Madrid day trip: a classic Spanish castle at Manzanares el Real

If you like a good castle, Spain is one of the best countries in the world to visit. One of Spain’s finest castles is at the town of Manzanares el Real and makes a good day trip from Madrid.

El Castillo de los Mendoza was built in 1475 for Don Pedro González de Mendoza as both a palace and fortress, although he never actually lived here. It shows an Islamic flair, as you can see from the pictures. Many Spanish buildings from this period do. Despite all the bloody battles of the Reconquista, the Christians, Jews, and Arabs spent as much time trading ideas as fighting.

The castle dates from near the end of the great castle-building age. Artillery was already becoming common in most armies and castles like this couldn’t stand a long bombardment. Luckily it never had to and it’s one of the best-preserved castles in Spain. One hint that it was at the cusp of the modern era are the arrow slits in the outer wall. They all have loopholes at the bottom to fire guns or small cannons out of. While the guns of the 15th century were less accurate and much slower than bows, they could punch through armor much more effectively.

You’d certainly want some artillery to blow a hole in one of the walls, because going in through the gate would be a very bad idea. The defenders could shoot at you from three sides and drop things from above through those charming favorites of castle architecture–the murder holes. While it’s commonly believed that boiling oil was poured through these, one medievalist and author I know says the story of using boiling oil in sieges is a myth. Apparently boiling water was just as good and much cheaper.

Inside is a beautiful courtyard surrounded by a two-story arcade. The rooms inside have been restored with period artifacts to show what the bedrooms, women’s quarters, and dining halls looked like. elegant tapestries adorn the walls, and there are interactive computer displays to tell you more.

Climb the towers for a splendid view of the strangely shaped rocks of La Pedriza looming to the north and the glittering modern reservoir to the south.

Just east of the castle is a 16th century fountain that refreshed hermits in days gone by. They were headed for two Renaissance churches in town, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Church of our Lady of the Snows) and La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Peña Sacra (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Sacred Stone). Both are worth a visit. There are also the remains of the Castillo Viejo (Old Castle) on the other side of town. Built in the mid-14th century, it’s little more than a crumbled ruin these days.

The town of Manzanares el Real is very compact and all sites are within easy walking distance of each other. If walking around the medieval sights puts you in the mood for something more strenuous, the rocky hills of La Pedriza, with their rock formations, is just next to town. If walking makes you hungry, there are several good restaurants and cafes and the butchers sell excellent locally sourced venison.

To get to Manzanares el Real, take bus 724 from Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla bus station. The ride costs €3.50 euros one-way and takes about 45 minutes. Entrance to the castle is €3.

There’s another castle and Spanish Civil War bunker close to the center of Madrid and hundreds more scattered across the country. For more tips on what to see and do in Madrid, check out AOL Travel’s travel guide to Madrid.

Madrid day trip: Romanesque churches and a Gothic cathedral in Segovia

Segovia is an easy day trip from Madrid and has plenty of medieval and Renaissance buildings to capture the imagination. Yesterday I talked about the Alcázar, the city’s castle, and today I’m looking at Segovia’s many churches.

Most of the churches are Romanesque in style, like Iglesia de la Veracruz, which was actually built outside the city walls in 1208. The signage says this church was owned by the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, but local legend says it’s a Templar church. Who knows? The round floor plan imitates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, something common in Templar churches, so the legend may be correct. Then again, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem would want to imitate that church too. Somebody call Dan Brown.

Romanesque architecture was hugely popular in Spain and many other parts of Europe from the 8th to the 12th centuries. In Spain it took the form of square towers punctured by arches like this one, and arched doorways filled with carvings of angels, devils, saints, and even signs of the zodiac.

The circular floor plan of Iglesia de la Veracruz is unusual. Most Romanesque churches had a rectangular nave like we’re familiar with in later churches. This gives plenty of room for stained glass windows, religious paintings, and other decoration. Many of Segovia’s churches are like art galleries!

