Madrid daytrip: a Renaissance castle and Spanish Civil War bunker

Madrid, madrid, castle, castles
Madrid has a lot to offer–tasty tapas, wonderful wine, and amazing art. There’s so much to do in the center of town it’s easy to spend your entire vacation there without ever seeing the outskirts. Yet several daytrips offer a different look at Spain.

One possibility just opened up last year. Near the Metro stop Alameda de Osuna on the outskirts of town, the city government has recently opened a Renaissance castle and a Spanish Civil War bunker.

The castle is called Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, and it guarded an important road between Madrid and the city of Alacalá de Henares. Alameda was a village back then; Madrid was barely a town. The castle was home to the local duke and was built in the 15th century when Spain was becoming a major empire. It was improved in the 16th century and is a good example of a small Renaissance fort. A deep stone-lined moat is the first line of defense for a thick square fort with towers at the corners. Cannons and men with matchlock rifles would have defended the walls and it would have been tough to take. Sieges at the time were deadly affairs and the attacking army preferred to try and starve the fort into submission. The defenders made sure to have plenty of food stored up and some sieges lasted for a year or more.

You can find out more information at Castillosnet, including a handy Google map showing how to get there. The website is in Spanish but if you hit the little British flag at the top it will put it through Google translator, always an amusing experience.

The bunker stands right next to the castle, on the brow of a low hill with a clear field of fire across what would then have been open countryside. Madrid was under siege for much of the Civil War and many such bunkers remain. You can see several when hiking near Madrid.

While the city of Madrid is working hard to restore the castle, it still needs a lot of work. An ugly fence surrounds the place and gets in the way of the view, plus the park next to it is filled with trash and dog shit. Reconstruction on the castle isn’t complete and parts of look like a building site. The castle and bunker are open Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 10am to 9pm. Admission is free. The Metro stop is about forty minutes from central Madrid at the end of Line 5. While the place isn’t ideal, it’s well worth a visit for any history buff.

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A travel guide to the 2011 Oscar movies

Travel guide to Oscar moviesThe 83rd annual Academy Awards are coming up in a few weeks and the Oscars race is on. This year’s nominations contained few surprises, with many nods for Brit period piece The King’s Speech, Facebook biopic The Social Network, and headtrip Inception. While 2010’s ultimate travel blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love failed to made the cut, there’s still plenty to inspire wanderlust among the Best Picture picks.

Read on for a travel guide to the best movies of 2010 and how to create your own Oscar-worthy trip.

127 HoursLocation: Danny Boyle’s nail-biter was shot on location in Utah’s Blue John Canyon near Moab and on a set in Salt Lake City. Go there: Should you want to explore Moab’s desert and canyons while keeping all limbs intact, check out Moab in fall for bike races and art festivals.



Black Swan
Location: Much of the ballet psychodrama was shot in New York City, though the performances were filmed upstate in Purchase, New York. Go there: To see the real “Swan Lake” on stage at Lincoln Center, you’ll have to hope tickets aren’t sold out for the New York City Ballet, performing this month February 11-26.

The FighterLocation: in the grand tradition of Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed, the Mark Wahlberg boxing flick was filmed in Massachusetts, in Micky Ward’s real hometown of Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston. Go there: For a map of locations in Lowell, check out this blog post and perhaps spot Micky Ward at the West End Gym.

InceptionLocation: The setting of this film depends on what dream level you’re in. The locations list includes Los Angeles, England, Paris, Japan, even Morocco. Go there: There are plenty of real locations to visit, including University College London and Tangier’s Grand Souk. Canada’s Fortress Mountain Resort where the snow scenes were shot is currently closed, but you can ski nearby in Banff.



The Kids Are All Right
Location: Director Lisa Cholodenko is a big fan of southern California, she also filmed the 2002 Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Go there: Love it or hate it, L.A. is still a top travel destination in the US and perhaps this year you can combine with a trip to Vegas, if the X Train gets moving.

The King’s SpeechLocation: A prince and a commoner in the wedding of the century. Sound familiar? This historical drama was shot in and around London, though stand-ins were used for Buckingham Palace’s interiors. Go there: It might be hard to recreate the vintage look of the film, but London is full of atmospheric and historic architecture and palaces to visit. If you’re a sucker for English period films or places Colin Firth has graced, tour company P & P Tours can show you around many historic movie locations like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

The Social NetworkLocation: Another Massachusetts and California movie, this very academic film shot at many college and prep school campuses, but none of them Harvard, which hasn’t allowed film crews in decades. Go there: If you enjoyed the Winklevoss rowing scene, head to England this summer for the Henley Royal Regatta June 29 – July 3.

Toy Story 3 – Location: The latest in the Pixar animated trilogy is set at the Sunnyside Daycare. Go there: Reviews are mixed, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a new Pixar parade, to let fans see their favorite characters in “person.” Visit any Disney gift shop to make your own toy story.

True Grit – Location: The Coen brothers western remake may be set in 19th century Arkansas, but it was filmed in modern day Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas, taking over much of towns like Granger. Go there: If you’re a film purist or big John Wayne fan, you can tour the locations of the original film in Ouray County, Colorado.

