Fodor's Spain (2015)
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Welcome to Toledo and Trips from Madrid
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Top Reasons to Go | Getting Oriented | What’s Where | Planning | Eating and Drinking Well in Castile and Extremadura
Updated by Lauren Frayer
Madrid, in the center of Spain, is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring, and the high-speed train puts many destinations within easy reach. The Castiles, which bracket Madrid to the north and south, and Extremadura, bordering Portugal, are filled with compelling destinations, steeped in tradition.
For all the variety in the towns and countryside around Madrid, there’s something of an underlying unity in Castile—the high, wide meseta of gray, bronze, and (briefly) green. This central Spanish steppe is divided into what was historically known as Old and New Castile, the former north of Madrid, the latter south (known as “New” because it was captured from the Moors a bit later). Occasionally, elderly Spaniards may still refer to the Castiles as “Old” or “New”—labels that persisted through the Franco years—but most people nowadays prefer Castilla y León or Castile-León for the area north of Madrid and Castilla y La Mancha or Castile-La Mancha for the area to the south.
Over the centuries, poets and others have characterized Castile as austere and melancholy. Gaunt mountain ranges frame the horizons; gorges and rocky outcrops break up flat expanses; and the fields around Ávila and Segovia are littered with giant boulders. Castilian villages are built predominantly of granite, and their solid, formidable look contrasts markedly with the whitewashed walls of most of southern Spain.
The very name Extremadura, widely accepted as “the far end of the Duero,” as in the Duero River, expresses the wild, remote, isolated, and end-of-the-line character of the region bordering Portugal. With its poor soil and minimal industry, Extremadura never experienced the kind of modern economic development typical of other parts of Spain, and it’s still the country’s poorest province, but for the tourist, this otherworldly, lost-in-time feel is unforgettable. No other place in Spain has as many Roman monuments as Mérida, capital of the vast Roman province of Lusitania, which included most of the western half of the Iberian Peninsula. Mérida guarded the Vía de la Plata, the major Roman highway that crossed Extremadura from north to south, connecting Gijón with Seville. The economy and the arts declined after the Romans left, but the region revived in the 16th century, when explorers and conquerors of the New World—from Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés to Francisco de Orellana, first navigator of the Amazon—returned to their birthplace. These men built the magnificent palaces that now glorify towns such as Cáceres and Trujillo, and they turned the remote monastery of Guadalupe into one of the great artistic repositories of Spain.
TOP REASONS TO GO
See El Greco’s Toledo: El Greco’s paintings, previously displayed around the world, returned to Toledo in 2014 for the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death. Museums have been renovated and El Greco-theme tourist trails link the sites in the stunning city that the Greek-born painter chose to call home.
Be mesmerized by Cuenca’s “hanging houses”: Las Casas Colgadas seem to defy gravity, clinging to a cliffside with views over Castile-La Mancha’s parched plains.
See Salamanca’s old and new cathedrals: The cathedrals are a fascinating dichotomy—the intricate detail of the new contrasts with the simplicity of the old.
Visit Segovia’s aqueduct: Amazingly well preserved, this still-functioning 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct is unforgettable.
Get stuck in a time warp: The walled city of Cáceres is especially evocative at dusk, with its skyline of ancient spires, towers, and cupolas.
Medieval musing: Explore León’s Gothic cathedral, with its kaleidoscopic windows. Royal snacking: Aranjuez is known for its strawberries, and in spring and summer vendors sell them with whipped cream at the market and along the river by the Royal Palace of La Granja’s San Ildefonso, whose opulent gardens rival those at Versailles.
Castile-La Mancha and Castile-León are like parentheses around Madrid, one north and one south. The name “Castile” refers to the great east-west line of castles and fortified towns built in the 12th century between Salamanca and Soria. Segovia’s Alcázar, Ávila’s fully intact city walls, and other bastions are among Castile’s greatest monuments.
Extremadura, just west of Madrid, covers an area of 41,602 square km (16,063 square miles) and consists of two provinces: Cáceres to the north and Badajoz to the south, divided by the Toledo Mountains. To the west, this region borders Portugal; to the south, Andalusia; and to the east, Castile-La Mancha.
Castile-La Mancha. Toledo, once home to Spain’s famous artist El Greco, is a major destination outside Madrid. Other highlights of the area include lovely Cuenca with its “hanging houses” architecture and Almagro with its splendid parador.
Castile-León. There are several worthy destinations in the northern Castile, including medieval Segovia, with its famed Roman aqueduct and Alcázar, and the walled city of Ávila. Farther north is Salamanca, dominated by luminescent sandstone buildings, and the ancient capitals of Burgos and León. Burgos, an early outpost of Christianity, brims with medieval architecture, and you’ll see a multitude of nuns roaming its streets. León is a fun university town with some of its Roman walls still in place.
Extremadura. Green valleys and pristine mountain villages, along with cities like Cáceres and Trujillo, are the main attractions in upper Extremadura, while the Jerte Valley has stunning natural settings with remote villages that seem to have stopped short of the 20th century. Southern Extremadura reveals the influence of Portugal and Andalusia, and the early Roman capital of Lusitania at Mérida is one of Iberia’s finest compendiums of Roman ruins. The dehesa, southwestern Spain’s rolling oak forest and meadowland, is prime habitat for the semiwild Iberian pig and covers much of southern Extremadura.
WHEN TO GO
July and August can be brutally hot, and November through February can get bitterly cold, especially in the Sierra de Guadarrama. May and October, when the weather is sunny but relatively cool, are the two best months to visit central Spain.
Spring in Extremadura is the ideal season, especially in the countryside, when the valleys and hills are covered with a dazzle of wildflowers. If you can time it right, the stunning spectacle of cherry-blossom season in the Jerte Valley and La Vera takes place around mid-March. Fall is also a good time for Extremadura, though there may be rain starting in late October.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Madrid is an excellent hub for venturing farther into Spain, but with so many choices, we’ve divided them into must-see stand-alone destinations, and those that are worthy stops if you’re traveling on to other parts of the country. Some are day trips; others are best overnight.
Must-see, short-trip destinations from Madrid are Toledo, Segovia (with Sepúlveda), Sigüenza, and Salamanca. Salamanca should be an overnight trip, because it’s farther, and it also has fun nightlife.
Otherwise, if you’re traveling to other areas in Spain, we suggest the following stopover destinations:
If you’re on your way to Salamanca, stop in Ávila (buses go direct to Salamanca without stopping, but most trains stop in Ávila).
If you’re on your way to Santander or Bilbao, stop in Burgos.
If you’re on your way to Asturias, stop in León.
If you’re on your way to Lugo and A Coruña, in Galicia, stop in Villafranca del Bierzo or Astorga.
If you’re on your way to Córdoba or Granada, stop in Almagro.
If you’re on your way to Valencia, detour to Cuenca. Most trains, including the new high-speed AVE to Valencia, will go through Cuenca.
Extremadura is a neglected destination, even for Spanish tourists, but it’s a beautiful part of the country, with fascinating cities like Cáceres (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and Trujillo. You can get a lightning impression of Extremadura in a day’s drive from Madrid. It’s about 2½ hours from Madrid to Jerte; from there, you can take the A66 south to Cáceres, then head east to Trujillo on the N521. Split your time evenly between Cáceres and Trujillo. If you have more time, spend a day exploring the Roman monuments in Mérida, and do some world-famous bird-watching in the Parque Natural de Monfragüe, near Plasencia. If you can, visit the Monasterio de Yuste, where Spain’s founding emperor Carlos V died in 1558.
Central Spain is the land of festivals, and it’s the best place to find an authentic, truly Spanish vibe. Cuenca’s Easter celebration and Toledo’s Corpus Christi draw people from all over Spain, if not the world. During the pre-Lenten carnival, León and nearby La Bañeza are popular party centers. Expect crowds and book accommodations in advance. Gastronomic festivals abound.
From early to mid-September the town fills with bullfighting aficionados from across the country for 12 days of bull-running and bullfighting events with young bulls—but with a proviso that no harm should come to them (they are returned to their pastures when it’s all over). | Segura de León | www.seguradeleon.com.
Celebración del Cerdo y Vino.
This September festival celebrates pork and wine, with innumerable pork products prepared in public demonstrations. | Cáceres | 927/255765 for tourist office | www.ayto-caceres.es.
Feria del Queso.
Trujillo’s cheese festival, in early May, brings together Spain’s finest artisanal cheese makers, with hundreds of varieties to taste and buy. The event is understandably popular with foodies. | Trujillo | 927/321450 | www.feriadelquesotrujillo.es.
Festival de Teatro Clásico.
In Mérida, the highlight of the cultural calendar is this annual festival, held in the Roman theater from early July to mid-August. It features opera as well as classical drama, and celebrated its 60th year in 2014. | Mérida | 924/009480 | www.festivaldemerida.es.
Fiesta de San Juanin Coria.
This ancient festival in late June is a celebration of bulls and bullfighting that has endured for centuries. | Coria | 927/508000 | www.coria.org.
On December 7, the city is filled with bonfires to celebrate this festival, dedicated to the Virgen de la Concepción, during which locals play-fight with torches made out of brooms. | Jarandilla de la Vera | 927/560460 for tourist office | www.jarandilla.com.
The World of Music, Arts and Dance in early May draws crowds of around 75,000. Main stages are set up in the magical surroundings of this ancient city’s plazas for free concerts, and other events include shows staged in the Gran Teatro, children’s events, and a grand procession. | Cáceres | www.womap.es or www.womad.org/festivals/caceres.
GETTING HERE AND AROUND
The only international airport in Castile is Madrid’s Barajas; Salamanca, León, and Valladolid have domestic airports, but the economic crisis has led to a reduction in traffic and they receive very few flights these days. Extremadura’s only airport is Badajoz, which receives domestic flights from Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao. The nearest international airports are Madrid and Seville.
Bus connections between Madrid and Castile are excellent. There are several stations and stops in Madrid; buses to Toledo (1 hour) leave every half hour from the Estación del Sur, and buses to Segovia (1¼ hours) leave every hour from La Sepulvedana’s headquarters, near Príncipe Pío. Larrea sends buses to Ávila (1¾ hours) from the Estación del Sur. ALSA and Movelia have service to León (4½ hours). Auto Res serves Cuenca (2¾ hours) and Salamanca (3 hours). Buses to Burgos (2½ hours) are run by Continental Auto.
From Burgos, buses head north to the Basque Country; from León, you can press on to Asturias. Service between towns is not as frequent as it is to and from Madrid, so you may find it quicker to return to Madrid and make your way from there. Reservations are rarely necessary.
Buses to Extremadura’s main cities can be reached from Madrid and are reliable. The first bus of the day on lesser routes often sets off early in the morning, so plan carefully to avoid getting stranded. Some examples of destinations from Madrid are: Cáceres (7 daily), Guadalupe (2 daily), Trujillo (12 daily), and Mérida (8 daily). For schedules and prices, check the tourist offices or contact the Auto Res bus line. Note that it’s best to avoid taking the bus at rush hour, as journeys can be delayed by more than an hour.
Major divided highways—the A1 through A6—radiate out from Madrid, making Spain’s farthest corners no more than five- to six-hour drives, and the capital’s outlying towns are only minutes away. If possible, avoid returning to Madrid on major highways at the end of a weekend or a holiday. The beginning and end of August are notorious for traffic jams, as is Semana Santa (Holy Week), which starts on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. Side roads vary in quality but provide one of the great pleasures of driving around the Castilian countryside: surprise encounters with historical monuments and spectacular vistas.
If you’re heading from Madrid to Extremadura by car, the main gateway, the six-lane A5, moves quickly. The A66, or Vía de la Plata, which crosses Extremadura from north to south, is also effective. The fastest way heading from Portugal is the (Portuguese) A6 from Lisbon to Badajoz (not to be confused with the Spanish A6, which runs northwest from Madrid to Galicia). The main roads are well surfaced and not too congested. Side roads—particularly those that cross the wilder mountainous districts, such as the Sierra de Guadalupe—can be both poorly paved and marked, but afford some of the most spectacular vistas in Extremadura.
Mileage from Madrid:
Madrid to Burgos is 243 km (151 miles).
Madrid to Cáceres is 299 km (186 miles).
Madrid to Cuenca is 168 km (105 miles).
Madrid to Granada is 428 km (266 miles).
Madrid to Léon is 334 km (208 miles).
Madrid to Salamanca is 212 km (132 miles).
Madrid to Segovia is 91 km (57 miles).
Madrid to Toledo is 88 km (55 miles).
Madrid to Ávila is 114 km (71 miles).
All the main towns in Castile-León and Castile-La Mancha are accessible by multiple daily trains from Madrid, with tickets ranging from about €10 to €30, depending on train speed (the high-speed AVE service costs more), the time of day, and the day of the week. Several towns make feasible day trips: there are commuter trains from Madrid to Segovia (30 minutes), Guadalajara (30 minutes), and Toledo (30 minutes). Trains to Toledo depart from Madrid’s Atocha station; trains to Salamanca, Burgos, and León depart from Chamartín; and both stations serve Ávila, Segovia, El Escorial, and Sigüenza, though Chamartín may have more frequent service. Trains from Segovia go only to Madrid, but you can change at Villalba for Ávila and Salamanca.
For Extremadura, trains from Madrid stop at Monfragüe, Plasencia, Cáceres, Mérida, Zafra, and Badajoz, running as often as six times daily. The journey from Madrid to Cáceres takes about four hours. Within the province there are services from Badajoz to Cáceres (3 daily, 1 hour 55 minutes), to Mérida (5 daily, 40 minutes), and to Plasencia (2 daily, 2 hours 40 minutes); from Cáceres to Badajoz (3 daily, 1 hour 55 minutes), to Mérida (5 daily, 1 hour), to Plasencia (4 daily, 1 hour 10 minutes), and to Zafra (2 daily, 2 hours 10 minutes); from Plasencia to Badajoz (2 daily, 3 hours), to Cáceres (4 daily, 1 hour 10 minutes), and to Mérida (4 daily, 2 hours 10 minutes). Note that several cities have separate train stations for normal versus AVE high-speed rail service; the newer AVE stations are often farther from town centers.
This is Spain’s authentic heartland, bereft of touristy hamburger joints and filled instead with the country’s most traditional tavernas, which attract Spanish foodies from across the country. Some of the most renowned restaurants in this region are small and family-run, while a few new avant-garde spots in Extremadura serve up modern architecture as well as experimental fusion dishes. Restaurant prices are the average cost of a main course or equivalent combination of smaller dishes at dinner.
Many of the oldest and most attractive paradores in Castile are in quieter towns such as Almagro, Ávila, Cuenca, León, and Sigüenza. Those in Toledo, Segovia, and Salamanca are modern buildings with magnificent views and, in the case of Segovia, have wonderful indoor and outdoor swimming pools. There are plenty of pleasant alternatives to paradores, too, such as Segovia’s Hotel Infanta Isabel, Salamanca’s Hotel Rector, and Cuenca’s Posada San José, a 16th-century convent. In Extremadura the paradores occupy buildings of great historic or architectural interest. Hotel prices are the lowest cost of a standard double room in high season.
In summer the tourist offices of Segovia, Toledo, and Sigüenza organize Trénes Turísticos (miniature tourist trains) that glide past all the major sights; contact local tourist offices for schedules.
A great way to really get to know Extremadura is by bike, and you can cut down on the map reading by following the ancient Roman road, the Vía de la Plata: it runs through Extremadura from north to south along A66, dividing it in two, and passes by such villages as Plasencia, Cáceres, Mérida, and Zafra. Parts of the Vía are still preserved and good for bicycling. Note that the region north of the province of Cáceres, including the Jerte Valley, La Vera, and the area surrounding Guadalupe, is mountainous and uneven: be prepared for a bumpy and exhausting ride. (One ambitious Vía hiker created the unofficial website www.theviadelaplata.com, which has helpful information in English). The regional government has also opened a Vía Verde, or “green way” path along disused railroads, which goes from Logrosán (a couple of miles southwest of Guadalupe) to Villanueva de la Serena (east of Mérida and near Don Benito). This path is a roughly cleared track, more like a nature trail for hikers and bikers, and closed to motor vehicles. Check www.viasverdes.com for maps of this and other trails.
Equiberia. Horseback tours, ranging from one to 10 days, offer a unique way to experience the gorges, fields, and forests of the Sierra de Guadarrama. | Navarredonda de Gredos, | Ávila | 689/343974 | www.equiberia.com | From €80 per day.
Hidden Trails. Based in Vancouver, Canada, this company offers weeklong horseback tours of the Gredo Mountains on the border of Cáceres province. Prices include accommodations and meals. | 888/987-2457 from U.S. or Canada (888/9-TRAILS), 604/323-1141 from U.S. or Canada | www.hiddentrails.com | From €950.
Valle Aventura. Hiking, horseback-riding, cycling, and kayaking trips in the Jerte Valley can be organized with this company. Prices may not include meals. | 636/631182 | www.valleaventura.com | Day tours from €213.
EATING AND DRINKING WELL IN CASTILE AND EXTREMADURA
In Spain’s central meseta, an arid, high plateau, the peasant cooking provides comfort and energy. Roast lamb, pork, and goat are staples, as are soups, stews, and dishes made from scraps, such as the classic migas de pastor, shepherd’s bread crumbs.
Classic Castilian dishes are cordero (lamb) and cochinillo (suckling pig) roasted in wood ovens, and other prized entrées include perdiz en escabeche (marinated partridge), and perdices a la Toledana (stewed partridge, Toledo-style). Broad-bean dishes are specialties in the areas around Ávila and La Granja (Segovia), while trucha (trout) and cangrejos de río (river crayfish) are Guadalajara specialties. Some of Castile’s most exotic cuisine is found in Cuenca, where a Moorish influence appears in such dishes as gazpacho pastor (shepherd’s stew), a stew made with an assortment of meats. Wild mushrooms are used to enhance aromas in meat dishes and stews or are served on their own in earthenware dishes.
Don Quixote Food
Cervantine menus are favorites at taverns and inns throughout Quixote country southeast of Madrid. Both gachas manchegas (a thick peasant porridge based on fried legume flour and pork) and duelos y quebrantos (scrambled eggs and bacon) are mentioned in Don Quixote as typical offerings on late-15th-century rural menus.
Roast lamb, cordero asado, is a favorite dish throughout Castile. A lechazo, or milk-fed lamb, should be two to three weeks old and have been carefully protected from bumps and bruises by his shepherd. It’s handled with great delicacy all the way to the wood oven where it’s roasted slowly on low heat. The forequarters are considered better than the hindquarters, and the left side is more tender, as lambs tend to lie on their right sides, which toughens the meat.
Perdices a la Toledana, partridge prepared in the Toledo way, is one of Castile-La Mancha’s most sought-after gastronomical delicacies. Toledo partridges are neither estofadas (stewed) nor escabechadas (marinated) but, rather, cooked on low heat in wine with vinegar. Up to a dozen wild partridges stew for hours with white wine, olive oil, onions, garlic, and bay leaves until the sauce has nearly evaporated. October to February is the hunting season for partridge and the best time to try this local favorite with fresh birds.
La Mancha, the arid and windswept area southeast of Madrid, has its moist vegetable-growing pockets along the Tajo River. Pisto manchego is the classic vegetable stew, with ham and chorizo added for protein and flavor. Onions, green peppers, eggplant, ripe tomatoes, olive oil, chorizo, and ham are the ingredients in this Castilian favorite typically served in an earthenware vessel.
Migas de Pastor
Translated as “shepherd’s bread crumbs,” this dish is made with hardened bread that’s been softened with water, then broken up and fried in olive oil with lots of garlic and sometimes eggs, as well as bacon, chorizo, peppers, sardines, or squash if available.
Gazpacho Pastor (Shepherd’s Stew)
Andalusian gazpacho is a cold soup, but in La Mancha, especially in and around Cuenca, gazpacho is a thick stew made of virtually everything in the barnyard, and served very hot. Partridge, hare, rabbit, hen, peppers, paprika, and tortas gazpacheras (flatbread made especially for this dish) complete the stew.
In Toledo, Carlos Falcó (aka Marqués de Griñón) has developed excellent Dominio de Valdepusa wines using petit verdot and syrah grapes. In Ribera del Duero, winemakers from Pingus and Protos to Pago de Carraovejas offer full-bodied wines using tempranillo grapes, while El Bierzo northwest of León has good values and earthy wines made with the local mencía grape.
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Toledo | Almagro | Cuenca | Alarcón | Sigüenza
Castile-La Mancha is the land of Don Quixote, Cervantes’s chivalrous hero. Some of Spain’s oldest and most traditional cities are found here, steeped in culture and legend, and often not much visited by tourists. The architecture of Toledo and Cuenca are definite highlights, but the stark plains and villages are also enchanting, with open expanses rarely seen in Western Europe.
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88 km (55 miles) southwest of Madrid.
Long the spiritual capital of Spain, Toledo is perched atop a rocky mount with steep golden hills rising on either side and is bound on three sides by the Río Tajo (Tagus River). When the Romans arrived here in 192 BC, they built their fortress (the Alcázar) on the highest point of the rock. Later, the Visigoths remodeled the stronghold.
In the 8th century, the Moors arrived and strengthened Toledo’s reputation as a center of religion and learning. Unusual tolerance was extended to those who practiced Christianity (the Mozarabs) and to the city’s exceptionally large Jewish population. Today, the Moorish legacy is evident in Toledo’s strong crafts tradition, the mazelike streets, and the predominance of brick (rather than the stone of many of Spain’s historical cities). For the Moors, beauty was to be savored from within rather than displayed on the surface. Even Toledo’s cathedral—one of the most richly endowed in Spain—is hard to see from the outside, largely obscured by the warren of houses around it.
Alfonso VI, aided by El Cid (“Lord Conqueror”), captured the city in 1085 and dubbed himself emperor of Toledo. Under the Christians, the town’s strong intellectual life was maintained, and Toledo became famous for its school of translators, who taught Arab medicine, law, culture, and philosophy. Religious tolerance continued, and during the rule of Pedro the Cruel (so named because he allegedly had members of his own family murdered to advance his position), a Jewish banker, Samuel Levi, became the royal treasurer and one of the wealthiest men in the booming city. By the early 1600s, however, hostility toward Jews and Arabs had grown as Toledo developed into a bastion of the Catholic Church.
Under Toledo’s long line of cardinals—most notably Mendoza, Tavera, and Cisneros—Renaissance Toledo emerged as a center of the humanities. Economically and politically, however, Toledo began to decline at the end of the 15th century. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, as part of the Spanish Inquisition, eroded Toledo’s economic prowess. When Madrid became the permanent center of the Spanish court in 1561, Toledo lost its political importance, and the expulsion from Spain of the converted Arabs (Moriscos) in 1601 meant the departure of most of the city’s artisan community. The years the painter El Greco spent in Toledo—from 1572 to his death in 1614—were those of the city’s decline, which is greatly reflected in his works. In the late 19th century, after hundreds of years of neglect, the works of El Greco came to be widely appreciated, and Toledo was transformed into a major tourist destination. Today, Toledo is conservative, prosperous, proud—and a bit provincial. Its winding streets and steep hills can be exasperating, especially when you’re searching for a specific sight. Take the entire day to absorb the town’s medieval trappings and expect to get a little lost.
Getting Here and Around
The best way to get to Toledo from Madrid is the high-speed AVE train. The AVE leaves from Madrid at minimum nine times daily from Atocha station and gets you there in 30 minutes. Buses leave every half hour from Plaza Elíptica and take 1¼ hours.
A Good Walk in Toledo
The eastern end of the Tagus gorge, along Calle de Circunvalación, is a good place to park your car and look down over historic Toledo. If you want to be closer to the city, park next to the Alcázar. The streets in Toledo are steep and winding, making it hard to find sights. To avoid frustration, you might prefer to visit only some of these sights or spread your tour over several days.
A complete tour starts at the Puente de Alcántara. If you skirt the city walls traveling northwest, a long walk past the Puerta de Bisagra on Calle Cardenal Tavera brings you to the Hospital de Tavera. If, instead, you enter the city wall, walk west and pass the Museo de la Santa Cruz to emerge in the Plaza de Zocodover. Due south, on Calle Cuesta de Carlos V, is the Alcázar; a short walk northwest on Calle Nueva brings you to the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz. From the southwestern corner of the Alcázar, a series of alleys descends to the cathedral. Make your way around the southern side of the building, passing the mid-15th-century Puerta de los Leones. On the small plaza in front of the cathedral’s west facade, you’ll see the stately ayuntamiento (town hall).
Near the Museo de los Concilios, on Calle de San Clemente, take in the Convento de San Clemente’s richly sculpted portal by Alonso de Covarrubias. Across the street is the church of San Román. Almost every wall in this part of town belongs to a convent, and the empty streets make for contemplative walks. This was a district loved by the Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, author of Rimas (Rhymes), once the most popular collection of Spanish verse. Bécquer’s favorite corner of Toledo was the tiny square in front of the 16th-century convent church of Santo Domingo, a few minutes’ walk north of San Román, below the Plazuela de Padilla.
Backtrack, following Calle de San Clemente through Plaza de Valdecaleros to Calle de Santo Tomé, to get to the church of Santo Tomé. Downhill from Santo Tomé, off Calle de San Juan de Díos, is the Casa y Museo de El Greco (follow the signs, as it’s a bit of a labyrinth). Next to the Casa de El Greco is the 14th-century Sinagoga del Tránsito, financed by Samuel Levi, and the accompanying Museo Sefardí. From the synagogue, turn right up Calle de Reyes Católicos. A few steps past the town’s other synagogue, Santa María la Blanca, is the late-15th-century church of San Juan de los Reyes. The town’s western extremity is the Puente de San Martín.
The name translates as “Tell me about Toledo” and that’s just what they do. The company offers free tours (in English and Spanish) of Toledo’s historic center at 5 pm daily, plus a range of other paid tours of the city’s monuments, best-kept secrets, subterranean passageways, and urban legends. There are also El Greco-themed tours, nighttime ghost tours, and other routes that include visits to ancient Arab baths. | Corral de Don Diego 5 | 925/210767, 608/935856 | www.cuentametoledo.com | Free or €12, depending on the tour.
FAMILY | Toledo TrainVision.
The tourist train chugs past many of Toledo’s main sights, departing from the Plaza de Zocodover every hour on the hour during the week, and every 30 minutes on weekends. The tour takes 45-50 minutes and has recorded information in 13 languages—including English, Spanish and French—plus children’s versions in those three languages too. Buy tickets at the kiosk in Plaza de Zocodover. | Pl. de Zocodover | 625/301890 | €5.10, includes audio tour | Apr.-Sept., Mon.-Thurs. 10-7:30, Fri.-Sun. 10 am-11:30 pm; Oct.-Mar., Mon.-Thurs. 10-5, Fri.-Sun. 10-6:30.