%Gallery-128543%One actually is. San Juan de los Caballeros, which was founded by the Visigoths in the 5th century and later turned into a Romanesque church, became in the 20th century the workshop of the famous ceramicist Daniel Zuloaga. A museum highlights his work and there are interesting elements to the church itself, like rare remnants of early frescoes and well-preserved carvings on the facade.

Another fine church is Iglesia de San Martín, seen best from the Plazuela de San Martín. It dates to the 12th century and has a distinctive peaked tower visible from many parts of the city–a good landmark when you get lost in the maze of medieval streets! There’s a wonderful portico where every column capital is carved with a different scene. Weather has given the figures a kind of melted look, but you can still figure out what’s going on if you’ve read your Bible.

Next to the Plaza Mayor is the cathedral. Unlike most churches in Segovia, this one is in the later Gothic style. In fact, it may be the youngest Gothic church in the world, being started in 1525 and consecrated in 1768. It’s a bit chunkier than the soaring Gothic churches of France and Germany and so isn’t my favorite example of the style, but there are some nice touches like the main tower that turns golden at dusk and dawn, the intricate finials (those spiky things) at each corner and turret, and the many gargoyles and coats of arms adorning the exterior walls.

Most churches are free, but the cathedral charges a small fee. The churches are generally open all day except during masses. The times for those are posted on or near the front door.

Madrid day trip: the Alcázar castle in Segovia

As I mentioned yesterday, Segovia makes a great day trip from Madrid. One of the highlights of any visit is the Alcázar, or castle. Rising from the highest point on the promontory on which Segovia is built, it dominates the town and looks impossible to attack. The architects cut away part of the bedrock to make a dry moat cutting off the castle from the rest of the town, so to get in you have to cross a drawbridge over a deep drop. Don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!

There may have been a fort here in Roman times, and there certainly was one when the Moors controlled this part of Spain. The present castle was built in the early 12th century and was added to and remodeled several times. Several Castilian monarchs used the castle as their palace. Isabella was living here when she was crowned in 1474, and she married King Ferdinand II here. In 1492 they reconquered Granada, the last Muslim holdout on the Iberian peninsula. They also sponsored some crazy explorer named Columbus to sail across the Atlantic to find India that year, but the big news was capturing Granada.

Several rooms are decorated with suits of armor, including knights on horseback. Even the horses have armor, which was called barding. The walls are adorned with medieval and Renaissance paintings showing courtly and battle scenes. Check out the ceilings to see some intricate painting and relief work that shows Muslim influence. When the Spanish and Moors weren’t fighting, they were trading ideas and Spain was a melting pot of different cultures. The throne room and the chapel are the most impressive rooms and have been restored to their original splendor.

%Gallery-128521%Starting in 1896 and for much of the twentieth century, the Alcázar housed the Artillery Academy. There’s a large artillery museum here showing the development of artillery and the daily life of the cadets. Unfortunately the signage is all in Spanish, but a lot of the displays are self-explanatory.

Military aficionados will love the Armory, a long vaulted room filled with medieval arms and armor. There are numerous examples of early cannon from the 15th century. The first depiction of a cannon dates to 1326, and by 1375 they were being used in sieges to knock down walls. The days of castles were numbered. These cannons are pretty crude, made of long strips of iron welded together with loops around them like barrels (hence the name) to strengthen them.

If medieval warfare isn’t your thing, you’ll still appreciate the views you can get from the many windows and battlements. If you’re feeling fit, ascend the steep, winding staircase up to the top of the tower for sweeping views of Segovia and the surrounding countryside. This is an excellent spot to take pictures.

Love castles? Check out our posts on the ten toughest castles in the world and the ten best castles in Europe!

