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From the Madrid Travel Guide, a special advertising
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Out of town

Day trips offer glimpses of Spain's history and cuisine

April 05, 2011
  • The royal gardens of aranjuez
The royal gardens of aranjuez (Turismo Madrid )

In addition to everything else that Madrid has to offer, there are numerous possibilities for day trips that are less than an hour away. So it’s easy to get a complete change of scenery without packing your suitcase or hunting for lodging. 

Aranjuez

Other than flamenco, no music cries “Spain” in such vivid harmonic flourishes as Joaquin Rodrigo’s dramatic  “Concierto de Aranjuez.” So what better way to immerse yourself in Spain’s glory than to stroll the gardens that inspired this iconic piece of music? A mere 29 miles from Madrid, the town of Aranjuez showcases the gardens that are Spain’s answer to those at Versailles. 

Situated where two rivers meet, Aranjuez features a relatively water-rich environment that made possible the vast gardens and parks surrounding the Palacio Real de Aranjuez. The gardens were begun during the reign of Felipe II in the 16th century but were made over and expanded by subsequent Bourbon monarchs who weren’t going to play second fiddle to France’s Louis IV when it came to landscaping.

Thus was created an oasis standing out in high contrast to this otherwise barren, rugged region. Both the palace and the gardens reflect layers of historical styles, from the restrained neoclassical style of Spanish Renaissance architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to the Rococo of the Enlightenment.

The gardens that once served exclusively as a playground for royalty are a joy to explore. If you stroll through the Island Garden, a wonderland of fountains adorned with statues of Greek mythological figures, you’ll get a vivid glimpse of that languorous courtly life that Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” evokes. You can also climb aboard the town’s quaint tourist train for a leisurely three-hour tour of the town’s center, the expansive Prince’s Garden and the Royal Barge Museum, which displays recreational boats used by kings and queens.

Chinchón

During the week, Chinchón, a village of about 5,000, is pretty sleepy. But weekends are another story. Chinchón is a regional gastronomic destination, specializing in such traditional and hearty Castilian fare as roasted game, garlic soup and the town’s favorite dessert, leche frita (fried milk). This village plays host to a number of festivals that can find its main plaza and surroundings choked with as many as 6,000 people. And it’s only 38 miles southeast of Madrid.

The jewel of Chinchón’s crown is its circular Plaza Mayor, enclosed by a slightly irregular half-circle of three-story former houses dating back to the 15th century. Inside are shops and restaurants. The upper levels of the buildings are adorned with 254 wooden balconies overlooking the plaza. The balconies, or los claros as they’re known locally, sprang up in fits and starts over the centuries, and thanks to a 2008 restoration, are no longer as precarious as they appear.

The plaza is the perfect place to take refuge amid the bouquets of umbrellas that spill out from its ground-level restaurants and cafés. Above the plaza juts the town’s famous clock tower and the Renaissance Church of the Assumption, notable for its altar, which was painted by Goya, whose brother was a chaplain here. Chinchón is known for its eponymous anise-infused liqueur, Spain’s answer to pastis, and you can enjoy samplings of the spirit’s various flavors in many of the village’s bars.

The narrow, winding streets of Chinchón are often compared to those of old Jerusalem. So this town is an ideal place to watch the popular reenactments of the Passion during Easter weekend.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial

A must-see during any trip to Madrid is San Lorenzo de El Escorial, just 28 miles northwest of the city. A historic seat of power, construction on El Escorial was begun in 1563 during the reign of Felipe II at a time when the Spanish monarchy was bracing itself against the Protestant Reformation. 

You wouldn’t think this austere structure was the architectural cousin to the comparatively ornate Royal Palace at Aranjuez (architects Juan de Herrera and Juan Bautista de Toledo were the guiding lights of each).

El Escorial is a break from tradition both in design and in purpose. Stylistically its stripped-down aesthetic is a radical departure from traditional Spanish Renaissance architecture, with so many spires and towers it calls to mind a city of mini skyscrapers. El Escorial was once both a monastery and a Spanish royal palace, so it was a seat of immense power for many years. The site is worth visiting for the art alone: Its museum features a superb collection by artists ranging from Titian to Bosch.

Alcalá de Henares

The town of Alcalá de Henares is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of the masterpiece “Don Quixote.”  Another major source of town pride is its public university, the University of Alcalá, founded in the late 15th century by Cardinal Cisneros. Alcalá de Henares was the world’s first planned university city. The university was closed and moved to Madrid in 1836 but was reopened in the original buildings in 1977. Alongside Plaza de Cervantes is San Ildefonso College, the old university building with a magnificent Plateresque-style façade designed by Rodrigo
Gil de Hontañón. 

Martin Booe, Custom Publishing Writer


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