Castle of Manzanares in Spain – travel tips

Manzanres CastleThe two months of Spain continues. In these two months I am covering both main cities and smaller towns.

Manzanares el Real is a small town not far from Madrid. I went to Mazanares one winter and reached it by car, so this is another easy day trip to make from Madrid.

Manzanares is home to the Castle of Manzanares el Real, which is a 15th century castle that is very well preserved. You can tour the entire castle which also includes a small museum.

The castle is set on a hill that over looks a lake. When you enter the castle you enter a small courtyard and then into smaller rooms. You can immediately go up one of the towers and walk along the castle wall to the other towers, which is quite fun! On one side of the castle there is a covered walkway between towers with dramatic archways that frame the views in interesting ways. There is a small museum that explains the history of the castle, a few artifacts, and a larger courtyard in the center. I suggest walking around the perimeter of the castle once you are done touring the inside; the castle is small so this doesn’t take long but it is a great way to see all of it and admire the views.

The castle at Manzanares is just like a fairytale castle!


Travel tips:
1 – It takes less then an hour to get to Manzanares from Madrid by car.

2 – For entrance fees and hours for the castle click here.

Travel Tips for El Escorial, Spain

El Escorial, SpainA summer of Spain continues with highlights on more then 20 cities and the next location to be covered is El Escorial.

El Escorial is definitely a spot you do not want to miss on your trip to Spain. El Escorial is an easy day trip from Madrid and can be reached by train.

I have been to El Escorial many times and would go again. It is a fascinating location.


El Escorial is a historical residence of the king of Spain and serves as a royal palace, museum, school, and monastery that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.  When taking the train from Madrid you will see the massive towers and the long shape of the building as you approach the small town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Travel Tip – It tends to be windy and very cold, especially when inside the Monastery, so be prepared with jackets and scarves!


From the train station you can walk through a large park (slightly uphill climb) to get to the Monastery and Museums. You can spend all day inside the buildings since they are enormous and have many levels and tons to look at.

Interesting Side Note – The buildings are said to be in the shape of a grill to honor St. Lawrence who was martyred by being roasted to death on a grill in the 3rd Century AD.

There are many sections of the complex to see and you can tour so much of it. You will see the Architectural Museum portion that shows the history of the building with models and drawings. There is also the Royal Pantheon which is a burial site for most of the Spanish kings of the last five centuries, the Habsburgs, and the Bourbons. There are actually a few rooms with tombs and then a staircase that leads to a lower level with a circular room with twenty six marble tombs. The Pantheon of the Princes holds the tombs of princes, princesses, and queens.


From the tombs you usually make your way through galleries and eventually up to the Hall of Battles. The hall has frescos paintings all along the length of both walls depicting important Spanish military battles in great detail. The ceiling in this room is also marvelously decorated. There is also a Chamber of the Infants, a circular construction with small tombs.

My favorite room is the Library. The library is on an upper level and you climb the stairs in one of the towers to reach it. The room is long and narrow with marble floors, wood shelves with delicate glass doors holding the books, frescoes on the ceilings, and large windows with views of the gardens. The room itself is gorgeous and the collections of over 40,000 books with delicate leather binding and elaborate covers are so impressive.

Also you shouldn’t miss the Basilica of San Lorenzo el Real or walking through the Gardens of the Friars which provides impressive views of the entire complex.

El Escorial should not be missed when traveling throughout Spain. Don’t miss it!

To see more photographs of El Escorial visit The Monica Store by clicking here.

Travel Tips for Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca, Spain

Travel tips and info on Cuenca, Spain.

Cuenca is a small city in Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain.

Cuenca is an easy train ride from Madrid and can be visited in a day. I went to Cuenca one cold winter day but with bright blue skies and sun it was pleasant and easy to spend most of the time outside.


What to see and do in Cuenca, Spain

From the Cuenca train station you can walk into the old city center via a winding path that will lead you to a bridge over the gorge, Saint Paul Bridge. The city of Cuenca is situated right on the edge of deep gorges. Before crossing the bridge you will come face to face with a magnificent building, the Parador of Cuenca. The Parador is a hotel that occupies the former convent of San Pablo. To read more about Paradores in Spain see “more information below.”

