What to do in Trujillo, Spain: Food, History and Daytrips

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Extremadura is one of those places you want everyone to know about, but also want to have entirely to yourself. 

Nestled between Madrid and Andalusia, it’s an oft-overlooked part of Spain and not easy to explore without a car. Rich in history, the western plains of Spain were home to the largest and most powerful Roman cities in Hispania, as well as the birthplace of the conquistadores who conquered much of Latin and South America. This legacy has been left in the jewels littered throughout the comunidad autónoma in Guadalupe’s sprawling monastery, the monument-rich Cáceres and Roman Mérida.

In many ways, spending time in Extremadura can make you feel like time has stopped, but even Spaniards look at it with disdain, citing poor transportation links and a lack of things to do. Just like Americans can’t place Iowa on a map, Extemadura to many Spaniards is a corner of Spain that serves as a gateway to Portugal and Andalucía, and little else.

Suckers.

When a free weekend came up in July, I called up two friends in Sevilla and one in Madrid, and we met in the middle. The town of Trujillo is equidistant between the capital of Spain and the capital of Andalusia, and an easy jaunt on the A-5 highway that connects the southwest of Spain and central Portugal to Madrid.

Follow the trail of the Conquistadores

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Name any conqueror from the 16th Century. Save a select few, the big names all came from Extremadura – Pizarro, Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés. Loyal to the Spanish crown, they claimed a sizeable chunks of land, changing the course of history and effectively bringing the Spanish language, culture and communicable diseases to the New World.

Ever drawn the conclusion that of South America’s great cities are named for Spanish towns? Most of those pueblos, like Medellín or even Trujillo, are extremeño towns. On my first trip to Extremadura, a lifelong extremeña told me that the name of her comunidad autónoma came from these mean from the far-lying (extre) provinces whose lives were hardened on the western plains (madura). Take it for what you will, but extremeños have since been known for their gumption.

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The cornerstone of an already gorgeous main square, the Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, the Palacio de la Conquista’s erection was financed largely in part by the riches Pizarro brought back from Peru. It sits at the bottom of a hill that is crowned by a crumbling alcazaba, and the stone mansions and plazas that tumble down are of note.

It’s honestly one of the most beautiful villages I’ve been to in Spain, and I’ve been to a lot.

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Many of the palaces have since been converted into hotels and restaurants, but a morning walk will allow you to see the highlights. Aside from whether or not they pillaged or brought disease, the architectural legacy is staggering. Oh, and Pizarro reputedly brought over a Spanish food staple – tomatoes.

If you want to go further afield and have a car, Trujillo is about equidistant to Cáceres and Mérida, the administrative capital of Extremadura. The Tourism Board suggests the Ruta de los Descubridores, which traces from Plasencia to Trujillo before heading west to Cáceres. Continuing south, you’ll get to Villanueva de la Serena, Medellīn and Mérida; the outpost of Badajóz is a bit further out but is the last stop.

Day trips to Guadalupe and Yuste / the Jerte Valley

My first go at Trujillo was at the hand of a contest won by Trujillo Villas. We had a long weekend, a car and plenty of time to kill on our way up the A-66. Turning off at Valdivia, a small suburb of Villanueva de la Serena (surprise! home to conquistador Pedro de Valdivia), the road snakes into the foothills towards the town of Guadalupe and the Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe.

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Visits to the Guadalupe Monastery

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to worship. It’s even one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is well-deserving of the nod. Seriously. Do not miss this one.

Further north and part of the Sierra de Gredos lie a number of small hamlets that look like they belong in Shakespeare’s novels than rural Spain. The Gargantas, or a series of natural pools in the foothills, and its largest town, Garganta la Olla, is worth a few hours’ walk to stretch your legs and lunch.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

Just 10 minutes northeast of Garganta la Olla is the Monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste, one of Spain’s patrimonial highlights and where Holy Roman Emporer Charles V retired to live out his days. Formerly inhabited by Hieronymite and boasting picturesque views of the almond tree-covered countryside it’s no wonder he made the treacherous trip from Madrid to Yuste (and El Escorial wouldn’t be ordered to be built for another five years anyway).

yuste monastery extremadura

While it was a disappointment to us with pushy tour guides and a steep price tag, the drive through almond trees in bloom and waterfalls was worth the extra kilometers.

