as fully nude; as such, it is displayed with a white clothe hanging around its waist.

After exiting the Basilica the visitor enters the Patio de los Reyes, or the Courtyard of the Kings, where one can see the basilica’s façade. The courtyard takes its name from the monumental statues of the Kings of Jerusalem, wielding scepters and wearing crowns of gold, who stand above the entrance. From here there is only one more stop on the itinerary: the Royal Library.

This was one of the greatest libraries of the Renaissance, whose presence here contradicts the dour and anti-intellectual reputation of Philip II’s Spain. Yet the choice to put the library here in the mountains, far from any established university, was not without its controversy. Whatever the library lacks in convenience to would-be scholars, however, it makes up with its beauty.

EscorialBiblioteca(Xauxa3.0)
Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Like the Sala de las Batallas, the main room of the library is rectangular, with a vaulted ceiling, stretching to well over 150 feet in length. The decorated barrel vault is undoubtedly the main attraction: for here we have a allegorical representation of the liberal arts: the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic), and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology), not to mention Philosophy and Theology. I particularly like the representation of Philosophy, since it shows the Muse convening with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca. Also to be found are Virgil, Livy, Cicero, Demosthenes, Euclid, and many other intellectual heroes of antiquity.

But it is a library, so there are also books to be found. There are no labels or explanatory plaques, so it is difficult for me to give an account of them. A fire destroyed some of the collection in 1671, and Napoleon’s troops carried off some more after they conquered Spain. (This, by the way, is why the National Gallery in London has a famous painting of Philip IV by Velazquez. It originally hung in this library, but Joseph Bonaparte snatched it, and the painting eventually made its way to England.) Paintings of Carlos V and Philip II still hang here; and the library still boasts an important collection of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and early Castilian manuscripts. Some of these volumes are opened, revealing the beautiful illustrations that accompany these hand-made books. In the center of the room runs a corridor, in which are displayed scientific and astronomical instruments. It is a veritable temple of learning.

From all this, I hope you can see why El Escorial is arguably the most extraordinary building in a country full of extraordinary buildings. It has the royal mausoleum, a historical library, a palace (actually two), a painting gallery, including several famous works, a massive basilica, and a monastery—and all of this contained within a single magnificent building. If you are like me, when you are finished you will have that museum-goers headache that one gets from trying to absorb too much information.

But once you exit the monastery there is still more to see. For the town of El Escorial itself is attractive. If you visit during Christmas you can see the town’s famous Belén (nativity) display in the main square. Every Christmas, the people erect life-sized plaster sculptures of the Virgin and Child, the three kings, as well as a whole scene with villagers, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and even an elephant and a giraffe. These sculptures are not incredible works of art, you understand, but they are a comical reminder that the very same culture which had given rise to the monastery lives on.

The town itself is built of the same stern granite as the monastery itself; and its twisting, steeply inclined streets are home to many fine restaurants. From the Parque Felipe II, near the bus stop, on a clear day you can see the foothills of the mountains spread out before you, with Madrid in the distance. There are also two excellent parks, the Park of the Casita del Principe and of the Casita del Infante, the latter of which offers a great view of the monastery. Every time I visit El Escorial I discover something new to appreciate. It is one of the jewels of Spain.

 

 

Climbing in Cotos

Climbing in Cotos

Round One

“I think that was the train,” I said to GF as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.

“Oh.”

“Maybe we should have ran for it.”

“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”

“Yeah.”

The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartín train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.

“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.

We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t come for another hour.

“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk. We gave up and went home.


One week later: Round Two.

This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.

The ride to Cercedilla lasts a little more than an hour. This was two years ago, shortly after arriving in Spain, and so it was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid. Most striking, for me, was how parched is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.

Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. I have since gone back to Cercedilla a few times. It is an attractive town, popular as a cool getaway during the hot summer months; it sits up in the Madrid Sierra, not far from El Escorial and Rascafría. There are some very pretty hiking trails immediately outside the city.

But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt GF tugging on my arm.

“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.

“Dunno.”

“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”

“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just got off.

“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.

Three minutes later we were sitting on a quaint old wooden train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other.

The train creaked into motion. Immediately we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.

Guadarrama_pine

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie, the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us.

The train to Cotos makes only one stop on the way there, at Navacerrada, which is a small town that mainly serves as a base for hikers and campers. Along with Cercedilla, it is also one of the stops along the Camino de Santiago from Madrid.

Finally the train reached Cotos. Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.

“Man!” I said. “It’s freezing here!”

“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”

“No.”

“You only brought your t-shirt?”

“Yeah…”

“What were you thinking?!”

“But it was warm in Madrid!”

We wandered around, noticing that we had wandered into a national park. But the cold was overwhelming. I tried to warm myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing around, but it was al in vain.

“We really have to go,” I finally said to GF. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”

“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”

“Ugh!”

And so, thanks to a small but very stupid choice on my part, we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.


Two months later: Round Three

We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat. In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.

Once again, we took the train from Chamartín; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.

But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—which, in Spain, is not the flour-based wrap of Mexican cuisine. A Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes, cooked in the shape of a thick cake and cut into slices. They are gooey, hearty, and delicious—easily one of my favorite Spanish dishes. But I found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin. (Nowadays I eat tortilla with bread every day, and I haven’t gained a pound.)

This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.

“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”

“Really? I feel fine,” GF said.

“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”

“Just relax.”

I felt strangely winded, perhaps from the altitude, but more probably it was all in my head. Yet I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.

We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range, otherwise known as the Madrid Sierra. These are the mountains that bound Madrid’s northern edge, separating the province from Segovia, and which provide some of the best hiking and most picturesque sights in the country. Peñalara itself rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.

Penalara1.jpg

It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over the peaks.

Soon the trees had all but disappeared. The only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud.

Guadarrama_mountains

We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. This is the Refugio Zabala, an open refuge that was built in 1927 by the members of the Guadarrama Society. The door is always open and unmonitored, though two people could hardly fit in the available space (the rest of the building is taken up by material storage and weather-monitoring equipment).

penalara_hut

We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.

“Hey hold on,” I said to GF. “I want to take a picture.”

“Okay.”

“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”

So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.

wanderer_collage

We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears.

Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now. Some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter: we made it.

penalara_peak
The peak of Peñalara

We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.

But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?

My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.

Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment?

Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost.

“Want a carrot?” GF asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.

“Oh, thanks.”

I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.

penalara_horses
When I visited another day, I improbably found horses grazing near the peak

We had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.

