Window on Madrid and Toledo

Madrid - high, but not always dry

It is easy to think all food markets are the same. That's not the case with Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel, conveniently located in the city centre, a five-minute walk from Sol, the most central station on the Metro, and Plaza Mayor, the main square.

Spend an hour here and you will see and be able to taste all the best Spanish foods. Even though Madrid is almost exactly in the centre of Spain - over 400km away from any coast on the Iberian Peninsula - seafood is still well and truly on the menu.

And, as you can see from the picture above, it is also enthusiastically received.

More of this market further on.....

~~~

The ocean has many treasures for food-lovers in Spain, but the farms and forests contribute much too, as you can see in this simple dish in a supermarket cafe: fried potato slices, an egg or two, and the jamon (ham) that appears on almost every menu in the country. This dish is called huevo de corral con jamon iberico (barnyard eggs with ham).

And more about that ham, too, shortly.

Chocolate has own international name - and appeal. Don't worry about the language. In Spanish it's chocolate too. The only difference is that it's pronounced CHOC-o-lah-tay.

This makes sense, as it was a Spanish explorer, Don Hernán Cortés, who was the first to realise the commercial value of cocoa beans, bringing them from South America to Spain in 1528, and in the process making the whole world a happier place!

Luckily, there are enough varieties of chocolate on these upmarket supermarket shelves in Madrid to please anyone.  

'The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain'. So goes the elocution phrase, but the weekend we arrived it was dampening the city itself. At an elevation of 667 metres above sea-level, Madrid is Europe's highest (but not the wettest) capital.

Fortunately, on a side street near Sol Metro station, we found an inspired win-win solution - a hearty snack and an opportunity to remain dry - solving our immediate problems.

These fellows only got as far as the door, sheltering there to eat their hearty snacks.

Inside, we discovered the real purpose of this 650-year-old venture, traditional cured hams from free-range acorn-fed pigs that have been raised in the same way for centuries.

One wall of the shop was filled with more varieties of salami and ham than I could have ever imagined. BTW, the word for ham here is jamon PRON: hamon - easy for me to remember as it is like our surname, Hammond.

Towards the back we find the real stars of the show - the hams - some of them aged up to 48 months.

Who could resist these?

This one was mine. I could never have guessed that a crunchy baguette stuffed only with premium ham - so much more than just a 'ham sandwich' - could be SO GOOD! Considering the gourmet filling, I felt that it was well worth its price of 3.60 euros.

Who knows the story behind this graffiti Or the traveller? It made an irresistible pic, and we both stopped to take it.

Look for it on the video (below)

ENJOY THIS VIDEO - full of music and movement....

~~~

The trains in Spain, at least those on the Metro lines, are as modern as anywhere in the world, announcing the next upcoming stop and showing it on a screen.

Seems they even come with their own entertainment too. Sadly no one else bothered to watch this busker who got off at the next stop, and only a few people gave him coins. 

Some more trivia: with 250 sunny days in year, Madrid is the sunniest city of Europe.

Puerta del Sol is a central meeting area, with buskers, street performers, shops, and cafes. Overseeing it all is the statue of King Carlos III of Spain, on the throne from 1759-88. He ruled intelligently and, among many other things, eliminated the tax on flour and reformed policies on Spain’s overseas colonies.

But still the showers came and even this shopfront cow needed a brolly!

If you think the jamon looked sensational, then just wait until you try Spanish cakes!

Milhoja means 'thousand sheets' and is like the French millefeuille (thousand leaves). There are many versions, but this one is from Murcia in south-eastern Spain, and is quite like Slovenia's Bled cream cakeSee....

We would have shopped in this cake shop, but when we peeped inside, it was jam-packed with customers - I think you can see why!

In Madrid, pastel-coloured streetside buildings feature lacy iron balconies....

...and, as it was spring when we visited, the trees on the footpaths were blossoming, adding colour to the simple beauty.