Other towns you might want to explore are Zafra, south of Mérida, and Jerez de los Caballeros. Or, really any town with a castle.

Eat

Extremadura prides itself on its food – from hearty game and foul and some of the best jamón ibérico de bellota to Torta del Casar, the notoriously stinky cheese (believe me when I saw it smells like feet). Famous for its sweet, smoked paprika and hearty, little-consumed wines. For its sweets and earthy breads. Characterized by its simplicity and complexity (like all great Spanish dishes), you can eat on the cheap just about anywhere in the region.

jamon y queso

In a small city like Trujillo, there are few options. I had been to famed Casa Troya, a locale famous for its location on the Plaza Mayor and its patronage, on a previous visit and was not ready to return. The first night, restless but tired after our early wake up calls for work and the drive, we settled on Hermanos Marcelo in the square for their croquetas and plenty of helpings of embutidos, or cured meats.

On Saturday morning, we were able to sneak on a last-minute tour of Bodegas Habla, located just to the south of the village.

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In operation from 1999, Bodegas Habla is one of the newest and most innovative wineries in all of Spain – and it produces a table wine that can be drunk as if it was a special occasion. I don’t pretend to know anything about wine other than that it’s made from grapes and I like it less than beer, but I bought into the energy, the marketing and the experience of Habla.

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The tour and tasting cost 13€, which included four wines – their signature Habla del Silencio, Rita, Habla de tí and a limited edition 13. You can contact the Bodega at habla@bodegashabla.com for more information and availability.

While there is parking on-site, please consider finding a designated driver or calling a local taxi. We opted for the latter and, true to his word, he came back in two hours for us and dropped us right off at the restaurant La Alberca.

Perhaps Trujillo’s biggest draw is their Feria del Queso de Trujillo, an artisan fair dedicated solely to cheese. Held around May 1st each year, around 200,000 people are drawn to the Plaza Mayor for activities and tastings centered around goat and sheep cheeses. Area restaurants create special menus in which local cheeses are the main feature. Considering how much I love cheese, I’m shocked I haven’t made it there yet.

Where to eat in Trujillo?

If you’re spending any time in Trujillo, skip Casa Troya and make sure to make a reservation at La Alberca (C/Cambrones, 8). Between the stone walls and the breezy patio, plus a selection of wines from the region – D.O. Tierra de Barro is a great choice if you’re feeling adventurous or want something hearty – this place delivered on food, service and experience. We got away with about 18€ a head.

The Takeaway

I first saw Trujillo driving up to Valladolid with the Novio after about four months living in Seville. The fortress seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the plains, and I pressed my nose to the window to see it from all angles. It may be small, but it packs that distinctly Spanish punch: the wine, the food and the cultural legacy make it worthy of stopping for a night or if you’re en route to Cáceres. In fact, put Extremadura in general on your list.

Trujillo, Spain things to do

Have you been to Trujillo and Extremadura? Anything I missed on this list?

Here’s a little plug for our super cute AirBnB with two terraces and gorgeous views down to the Plaza Mayor. We seriously loved this place so much that we decided to not even go out but just drink wine and play boardgames! It’s a gem and you can park nearby.

What to Do in Alcalá de Henares: the City of Cervantes

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.

So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.

Sunshine and Siestas in Plaza Cervantes

My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcalá

Plaza de Cervantes Alcalá

Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.

Houses n Alcalá de Henares

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.

University of Alcalá de Henares

Facade of the Complutense in Alcalá

The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.

Calle Mayor Alcalá de Henares

We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).

Tapas at Indalo Alcalá de Henares

Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).

Alcalá de Henares

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.

Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!

