Madrid + Toledo

Four years ago, Anthony and I went to Europe for three weeks, and our last twenty-four hours happened to be a layover in Madrid. Because we were young and cheap and curious about Spain’s notoriety for staying out late, we sacrificed a hotel room and spent those twenty-four hours roaming the city. We hung out at Puerta del Sol, we saw a major accident occur (a truck backed into an awning that fell on top of a woman dining outdoors, severely injuring her), we ate jamon and spent an embarrassing amount of time eating churros at Chocolatería San Ginés, and we napped in Retiro Park. It was an odd experience, and I felt pretty ambivalent about Madrid. Since that was my only experience with Spain, I also had no real desire to return to Spain — until a couple of months ago when I found round-trip flights to Madrid for an astonishingly low price of $261.

20190911_061112[1].jpg
Madrid’s sleek airport
Most of our trip was spent in Andalucía, but we did spend a couple of days in Madrid, as well as a day-trip to Toledo. Turns out, I still don’t love Madrid, but at least I finally appreciated how livable this vibrant metropolis is.

Stay

We stayed at an Airbnb in the trendy neighborhood of Malasaña, which I’d highly recommend. It’s connected to everywhere by metro, walkable to all the touristy sights, and filled with award-winning restaurants, colorful street art covering the walls, and vibrant plazas swarming with madrileños (locals).

20190830_102208[1].jpg
View of Madrid rooftops from our Airbnb living room
Do

We spent our first morning doing the touristy Gran Vía stroll, starting at the elegant Palacio de Cibeles, which was once a post office, and ending at Plaza de España. It’s basically the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, with interchangeable chain stores and foreign tourists moving slowly, but it’s interesting to see the phases of architecture along Gran Vía, from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco. One of the more interesting stores to drop into is an H&M housed in a former theater.

20190829_111512[1]
Palacio de Cibeles
20190911_061605[1]
The Metropolis Building was designed by a couple of French brothers. The dome is topped by a statue of the winged goddess Victoria, which replaced the original bronze statue of Phoenix and Ganymedes when a rival insurance company purchased the building and the original owners took the statue with them.
20190829_153354[1]
Art Deco
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.

20190911_061253[1]
Revisiting Mercado San Miguel, which we visited last time we were in Madrid
20190911_061229[1]
One of the unique things about Madrid is that you can find Mudejar arches scattered here and there
20190911_061407[1].jpg
We loved seeing these same-sex traffic lights, put up during Pride and never taken down
Eat

Most of our diet in Madrid consisted of churros con chocolate, as we went to Chocolatería San Ginés pretty much after every meal. It’s an impressive place, open 24 hours yet retaining a classy feel. Servers run around balancing elegant mugs of thick chocolate and little plates of churros.

20190830_102235[1].jpg
Churros con chocolate
Apparently we were missing southern Spain already because our favorite meal was at La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, which is an Andalucian tapas bar just off Plaza Mayor. The gory photos of bullfighting filling every crevice of the restaurant is a bit corny, but the food is authentic and even served Granada style (a free tapa with every drink!), with a stream of regulars — perhaps Andalucian transplants? — streaming in throughout the afternoon.

20190911_061133[1].jpg
Legit!
Since it was August, a lot of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed for vacation, so one night we reluctantly went to La Barraca, a historic paella restaurant. It reminded me of Delmonico’s, a New York institution with white tablecloths and awkwardly stuffy service. However, we couldn’t deny that the paellas were very good, and the next morning we cooked our leftovers for breakfast, and we couldn’t have been happier.