Ornate filigree window grilles do more than just protect from intruders - many are copies of Gothic wrought iron designs, once used for churches, and add style to the facades.

Anyone who loves Spanish food knows about churros, those irresistible stick-like deep-fried goodies and the perfect match for coffee. You may think they are like doughnuts, but they are crisper because of their shape.

Of course we could not resist crossing the road to see them being made.

While I was already a fan of churros, I had not known until then that there is a big brother in the family. Freshly fried and fabulous (above) this is called porro, a thicker and shorter version, often preferred by workers for breakfast, possibly because porros are a little more filling. In other parts of Spain you may see them called tejeringos.

We bought a bagful and decided they were every bit as good as the churros we have eaten elsewhere.

Plaza Mayor (Madrid's main square) was begun in the 15th century, and is the heart of the city, full of history.

Surrounded by three-storey eighteenth-century balconied residential apartments, some with jamon-coloured frontages, it is very grand and quite breathtaking.

The square has had various uses in the past, especially during the Spanish Inquisition. In the 1700s it was a forum for executions and torture which were said to have been popular events! Bullfights and soccer games were in great demand too.

Today, there are outdoor cafes, making it an ideal spot to rest while sightseeing, to people-watch, or simply as a meeting spot. If you get lost wandering the maze of narrow streets and lanes in the vicinity, don't panic. Just ask! Someone always knows how to find the main square.

And, of course, the recent romantic trend of placing padlocks in public places to prove a couple's love, has caught on here too.

Madrid was founded in the ninth century, but the true meaning of its name is lost in history. Its rather formal nickname is villa y court (Town and Court). Spain's nickname is 'the Bull Skin'.

Many also talk about how food-centric the city is, the late hours the locals keep (dinner from 10pm), why you should choose to stroll the city at weekends, and the wealth of world-class galleries, all in close proximity.  See more....

Souvenirs to bring home include rope-soled shoes (espadrilles), totes  in the shape of a leg of jamon, violet candies, ceramics and colourful fans. Think twice before you buy jamon, though. Quarantine in some countries, such as Australia, will not allow it into the country.

 

Spain is a country that takes its food seriously. With a long culinary tradition and a climate that can grow most things, menus are varied and should suit most visitors.

At even the smallest cafes and restaurants you can expect to see a variety of dishes on offer - based on lots of potatoes, chicken, veal, beef, a wealth of seafood, as well as jamon and other pork products, cured and fresh.

... and who can forget paella

This dish (pronounced PI-yeh) originated in Valencia and its name simply means 'pan' because of the unique wide flat pan in which it is cooked.

There are so many versions of paella in Spain, varying according to regions. In the capital you will find most of them - all delicious.

Unlike many cities where the divide between the old city (for tourists) and the new (for locals) is quite separate - in Madrid there are hop-on, hop-off bus tours of the new city (see above) as well as the old. We stayed in the new city area - closer to the airport, and discovered that we could enjoy the best of both worlds.

Back to what draws the tourists. This is the Parque El Retiro on the eastern edge of the old city, and formerly the property of the monarchy until it became a public park in the late 19th century. Now, anyone may come here and walk the pathways, hire a Segway or a bicycle...

...or stroll the area, pausing to enjoy the street entertainers. We liked this one best, playing a saw, of all things. See him and hear his haunting music on the video (earlier on this page).

So close to the busyness of central Madrid, this park is an uber-relaxed space, a cool respite. The lake (aka Retiro Pond) is backdropped by a lavish memorial to King Alphonso XII. These tourist boats are for hire - small ones for couples, or bigger ones for families and groups. With cafes, galleries and memorials, and the carefully kept park and gardens, there is much more to see....

Heading elsewhere, there are city tours on the big red buses that take passengers to all the main sights.

The 18th-century Royal Palace is heavily guarded. Although it is the Royal Family's official residence they don't live there, and it is only used for state occasions now. Visitors can take a 45-minute guided tour.

