With only 4 days in Madrid, the schedule is very tight, but we’re determined to make the most of not just Spanish capital, but also two of the surrounding towns, Toledo and Segovia. The following itinerary takes in the hectic hustle of Madrid, a city filled to its gills with great art, good food and a laidback café culture, the historical, winding cobble stoned streets of Toledo, and the soaring, impressive architecture of Segovia.
4 Days in Madrid and surrounds
Day 1: Madrid
It’s siesta time, as we land in Madrid. We are staying near the Argentina de la Paz metro stop and there is some language wrangling to do with the guard of the apartment complex before he will hand over the keys to Yan’s friend’s place. We have tickets to a Spanish bullfight this evening, neither of us really knowing what to expect. La corrida has distinct parts – the quadrilla charge, the picadors’ challenge, and the men with feathered darts running straight at the bull as a last assault before the matador delivers the killing stroke. It’s not quite a fair fight between man and beast, as these early assaults do much to weaken the bull – even with blood pouring down his flanks, though, a bull can still gore and kill a matador.
The first encounter is nothing quite like anything I’ve seen before, and the matador struts around, thrusting his hips out at the bull, flailing with the red flag. His challenge is close, too close, and he is jarred by the bull as it charges by him. But the killing blow is swift and clean, his bull crumples within seconds and is dispatched by a black-clad man with a short dirk. The next few rounds – a corrida always has six bulls and three matadors – are not as clean; the picadors are unskilled, the matadors take too long. Having seen enough, we leave after our fourth bull.
Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, Ch. 9
Bullfighting is a controversial topic, even in Spain – in recent years there has many been protests against the sport. Activists such as Prou! call it vicious, cruel and barbaric. Having watched it for myself, I am inclined to agree – bloodsports no longer seem to have a place in our civilised world – and yet, there was beauty in that first corrida, a kind of art, and skill in the turn of the first matador’s cloak, humility in the acknowledgement of a worthy opponent, and grace in delivery of the kill. Whether or not the bullfight survives in our modern world or if it dies a natural death, we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s summer in Spain, and early still. Dinner here is served at 9pm, late by our standards. The night is always young. We head to the thumping heart of Madrid’s nightlife in Cava Baja, where on recommedation, we search for a little place called Taberna de los Huevos de Lucio, literally, the Tavern of the Eggs of Lucio, where the speciality is… eggs. Fried eggs served on top fresh deepfried chips with silky strips of jamon feathered upon the whole thing and a topping of cheese, specifically. The food is good, and simple.
Day 2: Toledo
The next day we head to Toledo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s 41 degrees by the time we arrive by train, underneath a harsh blue hot sky. The old city is perched on a hill overlooking the plains, with its four towered medieval Alcazar (the first of many we would visit during our time in Spain) hovering above it all. There isn’t really much to do in Toledo aside from soaking up the atmosphere from winding streets and cobblestones. There are lots of tourists out and about, and it is really much too hot to be tramping around outside.
The city is a melting pot of Christian, Jewish and Moorish architecture, with its Baroque cathedral and Moorish castle. We happen by an old church, the Iglesia Santo Tome, and pay the small admission fee to see the very first El Greco I’ve ever viewed – The Burial of the Count Orgaz – this is one of his masterpieces. “The Greek,” as his name translates, was born in Crete, but lived in Toledo, where he produced work centuries ahead of his own time, with more aesthetic ties to Cubism and Expressionism than to the reigning Mannerism of the 16th century.
We arrive back in Madrid in the evening, dusty and burnt golden from the sun. We head out for dinner and drinks with Cecilia, whose apartment we are staying in – she brings us to a rooftop bar where gentle sprinklers border the edges and we eat salmorejo, a delicious, cold tomato soup, while Madrids skyline lights up in the sunset. We also visit Areia, a bar in Madrid’s gay community area, fantastically outfitted with red bunting, cushions on the floor and flickering candlelight.
Day 3: Madrid explorations
It is a quiet day that dawns after, and armed with a guidebook and our cameras, we set off to explore Madrid. Today is the first real full day we have in the city – we have breakfast in an overpriced cafe with a view of Plaza Mayor, then head to Museo del Prado, a beautiful museum with a large collection of Goya, Ribera, Velazquez and a few paintings by Bosch that are a must see.
It is another gorgeous day in Spain (there are few bad weather days, we will soon find out) and we explore the city’s architecture; along the Gran Via and near the Sol metro stop, drop by momentarily by the Palacio Real and then head off in the hot siesta hours, to Parque Buon del Retiro, a lush green park. There is a pond and many enthusiastic boaters, but we decide its all too much hassle and go sit in the shade by the water instead.
That night we meet up with friends again in Chueca, another Madrid barrio with cafes and bars and restaurants jumping to beats that last all night – we eat at Lateral, a chain restaurant recommended by a local and order tapa after tapa. The city is quiet, as expected; most of the locals escape the heat of the city during high summer to head up north towards Bilbao and San Sebastian, so it feels like we have Madrid all to ourselves.
Day 4: Segovia
Our last day in Castile, and we board the train to Segovia. Spanish trains (and buses, later on), are an absolute joy to catch. They are clean, comfortable, new, safe and they run bang on time. Tickets can be purchased from Renfe 60 days in advance and if you are organised enough you can get webfares for 30% of the normal price for the AVE, the fastest line in Spain, than compared to if you go up to the counter on the day itself.
Segovia is another small medieval town, this time, north of Madrid. It is much cooler up here, and our train takes us into the next train station, from where a transfer bus then brings us into town for a paltry and very precise fare of €0.82 per person. The city has two attractions – the Roman aquaduct, raised without the use of any mortar whatsoever (the Romans are mad engineers); and the lovely fairytale-like Alcazar, with its steel grey turrets and deep, deep moat.
We take some pictures, go shopping (there were saldos everywhere!), drink some coffee, wander around looking for the region’s speciality cuisine – roast suckling pig. We find the ochre, Gothic cathedral in the middle of the main square, and walk along more winding, narrow cobblestone streets to get to the Alcazar, which looks over the dry countryside. Segovia is one of my favourite cities on this trip; rambling and laidback and with fabulous architecture.
With only four days in the Castile region, this itinerary is light on the sights and sounds of Madrid proper, but gives a good overview of Madrid, Toledo and Segovia. Each town offers a slightly different experience, from the cosmopolitan energy of Madrid, to the medieval streets of Toledo and the soaring architectural wonders of Segovia – it all depends on what interests you the most. The connections from Madrid are easy and both these locations are do-able as a daytrip. Bien viaje!