20190828_225147[1].jpg
Best paella on our trip
Afternoon Trip to Toledo

Just a half-hour train ride from Madrid is the wonderfully preserved medieval town of Toledo. Once the capital of Spain, it felt like a mix of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany and Dubrovnik in Croatia, some other favorite Medieval towns of mine. Toledo sits high up on a circular rocky hill protected on three sides by the Tajo River, like a moat. It has 2,500 years of tangled history between the Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. The city reached its peak in the 1500s, when Spain was in its Golden Age. Emperor Charles V made it his “Imperial City,” and El Greco made his home here. Cervantes’ wife came from near Toledo, and he often wrote about it. In 1561, Philip II moved the capital to a small town north of here called Madrid, beginning the slow decline of Toledo. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, remaining largely intact despite numerous violent takeovers throughout history due to the fact that it was considered the holiest city in Spain. Its ornate cathedral is one of the most impressive structures in Spain, taking over 250 years to build.

20190906_065228[1]
Old winding roads of Toledo
20190911_061950[1]
Cervantes is beloved here
20190911_062106[1]
Perched up on a hill, overlooking La Mancha
20190911_062023[1]
Mudejar touches everywhere
The impressive train station sits below the town center, so we caught a city bus into town. You can  catch #5, #11, #61, or #62 to Plaza de Zocodover. One thing we love about Spain is that buses give out change.

20190830_102249[1]
Sunset views from Toledo
20190911_062036[1]
Mudejar style train station
Spain claims that marzipan (“mazapán” in Spanish) was invented in Toledo by nuns of the Convent of San Clemente during a famine. There was no wheat but plenty of sugar and almonds, so nuns created a paste out of these ingredients and fed the undernourished people. Mazapán de Toledo is protected by D.O., which means it must be made in the province of Toledo and be at least 50% almonds. We tried mazapán from Santo Tomé and El Café de las Monjas, and both were much better than any marzipan I’ve had in the U.S. Each one is lovingly shaped by hand, and a box of assorted mazapán is the perfect gift.

Besides mazapán, swords are another popular souvenir in Toledo, as Toledo was famous for making the very best steel during the Middle Ages. Knights considered having a Toledo-cast sword to be the highest status symbol.

Unlike on the rest of our trip, Toledo doesn’t have a thriving tapas scene. Instead, Toledo excels at game, which is hunted in the hills to the south. Typical dishes include partridge, venison, wild boar, roast suckling pig, and baby lamb. We had a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace of Restaurante Placido.

20190911_061811[1].jpg
Roasted baby lamb
Tips for future travelers:

  1. It’s simple enough to get from the airport into Madrid by subway, but if you have a lot of luggage or don’t want to transfer, you can also take the comfortable Exprés Aeropuerto to Atocha train station, and then getting a cab. This yellow bus departs every 15 minutes, runs 24 hours a day, and takes about 40 minutes to reach Atocha.
  2. For our few days in Madrid, buying a 10-pack of Metro tickets was perfect for us. We first had to buy a cheap refillable card, and then we were able to share the ten rides. Madrid’s Metro system is fantastic and reminded us of Paris. Lines are color-coded and numbered. You can just tap your Metro card to the yellow pad to open the turnstile — no need to take it out again to exit.
  3. The best itinerary for Toledo is to take a late afternoon train there, so you can see things just as the daytrippers are leaving for the day, and watch the sunset. Then leave the following morning, after exploring a few of the sights that had been closed when you arrived the previous day.
  4. Buy your train tickets to and from Toledo in advance, as they often sell out to commuters. (Since Toledo is so close to Madrid, it makes sense that some people live in Toledo and work in Madrid.)
  5. When on Gran Vía, take a break and head up to Gourmet Experiences (a food court in El Corte Inglés) for a spectacular view of the Schweppes Building.

20190829_153306[1].jpg

Padua

Since we had some extra time in Venice, we decided to take a daytrip to Padua (or “Padova” in Italian), just a 26-minute train ride away. Padua is a picturesque town of about 214,000 residents, many of them students at the University of Padua — the third oldest university in Europe, one of the most prestigious, and definitely one of the most progressive. It was founded by a group of radical professors from the University of Bologna who wanted to teach without restraints from the church. Galileo taught here for thirty years and was so popular that his students saved up money to purchase his own podium, which was necessary since his lectures became too popular for a typical classroom.