Difficult Day Trips: Rascafría

Difficult Day Trips: Rascafría

(Continued from my post on Consuegra.)

The most famous monastery in the community of Madrid is, undoubtedly and deservedly, El Escorial—the grandest monastery in the country. Though impressive, El Escorial is, however, no longer a working monastery. (I have since found out that this is not true, and there are still monks there.) Indeed, its primary function was never to be a home for monks, but a seat of power. To see a proper monastery without leaving the bounds of Madrid, one can go to Las Descalzas or La Encarnación, two historic and lovely monasteries in the center.

More impressive than either of these, however, is El Paular, which is located near a small village, Rascafría, in the Madrid mountains. Getting there on public transportation is not easy, especially on the weekend. Bus 194 leaves the Plaza de Castilla every Sunday at 8 am. The trip lasts well over two hours, mostly because the indirect route travels over local roads, making frequent stops. And since the only viable return bus leaves Rascafría at 6:30 pm, going there is an all-day commitment. (Admittedly there is a return bus at 3:00 pm, but if you visit the monastery and take the tour you won’t make it.)

Let me pause here for a linguistic lesson. When we wish to make a compound word out of a noun and a verb in English, we normally put the noun first and add “-er” to the verb. Thus we get “skyscraper.” Spanish follows the opposite procedure, with the verb first and the noun second, which is plural. The word for “skyscraper” in Spanish is rascacielos (lit. “scrape skies”). Learning this principle was invaluable to me, since it makes trips to hardware stores infinitely easier. Can-opener is abrelatas and pencil-sharpener is sacapuntas. At first glance the toponym Rascafría follows this principle, rasca being from “scrape” (although “fría” as a noun isn’t known to me). This appearance is entirely illusory, it seems, since the name derives from rocas frías, or cold rocks.

The bus deposited me in this cold and rocky place at around 10:30 in the morning, on a chilly November day. The walk to the monastery took about twenty minutes. I arrived in time to be there when the gates opened at 11:00. Before going inside, I retreated a little from the entrance so as to see the monastery amid its surroundings. The best place to see El Paular is from the Puente del Perdón, a picturesque stone bridge (built in the 1700s) that runs over the river Lozoya. From here you can see the monastery’s tall spire presiding over a square building, adjoining a series of domes and semi-domes on the right. With the looming mountains serving as a backdrop, the monastery is quite a quaint sight.

elpaular

El Paular was founded around the year 1390 as a Carthusian monastery, a purpose which it served until, in 1835, like so many monasteries in Spain, it was confiscated by the state. Bereft of purpose, the monastery suffered the effects of time and neglect. In the twentieth century there was an ineffectual attempt to incorporate it into the national park of the Guadarrama Mountains. Later on, the monastery was converted into a sort of artist residence for landscape painters—a task for which, due to its surroundings, the monastery was admirably well-suited. Finally, in 1954, the monastery became, once again, a monastery, this time for the Benedictine order; and it remains so to this day.

I paid the entrance and went inside. They were having mass in the church when I entered, so I proceeded directly to the cloister. Here I discovered an unexpected delight. Lining the walls of the cloister is a series of 52 oil paintings by Vicente Carducho, a contemporary of Diego Velazquez. These paintings tell the story of the Carthusian Order from its founding to the present day. Thus the series begins with the Carthusian founder, St. Bruno, and ends with the closure of the monasteries during the English Reformation. Individually, these paintings are masterful works of Golden Age realism, telling stories of miracles, martyrs, and myths with a dynamic flair worthy of Carducho’s friend, Lope de Vega. (Indeed, the two of them can be seen in one of the paintings.) But together they have a cumulative effect that goes far beyond their technical merits.

Paular_Carducho
Lope de Vega is the grey, bearded man on the left; Carducho himself is immediately to the right of the writer.

And we must count ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to see the series all together, since after the monastery’s 1835 confiscation the paintings were acquired by the Prado, and for many years were loaned out to various museums around the country. During this time two of the paintings were lost (there were originally 54) in the confusion of the Spanish Civil War. It was only in 2006 that they were restored and finally reunited in their original home.

paular_cloister

Once I finished appreciating the paintings—which took the better part of an hour—I wandered over the entrance of the church for the scheduled tour. Mass soon finished; and about a dozen people, mostly elderly, shuffled out of the elaborately decorated church door. A short, rotund man wearing a monk’s habit—a plain dark robe in this case—appeared and shepherded us inside. The church itself is a plain, clean, white space, mostly devoid of elaborate decoration. The exception to this is the magnificent main altar, which contains 17 Biblical scenes in finely detailed alabaster.

Paular_Retablo.jpg

In a jovial and bouncing voice, the monk explained all about the monastery and its history. Then we moved further into the monastery, passing through the vestry and the chapter house, while the monk rapidly rattled off the dates, styles, and provenance of the art work to be seen. Finally we reached the Capilla del Sagrario, or the Chapel of the Sanctuary.

This chapel is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of Baroque art to be found in Spain. The colors are regal and soothing: silver, pink, and sky blue. Every surface is covered with extremely intimate ornament, in a style the monk called “Churrigueresque,” a Baroque manner of decoration native to Spain. Floral designs squirmed up the walls; silver curled and bloomed; columns twisted and angels burst from walls. The chapel comprises several separate nooks, each one dedicated to a different saint. In the central chamber a hexagonal tabernacle rises up several meters off the ground, constructed of colored marble taken from all over Spain. It is an extraordinary work. Even the floor is impressive, made from interlocking triplets of diamonds that, together, form the image of a cube.

Sagrio_collage

The monk then led us to the refectory, where the monks eat their meals in silence, while somebody reads scripture aloud. Finally we reached the church and concluded the tour.

I now had about three hours to kill before my bus left back to Madrid. Thankfully, aside from the monastery, Rascafría is itself a lovely place. Madrid’s northern mountains provide some of the best hiking in the country. Rascafría is no exception to this. Even on this chilly winter day the place was full of men, women, and children in windbreakers carrying pointed walking sticks. I joined them, crossing the Puende del Perdón and turning to walk alongside the river Lozoya. Unknowingly I had entered the Bosque finlandes, or the Finnish Forest, an attractive natural park formed by importing trees and vegetation from that Scandinavian country. Though at the time I did not know this, I did notice that the trees were strikingly tall and straight.