The gorges and steep cliffs of Cuenca resulted in the construction of very unique houses called Hanging Houses or Las Casa Colgadas. You will see these houses as you cross the bridge. These hanging houses were at one time common in the city. The houses cling right over the edge of the Huecar River Gorge.

From the hanging houses you can walk right up to the main plaza. The main plaza is very charming and surrounded by brightly colored buildings with balconies covered with flower pots and small shuddered windows. And here you will find the main Cathedral, Our Lady of Grace Cathedral.


The Cathedral in Cuenca is one of the most interesting Cathedral’s I have visited! The Cathedral was built from 1182 to 1270 but the façade was rebuilt in 1902 so the façade is in extremely good shape. The interior is a jumble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements and the altar is surrounded by little chapels that are all different.

From the Plaza Mayor explore the streets and you will find steep cobble stone paths lined with brightly painted houses, pathways along the gorge, small stone churches, and more. Cuenca has a small and charming historical center with dramatic vistas of the gorge and should be on your list of places to see in Spain!


More Information:

1 – Cuenca is another city on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list!

2 – A Parador is a hotel that usually occupies an old castle, monastery, palace, or other historical building in Spain. Paradores can be found is almost all of the major cities in Spain. The hotels are state run and guarantee the preservation of historical buildings. For more information and a list of all of the Paradores in Spain click here.

3 – To read more about this history of Cuenca click here.

4 – To see the official tourist site for Cuenca with information of what to see, restaurants, and museums, click here.

Travel Tips for Cordoba, Spain

Cordoba, SpainA summer of Spain continues with Cordoba.

Cordoba is located in Andalusia, in southern Spain. The southern area of Spain has a Mediterranean climate but it does get very hot in the summers. When I visited Cordoba I did it in a day! I would certainly try to stay longer then that but in one day you can see the main sites. For travel information see “travel tips” below.

Cordoba is an impressive city. In the Middle Ages Cordoba was actually one of the largest cities in the world!


On my trip to Cordoba I took the train from Madrid (2.5 hours) and from the train station you can take a taxi right to the Mezquita. You can also walk from the station but if you are short on time a taxi is the best option.

The Mezquita is the main attraction in Cordoba and I believe it is one of the items on the “must see before you die list” and I can vouch that it really is a “must see.” The Mezquita is also known as Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. It was originally a Mosque and is now a Roman Catholic Cathedral and this is the precise reason that the building is so magnificent, intriguing and stunning. You can’t help but walk in and be stunned. Most of your visit will be spent wandering through the Mezquita and marveling at the structure.


A little history about the Mezquita… In 600 AD the building was begun as a Christian Visigoth church but was then bought by Emir Ad bar-Rahman who restructured the building as a mosque, a process that took two centuries to complete! The mosque has an unusual position as it points south instead of east-southeast in the direction of Mecca. The mosque was also an adjunct to Abd ar-Rahman’s palace. (Abd ar-Rahman was the founder of Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba, a Muslim Dynasty that ruled most of Iberia for almost three centuries).

The Mezquita is recognized for its unique interior. There are 856 columns with large striped arches. There is also a large dome in the center, decorated with blue tiles. The mosque was completed, along with the orange tree courtyard, in 987. But in 1236 Cordoba was taken over by King Ferdinand III of Castile and that is when the mosque was converted into a cathedral. The main alteration to the building was the insertion of a cathedral nave in the middle. The mixture of architectural elements is what is so intriguing.


After exploring the Mezquita you should see the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos which is right by the Mezquita. The palace has extensive gardens with fountains and statues. Admission is free on Wednesdays! For a link to more information and admission prices see travel tips below.

And then I suggest you walk through the old city center, as I did, and explore the narrow streets lined with white houses. As you pass the white houses you will notice an abundance of flowers and flower pots as well as patios and courtyards that you will get glimpses of through iron gates. One popular street is the Calleja de las flores which is very photogenic.


Overall Cordoba is a wonderful Mediterranean city with charming streets and the magnificent Mezquita!

For photographs, photo books, and accordion cards of Cordoba visit The Monica Store.