Lola Torres is a local woman with 20 years’ experience as a Toledo tour guide. She can help arrange tours for families or groups, with themes ranging from gastronomy to Jewish history to El Greco, in English, French, and Spanish. | 699/458406 | Tours are customized so prices vary; call for details.
Provincial Tourist Office. | Subida de la Granja s/n | 925/248232 | www.diputoledo.es.
Toledo. There are also smaller branches at the AVE train station and Ayuntamiento (town hall). | Pl. de Zocodover 6 | 925/267666, 687/854965, 925/254030, 925/239121 | www.toledo-turismo.com.
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Originally a Moorish citadel (alcázar is Arabic for “fortress”) and occupied from the 10th century until the Reconquest, Toledo’s Alcázar is on a hill just outside the walled city, dominating the horizon. The south facade—the building’s most severe—is the work of Juan de Herrera, of El Escorial fame, while the east facade incorporates a large section of battlements. The finest facade is the northern, one of many Toledan works by Covarrubias, who did more than any other architect to introduce the Renaissance style here. The building’s architectural highlight is Covarrubias’s Italianate courtyard, which, like most other parts of the building, was largely rebuilt after the civil war, when the Alcázar was besieged by the Republicans. Though the Nationalists’ ranks were depleted, they held onto the building. General Francisco Franco later turned the Alcázar into a monument to Nationalist bravery. The Alcázar now houses the Museo del Ejército (Military Museum), which was formerly in Madrid. TIP Be sure to keep your ticket—it’s needed when you exit the museum. | Cuesta de los Capuchinos | 925/238800 | www.museo.ejercito.es | €5, €8 with audio guide (in five languages); free Sun. 10-3. Additional fee may be charged for temporary exhibitions | Thurs.-Tues. 11-5. Last tickets sold 30 mins before closing.
Calle del Comercio.
Near Plaza de Zocodover, this is the town’s narrow and busy pedestrian thoroughfare. It’s lined with bars and shops and shaded in summer by awnings.
Fodor’s Choice | Cathedral.
One of the most impressive structures in all of Spain, this is a must-see on any visit to the city. The elaborate structure owes its impressive Mozarabic chapel, with an elongated dome crowning the west facade, to Jorge Manuel Theotokópoulos. The rest of the facade, however, is mainly early 15th century; it features a depiction of Mary presenting her robe to Ildefonsus, Toledo’s patron saint, a Visigoth who was archbishop of the city in the 7th century. Chartres and other Gothic cathedrals in France inspired the cathedral’s 13th-century architecture, but the squat proportions give it a Spanish feel, as do the weight of the furnishings and the elaborate choir in the center of the nave. Immediately to your right as you enter the building is a beautifully carved plateresque doorway by Covarrubias, marking the entrance to the Treasury. The latter houses a small Crucifixion by the Italian painter Cimabue and an extraordinarily intricate late-15th-century monstrance by Juan del Arfe, a silversmith of German descent; the ceiling is an excellent example of Mudejar (11th- to 16th-century Moorish-influenced) workmanship.
From here, walk around to the ambulatory; off to the right side is a chapter house with a strange mixture of Italianate frescoes by Juan de Borgoña. In the middle of the ambulatory is an exemplary baroque illusionism by Narciso Tomé known as the Transparente, a blend of painting, stucco, and sculpture. Finally, off the northern end of the ambulatory, you’ll come to the exquisite sacristy and several El Grecos, including one version of El Espolio (Christ Being Stripped of His Raiment), the first recorded instance of the painter in Spain. Before leaving the sacristy, look up at the colorful and spirited late-baroque ceiling painting by the Italian Luca Giordano. | Calle Cardenal Cisneros 1 | 925/222241 | www.catedralprimada.es | €8 for cathedral and museums, €11 to also include tower | Mon.-Sat. 10-6:30, Sun. and holidays 2-6:30.
El Greco: the Titan of Toledo
“Crete gave him his life, and brushes; Toledo, a better land, where he begins with Death to attain Eternity.” With these words, the Toledan poet Fray Hortensio Paravicino paid homage to his friend El Greco—and to the symbiotic connection between El Greco and his adopted city of Toledo. El Greco’s intensely individual and expressionist style—elongated and sometimes distorted figures, charged colors, and a haunting mysticism—was seen as strange and disturbing, and his work remained largely neglected until the late 19th century, when he found wide acclaim and joined the ranks of Velazquez and Goya as a master of Spanish painting.
Born Domenikos Theotokópoulos on the island of Crete, El Greco (“The Greek”) received his artistic education and training in Italy and then moved to Spain around 1577, lured in part by the prospect of painting frescoes for the royal monastery of El Escorial. King Felipe II, however, rejected El Greco’s work for being too unusual. It was in Toledo that El Greco came into his own, creating many of his greatest works and honing his singular style and unique vision. He remained here until his death in 1614. For a yearlong festival marking the 400th anniversary of his death in 2014, several of El Greco’s works that had been on display in museums around the world returned to Toledo—to stay. The master painter immortalized the city and its citizens. His masterpiece The Burial of Count Orgaz, which hangs in Toledo’s Chapel of Santo Tomé, pays tribute to Toledan society. Perhaps the most famous rendering of Toledo is El Greco’s dramatic View of Toledo, in which the cityscape crackles with a sinister energy underneath a stormy sky. El Greco’s other famous landscape, View and Plan of Toledo, can be seen at Toledo’s Casa y Museo de El Greco.
Hospital de Tavera.
Architect Alonso de Covarrubias’s last work, this hospital lies outside the city walls, beyond Toledo’s main northern gate. A fine example of Spanish Renaissance architecture, the building also houses the Museo de Duque de Lema in its southern wing. The most important work in the museum’s miscellaneous collection is a painting by the 17th-century artist José Ribera. The hospital’s monumental chapel holds El Greco’s Baptism of Christ and the exquisitely carved marble tomb of Cardinal Tavera, the last work of Alonso de Berruguete. Descend into the crypt to experience some bizarre acoustical effects. A full ticket includes the hospital, museum, old pharmacy, and Renaissance patios. A partial ticket includes everything except the museum. Guided tours are available at 45-minute intervals. | Calle Duque de Lerma 2 (also known as Calle Cardenal Tavera) | 925/220451 | www.fundacionmedinaceli.org | €4.50 full ticket, €3.50 partial ticket | Mon.-Sat. and holidays 10-1:30 and 3-5:30, Sun. 10-1:30. Ticket office closes 45 mins before the museum.
Fodor’s Choice | Iglesia de San Ildefonso (San Ildefonso Church, The Jesuits).
Sometimes simply called “Jesuitas,” for the religious order that founded it, the Iglesia de San Ildefonso is named for Toledo’s patron saint, a local bishop in the 7th century. It was finally consecrated in 1718, after taking 150 years to build the baroque stone facade with giant Corinthian columns. Its semispherical dome is one of the icons of Toledo’s skyline. This impressive building deserves a visit, and a climb up its tower (€2.50) affords the best views over all of Toledo. | Pl. Juan de Mariana 1 | 925/251507 | €2.50 | Daily 10-5:45 (until 6:45 in summer).
Iglesia de Santo Tomé (Santo Tomé Church).
Not to be confused with the marzipan shop of the same name, the real Santo Tomé is a chapel topped with a Mudejar tower, and built specially to house El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz. The painting portrays the benefactor of the church being buried with the posthumous assistance of St. Augustine and St. Stephen, who have appeared at the funeral to thank the count for his donations to religious institutions named after the two saints. Though the count’s burial took place in the 14th century, El Greco painted the onlookers in contemporary 16th-century costumes and included people he knew; the boy in the foreground is one of El Greco’s sons, and the sixth figure on the left is said to be the artist himself. Santo Tomé is Toledo’s most-visited church besides the Cathedral so to avoid crowds in summer, plan to visit as soon as the building opens. | Pl. del Conde 4, Calle Santo Tomé | 925/256098 | www.santotome.org | €2.50 | Daily 10-5:45 (until 6:45 Mar.-mid-Oct.).
Fodor’s Choice | Monasterio San Clemente.
Founded in 1131, this is Toledo’s oldest convent—and it’s still in use. About 20 nuns live here, producing their own sweet wine and some of the best marzipan around. Tucked away in the city’s historic quarter, the impressive complex includes ruins of a mosque, on which a chapel was built in the Middle Ages. Also here are the preserved ruins of an Islamic house and courtyard, with an ancient well and Arab baths, and a Jewish house from the same period. Free tours, twice daily, include a visit to the kitchen where the Mother Superior usually lets you sample some sweets. Skip the tourist marzipan shops and buy the real stuff here. There’s also an adjacent cultural center with rotating history exhibits. | Calle San Clemente | 925/253080 | email@example.com | Tues.-Sat. 11-1:30 and 4-6:30, Sun. Mass at noon. Tours: Tues.-Sat. at 11 and 5, Sun. at 11.
Fodor’s Choice | Museo de El Greco (El Greco Museum).
This house that once belonged to Peter the Cruel’s treasurer, Samuel Levi, is said to have later been El Greco’s home, though there’s little historical evidence to prove the artist lived here. Nevertheless, the interior is decorated to resemble a “typical” house of El Greco’s time. The house is now incorporated into a revamped El Greco museum with several of the artist’s paintings, including a panorama of Toledo with the Hospital of Tavera in the foreground, and works of several of El Greco’s students (including his son) and other 16th- and 17th-century artists. Medieval caves have been excavated at the site, and there’s a beautiful garden in which to take refuge from Toledo’s often-scorching summer heat. The impressive museum complex has become a centerpiece for Toledo tourism since the “El Greco 2014” festival, marking the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. | Paseo del Tránsito s/n | 925/223665 | museodelgreco.mcu.es or www.elgreco2014.com | €3 (free Sat. after 2) | Tues.-Sat. 9:30-6:30 (until 8 Apr.-Sept.), Sun. and holidays 10-3. Last tickets sold 15 mins before closing.
Museo de Santa Cruz.
In a beautiful Renaissance hospital with a stunning classical-plateresque facade, this museum is open all day without a break (unlike many of Toledo’s other sights). Aside from some small renovations in early 2013, the light and elegant interior has changed little since the 16th century. Works of art have replaced the hospital beds, and among the displays is El Greco’s Assumption of 1613, the artist’s last known work. A small Museo de Arqueología (Museum of Archaeology) is in and around the hospital’s delightful cloister. | Calle Cervantes 3 | 925/221036 | Free | Mon.-Sat. 10-7, Sun. and holidays 10-2:30.
Plaza de Zocodover.
Toledo’s main square was built in the early 17th century as part of an unsuccessful attempt to impose a rigid geometry on the chaotic Moorish streets. Over the centuries, this tiny plaza has hosted bullfights, executions by the Spanish Inquisition, and countless street fairs. Today it’s home to the largest and oldest marzipan store in town, Santo Tomé. You can catch inner-city buses here, and the tourist office is on the south side of the plaza.
Fodor’s Choice | Sinagoga del Tránsito (Museo Sefardí, Sephardic Museum).
Financed by Samuel Levi, this 14th-century rectangular synagogue is plain on the outside, but spectacular on the inside, with walls embellished in intricate Mudejar decoration, and both Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions glorifying God, Peter the Cruel, and Levi himself. It’s a rare example of architecture reflecting Arabic as the lingua franca of medieval Spanish Jews. It’s said that Levi imported cedars from Lebanon for the building’s construction, à la Solomon when he built the First Temple in Jerusalem. This is one of only three synagogues still fully standing in Spain (two in Toledo, one in Córdoba), from an era when there were hundreds—though more are in the process of being excavated. Adjoining the main hall is the Museo Sefardí, a small but excellent museum of Jewish culture in Spain. | Calle Samuel Levi 2 | 925/223665 | museosefardi.mcu.es | €3 (free Sat. afternoon) | Tues.-Sat. 9:30-6:30 (until 8 Apr.-Sept.), Sun. and holidays 10-3.
Convento de Santo Domingo el Antiguo (Convento de Santo Domingo de Silos; Santo Domingo Convent).
A few minutes’ walk north of San Román, this 16th-century convent church is where you’ll find the earliest of El Greco’s Toledo paintings as well as the crypt where the artist is believed to be buried. The friendly nuns at the convent will show you around its odd little museum, which includes documents bearing El Greco’s signature. | Pl. Santo Domingo el Antiguo | 925/222930 | €2.50 | Mon.-Sat. 11-1:30 and 4-7, Sun. and holidays 4-7.
Iglesia de San Román.
Hidden in a virtually unspoiled part of Toledo, this early-13th-century Mudejar church is now the Museo de los Concilios y de la Cultura Visigótica, with exhibits of statuary, manuscript illustrations, jewelry, and an extensive collection of frescoes. The church tower is adjacent to the ruins of Roman baths. | Calle San Roman | 925/227872 | Free | Tues.-Sat. 10-2:30 and 4-7, Sun. and holidays 10-2:30.
Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz (Mosque of Christ of the Light).
This mosque-chapel is nestled in a park above the city’s ramparts. Originally a tiny Visigothic church, the chapel was transformed into a mosque during the Moorish occupation. The Islamic arches and vaulting survived, making this the most important relic of Moorish Toledo. The chapel got its name when Alfonso VI’s horse, striding triumphantly into Toledo in 1085, fell to its knees out front (a white stone marks the spot). It was then discovered that a candle had burned continuously behind the masonry the whole time the Muslims had been in power. Allegedly, the first Mass of the Reconquest was held here, and later a Mudejar apse was added. Archaeological excavations are underway to reveal the remnants of a Roman house in the yard nearby. | Cuesta de Carmelitas Descalzos 10 | 925/254191 | €2.50 | Daily 10-2 and 3:30-5:45 (until 6:45 Mar.-mid-Oct.).
Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes.
This convent church in western Toledo was erected by Ferdinand and Isabella to commemorate their victory at the Battle of Toro in 1476. (It was also intended to be their burial place, but their wish changed after Granada was recaptured from the Moors in 1492, and their actual tomb is in that city’s Capilla Real.) The building is largely the work of architect Juan Guas, who considered it his masterpiece and asked to be buried here himself. In true plateresque fashion, the white interior is covered with inscriptions and heraldic motifs. | San Juan de los Reyes 2 | 925/223802 | www.sanjuandelosreyes.org | €2.50 | Daily 10-5:45 (until 6:45 Apr.-Sept.).
Museo Cerámica Ruiz de Luna.
Most of the region’s pottery is made in Talavera de la Reina, 76 km (47 miles) west of Toledo. At this museum you can watch artisans throw local clay, then trace the development of Talavera’s world-famous ceramics, chronicled through about 1,500 tiles, bowls, vases, and plates dating back to the 15th century. It’s closed on Monday, and there’s a small admission fee. | Calle San Agustín el Viejo 13, Pl. de San Augustín, Talavera de la Reina | 925/800149 | €0.60 | Tues.-Fri. 9-3:15, Sat. 9:45-2 and 3:45-7, Sun. 10-2:30.
Puente de Alcántara.
Roman in origin, this is the city’s oldest bridge. Next to it is a heavily restored castle built after the Christian capture of 1085 and, above this, a vast and severe military academy, a typical example of fascist architecture under Franco. From the other side of the Tagus River, the bridge offers unparalleled views of Toledo’s historic center and the Alcázar. | Calle Gerardo Lobo.
Puente de San Martín.
This pedestrian bridge on the western edge of Toledo dates back to 1203 and has splendid horseshoe arches.
QUICK BITES: Teteria Dar Al-Chai.
If the maze of Toledo’s streets exhausts you, unwind at this Arabian tea house-bar. Just south of San Juan de los Reyes on Calle de los Reyes Católicos, it has plush couches, low tables, and colorful tapestries. The selection of common teas is delightful, but why not try one from the special list: mixed and brewed in-house, they feature a blend of flowers, dried fruit, and spices such as cardamom. Excellent fruit smoothies, crepes, and sandwiches are also available. It’s open all day, until 10 pm, on weekdays, but opens at 4 pm on weekends. The tea shop also offers rotating exhibitions of Middle Eastern-theme furniture, artwork, clothing, and handbags for sale. | Pl. Barrio Nuevo 5 | 925/225625.
Sinagoga de Santa María La Blanca.
Founded in 1203, Toledo’s second synagogue is nearly two centuries older than the more elaborate Tránsito, just down the street. Santa María’s white interior has a forest of columns supporting capitals with fine filigree workmanship. | Calle de Reyes Católicos 4 | 925/227257 | €2.50 | Daily 10-5:45 (until 6:45 Apr.-Sept.).
WHERE TO EAT
Fodor’s Choice | Adolfo Restaurant.
SPANISH | King Juan Carlos I declared Adolfo’s partridge stew the best in Spain. Steps from the cathedral but discreetly hidden, this restaurant has an intimate interior with a coffered ceiling that was painted in the 14th century. From the entryway you can see game, fresh produce, and traditional Toledan recipes being prepared in the kitchen, which combines local tastes with Nueva Cocina tendencies. The tempura de flor de calabacín (tempura-battered zucchini blossoms in a saffron sauce) makes for a tasty starter, and what better to finish a meal than a Toledan specialty, delicias de mazapán (marzipan sweets). The restaurant runs its own winery and is affiliated with the Toledo culinary arts school. | Average main: €50 | Calle del Hombre de Palo 7 | 925/227321, 639/938140 | www.adolforestaurante.com | Reservations essential | No dinner Sun.
SPANISH | Locals and visitors come together at this famous tapas bar to have a beer and share the typical Toledan carcamusas, a meat stew with peas and tomatoes served in a hot dish. A couple of steps from the Zocodover square, the bar is famous for heaping plates of free tapas that come with your drink—helping make it a favorite for students, too. | Average main: €12 | Pl. de la Magdalena 10 | 925/223384 | Closed Wed.
Cafe Club Legendario.
TAPAS | As its name suggests, this cocktail bar is legendary—for its Cuban-rum mojitos—and it offers a quite shady spot for breakfast or a quick bite midday, when salads, toasts, and tapas are on the menu. The bar and restaurant are housed in a 17th-century palace, tucked away in Toledo’s historic old quarter, and there are several semiprivate rooms for groups and birthday parties. It’s open right through from 10 am to midnight. | Average main: €15 | Pl. de San Vicente 4 | 925/252356, 691/434436.
Fodor’s Choice | La Flor de la Esquina.
SPANISH | This charming, rustic, local restaurant and wine bar across from the San Ildefonso Church has a cozy dining room, but the best place to sit is outside, at one of a handful of tables on the Plaza del Padre, with views of Toledo’s cathedral spires. There are several daily three-course menus offering very good value (€18 to €30 per person, including local wines). There’s also a tapas tasting menu if you want to sample everything. Be sure to try the ample surtido de ibéricos jamón (ham) platters and the medallones de foie de pato con crema de balsámico y frambuesa (medallions of duck liver with balsamic-vinegar crème and raspberries). | Average main: €20 | Pl. del Padre Juan de Mariana 2 | 627/945020 | www.laflordelaesquina.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Hacienda del Cardenal.
HOTEL | Built in the 18th century (restored in 1972) as a summer palace for Cardinal Lorenzana, this quiet and beautiful 3-star hotel is fully outfitted with antique furniture and other nice touches. Some rooms overlook the hotel’s enchanting wooded garden, which lies at the foot of the town’s walls. The restaurant, popular with tourists, has a long-standing reputation, and hotel guests get a 10% discount; dishes are mainly local, and in season you can find delicious asparagus and strawberries from Aranjuez. lIf you have a car, reserve a parking spot when you book your room or you may not be guaranteed a space. Pros: lovely courtyard; convenient dining. Cons: restaurant often full; parking is pricey. | Rooms from: €85 | Paseo de Recaredo 24 | 925/224900 | www.hostaldelcardenal.com | 27 rooms | Breakfast.
Hotel Pintor El Greco Sercotel.
HOTEL | Next door to the painter’s house, this former 17th-century bakery is now a chic, contemporary hotel managed by the Sercotel chain. Still incorporating ancient stones, the modern interior is warm and elegant, with rooms decorated in tawny colors and antique touches, such as a stone arch over the bed, or rustic wooden beams that crisscross the ceiling. Exposed-brick vaulting pulls your imagination back to El Greco’s time. Pros: parking garage adjacent. Cons: street noise in most rooms; elevator goes to the second floor only. | Rooms from: €100 | Alamillos del Tránsito 13 | 925/285191, 902/141515 | www.hotelpintorelgreco.com | 60 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
FAMILY | Parador de Toledo.
HOTEL | This modern building with Mudejar-style touches on Toledo’s outskirts has an unbeatable panorama of the town from the rooms’ terraces and adjacent swimming pool, where you can sit and watch the sunset. Architecture and furnishings nod to traditional style, emphasizing brick and wood. The restaurant is stately and also traditional, with top-quality regional wines and products. Note that this is one of the more institutional paradores, so if you’re in search of a building with a storied past, then the paradores in Sigüenza, Cáceres, or Cuenca might be a better option. Pros: outdoor swimming pool. Cons: Long walk from the city center; swimming pool only open June 15-Sept. 15. | Rooms from: €180 | Cerro del Emperador | 925/221850, 902/547979 reservations | www.parador.es | 77 rooms | Breakfast.
The Moors established silverwork, damascene (metalwork inlaid with gold or silver), pottery, embroidery, and marzipan traditions here. A turn-of-the-20th-century art school next to San Juan de los Reyes keeps some of these crafts alive. For inexpensive pottery, stop at the large stores on the outskirts of town, on the main road to Madrid.
La Encina de Ortega.
Named after a massive, 200-year-old oak tree on the Ortega family’s property, this gourmet shop sells local wines, olive oil, chocolate, coffee, pâté, and especially, selected jamón ibérico made from pigs raised on the family farm. Owner José María Ortega has garnered local fame for inventing a special ham-cutting method. You can watch him at work in his shop, and perhaps pick up supplies for a picnic. The store is closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, and for a siesta on weekday afternoons. | Calle La Plata 22 | 925/102072 | www.laencinadeortega.com.
Santo Tomé Marzipan.
Since 1856, Santo Tomé has been Spain’s most famous maker of marzipan—a Spanish sweet made from sugar, honey, and almond paste. Visit the main shop on the Plaza de Zocodover, or take a tour of the old convent-turned-factory where it’s actually made, on Calle Santo Tomé 3. Call ahead to book tours. You can also order online. | Pl. de Zocodover 7 | 925/221168, 925/223763 | www.mazapan.com.
215 km (134 miles) south of Madrid.
The center of this noble town contains the only preserved medieval theater in Europe, which stands beside the ancient Plaza Mayor, where 85 Roman columns form two colonnades supporting green-frame, 16th-century buildings. Near the plaza are granite mansions embellished with the heraldic shields of their former owners and a splendid parador in a restored 17th-century convent.
Getting Here and Around
Almagro can be reached by train from Madrid, with one service per day departing from Atocha or Chamartin stations for the 2½-hour journey, but it’s probably best to have a rental car. The drive south from the capital takes you across the plains of La Mancha, where Don Quixote’s adventures unfolded.
Almagro. | Pl. Mayor 1 | 926/860717 | www.ciudad-almagro.com.
Corral de Comedias.
Standing almost as it did in 1628 when it was built, this theater has wooden balconies on four sides and the stage at one end of the open patio. During the golden age of Spanish theater—the time of playwrights Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Cervantes, and Lope de Vega—touring actors came to Almagro, which prospered from mercury mines and lace making. The Corral is the site of an international theater festival (www.festivaldealmagro.com) each July. Festival tickets may be purchased with a credit card through Tele-Entrada (926/882458) or with cash (after mid-May) at Palacio de los Medrano on San Agustín 7. | Pl. Mayor 18 | 926/861539 | Audio tour €3, dramatized tour €4 | Apr.-June and Aug.-Sept., weekdays 10-2 and 5-8, weekends 10-1 and 5-7; July, daily 10-2 and 6-9; Oct.-early Dec. and Mar., weekdays 10-2 and 4-7, Sat. 10-1 and 4-6, Sun. 10-1 and 4-7; early Dec.-Feb., daily 10-2 and 4-7.
Museo Nacional del Teatro.
This museum displays models of the Roman amphitheaters in Mérida (Extremadura) and Sagunto (near Valencia), both still in use, as well as costumes, pictures, and documents relating to the history of Spanish theater. | Calle del Gran Maestre 2 | 926/261014, 926/261018 | museoteatro.mcu.es | €3 (free Sat. afternoon and Sun. morning) | Sept.-June, Tues.-Fri. 10-2 and 4-7, Sat. 11-2 and 4-6, Sun. and holidays 11-2; July-Aug., Tues.-Fri. 10-2 and 6-9, Sat. 11-2 and 6-8, Sun. 11-2.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
Fodor’s Choice | El Corregidor.
SPANISH | Several old houses stuffed with antiques make up this fine restaurant and tapas bar. You can enjoy your meal alfresco in the beautiful garden or terrace, or take refuge in the air-conditioned dining room. The menu centers on rich local fare, including game, fish, and spicy Almagro eggplant, a local delicacy. Opt for the full-blown menú de degustación (€50) if you’re up for seven savory tapas; the cheaper menú Manchego gastronómico (€30) is a three-course meal of more traditional, regional specialties, including pisto manchego and ravioli de cordero (lamb-stuffed ravioli). There’s also a wine bar, hotel, and spa. | Average main: €24 | Calle Jerónimo Ceballos 2 | 926/860648 | www.elcorregidor.com | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | Parador de Almagro.
HOTEL | Five minutes from the Plaza Mayor of Almagro, this parador is a finely restored 16th-century Franciscan convent with cells, cloisters, and patios. Indeed, some rooms still resemble monks’ cells, albeit with lots of modern conveniences, and the patios inspire a meditative tranquility. Pros: pretty indoor courtyards; outdoor pool; ample parking. Cons: bathrooms need fixing up. | Rooms from: €135 | Ronda de San Francisco 31 | 926/860100 | www.parador.es | 54 rooms | Some meals.
168 km (105 miles) southeast of Madrid, 150 km (93 miles) northwest of Valencia.
Though somewhat isolated, Cuenca makes a good overnight stop if you’re traveling between Madrid and Valencia, or even a worthwhile detour between Madrid and Barcelona. The delightful old town is one of the most surreal looking in Spain, built on a sloping, curling finger of rock with precipitous sides that plunge down to the gorges of the Huécar and Júcar rivers. Because the town ran out of room to expand, some medieval houses dangle right over the abyss and are now a unique architectural attraction: the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses). The old town’s dramatic setting grants spectacular gorge views, and its cobblestone streets, cathedral, churches, bars, and taverns contrast starkly with the modern town, which sprawls beyond the river gorges.