Rascafria_Finnishforest

I walked on, passing by ruined farms, masticating cows, and once again over the shallow river. Eventually I came upon a sign about the local trails. There was a short caption about an old legend pertinent to the area, which told of a beautiful Moorish girl who fell in love with a young man, and every day washed her face in the river while waiting his return (from where, it didn’t say). It is said that she waits still in a cave somewhere. Well, I certainly did not find any beautiful enchanted lasses, Moorish or otherwise, on my walk; but I did take some nice pictures of the scenery. Eventually I wandered onto the route of the Cascada del Purgatorio (everything seems to have a religious name in Spain), named after a nearby waterfall that the hiker can visit.

As the hour of my departure neared, I went back to the town to eat something. Though small, Rascafría is itself a charming sight, with the Artiñuelo Stream passing its center. There are also many attractive restaurants, though they are strangely expensive, due to the many visitors of the trails and the monastery, I suppose. I ate a delicious chocolate cake with raspberry dressing and then got on the bus, to doze during the long ride back to Madrid.

rascafria_reflection

The Palace of San Ildefonso de La Granja

The Palace of San Ildefonso de La Granja

In Hemingway’s book, Death in the Afternoon, he mentions his favorite things to see in Madrid:

“But when you have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.”

All of these places I had seen, except La Granja. Naturally I had to go.

The Palace of La Granja is found in the town of San Ildefonso, in the province of Segovia, near the Guadarrama mountains. From Madrid, there isn’t a direct way to get there on public transportation. First we took a train to Segovia; from the train station we took a bus to the city’s central bus station, and from there you can take a bus to La Granja. The whole process takes well over two hours.

We went straight to the palace. When seen from the direction of the town, it is not stunning. Its main distinguishing feature is a large cupola that towers above everything else in the town. I suppose the kings who lived here were not especially concerned with awing the few citizens of the town; rather, this palace was originally a kind of royal retreat, where the kings spent their summers to go hunting in the forests nearby.

Granja Trees

The palace itself dates from the 1720s, under the reign of the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty, Philip V, after the chaos of the War of Spanish Succession. The war ended with a French family on the Spanish throne, and thus this palace bears the mark of French taste. Specifically, it is modeled on the palace of Versailles, built by Philip V’s grandfather, Louis XIV. Like its forebear, La Granja even has its own splendid French gardens, of which we will see more later.

Our visit began with a museum of tapestries. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of tapestries in Spain, and normally I do not find them terribly interesting. But these were magnificent. The palace had tapestries dating back to the reign of the Catholic Monarchs (the late 15th century). But the most impressive were made during the time of Charles V. They were massive, well over 12 feet tall. The surfaces were covered with elaborate, allegorical scenes, with damsels and knights, sages and demons, each personifying a virtue or a vice. There were also mythological beasts and historical figures woven into the panoply of images. There was Hercules holding up the heavens, and a representation of Boethius’s Wheel of Fortune, as well as Plato, Seneca, and Solomon the Wise. I wish photos were allowed.

Then we went into the palace proper. The first room had portraits of Philip V and his family, all of them bedecked in frilly outfits and white wigs, all of them smiling gaily. Their smile reminded me of Kenneth Clarke’s episode on the French Enlightenment, in his marvelous documentary, Civilisation. It is an ironical, bemused, dispassionate smile, a smile that Clarke dubbed the “smile of reason.” This was, after all, the Enlightenment.

As usual in palaces, the rooms were beautifully furnished: still-lifes, portraits, and religious paintings hung on the walls; delicately carved and upholstered chairs stood awaiting the royal bottoms (which, alas, do not appear nowadays); and elaborate chandeliers hung in every room. Each ceiling was covered in a large painting, usually of a mythological scene amid a heavenly background.

When I walk through the former abodes of the ultra-wealthy, I tend to feel a little queasy. It all seems so frivolous and so profligate. Nobody should be this rich. Palaces are not warm, welcoming places; they crush you under the weight of all their finery and splendor. I cannot imagine that living in a palace has a positive effect on your psychology. Every single piece of furniture, every clock and candelabra, bespeaks wealth and power. And how do you keep your head and govern a country when your entire world is a never-ending chant to yourself? How do you manage a kingdom when you live in a world apart?

Nevertheless, the royal apartments in La Granja were so tastefully decorated that my usual misgivings about palaces didn’t bother me. We walked through the bedrooms, dressing rooms, the study, the banquet hall, and then went down the stairs to the ground floor. By comparison, this floor was quite empty. The most lovely thing to be seen is a beautiful fountain full of bronze figures, with a backdrop made from seashells. Other than that, however, the ground floor is full of neo-classical statues. These were of very poor quality, I thought—bland and lifeless.

But it wasn’t long until we went through the entire floor and had gone outside to visit the gardens. Now this was the real palace. The gardens of La Granja are massive; indeed, judging from the map, the gardens are bigger than the whole town of San Ildefonso! For the most part, they consist of long, straight avenues lined with trees and bushes that connect several plazas; and in each of these plazas is a fountain. The fountains are the most impressive part, even when they are turned off (as they were during our visit). The most eye-catching is the long, terraced fountain that runs down a hill next to the palace; small statues line the walkway on both sides, and at the top are more statues in bronze. From here you can see the palace at its most impressive. Clearly, this is the facade that was meant to be seen.

Granja Palace

Philip V must have felt quite smug with himself after having these gardens built; they represent the dominance of French royalty over Spanish affairs. But I did not feel even an inkling of the splendor that the gardens were supposed to represent. Rather, the place was cold and empty. The trees were still bare; a chilly breeze blew threw the gardens; the snow-covered peaks of the Guadarrama stood in the distance; and the fountains sat amid this wintry landscape, dry and silent. 

IMG_3417

From an anthropological perspective, I thought the gardens embodied certain unmistakable ideals of the Enlightenment: orderly rows of hedges, straight paths, circular plazas, Greco-Roman sculptures. It is easy to imagine Philip V strolling through with his ironical smile and white wig, admiring his taste and power. The garden was planned like a city, with main avenues and connecting streets. There is no Romantic love for untamed nature, no mystical communion with the chaotic. Nature is domesticated, ordered, disciplined, brought into line with the dictates of reason. The result is impressive, but it lacked what I most crave from parks: life.

IMG_3406

We strolled around for about half an hour, and then we left. It was lunch time. I was really excited for this, because the last time I visited Segovia I had some excellent food. We had one meal in mind, the two classic dishes of Segovia: Judiones de la Granja and Cochinillo. The first is a bean stew, and the second is roast suckling pig. They are so popular that almost every restaurant offers a daily special with the two dishes, the first as an appetizer and the second as the main course. The problem is that it’s expensive. We walked around for about twenty minutes, comparing prices, before settling on one restaurant with decent prices and full with clients. (If a restaurant is full of Spaniards eating, it’s probably pretty good.)

