Archive for June 13, 2006

Toledo, Spain (Part 1)

We took the train to Toledo, which is 70 kms from Madrid. The trip took 30 minutes so we had to be traveling at least 200 kph at some points along the way.

It was interesting to see how the station handled passengers. It’s just like at the airport. There’s security to go through for ticket holders and once inside, there are gates that correspond to different trains heading to different destinations. You present your ticket to the gate agent and pass through the gates. I found it interesting that the two modes of transportation had evolved to similar boarding methods. The train interiors were very comfortable and colorful.

Sure enough, in 30 minutes we arrive in Toledo. The train station itself was built over 100 years ago but it looked like it had been built yesterday. The platforms themselves were new but the building and it’s interior were nothing short of amazing. It was built in mudejar design. The picture doesn’t capture the intricate details and the amazing woodwork and inlays.

Toledo Train station

We caught a city bus since we didn’t know how far or more accurately, how high, the hotel was. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia, giving a brief history of Toledo.

Toledo was originally a Roman Empire outpost ( end of the 2nd century BC though its Celtiberian past could put it 2 centuries before that ) under the name Toletum. It later served as the capital city of Visigothic Spain, beginning with Liuvigild (Leovigild), and was the capital until the Moors conquered Iberia in the 8th century. Under the Caliphate of Cordoba, Toledo enjoyed a golden age. This extensive period is known as La Convivencia, i.e. the Co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Under Arab rule, Toledo was called Tulaytulah (Arabic طليطلة, academically transliterated Ṭulayṭulah).On May 25, 1085 Alfonso VI of Castile took Toledo and established direct personal control over the Moorish city from which he had been exacting tribute. This was the first concrete step taken by the combined kingdom of Leon-Castile in the Reconquista by Christian forces.Toledo was famed for its production of steel and especially of swords and the city is still a center for the manufacture of knives and other steel implements. When Philip II moved the royal court from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the old city went into a slow decline from which it never recovered.
Toledo’s Alcázar became renowned in the 19th and 20th centuries as a military academy. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 its garrison was famously besieged by Republican forces.
In 1986 the UNESCO declared Toledo a World Heritage Site.

We arrived at our hotel (Hotel Santa Isabell, a 14th century noble house) and dropped off our bags. We headed uphill toward Alcazar but when we got there we were told it was closed until 2008 for renovations. We were only slightly disappointed as the city had so much to offer.

Alcazar

The cathedral was right around the corner so we decided to take a tour. It’s really a weird feeling when you realize that you’re in a building that was built over 700 years ago and some parts of the foundation are over 1000 years old. They still had tools that were used in the construction (at some point) and an example of a wagon used to carry building materials.

medieval wagon

Inside were many paintings by el Greco and this cathedral is one of the christian churches with the wealthiest collection of artworks in the WORLD. Move over Rome.

We started wandering the streets and found too many things that were interesting. Almost overwhelming, we felt like little kids who didn’t know what chocolate to choose. The streets are very narrow and you have to find a doorway to tuck into when a car goes by.

city street

We have to watch the futbol game because Brazil is playing Croatia and being married to a Brasilian, well, we have priorities.

I’ll continue tomorrow with Toledo, Part 2

June 13, 2006 at 8:52 pm 1 comment

Impresiones madrileñas

We arrived in Madrid in the middle of a heat wave that had temperatures soaring to 40C. Unusual for early june, it was nonetheless a killer for those of us recently out of a Canadian winter.

The heat no doubt coloured a bit our perception of Madrid, which Alan and I define as a much “harder” city than Barcelona. It just seems a little less relaxed. And despite its grand 17th and 18th-century architecture, it’s also not as pretty. But let’s not fall in the trap – too late it seems – of comparing two unique cities.

Madrid at 8 AM

Madrid seems to be a city of contrasts. Its streets wind up and down hills, without the benefit of shady trees under the inclement sun, forcing the city hall to ingeniously stretch panels across the top of the buildings in the old city to ease the effects of the sun. I guess the sight of tourists collapsing could undermine its popularity abroad. 😉 I don’t have a picture of it but according to the news, they do the same in Seville.

In contrast to the hustle and bustle of its streets, the parque del retiro is indeed a haven. Some of its paths have the smell and feel of the deep woods. Indeed, a welcome retreat and where we took refuge from the heat in our first day. To see how it went and more pictures of the park, check Alan’s blog. He spent a lot of time exploring the park while I was at the conference.

Windows near Plaza Mayor

Our time in Madrid was short – I was there for a conference – so we didn’t spend much time visiting the sights. The only tourist spot, properly speaking, that we visited was the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Plaza Mayor. The rest of the time was spent lining up for tickets to Toledo at Atocha train station (buy it in advance!) and sipping beer and eating tapas.

Beer bar in Madrid

Now, here is one area where Castilians excell – their tapas and cool drinks! Don’t get me wrong, one can find good tapas in Barcelona (particularly basque tapas) but it isn’t part of the culture as it is in central Castile and parts of Andalusia.

The word tapa comes from the verb “tapar”, meaning to cover, and initially it referred to a piece of bread, often topped with some cheese or sausage, that was given free of charge when one ordered a drink. It has now become a plate of finger food (slices of jamon serrano, chorizo, potatoes, etc) and, as everything now, it is far from being free. Or at least that’s what we were told and what we experienced in Barcelona.

In Madrid and Toledo the tradition seems to be quite alive.

Every cerveceria we went to gave us a little saucer of chips, canapes or whatever they felt like it. Sitting at the bar was great fun. The barmen were incredibly friendly in both cities and in our last night in Madrid we were even given a free drink (whisky with galliano) after we paid our bill. In Toledo we walked into what seemed like the most popular bar among locals. La Tabernita is a tiny little place with a restaurant downstairs and amazing food. We made friends with Desiree, Manolo and Esteban, who introduced us to “tinto de verano” and amazing castilian specialties such as cierdo a la plancha, morcilla manchega, and stuffed mushrooms from Murcia. Here are some pictures of the mushrooms and Desiree, our more than friendly waiter:

hmmm, stuffed mushrooms

Desiree and tinto de verano

Some Madrid tshirts:

Stay tuned for more info on Toledo, the city of the three cultures!

June 13, 2006 at 4:05 pm 1 comment


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