Getting Here and Around
From Madrid, buses leave for Cuenca about every two hours from Conde de Casal. From Valencia, four buses leave every four to six hours, starting at 8:30 am. A high-speed AVE train leaves Madrid approximately every hour and stops in Cuenca (after about 55 minutes) on its way to Valencia. Slower, cheaper trains also run several times daily between Cuenca and Valencia, Madrid, Albacete, and Alicante, on the coast.
Cuenca. | Av. Cruz Roja 1 | 969/241050 | www.turismocuenca.com.
Cuenca has 14 churches and two cathedrals—but visitors are allowed inside only about half of them. The best views of the city are from the square in front of a small palace at the very top of Cuenca, where the town tapers out to the narrowest of ledges. Here, gorges are on either side of the precipice, and old houses sweep down toward a distant plateau in front. The lower half of the old town is a maze of tiny streets, any of which will take you up to the Plaza del Carmen. From here the town narrows and a single street, Calle Alfonso VIII, continues the ascent to the Plaza Mayor, which passes under the arch of the town hall.
Fodor’s Choice | Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses).
As if Cuenca’s famous Casas Colgadas, suspended impossibly over the cliffs below, were not eye-popping enough, they also house one of Spain’s finest and most curious museums, the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Museum of Spanish Abstract Art)—not to be confused with the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, which is next to the Casas Colgadas. Projecting over the town’s eastern precipice, these houses originally formed a 15th-century palace, which later served as a town hall before falling into disrepair in the 19th century. In 1927 the cantilevered balconies that had once hung over the gorge were rebuilt, and in 1966 the painter Fernando Zóbel decided to create (inside the houses) the world’s first museum devoted exclusively to abstract art. The works he gathered are almost all by the remarkable generation of Spanish artists who grew up in the 1950s and were forced to live abroad during the Franco regime. The major names include Carlos Saura, Eduardo Chillida, Lucio Muñoz, Manuel Millares, Antoni Tàpies, and Zóbel himself. TIP The museum has free smartphone audio guides, which can be downloaded from the website. | Calle de los Canónigos | 969/212983 | www.march.es/arte/cuenca | €3 | Tues.-Fri. 11-2 and 4-6, Sat. 11-2 and 4-8, Sun. 11-2:30.
Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas.
A short walk north of San Miguel is the Menendez Pelayo University, originally a convent used in the 17th century and still called Convento de las Carmelitas Descalzas. If you’ve reached this far, you’ve climbed Cuenca and are at the highest elevation the town has to offer. You can’t explore inside the convent, but it’s worth the climb for beautiful views across Cuenca. | Calle del Trabuco.
Iglesia de San Miguel.
Due west of the cathedral, this church overlooks the Huecar River. Built in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 18th, and restored in the 20th, the structure still has its original apse. Used for concerts and community events, it is closed to visitors but well worth viewing from the outside. | Bajada de San Miguel | 969/232119.
Museo Diocesano Catedralicio (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art).
In what were once the cellars of the Bishop’s Palace, this museum’s beautiful collection includes a jewel-encrusted, Byzantine diptych of the 13th century; a Crucifixion by the 15th-century Flemish artist Gerard David; a variety of carpets from the 16th to 18th centuries; and two small El Grecos. From the Plaza Mayor, follow the signs on Calle del Obispo Valero toward the Casas Colgadas. | Calle Obispo Valero 1 | 969/224210 | museodiocesanodecuenca.blogspot.com.es | €5 combined ticket with cathedral | Tues.-Sat. 11-2 and 4-6 (5-8 June-Sept.), Sun. and holidays 11-2.
Plaza San Nicolás.
Calle San Pedro shoots off from the northern side of Plaza Mayor and just off Calle San Pedro, clinging to the western edge of Cuenca, is this pleasingly dilapidated square. Nearby, the unpaved Ronda del Júcar hovers over the Júcar gorge and commands remarkable views.
Fodor’s Choice | Puente de San Pablo.
The 16th-century stone footbridge over the Huécar gorge was fortified with iron in 1903 for the convenience of the Dominican monks of San Pablo, who lived on the other side. If you don’t have a fear of heights, cross the narrow bridge to take in the vertiginous view of the river below and the equally thrilling panorama of the Casas Colgadas. It’s by far the best view of the city. A path from the bridge descends to the bottom of the gorge, landing you by the bridge that you crossed to enter the old town. If you’ve read the popular English novel Winter in Madrid, you’ll recognize this bridge from the book’s final scene.
Santa María La Mayor Cathedral.
This cathedral looms large and casts an enormous shadow in the evening throughout the adjacent Plaza Mayor. Built during the Gothic era in the 12th century, atop ruins of a conquered mosque, the cathedral’s massive triptych facade has lost all its Gothic origins thanks to the Renaissance. Inside are the tombs of the cathedral’s founding bishops, an impressive portico of the Apostles, and a Byzantine reliquary. | Pl. Mayor | 969/224626 | €3.80, includes audio guide (free 1st Mon. of month) | Daily 10-1 and 4-6 (until 7 June-Oct.).
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Ciudad Encantada (Enchanted City).
Not a city at all, the Ciudad Encantada, 35 km (22 miles) north of Cuenca, is a series of large and fantastic mushroomlike rock formations erupting in a landscape of pines. This commanding spectacle, deemed a “site of national interest,” was formed over thousands of years by the forces of water and wind on limestone rocks. Of the formations that are named, the most notable are Cara (Face), Puente (Bridge), Amantes (Lovers), and Olas en el Mar (Waves in the Sea)—some of them take some imagination. You can stroll through this enchanted city in less than two hours; you’ll need a car to get here. You can also call the friendly hiking guides at Serranía Activa (969/237992 or 661/059440 | www.serraniactiva.com) to arrange to hike, bike, or hanglide over the area.
WHERE TO EAT
Much of Cuenca’s cuisine is based on wild game: partridge, lamb, rabbit, and hen. Trucha (trout) from the adjacent river is the fish of choice, and it turns up in many main courses and soups. In almost every town restaurant, you can find Cuenca’s pâté, morterualo, a mixture of wild boar (jabalí), rabbit, partridge, hen, liver, pork loin, and spices, as well as galianos, a thick stew served on wheat cake. For dessert, try the almond-based confection called alajú, which is enriched with honey, nuts, and lemon, and torrijas, made of bread dipped in milk, fried, and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Fodor’s Choice | El Figón de Huécar.
SPANISH | A private family tavern for more than 20 years, this intimate restaurant is widely regarded as the No. 1 dining spot in Castile-La Mancha. Its bright, airy dining room is within a medieval stone house, with views of the city. Specialty dishes include pichón (dove) stuffed with a basket of quail eggs; “old wine” veal with potatoes al montón (fried with garlic); Huécar cold vegetable mousse; or fish “melodies” with potato confit and vegetables. The menú del día (€25 or €36) is a good value. | Average main: €25 | Ronda de Julián Romero 6 | 969/240062, 629/063366 | www.figondelhuecar.es | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | La Ponderosa.
TAPAS | Famous for Cuenca’s finest tapas and raciones, this place on the bustling Calle de San Francisco is always full and buzzing too. Chuletillas de lechal (suckling lamb chops), huevos fritos con pócima secreta (fried eggs with a “secret potion”), setas (wild mushrooms), mollejas (sweetbreads), and a carefully selected list of wines all add up to a superior tapas experience. It’s a standing-room-only joint, so if you want to sit, you’ll have to come early and find a place on the terrace. | Average main: €15 | Calle de San Francisco 20 | 969/213214 | Reservations not accepted | Closed Sun. and July.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Cueva del Fraile.
HOTEL | Surrounded by dramatic landscapes, this comforting and family-friendly out-of-town 3-star hotel occupies a 16th-century building. Rooms have traditional furniture, stone floors, and, in some cases, wood ceilings, and a range of sizes—doubles, triples, quads, and duplexes—are available. The lovely restaurant, La Hoz, draws locals on weekends, particularly for Sunday lunch. Pros: beautiful interior garden terrace; outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts. Cons: the relatively remote location, 7 km (4½ miles) from Cuenca, means you’ll need your own car. | Rooms from: €60 | Ctra. Cuenca-Buenache, Km 7 | 969/211571 | www.hotelcuevadelfraile.com | 75 rooms | Closed Jan. | Breakfast.
B&B/INN | Near Plaza España, in the heart of the new town, this is one of Cuenca’s best bargains, and though the lobby’s not impressive, the inviting rooms more than compensate. Brothers Edilio and Paulino, the owners, spent more than two years restoring the run-down 1878 building before they opened the hostal in 1998. The rooms have hardwood floors, gold-trimmed burgundy fabrics, and decorative white moldings. Pros: low prices even during the high season. Cons: it’s quite a walk up the hill to the center of the city’s old quarter. | Rooms from: €50 | Calle Fray Luis de León 38 | 969/213973 | www.hostalcanovas.com | 17 rooms | No meals.
Fodor’s Choice | Parador de Cuenca.
HOTEL | The rooms are luxurious and serene at the exquisitely restored 16th-century convent of San Pablo, pitched on a precipice across a dramatic gorge from Cuenca’s city center, with views of the hanging houses. The hotel’s coffered ceilings and ceramic tile murals are justly famous, while the glassed-in cloister and the classic Castilian furniture complete the noble interior. The hotel’s claim to fame this century is that it hosted the Spanish prince and his bride on their wedding night in 2004. Pros: great views of the hanging houses and gorge. Cons: expensive breakfast not always included in room rate. | Rooms from: €176 | Subida a San Pablo | 969/232320 | www.parador.es | 63 rooms | Breakfast.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Posada San José.
B&B/INN | Part of a 17th- to 18th-century convent, the inn clings to the top of the Huécar gorge in Cuenca’s old town and most of the traditionally furnished rooms here have balconies or terraces over the river. Intimate and personal touches, like a leafy garden and cozy nooks distributed around the public spaces, give the inn its charm, and an informal, friendly mood prevails. Most rooms have their own bathrooms, and some have adjacent sitting rooms with extra beds, which is a plus for families. Pros: cozy historical rooms; stunning views of the gorge. Cons: built to 17th-century proportions, some doorways are stooped and rooms a bit cramped. | Rooms from: €83 | Calle Julián Romero 4 | 969/211300, 639/816825 | www.posadasanjose.com | 31 rooms | Breakfast.
83 km (52 miles) south of Cuenca.
This fortified village on the edge of the great plains of La Mancha stands on a high spit of land encircled almost entirely by a bend of the Júcar River.
Getting Here and Around
There are several buses daily from Cuenca to Alarcón (about 1½ hours). The approach to the medieval quarter is via a winding, narrow road up to three arched gateways marking the entrance to the city.
Alarcón. | Calle Posadas 6 | 969/330301 | www.aytoalarcon.org or www.descubrealarcon.es.
This Alarcón-based travel company offers guided tours of the city and surrounding countryside. | Calle Dr. Agustín Tortosa 6 | 969/330323, 630/565258 | www.descubrealarcon.es | €15.
Alarcón’s fortress dates from the 8th century, and in the 14th century it came into the hands of the infante (child prince) Don Juan Manuel, who wrote a collection of classic moral tales. Today the castle is one of Spain’s finest paradores. You’ll have to be a guest at the hotel to actually enter, but daytrippers can explore the grounds and extensive patio. If you’re not driving, you can take a bus to Motilla and from there take a short taxi ride to the castle. | Av. Amigos de los Castillos 3 | 969/330315, 969/331797 cab | www.parador.es.
WHERE TO STAY
Fodor’s Choice | Parador de Alarcón.
HOTEL | The highly romantic rooms in this 8th- to 12th-century gorge-top castle are in a fairytale setting—a fortress of Moorish origin decorated in a military motif. The turret room is the best and biggest; the rooms in the corner towers have arrow-slit windows, and others have window niches where women used to do needlework. Dinner is served in an arched baronial hall complete with shields, armor, and a gigantic fireplace. All-inclusive weekend getways for couples include tasting menus. Pros: worth the high price; ambience to spare; good for a romantic getaway. Cons: after 11 pm, room service prices jump 25%. | Rooms from: €240 | Av. Amigos de los Castillos 3 | 969/330315 | www.parador.es | 14 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
132 km (82 miles) northeast of Madrid.
The ancient university town of Sigüenza dates back to Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, and still has splendid architecture and one of the most beautifully preserved cathedrals in Castile. It’s one of the rare Spanish towns that are not surrounded by modern development and sprawl. If you’re coming from Madrid via the A2, the approach is breathtaking: you pass through hills and ravines before reaching Sigüenza, surrounded by vast agricultural plains. Sigüenza is an ideal base for exploring the countryside by bike. Spain’s famous Ruta Don Quixote, a system of hiking and cycling paths named for Cervantes’s literary hero, passes through Sigüenza and nearby villages. The tourist office can direct you to Bicicletas del Olmo, which offers bike rentals and trail maps.
Getting Here and Around
There are six train departures daily to Sigüenza from Madrid’s Chamartin station, and the journey takes about 1½ hours. Sigüenza’s train station is an easy walk from the historic walled center. Buses depart from Madrid’s Avenida de America station once a day and take two hours. If you arrive by car, the approach between the A2 highway and Sigüenza is gorgeous. There’s ample parking near the train station, but it’s best not to venture into the narrow cobblestone streets of the city center with a car.
Bicicletas del Olmo. This rental company is an easy walk toward the river from the city center. | Ctra. de Moratilla, nave 1 | 949/390754, 605/787650.
Sigüenza. Guided tours depart daily from the tourist office (in front of the cathedral) at noon and 4:30, and at 5:15 during summer, May through September. Minimum of 10 people required. | Calle Serrano Sanz 9 | 949/347007 | www.siguenza.es | €7.
FAMILY | Castillo de Sigüenza.
This enchanting castle overlooking wild, hilly countryside from above Sigüenza, is now a parador. The structure was founded by the Romans but rebuilt at various later periods. Most of the current structure was erected in the 14th century, when it became a residence for the queen of Castile, Doña Blanca de Borbón, who was banished here by her husband, Pedro the Cruel. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the castle was the scene of fierce battles, and much of the structure was destroyed. The parador’s lobby has an exhibit on the subsequent restoration, with photographs of the bomb damage. Nonguests can also visit the dining room and common areas. If you’ve got half an hour or so to spare, there’s also a lovely walking path around the hilltop castle, with a 360-degree view of the city and countryside below.
Catedral de Sigüenza.
Begun around 1150 and not completed until the early 16th century, Sigüenza’s remarkable cathedral combines Spanish architecture dating from the Romanesque period all the way to the Renaissance. The sturdy western front is forbidding but houses a wealth of ornamental and artistic masterpieces. Go directly to the sacristan, the officer in charge of the care of the sacristy, which holds sacred vestments (the sacristy is at the north end of the ambulatory). From there, you can go on a guided tour, which is a must. The late-Gothic cloister leads to a room lined with 17th-century Flemish tapestries. In the north transept is the late-15th-century plateresque sepulchre of Dom Fadrique of Portugal. The Chapel of the Doncel (to the right of the sanctuary) contains Don Martín Vázquez de Arca’s tomb, commissioned by Queen Isabella, to whom Don Martín served as doncel (page) before dying young (at 25) at the gates of Granada in 1486. Tours of the cathedral’s catacombs, on weekends only, are run by the Museo Diocesano de Sigüenza. | Calle Serrano Sanz 2 | 619/362715 | Free; €4 for tour of chapel, cloister, and tower | Daily 9:30-2 and 4:30-8 (closes at 7:30 on Sun.).
FAMILY | Museo Diocesano de Sigüenza (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art).
In a refurbished early 19th-century house next to the cathedral’s west facade, the small Diocesan Museum has a prehistoric section and mostly religious art from the 12th to 18th centuries. It also runs the tours of the burial chambers (catacombs) under the Cathedral—a spooky favorite for kids. | Pl. Obispo Don Bernardo | 949/391023 | obsigus.e.telefonica.net | Museum €3, catacomb tours €1 (free on the 3rd Wed. of every month) | Mid-Mar.-mid-Jan., Wed., Thurs., and Sun. 11-2 and 4-7, Fri.-Sat. 11-2 and 4-8. Catacomb tours weekends at 1:30 and 7:30.
The south side of the cathedral overlooks this harmonious, arcaded Renaissance square, commissioned by Cardinal Mendoza. The small palaces and cobblestone alleys mark the virtually intact old quarter. Along Calle Mayor you’ll find the palace that belonged to the doncel’s family. The plaza hosts a medieval market on weekends. | www.siguenza.es.
FAMILY | Tren Medieval.
Leaving from Madrid’s Chamartín station, this delightful medieval-themed train service runs to Sigüenza mid-April through mid-November. The train comes populated with minstels, jugglers, and other entertainers; it’s a great activity for children. The ticket price includes the round-trip train ride, guided visit to Siguenza, entry to all monuments/museums and discounts at area restaurants. Check with the Spanish national train company, RENFE, for departure times/dates. Tickets can also be purchased through some travel agencies. TIP Hold onto your ticket after arrival for discounts at area attractions. | 902/320320 | www.renfe.com/ofertas/oferta_tMedieval.html | €30 round-trip.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Bar Alameda.
TAPAS | If you stop for only one meal in Sigüenza, make it at this renowned tapas bar around the corner from the train station. With some of the best food in Castile-La Mancha, drawing foodies from as far away as Madrid, it’s nevertheless a casual neighborhood place. Weekend lunchtimes are packed, with a lively atmosphere and neighborhood children running around the open dining room. Highlights include the setas stuffed with ham, cheese, and olives. There’s a superb selection of local wines by the glass as well. | Average main: €15 | Calle de la Alameda 2 | 949/390553.
FAMILY | Parador de Sigüenza.
HOTEL | This mighty and fantastical 12th-century castle has hosted royalty for centuries, from Ferdinand and Isabella right up to Spain’s present king, Juan Carlos I. Some of the rooms have four-poster beds and balconies overlooking the wild landscape; everyone has access to the stellar food served here, which is an essential part of the experience. At the leisurely lunch, your choices might include roast goat, pheasant, or cod with truffles and cheese. Pros: excellent breakfast buffet. Cons: Because part of the castle was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, much of what’s remaining is a neo-medieval replica. | Rooms from: €160 | Pl. del Castillo | 949/390100 | www.parador.es | 81 rooms | Breakfast.
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Segovia | Sepúlveda | Ávila | Salamanca | Burgos | León | Astorga | Villafranca del Bierzo
This is Spain’s true heartland, stretching from the sweeping plains of Castile-La Mancha to the rich wine lands of Ribera del Duero, and up to the foot of several mountain ranges: the Sierra de Gredos, Sierra de Francia, and northward toward the towering Picos de Europa. The area combines two of Spain’s old kingdoms, Léon and Old Castile, with their treasures of palaces, castles, and cathedrals. Segovia and Salamanca are cultural highlights, and Ávila remains one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval walled cities.
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91 km (57 miles) north of Madrid.
Breathtaking Segovia sits on a ridge in the middle of a gorgeously stark, undulating plain, and is defined by its Roman and medieval monuments, its excellent cuisine, its embroideries and textiles, and its sense of well-being. An important military town in Roman times, Segovia was later established by the Moors as a major textile center. Captured by the Christians in 1085, it was enriched by a royal residence, and in 1474 the half-sister of Henry IV, Isabella the Catholic (married to Ferdinand of Aragón), was crowned queen of Castile here. By that time Segovia was a bustling city of about 60,000 (its population is about 80,000 today), but its importance soon diminished as a result of its taking the losing side of the Comuneros in the popular revolt against the emperor Carlos V. Though the construction of a royal palace in nearby La Granja in the 18th century somewhat revived Segovia’s fortunes, it never recovered its former vitality. Early in the 20th century, Segovia’s sleepy charm came to be appreciated by artists and writers, among them painter Ignacio Zuloaga and poet Antonio Machado. Today the streets swarm with day-trippers from Madrid—if you can, visit sometime other than in summer, and spend the night.
If you approach Segovia on N603, the first building you see is the cathedral, which seems to rise directly from the fields. In the foreground lies a steep and narrow valley, which shields the old town from view. Only once you descend into the valley do you begin to see the old town’s spectacular position, rising on top of a narrow rock ledge shaped like a ship. As soon as you reach the modern outskirts, turn left onto the Paseo E. González and follow the road marked Ruta Panorámica—you’ll soon descend on the narrow and winding Cuesta de los Hoyos, which takes you to the bottom of the wooded valley that dips to the south of the old town. Above, you can see the Romanesque church of San Martín to the right, the cathedral in the middle, and on the far left, where the rock ledge tapers, the turrets, spires, and battlements of Segovia’s castle, known as the Alcázar.
Tourists on a day trip from Madrid generally hit the triumvirate of basic sights: the aqueduct, the Alcázar, and the cathedral. If you have time, an overnight visit will allow you to sample Segovia’s renowned food and nightlife in the Plaza Mayor, where you’ll see Spaniards of all ages out until the early hours.
Getting Here and Around
High-speed AVE trains from Madrid’s Chamartin station take just 30 minutes and drop you at the Guiomar station, about 7 km (4 miles) outside Segovia’s center. Bus Nos. 11 and 12 are timed to coincide with arriving trains. Bus No. 11 will take you to the foot of the aqueduct after about a 15-minute ride, and No. 12 drops you near the bus station. Urbanos de Segovia operates the 13 inner-city bus lines and one tourist line, which are a better option for getting around than struggling through the narrow streets (and problematic parking) with a car. Segovia’s central bus station is five minutes’ walk from the aqueduct, along the car-free Paseo de Ezequiel Gonzalez.
Bus Station. | Paseo de Ezequiel Gonzalez | 921/427705 | www.urbanosdesegovia.com.
Urbanos de Segovia. | 902/330080 | www.urbanosdesegovia.com.
Segovia. There are two tourist offices in Segovia, one at the entrance to the city, just under the Roman aqueduct, and one in Plaza Mayor. In addition, there’s a tourist info kiosk at the bus station. The info below is for the reception center near the aqueduct—the first office you’ll encounter on entering the city. The friendly, multi-lingual guides there can also help you book accommodations in Segovia. | Azoguejo 1 | 921/466720, 921/466721 | www.segoviaturismo.es or www.turismodesegovia.com.
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Fodor’s Choice | Acueducto Romano.
Segovia’s Roman aqueduct ranks with the Pont du Gard in France as one of the greatest surviving examples of Roman engineering, and it’s the city’s main sight to see. If you take the AVE in from Madrid on a day trip, the inner-city bus drops you right there. Stretching from the walls of the old town to the lower slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, it’s about 2,952 feet long and rises in two tiers—above what is now the Plaza del Azoguejo, whose name means “highest point”—to a height of 115 feet. The raised section of stonework in the center originally carried an inscription, of which only the holes for the bronze letters remain. Neither mortar nor clamps hold the massive granite blocks together, but the aqueduct has been standing since the end of the 1st century AD. Its only damage is from the demolition of 35 of its arches by the Moors—the arches were later replaced on the orders of Ferdinand and Isabella. Steps at the side of the aqueduct lead up to the walls of the old town. | Pl. del Azoguejo.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Alcázar.
Possibly dating from Roman times, this castle was considerably expanded in the 14th century, remodeled in the 15th, altered again toward the end of the 16th, and completely remodeled after being gutted by a fire in 1862, when it was used as an artillery school. The exterior, especially when seen below from the Ruta Panorámica, is certainly imposing, and striking murals and stained-glass windows pepper the interior. Crowned by crenellated towers that seem to have been carved out of icing (it’s widely believed that the Walt Disney logo is modeled after this castle’s silhouette), the ramparts can be climbed for superb views. The claustrophobia-inducing winding tower is worth the knee-wobbling climb and small extra fee, though the views of the green hillside from below the tower are excellent as well. Inside, you can enter the throne room, chapel, and bedroom used by Ferdinand and Isabella. The intricate woodwork on the ceiling is marvelous, and the first room you enter, lined with knights in shining armor, is a crowd-pleaser, particularly for kids. There’s also a small armory museum, included in the same ticket price. | Pl. de la Reina Victoria | 921/460759, 921/460452 | www.alcazardesegovia.com | €5, €2 to climb the tower (free on 3rd Tues. of every month) | Daily 10-6 (until 7 Apr.-Sept.).
Casa de la Moneda (Segovia Mint).
All Spanish coins were minted here from 1455 to 1730. After extensive renovations, the building reopened in 2011 with a celebratory visit by Spain’s queen. Walking down to the riverside complex is pleasant, along a shady path that offers views of the city. | Calle Fábrica de la Moneda | 921/420921 | www.segoviamint.org | Free | Tours must be booked in advance at the tourist office.
Begun in 1525 and completed 65 years later, Segovia’s cathedral was built to replace an earlier one destroyed during the revolt of the Comuneros against Carlos V. It’s one of the country’s last great examples of the Gothic style. The designs were drawn up by the leading late-Gothicist Juan Gil de Hontañón but executed by his son Rodrigo, in whose work you can see a transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance style. The interior, illuminated by 16th-century Flemish windows, is light and uncluttered, the one distracting detail being the wooden, neoclassical choir. Enter through the north transept, which is marked “Museo”; turn right, and the first chapel on your right has a lamentation group carved in wood by the baroque sculptor Gregorio Fernández. Across from the entrance, on the southern transept, is a door opening into the late-Gothic cloister—both the cloister and the elaborate door leading into it were transported from the old cathedral and are the work of architect Juan Guas. Under the pavement immediately inside the cloister are the tombs of Juan and Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón; that these two lie in a space designed by Guas is appropriate, as the three men together dominated the last phase of the Gothic style in Spain. Off the cloister, a small museum of religious art, installed partly in the first-floor chapter house, has a white-and-gold 17th-century ceiling, a late example of Mudejar artesonado work. At night the cathedral is lit up with lovely amber lights, casting a glow on the nearby (and usually crowded) Plaza Mayor. TIP Be on your guard as you enter: there are usually at least half a dozen beggars at the door of the church. | Pl. Mayor | 921/462205 | Cloister and museum €3 (free cathedral entrance Sun. Mass only) | Daily 9:30-5:30 (to 6:30 Apr.-Sept.).
Monasterio de la Santa Cruz la Real.
