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.

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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).

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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.

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Palacio de Cibeles
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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.
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Art Deco
The rest of Madrid felt so comfortable, like any other cosmopolitan European city, that we sometimes forgot which city we were in.

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Revisiting Mercado San Miguel, which we visited last time we were in Madrid
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One of the unique things about Madrid is that you can find Mudejar arches scattered here and there
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Old winding roads of Toledo
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Cervantes is beloved here
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Perched up on a hill, overlooking La Mancha
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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.

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Sunset views from Toledo
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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.

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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.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber

After visiting Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Neuschwanstein, it only made sense that our next stop would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the medieval town that inspired Disney’s Pinocchio. Like Amsterdam and Santorini, I came for the photos but ended up appreciating its beauty much more after learning about the town’s tumultuous history.

The name of the town means “red fortress above the Tauber,” because it’s located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was a free imperial city, which meant that it was self-ruling and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. It was also a strategic stop on trade routes throughout Europe. With a population of 6,000, this thriving town was one of Germany’s largest. However, Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s fortunes tumbled suddenly due to occupation and ransacking during the Thirty Years’ War and a plague that followed. The town never fully recovered, which is why it became (and still is) Germany’s best preserved medieval town — which is fortunate for tourists like us!

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But this picturesque town is more than just a pretty face. Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been admired by many, including Nazis. For them, Rothenburg was the quintessential German town and was even hailed by Hitler as “the most German of German towns”. The Nazis used to organize regular day trips to Rothenburg from all across the Reich. And unfortunately, the town was not an innocent bystander. If you recall from my Munich post, the region of Bavaria had been a hotbed of conservatism. Rothenburg’s townspeople were sympathetic to National Socialism and expelled its Jewish citizens in 1938.

During World War II, bombs were dropped over the German town, killing 37 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was familiar with the Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s historic importance and beauty, so he ordered his army not to use artillery against it. Instead, his army negotiated the surrender of the town. The local military commander surrendered, ignoring Hitler’s orders, saving Rothenburg ob der Tauber from total destruction. After the war, donations for rebuilding were received from all over the world.

Since the town has been preserved in its medieval state, it’s easy to appreciate how self-sufficient it used to be. In the main square, there’s a large 17th-century fountain with long metal gutters that slide to deposit water into villagers’ buckets. The town had an ingenious water system that serviced a series of fountains to provide drinking water, store fish for market days, and fight fires. Because of its plentiful water supply, the town never burned entirely, as so many neighboring villages did. Meanwhile, many of the town’s half-timbered homes were filled with a year’s supply of grain so they could survive sieges.

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Fountain in the main square
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This big wooden door has a tiny door cut into it. If you tried to enter town after curfew, you’d need to bribe the guard, and maybe he’d let you through the tiny door, which was small enough to keep out any fully armed attackers

For better or for worse, Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been frozen in time. It’s a fantastic way for visitors to explore a snippet of medieval life. It’s easy to see why Hitler was charmed by this town. It’s also easy to see why, despite Rothenburg’s awful anti-Semitism and support of Nazism, an American decided that this place was still worth saving.

Tips for future travelers:

Go on the Night Watchman’s Tour. This was our favorite part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A man named Hans Georg Baumgartner has been leading this one-hour historical tour for years, dressed up like a night watchman and telling gritty tales of the medieval town. No need to make reservations; just find the large group of tourists congregating at the main square at 8 pm every night.

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Climb up Rathausturm (the spire of Town Hall) for the best view of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It takes 214 steps and is comically narrow and steep at the top. In fact, some of the staircases are so narrow that a traffic stoplight will let you know when there’s enough room for you to proceed to the next staircase. (German efficiency!)

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This spiral staircase is the easy part
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Wait for the red light to turn green before climbing up to the next level
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Anthony barely fit

Check out the Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum (Medieval Criminal Museum), one of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever visited. Torture was common in the Middle Ages — not necessarily to punish but to extract confessions. Just the sight of these tools was often enough to make an innocent person confess. The museum has painful-looking artifacts like spiked chairs and thumbscrews, but my favorites were the shame masks. Shame masks were intricately decorated to indicate the crime — chicken feathers indicate promiscuity, a snout indicates piggish behavior, and a giant tongue indicates a tendency to gossip. Those convicted of immoral behaviors were forced to wear these masks while being chained in public places for all to see and humiliate.

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“Baker’s Baptism”

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Eat a meal at Zum Pulverer, a traditional Weinstube (restaurant specializing in wine). Weinstuben are mainly found in the wine-growing regions of southern Germany. Zum Pulverer has a cozy interior with wooden chairs carved into the shapes of past senators of Rothenburg. Like beer, wine in Germany is better than any wine I’ve ever had in the U.S.

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Stay at Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Griefen, which was once the home of Mayor Toppler. This 650-year-old hotel has a pleasant garden and is located just off the main square. It will make you feel like you’re a prosperous person living in the Middle Ages.

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Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Grefein is the green home on the right
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Tiny, heavy medieval doors

Go shopping. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is unabashedly touristy, and many of its tourists are actually Germans from other parts of the country. Its streets are filled with quirky shops such as the German Christmas Museum, Waffenkammer (the “weapons chamber,” where tourists can try on armor and pose with medieval weapons for photo ops), and pastry shops selling Schneeballen (leftover flour strips rolled into a ball and covered in icing).

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Of course Anthony loved Waffenkammer

Most tourists come only on day trips. Don’t be one of those. Rothenburg ob der Tauber deserves a little more of your time. Around dusk, the obnoxious tour groups vacate, and the cobblestone roads glimmer with romance. At night, it gets even better, and early in the morning you can take all the photos you want without other tourists in your way.

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Early in the morning, before the day-trippers arrive, you have Plonlein to yourself!