The Heart of Spain

Q.

Hi Shalome,

We are travelling to Spain next month in September. We are going to be in Madrid for 4 nights and then in Barcelona for 5 nights. We are referring to your blog post about Barcelona for things to do there but could you give us some suggestions for what to do in Madrid?

We don’t mind seeing the tourist sites but we love the opera and doing wine tastings. We would also be interested in doing day trips. And maybe some diving/snorkelling.

Thanks a lot!

Karl and Felicity

Dear Karl and Felicity

The Gods may curse me for saying this **glances furtively at the sky** but Madrid and Barcelona have always seemed kind of like New Delhi and Mumbai to me. Madrid, like New Delhi, is all about broad, sweeping avenues, grand buildings and impressive museums. Whereas Barcelona is more laidback and more organic in terms of its layout and both cities have an ever-present street life.

MADRID

For opera there’s only one place to head to in Madrid: Madrid’s Teatro Real (royal opera house) which was built in 1850, the tradition of opera in Madrid, however, goes back even further. The opera season opens on September 19 with a production of Faust. Here is the link to the season’s programme. Since this is something you definitely want to do I suggest you book your tickets in advance.

The Culture Trip suggests other things you can do near the Teatro Real such as a palace that hides in plain sight as well as a shop where you can buy yourself a flamenco dress. The list also includes by favourite chocolate and churros shop in Madrid, the Chocolatería San Ginés. While the crunchy churros and molten chocolate are a treat any time of the day they are especially satisfying as a post-dinner (and dancing, if you’re so inclined) snack.

Madrid's stunning Cibeles fountain

If you choose to do only one “touristy” thing in Madrid let it be the Prado Museum. You may not feel compelled to go back there multiple times like I did but once is definitely a must, I think. The Prado is one of the best museums in the world and certainly THE best when it comes to Spanish art. If you’re happy to browse just head inside and follow your nose. But if there’s a specific collection or artist that interests you I would suggest you head for it and walk… no, RUN!… past the rest because you will likely get drawn into stopping and appreciating something else and run out of energy by the time you get to what you’re actually keen to see.

Even though you haven’t mentioned it I would definitely suggest you watch a flamenco performance. I watched a show that I really enjoyed at the Casa Patas. It’s a small dinner theatre kind of space so the performance feels quite intimate. They also do actually serve dinner.

Besides these there are a number of sights mentioned on lists titled things like ‘Madrid’s Top Attractions’ but I honestly feel the ones that you are likely to remember are the Puerta del Sol with its adorable statue of the bear with the strawberry tree, the Plaza de Cibeles with its stunning fountain which is the spot where Real Madrid fans gather after a win and the El Rastro flea market if you happen to be there on a Sunday.

Being such a neatly laid out city Madrid’s different barrios or neighbourhoods each have a distinct flavour. The Tourism Board of Madrid and Frommer’s give you the lowdown on Madrid’s barrios.

DAY TRIPS FROM MADRID

This is an informative article about day trips from Madrid and how to get there by train. Personally, I have been to Segovia and Toledo will always remember Segovia’s majestic Roman aqueduct and Toledo’s Catedral but given the choice again I think I’d choose Cuenca and it’s dramatic hanging houses.

Some of these gravity-defying homes of Cuenca date back to before the 15th century and rise up, as if emerging directly from the limestone cliff face, some several stories high.

But it is not merely for these houses that Cuenca gets my vote. Cuenca, like Toledo, sits in the Castilla la Mancha region of Spain that extends south and east of Madrid. This is where Don Quijote rode around fighting windmills and not paying his taxes (now doesn’t that sound appealing?). Though I confess that I have not read the oeuvre – to call it a mere book would really be diminishing its title as one of the greatest works of literature – there is something about this dry, dry heart of Spain that appeals to me; its monochromatic yet never boring landscape studded with endless castles, vineyards and farmhouses. The landscape does break into some mighty gorges as well. Cuenca, with the eagle eye view it offers from the hanging houses over the surrounding landscape is an ideal place to sample the region. More.

I could easily spend a week here but that’s just me.

Cuenca's floating houses

Another possible option and one that will give you a taste of the Spanish countryside is the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park . This boulder-strewn national park is covered with pines and shows visible signs of glacial activity. A number of walking trails and hikes criss-cross it ranging from strolls to difficult climbs. A good choice if you want a change from the cities. You will need to take two trains to get here.

If you decide to drive you could even more than one of these places in one day. Train connectivity between these, however, isn’t great.

For more options of day trips look at the Spain Tourism Board’s website. On the right hand side of this page is a column titled ‘Nearby Destinations’.

The dry and hot region around Madrid produces wines like the Ganarcha and Petit Verdot. The Garnacha (described as ‘red and cheerful’) is grown in and around Chinchon, 45km from Madrid. The region now boasts of five million strains of this wine. Chinchon is also known for its goat’s milk cheese, anisette liquor, garlic and olive oil. All of which make it an ideal spot for a wine and gourmet wander, I think. You can read more about Chinchon’s mouth-watering offerings here. A number of agencies offer a trip to Chinchon with a pick up from Madrid if you don’t want to wing it alone such as this and this.

For more options TripAdvisor has a list of the highest ranked wine tasting tours in and near Madrid.

You can download and read an article on Madrid, Toledo and more from the Lonely Planet Magazine (US) Fall 2016 issue for FREE. Like, really, for free. The sample of the magazine is available free. Luckily for you the sample includes the article you need. See page 20 of the sampler . (This stuff is a goldmine. I still haven’t recovered from discovering this resource.)

BARCELONA

Since you’re going to Barcelona you could try doing some scuba diving there if you wanted. Dive sites along the Costa Brava are upwards of an hour away. Dive schools organise a pick up from Barcelona as part of the package. You can find a PADI dive school using their store locator page. Here’s a link to the top-rated dive schools in Barcelona on TripAdvisor.

For more on Barcelona and Spain in general read more posts here.

¡Buen viaje!