Traipsing around sunny Spain

Back on the road, we swung southeast on the wide motorway in the direction of Madrid, passing by wheat fields and the dusty plains of Castilla y Leon. A deep sense of history permeated the Roman ruins and medieval castles of every small town and city that we passed. As the sun set, we entered Segovia, a small city boasting three world-class sites. Situated on a high rocky hill was the Alcazar, the fairytale-like castle whose turrets, crenellations and sharp gable roofs became the inspiration for Disneyland’s castle. Further down, the Gothic cathedral with its flying buttresses and pinnacles glowed golden brown in the sunlight and looked really mighty impressive. But the big draw was the well-preserved aqueduct that straddles the city center. Built by the Romans in the 1st century, the remaining section runs almost a kilometer long, stands 33 meters high and has 118 arches. We climbed from the base to the top through a staircase and marveled at the view around us. Time seemed to stand still as we surveyed this former Roman military base that was shaped like a ship in the middle of an arid plain.

Located 50 kms. from Segovia where we spent the previous night in a warm and cozy pensione, is Madrid, the bustling capital of Spain – a city like any other where you can easily get lost! I drove around aimlessly for over an hour trying to look for our hotel and when we found it, there was no place to park so after quickly checking in, I immediately rushed out to return the Nissan Micra at the nearest Hertz branch a kilometer away.

On foot, we started the exploration of the city starting from Puerta del Sol which is ground zero where a ‘zero kilometer’ marker indicates the center of Spain. The square is a tourist hub filled with fountains, statues and busy restaurants. A quick stroll brought us to Plaza Mayor, the cobblestone square flanked by colonnaded buildings with beautiful reliefs that told the story of 17th century Spain: bullfights, coronations and the dreaded Inquisition.

Continuing further, we ended up in the Catedral de Almudena, Madrid’s cathedral, with a contemporary Neo-Gothic facade. Fronting it is the Palacio Real, the official residence of the Spanish monarch though of course the Royal Family doesn’t live there nowadays. With more than 2,000 rooms, only a small portion is open to the public but that was enough for us to explore for the most part of the afternoon. Grand is an understatement when it comes to describing all that you are allowed to see in there. Behind the palace is a lovely, well-manicured garden where we rested our weary feet and argued where we would go next. So much to see, so little time!

We spent the next two days browsing around the Prado Museum with its overwhelming collection of Goya, Velasquez, El Greco and Bosch, strolling in the 300-acre Retiro Park, and eating tapas every chance we got. Unfortunately, there were no scheduled bullfights at that time.

Ensconced in the luxurious coach of the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) train heading for Seville, we watched the landscape flash by at a dizzying 280kph. This was the bullet train of Spain and it whisks you pretty quickly to your destination.  Hence, the 540 km. trip was a breeze. Two and a half hours later, at eight in the evening we arrived at Santa Justa and took a taxi to Barrio Sta. Cruz. This former Jewish Quarter is a pedestrian-only enclave with a maze of cobblestone streets which made it very difficult to pull our wheeled luggage as we searched for accommodation. To top it all, there was a sudden blackout that plunged the place into darkness! But the friendly locals helped us out and we had a good laugh over a candlelit dinner in a cozy restaurant which featured a beautiful woman dancing the flamenco. Quite fitting for this was, after all, the flamboyant city of Don Juan and Carmen where boys wanted to be matadors and girls dreamt of becoming flamenco dancers.

La Giralda is the third largest church in Europe after St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London. It has a 110-meter tall bell tower of Moorish design, which we climbed all the way to the top. Instead of steps, there are ramps designed to accommodate horseback riders who, in the olden days, galloped up and down to make the Muslim call to prayer. You see, this church used to be a mosque. Inside the cavernous interior is an art pavilion featuring a huge carved altarpiece showing 44 scenes of Jesus’ life from birth to crucifixion and a massive organ made of 7,000 pipes.  Most interesting of all is the tomb of Christopher Columbus being carried by the kings of Castile – Leon, Aragon and Navarra.  An adopted son of Seville, he had set sail for the New World from a port close to the city.

We spent the following day going around the well-tended gardens of the Alcazar, the big Plaza de Toros bullring (said to be the most magnificent in the country) and the Torre del Oro by the Guadalquivir River, where treasures from the Americas used to be unloaded, before taking the night train to Granada – the former capital of Spain.

Page: 1 2 3