While just about all my friends in Cordoba deserted the city and took off home to their families for the festive season, I had about two seconds to feel sorry for myself. And then I was off out of there too.
I had an excellent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, spent with an extremely welcoming and highly talented Spanish family - especially when it comes to putting food on the table.
I ate to my heart’s content and swapped presents, delivered early (on 25th of December) by Papa Noël in lieu of the usual Three Kings (6th of December), and likely in the name of two certain English-speakers who had joined the fold this year. I sampled countless types of turón, sipped mandarin-Champagne slushies, sung songs from Glee, listened to a bit of Tom Jones, conversed with a nun and a priest about Gangham Style and then, the following day, I took off on a road trip.
Not many of us English-teaching expats get the opportunity to trip around Spain in a car (my goodness, what the hell is that?). So I considered myself lucky to have not one but two friends with such a vehicle, willing to transport two eager guiris and a Spanish naval engineering student (plus others who would join us along the way) to Madrid and its surrounds.
First stop. Toledo. Toledo is located in the province of Castile-La Mancha. This is Don Quixote territory. Picture white-washed, wooden windmills and medieval villages perched on cliffs. Well, that’s pretty much Toledo in a nutshell. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered a cultural and monumental treasure for its place in Spanish history as a former capital of the Spanish Empire and a place where Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures co-existed for several years (notwithstanding, the city is indeed also marred with harsh religious persecutions that took place against the Jews by the Visigoths in the 7th Century but then I hazard to say, which Spanish city isn’t?).
The old city is located on a mountaintop with a 150 degree view of the valley below, including the Tagus River. I might note that this view is notoriously impaired by fog at this time of year. We were lucky to get a solitary clear afternoon on the day we arrived, whereas the following day was like being immersed upside-down in a bucket of white cotton candy… cotton candy that happens to be very, very cold… hmm…. maybe it was more like being in a giant, commercial freezer? Or an Agatha Christie novel.. nothing like a bit of fog to incite spook. Anyway, I think you get my drift.
In Toledo, you will find the Alcázar, the cathedral and the synagogue worth a visit.
My favourite. Can I have favourites? Is that allowed? This place in unbelievable. The region in which it is situated, Castile and León, has its name for a reason. It is famous for its castles and long history of Spanish Christian rule. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (I think I am going to start having to set a new benchmark for a historically beautiful cities because too many that I visit fall into this category). But there is no wondering why.
To start with, as you enter the city of Segovia, you are greeted with an almighty, towering aqueduct. Located in the Plaza del Azoguejo, with Roman origins, it dates back to the end of the first century and extends some 820 metres. It’s Roman engineering at it’s finest, says she with no qualification on the matter. But trust me, it really is.
The second, incredibly striking feature of Segovia, is its castle. Modelled on the famous Disney Castle, it towers over a very deep moat, with pointed turrets and ample rooms. It was one of the favourite residences of the Kings of Castile and home to Alfonso X the Wise, Henry IV and Isabella the Catholic. It’s amazing.
And of course, Segovia cathedral is amazing too. Though, I can only vouch for the outside. I wouldn’t pay €4 to enter. I don’t know if it’s just me, but eventually cathedrals all start to look more or less the same.
This is a place of religion with the highest number of Romanesque and Gothic-style churches per capita in Spain. They are impressive, and most of them free to visit – so that’s a plus.
The main monument is the old city walls. Dating back to the 11th century, the walls extend around the historic centre and cannot be missed, a) because they are so big and b) because they are impressive. Particularly at night.
You can apparently pay a small fee to climb the walls and walk around them but unfortunately, when we were there, it was bitterly cold and raining and it really didn’t take our fancy.
Other than churches and big walls, the rest of Avila is quite commercial. You really only need a day here.
Final stop, Madrid. And surprisingly, until New Year, I had never been here before, except passing through. I’d heard very mixed reviews on the place with many people inevitably comparing it with the other Spanish city of similar size and status, “it’s no Barcelona”. Well, I beg to differ.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Barcelona and unlike Madrid, I have been there several times, but Madrid strikes me as a raw, authentic, Spanish city. You don’t feel so much like you are inescapably caught up in the tourist mecca, like you can do in many other capital cities around the world. It’s fun and it’s functional and that’s why I like it. Here are a few other reasons why I like Madrid.
- It has art. Very good art. You are spoilt by some very impressive galleries and museums here, the Prado, the Reina Sofia, the Thyssen – to name a few.
- It has food. Very good food. VARIETY. CHOICE. QUALITY. Affordability (in lower case because while this is certainly preferential it is not always essential). Good Spanish? Yes please. Vegan, Thai, Indian? Thank god.
- It has good nightlife. Although, I claim to be no expert on the matter.
- Finally, they know how to celebrate New Year. Everyone congregates in Plaza del Sol for the countdown. The challenge is to eat 12 grapes in time with the countdown. Supposedly it brings you good luck for the New Year. I maintain that you need years of practice at this because I almost choked. So much for my luck. Then it’s fireworks and on to a bar or club. Qué divertido!