This is the forecourt where mounted horsemen parade in the changing of the guard. Visitors may see it on Wednesdays from 11am-2pm every 30 minutes.

The Solemn Changing of the Guard takes place in the Plaza de la Armería (in front of the Almudena Cathedral) on the first Wednesday of the month, at noon with 100 guards and 100 horses marching as they did in the kingdom of Alfonso XII. 

The Catedral de la Almudena is across the Plaza de la Armería from the Royal Palace. It was consecrated in 1993.

Also a must-see in Madrid, is one of the world's most famous and respected art galleries, the Prado Museum (Museo Nacional del Prado) founded in 1819 and noted for its huge collection of art and sculptures. Nearby, in Madrid's Golden Triangle of Art there are two other prestigious art museums, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Museo Reina Sofía.

For those looking to find a more affordable way to experience the Prado, the trick is to line up for free admission Monday to Saturday, 6pm-8pm, and Sunday 5pm-7pm.

~~~

Madrid has some excellent markets. One of the best is Mercado de San Miguel near Plaza Mayor. Here you will find all the best Spanish foods. Whether you are shopping to cook at home or simply looking for a snack, it's all here...

...like these cornets of jamon, sausages and other cured meats.

There is also a wealth of tapas (small bites of various dishes) as well as cheeses like burrata and tomato (above).

And it's not all just savouries. You'll find cakes, ice cream, fruits and dessert as well as kiosks for beer, aperol and other alcoholic drinks.

~~~~

Eating in Spain

  • Jamon (ham) and cheese – everywhere! A specialty Iberico jamon shop in Madrid selling just jamon (jamon in a bread roll. Delicious) some cured for 12-48 months from Black Iberian pigs that eat acorns
  • Cakes and sweet treats – everywhere. Cake shops, pastry shops, membrillo (a quince pastel) chocolate
  • Great fresh and local produce: tomatoes, citrus fruits, olives, wine
  • Most main dishes feature pork or seafood. (interestingly we saw no pigs in country areas!) lots of squid (in sandwiches in the Royal Square)
  • Pigs ears, fried in garlic. This popular dish is widely eaten throughout central Spain.
  • Sopa de Ajo - Garlic soup, paprika, grated Spanish ham, fried bread and a poached egg. 
  • Churros – watch them  being made. A favourite local breakfast dipped in hot chocolate
  • Supermarkets have whole aisles of chocolates, and huge chiller displays of legs of jamon and fish/seafoods.
  • Montaditos – are tiny bites a little like tapas, which are also very popular – on Wednesdays some are half-price.

~~~

This hospitable city welcomes well over seven million international visitors a year with a smile, and good food and wine. So, finally, when it was time to leave Madrid, our feelings were quite the opposite of this sign on our hotel door. 

We can't wait to return.

~~~

 

Day trip to Toledo

Toledo, once the capital of Spain and still known as the Imperial City, is close enough to Madrid to make it an ideal day trip. In 30-50 minutes by train, or an hour by car, you will find yourself 72kms from Madrid, but transported to another era.

Our plan was to visit the fortified old city that looms high on a cliff like a crouching protector over the new city. We took a deep breath when we saw just how high it was, but rather than climbing innumerable steps, as we'd feared, there was an easier way to get to the top. Seven long flights of escalators effortlessly took us from the underground parking area (another plus, not always available in European old cities) right to the edge of the town, with modern Toledo and the Tajo river on the plain far below.

This was where the 16th-century court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was placed. 

Probably because of its position in Europe, Toledo became known as the City of the Three Cultures no doubt due to the cultural influences of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the area.

In Spain, bull fighting is allowed in every region except Catalonia. Toledo has a bullring, and symbols of bulls are often used in decoration (see above) as a symbol of Spanish pride.