52016080_10218173304660640_6530038882082226176_n
Students call this the Old Courtyard. It’s lined with plaques of every student
52569210_10218173305740667_8258349097975545856_n
Galileo’s podium
52532753_10109041347678583_1349431179115233280_n
Imagine defending your dissertation here!
52537793_10218173305100651_6542390937442582528_n
The “new courtyard”

We took a guided tour, which allowed us to view Galileo’s podium, as well as the Anatomical Theater. This theater, the oldest in the world, was built so the public could study dissections. Viewers would have to stand around in this cramped, candlelit room for hours over multiple days. Because dissections were technically still illegal, whenever someone from the church entered, the professor would flip the bed over quickly to hide the body, and everyone would pretend to be doing something else.

52761033_10109041373202433_1476300484359749632_n
A model of the Anatomical Theater
52845347_10109041373382073_5876665234126536704_n
We are inside the real Anatomical Theater, down below where the dissections occurred

In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D., and unsurprisingly it was here, at the University of Padua. Copernicus, Dante, and Fallopius (yes, the discoverer of the fallopian tube) are some of the university’s other notable alumni.

53077602_10109052928660203_4047548201606053888_n.jpg
Statue dedicated to the first female graduate in the world

Besides the university, Padua is just a lovely place to roam around. It has a dense network of arcaded walkways and cobblestone streets. Its town hall building, the Palazzo della Ragione, has the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. Right outside the Palazzo is a huge farmers market, second only to the one in Italy’s gastronomic capital of Bologna. Its Scrovegni Chapel, which must be booked in advance to enter, houses some of the most important frescoes in the world. Prato della Valle is an elliptical square and one of the biggest in Europe. In the center is a garden surrounded by a moat, lined by 78 statues of Padua’s citizens.

52489261_10218173626268680_3276511274581622784_n
Pretty arcaded streets
52605394_10218173625868670_7948636257481916416_n
Prato della Valle
52407169_10109041273831573_758791249414062080_n
Cobblestone streets
52678057_10218173625468660_4668345141096873984_n
Palazzo della Ragione

My favorite part of Padua, however, was the lunch we had at Osteria L’Anfora. In fact, it was the best meal of our entire trip. This discrete (no signage in front!) osteria was packed with Paduans, so we were crammed in the corner at a table with a friendly Italian student and his girlfriend visiting from France. He helped us decipher the handwritten menu — written in only Italian, of course — and taught me how to properly pronounce “bigoli” (bi-go-li, not bi-go-li), the pasta typical of this region. I had the perfectly al dente bigoli with rabbit sausage ragù, while Anthony had a tender oxtail stew served with creamy polenta full of flavor. I would return to Padua just for meals like this. I didn’t tear up on this trip — which is slightly concerning because I cry over everything — but if I did, it would have been at Osteria L’Anfora.

53020165_10218174303325606_1227050728875360256_n
Bigoli and oxtail

After about five and a half hours in Padua, it was time to return to Venice. It was just the right amount of time to do the town justice but crave a little more action in touristy Venice. We caught a northbound tram with the day passes we had bought at the station earlier and returned just in time to make our train back to Venezia Santa Lucia. Arrivederci, Padova!

Montenegro

We had a spare day in Dubrovnik, so we decided to take day-trip to Montenegro, as I’d seen gorgeous photos of Kotor online a few weeks before our trip. I contacted a few highly-rated tour companies and booked the cheapest one. At 7:15 am, we were picked up in front of a Hilton hotel monstrosity outside Old Town and shared a van with our tour guide, a man from Greece, and three women from England.