Luckily there were seats. We ordered the special, and waited with stomachs grumbling and mouths watering. First came the Judiones. Judiones are big and tender white beans, grown locally. They are served in a stew, along with chorizo, pancetta, and morcilla (blood sausage), a combination that gives it a distinctive smoky, peppery flavor. We finished the stew, mopping up the last of the sauce with our bread. Then came the cochinillo, a huge hunk of meat served over a bed of fries. The skin was crispy, the meat was tender and juicy, and everything tasted of savory oil. I enjoyed it so much my hair stood on end. I stuffed myself and then sat back with a satisfied sigh. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had here.

Because of the bus schedule, we had about an hour and a half to kill before the next bus to Segovia. Luckily, we happened upon the perfect solution: the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja. Originally it was a factory established by Philip V to make glass products for the La Granja palace. Nowadays it’s not a factory anymore, but a museum dedicated to all things glass.

Granja Glass Factory

Most surprising was simply the museum’s size. It has everything. Inside you can find historical examples of the machines used in glass manufacturing—massive metal contraptions that I did not understand. There were also fine examples of stained glass, bottles and jugs stretching back centuries, and an entire wing dedicated to modern practitioners of the art of glassblowing, with some really spectacular examples. But coolest of all, they had two (somewhat unenthusiastic) glassblowers giving demonstrations. The nonchalance with which the glassblower stuck the rod into a fiery furnace and then turned in the red-hot mass into a lovely vase was remarkable.

IMG_3433.jpg

Indeed, the museum had so much that I wished I could have spent more time inside looking around. But, alas, the bus was coming. We left, took the bus back to Segovia, and then the train back to Madrid.

Day Trips from Madrid: Manzanares el Real

Day Trips from Madrid: Manzanares el Real

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.

Manzanares Side

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.

IMG_2238

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.

IMG_2243

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.

IMG_2255

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.

Manzanares Castle

Day Trips from Madrid: Ávila

Day Trips from Madrid: Ávila

Early in the morning, we took a train from Madrid to this splendid city. Ávila is the capital of its eponymous province. The city sits in the south of the autonomous region of Castilla y León, and houses a population of 60,000. Of course, I didn’t know a thing about the place when I booked the trip, but by now I’m sure you’ve come to expect that.

The train ride was stunningly lovely—certainly one of the most beautiful, and least expensive, in Spain. The train made its way northwest of Madrid, passing town after town until we got to Escorial. The monastery looked inconceivably majestic in its perch among the mountains, a brooding symbol of Spanish authority.

By now we were in the Guadarrama mountains. Through the window I could see valleys far below us, green but nearly treeless. In the distance the rising sun hung above the horizon, glaring yellow. Underneath was a sea of fog sitting at ground level. Occasionally a derelict farmhouse or a stone fence could be seen, and once or twice I spotted a few cows looking tiny and delicate in the valleys below—but for the most part the view was unmarked by human habitation. We passed through several tunnels, and eventually a city could be seen up ahead, which grew nearer and nearer until the train slowed to a stop.

We were in Ávila. We walked out of the station and into the city center, and in just five minutes we were face to face with the one of the gates of the city walls. It was an impressive sight: two towers flanked the door, two rows of battlements above.

I imagined what it would have been like to be the poor soldier trying to break in these walls. Arrows, stones, and spears would rain down soon as you came near—death from above. It would be a pretty wretched day. I wonder how generals went about conquering places so well-fortified? The only safe way seems to be a siege: starve them out, rather than risk a confrontation. Then I tried imagining what it would be like to be an average citizen, stuck inside a besieged town, watching the supply of grain and fresh water gradually dwindle. War is hell for soldiers and bystanders both.

We walked around the wall until we found the entrance to climb up. A few euros exchanged hands, and soon we were standing on the walls of Ávila. They are impressively well-preserved. To my eye it seemed that they could’ve been built just last week; I saw no signs of damage or wear. But according to Wikipedia, they were constructed from the 11th to the 14th centuries. The walls are thick and tall, and seem strong enough to withstand even a cannonball—not that I’d know. We walked and walked, circumnavigating half the town. Red-thatched roofs of houses stood in the foreground, while in the background, far away, thin white clouds hovered over the mountains.

GF absolutely loved the walls. She smiled like a five year old at an amusement park as she peered through the battlements, her hair waving in the wind. I was in a bad mood again: I was hungry. I absolutely hate being hungry. I’m ashamed to say this, because it underscores how easy and prosperous my life has been, but I feel acutely miserable if I wait too long between breakfast and lunch. I get so sour that even the most interesting and joyful experiences seem dreadful.

So as soon as we had walked the kilometer of wall from start to finish, and climbed up and down our fair share of stairs, we headed to a restaurant. And for whatever reason, I decided that we would go to the top-rated restaurant in the city: El Restaurante Bococo.

We sat down for the menú del día—which was a bit pricey, but not overly so. Little did I know what awaited me.

First the wine. Two orders of the menú came with a bottle of wine included; and since GF can’t drink (it’s genetic), it was up to me to drink all of it. Granted, we didn’t have to order it in the first place; but I’ll be damned if I pass up a free bottle of wine. We didn’t have all day, so I had to drink pretty quickly. Bottoms up.

Then the food. As usual, I nibbled on the bread as soon as it was brought out. Normally, the portions in Spain aren’t that big (for an American) so I don’t worry about filling up my stomach a bit. But I knew I was in trouble when our first dishes were brought out. Each of them was big enough to share. After eating both—a soup with pork, sausage and beans, and fried eggs with pieces of foie gras over potatoes—I was comfortably full.

Then our main dishes arrived. We had both ordered steaks, and they were massive. I was determined not to let any of the food go to waste, so I started determinedly stuffing piece after piece down my throat, hoping to outrace the signals of distress emanating from my stomach. Steak, wine, steak, wine, until my stomach felt like it would burst. Then, I ate some more.

By the time all the food and wine was done, I was in misery. I stood up to go, and I was so full of food and wine that I could hardly suppress my groans as I shuffled across the room and out the door. I pride myself in being an atypical American, but in this respect I am as American as can be. Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island, put it best:

To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one’s mouth more or less continually. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.

But I had to pay a price for this pleasure, since the rest of the day I could hardly move or think.

Still, though I was in pain, I was agreeably buzzed. This made the Cathedral of Ávila particularly moving for me. It’s a Romanesque church, built around the same time as the walls. In fact, the cathedral was built into walls, making it a fortification as well as a house of God. The cathedral itself has a square, imposing, massive quality. Its plain grey façade is hardly enlivened by decoration.