Built in the 13th century, this church was established by St. Dominic of Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order, and rebuilt in the 15th century by Ferdinand and Isabella. Now it’s the private IE (Instituto de Empresa) University, and during the academic year you can see the Gothic interior with plateresque and Renaissance touches. | Calle Cardenal Zúñiga 12 | 921/412410.
Right in front of the cathedral, this lovely historic square comes alive every night and especially on weekends, when visiting madrileños and locals gather at chic cafés that line the square’s perimeter. There’s a charming gazebo in the middle that occasionally hosts live music. Otherwise it’s occupied by children playing while their parents dine nearby. | Pl. Mayor.
Though this Romanesque-style building has had some baroque facing added to the interior, the exterior has kept some splendid capitals, as well as an exceptional tower. Due east of the church square is the Capilla de San Juan de Dios, next to which is the former pension where the poet Antonio Machado spent his last years in Spain. The family who looked after Machado still owns the building and will show you the poet’s Spartan room on request: it has a kerosene stove, iron bed, and round table. | Pl. de San Estéban.
This elevated Romanesque church is on the main street between the aqueduct and cathedral, in a small plaza of the same name. It’s open for Mass only. | Pl. de San Martín.
Built in the 12th century and a perfect example of the Segovian Romanesque style, this church, a five-minute walk outside town walls, may be the finest in town, aside from the cathedral. The exterior is notable for its arcaded porch, where church meetings were once held. The virtually untouched interior is dominated by massive columns, whose capitals carry such carved scenes as the Flight into Egypt and the Adoration of the Magi. The vaulting on the crossing shows the Moorish influence on Spanish medieval architecture. It’s open for Mass only. | Av. Fernández Ladreda 26.
Made of local stone that’s a warm orange color, this isolated Romanesque church, on northern outskirts of town, off Cuesta de los Hoyos, was built in 1208 for the Knights Templar. Like other buildings associated with this order, it has 12 sides, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s about a 45-minute walk outside town (you can see this church on a cliffside from the castle windows), but the trek pays off in full when you climb the bell tower and see all of Segovia silhouetted against the Sierra de Guadarrama. | Ctra. de Zamarramia | 921/431475 | €2 (free Tues.) | Tues. 4-6, Wed.-Sun. 10:30-1:30 and 4-6 (closes at 7 Apr.-Sept.).
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Palacio Real de La Granja (Royal Palace of La Granja).
If you have a car, don’t miss the Palacio Real de La Granja in the town of La Granja de San Ildefonso, about 11 km (7 miles) southeast of Segovia (on N601) on the northern slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama. The palace site was once occupied by a hunting lodge and a shrine to San Ildefonso, administered by Hieronymite monks from the Segovian monastery of El Parral. Commissioned by the Bourbon king Felipe V in 1719, the palace has been described as the first great building of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty. The Italian architects Juvarra and Sachetti, who finished it in 1739, were responsible for the imposing garden facade, a late-baroque masterpiece anchored throughout its length by a giant order of columns. The interior has been badly gutted by fire, but the collection of 15th- to 18th-century tapestries warrants a visit. Even if you don’t go into the palace, walk through the magnificent gardens: terraces, ornamental ponds, lakes, classical statuary, woods, and baroque fountains dot the mountainside. On Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings in the summer (May-September, 6-7 pm), the illuminated fountains are turned on, one by one, creating an effect to rival that of Versailles. The starting time has been known to change on a whim, so call ahead. | Pl. de España 15 | La Granja | 921/470019, 921/470020 | www.patrimonionacional.es | €9 combined ticket, €6 guided tour; €4 fountains only, €3 fountains at night | Daily 10-6 (to 8 Apr.-Sept.).
WHERE TO EAT
SPANISH | This is Segovia’s oldest continuously operated restaurant, founded in 1895, still run by the same family, and still located at the same spot on the city’s main tourist thoroughfare. The intimate interior has handsome wood beams and a plethora of fascinating bric-a-brac, including wood carvings and coats of armor stashed in every nook and cranny. Roasts and meats are the main specialty here, but the judiones de La Granja Duque—enormous white beans from the family farm stewed with sausages or partridge—are also excellent. The local Ribera del Duero wines hold up well with roasts, while setas from the Sierra de Guadarrama add a forest fragrance. Be prepared for wedding parties; if you’re lucky, you might get included. | Average main: €30 | Calle Cervantes 12 | 921/462487, 921/462486 | www.restauranteduque.es | Reservations essential.
Fodor’s Choice | El Fogon Sefardi.
SPANISH | This tavern in Segovia’s historic Jewish quarter is owned by the Casa Mudéjar Hospedería hotel, and wins awards, year after year, for the region’s best tapas. The menu is exquisite, featuring Segoviano specialities like cochinillo as well as traditional Sephardic Jewish cuisine (though it’s not a kosher kitchen). But the tapas are the highlight—the tostas are elaborate layers of toasted bread with roasted eggplant, goat cheese, duck liver, or many other gourmet specialties. On summer evenings, the bar area overflows, and waiters pass plates of tapas out the windows to the crowd that spills out onto the area’s cobblestone streets. | Average main: €20 | Calle Judería Vieja 17 | 921/466250.
Mesón de Cándido.
SPANISH | Beginning life as an inn near the end of the 18th century, this restaurant was declared a national monument in 1941. It’s one of the first historic buildings you see as you pass under the aqueduct and enter Segovia. Inside, there’s a medley of small, irregular dining rooms decorated with a hodgepodge of memorabilia. Amid the dark-wood beams and Castilian knickknacks hang photos of celebrities who have dined here, among them Ernest Hemingway and Princess Grace. The cochinillo, roasted in a wood-fire oven, is a great choice, and partridge stew and roast lamb are also memorable, especially on cold winter afternoons. Ask for a table near a window, with a view of the aqueduct, just a few feet away. It’s best to book online. If you don’t have time for a full meal, there’s also excellent tapas service at the bar. | Average main: €30 | Pl. de Azoguejo 5 | 921/425911 | www.mesondecandido.es | Reservations essential.
Fodor’s Choice | Mesón de José María.
SPANISH | With a boisterous bar to set the tone and decibel level, this mesón (traditional tavern-restaurant) is definitely hospitable. The owner is devoted to maintaining traditional Castilian specialties while concocting innovations of his own, changing dishes with the seasons. The large, old-style, brightly lighted dining room is often packed, and the waiters are uncommonly friendly. Although it’s a bit touristy, it’s also popular with locals, and the cochinillo is delicious in any company. | Average main: €35 | Calle Cronista Lecea 11, off Pl. Mayor | 921/461111, 921/466017 | www.rtejosemaria.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Infanta Isabel.
HOTEL | You’ll get great views of the cathedral here, since the hotel is perched on the corner of Plaza Mayor, with its entrance is on a charming albeit congested pedestrian shopping street. Rooms in this 19th-century town house, now managed by the Sercotel chain, are true to the name “Princess Isabel,” with light and feminine furnishings like wrought-iron beds and little round tables; rooms facing the plaza have floor-length shutters and small verandas. Pros: boutiquey design; central location; some rooms have balconies overlooking the plaza. Cons: some rooms are an odd shape and a bit small; rooms facing the plaza can be noisy on weekends. | Rooms from: €85 | Pl. Mayor 12 | 921/461300 | www.hotelinfantaisabel.com | 37 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
La Casa Mudejar Hospedería.
HOTEL | Built in the 15th century as a Mudejar palace, this historical property has spacious rooms and a luxury spa that’s extremely popular, even with those not staying in the hotel. Some rooms have classic four-poster beds. Ask for one with a view of the Sierra de Guadarrama. The spa is on Segovia’s largest Roman-constructed well: the building’s foundation of Roman ruins is open to the public for free tours on Sunday mornings. The restaurant, El Fogón Sefardí (Fsee Where to Eat), features delicious dishes made from recipes that have been handed down from ancestors who were expelled from Spain during the Reconquest. Pros: great location; historic building; wonderful spa. Cons: interior design is a little tacky. | Rooms from: €85 | Calle Isabel la Católica 8 | 921/466250 | www.lacasamudejar.com | 40 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Parador de Segovia.
HOTEL | Architecturally one of the most interesting of Spain’s modern paradores (if you like naked concrete), this low building is set on a hill and from its large windows the panorama of Segovia and its aqueduct are spectacular. Rooms feel severe, and those on the ground floors overlook hedges, so request a room with a view if you want one. The restaurant serves Segovian and international dishes, such as lomo de merluza al aroma de estragón (hake fillet with tarragon and shrimp). Pros: beautiful views of the city. Cons: need a car to get here; rooms not as elegant as in some other paradores—missing the historical elements. | Rooms from: €141 | Ctra. de Valladolid | 921/443737 | www.parador.es | 113 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
After Toledo, the province of Segovia is Castile’s most important area for crafts. Glass and crystal are specialties of La Granja, and ironwork, lace, and embroidery are famous in Segovia itself. You can buy good lace from the Roma vendors in Segovia’s Plaza del Alcázar, but be prepared for some strenuous bargaining, and never offer more than half the opening price. The area around Plaza San Martin is a good place to buy crafts.
Leading to the Alcázar, this street overflows with touristy ceramics, textiles, and gift shops.
Plaza San Martín.
Several excellent antiques shops line this small plaza.
58 km (36 miles) northeast of Segovia.
A walled village with a commanding position, Sepúlveda has a charming main square, but the main reasons to visit are its 11th-century Romanesque church and a striking gorge with a scenic hiking trail.
Getting Here and Around
Sepúlveda is about one hour north of Madrid via a quick drive on the A1 national highway. There are also several buses a day from both Segovia and Madrid. The city is perched on the top of a mountain overlooking a ravine, so you’ll likely want transportation up the steep hill. Don’t get off the bus or park too soon!
Sepúlveda. | Pl. del Trigo 6 | 921/540237 | www.sepulveda.es.
This 11th-century church is the oldest Romanesque church in Segovia’s province. The carvings on its capitals, probably by a Moorish convert, are quite outlandish. | Calle Subida a El Salvador 10.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Castillo de Coca.
Perhaps the most famous medieval sight near Segovia—and worth a detour between Segovia and Ávila or Valladolid—is the Castillo de Coca, 52 km (32 miles) northwest of the city. Built in the 15th century for Archbishop Alonso de Fonseca I, the castle is a turreted structure of plaster and red brick, surrounded by a deep moat. It looks like a stage set for a fairy tale, and, indeed, it was intended not as a fortress but as a place for the notoriously pleasure-loving archbishop to hold riotous parties. The interior, now occupied by a forestry school, has been modernized, with only fragments of the original decoration preserved. | C. Antigua Cauca Romana | Coca | 921/586622, 617/573554 | www.castillodecoca.com | €2.70 | Feb.-Dec., weekdays 10:30-1 and 4:30-6, weekends 11-1 and 4-6 (closes at 7 Apr.-Sept.). Closed 1st Tues. of every month.
114 km (71 miles) northwest of Madrid.
In the middle of a windy plateau littered with giant boulders, with the Sierra de Gredos in the background, Ávila can look wild and sinister. Modern development on the outskirts of town partially obscures Ávila’s walls, which, restored in parts, look as they did in the Middle Ages. Begun in 1090, shortly after the town was reclaimed from the Moors, the walls were completed in only nine years—thanks to the daily employment of an estimated 1,900 men. The walls have nine gates and 88 cylindrical towers bunched together, making them unique to Spain in form—they’re quite unlike the Moorish defense architecture that the Christians adapted elsewhere. They’re also most striking when seen from outside town; for the best view on foot, cross the Adaja River, turn right on the Carretera de Salamanca, and walk uphill about 250 yards to a monument of four pilasters surrounding a cross.
The walls reflect Ávila’s importance during the Middle Ages. Populated during the reign of Alfonso VI by Christians, many of whom were nobles, the town came to be known as Ávila of the Knights. Decline set in at the beginning of the 15th century, with the gradual departure of the nobility to the court of Carlos V in Toledo. Ávila’s fame later on was largely because of St. Teresa. Born here in 1515 to a noble family of Jewish origin, Teresa spent much of her life in Ávila, leaving a legacy of convents and the ubiquitous yemas (candied egg yolks), originally distributed free to the poor but now sold for high prices to tourists. Ávila is well preserved, but the mood is slightly sad, austere, and desolate. It has a sense of quiet beauty, but the silence is dispelled during Fiestas de la Santa Teresa in October; the weeklong celebration includes lighted decorations, parades, singing in the streets, and religious observances.
Getting Here and Around
Avilabus (www.avilabus.com) serves the city of Ávila and surrounding villages, though the city itself is easily managed on foot.
Ávila. | Pl. de la Catedral 4 | 920/211387.
Basílica de San Vicente (Basilica of St. Vincent).
North of Ávila’s cathedral, on Plaza de San Vincente, is this much-venerated Romanesque basilica, founded on the supposed site where St. Vincent was martyred in AD303 with his sisters, Sts. Sabina and Cristeta. Construction began in 1130 and continued through the 12th century; the massive church complex was restored in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The west front, shielded by a vestibule, still has damaged but expressive Romanesque carvings depicting the death of Lazarus and the parable of the rich man’s table. The sarcophagus of St. Vincent forms the centerpiece of the basilica’s Romanesque interior. The extraordinary, Asian-looking canopy above the sarcophagus is a 15th-century addition. | Pl. de San Vicente 1 | 920/225969 for tourist office | www.basilicasanvicente.es | €2 (free Sun.) | May-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 10-6:30, Sun. and holidays 10-2 and 4-6; Nov.-Apr., Mon.-Sat. 10-1:30 and 4-6:30, Sun. and holidays 10-2 and 4-6. Closed during Mass.
Capilla di Mosén Rubí.
Renaissance stained glass by Nicolás de Holanda illuminates this elegant chapel (circa 1516). An excellent example of late Gothic and early Renaissance architecture in Spain, it was originally part of a convent next door, which is still in partial use. If you’re lucky, you may be able to persuade the nuns to grant you a glimpse inside. | Pl. de Mosén Rubí 9 | 920/211587 | Free | June-mid-Oct., Tues.-Sun. 5-7; mid-Oct.-June, Tues.-Sun. 4-6.
Casa de los Deanes (Deans’ Mansion).
This 15th-century building houses the cheerful Museo Provincial de Ávila, full of local archaeology and folklore. Part of the museum’s collection is housed in the adjacent Romanesque temple of San Tomé el Viejo, a few minutes’ walk east of the cathedral apse. | Pl. de Nalvillos 3 | 920/211003 | €2 (free weekends) | June-mid-Oct., Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 5-8, Sun. 10-2; mid-Oct.-May, Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-7, Sun. 10-2.
Cathedral (Catedral de San Salvador).
The battlement apse of Ávila’s cathedral forms the most impressive part of the city’s walls. Entering the town gate to the right of the apse, you can reach the sculpted north portal (originally the west portal, until it was moved in 1455 by the architect Juan Guas) by turning left and walking a few steps. The present west portal, flanked by 18th-century towers, is notable for the crude carvings of hairy male figures on each side. Known as “wild men,” these figures appear in many Castilian palaces of this period. The Transitional Gothic interior, with its granite nave, is heavy and severe. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 deprived the building of its Flemish stained glass, so the main note of color appears in the beautiful mottled stone in the apse, tinted yellow and red. Elaborate, plateresque choir stalls built in 1547 complement the powerful high altar of circa 1504 by painters Juan de Borgoña and Pedro Berruguete. On the wall of the ambulatory, look for the early-16th-century marble sepulchre of Bishop Alonso de Madrigal, a remarkably lifelike representation of the bishop seated at his writing table. Known as “El Tostado” (the Toasted One) for his swarthy complexion, the bishop was a tiny man of enormous intellect, the author of 54 books. When on one occasion Pope Eugenius IV ordered him to stand—mistakenly thinking him to still be on his knees—the bishop pointed to the space between his eyebrows and hairline, and retorted, “A man’s stature is to be measured from here to here!”|Pl. de la Catedral s/n | 920/211641 | www.catedralavila.com | €4 | June-mid-Oct., weekdays 10-7:30, Sat. 10-8, Sun. noon-6:30; mid-Oct.-May, weekdays 10-5, Sat. 10-6, Sun. noon-5.
Convento de San José (Las Madres).
A cluster of houses joined together, the convent was founded in the late 16th century by St. Teresa of Ávila and is still in use. You can still see the kitchen, cloister, and so-called “devil’s staircase,” from which Teresa fell and broke her arm in 1577. The complex, just off a pedestrian square four blocks east of the cathedral, also houses the Museo Teresiano, with musical instruments used by St. Teresa and her nuns (Teresa specialized in percussion, apparently). | Pl. de las Madres 4 | 920/222127 | www.sanjosedeavila.es | €1 | June-mid-Oct., daily 10-1:30 and 4-7; mid-Oct.-May, daily 10-1:30 and 3-6.
Convento de Santa Teresa.
Inside the south wall on the corner of Calle Dama and Plaza de la Santa, this convent was founded in the 17th century on the site of the saint’s birthplace. Teresa’s famous written account of an ecstatic vision in which an angel pierced her heart inspired many baroque artists, most famously the Italian sculptor Giovanni Bernini. The convent has a small museum with relics, including one of Teresa’s fingers. You can also see the small and rather gloomy garden where she played as a child. | Pl. de la Santa 2 | 920/211030 | www.teresadejesus.com | Church and reliquary free, museum €2 | Church and reliquary daily 9-1 and 3:30-7:30; museum daily 10-1:30 and 3:30-5:30 (10-2 and 4-7 in winter).
Ermita de San Segundo (Hermitage of St. Secundus).
At the west end of the town walls, next to the river in a farmyard largely hidden by poplars, this small Romanesque hermitage was founded on the site where the remains of St. Secundus (a follower of St. Peter) were reputedly discovered. It has a realistic-looking marble monument to the saint, carved by Juan de Juni. Inside, a trio of arches and naves symbolizes the Christian trinity—but is rumored to actually be an architectural error. The chapel’s caretaker doesn’t always adhere to posted visiting hours, and you may have to ask for a key in the adjoining house. Still, it’s worth the walk for a look outside. | Pl. de San Segundo s/n | 920/353900 for bishop’s office | €1 | Daily 11-1 and 4-5.
Monasterio de la Encarnación.
This is the convent where St. Teresa first took orders—scandalously, without her father’s permission—and was based for almost 40 years. Its tiny museum has an interesting drawing of the Crucifixion by her teacher St. John of the Cross, as well as a reconstruction of the cell she used when she was a prioress here. The convent is outside the walls in the northern part of town, and is probably worth the walk only to those with a strong interest in St. Teresa’s life. | Paseo de la Encarnación | 920/211212 | €2 | May-Oct., weekdays 9:30-1 and 4-6, weekends 10-1 and 4-6; Nov.-Apr., weekdays 9:30-1:30 and 3:30-6, weekends 10-1:30 and 4-6.
Real Monasterio de Santo Tomás.
A good 10-minute walk from the walls and among housing projects is not where you would expect to find one of the most important religious institutions in Castile. The monastery was founded by Ferdinand and Isabella with the financial assistance of the notorious Inquisitor-General Tomás de Torquemada, who is buried in the sacristy. Further funds were provided by the confiscated property of converted Jews who ran afoul of the Inquisition. Three decorated cloisters lead to the church; inside, a masterly high altar (circa 1506) by Pedro Berruguete overlooks a serene marble tomb by the Italian artist Domenico Fancelli. One of the earliest examples of the Italian Renaissance style in Spain, this influential work was built for Prince Juan, the only son of Ferdinand and Isabella, who died at 19 while a student at the University of Salamanca. After Juan’s burial here, his heartbroken parents found themselves unable to return; in happier times they had often attended Mass here, seated in the upper choir behind a balustrade exquisitely carved with their coats of arms. There are free, guided tours at 6 pm on weekends and holidays. The monastery also includes a quirky museum of Asian art, collected by missionaries who traveled to the East. | Pl. de Granada 1 | 920/352237 | www.monasteriosantotomas.com | €4 | Mid-Sept.-May, daily 10:30-2 and 3:30-7:30; June-mid-Sept., daily 10:30-9.
Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Sonsoles.
On the south side of the city, the sanctuary was built over the Ermita de los Santos Justo y Pastor in 1509 and is currently a small church. The surrounding gardens are lovely, with benches, fountains, and statues, and a good view of the city. Inside is a rather bizarre taxidermy specimen of a crocodile brought back from the Americas by a Spanish explorer. Former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his wife, who is from Ávila, were married here. There is a very pleasant restaurant (daily, except Tues. Nov.-Mar.) on the property featuring traditional Spanish fare such as roasted meats, fish, and paella. It’s sometimes in use for wedding receptions but is also available for lunch and dinner reservations. | Cta. de Toledo, Km 4.8 | 920/223367 | Free.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | Locals flock to this little tavern for the ample selection of tapas, but you can also push your way through the loud bar area to the dining room. There, wooden tables are heaped with combination platters of roast chicken, french fries, fried eggs, and chunks of home-baked bread. The classic T-bone steak, chuletón de Ávila, is enormous and a good value. The succulent cochinillo bursts with flavor. There are 14 hotel rooms available, too; simple, slightly ramshackle arrangements at moderate prices. | Average main: €20 | Calle de la Cruz Vieja 6 | 920/212249 | www.lascancelas.com | Closed early Jan.-early Feb. No dinner Sun.
FAMILY | Restaurante El Molino de la Losa.
SPANISH | Sitting at the edge of the serene Adaja River, Molino boasts one of the best views of the town walls. The building is a 15th-century mill, the working mechanism of which has been well preserved and provides much distraction for those seated in the animated bar. Lamb is roasted in a medieval wood oven, and the beans from nearby El Barco de Ávila (judías de El Barco) are famous. The garden has a small playground for children. Reservations essential for weekend lunches. | Average main: €35 | Calle Bajada de la Losa 12 | 920/211101, 920/211102 | www.elmolinodelalosa.com | No dinner Sun.
Palacio de los Velada.
HOTEL | Ávila’s top 4-star hotel occupies a beautifully restored 16th-century palace in the heart of the city next to the cathedral, an ideal spot if you like to relax between sightseeing. Upscale locals like to gather in the bar and the lovely interior patio at Ávila’s vortex. The rooms are elegantly decorated, modern, and comfortable. There are major discounts for last-minute, midweek or off-season stays. Pros: gorgeous glass-covered patio; great service. Cons: some rooms don’t have views because the windows are so high. | Rooms from: €90 | Pl. de la Catedral 10 | 920/255100 | www.veladahoteles.com | 145 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
FAMILY | Parador de Ávila.
HOTEL | This largely rebuilt 16th-century medieval castle is attached to the massive town walls, and a standout feature is its lush garden containing archaeological ruins. The interior is unusually warm, done mostly in tawny tones, and the guest rooms have terra-cotta tile floors, leather chairs, and four-poster beds. The common rooms—elegantly decorated, if somewhat formal—are convivial places to meet for a beverage. There’s babysitting service available, various room sizes with extra beds for families, and plenty of play space for kids outside. Pros: gorgeous garden and views; good restaurant; great choice for families. Cons: it’s a long walk to town—not advised at night. | Rooms from: €100 | Marqués de Canales de Chozas 2 | 920/211340 | www.parador.es | 61 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
212 km (132 miles) northwest of Madrid.
Salamanca’s radiant sandstone buildings, immense Plaza Mayor, and hilltop riverside perch make it one of the most attractive and beloved cities in Spain. Today, as it did centuries ago, the university predominates, providing an intellectual flavor, a stimulating arts scene, and raging nightlife to match. You’ll see more foreign students here per capita than anywhere else in Spain.
If you approach from Madrid or Ávila, your first glimpse of Salamanca will be of the city rising on the northern banks of the wide and winding Tormes River. In the foreground is its sturdy, 15-arch Roman bridge and soaring above it is the combined bulk of the old and new cathedrals. Piercing the skyline to the right is the Renaissance monastery and church of San Estéban. Behind San Estéban and the cathedrals, and largely out of sight from the river, extends a stunning series of palaces, convents, and university buildings that culminates in Plaza Mayor. Despite considerable damage over the centuries, Salamanca remains one of Spain’s greatest cities architecturally, a showpiece of the Spanish Renaissance.
Getting Here and Around
Salamanca de Transportes (923/190545) runs 64 municipal buses equipped with lifts for passengers with disabilities, with routes throughout the city of Salamanca. Most visitors would only need to take a bus in order to reach the train and bus stations on the outskirts of the city.
Salamanca Municipal Tourist Office. Salamanca has two tourist offices; this one is the main municipal branch. | Pl. Mayor 32 | 923/218342 | www.salamanca.es.
Salamanca Regional Tourist Office. This branch of the Castile-León provincial tourist organization is a good source for information on hiking, cycling, and other activities on the outskirts of Salamanca. In the summer there are also tourist office kiosks open in local bus and train stations. | Rúa Mayor s/n | 923/268571, 902/203030.
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Fodor’s Choice | Cathedrals.
For a complete exterior tour of Salamanca’s old and new cathedrals, take a 10-minute walk around the complex, circling counterclockwise. Nearest the river stands the Catedral Vieja (Old Cathedral), built in the late 12th century, one of the most interesting examples of the Spanish Romanesque. Because the dome of the crossing tower has strange, plumelike ribbing, it’s known as the Torre del Gallo (Rooster’s Tower). The two cathedrals are all part of the same complex, though they have different visiting hours, and you need to enter the Old Cathedral to get to the new one.
The much larger Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral) dates mainly from the 16th century, though some parts, including the dome over the crossing and the bell tower attached to the west facade, had to be rebuilt after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Work began in 1513 under the direction of the distinguished late-Gothic architect Juan Gil de Hontañón, and, as at Segovia’s cathedral, Juan’s son Rodrigo took over the work after his father’s death in 1526. The New Cathedral’s north facade (which contains the main entrance) is ornamental enough, but the west facade is dazzling in its sculptural complexity. Try to visit in late afternoon, when the sun beams off of its surface.
The interior of the New Cathedral is as light and harmonious as that of Segovia’s cathedral but larger. It’s a triumphant baroque effusion designed by the Churriguera family. The wooden choir seems almost alive with cherubim and saints. From a door in the south aisle, steps descend into the Old Cathedral, where boldly carved capitals supporting the vaulting are accented by foliage, strange animals, and touches of pure fantasy. Then comes the dome, which seems to owe much to Byzantine architecture; it’s a remarkably light structure raised on two tiers of arcaded openings. Not the least of the Old Cathedral’s attractions are its furnishings, including sepulchres from the 12th and 13th centuries and a curved high altar comprising 53 colorful and delicate scenes by the mid-15th-century artist Nicolás Florentino. In the apse above, Florentino painted an astonishingly fresh Last Judgment fresco.
