Category Archives: Spain

Toledo with Context

Above: what we didn’t do!

One of our favorite things when we’re abroad is a tour with Context Travel. The guides are usually excellent, the groups are small, and we learn a lot.  For this trip we met at the Madrid train station, which features a wonderful botanical garden right in the middle of it (see earlier post), where our guide said people have been (illegally) dropping off their unwanted turtles!

Our guide, Barbara, is a young Polish woman with a PhD in art history, specifically in medieval manuscripts.  During our 30 minute ride she gave us the highlights of our day.

We arrived at the Toledo train station, built in the early 20th century in the mudejar style, “a style of ornamentation and decoration in post-Islamic Christian Iberia that was strongly influenced by Moorish taste and workmanship,” according to Wikipedia. I especially liked the flat screen TV bordered by traditional tiles. Toledo is built on 12 hills and protected on three sides by the Tagus River, so we needed to cross the river the get to the city. We got cabs and enjoyed the beautiful views of the city, stopping at a viewpoint for some great photos, then crossed the bridge and began walking uphill.

Toledo provides a great example of the layers of history in Andalusia.  We saw a synagogue, a mosque turned into a church, and more.   First up was one of the original gates in the wall around Toledo, displaying a combination of keyhole and Gothic arches. 

Next we came to a a mosque that was turned into a church, Cristo de Luz, with the remains of a Roman road on display just below our feet. The columns inside were scavenged from Roman ruins. As evidence of the mixing of cultures, the Christian inscriptions were written in Arabic leading to this interesting juxtaposition of the shadow of Christ on the cross surrounded by Arabic text.

Outside again, the narrow streets were very reminiscent of Morocco. This one had a roofed room connecting two separate houses above the street. Only a few are left, since one of the kings decreed that these structures, resulting in dark tunnels throughout the city, should be destroyed. Then to a(nother) convent with cloistered nuns, where marzipan is said to have been invented – Toledo is famous for it – and then the spires of the San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio. Ferdinand and Isabella were to be buried here, but after they conquered Granada they changed their minds.


On the outside of the monastery are chains that once belonged to Christian prisoners liberated from Muslim Granada. (Click through for a good view on the bottom left.)  Inside is a beautiful French Gothic structure, with soaring arches and a lovely cloister (all that’s left after a fire), featuring darling little carved animals and plants along with the saints.

Next on to a synagogue that was taken over by the Christians, leading to the odd name of Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca. The columns are newly repainted white, with beautifully carved decorations of pineapples. The floor was tiled (no Jewish symbols here), and the apses have been turned into Christian chapels. The wooden ceiling was again very Moroccan. The whole thing very clean, light and austere.

These tiles set into the roads indicate that we’re in the Jewish quarter, although there are no Jews in Toledo any more.

The Museum of The Sephardic Jews was our last stop in the Jewish Quarter. This was a former synagogue that’s been reconstituted as a museum of the Sephardic Jews, defined as Spanish Jews who have left the country (which they all did in 1492, and to say they left is to minimize the pain and terror of being thrown out). There are still some carvings and decorations from the original synagogue, and displays of Jewish memorabilia from ancient times up to now.

After a quick snack break (where we learned that the Spanish put cooked tomatoes on toast the way we would use jam), we came to the cathedral, the jewel in the crown of Toledo. Its Baroque altarpiece and Transparente are over the top, until you come to the enormous gold and silver Monstrance and you know that there’s always one step more in the gaudiness sweepstakes.  Plus, the Monstrance is paraded through the streets during Holy Week, and I can only imagine how they do that.

Also here were more lovely carved animals,

and a painting by my frenemy, El Greco.  This is the Disrobing of Christ.

It was a good day, and Barbara was a terrific guide, very knowledgeable but not overwhelming us with information. It turns out that she will be our guide at the Prada tomorrow, and Larry and Tatiana from this group will be along.

Dinner tonight was at a place recommended by RS for its cod. But, unfortunately, hearing bad news from Marshelle about Weezer’s situation plunged me into darkness. Plus, the waiter rushed us and our order was a mess! We ended up with two cod tapas, neither very good, and an enormous salad with big chunks of tomatoes (not terribly ripe) and tuna. We bailed at this point, after confusing the waiter with our order – first jamón, then not jamón, then jamón after all and then no jamón! – and went back to the Europa. A comforting bowl of soup and glass of wine did a lot to restore my spirits.

