Tuesday, January 31, 2017

6 Daytrips to Take from Madrid, Spain

The Spanish capital of Madrid has enough to keep you occupied for years: a plethora of world-class museums, thousands of restaurants that serve up tasty local grub plus every cuisine you can think of, a handful of historical monuments, a clutch of unique neighborhoods that all have something different to offer, and one of the world’s largest collections of green spaces.

Daytrips from Madrid, Spain
Calle Sagasta
But it’s a rarely-talked-about fact that the city of Madrid has no UNESCO World Heritage Sites to speak of, even as European counterparts like Lisbon, Paris, and Rome all boast of this designation that honors and protects landmarks of cultural or natural significance.

What the city center of Madrid lacks in stunning monuments, it makes up for with no fewer than six World Heritage Sites that surround the metropolis on all sides. Each of these cities is no more than an hour away from the capital, which means you could spend a week hopping from one stunning Spanish city to the next yet never check out of your Madrid hotel. That, to me, sounds like a great way to spend some time in the center of Spain!

1) Segovia

Daytrips from Madrid, Spain
View from the Alcázar
This provincial capital is right on the other side of the Guadarrama mountain range, but it feels a world away from the big city life of Madrid. A Roman aqueduct spans a bustling plaza, still standing without mortar after nearly 2,000 years. The country’s most recently-built Gothic cathedral crowns the city center, not too far from the alcázar or castle that was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Don’t head back to Madrid without sitting down for a feast of the city’s signature dish: cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig.

How to get there: Ride the 27-minute high-speed train from Madrid’s Chamartín train station. From the Segovia-Guiomar train station, catch bus #11 to the aqueduct.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Photo Post: Aranjuez, a Royal Escape from Madrid, Spain

Aranjuez, Spain
Royal Palace
It must be nice being a king, because you get to use the word “summer” as a verb. That’s exactly what the kings (and queens!) of Spain decided to do a few centuries ago when the intense summer heat of Madrid became too much for them. They constructed a royal retreat in Aranjuez, a small town to the south of the capital with a slightly-more-agreeable climate thanks to two rivers that run through it and a lush wooded landscape.

Aranjuez, Spain
Príncipe Garden
The main attraction in Aranjuez (pronounced “ah-rahn-KHWETH” [a.ɾaŋˈxweθ] is the Royal Palace, a kind of low-budget Versailles that’s dripping with over-the-top Rococo decorations inside—think gold leaf, porcelain wall embellishments, frescoes, tapestries, and ornate furniture. Spanish monarchs used this palace as their summer residence, but without air conditioning you can imagine the rooms would get rather stuffy, so I’m sure they spent a lot of time outdoors in the gardens next door, where there are plenty of shade trees that fight back against the oppressive summer heat.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Modernista Architecture in Barcelona NOT By Gaudí

There’s some places you visit for the food—San Sebastián in the Basque Country comes to mind, with bars that are literally overflowing with tiny bites of pintxos—and then there’s others you visit for ancient ruins—think Arles in southern France with Roman amphitheaters and sewers.

And there are other cities you spend time in for the architecture. Many of us live in a world of formulaic McMansions, soul-crushing strip malls, big box stores with 30-year shelf lives, and cold glass-and-steel office towers. We travel to cities with excellent architecture because these cities have a sense of place and because they remind us of the beauty in the world.

Modernista architecture in Barcelona, Spain
Palau de la Música Catalana
I think this is one of the big draws Barcelona has on many visitors. Yes, the cozy medieval streets in the Gothic Quarter are nice and all, but the gridded Eixample district, where the city expanded around the turn of the century, is where Barcelona really shines. Grand apartment homes were constructed by the new Catalan middle class, many of whom contracted innovative architects who were trailblazing the modernista style of architecture, a distinctly Catalan form of the prevailing Art Nouveau movement.

Antoni Gaudí is the most well-known of these architects, having designed glamorous houses like the Palau Güell or Casa Batlló and his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church. But Gaudí was far from the only architect active during this time period. In fact, there’s so many Modernista-style buildings in Barcelona that the city government has put together a Ruta del Modernisme or Art Nouveau Walking Route that will take you past hidden gems that people all too often completely overlook as they seek out Gaudí’s work (I myself am guilty of this!).

This itinerary forces you to walk down under-trafficked streets mere blocks from the tourist trail as you intentionally look for stops along the way. I spent a few hours on a refreshing Sunday morning in June doing just this and gained a deeper appreciation for the city’s architecture that goes so far beyond just Gaudí.
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