From the south transept of the Old Cathedral, a door leads into the cloister, which was begun in 1177. From about 1230 until the construction of the main university building in the early 15th century, the chapels around the cloister served as classrooms for university students. In the Chapel of St. Barbara, on the eastern side, theology students answered the grueling questions meted out by their doctoral examiners. The chair in which they sat is still there, in front of a recumbent effigy of Bishop Juan Lucero, on whose head the students would place their feet for inspiration. Also attached to the cloister is a small cathedral museum with a 15th-century triptych of St. Catherine by Salamanca’s greatest native artist, Fernando Gallego. | Pl. de Anaya and C. Cardenal Pla y Deniel | 923/217476, 923/281123 | www.catedralsalamanca.org | New cathedral free; old cathedral €4.75 (free Tues. 10-noon) | New cathedral: Mon.-Sat. 9-1 and 4-6, Sun. 9-1. Old cathedral: Mon.-Sat. 10-12:30 and 4-5:30, Sun. 10-12:30.
Fodor’s Choice | Plaza Mayor.
Built in the 1730s by Alberto and Nicolás Churriguera, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Spain. The lavishly elegant, pinkish Ayuntamiento (city hall) dominates its northern side. The square and its arcades are popular gathering spots for most of Salmantino society, and the many surrounding cafés make this the perfect spot for a coffee break. At night, the plaza swarms with students meeting “under the clock” on the plaza’s north side. Tunas (strolling musicians in traditional garb) often meander among the cafés and crowds, playing for smiles and applause rather than tips. During local festivals, held several times a year, a cardboard model of a bull is hoisted up atop the city hall’s weathervane—and merriment ensues. | Pl. Mayor.
Parts of the university’s walls, like those of the cathedral and other structures in Salamanca, are covered with large ocher lettering recording the names of famous university graduates. The earliest names are said to have been written in the blood of the bulls killed to celebrate the successful completion of a doctorate. The Escuelas Mayores (Upper Schools) date to 1415, but it was not until more than 100 years later that an unknown architect created their elaborate facade. Above the main door is the famous double portrait of Isabella and Ferdinand, surrounded by ornamentation that plays on the yoke-and-arrow heraldic motifs of the two monarchs. The double-eagle crest of Carlos V, flanked by portraits of the emperor and empress in classical guise, dominates the middle layer of the frontispiece.
Perhaps the most famous rite of passage for new students is to find the single carved frog on the facade. Legend has it that if you spot the frog on your first try, you’ll pass all your exams and have a successful university career; for this reason, it’s called la rana de la suerte (the lucky frog). It can be hard to spot the elusive amphibian, but the ticket booth has posted a clue. The crowd of pointing tourists helps, too. You can then see the beloved frog all over town, on sweatshirts, magnets, pins, jewelry, and postcards.
The interior of the Escuelas Mayores, drastically restored in parts, comes as a slight disappointment after the splendor of the facade. But the aula (lecture hall) of Fray Luis de León, where Cervantes, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and numerous other luminaries of Spain’s golden age once sat, is of particular interest. Cervantes carved his name on one of the wooden pews up front. After five years’ imprisonment for having translated the Song of Songs into Spanish, Fray Luis returned to this hall and began his lecture, “As I was saying yesterday.” The Escuelas Menores (Lower Schools) wraps around the patio in front of the Escuelas Mayores. Be sure to check out its serene courtyard. | Calle Libreros | 923/294400, 952/222998 | www.salamanca-university.org or www.usal.es | €4 (free Mon. morning) | Weekdays 9:30-1:30 and 4-7, Sat. 9:30-1:30 and 4-6:30, Sun. 10-1:30.
The ornate, towering complex of the university features a lovely baroque courtyard, but the highlight here is the early-16th-century Escalara Noble (Noble Staircase), which was modeled after San Esteban’s Escalera Soto (Grove Staircase) but is larger, taller, and much more stunning. The bottom of each flight is decorated with myriad scenes including games, tournaments, and bullfighting on horseback. From below, it provides one of the best architectural views in Salamanca. Founded in the 13th century as part of the University of Salamanca, the Universidad Pontificia was closed in 1854 after the Spanish government dissolved the University of Salamanca’s faculties of theology and canon law in 1854. Reopened in the 1940s, the university continues to teach theology, philosophy, and canon law. Also, from both within and outside the university, take note of the chapel’s slightly crocked dome; the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is to thank. | Calle Compañía 5 | 923/277100 | Guided tours €3 | Wed.-Fri. 10:30-12:30 and 4-5:30, Sat. 10-1 and 4-5:30, Sun. and holidays 10-1; guided tours every 30 min.
Casa de Las Conchas (House of Shells).
This house was built around 1500 for Dr. Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a professor of medicine at the university and a doctor at the court of Isabella. The scallop motif was a reference to Talavera’s status as chancellor of the Order of St. James (Santiago), the symbol of which is the shell (the shell symbol is also worn by hikers and pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela). Among the playful plateresque details are the lions over the main entrance, engaged in a fearful tug-of-war with the Talavera crest. The interior has been converted into a public library. Duck into the charming courtyard, which has an intricately carved upper balustrade that imitates basketwork. | Calle Compañía 2 | 923/269317 | Free | Weekdays 9-9, Sat. 9-2 and 4-7, Sun. 10-2 and 4-7.
Casa de Las Muertes (House of the Dead).
Built in about 1513 for the majordomo of Alonso de Fonseca II, the house takes its name from the four tiny skulls that adorn its top two windows. Alonso de Fonseca II commissioned the construction to commemorate his deceased uncle, the licentious archbishop who lies in the Convento de Las Ursulas, across the street. For the same reason, the facade also bears the archbishop’s portrait. The small square in front of the house was a favorite haunt of the poet, philosopher, and university rector Miguel de Unamuno, whose statue stands here. Unamuno supported the Nationalists under Franco at the outbreak of the civil war, but he later turned against them. Placed under virtual house arrest, Unamuno died in the house next door in 1938. During the Franco period, students often daubed his statue red to suggest that his heart still bled for Spain. You can visit the outside of the houses, but they’re not open to the public. | Calle de los Bordadores 6.
A major Salamanca monument is its fortified medieval castle, part of which has been turned into the Parador de Ciudad Rodrigo, which, rather confusingly, is neither part of the government-run parador chain, nor in the city of Ciudad Rodrigo. It’s still worth a look, and from here you can climb onto the town’s battlements. | Pl. del Castillo.
Convento de Las Dueñas (Convent of the Dames).
Founded in 1419, this convent hides a 16th-century cloister that is the most fantastically decorated in Salamanca, if not in all of Spain. The capitals of its two superimposed Salmantine arcades are crowded with a baffling profusion of grotesques that can absorb you for hours. As you’re wandering through, take a moment to look down. The interlocking diamond pattern on the ground floor of the cloister is decorated with the knobby vertebrae of goats and sheep. It’s an eerie yet perfect accompaniment to all the grinning, disfigured heads sprouting from the capitals looming above you. Don’t leave without buying some sweets; the nuns are excellent bakers. | Pl. del Concilio de Trento s/n | 923/215442 | €2 | Mon.-Sat. 11-12:45 and 4:30-5:30.
Convento de Las Úrsulas (Convent of the Ursulines).
Archbishop Alonso de Fonseca I lies here, in this splendid Gothic-style marble tomb created by Diego de Siloe during the early 1500s. The building is labeled on some maps as Convento de la Anunciación. | Calle de las Úrsulas 2 | 923/219877 | €2 | Tues.-Sun. 11-1 and 4:30-6 (closed last Sun. of each month).
Convento de San Esteban (Convent of St. Stephen).
The convent’s monks, among the most enlightened teachers at the university in medieval times, were the first to take Columbus’s ideas seriously and helped him gain his introduction to Isabella (hence his statue in the nearby Plaza de Colón, back toward Calle de San Pablo). The complex was designed by one of San Esteban’s monks, Juan de Alava. The massive west facade, a thrilling plateresque work in which sculpted figures and ornamentation are piled up to a height of more than 98 feet, is a gathering spot for tired tourists and picnicking locals. The door to the right of the west facade leads you into a golden sandstone cloister with Gothic arcading, interrupted by tall, spindly columns adorned with classical motifs. The church, unified and uncluttered but also dark and severe, allows the one note of color provided by the ornate and gilded high altar of 1692. An awe-inspiring baroque masterpiece by José Churriguera, it deserves five minutes from you to just sit and stare. You can book free guided tours on the website. | Pl. Concilio de Trento 1 | 923/215000 | www.conventosanesteban.es | €3 | Daily 10-2 and 4-7.
Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Decó.
The best thing about this museum is the building it’s in, most of which you can tour from the outside. Built at the end of the 19th century, the Casa Lis is a Moderniste building that now houses collections of 19th-century paintings and glass, French and German china dolls, Viennese bronze statues, furniture, jewelry, enamels, and jars. | Calle Gibraltar 14 | 923/121425 | www.museocasalis.org | €4 (free Thurs. 11-2) | Apr.-Oct. 16, Tues.-Fri. 11-2 and 5-9, weekends 11-9; Oct. 17-Mar., Tues.-Fri. 11-2 and 4-7, weekends 11-8.
Museo de Salamanca.
Consisting mainly of minor 17th- and 18th-century paintings, this museum, also known as the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts), is interesting for its 15th-century building, which belonged to Isabella’s physician, Alvárez Abarca. | Patio de Escuelas 2 | 923/212235 | €1.20; free on weekends | Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-7, Sun. 10-2.
Palacio de Monterrey.
Built after 1538 by Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, the palace was meant for an illegitimate son of Alonso de Fonseca I. As in Rodrigo’s other local palaces, the building is flanked by towers and has an open arcaded gallery running the length of the upper level. Such galleries—which in Italy you would expect to see on the ground floor—are common in Spanish Renaissance palaces and were intended to provide privacy for the women of the house and cool the floor below during the summer. Privately owned, the palace is not open to visitors, but you can stroll its grounds. | Pl. de las Agustinas.
Puente Romano (Roman Bridge).
Next to the bridge is an Iberian stone bull, and opposite the bull is a statue commemorating the young hero of the 16th-century novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities, a masterpiece of Spanish literature.
WHERE TO EAT
TAPAS | At peak times, it’s standing room only in this jovial basement tapas bar catering to locals and students. The floor may be littered with napkins, and you might have to shout to be heard, but it’s the generous tapas and big, sloppy bocadillos (sandwiches) that draw the crowds. (There’s a dining room in back for which you can make reservations, but the bar is the place to be.) Although paella is usually the exclusive domain of pricey restaurants devoted to the specialty, you can enjoy a ración of paella during lunch here, ladled out from a large caldero (shallow pan). Another bonus: Even if you just order a drink, you’ll be served a liberal helping of the “tapa of the day.” | Average main: €12 | Calle Prior 4 | 923/260092 | www.cafeteriabambu.com.
Fodor’s Choice | La Hoja 21.
SPANISH | Just off the Plaza Mayor, this upscale restaurant has a glass facade, high ceilings, butter-yellow walls, and minimalist art—signs of an apart-from-the-usual Castilian dining experience. Young chef-owner Alberto López Oliva prepares an innovative menu of traditional fare with a twist, such as manitas, manzana, y langostinas al aroma de Módena (pig trotters with prawns and apple slices in Módena vinegar), and perdiz al chocolate con berza (partridge cooked in chocolate, served with cabbage). The tasting menus (€30 and €33) are both good values. | Average main: €30 | Calle San Pablo 21 | 923/264028 | www.lahoja21.com | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | Valencia.
SPANISH | Despite its Mediterranean name, this traditional, family-run restaurant serves up Castilian specialties like garlic soup, partridge salad, local river trout, white asparagus, and suckling lamb. There are weeknight menus and daily specials, too. The tiny front bar is decorated with black-and-white photos of local bullfighters, and is usually packed with locals. There’s a dining room out back, but the best place to sit is outdoors on the little square in front, at tables shaded with awnings. What saves this place from being overrun by tourists is that it’s on a tiny backstreet that doesn’t appear on many maps—but it’s actually just steps off the Plaza Mayor. | Average main: €20 | Calle Concejo 15 | 923/217868 | www.restaurantevalencia.com | Closed Nov., Mon., Tues. Sept.-May, and Sun. June-Aug.
WHERE TO STAY
HOTEL | This upscale boutique hotel has spacious and contemporary rooms in a building with roots in the 15th century. It’s been used by the likes of the bishop of Salamanca as his private palace; more recently, the building was owned by Don Gregorio de Diego Curto, a prosperous businessman to whom the hotel owes its name. The modern rooms pay homage to the building’s history with antiques that belonged to the original structure, the Don Gregorio family, and even the nearby cathedral. There’s a spa, and in-room massages are available, which will make it even harder to leave. Pros: chic, contemporary facilities. Cons: restaurant is very expensive; the more casual yet stylish cafeteria is a better bet. | Rooms from: €220 | Calle San Pablo 80-82 | 923/217015 | www.hoteldongregorio.com | 17 rooms | Breakfast.
Hostal Plaza Mayor.
HOTEL | You can’t beat the location of this great little budget hotel that’s just steps from the Plaza Mayor, with small but up-to-date rooms. Reservations are advisable, as rooms fill up fast. Pros: good value; views of the plaza; international and polyglot staff. Cons: occasional noise on the street side; with few porters and no elevator, hauling bags upstairs can be grueling. | Rooms from: €50 | Pl. del Corrillo 20 | 923/262020, 923/217548 | www.hostalplazamayor.es | 19 rooms | No meals.
Fodor’s Choice | Hotel Rector.
HOTEL | From the stately entrance to the high-ceiling guest rooms, this lovely hotel offers a true European experience. Rooms come with lots of upscale services, including twice-daily maid service and complimentary Internet hookups; the double-glazed windows eliminate virtually all street noise. Mahogany antique furniture pieces and marble bathrooms add to the elegance. The sitting areas, hallways, and breakfast room are all spotless, spacious, warm, and quiet. Staff is helpful and can tell you all about Salamanca. Pros: terrific value; personal service; good location. Cons: parking costs extra; no balconies. | Rooms from: €165 | Paseo Rector Esperabé 10 | 923/218482 | www.hotelrector.com | 13 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Fodor’s Choice | Microtel Placentinos.
B&B/INN | This is a lovely little B&B tucked away down a quiet pedestrian street in Salamanca’s historic center, near the Palacio de Congresos convention center and a short walk from the Plaza Mayor. The owners’ attention to detail is exquisite, with antique wooden furniture, polished hardwood floors, and rustic stone walls inside the guest rooms. It’s officially a two-star hotel, but it feels like a five. Pros: some rooms have whirlpool baths; all have free Wi-Fi; only a short walk to bus station. Cons: some rooms close to the interior staircase aren’t well insulated, and can be noisy. | Rooms from: €75 | Calle Placentinos 9 | 923/281531 | www.microtelplacentinos.com | 9 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Revolutum Hostel.
HOTEL | It feels like a chic design hotel, but with backpacker prices. The best budget option in Salamanca, tucked away on a quiet side street, is just steps from the Plaza Mayor and Rua Mayor, packed with tapas bars. This stylish hostel has rates starting at €19 a night for a bed in a shared dorm-style room. There are also singles or doubles—all with private bathrooms—and larger rooms for families. Ask for an upper-floor room, with gorgeous views of Salamanca’s tiled roofs. There’s also a fully equipped kitchen where you can prepare and store your own food, lockers, laundry, and a TV room-lounge with free Wi-Fi. Pros: breakfast included; all rooms have private bathrooms; special rates for families and for stays of longer than five nights. Cons: deposit required for towels. | Rooms from: €45 | Calle Sánchez Barbero 7 | 923/217656 | www.revolutumhostel.com | 20 rooms | Breakfast.
NIGHTLIFE AND PERFORMING ARTS
Particularly in summer, Salamanca sees the greatest influx of foreign students of any city in Spain: by day they study Spanish, and by night they fill Salamanca’s bars and clubs to capacity.
This 732-seat theater, 40 yards from Plaza Mayor, was renovated in 2002, but traces of the old 19th-century theater, built over an 18th-century convent, remain. It hosts classic and modern performances of opera, dance, flamenco, and film festivals. | Calle del Toro 23, City Center | 923/218182 | www.ciudaddecultura.org.
This trendy restaurant-bar-café is the main hangout for fans of live music, especially jazz, and top-notch tapas make it a prime haunt for foodies and students alike. Check the website for the concert list and special events like craft beer nights. | Calle Meléndez 18 | 923/271917 | www.cafecorrillo.com.
After 11, a well-dressed crowd, mostly in their 20s and 30s, comes to dance at Camelot, an ancient stone-wall warehouse in one corner of the 16th-century Convento de Las Ursulas. Hours vary, but things generally get going quite late. There’s also a sister club called Cubic Club around the corner on Calle Iscar Peira. | Calle de los Bordadores 3 | 923/219091, 923/212182 | www.camelot.es.
Casino del Tormes.
Try your luck at this glitzy, refurbished turn-of-the-20th-century mill on the Tormes River, near the Puente Romano. You’ll need your passport to enter. If your pockets go empty or you need a break, browse the surprisingly delightful little museum, where artwork is on display alongside old flour mill equipment. | Calle La Pesca 5 | 923/281628 | www.casinodeltormes.es | Sun.-Thurs. 4 pm-4 am, Fri. and Sat. 8 pm-5 am.
Gran Café Moderno.
After-hours types end the night here, snacking on churros con chocolate at daybreak. | Gran Vía 75-77 | 637/538165, 923/260147 | Tues.-Sat. 4 pm-4 am.
Fodor’s Choice | Mesón Cervantes.
This upstairs tapas bar draws crowds to its balcony for a drink and unparalleled views of the action below. It’s one of the few cafés open early, and a great place to grab your morning coffee and churros before sightseeing. But make sure to double back for a glass of Ribera del Duero and fantastic views of the Plaza Mayor lit up at night. TIP Reserve a balcony spot early in the day, and come back to claim your view. | Pl. Mayor 15, entrance on southeast corner | 923/217213 | www.mesoncervantes.com | Daily 9 am-1:30 am.
Posada de las Almas.
Bask in the romantic glow from stained-glass lamps at this preferred cocktail-and-conversation nightspot for stylish students. Wrought-iron chandeliers hang from the high wood-beam ceilings, harp-strumming angels top elegant pillars, and one entire wall of shelves showcases a somewhat bizarre collection of colorful dollhouses. | Pl. San Boal 7 | 923/268639 | www.posadadelasanimas.com.
If you have a car, skip the souvenir shops in Salamanca’s center and instead head 35 km (22 miles) through the countryside along the rural SA-300 road to Artesanía Duende, a wooden crafts workshop run by a charming husband-and-wife team. At their home factory, you can see their handicrafts being made. Their music boxes, thimbles, photo frames, and other items are beautifully carved or stenciled with local themes, from the bailes charros, Salamanca’s regional dance, to the floral designs embroidered on the hems of provincial dresses. With limited open days, it’s best to call ahead to schedule a free, personal tour. | Calle San Miguel 1 | Ledesma | 626/510527, 625/336703, 923/570435 | www.creacionesduende.es | Fri.-Sun. 10-8:30.
On Sunday, this flea market—named after the larger one in Madrid—is held just outside Salamanca’s historic center. Buses leave from Plaza de España. | Av. de Aldehuela.
243 km (151 miles) north of Madrid on A1.
On the banks of the Arlanzón River, this small city boasts some of Spain’s most outstanding medieval architecture. If you approach on the A1 from Madrid, the spiky twin spires of Burgos’s cathedral, rising above the main bridge, welcome you to the city. Burgos’s second pride is its heritage as the city of El Cid, the part-historical, part-mythical hero of the Christian Reconquest of Spain. The city has been known for centuries as a center of both militarism and religion, and even today more nuns fill the streets than almost anywhere else in Spain. Burgos was born as a military camp—a fortress built in 884 on the orders of the Christian king Alfonso III, who was struggling to defend the upper reaches of Old Castile from the constant forays of the Arabs. It quickly became vital in the defense of Christian Spain, and its reputation as an early outpost of Christianity was cemented with the founding of the Royal Convent of Las Huelgas, in 1187. Burgos also became a place of rest and sustenance for Christian pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. These days, Burgos is also renowned for its cuisine, especially its namesake white cheese and its morcilla (blood sausage).
Getting Here and Around
Burgos can be reached by train from Madrid, with eight departures daily from Chamartin (about 2½ hours) and by bus, with hourly service from various Madrid stations. Once there, municipal buses cover 45 routes throughout the city, many of them originating in Plaza de España.
Burgos. | Calle Nuño Rasura 7 | 947/288874 | www.turismoburgos.org.
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Fodor’s Choice | Cathedral.
Start your tour of the city with the cathedral, which contains such a wealth of art and other treasures that the local burghers lynched their civil governor in 1869 for trying to take an inventory of it: the proud citizens feared that the man was plotting to steal their riches. Just as opulent as what’s inside is the sculpted Flamboyant Gothic facade of the cathedral. The cornerstone was laid in 1221, and the two 275-foot towers were completed by the middle of the 14th century, though the final chapel was not finished until 1731. There are 13 chapels, the most elaborate of which is the hexagonal Condestable Chapel. You’ll find the tomb of El Cid (1026-99) and his wife, Ximena, under the transept. El Cid (whose real name was Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar) was a feudal warlord revered for his victories over the Moors; the medieval Song of My Cid transformed him into a Spanish national hero.
At the other end of the cathedral, high above the West Door, is the Reloj de Papamoscas (Flycatcher Clock), so named for the sculptured bird that opens its mouth as the hands mark each hour. The grilles around the choir have some of the finest wrought-iron work in central Spain, and the choir itself has 103 delicately carved walnut stalls, no two alike. The 13th-century stained-glass windows that once shed a beautiful, filtered light were destroyed in 1813, one of many cultural casualties of Napoléon’s retreating troops. | Between Pl. del Rey San Fernando and Pl. de Santa María | 947/204712 | www.catedraldeburgos.es | €7 (includes audio guide) | Mid-Mar.-Oct., daily 9:30-7:30; Nov.-mid-Mar., daily 10-7. Last admission 1 hr before closing.
The Arco de Santa María frames the city’s loveliest promenade, the Espolón. Shaded with black poplars, it follows the riverbank.
Monasterio de Santa María La Real de Las Huelgas.
On the western edge of town, a 1.6-km (1-mile) walk from the center—this convent, founded in 1187 by King Alfonso VIII, is still run by nuns. It has a royal mausoleum, though all but one of the royal coffins were desecrated by Napoléon’s soldiers. The one that survived contained clothing that form the basis of the convent’s textile museum. Admission includes a guided tour of the monastery, but you can browse the museum at your own pace. | Calle de Los Compases s/n | 947/201630 Tues.-Sat. 10:30-1:30 and 4-6:30 | www.patrimonionacional.es | €7 for guided tours | Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-6:30, Sun. and holidays 10:30-3.
Arco de Santa María.
Across the Plaza del Rey San Fernando from the cathedral, this is the city’s main gate; walk through toward the river and look above the arch at the 16th-century statues of the first Castilian judges, El Cid, King Carlos I, and Spain’s patron saint, James.
Cartuja de Miraflores.
Founded in 1441, this is an old Gothic monastery, the outside of which is rather plain. Inside, however, is a mass of rich decoration. The Isabelline church has an altarpiece by Gil de Siloe that is said to be gilded with the first gold brought back from the Americas. To get there, follow signs from the city’s main gate—it’s 3 km (2 miles) to the east, at the end of a poplar- and elm-lined road. | Ctra. Fuentes Blancas | 947/252586 | www.cartuja.org | Free | Tues.-Sat. 10:15-3 and 4-6, Sun. 11-3 and 4-6; Mass Sun. and holy days at 10:15.
Casa del Cordón.
Ferdinand and Isabella received Columbus in this palace after his second voyage to the New World (1496). It’s now a bank, but you can visit the exterior and renaissance courtyard during business hours. | Pl. de la Libertad and Calle de Santander s/n | Free | Courtyard weekdays 9-2:30.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | Across from the Casa del Cordón, this popular restaurant—a Castilian classic—is known for inspired Burgos standards, especially roast suckling pig and lamb straight from the 200-year-old wood oven. Other hard-to-resist opportunities are the alubias rojas ibeas con chorizo, morcilla, y tocino (red beans with chorizo sausage, blood sausage, and bacon) or the corazones de solomillo con foie al vinagre de frambuesa (hearts of beef filet with duck liver and raspberry vinegar). | Average main: €20 | C. Vitoria 5 | 947/209052 | www.restauranteojeda.com | No dinner Sun.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Landa Palace.
HOTEL | Family owned and run, this superb hotel, housed in an old castle surrounded by lush gardens, provides supreme luxury at a very good price. Most of the rooms are suites, with whirlpool baths and sitting rooms—some are duplexes with ironwork spiral stairways—and are housed in the 14th-century stone tower. The lobby is fit for a king, with stone walls, marble columns, a curved stone stairway with gargoyles, and an intricate Mudejar carved ceiling. The dining room has a cathedral ceiling and elaborate chandeliers, and the gardens contain a luxurious swimming pool where you can do laps under the castle eaves, alongside a fireplace. Pros: stunning indoor-outdoor swimming pool; fireplaces; babysitting available. Cons: roads to and from town are busy, and it’s not a pedestrian-friendly route; you’ll need your own transportation to get here. | Rooms from: €135 | Ctra. de Madrid-Irún, Km 235 | 947/257777 | www.landa.as | 13 rooms, 24 suites | Multiple meal plans.
Mesón del Cid.
HOTEL | Once home to a 15th-century printing press, this family-run hotel and restaurant has been hosting travelers for generations in light, airy guest rooms that face the cathedral. The dining rooms, lined in hand-hewn beams, share the view and the restaurant, which specializes in local dishes, serves excellent pimientos rellenos (stuffed peppers) and sopa de Doña Jimena (garlic soup with bread and egg). Pros: English-speaking staff; comfy beds; central location. Cons: older plumbing, and door handles might break, but the staff is good about remedying any inconveniences. | Rooms from: €60 | Pl. Santa María 8 | 947/208715 | www.mesondelcid.es | 55 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Due to its university students, Burgos has a lively vida nocturna (nightlife), which centers on Las Llanas, near the cathedral. House wines and cañas (small glasses of beer) flow freely through the crowded tapas bars along calles Laín Calvo and San Juan, near the Plaza Mayor. Calle Puebla, a small, dark street off Calle San Juan, also gets constant revelers, who pop into Café Principal, La Rebotica, and Spils Cervecería for a quick drink and bite before moving on. When you order a drink at any Burgos bar, the bartender plunks down a free pinchito (small tapa)—a longstanding tradition.