Here’s a view of the train station tiles to finish off the day!

Art art art, part I

We usually look for history, art and nature when we travel.  This trip was no exception, except that the paintings were mostly at the beginning of the trip.  First, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid on our first day there.  Sadly, the Metro ticket operation was so confusing that we had to ask for help, and I’m still not sure we could do it again.  But once we got the tickets, it worked well. We walked down the Paseo del Prado to the museum, spotting a magpie on the way, bathing in a fountain.magpie

The Thyssen is a private collection started by the Thyssen and Bornemisza families in the early twentieth century,  bought by the Spanish government and housed in a former palace.  The website touts paintings by “Dürer, Rafael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Picasso, Hopper, Rothko.”  They were all there although, as Rick Steves says, it’s a collection of minor works by major artists.  But we very much enjoyed it.

Our old friend Memlingmemling

Holbein’s Henry VIII in a lovely frameHolbein

El Greco, who is an acquired taste which I hadn’t yet acquired at this point in the tripEl Greco 1

a RembrandtRembrandt

Kirchner, whom I remember from SwitzerlandKirchner

and this lovely orange dress on St. Casilda, by the Spanish painter Zurbaran.Zurbaran

Unfortunately, the Caravaggio we wanted to see was not on display.  

It was a LOT of art to see at the end of the day, but it was just right.

We Metro’d back and all was well until we tried to leave the station.  Many signs saying Salida but no way out! We finally found our way and walked back through the Puerto to a restorative glass of wine outside the hotel. wine after art

Touring Madrid

Our first full day in Spain was on our own, which is a good way to start. After breakfast in the hotel restaurant – churros (yum), yogurt, orange juice, an apple, and some bread and marmalade, plus good coffee – we started off on the Rick Steves walk.

In the Puerto del Sol, the busy plaza just outside our hotel, we saw the symbol of Madrid, the bear eating madrones, which is everywhere once you start looking for it (see below);the statue of Charles III with the iconic Tio Pepe sign behind him;

and the city building which back in the day was the headquarters of Franco’s government.

We strolled down small streets with lovely tiled street signs like this one for the Street of the Embroiderers,to the very formal Plaza Mayor, with King Philip on a horse.We walked through to the Mercado de San Miguel, which had just opened when we got there, but the vendors already had everything beautifully displayed. As you can see, I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

Unbelievably, we didn’t buy anything, just ate with our eyes.

Next up was the convent where the sisters make delicious cookies. You buy them by ringing the doorbell ( a street person helped us with this), entering when she buzzes you in, and proceeding to the torno, a lazy Susan where you order your cookies and place your money. The nun turns it, takes your money, and turns it again with the box of cookies neatly bagged, all without revealing herself to you. And the cookies are delicious!

A quick look at the oldest door in Madrid, set in a Moorish keyhole, then to the town hall with the bear symbol above the door (and another one set in the sidewalk close by).The  memorial for the attempted assassination of King Alfonso on his wedding day in 1906 (he survived, 30 were killed, and the original monument was destroyed during the Civil War),and then the enormous cathedral opened up on our right. But we were headed for the royal palace next door.

We took the audioguide, which devoted about a minute thirty to each room, really enough for the likes of me. Lots of ornate furniture, silver, tapestries, and symbols of royal power and authority. No photos allowed, but this one of the throne room give you the general idea. We had a refreshing lunch in the cafeteria, good salads and cut-up fruit, and then continued the RS walk.

An imposing statue of Philip IV (one of the good kings) and then a walk along Calle de Arenal, lined with restaurants and shops, plus musicians, opera singers, and illegal sellers who place their goods on sheets and bundle them up when the police come (or use elaborate ropes to pull them together even faster). Back to the hotel for a quick respite before taking the Metro to the Thyssen.

What we ate

Spanish food was good, with a few highlights, but not spectacular (who can ever match Italy?).  But we were able to choke down quite a bit of delicious food over two weeks.

