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

Sevilla

I fell in love with Sevilla, the first city on our ten-day trip to Spain this summer. Andalucía has always seemed like a region I’d find fascinating (it’s that blend of cultures that always gets me), but I didn’t realize that flamboyant Sevilla — stereotyped by other Spaniards as being kind of a tacky city — would be the place I loved so much that it made me cry on our last day there.

Stay

We stayed in a comfortable Airbnb in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, about a 12-minute walk from the touristy Barrio Santa Cruz district and surrounded by some of the best restaurants in town.

20190822_163314.jpg
Our street in Sevilla

Do

The most stunning site in Sevilla is the Real Alcázar, a lavish 10th-century palace built for Moorish royalty and the oldest palace in Europe still in use. I’m not usually a fan of palaces, but the Mudejar design (mix of Islamic and Christian styles) found throughout is absolutely stunning. For example, the place’s façade seems to be classic Islamic with scalloped arches and intricate stucco patterns, but there are also Christian elements, such as a coat of arms and depictions of animals. In the Courtyard of the Maidens, the first floor of the open-air courtyard has colorful ceramic tiles, coffered wooden ceilings, and intricate scalloped arches typical of the Islamic style, while the second floor has rounded arches and minimal decoration in Renaissance style. I could have spent an entire day at Real Alcázar.

20190823_094952
Entrance of Real Alcazar
20190823_100723
The iconic Courtyard of the Maidens. Notice how the first floor is Islamic, while the second floor is Renaissance style
20190823_101203
Look at that ceiling!
P1110502
Underground cistern – the coolest part of Sevilla
20190823_101620
Another room in Real Alcazar
20190823_102309
One of my favorite rooms – so sunny!

Our favorite thing we did in Sevilla was take a flamenco class, which is a must in Sevilla, the home of flamenco. We spent an hour and a half at a dance school called Maestdanza, learning about the fascinating history of flamenco (a result of the mix of cultures here, of course) and learning a pretty lengthy dance combination that we were able to record ourselves at the end. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On our first night, we took a tapas tour with Pancho Tours. While the tour itself was not the greatest (our guide offered little information to us as we sampled everything), we were taken to four fantastic and very different tapas bars, most of which we wouldn’t have stumbled upon on our own. We started at a historic bar, continued to a sleek restaurant, then onto a former convent, and ended the night watching the sunset from a swanky rooftop bar where we tasted orange wine and piononos for my first time.

20190822_190327
Traditional tapas and cava at the bar
20190822_201638
Former convent
20190822_202737
Fried eggplant with orange marmalade and a glass of rioja
20190822_211508
Orange wine from a rooftop bar
20190822_212731
Sunset

I loved wandering around charming Barrio Santo Cruz and entering any patio whose doors were left open for the public. In Andalucía, traditional homes have interior patios (much like Moroccan riads) and those who have decorated them extravagantly with flower pots and fountains like to show them off to the masses.

20190822_192552
Anytime the doors are open to a patio…
20190822_230917
…you’re welcome to peek inside

We visited Plaza de España and Metropol Parasol, two new sites that are almost comically flamboyant and, thus, extremely Sevillian. Plaza de España is a remnant of the failed 1929 international fair. It’s like Las Vegas attempting Mudejar style. Meanwhile, Metropol Parasol was built just a few years ago. It’s a giant undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned wooden structures that look like mushrooms. Locals still don’t quite know what to make of it, but no one is arguing about the shade that the large canopy provides.

20190823_200334
Extravagance at Plaza de Espana
20190823_200451
Lots of columns
20190823_202549
Nice views from the balcony
20190823_233044
You can rent a rowboat
20190823_233108
Fake bell tower
20190823_115207
Metropol Parasol
20190823_150006
You can go up to the roof and walk along the winding path

On our last night, we crossed the Guadalquivir River and roamed around Triana, the equivalent of Rome’s Trastevere (formerly working-class neighborhood across the river with good food and a lot of character). I had my best meal of the trip in this neighborhood, and as we sat outside after dinner at 11pm surrounded by locals, I teared up, realizing then how much I had fallen in love with Sevilla.

20190824_215109.jpg
Tearing up in Triana

Plaza del Cabildo is a lovely semi-circular square near the Sevilla Cathedral but tucked away from the crowds.

20190824_134947.jpg
Plaza del Cabildo

Eat

Every single meal we ate in Sevilla was incredible, which probably explains why this city is so dear to me. The best restaurants we tried were Las Golondrinas, Castizo, Bodega Dos de Mayo, and La Cata Ciega. Sit at the bar and order a tinto de verano (a popular summer drink of red wine and spritz) and share a few tapas. You will wonder why the rest of the world eats any other way.

20190824_204409
Grilled pork, mushrooms, and squid
20190824_210239
Best meal of our entire trip was at Las Golondrinas in Triana

Other tips

The city center is very walkable, but we took a cab from the Santa Justa train station into town since Ubers are cheap.

Sevilla is sizzling. Literally. It’s the hottest large city in Europe, and temperatures hovered in the high 90s each day we were there. However, it’s a dry heat, and we prepared properly by wearing our lightest clothing, walking on the shady side of the road, and taking siestas during the hottest time of the day (4-6pm). In the end, it was doable and most definitely worth it.

20190822_181723.jpg
Another flamboyant building in Sevilla