A good buy is a few bottles of local Ribera del Duero red wines, now strong rivals to those of La Rioja Alta. Burgos is also known for its morcilla and its local cheese, queso de Burgos, a mild white variety.
Founded in 1880, this is a good one-stop spot to pick up some local delicacies, such as morcilla and queso de Burgos. It’s closed on Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. | Calle Paloma 17 | 947/202535 | www.casaquintanilla.es.
EN ROUTE: Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos.
For a sojourn with those masters of the Gregorian chant, head to the monastery where 1994’s triple-platinum album Chant was recorded in the 1970s and 80s. Located 58 km (36 miles) southeast of Burgos, the monastery has an impressive two-story cloister that’s lined with intricate, Romanesque stone carvings. Single men can stay here for up to eight days (€42 per night with full board). Guests are expected to be present for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but are otherwise left to their own devices. If the monastery is full, try to drop in for an evening vespers service. It’s a unique experience that’s well off the tourist path. | Calle Santo Domingo 2 | Santo Domingo de Silos | 947/390068, 947/390049 | www.abadiadesilos.es | €3.50 | Tues.-Sat. 10-1 and 4:30-6, Sun. noon-1 and 4-6.
334 km (208 miles) northwest of Madrid, 184 km (114 miles) west of Burgos.
León, the ancient capital of Castile-León, sits on the banks of the Bernesga River in the high plains of Old Castile; today it’s a wealthy provincial capital and prestigious university town. The wide avenues of western León are lined with boutiques, and the twisting alleys of the half-timber old town hide the bars, bookstores, and chocolaterías most popular with students.
Historians say that the city was not named for the proud lion that has been its emblem for centuries; rather, they assert that the name is a corruption of the Roman word legio (legion), from the fact that the city was founded as a permanent camp for the Roman legions in AD 70. The capital of Christian Spain was moved here from Oviedo in 914 as the Reconquest spread south, and this was the city’s richest era.
As you’re wandering the old town, you can still see fragments of the 6-foot-thick ramparts that were once part of the Roman walls. Look down occasionally and you just might notice small brass scallop shells set into the street. The scallop is the symbol of St. James; the town government installed them to mark the path for modern-day pilgrims.
Getting Here and Around
León can be reached by train from Madrid, with 10 departures daily from Chamartin station; the journey takes two hours 45 minutes. By bus, ALSA has several departures daily. The company also runs 14 local bus routes around León, but visitors to the city will rarely need them as the historic center is primarily composed of pedestrian-only streets.
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León. | Pl. de San Marcelo 1 | 987/878327 | www.leon.es.
Exploring Top Attractions
Antiguo Convento de San Marcos.
Fronted by a large, airy pedestrian plaza, this sumptuous building is now a luxury hotel, the Parador de León. Originally a home for knights of the Order of St. James, who patrolled the Camino de Santiago, and a stop for weary pilgrims, the monastery you see today was begun in 1513 by the head of the order, King Ferdinand, who thought that knights deserved something better. Finished at the height of the Renaissance, the plateresque facade is a majestic swath of small, intricate sculptures (many depicting knights and lords) and ornamentation—one of the most impressive Renaissance buildings in Spain. Inside, the elegant staircase and a cloister full of medieval statues lead you to the bar, which still has the original defensive arrow slits as windows. As the Anexo Monumental del Museo de León, the convent also displays historic paintings and artifacts. | Pl. de San Marcos 7 | 987/245061, 987/237300 | www.parador.es | Museum €1 | Museum: Oct.-June, Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-7, Sun. 10-2; July-Sept., Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 5-8, Sun. 10-2.
Casa de Botines.
Just south of the old town, this multigabled, turreted, granite behemoth was designed in the late 1800s by the world-famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). It now houses a bank that’s closed to tourists. But the building is gorgeous just from the outside—it’s a stark contrast to Gaudí’s other, more famous buildings. | Calle Legión VII 3.
Fodor’s Choice | Cathedral.
The pride of León is its soaring Gothic cathedral, on the Plaza de Regla. Its upper reaches have more windows than stone. Flanked by two aggressively square towers, the facade has three arched, weatherworn doorways, the middle one adorned with slender statues of the apostles. Begun in 1205, the cathedral has 125 long, thin stained-glass windows, dozens of decorative small ones, and three giant rose windows. The windows depict abstract floral patterns as well as various biblical and medieval scenes; on sunny days, they cast bejeweled streams of light on the beautifully spare, pale sandstone interior. A glass door to the choir gives an unobstructed view of nave windows and the painted altarpiece, framed with gold leaf. The cathedral also contains the sculpted tomb of King Ordoño II, who moved the capital of Christian Spain to León. The museum’s collection boasts giant medieval hymnals, textiles, sculptures, wood carvings, and paintings. Look for the carved-wood Mudejar archive, with a letter of the alphabet above each door; it’s one of the world’s oldest file cabinets. The partial museum visit excludes the museum’s best and earliest works: the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance ivory carvings and silversmithery, so opt for the full museum ticket. The absolute highlight is a nighttime guided tour; drop by earlier in the day to find out the current tour times. TIP The cathedral is in theory closed to tourists during Sunday Mass; some foreigners have complained of being asked to pay an entrance fee to attend services. | Pl. de Regla s/n | 987/875770 | www.catedraldeleon.org | €5, nighttime guided tour €6 | May-Sept., weekdays 9:30-1:30 and 4-8, Sat. 9:30-noon and 2-6, Sun. 9:30-11 and 2-8; Oct.-Apr., Mon.-Sat. 9:30-1:30 and 4-7, Sun. 9:30-2.
MUSAC (Museo de Arte Contemparáneo de Castilla y León) (Museum of Modern Art of Castillo y León).
The inside of this museum reflects contemporary León, while the outside pays homage to the city’s history with its own cluster of buildings whose exteriors are cascaded with rectangular stained glass, like its cathedral. This “Museum of the Present” brings art to the people by offering varied workshops and activities for children as well as exhibiting modern creations from all over the globe. Films and concerts also show throughout the year. | Av. de los Reyes Leoneses 24 | 987/090000 | www.musac.es | €3 (free Sun. 5-9) | Tues.-Fri. 11-2 and 5-8, weekends and holidays 11-3 and 5-9.
This is the heart of the old town, and on Wednesday and Saturday mornings the arcaded plaza bustles with farmers selling produce and cheeses. Many farmers still wear wooden shoes called madreñas, designed to walk on mud in this usually wet part of Spain; the odd-looking shoes are raised on three heels, two in front and one in back.
Plaza San Martín.
Most of León’s tapas bars are in this 12th-century square and the area is called the Barrio Húmedo, or Wet Neighborhood, allegedly because of the large amount of wine spilled here late at night.
Fundación Vela Zanetti.
Hidden away just north of the cathedral is this contemporary art museum, constructed using minimalist wood beams and glass panels inside a 15th-century mansion. Zanetti was a 20th-century Castilian artist with a penchant for warm tones. Some of his portraits recall El Greco. The art and structure both make for a pleasant surprise. | Casona de Villapérez, Calle Pablo Flórez s/n | 987/244121 | www.fundacionvelazanetti.com/web/museo.php | Free | Tues.-Sat. 10-1 and 5-8.
Museo de León.
This museum displays many important artifacts from the region, covering prehistoric to contemporary times, but pride of place belongs to the Cristo Carrizo (Carrizo Crucifix), a small 11th-century Romanesque ivory carving distinguished by its lifelike expression and powerful presence. Notable are the figure’s carefully coiffed hair and beard and the loincloth arranged in sumptuous Byzantine detail. | Pl. de Santo Domingo 8 | 987/236405 | www.museodeleon.com | €1.20 | Oct.-June, Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-7, Sun. 10-2; July-Sept. Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 5-8, Sun. 10-2.
Plaza de Santa María del Camino.
Southwest of the Plaza San Martín, this square used to be called Plaza del Grano (Grain Square) because it was the site of the city’s corn and bread market. Also here is the church of Santa María del Camino, where pilgrims stop on their way west to Santiago de Compostela. The fountain in the middle of the plaza depicts two cherubs clutching a pillar, symbolizing León’s two rivers and the capital.
San Isidoro el Real.
This sandstone basilica was built into the side of the city wall in 1063 and rebuilt in the 12th century. Adjoining the basilica, the Panteón de los Reyes (Royal Pantheon), which has earned the title of the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art, has vibrant 12th-century frescoes on its pillars and ceiling. The pantheon was the first building in Spain to be decorated with scenes from the New Testament. Look for the agricultural calendar painted on one archway, showing which farming task should be performed each month. Twenty-three kings and queens were once buried here, but their tombs were destroyed by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars. Treasures in the adjacent Museo de San Isidoro include a jewel-encrusted agate chalice, a richly illustrated handwritten Bible, and many polychrome wood statues of the Virgin Mary. | Pl. de San Isidoro 4 | 987/876161 | www.sanisidorodeleon.net | Free; €5 for guided tours of Royal Pantheon and museum | Sept.-June, Mon.-Sat. 10-1:30 and 4-6:30, Sun. 10-1:30; July and Aug., Mon.-Sat. 9-8, Sun. 9-2.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | Enter the bar and go up one flight to this softly lit traditional dining room, furnished with rustic tables and colorful ceramics. The cuisine is based on such regional foodstuffs as cured ham, roasted peppers, and chorizo. Try the grilled sea bream or the roast suckling pig and, if you have room, the banana pudding with chocolate sauce. The menu of the day, a great value, includes appetizer, main course, dessert, and wine. | Average main: €32 | Calle Santa Nonia 16 | 987/206768, 987/252665 | www.restauranteadonias.com | Closed Sun.
SPANISH | Next to the cathedral, this charming and relaxed restaurant has a restored 14th-century garden patio with lovely stone arches—a great place to appreciate the good food. There’s a laid-back bar downstairs and a more formal dining room upstairs. Desserts such as the pastel de castañas con chocolate caliente (chestnut cake with hot chocolate) are worth splurging on. Reservations are essential on weekends. | Average main: €20 | Calle Regidores 9-11 | 987/213173 | www.regialeon.com | Closed Sun. and 15 days in Jan. and Sept.
Nuevo Racimo de Oro.
SPANISH | Upstairs from a ramshackle 12th-century tavern in the heart of the old town, this rustic restaurant, once a hostel and hospital for weary pilgrims, now specializes in roast lamb cooked in a wood-burning clay oven. The spicy sopa de ajo leonesa (garlic soup) is a classic, and the solomillo Racimo con micuit de foie al aceite de trufa (veal filet with duck liver and truffle oil) is criminally good. It’s worth saving some room for the tarta de San Marcos, a lemon cake served with whipped cream. | Average main: €20 | Pl. de San Martín 8 | 987/214767 | www.racimodeoro.com | Closed Wed.
HOTEL | This modest but elegant establishment is both comfortable and conveniently located. The classic basement mesón (student tavern and restaurant) snuggles up against the 2,000-year-old stones of a Roman wall. The hotel is on the modern thoroughfare heading east from Plaza Santo Domingo, halfway between the cathedral and the new town. Rooms are classically designed and equipped with traditional furniture. Pros: great location; use of in-house spa included in rates. Cons: street noise; few staffers speak English. | Rooms from: €80 | Calle Ancha 18 | 987/238600 | www.hotelparisleon.com | 61 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Fodor’s Choice | Parador de León (San Marcos Monastery).
HOTEL | This magnificent parador occupies a restored 16th-century monastery and hospital built by King Ferdinand to shelter pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.Its plateresque facade also fronts a church and museum of archaeology (FSee Exploring: Antiguo Convento de San Marcos). The suites and luxury rooms in the original section are worth the extra cost—the 175 rooms in the modern wing are fine but standard. Hallways and guest rooms have antiques and high-quality reproductions paired with contemporary art. The elegant dining room offers regional fare. Pros: among the most beautiful paradores in Spain; great restaurant. Cons: a big difference between the most and the least expensive rooms (this is the place to splurge for the good ones). | Rooms from: €230 | Pl. de San Marcos 7 | 987/237300 | www.parador.es | 186 rooms, 16 suites | Multiple meal plans.
León’s most popular hangouts are clustered in Plaza Mayor (mainly couples and families) and Plaza San Martín (college kids). The streets around these plazas (calles Escalerilla, Plegaria, Ramiro 2, Matasiete, and Mulhacén) are packed with tapas bars. In the Plaza Mayor, you might want to start at Universal, Mesón de Don Quixote, Casa Benito, or Bar La Plaza Mayor. In the Plaza San Martín, the Latino Bar at No. 10 serves a glass of house wine and your choice of one of four generous tapas.
Tasty regional treats include roasted red peppers, potent brandy-soaked cherries, and candied chestnuts. You can buy these in food shops all over the city.
Part of a local deli chain, this shop near the cathedral is a great place to browse shelves of local goodies (candied nuts, preserves), all produced in nearby Astorga. Then head to the café in the back—the focus here is on the baked goods, particularly the hojaldres (puff pastries) and torrijas, a Castilian version of French toast. The café is a favorite among locals who come for their early evening merienda (usually between 6 and 8), Spain’s answer to afternoon tea. You can also order online. | Calle Ancha 7 | 987/252151, 987/616850 | www.hojaldresalonso.com.
Prada a Tope.
This restaurant, winery, and gourmet store has a huge estate in the countryside just outside León, but operates a small café and shop in the city—as well as in several other franchises across Spain. Delicacies include chestnuts in syrup, bittersweet figs and pears in wine, jams, and liqueurs. Not enough room in your suitcase? You can also order by mail from their website. | Calle Alfonso IX | 987/257221, 987/563366 | www.pradaatope.es.
For fine, funky gifts, visit Tricosis, outside town, a gallery opened by art students from the universities of León and Gijón. You’ll find colorful papier-mâché and experimental media as well as outstanding lamps, candleholders, vases, mirrors, and frames. | Ctra. Corbillos 20, nave 3, Valdelafuente | 987/278570, 987/269225 | www.tricosis.com.
46 km (29 miles) southwest of León.
Astorga, where the pilgrimage roads from France and Portugal merge, once had 22 hospitals to lodge and care for ailing travelers. The only one left today is next to the cathedral, which is a huge 15th-century building with four statues of St. James. Astorga is in the area of Maragatos, home to a community with distinct cultural and architectural characteristics, stemming from the region’s Celtic and, later, Roman roots.
Getting Here and Around
Several buses depart daily from León, about a 45-minute trip to Astorga. If you’re driving yourself, there’s ample parking and the city is navigable by foot.
Astorga. | Pl. Eduardo de Castro 5 | 987/618222 | www.ayuntamientodeastorga.com.
Museo de la Catedral.
This museum displays 10th- and 12th-century chests, religious silverware, and paintings and sculptures by various Astorgans. | Pl. de la Catedral | 987/615820 | Cathedral free, museum €3, or €5 combined ticket with Palacio Episcopal | May-Sept., Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-8, Sun. 10-2; Oct.-Apr., Tues.-Sat. 11-2 and 4-6, Sun. 11-2.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Museo del Chocolate (Chocolate Museum).
This fascinating museum tells the story of Spain’s first chocolate imports: Mexican cacao beans brought back to Spain by the explorer Hernán Cortés. The collection also includes 16th-century hot-chocolate mugs and 19th-century chocolate-production tools. The best part comes at the end, with a chocolate-tasting session. | Calle José María Gay 5 | 987/616220 | www.museochocolateastorga.com | €2.50, €4 combined ticket with the Museo Romano | Tues.-Sat. 10:30-2 and 4:30-7, Sun. and holidays 10:30-2; last admission 30 mins before closing.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Museo Romano (Roman Museum).
This small but wonderful and well-organized museum uses the archeological record to show what life was like in Astorga during Roman times, when the city was called Asturica Augusta. A visit here can also be combined with the Ruta Romana, a walking tour of Roman archaeological remains in Astorga that’s organized by the tourist office. | Pl. San Bartolomé 2 | 987/616937 | www.asturica.com | €3; €4 combined ticket with Museo del Chocolate; €5 combined ticket with Roman Route | Tues.-Sat. 10:30-2 and 4-6, Sun. 10:30-2; Roman Route walking tour daily 11-5, by reservation only.
Palacio Episcopal (Archbishop’s Palace).
Just opposite Astorga’s cathedral is this fairy-tale, neo-Gothic palace, designed for a Catalan cleric by Antoni Gaudí in 1889. Visiting during Astorga’s Fiesta de Santa María, the last week of August, is a treat for the senses, when fireworks explode in the sky, casting rainbows of light over Gaudí’s ornate, mystical towers. It’s also home of the Museo de Los Caminos (Museum of the Way), which contains a large collection of folk items, such as the standard pilgrim costume—heavy black cloak, staff hung with gourds, and wide-brimmed hat bedecked with scallop shells—as well as contemporary Spanish art. | Glorieta Eduardo de Castro s/n, Pl. de la Catedral | 987/616882 | €4, or €5 combined ticket with Museo de la Catedral | May-Sept., Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-8, Sun. 10-2; Oct.-Apr., Tues.-Sat. 11-2 and 4-6, Sun. 11-2.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | Steps from the cathedral and Palacio Episcopal, this rustic mesón is quite popular with locals. The menu, which focuses on local products, is often given over to special “gastronomic weeks” that might feature game, wild mushrooms, and pork—there’s also a mix of contemporary cuisine and traditional dishes, such as roasted lamb. Don’t be surprised by imaginative contemporary adventures, such as duck with chocolate and raspberry sauce. | Average main: €38 | Calle Portería 2 | 987/617866, 646/071736 | www.restauranteserrano.es | Closed Mon.
HOTEL | This gleaming, well-run hotel on Astorga’s Plaza de España near city hall is a good value. Its yellow guest rooms have dark-brown furnishings and large windows that bring in lots of light. The lounge is glassed in; the large bar and Los Hornos restaurant have beam ceilings and exposed brick walls. Pros: reliable and well-priced hotel. Cons: a bit lacking in character; might be better for business travelers than for tourists. | Rooms from: €85 | Pl. de España 2-3 | 987/617665 | www.hotelasturplaza.es | 32 rooms, 5 suites | Multiple meal plans.
FAMILY | Hotel Vía de la Plata.
HOTEL | A giant slate terrace with views of the countryside is one major selling point for this pleasing hotel with a traditional brick-and-stone exterior and lots of sleek, modern details inside. The hotel, which takes its name from the ancient Roman trade route nearby, has a luxurious spa and indoor pool that beckon the many hikers and cyclists who travel the route today. There’s also mini-golf for the kids. Pros: great views and service. Cons: weddings virtually take over the hotel on spring weekends, so request a room in a quiet wing, if such a party is in town. | Rooms from: €90 | Calle Padres Redentoristas 5 | 987/619000 for hotel, 987/604165 for spa | www.hotelviadelaplata.com | 38 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
VILLAFRANCA DEL BIERZO
135 km (84 miles) west of León.
After crossing León’s grape-growing region, where the complex and full-bodied Bierzo wines are produced, you’ll arrive in this medieval village, dominated by a massive and still-inhabited feudal fortress. Villafranca was a destination in itself for some of Santiago’s pilgrims. Visit the Romanesque church of Santiago to see the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Pardon), a sort of spiritual consolation prize for exhausted worshippers who couldn’t make it over the mountains. Stroll the streets and seek out the onetime home of the infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada. On the way out, you can buy wine at any of three local bodegas. From here, you can also visit the area’s most famous archaeological site, Las Medulas—the remnants of Roman gold mines.
Getting Here and Around
Charter bus trips from León—or better yet, a rental car—remain the best ways to get to this rural region. You’ll likely want your own transportation once you get there, to visit Las Medulas, which is several kilometers away. It’s also possible to hike or get there by bicycle.
Villafranca del Bierzo. Guided tours depart daily at 11 and 4:30 from the tourist office, next door to the ayuntamiento. Call or go online to reserve, because tours are only given for a minimum of 8 people. | Av. Diez Ovelar 10 | 987/540028 | www.villafrancadelbierzo.org.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Las Medulas.
One of northern Spain’s most impressive archaeological sites, this sprawling mountainous area of former Roman gold mines is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Las Medulas, 24 km (15 miles) south of Villafranca del Bierzo, resulted from an ancient mining technique in which myriad tunnels were burrowed through a mountain, then water pumped through them, causing the mountain to collapse. Then miners would sift through the piles of rubble for gold. What’s left at Las Medulas is a striking array of half-collapsed mountains of golden clay, with exposed tunnels, nestled in lush green forests. A network of hiking paths weaves through the area. A small archaeology exhibit (open only on weekends) and a visitor center are on site. You can pay to enter some of the tunnels or browse the larger area for free. The visitor center also organizes 3-km (2-mile) walking tours—call ahead to book. | Carucedo | 987/422848, 619/258355 | www.fundacionlasmedulas.info | Free; archaeology center €1.20, guided walking tour €2 | Visitor center daily 11-2 and 4-6 (until 8 Apr.-Sept.). Archaeology center: Apr.-Sept., weekends 10-1:30 and 4-8; Oct.-Mar., Sat. 10-1:30 and 3:30-6, Sun. 10-2. Tours: Apr.-Sept., daily at 11:30, noon, 5, and 5:30; Oct.-Mar., daily at 11:30, noon, 4, and 4:15.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Casa do Louteiro.
B&B/INN | This charming, rustic inn, in a tiny village near the archaeological site of Las Medulas, was lovingly converted by the owner from a series of medieval ruins. It’s an easy walk down a narrow lane and then hiking trails, from the hotel to ancient Roman gold mines (FSee Exploring) that have left striking orange mountains of clay. Each of the hotel’s rooms are individually styled, incorporating natural features like living trees and stone or slate floors. Suites with extra beds for families with children are also available. The owners will prepare meals on request (local wine is fabulous!), and recommend hiking trails or other activities. Pros: rustic details; friendly staff; fire pit on winter evenings. Cons: plenty of hiking and biking nearby, but you’ll need a car to get here. | Rooms from: €65 | Calle Louteiro 6 | Orellán | 652/933419, 652/933971 | www.casadolouteiro.es | 3 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo.
HOTEL | This modern two-story hotel built with local stone looks out over the Bierzo valley. Its rooms have heavy wood furniture, shuttered windows, and large baths. At the parador’s restaurant you can dine on fresh Bierzo trout, surtido de verduras naturales (mixed fresh vegetables), or tournedo con higos agridulces y setas (a plump, juicy steak wrapped in bacon and served with marinated figs and wild mushrooms). Try the local Bierzo wine, made primarily from the Mencia grape. Pros: indoor and outdoor swimming pools; quiet surroundings. Cons: nondescript modern design; seasonal closures. | Rooms from: €140 | Av. de Calvo Sotelo 28 | 987/540175 | www.parador.es | 51 rooms | Closed mid-Oct.-Feb. (subject to change) | Multiple meal plans.
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Jerte and El Valle del Jerte (Jerte Valley) | Plasencia | La Vera and Monasterio de Yuste | Cáceres | Trujillo | Guadalupe | Mérida
Rugged Extremadura is a find for any lover of the outdoors, so bring your mountain bike (or plan on renting one), hiking boots, and binoculars. The lush Jerte Valley and the craggy peaks of the Sierra de Gredos mark Upper Extremadura’s fertile landscape. South of the Jerte Valley is the historical town of Plasencia and the 15th-century Yuste Monastery. In Extremadura’s central interior are the provincial capital of Cáceres and the Monfragüe National Park, the province’s first and only federally protected park. Lower Extremadura’s main towns—Mérida, Badajoz, Olivenza, and Zafra—bolstered by the sizable Portuguese population, have long exuded a Portuguese flavor.
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JERTE AND EL VALLE DEL JERTE (JERTE VALLEY)
220 km (137 miles) west of Madrid.
Every spring, the Jerte Valley in northern Extremadura becomes one of Spain’s top attractions, famous for its bounty of cherry blossoms. Unsurprisingly, this is where Spain’s biggest cherry harvest originates, backed by the snowcapped Gredos mountains. Book ahead for March and April—peak cherry blossom season.
Getting Here and Around
You will need a car to get here and explore the valley. For a scenic route, follow N110 southwest from Ávila to Plasencia.
Valle del Jerte. | Paraje Virgen de Peñas Albas s/n (N110), | Cabezuela del Valle | 927/472558 | www.turismovalledeljerte.com.
Cabezuela del Valle.
Full of half-timber stone houses, this is one of the valley’s best-preserved villages. Follow N110 to Plasencia, or, if you have a taste for mountain scenery, detour from the village of Jerte to Hervás, traveling a narrow road that winds 35 km (22 miles) through forests of low-growing oak trees and over the Honduras Pass.
Puerto de Tornavacas (Tornavacas Pass).
There’s no more striking introduction to Extremadura than the Puerto de Tornavacas—literally, the “point where the cows turn back.” Part of the N110 road northeast of Plasencia, the pass marks the border between Extremadura and the stark plateau of Castile. At 1,275 meters (4,183 feet) above sea level, it has a breathtaking view of the valley formed by the fast-flowing Jerte River. The valley’s lower slopes are covered with a dense mantle of ash, chestnut, and cherry trees, whose richness contrasts with the granite cliffs of Castile’s Sierra de Gredos. Cherries are the principal crop. To catch their brilliant blossoms, visit in spring. Camping is popular in this region, and even the most experienced hikers can find some challenging trails.|Plasencia.
Extremaduran food is generally strong and hearty. In addition to fresh produce, Extremadurans rely on pigs, and they use every part, including the criadillas (testicles—don’t confuse them with criadillas de la tierra, which are “earth testicles,” also known as truffles). Meats are outstanding, most notably the complex and nutty jamón ibérico de bellota (ham from acorn-fed Iberian black pigs, or pata negra) such as that from the Sierra de Montánchez north of Cáceres or the Dehesa de Extremadura from the southern oak parks around Zafra. Equally irresistible are the chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage), often made here with potatoes. The caldereta de cordero (lamb stew) is particularly tasty, as is the beef from the retinto, a local breed of longhorn cattle. Game is common, and perdiz al modo de Alcántara (partridge cooked with truffles) is a specialty. Extremadurans make a gazpacho based on cucumbers, green peppers, and broth rather than tomatoes and water. A common accompaniment is migas, bread crumbs soaked in water then fried in olive oil with garlic, and sometimes peppers, and sausage.