 

WATCH THIS VIDEO TO get a real feel for this ancient city

~~~

The old city is such a maze of churches, squares, tourist shops, cafes and narrow lanes that it’s a wonder we are not still there!

Yes, we got SO LOST - read on to see what happened....

One of the good things about Toledo is that it is not over-touristed. The bad thing about Toledo - is the same thing. In many heritage cities, there are endless signs and pointers for the crowds of tourists. We found fewer of those helpful signs, but the trade-off was a relaxed and friendly city, and less crowding.

These covered walkways were used from the late-eighteenth century so nuns could cross the lanes without being seen publicly.

It was fascinating to see how cars would drive down the narrowest streets, wing mirrors folded in, with just centimetres to spare on either side.

Over the past centuries the importance of the Christian church in Spain has varied. Some older churches and cathedrals date back to the 13th century, and even today almost 70 percent of Spanish people claim Catholicism as their religion.

Centuries ago, timber from Spain's forests were used to create the hulls of sailing ships used in wars and world exploration.

The ancient craft of woodworking is still alive and well in Toledo, albeit now on a smaller scale. The craftsman in this lane-front shop was happy for us to stand and watch his skill at the lathe. Many of these artisans come from generations of people creating beautiful articles from local timber.

Toledo has become best known for its swords and knives and ironwork. It has been a traditional steel-working centre for over 2500 years and became a standard source of weaponry for Roman legions. Hannibal's weapons in the Punic Wars came from Toledo. 

Two of the city's most famous food productions are Manchego cheese and marzipan. The latter has a Protected Geographical Indication (mazapán de Toledo).

As so often happens in our lucky expeditions we had happened to be in town as it prepared for a festival about to take place in a couple of days.

Not just any old festival though. This was Corpus Christi, Toledo's most important festival and one of its oldest, dating possibly from the 15th century

As expected, the cathedral is the epicentre for this special event, and the streets around it were being decorated with baskets and wreaths of brilliant flowers, ribbons and bunting, preparing for the big day.

The highlight of the procession is the Monstrance, a priceless work of craftsmanship in gold and silver dating from 1515 and weighing about 160 kilos. The distinctive and traditional retinue of followers is made up of the different religious fraternities and guilds.

Public buildings near the cathedral are decorated with the city flag and pennants, while giant puppets (gigantes) are brought to stand on the Town Hall balcony.

After all this excitement, we stopped for a quick lunch in a cafe and discovered it came with its own entertainment - this skilled accordionist. See and hear him on the Toledo video (above)

As the afternoon progressed, we became irretrievably lost. Actually it was more like being trapped in an MC Escher drawing - climbing up, up, up those identical cobbled laneways, to join streets that seemed to have no correlation to our Toledo Tourism map. Finally with the help of TomTom, our faithful GPS, we happened on this sign. 

See how relieved Gordon looks?

Those same seven wonderful flights of escalators took us directly to the car park, but our advice to anyone planning a self-guided tour of Toledo, is to take a compass, a GPS, or a really good map - or leave a trail of breadcrumbs!

~~~

 

 
And just because every journey deserves a sweet finish - these candied violets make an ideal gift of souvenir. Sold throughout Spain, they are said to be of Moorish origin and are also a symbol of peace. 
 
 
 Adios Espana!
 
 

©Video: Gordon Hammond

©Pictures and words Sally Hammond

Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled to Spain independently, stayed at a hotel not far from the airport (Las Tablas, a NH Hotel) at their own expense.

~~~

General information:

  • Getting there: Direct flights to Madrid via Abu Dhabi – often good discounts. Ours, in May, was from Sydney - $1199 return on Etihad, and available for a short time only. 
  • Getting around: Easy city to visit. Try a Segway tour or hire a bicycle. City Tour buses – one for the old city, one for modern Madrid,
  • Language: English is spoken by some, especially younger people, but take a translation app on phone or phrasebook.
  • Money: Euro. Prices are quite good
  • Transport: subway and trains are good. Can get a subway from the airport. Use Tourist Card for time needed – buy at bigger railways. 1/2/5/7/9 days
  • Time: Spain is eight hours behind Sydney in summer.
  • Climate:  Mediterranean.
  •  
 

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