Chasing Don Quixote: a Detour through Castilla-La Mancha

Bueno, Castilla-La Mancha isn’t exactly known for its long, winding highways,” Inmaculada said, dragging her fingertip across the screen of her mobile phone six consecutive times as the car pointed towards Valencia. It had been nearly 100 kilometers since I’d had to even move the steering wheel for anything other than overtaking.

Literally called the scorch or the stain in Spanish, La Mancha may not be famous for its roads, but it is renowned for two things: Don Quixote and Manchego cheese. Resting comfortably on top of Andalucía and cradled between Madrid and Valencia, its size and its small towns have intimidated me. Everything seemed a bit archaic, a bit sleepy and, mostly, a bit unreachable without a car and an extra-long weekend.

windmills and Don Quijote

Stretching out on either side of the highway as I drove Inmaculada and Jaime to Valencia was land. Sand. Barely a glimpse of a small town. Like any other Spanish student, we were made to read Quixote in high school and made a point of paying homage to a fictional knight bound by the ideals of chivalry and true love. But the landscapes I’d read about in Cervantes’s greatest novel were nothing but  flat and brown. A literal scorch of earth, true to the region’s name.

Three days later, I left the coast, shoes and jacket blackened from Las Fallas, and tilted back towards the heart of Castilla-La Mancha. The great hidalgo‘s “giants” were only a few hours away. I took my old, tired car, an allusion to the old, tired steer, Rocinante, with me.

The drive should have been easy enough: the Autovía de Este until it met the Autovía del Sur and a few minutes’ drive west to Consuegra, where eight or ten windmills stand guard on a jagged crest of mountain, crowned by a medieval castle.

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.

Per Trevor’s suggestion, I wanted to stop first in Alcázar de San Juan, home to a number of beautifully restored windmills that wouldn’t be run over with tourists. Spit out from the Contreras Reservoir that naturally separates La Mancha from the Comunitat Valenciana, the radio frequency suddenly switched to a CD, and soon the Eagles (could there be a more perfect band for a road trip?) were running through my stereo.

I calculated I had enough gas and my bladder could make it the 200 kilometers to San Juan. It was an easy jaunt on the A-3 until Tomelloso, where I’d hop onto the CM-42.

Maybe it was the Eagles or the long, flat, endless journey down the motorway, but I turned onto the wrong highway at Atalaya del Cañavate. As someone who uses landmarks to mark the way, the names of towns, echoing old battlegrounds and ruined castles, began to seem foreign. Stopping in Alamarcha, my phone confirmed what I’d suspected for several dozen kilometers: I’d gotten myself lost.

But the giants were calling, and I wasn’t too far off the path. Monty-nante roared back to life, I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. We set off, a girl and her horsepower, to slay giants. Or, take some pictures of windmills before lunch. The allusions end there for a bit, lo prometo.

Like our Quixotic hero, I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what lay ahead. As soon as I’d gotten on the CM-420, the long, straight highways became curls around hills, between cherry and almond groves and without a soul or engine in sight. The brown patches of earth were immediately lush and covered in alfalfa, dewey from the previous day’s rain, and full of low, stout grapevines. I pulled over and turned off my GPS, happy to sit in near silence as Monty’s tires shifted effortlessly around curves. After all, this was as adventurous as my Holy Week travels would be.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

I began climbing a hill at what I believed to be halfway to San Juan. Just below the cusp, I saw the stationary arm of a giant – a set of windmills protect the town of Mota del Cuervo. We nudged our way towards them, standing in a solitary row of six or eight.

Windmills in Castilla

molinos at mota del cuervo, la mancha

Windmill landscape

The tourism office was closed and my car was the only one parked in the ample gravel lot. I had the giants to myself, and I practically squealed. Lately I’ve been feeling jaded as I travel in Spain, as if nothing else can ever impress me the way that laying eyes on the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal did; but feeling the wind whip by my ears as I looked across the scorched Manchego plain reminded me that, yes, there is still plenty of Spain to discover.