Travel Tips:

1 – You can see Cordoba in one day if that is all the time you have. From Madrid you take the train right to Cordoba and it is a two and a half hour ride. So if you get there in the early morning and leave late evening you will have plenty of time to see the main sites. For train times and prices click here for Rail Europe.

2 – Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos information, admission prices, and hours.


More Information:

1 – To read more about the Mezquita click here.

2 – Cordoba’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

3 – To read more about the history of Cordoba click here.

Avila, Spain – travel tips and photography

The month of June and July are all about Spain on my blog and on my store site. The third city is Avila.
Avila, Spain
Every time I have visited Avila I have taken the train from Madrid. As the train approaches the city, from quite a distance you get a view of the fortified walls of the old city, which is an impressive site as it is one of the best-preserved medieval fortified cities in Europe. And for those going to Europe with visions of castles and fortresses, this city will not disappoint.

I have been to Avila many times and each time I am always surprised at how chilly it is. I once visited Avila in the middle of August, one of the hottest months in Spain, and while Madrid was sweltering I arrived in to goose-bump weather and ended up having to buy a sweater in Avila. (This is always a good trick to use if you want an excuse to buy a new sweater though).


What to See in Avila, Spain:

The city of Avila has a long history of battles, conquerors, and prosperity that reach as far back as pre-Roman times. The fortified city’s walls were built in 1090 and include nine gateways and over eighty towers. Today there are various sections of the wall that you can walk along and towers you can climb up (there is a small fee to do so). On every visit to Avila I make a point of walking along every accessible point on the wall and, to the joy of my family, I also go up every tower that you can – I insist that they all have different views. (In hindsight this is a great town for kids!).

Aside from the old city wall there is the Gothic Cathedral that should be visited. The cathedral is actually attached to the city wall and it was built between the 12th and 14th century. You can walk right up to the Cathedral from one of the wall walkways. Some of the best views of the newer sections of town can be seen from two towers right by the Cathedral. (Note that this is also one of the highest points of the wall and includes a very steep staircase, but I would encourage even those afraid of heights not to miss out on this)!

The city is a maze of cobbled stones streets, medieval and Renaissance architecture, and palaces. There are also numerous cathedrals and convents, most notably the Convent of Santa Teresa de Jesus.


Storks in Avila, Spain

And apart from the architecture, cathedrals, and history there are storks. While walking through Avila you will hear a faint clapping sound which is actually storks clapping their beaks together. Storks are a prominent sight in Avila and many other Spanish cities; their enormous nests sit on top of towers and roofs and you can also see them dotting the old city wall. You can get very close to some of the nests while climbing the old city wall. (The advantages of climbing the wall… just keep growing)!


There is a lot to see in Avila and I highly recommend it!

— For more information visit the official Avila tourist website by clicking here.

* And for photographs, books, and cards of Avila, Spain go to The Monica Store by clicking here.


How to get to Avila, Spain:
1 – Avila is an hour and a half train ride from Madrid. Take the train from Chamartin.
— For schedules and fares click here for the RailEurope site.

Travel tips and photos for Aranjuez, Spain

Over twenty cities in Spain in 2 months…. These summer months about Spain, continues with the city of Aranjuez.

Aranjuez is another city that is very close to Madrid. I highly recommend taking the Strawberry Train and visiting Aranjuez for the day. (See below for travel info and useful links).


The main attraction in Aranjuez is the Royal Palace (Palacio Real). This 18th century palace is truly a grand structure with arcades, elegant towers, and of course expansive gardens – the Prince’s Gardens (Jardin del Principe). The palace gardens could take a whole day to walk through. There are fountains, long promenades, rose gardens, gazebos, statues, and elegant marble benches.

The town itself is charming and includes a large square surrounded by brick arcades – these make up the majority of my photographs of Aranjuez as the light creates dramatic shadows. You can see these photographs of Aranjuez on my store site.


During a day trip, one must of course stop for lunch and in Aranjuez you arrive by the Strawberry Train to a city that is known for growing strawberries and another Spanish delicacy, white asparagus! So you are guaranteed a scrumptious meal upon visiting Aranjuez.