Avila North Door

I found the gothic north door of the cathedral particularly impressive. As in many cathedrals, the doorway is surrounded by concentric arches, which are filled with figures. Long, drawn-out statues of saints sit below, each of them dressed in a robe; and above, within the arches, tiny seated and standing figures fly over you like little angels. In the center, above the door, is the Last Judgment. At this time, Jesus wasn’t conceived as the joyful, forgiving, kindhearted father figure he is today; rather, he was a powerful and vengeful deity who condemns sinners to the fire.

Another doorway was more Romanesque. Above its rounded arch floral motifs abounded. The door is flanked by two soldiers, their bodies covered in what look like fish scales, wielding shields and clubs. Statues of lions were seated on platforms to the right and left. Above the door, the window was divided into pretty swirling patterns. In a third doorway, also Romanesque, smiling demons seem to pop out of the stone, along with two curious cows heads. The Romanesque seems to have been more playful than the Gothic.

Avila Cathedral Frieze

We walked inside. I was trying my best to be alert and focused, but the wine was having its effect. I kept zoning out as I walked around the cathedral, and didn’t get the proper experience. Still, I remember being very impressed by the carvings in high-relief behind the main altar. They represented scenes of intense drama. I remember one in particular that depicted what appear to be Roman soldiers massacring women and children. Their swords are drawn, and several are stabbing or slashing down at women on the ground, whose hands are uselessly raised in defense, their faces contorted in terror. It’s a gruesome scene; and the craftsmanship is superb.

Basilica de San Vicente
Basílica de San Vicente

The rest is a blur, however, and the next thing I knew I was being whisked off to the Basílica de San Vicente. This basilica is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in the country. According to legend, it was built on the site where three young siblings were martyred during Roman times.

San Vicente Door

More bizarre figures stand on the capitols of the columns flanking the door—sphinxes this time; and more floral, swirling designs filled the stone. On the inside, right before the altar, is a massive, elaborate cenotaph to the three martyrs, covered in painted carvings that narrate their lives from beginning to end. I was deeply impressed. But this is the only thing that stuck in my befuddled mind, and soon we had to go.

In fact, we had run out of time. We’d spent so long at the restaurant stuffing ourselves that we gave ourselves only a few hours before our train back to Madrid. So, with much reluctance, we pulled ourselves away, passed again under the main gate of the city, and headed towards the station.

We trekked up a hill and got on the train with only a couple minutes to spare. I planned to read, but fell into a deep doze as soon as I sat down. And so my drunken body was conveyed to Madrid.


Avila Distance

Addendum: In a later trip to Ávila, I managed to investigate some sites that I missed on my first pass through.

One of the most iconic sites of Ávila are Los Cuatro Postes, the Four Posts. This is a humilladero, or a religious sign marking the entrance to a city. The marker itself is extremely simple: just a cross standing within four posts. But the view from of the city from this spot is excellent (see the photo above). Multiple tourist buses were parked nearby, so their passengers could get out and snap a picture.

Cuatro Postes

As I walked back to the city, crossing the bridge you can see in the foreground above, I found a nice walking path that runs along the river Adaja. There is also a lovely path that goes alongside the walls on the other side of the city, giving you an unimpeded view of the country beyond.

The most famous person from Avila is, without doubt, St. Teresa, the religious mystic who helped to galvanize the Spanish Counter-Reformation. She is the subject of Bernini’s iconic, and scandolously erotic, sculpture in Rome. After her death, a convent was built in her honor, supposedly over the very spot where she was born. This is the Convento de Santa Teresa de Ávila. Out front is a compelling statue of the Saint, pen in hand, eyes uplifted to heaven. Inside, you can find a shrine dedicated to her, as well as a re-creation of her infant bedroom.

St Teresa
Convento de Santa Teresa

Situated outside the city walls is the Real Monasterio de Santo Tomás, a gothic monastery that was founded under the reign of the Catholic Monarchs. The monastery is home to several excellent cloisters and an impressive church. Somewhat more strangely, the monastery also contains two miniature museums, one of natural history and one of Asian art. The natural history “museum” is especially odd, since it consists of little more than the stuffed and preserved carcasses of several animals, sitting behind class cases in a few little rooms. I assume that this taxidermy was performed a long time ago, when the clergy was still the leading intellectual force in the country. The museum of Asian art is, by contrast, quite nice, containing excellent samples of sculpture from many different countries.

Monastery of Santo Tomas
Monasterio de Santo Tomas

Ávila is certainly one of the most romantic cities in Spain, and easily one of the best day trips from Madrid. Just don’t eat or drink too much.

Day Trips from Madrid: Aranjuez

Day Trips from Madrid: Aranjuez

(As I mention in this melodramatic post, I happened to visit Aranjuez on an inopportune day. I have subsequently visited many times; and now I think it is one of the nicest day trips from Madrid. For more, see my addendum at the end of this post.)

“Oh God, not again! Why can’t we get anything right?”

We were standing in front of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. It was big but not imposing, perhaps because of its playful pink color. The building’s two wings seemed to stretch toward us like a man reaching for a hug. On the top of the building the Spanish flag was fitfully blowing in the wind.

“Why!?” I whined. “We managed to come the only day that it’s closed! Why didn’t I just check the hours? This always happens!”

It was Monday, the only day of the week that the palace isn’t open for visits. We’d just taken the train from Atocha station in Madrid. It was the day after our trip to Chinchón, and the weather was still gloomy and overcast. I wasn’t in a good mood.

“Shut up,” GF said. “It’s not a big deal.”

We began walking around, somewhat aimlessly. In the area surroundings the palace there is a lot of monumental architecture, with large open courtyards surrounded by stone walls. Rounded archways run along nearly every surface, which, along with the reddish color, gives the complex a unified aesthetic. But I wasn’t in the mood for appreciating architecture.

“We’ve been in this country for months,” I said. “And still we mess up even these basic things.”

“It’s not a big deal,” GF said.

By now we were standing in front of the Iglesia Real de San Antonio, the church that forms part of the palace complex, and I was still sulking.

“This sucks,” I said.

“Come on,” GF said. “Let’s go eat.”

We walked into town, found a restaurant, and sat down. The food was surprisingly good, and also cheap. By the time I finished, I was in a considerably better mood. And in that spirit, we went off to see the gardens.