Local sheep, goat, and cow cheeses are known for their strong flavors. If you have a chance, try the tortas, the round, semisoft cheeses of Cáceres: Torta de Casar and Torta de La Serena are frequent prizewinners. Pimentón de la Vera, a smoked paprika from the Vera Valley, has also long been a much-valued Extremaduran product. Favorite extremeño desserts include the técula mécula (an almond-flavored marzipan tart), which combines the flavors of Spain and Portugal.
Marketed under the generic appellation “Ribera del Guadiana,” Extremadura’s little-known fruity red wines are up and coming on the Spanish wine scene and a good value. Typical digestifs include liqueurs made from cherries or acorns.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
Restaurante Valle del Jerte.
SPANISH | The service is always cheerful at this small family-run restaurant in a cozy stone house just off the N110 in the village of Jerte. There’s a tapas bar and a dining room out back. House specialties include gazpacho, cabrito (suckling goat), and local trout from the Jerte River. The homemade, regional desserts are outstanding, with many featuring the Jerte Valley’s famed cherries; opt for the tarta de cerezas (cherry tart) or the queso fresco de cabra con miel de cerezo (goat cheese topped with cherry-flavored honey). There’s also an ancient and wonderful wine cellar. | Average main: €15 | Calle Gargantilla 16 | Jerte | 927/470052, 656/365988 | www.donbellota.com.
FAMILY | Hotel Rural Finca El Carpintero.
B&B/INN | This restored 150-year-old stone mill and farmhouse has three types of hotel rooms, the best of which has a fireplace, a salon (sitting room), and its own entrance. The simpler rooms are elegant and colorful and have canopy wrought-iron beds; all the bathrooms have hydromassage tubs. The restaurant has wood beams and a cozy rustic feel, as well as a reasonably priced set menu. The friendly owners Ana and Javier can help arrange hikes, horseback riding, or birding trips. Pros: cozy atmosphere; nice grounds with swimming pool; rooms suitable for families; good value. Cons: large disparity in quality between rooms and suites. | Rooms from: €75 | N110, Km 360.5, 9 km (5½ miles) northeast of Jerte | 927/177089, 659/328110 | www.fincaelcarpintero.com | 5 rooms, 3 suites | Breakfast.
FAMILY | La Casería.
B&B/INN | One of Extremadura’s first rural guesthouses, this rambling home, about 10 km (6 miles) southeast of Jerte, is on a spectacular 120-acre working farm, once a 16th-century Franciscan convent. This is a place for animal lovers, as the household keeps lots of dogs and cats. In addition to the six rooms in the main lodge, there are three cottages, and you can also rent out the entire main house (€450). Activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, and paragliding can be arranged. It’s wise to reserve in advance. Note that the sign is easy to miss. Pros: privacy in the cottages; outdoor activities. Cons: main lodge often rented out to groups; a bit isolated. | Rooms from: €75 | N110, Km 378.5 | Navaconcejo | 927/173141 | www.lacaseria.es | 6 rooms, 3 cottages | Multiple meal plans.
247 km (153 miles) west of Madrid, 79 km (49 miles) north of Cáceres.
Rising dramatically from the banks of the narrow Jerte River and backed by the peaks of the Sierra de Gredos, this town was founded by Alfonso VIII in 1180, just after he captured the entire area from the Moors. Plasencia’s motto, ut placeat Deo et hominibus (“To give pleasure to God and men”), might well have been a ploy on Alfonso’s part to attract settlers to this wild, isolated place on the southern border of the former kingdom of León. Partly destroyed during the Peninsular War of 1808, Plasencia retains far less of its medieval quarter than other Extremaduran towns, but it still has extensive remains of its early walls and a smattering of fine old buildings, notably the Casa del Deán. In addition to being a site for visiting ruins, the city makes a good base for side trips to Hervás and the Jerte Valley, the Monasterio de Yuste and Monfragüe Nature Park, or, farther northwest, the wild Las Hurdes and Sierra de Gata.
Getting Here and Around
Trains are the easiest way to get here from Madrid, taking about 2½ hours on a gorgeous scenic route with views of the Gredos mountains. There are also buses from Madrid, departing at least three times daily. Once in Plasencia, you can catch city buses every 20 minutes, though the city is pedestrian-friendly too.
Plasencia. | Pl. Santa Clara 2 | 927/423843 | www.plasencia.es.
Casa del Deán (Dean’s House).
This striking Renaissance building is now a courthouse and not open to the public, but it’s worth a stroll by to see the outside. The main balcony is an excellent example of Spanish ironwork from that era, supported by neoclassical and Corinthian columns. | Pl. de la Catedral.
Plasencia’s cathedral was founded in 1189 and rebuilt after 1320 in an austere Gothic style that looks a bit incongruous looming over the town’s red-tile roofs. In 1498 the great architect Enrique Egas designed a new structure, intending to complement or even overshadow the original, but despite the later efforts of other notable architects of the time, such as Juan de Alava and Francisco de Colonia, his plans were never fully realized. The entrance to this incomplete, curious, and not wholly satisfactory addition is through a door on the cathedral’s ornate but somber north facade. The dark interior of the new cathedral is notable for the beauty of its pilasters, which sprout like trees into the ribs of the vaulting. You enter the old cathedral through the Gothic cloister, which has four enormous lemon trees. Off the cloister stands the building’s oldest surviving section, a 13th-century chapter house, now the chapel of San Pablo, a late-Romanesque structure with an idiosyncratic, Moorish-inspired dome. Inside are medieval hymnals and a 13th-century gilded wood sculpture of the Virgen del Perdón. The museum in the truncated nave of the old cathedral has ecclesiastical and archaeological antiques. | Pl. de la Catedral | 927/414852, 927/423843 | www.diocesisplasencia.org | Old cathedral €2, new cathedral free | May-Sept., Mon.-Sat. 9-12:30 and 5-6:30, Sun. and holidays 9-11:30; Oct.-Apr., Mon.-Sat. 9-12:30 and 4-5:30, Sun. and holidays 9-11:30.
Hospital de Santa María.
The Renaissance stone facade of this 14th-century building has carvings of shells—an allusion to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Inside, a charming courtyard is lined with Renaissance double arches and filled with orange trees. A former hospital, it now houses the Museo Etnográfico Textil Provincial Pérez Enciso (Provincial Ethnographic Textile Museum), with interesting displays of more than 5,000 artifacts, including ancient kitchen tools, textile-manufacturing equipment, and folk dresses. It’s the only museum of its kind in Extremadura. | Pl. del Marqués de la Puebla s/n | 927/421843 | www.brocense.com/textil.asp | Free | July and Aug., Mon.-Sat. 9:30-2:30; Sept.-June, Wed.-Sat. 11-2 and 5-8, Sun. 11-2.
Palacio Episcopal (Bishop’s Palace).
Adjacent to Plasencia’s cathedral, this former bishop’s palace dates back to at least 1400. A coat of arms adorning two upper windows on both sides of the entrance declares that the building was renovated during the tenure of Bishop Don Gutierrez de Vargas Carvajal (who served from 1523 to 1559). The impressive cloister is supported by a series of Renaissance arches. | Pl. de la Catedral | Free | Weekdays 9-2.
FAMILY | Parque de los Pinos.
Walk southeast from the Plaza de San Vicente Ferrer to get to this park, home to peacocks, cranes, swans, pheasants, and monkeys. Full of waterfalls and animals, this is a great spot for children. | Av. de la Hispanidad s/n | Free | Daily 10-7 (until 8:30 July and Aug.).
Plaza de San Vicente Ferrer.
Lined with orange trees, this narrow, carefully preserved plaza is at the northwest end of the old medieval quarter. At one end is the 15th-century church of San Vicente Ferrer, with an adjoining convent that’s now the Parador Plasencia.
Palacio de Mirabel (Palace of the Marquis of Mirabel).
The north side of the Plaza de San Vicente Ferrer is dominated by the Renaissance Palacio de Mirabel, a two-story, 15th-century palace with a neoclassical interior courtyard surrounded by arches. Pass through the central arch for a view of the courtyard. There are no official visiting hours, but if you knock on the door, the caretaker is often willing to give informal tours. | Pl. de San Vicente Ferrer s/n | 927/410701 (try the tourist office if no answer) | Mon.-Sat. 10-2 and 4-6 (hrs approximate).
East of the Plaza de San Vicente Ferrer, at the other end of the Rúa Zapatería, is this cheerful, arcaded square. The mechanical figure clinging to the town-hall clock tower depicts the clock maker and is called the Mayorga in honor of his Castilian hometown. Also east of the Plaza de San Vicente you can find a large section of the town’s medieval wall, on the other side of which is a heavily restored Roman aqueduct.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
La Cocina del Alfonso VIII.
SPANISH | The hotel may be a few decades past its prime, but the restaurant here has long been regionally renowned for its excellent fare, produced mostly with local ingredients. The ensalada de perdiz (partridge salad) is a tasty starter, followed perhaps by bacalao al estilo monacal (a local monastery’s salt-cod recipe) or stuffed leg of lamb with local dandelion greens. Reservations are recommended for Sunday lunch, when locals from across Plasencia gather for a family meal. There’s a café and bar adjacent. | Average main: €60 | Av. Alfonso VIII 32 | 927/410250 | www.hotelalfonsoviii.com | No dinner Sun.
FAMILY | Parador de Plasencia.
HOTEL | In a 15th-century Gothic convent, this parador cultivates a medieval environment, with majestic and somber common areas and spacious guest rooms decorated with monastic motifs and heavy wood furniture. The ancient look only goes so far, though—the rooms are also comfortable, with stylishly modern bathrooms, and most have sitting rooms. The high-ceiling, stone-and-wood-beam restaurant—the former convent refectory—is almost intimidating in its architectural magnificence. Pros: successful fusion of old and new; good restaurant; outdoor swimming pool, which is rare in the city center. Cons: expensive parking, and free alternative is a long walk away. | Rooms from: €180 | Pl. San Vicente Ferrer s/n | 927/425870 | www.parador.es | 64 rooms, 2 suites | Multiple meal plans.
If you’re in Plasencia on Tuesday morning, head for the Plaza Mayor and do what the locals have been doing since the 12th century: scout bargains in the weekly market. On the first Tuesday of August, the market is even larger, with vendors from all over the region.
Casa del Jamón.
You can stock up here on local charcuterie, sausages, jamón ibérico, cheeses, extremeño wines, and cherry liqueur. There are many branches across Extremadura, or you can order online through its excellent website. It’s closed on Sunday and between 2 and 5:30 the rest of the week. | Calle Sol 18, east of Pl. Mayor | 927/414271 | www.lacasadeljamonplasencia.es.
LA VERA AND MONASTERIO DE YUSTE
45 km (28 miles) east of Plasencia.
In the north of Extremadura, the fertile La Vera region sits at the foot of the Gredos mountains, which are usually snow-capped through June. With its wildflowers, mountain vistas, and world-famous Yuste Monastery, the area welcomes tourists every spring. One of the souvenirs they’re likely to take home is La Vera’s famous paprika—pimentón rojo. You’re likely to see strings of red peppers hanging out to dry on the windowsills of area homes.
Getting Here and Around
You’ll need a car to get here. Turn left off C501 at Cuacos and follow signs for the monastery (1 km [½ mile]).
Jaraíz de la Vera. | Av. de la Constitución 167 | 927/170587.
Fodor’s Choice | Monasterio de Yuste (Yuste Monastery).
In the heart of La Vera, a region of gargantas (steep ravines), rushing rivers, and villages (including the town of Jaraíz de la Vera), lies the Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Yuste, founded by Hieronymite monks in the early 15th century. Badly damaged in the Peninsular War, it was left to decay after the suppression of Spain’s monasteries in 1835, but it has since been restored and taken over once more by the Hieronymites. Today it’s one of the most impressive monasteries in all of Spain. Carlos V (1500-58), founder of Spain’s vast 16th-century empire, spent his last two years in the Royal Chambers, enabling the emperor to attend Mass within a short stumble of his bed. The guided tour also covers the church, the crypt where Carlos V was buried before being moved to El Escorial (near Madrid), and a glimpse of the monastery’s cloisters. | Cuacos de Yuste, Cáceres | 927/172197 | www.patrimonionacional.es | €9 (free Oct.-Mar., Wed. and Thurs. 3-6; Apr.-Sept., Wed. and Thurs. 5-8); optional guided tour €6 | Daily 10-6 (until 8 Apr.-Sept.).
Museo del Pimentón (Paprika Museum).
Tucked away in a 17th-century row house, this quirky museum tells the history of the locally made paprika, dubbed “red gold,” for which Jaraíz de la Vera is probably best known nationally. The museum is spread over three floors, with audiovisual presentations and examples of grinding tools and recipes. The museum is the centerpiece of the village’s annual pepper festival, held in August. | Pl. Mayor 7 | Jaraíz de la Vera, Cáceres | 927/460810 | Free | Tues.-Sat. 10-2 and 4:30-6:30, Sun. and holidays 10-2.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Camino Real.
B&B/INN | In a village in the highest valley of the Vera, this former mansion has rustic guest rooms with exposed stone walls and wood-beam ceilings. There’s a sitting room with fireplace, plus an outside hot tub. The owners organize local excursions and can arrange equestrian outings, golf, guided fly-fishing expeditions, and much more. Pros: sprawling terrace with gorgeous views over the valley; family activities organized; lavish breakfast buffet included. Cons: those great views of Extremadura’s plains also make for cold, windy winters. | Rooms from: €65 | Calle Monje 27 | Guijo de Santa Bárbara | 927/561119 | www.casaruralcaminoreal.com | 10 rooms | Breakfast.
FAMILY | La Casona.
B&B/INN | This rustic estate with spectacular views of the Gredos mountains has six cozy rooms in the main house, six log-cabin bungalows out back, and opportunities for a number of outdoor activities. The main house, made of stone, is surrounded by a huge terrace and gardens, and has a wood-burning stove inside. Bungalows have wraparound porches; three have whirlpool baths. The restaurant serves local delicacies like goat or lamb stew, migas (fried bread crumbs soaked in garlic and wine), local peppers, and suckling pig roasted in a wood-fired oven. With a paddle tennis court, outdoor pool, and farm animals, this is a lovely spot for a family. The friendly owners can help arrange horseback riding, hiking, fishing, cycling, or canoe day trips. Pros: great service; very family-friendly. Cons: need your own transportation. | Rooms from: €65 | Ctra. Navalmoral, EX392, Km 15 | Jaraíz de la Vera | 927/194145, 629/645930 | www.la-casona.es | 6 rooms, 6 bungalows | Multiple meal plans.
If you like to cook, pick up a tin or two of pimentón de la Vera (smoked sweet paprika), made from the region’s prized red peppers, at a deli or grocery shop in the area.
EN ROUTE: Parque Natural de Monfragüe.
At the junction of the rivers Tiétar and Tajo, 20 km (12 miles) south of Plasencia on the EX208, is Extremadura’s only national park. This rocky, mountainous wilderness is known for its diverse plant and animal life, including lynx, boar, deer, fox, black storks, imperial eagles, and the world’s largest colony of black vultures. Bring binoculars and head for the lookout point called Salto del Gitano (Gypsy’s Leap), on the C524 just south of the Tajo River—vultures can often be spotted wheeling in the dozens at close range. The park’s visitor center and main entrance is in the hamlet of Villareal de San Carlos. | Ctra. EX208 | Villareal de San Carlos | 927/199134, 927/116498 | www.monfrague.com or www.parquedemonfrague.com | Park daily; visitor center Apr.-Oct., weekends 11-7; hrs vary weekdays and Nov.-Mar. (call ahead to check).
299 km (186 miles) west of Madrid, 125 km (78 miles) southwest of Monasterio de Yuste.
The provincial capital and one of Spain’s oldest cities, Cáceres is a prosperous agricultural town with a vibrant nightlife that draws villagers from the surrounding pueblos every weekend. The Roman colony called Norba Caesarina was founded in 35 BC, but when the Moors took over in the 8th century, they named the city Quazris, which eventually morphed into the Spanish Cáceres. Ever since noble families helped Alfonso IX expel the Moors in 1229, the city has prospered. The pristine condition of the city’s medieval and Renaissance quarter is the result of the families’ continued occupancy of the palaces erected in the 15th century.
Getting Here and Around
Trains from Madrid take about 2½ hours and are the cheapest and easiest way to get to Cáceres. Catch a city bus just outside the train station, which takes you to Plaza Mayor in the historic quarter. The city center is then navigable on foot. If you drive, park on the outskirts as winding, narrow medieval streets are difficult for parking.
FAMILY | Los Cuenta Trovas de Cordel.
One of the best ways to see Cáceres is by night. The energetic local guides Vicente and Patxi weave lots of knowledge about Cáceres folklore, legends and ghost stories into their multilingual weekend tours of Cáceres’s old quarter, which they present in medieval costume. Call ahead to reserve, or book online. | Pl. Mayor | 667/283187, 667/776205 | www.cuentatrovas.blogspot.com.es | €10.
Cáceres. | Calle Túnez 1 | 927/232550.
Cáceres. The train station is an easy 15-minute walk from the city’s historic center. | Avda. Juan Pablo II 6 | 927/235061, 902/240202.
Cáceres. The tourist center organizes walking tours of the city, which last about 90 minutes to 2 hours. Call ahead to reserve. The tours, which require a minimum of 10 people, depart from Plaza Mayor daily at 11 and 12:30, with extra tours Monday-Saturday at 4:30 and 5:30 in winter, 5:30 and 6:30 in summer. | Pl. Mayor | 927/010834, 927/217237 for tours.
Cáceres Viejo (Old Cáceres), which begins just east of Plaza San Juan, is the best part of town to explore.
Fodor’s Choice | Ciudad Monumental.
On high ground on the eastern side of the Plaza Mayor, the town walls surround one of the best-preserved medieval quarters in Spain. Packed with treasures, Cáceres’s Ciudad Monumental (monumental city or old town, also called the casco antiguo or Cáceres Viejo) is a marvel: small, but without a single modern building to detract from its aura. The old town is virtually deserted in winter, and occasionally dusted with a light coating of snow—quite a sight to behold.
Museo de Cáceres.
The Casa de las Veletas (House of the Weather Vanes) is a 12th-century Moorish mansion that is now used as the city’s museum. Filled with archaeological finds from the Paleolithic through the Visigothic periods, the art section includes medieval to contemporary painters from El Greco to Tàpies. A highlight is the superb Moorish cistern—the aljibe—with horseshoe arches supported by moldy stone pillars. | Pl. de las Veletas 1 | 927/010877 | museodecaceres.blogspot.com.es | €1.20 (free for EU residents) | Tues.-Sat. 9-3 and 5-8:30 (4-7:30 Oct.-Apr. 13), Sun. 10-3.
Palacio de Carvajal.
Near the cathedral of Santa María stands the elegant Palacio de Carvajal, the only old palace in Cáceres that you can visit, other than the one housing the Museo de Cáceres. There is an imposing granite facade, arched doorway, and tower, and the interior has been restored, complete with period furnishings and art, to look as it did when the Carvajal family lived here in the 16th century. Legend says that King Ferdinand IV ordered the execution of two brothers from the Carvajal family, whom he accused of killing one of his knights. Thirty days later, the king was sued in the Court of God. Judgment was postponed until after the king’s death, when the Carvajal brothers were declared innocent. | Calle Amargura 1 at Pl. Santa María | 927/255597 | Free | Weekdays 8 am-9:15 pm, Sat. 10-2 and 5-8, Sun. 10-2.
On this long, inclined, arcaded plaza you can find several outdoor cafés, the tourist office, and, on breezy summer nights, nearly everyone in town. In the middle of the arcade opposite the old quarter is the entrance to the lively Calle General Ezponda, lined with tapas bars, student hangouts, and discos that keep the neighborhood awake and moving until dawn.
Santa María de Gracia Cathedral.
This Gothic church, built mainly in the 16th century, is now the town cathedral. The elegantly carved high altar, dating from 1551, however, is barely visible in the gloom. Follow the lines of pilgrims to the statue of San Pedro de Alcantara in the corner; legend says that touching the stone figure’s shoes brings luck to the pilgrims, and the shoes are shiny from all the caressing. A small museum in the back displays religious artifacts. | Pl. de Santa María s/n | 927/215313 | €1 | Weekdays 10-2 and 4:30-8, Sat. 9:30-12:50 and 4-6:15, Sun. 9:30-11:50 and 5-6:15 (until 7:15 May-Sept.). Hrs vary Sat. due to weddings.
Santuario de la Virgen de la Montaña (Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Mountain).
Just up the hill behind Cáceres’s Ciudad Monumental is this 18th-century shrine dedicated to the city’s patron saint. The complex is built on a mountain with glorious views of old Cáceres, especially at sunset. The view is worth the 15-minute drive—or even the grueling two-hour walk—despite the rather mundane interior of the church (the golden baroque altar is the only exception). To get here, follow Calle Cervantes until it becomes Carretera de la Montaña; the sanctuary is just off the town tourist map, which you can pick up from the local tourist office. | Ctra. Santuario Virgin de la Montaña s/n | Free | Daily 9-1 and 4-8.
Palacio de los Golfines de Abajo.
The stony severity of this palace seems appropriate when you consider it was once the headquarters of General Franco. The exterior is somewhat relieved by elaborate Mudejar and Renaissance decorative motifs. Some 400 years before Franco, the so-called Catholic Kings purportedly slept here. You can’t enter the palace. | Pl. de los Golfines, Pl. de San Jorge.
Palacio de los Golfines de Arriba.
After you pass through the gate leading to the old quarter, you’ll see this palace, dominated by a soaring tower dating from 1515. Only three of the four corner towers remain, adorned with various coats of arms of the families who once lived here. Inside, there are classical collonaded courtyards with Renaissance details, but they’re no longer open to the public. Still, the impressive building is worth a stop. | C. de los Olmos 2.
Palacio de los Moctezuma-Toledo.
From Santa María cathedral, a 110-yard walk down Calle Tiendas takes you to the old city’s northern wall. Don’t miss this 16th-century palace (now a public-records office), built by Juan Cano de Saavedra with the dowry provided by his wife, the Aztec princess Techichpotzin (known as Doña Isabel), daughter of the Aztec leader Montezuma (aka Moctezuma). It is closed to the public. | Pl. Conde de Canilleros 1.
Palacio del Capitán Diego de Cáceres.
The battlement tower of this palace is also known as the Torre de las Cigüeñas (Tower of the Storks) for obvious reasons. It’s now a military residence, but some rooms are occasionally opened up for exhibitions. | Pl. San Mateo.
San Mateo church.
Construction on this church began in the 14th century, purportedly over the ruins of a mosque, and took nearly 300 years to finish. The interior is austere, with a 16th-century choir and walls lined with the tombs of prominent Cáceres citizens. The church opens at 10 am most mornings, but check with the tourist office in case of changes. | Pl. de San Mateo | 927/246329 | Mon.-Sat. 10-8, Sun. Mass only, at noon and 8 pm.
Santiago de los Caballeros.
The chief building of interest outside the walls of Cáceres’ old town, this church was rebuilt in the 16th century by Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, Spain’s last great Gothic architect. The easiest way to reach the church is by exiting the old town on the west side, through the Socorro gate. Inside the church, there is a single nave with ribbed vaults, and a choir stall in the back. The magnificent altarpiece was commissioned in 1557 and made by the Valladolid-based master Alonso de Berruguete. | Pl. de Santiago | Daily dawn-dusk.
WHERE TO EAT
Fodor’s Choice | Atrio.
SPANISH | Off Cáceres’s main boulevard, this elegant, modern restaurant (in a hotel of the same name) just might be the best in Extremadura. It specializes in highly refined contemporary cooking, and the menu changes often, but you won’t be disappointed with any of the selections, especially if they include venison, partridge, wild mushrooms, or truffles. Vieiras asadas con trufa negra (roast scallops with truffle) or pichón asado (roast wood pigeon) are two of the signature offerings. Such dishes earned Atrio two Michelin stars. The building is a work of art itself, with modern lines contrasting the surrounding architecture in old Cáceres. This is upscale, high-end dining. You can book online or by phone. | Average main: €60 | Pl. de San Mateo 1 | 927/242928 | www.restauranteatrio.com | Reservations essential.
FAMILY | Chocolat’s.
EUROPEAN | This little chocolate and coffee shop, not far from Plaza San Juan, is the best place in town for breakfast, dessert, or a quick snack. | Average main: €5 | Calle Gran Vía s/n | 927/220158, 608/311204 | No credit cards.
El Figón de Eustaquio.
SPANISH | A fixture on the quiet and pleasant Plaza San Juan, this restaurant has been run by the same family for nearly 70 years and counting. It’s especially popular at lunch—and with good reason. In its jumble of small, old-fashioned dining rooms with wood-beamed ceilings, you’ll be served mainly regional delicacies, including venado de montería (wild venison) or perdiz estofada (partridge stew). Fine Extremaduran wines are also available. | Average main: €30 | Pl. San Juan 12-14 | 927/244362, 927/248194 | elfigondeeustaquio.com | Reservations essential.
Fodor’s Choice | La Tapería.
TAPAS | Hands-down the best tapas in Cáceres—and maybe in Extremadura—are at this tiny taverna that’s usually packed with locals. There’s a traditional dining room behind the boisterous brick-and-wood bar. The extensive wine list includes lots of bottles from local vineyards, and your drink will come with a heaping plate of tapas. Try the tostas—simple toast topped with wonderful combinations of extremeño ham, cheese, grilled vegetables, and other hearty ingredients. This is the best value in town, and a very good place to mingle with locals. | Average main: €10 | Calle Sanchez Garrido 1, bajo | 927/225147 | Closed Mon.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Hotel Iberia.
HOTEL | This budget-friendly hotel is a reliable, quieter alternative to those that are directly on the Plaza Mayor. Halls are adorned with old etchings of Cáceres scenes, and rooms are decorated in dark wood antiques. Each room is different, with doubles, triples, and quads available, making this a great option for families. Room 313, on the top floor, has a balcony overlooking the town’s old quarter. Pros: great value; comes with generous breakfast buffet. Cons: the interior style may seem a bit aged if you’re not into antiques. | Rooms from: €60 | Calle Pintores 2 | 927/247634 | www.iberiahotel.com | 38 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Palacio de Oquendo.
HOTEL | This 16th-century palace is now an impressive hotel that rivals the town’s parador, at much lower rates. In an imposing stone building that stretches the length of Plaza San Juan, this member of the upscale NH chain is just off Plaza Mayor, on the edge of Cáceres’ old quarter. A fantastic blend of modern and antique offers modern amenities, including Wi-Fi, beneath soaring, stone-domed ceilings. Suites are available for families. Pros: very good value; new design; quiet area close to Plaza Mayor. Cons: no parking. | Rooms from: €100 | Pl. San Juan 11 | 927/215800 | www.nh-hotels.com | 86 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Parador de Cáceres.