** Eating in Spain, plus important tips for vegetarians

Spanish Cultural tidbit – White asparagus is served cold with mayonnaise – yum!

Also in case you are vegetarian, as am I, if you order a salad it will automatically come with a large mound of tuna right in the middle of your gorgeous greens and vine ripe tomatoes. Now if you are a vegetarian that eats seafood, no problem; but if you don’t eat seafood then you have to explicitly ask for a salad without tuna – “ensalada sin atun.” You will get a funny look of utter disbelief but if you smile nicely and kind of shrug in an apologetic way you might be lucky and get what you ask for. Vegetarian food is still a novelty in Spain (and more on that later on this month).


Aranjuez is worth the day trip. The summer months can be rather hot but the arcades provide shade. For any architecture lover it is worth a visit! And in case you like geese (I’m a big fan) – there is a pond of shallow water right inside the palace at the beginning of the gardens where you will find a gaggle of geese standing in the water and all facing one direction. At least that is what I found at that pond and it makes a rather humorous viewing. You can see the photograph on the store site – click here for photo of geese on The Monica Store.


Fun Facts about Aranjuez:
1 – The Aranjuez cultural landscape is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
2 – Aranjuez became the residence of the kings of Spain in the late 19th century, a residence they used for the spring season.
3 – Only relatives of the king were allowed to live in Aranjuez until 1808.


Information – how to get to Aranjuez:
1 – You can take the regular Cercanias train from the Atocha railway station in Madrid.
2 – You can also take a bus from the South Bus Station in Madrid.
3 – Or you can take the Strawberry Train (Tren de la Fresa), which I recommend! This is an old style railway service that runs Saturdays and Sunday from the 28th of April to July 1st, and from the 15th of September to October 14th.

For more travel info and specifics click here.

Travel Tips for Alcalá de Henares, Spain

Alcala de Henares, Spain

Summer is here and that means travel, and for many that includes a trip to Europe. Spain is a popular vacation spot attracting over half a million tourists a year. I have traveled to Spain multiple times and visited over twenty cities within Spain.

The summer of 2010 is going to be all about Spain starting in alphabetical order with the cities I have visited. I hope to give some background of each place, along with a few travel tips, and of course photos. Enjoy! and please remember to visit my store site where you will find more photographs and fun facts about each location.


Travel Tips for Alcalá de Henares.

Alcalá de Henares is just a short train ride from Madrid; see below for specific information about how to get there.

The city is mainly known for its university. The old Alcalá University has magnificent buildings and you can tour parts of them to see the magnificent courtyards, stairways, and architecture. The tour includes historical antidotes, many of which include hilarious old customs and student traditions.

The University was originally founded in 1496 by Cardinal Cisneros and named the Universidad Complutense. This University eventually moved to Madrid and the buildings in Alcalá became the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in 1977. The University is highly regarded for it’s Spanish language and literature programs.


Alcalá de Henares is also known as the birthplace of Cervantes and you can visit the original house today.

Other main sites include the main square, Cervantes Square that is a large open square that acts as a divider between the Medieval and University portions of the city.


Another site that I think should not be missed is the Laredo Palace. This palace was built in 1882 for Manuel Jose de Laredo. The building has interesting architecture with geometrical patterns on the façade and decorative motifs in the rooms that are similar to the Alhambra along with paintings by Laredo himself.

Alcalá de Henares historical center is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. With cobbled streets, medieval buildings and historical sites, Alcalá de Henares is a pleasant and easy day trip.

***To see more photos of Alcalá de Henares visit The Monica Store.


Links and Useful information about how to get to Alcalá de Henares:

1 – Alcalá de Henares can be reached by the Cercanías trains with several departures every hour from Atocha railway station.

2- For train times and fares visit the Renfe Cercanias Madrid site click here.

3 – For more information about the main sites and what to see visit a helpful tourist information website by clicking here.


Interesting Facts:

1 – Spain has thirty-six cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For the complete list click here.

2 – Alcalá de Henares is often just referred to as “Alcalá” which comes from the Arabic word al-qal’a, which means fortification.

3 – Christopher Columbus had his first meeting with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella at the “Casa de la Entrevista” in Alcalá de Henares.