It was a miserable day for this. The trees were bare and skeletal; the flowers were nowhere to be seen; the place was empty and desolate. The wind was blowing freezing air, the endless gray clouds cast a dreary shadow over everything, and in general the world looked bleak.

The only light relief from this brooding picture were the geese. At least I think they were geese, though they didn’t look much like the Canadian geese I’m used to. There were dozens of them sitting in the river. And as we passed by a few geese wandering around the park, they began honking at each other. It was a comical sight. It looked like they were having a petty argument, and perhaps they were.

With nothing much to interest me, my mind began to wander. I had just begun watching Kenneth Clark’s landmark television documentary, Civilisation; and that program had brought to the fore a question I’d long thought about.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” I said. “It’s supposed to be good for you in some way to travel to all these famous monuments. You see these beautiful buildings and paintings, and ostensibly the experience ennobles you. But how, specifically does that work? How does it improve people to appreciate fine architecture, for example?”

“Uh, well it’s historically significant,” GF said, “and it’s important for people to understand history.”

“That’s true. But it seems that it’s something more than just history. After all, you could just read a history book. Why do people spend all this money to visit places so they can see fine architecture?”

“Because it’s nice to look at?”

“I guess. But lots of things are nice to look at. Lots of models, for example, are nice to look at, but not many people think looking at celebrities makes them ‘cultured’.”

“Right…”

“And of course, seeing beautiful art doesn’t necessarily do anything for you. If somebody is naturally uninterested in or insensitive to fine art, he won’t be improved no matter how many museums you force him through.”

“Okay…”

By now she had completely zoned out and I was talking to myself. I gave up and started turning over the question in my mind. But I didn’t make any progress, and soon my mind was someplace else.

We kept going, crossed a bridge, and found ourselves walking along a road lined with sycamore trees, their overhanging branches leafless and emaciated. To our left and right were fields of farmland—empty.

More than anything else I’ve seen in Spain, this wintry and desolate landscape reminded me of home. I felt like I was in upstate New York, taking a wintertime stroll. The wind whipped up and send a chill to my bones.

A wave of homesickness came over me as I walked. What am I doing here? Where am I headed? I didn’t know. What is my mom doing? And my brother? What’s happening with my friends? Didn’t know, either. What will happen next year? What will I do when I get back home? And when will that be? How will I be changed? And how will home be changed?

The road extended into the distance, empty and dreary. And as I looked down that road, I could imagine nothing but sadness ahead of me. This sadness wasn’t just for myself. I was seized by that tender, reflective melancholy—what Virgil calls lacrimae rerum, or “the tears of things”—when you realize that the universe is indifferent to your happiness, that all pleasure is temporary, that death is permanent, and that all your hopes and dreams, and those of the people you love, might come to nothing. It’s the realization—so painful we do our best to forget it—that tragedy is an inevitable part of life. And though this fact is unbearably sad, it is the source of beauty; for beauty is so precious because, like all things, it is doomed to pass away.

In this pensive state of mind, perhaps just a result of the weather and the new year, we walked down the long road, turned a corner, and kept on going. We talked about our plans for next year, and expressed anxiety about how we’d cope if we had to go long distance. And then we fell into silence as the leaves crunched underneath our feet and the light leaked out of the sky, and we said little as we dragged our weary feet to the train and left.


Aranjuez Palace

Addendum: The city of Aranjuez is located south of Madrid, easily accessible via the Cercanías trains. Situated at a lower altitude than Madrid, and at the confluence of two rivers, the Tajo and the Jarama, Aranjuéz is a verdant place. Trees grow notably taller here than in Madrid, and the city is also famous for its fields of strawberries and asparagus. These picturesque fields inspired the composer Joaquín Rodrigo to write his famous Concierto de Aranjuez, one of Spain’s most iconic musical works. 

In the spring and summer, an antique train takes visitors from Príncipe Pío in Madrid to Aranjuez, traveling through the lush surrounding countryside. This is the Tren de la Fresa, or Strawberry Train, and is one of the first train lines ever opened in Madrid.

Aranjuez is most notable for its palace, which was commissioned under the reign of Philip II, and designed by the same architect who designed the Escorial, Juan Bautista de Toledo. Judged from either its exterior or interior, the palace is magnificent, one of the finest in Spain. Unlike so many palaces, the outside of the building manages to be grandiose without opulence. The same cannot be said for its interior decorations, however, which are certainly palatial.

IMG_6174

Next to the palace is the Plaza and the Church of San Antonio, an extension of the palace complex. A big open square surrounded by brick arches, the plaza leads to the lovely baroque Church, which was built to be used by the monarchs. 

IMG_6152

Even more charming than the palace are the surrounding gardens. These are divided into multiple, interconnected sections, each of which has its own character. The royal gardens are arguably the finest in Spain, more varied and inviting than the comparatively sterile ones of La Granja, especially considering the Tajo River which flows through the center. It is also worth exploring the surrounding farmland of Aranjuez, which competes even with the gardens for bucolic splendor.

The town of Aranjuez itself is notable for its grid-like street layout, a consequence of its royal planning. There are some excellent restraurants to be found here, such as De Pikoteo. In sum, it makes for a first-rate day trip—just don’t go on a Monday in winter. 

IMG_6178

Day Trips from Madrid: Chinchón

Day Trips from Madrid: Chinchón

(This post is a continuation of my series on Day Trips: Click here for my post on Alcalá de Henares.)

“Just once, I’d like to begin a blog post without our travel troubles!” I said to GF as we walked around, confused and lost, looking for the bus to Chinchón. We’d just walked fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, and were heading back to the metro station now.

“Shut up,” she said. “I have it here on my phone.”

Indeed she did; and we were soon standing by the appropriate bus station near Conde de Casal, waiting to go to Chinchón.

Chinchón is a small town—its population is about 5,000—just south of Madrid. It isn’t the home of any big castles or cathedrals; it isn’t the place to take the best photos or hear the best music. Rather, Chinchón is a place to sit and eat, and that’s what we planned to do.

After an hour on the bus, we arrived. Immediately we headed for the plaza mayor, the most famous place in the town, a five minute walk from the bus stop.

This was the first week of January. We had this week off for Tres Reyes, the Spanish holiday celebrating the three wise men who visited infant Jesus. Instead of giving presents on Christmas, this is the day when most gifts are exchanged. And lucky for us, the combination of Christmas, New Year’s, and Tres Reyes makes for a long, long holiday.

We’d just gotten back from our Christmas trip to Andalusia, and were thirsting to see more of Spain. Unfortunately, Madrid and its environs are a good deal colder than the south of Spain. We were freezing. Added to this, the weather was awful that day, overcast, windy, with a bit of rain. It was the kind of dull, dreary weather than can make the Taj Mahal look dreadful.