But I had to press on, to not let perception or kilometers or a low phone battery squash my dream of seeing Consuegra when I was this close. I drove right past San Juan and its beautiful windmills atop an olive tree grove crawling up the hillside. As soon as I’d crossed the A-4 highway some 40 kilometers later, the giants at Consuegra began to come into view, huddled around a castle.

windmills in my rearview mirror

The town itself was dusty and sleepy, as I’d expected. Streets had no names, rendering my GPS useless. Monty chugged slowly up the steep, barely-meter wide streets as old women swept street porches and clung to their door frames. Images of the old hidalgo became commonplace – bars named Chispa and La Panza de Sancho, souvenir shops touting wooden swords and images of windmills and an old warrior atop a barebones steed.

Rounding the final curve, a man waved his arms up and down, pleading me to stop and flagging me into a full parking lot. “It’s International Poetry Day,” he said, “and the molinos are closed to car traffic.” Closing my eyes and throwing the car into reverse, I consulted the day’s plan. After getting lost twice and being pulled over by a Guardia Civil, I had to make a decision: resign myself to hiking 500 meters up to the windmills as the clouds closed in ahead, or drive back down towards Andalucía for a winery tour in Valdepeñas.

I chose to buy a bottle of wine in the DO and call it a day. I had dreams and bucket list items to chase.

The windmills were barely visible, save a few solitary blades reaching over the rock face. After an entire morning searching for them, it was like they had stopped spinning, as if the proverbial wind had been blown out of my sails. And coupled with a bus full of tourists, they just didn’t have the wonder that the molinos and my moment of silence at Mota del Cuervo had.

Even the clouds overhead looked menacing and about to burst.

Panoramica molinos de Consuegra

Windmills at Consuegra

I hiked to the farthest point from the castle, to windmills bearing less common names and without selfie-stick toting tourists resting on the stoops. These windmills were decidedly less picturesque but somehow more authentic.

A View of Don Quixote's Giants

panorama of Don Quixote's windmills

Maybe it was a pipe dream to think I’d have the windmills all to myself for an hour of reflection. Maybe I thought they’d be bigger, like the giants I’d read about in high school. But like all things in the chronicle of the hidalgo, not everything is always as it seems. Feeling a bit dejected and pressed for time, I climbed back into Monty-nante, a true warrior after 1000 kilometers over four days, and took the autovía south.

“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

It’s been over a decade since I’ve studied abroad, and half a lifetime since we read an abridged version of Don Quixote junior year of high school. And it’s been just over four centuries since Miguel de Cervantes penned the closing chapter to a masterpiece that endures time and place.

Molinos de Consuegra

In high school, I remember thinking Don Quixote was a fool, a haggard old man with pájaros en la cabeza who should have listened to his trusted Sancho Panza. Feeling very much like a pícara myself at this moment, I had a car ride to reflect on things and my somewhat failed mission to fulfill a teenage dream.

After a few weeks that could very well change the Spain game, I couldn’t help thinking that the old man had a few things to remind me: about perspective, about the clarity in insanity and that failure is also a means to a happier ending.

EXHIBITION

Have you ever seen the windmills at Consuegra?

Five Things to Do in Madrid with Kids

It’s no secret that Madrid is one of my favorite cities to visit – I love the energy, the options and the closest a Spanish city can come to my native Chicago. But it can get overwhelming as a capital city (and one of the largest in Europe!), and even more so for children.

Madrid Plaza Mayor

The good news is that the Spanish child is rey in La Capi, and there are plenty of ways to keep them busy. What’s more, the activities, accommodations and even transportation deals, like flights from Expedia, can be cheap with minors, such as with Discountrue coupon deals. Once you’ve taken care of your finances, take a look at a few things that are niño-friendly in Madrid – or just perfect for your kid-at-heart self!

Zoo Aquarium (M: Casa del Campo, Lines 5 and 10)

This is not your ordinary zoo or aquarium, and your children will love to see animals roaming about without any chains or wiring. Those who are planning to visit the amusement park located in Casa de Campo – a wonderful green lung not too far from the Royal Palace – will be happy to learn that the Zoo Aquarium is located within the city limits and on public transportation lines. The animals are kept separate from the public by moats filled with water (and some that are not).