HOTEL | This 14th-century palace in the old town provides a noble setting, with elegant public spaces filled with antiques. Guest rooms are comfortable and decorated in soft cream tones offset by stone walls and heavy wood beams. The restaurant, Torreorgaz, with tables on the terrace in summer, offers dishes such as solomillo de ibérico a la Torta del Casar (fillet of ibérico pig with creamy Torta del Casar sheep’s cheese) or cabrito asado al romero (young goat roasted with rosemary). Friday to Sunday the parador’s wine cellar, Enoteca Torreorgaz, holds wine tastings. Pros: good blend of tradition and comfort; fine cuisine and wines. Cons: some rooms are basic; old-town location can be confusing to reach by car. | Rooms from: €176 | Calle Ancha 6 | 927/211759 | www.parador.es | 39 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
NIGHTLIFE AND PERFORMING ARTS
Bars in Cáceres stay busy until the wee hours. Nightlife centers on the Plaza Mayor, which fills after dinner with families out for a paseo (stroll), as well as students swigging calimocho (a mix of red wine and Coca-Cola) or litronas (liter bottles of beer). Calle de Pizarro, south of Plaza San Juan, is lined with cafés and bars.
El Corral de las Cigueñas.
There’s a hopping nighttime music scene at this charming old-town café with an outdoor patio. In winter months, the club is open only Thursday to Sunday evenings. Hours vary depending on events; call ahead or go online to check concert schedules. | Cuesta de Aldana 6 | 927/216425, 647/758245 | www.elcorralcc.com.
45 km (28 miles) east of Cáceres, 256 km (159 miles) southwest of Madrid.
Trujillo rises up from the boulder-strewn fields like a great granite schooner under full sail. Up above, the rooftops and towers seem medieval. Down below, Renaissance architecture flourishes in squares such as the Plaza Mayor, with its elegant San Martín church. As in Cáceres, storks’ nests top many towers in and around the old town—they’ve become a symbol of Trujillo. Dating back at least to Roman times, the city was captured from the Moors in 1232 and colonized by a number of leading military families.
Getting Here and Around
There is no train service to Trujillo, but Avanza Bus (www.avanzabus.com) offers several departures daily from Madrid’s Estacion de Sur (3½ hours). Once there, it’s best to see Trujillo on foot, as the streets are mostly cobbled or crudely paved with stone (suitable footwear needed). The two main roads into Trujillo leave you at the unattractive bottom end of town. Things get progressively older the farther you climb, but even on the lower slopes—where most of the shops are concentrated—you need walk only a few yards to step into what seems like the Middle Ages.
Trujillo. The tourist office has discount tickets for several museums and tourist sites, and also organizes guided walking tours of the city, at 11 and 4:30. | Pl. Mayor | 927/322677 | www.turismotrujillo.com.
Casa Museo de Pizarro.
The Pizarro family home is now a modest museum dedicated to the connection between Spain and Latin America. The first floor is a typical home from 15th-century Trujillo, and the second floor is divided into exhibits on Peru and Pizarro’s life there. The museum explains the so-called “Curse of the Pizarro,” recounting how the conquistador and his brothers were killed in brutal battles with rivals; those who survived never again enjoyed the wealth they had achieved in Peru. | Pl. de Santa María and Calle Merced s/n | €1.40 | Daily 10-2 and 4:30-7:30.
For spectacular views, climb this large fortress, built by the Moors in the 9th century on top of old Roman foundations. To the south are silos, warehouses, and residential neighborhoods. To the north are green fields and brilliant flowers, partitioned by a maze of nearly leveled Roman stone walls, and an ancient cistern. The castle’s size underscores the historic importance of now-tiny Trujillo. | Cerro Cabeza de Zorro | €2 | Daily 10-2 and 4-7:30.
This is Trujillo’s oldest area, entirely surrounded by its original, albeit much restored, walls. Follow them along Calle Almenas, which runs west from the Palacio de Orellana-Pizarro, beneath the Alcázar de Los Chaves, a castle-fortress that was converted into a guest lodge in the 15th century and hosted visiting dignitaries, including Ferdinand and Isabella. Now a college, the building has seen better days. Passing the Alcázar, continue west along the wall to the Puerta de San Andrés, one of La Villa’s four surviving gates (there were originally seven).
Trujillo’s large central square, one of the finest in Spain, is a superb Renaissance creation and the site of the local tourist office. At the foot of the stepped platform on the plaza’s north side stands a large, bronze equestrian statue of Francisco Pizarro—the work, surprisingly, of an American sculptor, Charles Rumsey.
Santa María (Iglesia de Santa María La Mayor).
Attached to a Romanesque bell tower, this Gothic church is the most beautiful in Trujillo. It’s only occasionally used for Masses, and its interior has been virtually untouched since the 16th century. The upper choir has an exquisitely carved balustrade, and the coats of arms at each end indicate the seats Ferdinand and Isabella occupied when they came here to worship. Note the high altar, circa 1480, adorned with great 15th-century Spanish paintings. To see it properly illuminated, place a coin in the box next to the church entrance. Climb the tower for stunning views of the town and vast plains stretching toward Cáceres and the Sierra de Gredos. | Pl. de Santa María | €2 church and exhibits, €1 to climb the tower | Daily 10-2 and 4-7.
Museo de la Coria.
Near the Puerta de la Coria and occupying a former Franciscan convent, this museum’s exhibits on the relationship between Spain and Latin America are similar to those in the Casa Museo de Pizarro but with an emphasis on the troops as well as other conquistadors who led missions across the water. The museum is worth visiting just for a look inside the old convent’s two-tier central cloister. | Pl. de Santa María | 927/659032, 927/321898 | Free | Weekends and holidays 11:30-2.
Palacio de los Duques de San Carlos (Palace of the Dukes of San Carlos).
Next to the church of San Martín, this palace is now a convent of Hieronymite nuns who can occasionally be glimpsed on the balconies in full habit, hanging laundry or watering their flowers. The convent is closed to visitors, so the closest you’ll get is tasting some of the wonderful pastries the nuns make, including perrunillas (almond cookies) and tocinillos del cielo (custardlike egg-yolk sweets), many of which are sold in local pastry shops. | Pl. Mayor | 927/320058.
Palacio de Orellana-Pizarro.
Adjacent to the Palacio del Marqués de la Conquista is the former town hall, now a court of law; the alley that runs through this arcaded building’s central arch takes you to the Palacio de Orellana-Pizarro, which now serves as a school—one with the most elegant Renaissance courtyard in town. The palace’s ground floor, open to visitors, has a deep arched front doorway; on the second story is an elaborate Renaissance balcony bearing the crest of the Pizarro family. Cervantes, on his way to thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for his release from prison, spent time writing in the palace, which once belonged to Juan Pizarro de Orellana, cousin of the Pizarro conquistador who conquered Peru. | Behind Pl. Mayor | Free | Weekdays 10-1 and 4-6, weekends 11-2 and 4:30-7.
Palacio del Marqués de la Conquista (Palace of the Marquis of the Conquest).
This is the most dramatic building on Plaza Mayor. The stone palace was built by Francisco Pizarro’s half-brother Hernando. It’s recognizable by its rich covering of early Renaissance plateresque ornamentation and imaginative busts of the Pizarro family flanking its corner balcony. Unfortunately, it’s closed to visitors. | Pl. Mayor.
Behind the Pizarro statue, this church is a Gothic structure from the early 16th century, with Renaissance tombs and an old organ. Three of Spanish history’s most prominent kings prayed here: Carlos V, Felipe II, and Felipe V. | Pl. Mayor | €2 | Daily 10-2 and 4-7.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | A Trujillo institution conveniently located on the Plaza Mayor, Bizcocho specializes in Extramaduran cuisine, with local jamón, queso, and migas—breadcrumbs fried with garlic and pork, and moistened with a bit of red wine. The stone and tiled dining room is cozy and cool even in hot Extremadura summers. Reservations are essential on holiday weekends. | Average main: €20 | Pl. Mayor 11 | 927/322017 | www.restaurantebizcochotrujillo.com.
Fodor’s Choice | Mesón La Troya.
SPANISH | An institution in these parts, this restaurant has a noisy tapas bar papered with photos of celebrity diners happily posing with its late, great owner, Concha. Opt for a table outside for the best views of the Plaza Mayor, or choose a spot in the charming dining room, which has a barrel-vaulted brick ceiling. The prix-fixe meal includes a starter of tortilla de patatas (potato omelet), chorizo ibérico (ibérico-pork sausage), and a salad. Notable mains to watch for include the delicious pruebas de cerdo (ibérico-pork casserole with garlic and spices). Come hungry: portions are enormous. | Average main: €30 | Pl. Mayor 10 | 927/321364.
FAMILY | Izán Trujillo.
HOTEL | Once a 16th-century convent, this splendid 4-star hotel has a good location, just a short walk from Trujillo’s historic center. The rusty red-ocher color scheme on its facade is matched in its cloisters and courtyard, where there’s a swimming pool surrounded by wrought-iron furniture. Rooms and suites come in various sizes—making this a good option for families—and are comfortable and a good value. The restaurant in the former refectory serves regional dishes such as wild boar, free-range pork, and, during the October-January hunting season, red-leg partridge stewed with broad beans. Pros: aesthetically impeccable; friendly and efficient staff. Cons: small swimming pool; rooms vary in size. | Rooms from: €77 | Pl. del Campillo 1 | 927/458900 | www.izanhoteles.es | 77 rooms, 1 suite | Multiple meal plans.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Parador de Trujillo.
HOTEL | In yet another of the region’s 16th-century convents, this parador is the essence of peace and tranquility, with rooms that are cozy and serene. The spectacular building has two full cloisters that shine light onto the thick stone walls of common areas. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth a visit to have a drink in the candlelit courtyard by night. Pros: peace and quiet in the heart of town; swimming pool. Cons: expensive; rooms are a bit like monastery quarters—on the small side. | Rooms from: €150 | Calle Santa Beatriz de Silva 1 | 927/321350 | www.parador.es | 50 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Posada Dos Orillas.
HOTEL | In the historic center of town, this hotel occupies a 16th-century former stagecoach inn. Rooms are individually decorated in traditional Spanish colonial style, with lots of wrought iron and dark wood furniture. Guests can enjoy breakfast on the delightful patio with columns and leafy plants or at the hotel restaurant, which serves classic Extremaduran cuisine with contemporary innovations as well as vegetarian dishes for those who want a break from all that Spanish meat. The menu of the day is a great value. Pros: pleasant interiors; beautiful terrace; good location; good weekend values. Cons: no reserved parking. | Rooms from: €60 | Calle de los Cambrones 6 | 927/659079 | www.dosorillas.com | 13 rooms | Breakfast.
Trujillo is a good place to shop for folk art. Look for multicolor rugs, blankets, and embroidery. There are interesting shops around the Plaza Mayor.
Eduardo Pablos Mateos.
This workshop specializes in wood carvings, basketwork, and furniture. Call ahead to schedule a personal tour. | Calle de San Judas 3 | 927/321066, 606/174382 (cell phone).
200 km (125 miles) southwest of Madrid, 96 km (60 miles) east of Trujillo.
Guadalupe’s monastery is one of the most inspiring sights in Extremadura. Whether you come from Madrid, Trujillo, or Cáceres, the last leg of your journey takes you through beautiful mountain scenery, with the monastery clinging to the slopes. The story of Guadalupe goes back to about 1300, when a local shepherd uncovered a statue of the Virgin, supposedly carved by St. Luke. King Alfonso XI, who often hunted here, had a church built to house the statue and vowed to found a monastery should he defeat the Moors at the battle of Salado in 1340. After his victory, he kept his promise. The greatest period in the monastery’s history was between the 15th and 18th centuries, when, under the rule of the Hieronymites, it was turned into a pilgrimage center rivaling Santiago de Compostela in importance. Pilgrims have been coming here since the 14th century, but have been joined in more recent years by a growing number of tourists. Even so, the monastery’s isolation—a good two-hour drive from the nearest town—has protected it from commercial excess. The town’s residents number only about 2,000. Documents authorizing Columbus’s first voyage to the Western Hemisphere were signed here. The Virgin of Guadalupe became the patroness of Latin America, honored by the dedication of thousands of churches and towns in the New World. The monastery’s decline coincided with Spain’s loss of overseas territories in the 19th century. Guadalupe is also known for its copperware, crafted here since the 16th century.
Getting Here and Around
There’s no train to Guadalupe, and bus service is sporadic. It’s easiest if you have your own car, and park on the outskirts of town. It’s small enough to explore on foot, but is hilly and cobblestoned, so wear comfortable shoes.
Guadalupe. | Pl. Santa María de Guadalupe | 927/154128 | oficinadeturismoguadalupe.blogspot.com.es | Thurs.-Mon.
Plaza Mayor (Plaza de Santa María de Guadalupe).
In the middle of this tiny, irregularly shaped plaza—which is transformed during festivals into a bullring—is a 15th-century fountain, where Columbus’s two Native American servants were baptized in 1496.
Fodor’s Choice | Real Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe (Royal Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe).
Looming in the background of the Plaza Mayor is the late-Gothic facade of Guadalupe’s monastery church, flanked by battlement towers. The monastery is essentially a whole town in itself. The entrance is to the left of the church. From the large Mudejar cloister, the required guided tour (they run throughout the day) progresses to the chapter house, with hymnals, vestments, and paintings, including a series of small panels by Zurbarán. The ornate 17th-century sacristy has a series of eight Zurbarán paintings, from 1638-47. These austere representations of monks of the Hieronymite order and scenes from the life of St. Jerome are the artist’s only significant paintings still in the setting they were made for. The tour concludes with the garish, late-baroque Camarín, the chapel where the famous Virgen Morena (Black Virgin) is housed. The dark, mysterious wooden figure hides under a heavy veil and mantle of red and gold; painted panels tell the virgin’s life story. Each September 8, the virgin is brought down from the altarpiece and walked around the cloister in a procession with pilgrims following on their knees. Outside, the monastery’s gardens have been restored to their original, geometric Moorish style. | Entrance on Pl. Mayor | 927/367000 | www.monasterioguadalupe.com | €4 | Daily 9:30-1 and 3:30-6:30.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
El Mesón Extremeño.
SPANISH | You can’t beat the location of this restaurant, within view of the monastery’s facade. Pick a table on the plaza outside, or inside in the terra-cotta-tiled dining room. Either way, expect authentic flavors and a hearty meal, particularly if you’re a fan of Spain’s vast assortment of wild mushrooms. The menú de la casa (€9 prix-fixe house menu) includes migas de pastor, sopa de ajo, chuletillas de cerdo (pork chops) with green beans, and solomillo (filet mignon) topped with aromatic setas of different varieties according to the season. | Average main: €10 | Pl. Santa María 3 | 927/154327.
Fodor’s Choice | Mesón Cerezo.
SPANISH | This traditional, family-run restaurant right on Plaza Mayor serves up Extremaduran specialties, all with splendid views of the town’s main square and monastery. The establishment also offers hotel rooms upstairs. Favorite dishes include cordero or cabrito asado (roasted over a wood fire), local jamón, and traditional barbeque. The daily prix-fixe menu is a steal at €8.90, and so are the simple hotel rooms, at about €45. | Average main: €10 | Pl. Mayor | 927/154177 | www.hostalcerezo2meson.com.
FAMILY | Casa Rural Abacería de Guadalupe.
B&B/INN | For a simple and inexpensive overnight stay, try this small, tidy guesthouse on a quiet side street near the center of the village, around the corner from the parador. The house has three double rooms, each with their own private bath, a living room with fireplace, plus a large patio, porch, and full kitchen. You can rent individual rooms, or the whole house (€120 on weeknights or €180 on weekends). Pros: private; plenty of space for families with children. Cons: individual rooms are a bit small. | Rooms from: €50 | Calle Marqués de la Romana | 927/154282, 650/208405 | www.guadaluperural.com | 3 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Hospedería del Real Monasterio.
HOTEL | An excellent and considerably cheaper alternative to the town parador, this inn was built around the 16th-century Gothic cloister of the monastery itself. The cloister’s courtyard is also an outdoor café, open to all, from May to September. The simple, traditional rooms with wood-beam ceilings are handsome and comfortable. Fine local dishes at the restaurant include caldereta de cabrito (baby goat stew), revuelto de cardillos (scrambled eggs with thistle), and morcilla de berza (blood sausage with cabbage). Pros: guests get free monastery admission; excellent restaurant; helpful staff. Cons: the monastery’s church bells chime around the clock. | Rooms from: €72 | Pl. Juan Carlos I | 927/367000 | www.hotelhospederiamonasterioguadalupe.com | 47 rooms | Closed mid-Jan.-mid-Feb. | Multiple meal plans.
Parador de Guadalupe.
HOTEL | This exquisite estate, once the 15th-century palace of the Marquis de la Romana, now houses one of Spain’s finest paradores. The sprawling building combines Mudejar architecture, exotic vegetation, and Moorish-style rooms, the best of which look out onto the monastery. There’s a secluded swimming pool and a cozy fireplace room—a perfect place to enjoy an evening glass of wine. The restaurant serves simple local dishes, such as bacalao monacal (“monastic codfish,” with spinach and potatoes) and frite de cordero (lamb stew). Pros: authentic extremeño cooking; stunning architecture. Cons: tight parking; long hike from reception to the farthest rooms. | Rooms from: €151 | Calle Marqués de la Romana 12 | 927/367075 | www.parador.es | 41 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
76 km (47 miles) south of Cáceres, 191 km (119 miles) north of Seville, 347 km (216 miles) southwest of Madrid.
Mérida has some of the most impressive Roman ruins in Iberia. Founded by the Romans in 25 BC on the banks of the Río Guadiana, the city is strategically located at the junction of major Roman roads from León to Seville and Toledo to Lisbon. Then named Augusta Emerita, it quickly became the capital of the vast Roman province of Lusitania. A bishopric in Visigothic times, Mérida never regained the importance that it had under the Romans, and other than the Roman monuments, which pop up all over town, the city is rather plain.
The glass-and-steel bus station is in a modern district on the other side of the river from the town center. It commands a good view of the exceptionally long Roman bridge, which spans two forks of this sluggish river. On the farther bank is the Alcazaba fortress.
Some other Roman sites require a drive. Across the train tracks in a modern neighborhood is the circo (circus), where chariot races were held. Little remains of the grandstands, which seated 30,000, but the outline of the circus is clearly visible and impressive for its size: 1,312 feet long and 377 feet wide. Of the existing aqueduct remains, the most impressive is the Acueducto de los Milagros (Aqueduct of Miracles), north of the train station. It carried water from the Roman dam of Proserpina, which still stands, 5 km (3 miles) away.
Getting Here and Around
There are several buses daily to and from Mérida and Badajoz (1 hour), Sevilla (2½ hours), Cáceres (45 minutes), Trujillo (1½ hours), and Madrid (4½ hours). There are also several daily trains, which take about the same travel time but cost more. Check the RENFE website (www.renfe.com) or tourist office for schedules. Once in Mérida, the city center is navigable by foot or tourist train.
Mérida. The tourist office can arrange guided walking tours of Mérida, or call the tour guide association directly (629/781244). | Paseo José Álvarez Sáenz de Buruaga | 924/330722 | www.turismomerida.org.
Alcazaba Árabe (fortress).
To get to this sturdy square fortress, built by the Romans and strengthened by the Visigoths and Moors, continue west from the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, down Suarez Somontes toward the river and the city center. Turn right at Calle Baños and you can see the towering columns of the Templo de Diana, the oldest of Mérida’s Roman buildings. To enter the Alcazaba, follow the fortress walls around to the side farthest from the river. Climb up to the battlements for sweeping river views. | Calle de Graciano | €4 castle only, €12 combined ticket with Roman sites | Apr.-Sept., daily 9:30-9; Oct.-Mar., daily 9:30-2 and 4-6:30.
Basílica de Santa Eulalia.
Originally a Visigothic structure, this basilica marks the site of a Roman temple as well as the alleged place where the child martyr Eulalia was burned alive in AD304 for spitting in the face of a Roman magistrate. The site became a focal point for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. In 1990, excavations surrounding the tomb of the famous saint revealed layer upon layer of Paleolithic, Visigothic, Byzantine, and Roman settlements. You can visit an underground crypt. | Rambla Mártir Santa Eulalia, Av. de Extremadura 15 | 924/303407 | Free; crypt €4 | Apr.-Sept., Mon.-Sat. 9:30-2 and 5-7:30; Oct.-Mar., Mon.-Sat. 9:30-2 and 4-6:30.
Museo de Arte Visigótico.
An abandoned 18th-century church contains this dusty museum, with fragments of Visigothic stonework. It’s a branch of the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, in a separate location north of the Plaza de España in the heart of Mérida’s casco viejo. | Calle Santa Eulalia 1 | 924/300106 | Free | Tues.-Sat. 9:30-6:30 (to 8 Apr.-Sept.), Sun. and holidays 10-3.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (National Museum of Roman Art).
Across the street from the entrance to the Roman sites and connected by an underground passageway is Mérida’s superb Roman art museum, in a monumental building designed by the renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. You walk through a series of passageways to the luminous, cathedral-like main exhibition hall, which is supported by arches the same proportion and size (50 feet) as the Roman arch in the center of Mérida, the Arco de Trajano (Trajan’s Arch). The exhibits include mosaics, frescoes, jewelry, statues, pottery, household utensils, and other Roman works. Be sure to visit the crypt beneath the museum—it contains the remains of several homes and a necropolis that were uncovered while the museum was being built in 1981. | Calle José Ramón Mélida s/n | 924/311690, 924/311912 | www.museoromano.com | €3 | Tues.-Sat. 9:30-6:30 (until 8 Apr.-Sept.), Sun. and holidays 10-3.
Plaza de España.
Mérida’s main square adjoins the northwestern corner of the Alcazaba and is highly animated both day and night. The plaza’s oldest building is a 16th-century palace, now the Mérida Palace hotel. Behind the palace stretches Mérida’s most charming area, with Andalusian-style white houses shaded by palms, in the midst of which stands the Arco de Trajano, part of a Roman city gate.
Fodor’s Choice | Roman monuments.
Mérida’s Roman teatro (theater) and anfiteatro (amphitheater) are arranged in a verdant park, and the theater—the best preserved in Spain and seating 6,000—is used for a classical drama festival each July. The amphitheater, which holds 15,000 spectators, opened in 8 BC for gladiatorial contests. Next to the entrance to the ruins is the main tourist office, where you can pick up maps and brochures. You can buy a ticket to see only the Roman ruins or, for a slightly higher fee, an entrada conjunta (joint admission), which also grants access to the Basílica de Santa Eulalia and the Alcazaba. To reach the monuments by car, follow signs to the “Museo de Arte Romano.” Parking is usually easy to find. | Av. de los Estudiantes | 924/312530 | €8 theater and amphitheater; €12 combined admission to Roman sites, basilica, and Alcazaba | Apr.-Sept., daily 9:30-9; Oct.-Mar., daily 9:30-2 and 4-6:30.
WHERE TO EAT
FAMILY | Cervecería 100 Montaditos.
SPANISH | Don’t be put off by the fact that this popular local tavern is part of an international chain. It’s still an excellent informal restaurant specializing in both classic and creative montaditos (canapés or open sandwiches)—at least 100 of them, topped with anything from tortilla de patatas to jamón ibérico, mousse de pato (duck pâté), salmon with julienned garlic and parsley, or wild mushrooms. With draft beer or a local wine, these light morsels are tasty and excellent value. | Average main: €5 | Calle Félix Valverde Lillo 3 | 924/318105 | www.100montaditos.com.
Fodor’s Choice | Gonzalo Valverde.
SPANISH | With big shoes to fill, this fusion restaurant has taken over the premises of the world famous Michelin-starred Altair. So far, reviews have been outstanding. The kitchen turns out examples of traditional Extremadura classics executed with a modern flair, such as Iberian porco preto (free-range pork fed on acorns) with wasabi and setas. The lunchtime menu del día is a great value at €18.90. You can sit in the soaring dining room, reminiscent of an antique wine cellar, or outside on the wood awning-covered terrace with views of the river. | Average main: €35 | Av. Fernández López 7 | 924/304512 | www.gonzalovalverde.com | Reservations essential | No dinner Sun. and Mon.
FAMILY | La Despensa del Castúo.
TAPAS | For some of the best tapas in Mérida, try this favorite local hangout just 50 meters from the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. Each tapa costs about €1. One of the specialties is local morcilla de Guadalupe, blood sausage made in the nearby town of the same name. It’s worth a wait for a table outside. This is a favorite with families, and you’ll often see children playing on the terrace during weekend lunches. | Average main: €10 | Calle Jose Ramon Melida 48 | 924/302251.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Mérida Palace.
HOTEL | The anchor of the city’s Plaza de España, this five-star luxury hotel, now part of the Bluebay chain, has many of the amenities of a sprawling resort, right in the middle of the city. The facade is Spanish Renaissance, and it has a late Gothic arcaded courtyard, with mosaics and arches throughout. Most of the bathrooms are spacious, and all were renovated in late 2012. Suites are an option for families with kids. The front desk offers great personal service, and there’s a wonderful new restaurant, too. Pros: outdoor pool, terrace, and solarium. Cons: some front rooms facing the Plaza de España can be noisy in summer. | Rooms from: €120 | Pl. España 19 | 924/383800, 902/100655 | www.hotelmeridapalace.com or www.bluebayresorts.com | 76 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
FAMILY | Parador de Mérida.
HOTEL | Also called Parador Vía de la Plata, this spacious hotel exudes an Andalusian cheerfulness, with hints at its Roman and Moorish past. It was built over the remains of a Roman temple, later became a baroque convent, and then served as a prison. The whitewashed building has bright guest rooms with traditional dark wood furniture, and the brilliant-white interior of the convent’s former church has been turned into a restful lounge. Try the restaurant’s revuelto (scrambled eggs) prepared in myriad ways, including con aroma de pimentón (in paprika sauce) and with cabrito al ajillo (suckling goat fried with garlic). Pros: central location; stunning interior courtyard; dazzling light interior. Cons: expensive parking; erratic Wi-Fi. | Rooms from: €164 | Pl. Constitución and Calle Almendralejo, 56 | 924/313800 | www.parador.es | 81 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
The many cafés, tapas bars, and restaurants surrounding the Plaza de España and in the Plaza de la Constitución fill with boisterous crowds late into the evening. Calle John Lennon, off the northwest corner of the plaza, is your best bet for late-night dancing, especially in summer.