But the plaza mayor of Chinchón didn’t look dreadful at all. It looked positively cute. Identical white buildings with green balconies and tiled roofs surrounded a circular area in the center. This center was filled with sand. A few guys were selling donkey rides to kids, leading a long train of donkeys with excited children bouncing on top of them around the square, while their parents walked cautiously beside. A plastic Christmas tree decoration sat in the exact center. Every building had a restaurant or two, which was good because we were already quite hungry.

IMG_1384

Being a man of this modern age, I looked on my phone for the restaurant with the highest rating: it was called La Villa. Of course it was expensive (for a Spanish restaurant). But it was the new year, and we felt like living high.

I’m glad to report that I absolutely stuffed myself, and then ate some more. The house red wine was also just fantastic, dangerously so, for I drank too much of it. After I ate and drank my fill, we ordered dessert—also great—and then asked for the check. This came with two complementary shots of Chinchón, which is the local liquor, apparently. Since my girlfriend can’t drink, I had to have both shots. It was strong, I tell you, and had a subtle liquorish flavor, a bit like Jägermeister. As we walked out, we noticed a bunch of black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls. Closer inspection revealed that they were of bull fights in the plaza mayor of Chinchón. Apparently, it was originally a bullring, which explains its symmetrical layout.

After this, there’s not much to tell. Stomachs painfully full, we waddled around town a bit. We found a castle, ruined and empty, which we couldn’t enter. There were several churches, closed to visitors. And then there was a view of the countryside beyond, rendered a bit dour by the weather. An hour later we were waiting at the bus stop with a bunch of chatting old ladies, and an hour after that we were sitting at home, drowsy, relaxed, ready for our next trip.


IMG_1391
The Castle of Chinchón

AddendumFor any visitors of Madrid looking for a day trip to see a beautiful Spanish pueblo, Chinchón is perhaps the best choice. Small, intimate, easily accessible, and one of the most charming pueblos in the country, Chinchón is also famous for its gastronomy.

The liquor I mentioned above is Anís, which is simply referred to as “Chinchón” in Spanish, since this little town has long been the leading manufacturer of the drink. Chinchón is also famous for its pastries; its signature pastry has been appropriately compared to a breast, complete with a nipple on top.

The castle I mentioned above was built in the sixteenth century. Standing nearby, the visitor gets an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. Chinchón’s Plaza Mayor has not only been the site of bull fights, but also executions, comedy performances, royal proclamations, and many movie scenes. If you walk from this plaza up to the Torre Reloj, you will be rewarded with a marvelous view of the town.

IMG_1396

Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá de Henares

Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá de Henares

(I wrote this post only a few months after my arrival in Spain, while I was still mostly ignorant of the country and its language. With the exception of Chinchón, I have visited all of these places since then, so I have appended little notes at the end of my posts about what I now know. I have also broken up my original post for ease of navigation.)


There are many advantages to living in Madrid. It’s big, it’s bustling, and it’s diverse. But one of my favorite aspects of Madrid is its location. By design, the capital of Spain is almost equidistant from every corner of the country; to drive from Madrid to Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque Country, and to Galicia all take roughly the same amount of time. And transportation isn’t hard to find; the city is well connected by rail, highway, and plane to all points of the compass. Travel is cheap, easy, and fast.

As a consequence, there are a great many excellent day trips you can take from Madrid. I’ve already written about some of them: Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial. In these posts, I want to talk about some of the perhaps lesser-known cities for day-trippers. I’ll start at the very beginning, with my first trip inside Spain.


Alcalá de Henares

As soon as I got to Spain, I blabbed to everybody I met that I had read Don Quixote. I was very proud of this, for I thought it gave me some kind of badge of honor in Spanish culture. And indeed, a few people seemed genuinely impressed—though less so when I told them I read it in English.

“Ah, so you like Cervantes?” a friend of ours said.

“Oh yes, he’s incredible.”

“You should visit Alcalá de Henares, then. It’s where Cervantes was born.”

This was only our second week in Spain, and we were still a bit disoriented by our surroundings. The prospect of taking an actual trip in Spain seemed almost Herculean, an added challenge to the day-to-day struggle of navigating our new city. But I was determined to get culture, by hell or high water; so as soon as we could, we made it to Atocha station and took the Cercanías to Alcalá de Henares. (For once in our lives, we found the train without a problem.)

The train was too full for us to sit down. We stood by the doors, both of us swaying nervously with the ever-present anxiety you feel when in a strange environment. I was looking forward to seeing the area around Madrid, but the windows were smudged and dirty; and the view, from what I could see, wasn’t much anyway—just the featureless tan wasteland of the dry foothills. Before even coming to Spain I had terrified myself by reading online stories about the ingenuity of pickpockets in Europe, and couldn’t stop casting interrogative glances at all the passengers around me, wondering whether any of them were thieves eyeing me up, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Station after station went by, and I was paying fierce attention to all of them, paranoid that we would miss our stop and get hopelessly lost. It’s really exhausting traveling somewhere totally new—it is for me, at least—because you can’t take anything for granted. The doors of the trains work differently; the seats are arranged differently; the automatic announcer is speaking a foreign language. Added to this, I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong by accident, breaking the train etiquette of Spain and drawing everyone’s attention to myself. It’s pretty amusing to me now, as I look back; but then it was just stressful and scary.

We arrived. After some confused mucking about, we began making our way to the center of town. Neither of us had Spanish SIM cards yet, so our phones didn’t work. We just followed the crowd, who all seemed to be walking in the same direction. The city seemed rather ordinary at first—though even this was interesting to me, since I hadn’t seen any city in Spain besides Madrid yet—but soon something caught our eye. It looked like a little castle, with a tower on one end and a tiny battlement at the top of a square structure.

IMG_0364

But what really made it stand out was the intricate ornamentation. The façade of the tower, for example, was covered in swirls. It was quite pretty. Although we didn’t know this at the time, it’s called the Palacete Laredo, and is one of the famous monuments of Alcalá. It was originally built as a private house for Manuel Laredo, a polymath artist who served as the mayor of Alcalá de Henares. Nowadays, it serves as a museum of the Cistercian order, as well as a specialized research branch of the Complutense University.