Winter’s Bone – Location: Many moviegoers hadn’t heard of this film when nominations were announced, set and shot in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri. Go there: The difficult film centers around the effects of methamphetamine on a rural family, but travel destinations don’t get much more wholesome than Branson, Missouri. Bring the family for riverboat shows and the best bathroom in the country.

[Photo by Flickr user Lisa Norman]

Weekending: Veliko Tarnovo


The best part of expat life for me are the travel opportunities, especially when living in Turkey, conveniently located where Europe meets Asia. Expat travel takes on a new twist as you seek out the new and unfamiliar as in any new destination, the newly familiar of your adopted home city, and the old and familiar of your original home city. You luxuriate in the things your expat home lacks, compare versions of similar foods and drink, and wonder where you’d hang out, what you’d cook, and where you’d buy groceries in this foreign place. I recently took a week-long trip to Bulgaria (read about Sofia here, and I’ll finish up with the Black Sea town Varna) and fell in love with the country’s old architecture, young creativity, and most of all, the prices.

The place: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo (also called Veliko Turnovo, so I’ll simplify as VT) is smack dab in the middle of the country, dominated by a 12th-century fortress, hills aplenty, and the Yantra River (a Danube tributary). Once the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, VT boats a bevy of sights and lots of daytrip possibilities. After the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, Sofia became the capital, but VT remains a popular tourist destination and a point of pride for many Bulgarians. Other than the spectacularly Soviet Interhotel (don’t be fooled by glam interior photos, the exterior is an eyesore from another era – see above on right), VT escaped much of the communist architecture of Sofia and retains a historic small-town feel.

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  • While I found Sofia to have the best prices of any European capital thus far, VT is even more budget. I stayed in the boutique Studio Hotel for 45 Euros a night, and ordered local wine in restaurants for 2 leva a glass (and that’s for a 250 ml pour, a third of a bottle!). Two people can hit the town with 40 leva (under $30 USD) in their pockets and come home with change to spare. Real estate signs advertise houses in nearby towns for 10,000 Euros, making you contemplate a rural Bulgarian life.
  • Endless people-watching fun. For a hill town of 70,000 people, the ladies sure know how to dress. On any given weekday afternoon, you may see women in 5-inch stilettos, miniskirts, skin tight jeans, or revealing dresses. The girls may look like they are on their way to a Jersey Shore nightclub, but more likely destinations are a university class or their grandmother’s house. Additionally, ’80s fashion is alive and well in Bulgaria – I spotted mullets (for women), big hair (for men), neon colors, high-top sneakers, and vests everywhere. An entertaining afternoon can be spent at a sidewalk cafe marveling “Did you SEE what she was wearing?!” with your travel mates.

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  • While VT is a charming place, it feels like a one-horse town after a few days of wandering the same streets up and down. The historical sights are lovely to see but small and a tad overpriced (6 leva for a quick tour of a church feels a bit extortionate when you realize it could buy you a meal or get you nice and tipsy). One upside to the tiny museums is few crowds, even in the height of the tourist season. Visiting the weirdly wonderful State Art Museum as the only patron while little old ladies followed me around, turning on and off lights, was a highlight of the trip. The (almost) nightly Tsarevets fortress sound and lights show is fun to see at least once, though I thought it could be improved with more lasers and the Beverly Hills Cop theme song; visiting the fortress by day is a little disappointing and best enjoyed as a scenic view.
  • Another downside to the small-town feel of VT is limited food options. More cosmopolitan Sofia offers sushi, Indian food, and modern Bulgarian; coastal Bulgaria boats seafood galore; VT has traditional and not-terribly-exciting Bulgarian food (which can be a good or bad thing) and pizza. This means a LOT of meat and after a few days, I was literally dreaming of salad. Also: be careful with drinking tap water. Although, opinions are divided on whether or not it is safe to drink, I was sick every day I drank tap water in VT until I discovered the CDC advises against it, and was much improved after switching to bottled water. One favorite place to eat and drink: the Malkiya Inter cafe is eclectically decorated with antiques and musical instruments, buzzing with locals celebrating birthdays or watching football, and serves tasty and cheap drinks and, of course, meat.

Getting there

Centrally located, travelers can fly into Sofia or Varna and bus or drive from there, about 3.5 to 4.5 hours. Bulgarian buses are cheap, comfortable, and clean, and have the added feature (not sure if its a good one) of playing raunchy Canadian comedies with Bulgarian subtitles; I saw the dreadful National Lampoon’s Going the Distance and the “Dan Ackroyd needs a paycheck” White Coats. Trains are available as well but slower and less reliable, though they can connect you to Istanbul and Bucharest.

Make it a week

After a few days in VT proper, rent a car and explore the central Balkans, stopping at Arbanassi for architecture (you can even hike from VT) and multiple monasteries. VT can easily be combined with trips to other major Bulgarian towns, small villages, or even neighboring countries like Romania. If the weather is good, head out to the beach for my next Bulgarian stop, Varna on the Black Sea.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.