Madrid day trip: Segovia

Madrid offers a wide range of interesting day trips, from a Renaissance castle and Spanish Civil War bunker to challenging hikes. My personal favorite is the ancient town of Segovia just on the other side of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. With a beautiful cathedral and castle, one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts anywhere, winding medieval streets, and delicious cuisine, it’s a great choice for a day trip or overnight stay.

The best way to get to Segovia is by bus, which takes a little over an hour. Segovia’s Wikipedia entry says a high-speed train gets there in half an hour, but the high speed train doesn’t go to Segovia, it goes to a station called Segovia several kilometers away from town. You have to take a bus from there. To get to the train station in Segovia proper you go on a local train that takes an hour and fifty minutes. Wikipedia has mistakes!? Shocking!!!!

Anyway, Segovia is a convenient, delightful trip from Madrid. The three big hits are the aqueduct, the cathedral, and the Alcázar, or castle. The Roman aqueduct dates to the late first century AD. Segovia, like many Spanish cities, was a Roman town and perhaps has more ancient roots. The aqueduct is one of the best preserved anywhere and stands 93.5 feet tall in some places and starts at a water source almost ten miles away. It supplied the city with water until the early 20th century. The Romans sure knew how to build things!

The Santa Iglesia Catedral is an impressive Gothic pile started in 1525 and consecrated after many remodels in 1768, making it possibly the youngest Gothic cathedral in Europe. The expansive Plaza Mayor stands to one side. Take time to sip a coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes and enjoy the view. Inside are a series of chapels with often gruesome art, like a dinner party atop a tree. Death is cutting down the trunk with his scythe while Jesus rings a bell. Everyone is ignoring Jesus and a demon is about to pull the tottering tree into Hell. Nice!

%Gallery-128499%Segovia is built on a promontory, and its 12th century castle, the Alcázar, sits at the highest end like the prow of a ship. A rectangular tower soars towards the sky, topped by a beautiful set of round turrets. Inside are the usual displays of armor, weapons, and medieval art that you’d expect in a castle, and a large artillery museum too. The most impressive part of the castle is the view from the top. You get sweeping vistas of the Renaissance skyline of Segovia with its many churches and old houses, as well as the rolling countryside around the city. It gets my vote as one of the best views you can get anywhere close to Madrid.

To learn more about Segovia’s past, check out the Casa del Sol Museo de Segovia. Here you’ll see prehistoric artifacts, Roman sculpture, Visigothic jewelry, medieval and Renaissance art, and tools from Segovia’s early modern period. It’s a great museum but easy to miss, so don’t miss it!

After seeing these sites, take a stroll through the medieval streets of the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Harar, Ethiopia, another medieval walled city that’s on UNESCO’s list, the labyrinthine streets and alleys can get you lost pretty quickly, but the city’s small enough that you won’t stay lost for long. Check out the local artisans specializing in ceramics, the food shops selling tasty meats and cheeses, and more than a score of Romanesque churches.

Segovia gets pretty full in summer, so book your hotel well ahead. Two hotels I’ve stayed at and enjoyed are Natura and Los Linajes. Spring and fall are better times to go, especially September when it’s still warm but the school groups and university backpackers have left. Winter can be bitterly cold.

There are plenty of places to eat. Many restaurants serve two local specialties: cochinillo, roast suckling pig; and Judiones de la granja, which is faba beans with chorizo, garlic, and, if you’re being traditional, a pig’s ear! For a cheap lunch option find a place offering menú del día, a set menu where you have three or four choices for appetizer, main course, and dessert with a drink included. La Taberna de Abraham Seneor at Calle Judería Vieja 17 & 19 in the old Jewish quarter serves up a filling one for €11.90. There are also numerous cafes with outdoor seating in good weather. My favorite place to sit is Plazuela de San Martín, where you can gaze out on a sparkling fountain, a 15th century house, and a Romanesque church.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Alcázar, my favorite castle in Spain, and Wednesday I’ll be exploring the many beautiful churches of Segovia. Stay tuned!