Looking back now, I can tell that it was built in a Neo-Mudéjar style, with crescent arches and a domed minaret. The top of the main building, however, is not Neo-Mudéjar in style, but rather looks like a small copy of the Alcázar in Segovia. In fact, the more I look at my pictures, the more of a stylistic jumble the place appears, with all sorts of different Spanish architectural elements mixed together. Of course, at the time I just thought it looked weird.

We kept going, following the trickle of pedestrians into the center of town. Eventually the buildings started to look older; the streets were narrower here and paved with stone. But what most caught our attention was a big beautiful bird, sitting on top of an old church. It looked so incongruous and stood so still that we were convinced it was fake—that is, until it twitched its head. When we got a bit closer we could see it had built a big, bushy nest up high on the building.

IMG_0399.jpg

As we moved on, following the throng of people wherever it seemed thickest, we eventually found ourselves in a dense crowd. Little shacks were set up all over the place, selling cheese, sausage, olives, nuts, spices, tea, wooden bowls, leather bags, colorful scarves, cheap jewelry. Not only that, but all the people in these shops were dressed up in funny outfits, like they were in Medieval times. Was Spain always like this on the weekends? I was both excited and terrified—excited to see a slice of Spanish life, but now scared more than ever about being pickpocketed.

We rounded a corner and came across an outdoor restaurant. Dozens of tables and chairs were gathered under a tent. Several harried men in ridiculous costumes—looking like court jesters, with striped red and white shirts and big puffy hats—were running left and right, carrying massive trays of food. Outside the tent was the cooking area, where a large circular charcoal grill was covered in sausages, meats, fish, and vegetables of all kinds. Immediately I felt very, very hungry. From the shops were hung all manner of flags and banners painted with signs from medieval heraldry—black, yellow, and red.

Every new street we entered was more packed than the last. Soon it dawned on us that this wasn’t at all normal, but was some kind of special festival. As if to confirm our suspicion, a group of men dressed up like medieval soldiers, with fake swords by their sides, paraded through the crowd while another man, dressed in rags, pretended to be a lunatic. One of the soldiers held him by a rope, while the maniac ran after people in the crowd (mostly women), gargling his throat and reaching out his dirty hands. Another soldier was beating a big bass drum, while they all shouted things that I couldn’t understand.

Alcala Marching Band

(As we later learned, this was the Cervantino, a medieval fair named after Cervantes, which is held in the first couple weeks of October. I have since gone back twice, and I highly recommend it.)

We wandered along this way, two bewildered Americans, absolutely intimidated by our surroundings, until eventually we were standing in front of a couple of statues. I immediately recognized these as being Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; both of them were sitting on a bench, and seemed to be having a damned good time. In between the knight errant and his square there was a space on the bench where tourist after tourist was lining up to have their picture taken. I would have had my picture taken, too, if I wasn’t so afraid that my phone would disappear as soon as I took it out of my pocket.

Don and Sancho statue

Behind the bench was the Cervantes House—the house where Cervantes himself was born and reared. We got on line and went right in. It’s quite a small place, actually. In the center of the house is a little courtyard, around which every room is situated. The insides of these rooms were furnished to look like they would have during Cervantes’ lifetime. I have to admit not much caught my eye, except perhaps the old kitchen equipment. It was more rewarding just to pace about, thinking that I was standing in the very place where Cervantes, that master of masters, entered into the world. This feeling was so strange to me that I’m not sure I quite took it in. This was perhaps the first appearance of “European Travel Syndrome” in my life. You simply can’t have an experience like this in New York.

Cervantes Statue
The statue of Cervantes in the main square

In just half an hour, we were out in the street again. We didn’t know anything else to do except walk around, seeing as much of the city as we could. Many of the buildings were impressive; but at this early stage, we didn’t really know how to go about visiting buildings or even how to look at them. In fact, what I most remember were not the buildings themselves, but the dozens stork nests sitting snuggly on rooftops, their bushy lairs looking somehow both ridiculous and majestic.

Alcala Food Stand

Eventually, we decided to sit down to eat in one of those tent restaurants. The waiter ran up to us, his floppy hat thrown over to one side of his head, and asked us in a slew of Spanish words what we wanted. We ordered two things, and he was off. At this point, we were so clueless in Spanish that most of the time we didn’t even know what we were ordering in restaurants. This was a classic example: We asked for “pimientos fritos” thinking they were french fries; five minutes later, the waiter dropped a plate of fried, salted green peppers on our table. I know, I know, this is an embarrassing mistake, not least because “potato” is “patata” here—not hard to guess.

The upside of our ignorance was that we ended up learning a lot about Spanish food, since we accidentally ate a lot of it. These pimientos were a case in point: we loved them, and pimientos now are one of our staple dishes. Really, if you’re in Spain and you can’t speak Spanish, just go into a restaurant and order whatever sounds interesting. All the food is good here.

After eating the pimientos, and then following it with a plate full of chorizo and tomato sauce on bread, we began to walk around again. But I’m afraid we didn’t do much of interest; and in an hour, we were on our way back to the train station to return to Madrid.

Reading over what I just wrote, and comparing it to what I find online about Alcalá de Henares, it’s obvious to me that we left most of the main sights unseen. Oh well, next time. But it was a fantastic stroke of luck to arrive on the very weekend when they were having their famous Medieval Market. And as I look back on it, this trip seems to presage our whole time in Spain so far: we arrive clueless and unprepared, and yet everything works out marvelously. Traveling in Spain is, in fact, a lot like ordering in a Spanish restaurant: even if you have no idea what you’ll get, you can be sure it will be delightful.


Alcala University

Addendum: Since this initial trip, I have since learned that Alcalá de Henares has been more than simply the birthplace of Cervantes, but has played an important role in Spanish history.

The city has existed since at least Roman times, when it was known as Complutum. It was in this town that Cardinal Cisneros, one of the leading functionaries of the Catholic Monarchs, founded the University of Alcalá in 1499. Under his direction the scholars of the university undertook and completed one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of the Spanish Golden Age, the Polyglot Bible, which contained the entire text of the Old and New Testaments in three languages: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek—and sometimes Aramaic. The University was eventually moved to Madrid, where it was renamed the Complutense (which comes from Alcalá’s Latin name); and it remains one of the major universities in the country.

The original university building still stands in Alcalá’s main square. Its frontal façade is magnificent, and for a small price you can take a guided tour to learn about the university’s history.

The Cathedral of Alcalá is also worth a visit. Although it was burned during the Spanish Civil War, thus destroying many of its decorations and altars, it remains an attractive building. The cathedral is, curiously, the unique for being the only one in the world which possess the title “Magistral Church,” which requires that all of its priests be doctors in theology. 

Alcala Cathedral