30072859_10215534646055824_3733982559161072323_o.jpg
With our van

As we left sleek and tidy Croatia for raw, gritty Montenegro, I fell asleep in the van until we reached the border crossing. Montenegro is not part of the EU (even though it uses the Euro), so we had to hand over our passports to the border agent. Once again, I was grateful that we weren’t visiting in the summer, as sometimes the wait can take hours. After just a few minutes, we continued on our way to the Verige Strait, where we caught a ferry across the Bay of Kotor. Narrow enough to easily monitor but deep enough to allow huge ships through, the Bay of Kotor has been a prized location for millennia and is the single best natural harbor between Greece and Venice.

30073551_10215581768473855_5569841262118876331_o.jpg
Riding a ferry through the Bay of Kotor

We got off at Budva, our first town in Montenegro. Much of the Budva Riviera feels like a resort sprawl catering to wealthy Russians, but Old Town Budva had some charm. There was a mix of Catholic and Orthodox churches, a huge citadel, souvenir shops crammed into the old stone buildings, and a mediocre beach.

29872438_10215534643975772_8673327114989737435_o
Budva harbor
29749721_10215536212334980_6406628255744276948_o
Pretty, but nothing compared to Kotor
29872494_10215581663751237_3372663784410961791_o
Citadel

When we were done with Budva, we drove the rest of the way to Kotor, the whole reason I wanted to come to Montenegro. Montenegro is one of the youngest countries in Europe and gained independence in 2006. It finds itself in a very unique position: It has become a magnet for multimillionaires from Russia and the Middle East, who have chosen to turn this new country and its lovely coastline into their very own Riviera. On the other hand, Montenegro is still struggling to upgrade what is nearly a Third World infrastructure. When it first declared independence, its economy was weak, but the privatization of its aluminum industry and the aggressive development of its tourist trade have turned things around. In fact, Montenegro has one of the highest foreign investment rates in Europe, despite its unemployment rate hovering at 19%. Regardless, nothing can mar the natural beauty of its mountains, bays, and forests.

29873168_10215534653015998_5991178357574659675_o.jpg
Kotor

With dramatic cliffs, the glimmering Adriatic, and a UNESCO-protected Old Town, Kotor is easily one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. It has been shielded from centuries of would-be invaders by both its position at the deepest point of a fjord, as well as by its imposing town wall, which scrambles in a zigzag line up the mountain behind it.

If you only do one thing in Kotor, hike the Town Walls. I was in awe the entire time we were hiking.  The 1,355 stairs climb up the sheer cliff behind Old Town. It’s about three miles long and will take about an hour and a half round-trip if you’re in shape.

29872002_10215534702057224_6509797742021817214_o
Climbing up the stairs
29749557_10215534651975972_8410541877155106472_o
Leaving Old Town
29750114_10215540636045570_2149661487268671826_o
Obligatory couple’s selfie
29871769_10215538978364129_6942026375207251106_o
Look how high we are!
29872115_10215537163478758_7771923078057295419_o
It’s windy up here!

After a well-deserved lunch and another hour of roaming around Old Town, it was time to head back to Croatia. Довиђења, Montenegro!

29983519_10215582069481380_6714701331570872251_o
Catholic church, even though most Kotor residents are Orthodox

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at City Restaurant for delicious grilled meats and a whole fish for less than what you’d pay for an appetizer in Dubrovnik.

30073135_10215586140543154_8974098600721911015_o.jpg
Lunch

Wear sneakers when climbing the wall. The marble stairs are not in the best condition and are very slippery, even when dry, as they’ve been polished by centuries of visitors.

30656431_10215582822100195_4795495231329307309_n.jpg
Slippery and crumbling marble stairs

Once you reach the top of the wall, take your time up there. You deserve it! We spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the view and the old fortress, but most people were hanging out for even longer. There’s lots of space at the top, so relax and drink some water before heading back down. This is an experience to cherish.

30656525_10215584688666858_3006886620981024691_n
Old fortress
30420216_10215583498437103_8871189883971814720_o
Taking our time coming back down