Tortilla Española

This was lunch on our first day, at the hotel in Madrid once we had dumped our bags.  Soft, creamy, warm and comforting, eggs and potatoes and occasionally onions.  But there are many versions of this, including a cold or room-temp tortilla that’s heavier and good for eating out of hand.


We had these along with our breakfast the first day and felt we had crossed it off our list.  Something like a caky doughnut, sweet and crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.  If we’d had the strength, we would have stopped here for the classic churro and chocolate, which looked delicious but would have put us into a diabetic coma.  And here’s a big coil of churro outside the cafe we visited on our food tour in Seville.  Yes, it looks a bit odd, but after all it had been sitting outside for a couple of hours!


I’m not usually a beer drinker, but the Alhambra beer we had in the Sierra Nevada mountains was delicious (maybe it was the setting).The beer is quite local, meaning we did not see this brand outside of Granada.  In Seville, it was Cruzcampo all the way.  And una caña (a small glass of beer) with a lunch of tapas hit the spot around the corner from our apartment.

Tapas were everywhere, and we enjoyed a couple places along the way.  In Madrid, we liked La Abuela, where we sat in the open window and had fried shrimp, good bread and un chato de vino, or small glass of house white wine, while we watched people in the plaza outside.

Just around the corner from La Abuela was Toni’s, where the menu is posted on the wall.  

I ordered Boquerones thinking they were mussels, but ended up with these delicious anchovies in vinegar instead.

In Seville, our wonderful cathedral guide recommended this place, where we bellied up to the crowded bar and ordered a caña and a little pork sandwich (pincha or pintxo or tapa) which we ate standing up and watching the people, a good mix of locals and tourists.  And the place was hopping at three in the afternoon!

busy bar

Our silliest tapa experience was in Granada, where we tried this place right around the corner from our hotel.  We ordered hummus but instead were served a small dish of something else.  When we pointed this out in a polite way, we were informed, politely, that this was the tapa, a free snack that comes with drinks!  Our hummus came along in due course.  I think this was the only place where the traditional tapa with drinks was free.

Of course, Iberian ham was everywhere.  Here is a ham leg placed in its handcuffs so the paper-thin slices can easily be cut off.  We saw these in many places, not always so delicately draped as this one was.  Notice the little hoof…


Why Spain?

Well, we hadn’t been there before; it has a fascinating mix of cultures and religions; southern Spain is very reminiscent of Morocco; and I had a romantic view of what it might be like.  Like every country, Spain has a lot to offer once you start looking, so we decided to limit our trip to Madrid and southern Spain (Andalusia).  Next time, Catalonia!

After a hot, noisy flight on Brussels Air (and angst about whether we would actually have seats, but arriving four hours early worked), we caught our second flight, from Brussels to Madrid, and landed, fairly sleep-deprived, in Madrid.  The Hotel Europa is just barely off the busy Puerto del Sol, where we saw peaceful protests almost every evening.Our room is in the back and very quiet, with a great bathroom complete with walk-in shower (best bathroom of the trip!).

We had a late lunch at the Europa restaurant on the sidewalk seen here just below the sign, on a bright blue, sunny afternoon. This is a pedestrian street so we could enjoy watching the tourists and locals walking by as we ate.  The tortilla Espanola was just the thing to restore us enough to go back in and take a nap.

We walked through the Puerto to find dinner at a couple of tapas places.  Alison’s friend Catherine recommended La Abuela, so we stopped in at the bar side for some delicious ham and a chato (small glass) of white wine.  Another customer was eating sizzling shrimps, so we will have to go back and try them.  They were cooked in this tiny area in the corner.  Notice the beautiful painted tiles.
We wandered up and down the streets – it was early for dinner, so some places weren’t yet open – and ended up at a tapas place where we had a surprisingly large plate of fried anchovies and shrimp in garlic.  The television in the corner was tuned to the news, live coverage of a church service for 13 people killed the other day in flash floods in Mallorca. 

Walking back through the Puerta we came upon a mariachi band. Mostly for tourists, I’m sure, but the crowd seemed to include all kinds of people.  And so to bed.