There are more than 500 different species of animals who call the Zoo home, including many animals native to the Iberian peninsula. The Zoo is making efforts at conservation to build populations of animals like the Iberian Lynx and Iberian Hawk.

Parque Warner (Cercanías C-3 to Pinto and bus 413 to the park)

What’s a summer vacation without an amusement park? Parque Warner is a wonderful destination for the child who loves cartoons, as all of their favorite Looney Tunes characters will be roaming around and signing autographs. If your kid is more of daredevil type, they will have six different roller coasters to choose from. Water rides are available too, and of course, there are a multitude of gift shops. Theaters and workshops provide visitors with a number of different shows to choose from as well.

The park is located 25 kilometers south of Madrid and package deals are the best way to save money.

Natural Science Museum (M: Gregorio Marañón, Lines 7 and 10)

Natural History Museum

A great destination for children and adults alike, given Spain’s long history. Kids are bound to enjoy all of the dinosaur fossils, while parents tend to take in the extinct animal specimens – there are 6,000! There are three separate zones to choose from and a plethora of activities that are geared specifically toward children. Parents can bring their little ones to educational workshops and have some free time to enjoy the remainder of the museum, a great rainy day activity.

Note that the museum is closed on Mondays. Children under 16 also have reduced ticket prices.

El Retiro and Madrid’s expansive parks (M: Retiro, Line 2)

Looking to have fun outdoors? In this case El Retiro, Madrid’s most famous park, is the perfect. The possibilities for children are endless, as they can choose from a variety of fun activities. They can bring their bicycles and roller blades that have started to collect dust in some forgotten corner of the house or take a relaxing boat ride on El Retiro’s pond, conveniently located in the center of the gardens.

The city has many other green areas near the city center, like Parque del Oeste and the free Egyptian temple, Templo del Debob.

Cuarta Pared, Teatro Sanpol and Other Children’s Theaters

Madrid’s multitude of children’s theaters provide a wonderful entertainment for the child who enjoys plays and musicals – and the city is famous for theatre. The shows are typically put on during weekend mornings and tickets cost far less than most adult activities. Teatro del Arte and La Escalera de Jacob also stage their own shows for children and you’ll have a wide range of magic shows, funny stories and puppet based performances to select from!

You can find shows and workshops on Teatro a Teatro‘s interactive guide.

Bonus: three ways to save euros if you have kids and are traveling in Spain

metro of Madrid

If Madrid is only one stop on your travel itinerary, check out Renfe’s table option. You can get a discount on a bundle of four tickets by choosing a tarifa mesa.

Museums have free or reduced prices days, as do some attractions. Stop by the Tourism Office in Plaza Mayor for free maps, discount cards and hints at saving money.

Hotels in Madrid typically offer discounted rates for families with children of a certain age (typically 4-16), and AirBnB properties will give you the freedom to cook your own meals and relax. You can also try its European-specific equivalent, Wimdu.

Five Things to do in

What do you do with kids in Madrid? If you liked this post, you can consider purchasing it on GPSMyCity, a GPS-enabled tour guide that’s available offline. Your euros go right back to helping this site stay up and running!

I’ve also got a post on what to do with kids in Seville.

Spain Snapshots: the Monastery of Yuste in Extremadura

When I announced that I’d won a writing contest and had a free weekend’s stay in a luxury apartment in Trujillo, the Novio had one condition: that we could also explore the Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Yuste, the place where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V went to die.

Ya sabes,” he said, not looking away from the TV, “that’s my plan, too.” To die in the countryside, that is, away from civilization with nothing more than warm air and mountains in front of him – NOT in Yuste.

Visiting the Monasterio de Yuste

For a history nerd like my boyfriend, the monastery where one of Spain’s most important rulers spent his final years was a must-see on our pilgrimage through the extremeño countryside. We’d been wowed at the Guadalupe Monastery after being lost for several hours, and I was enchanted by Trujillo’s medieval streets (and its stinky torta del casar cheese), but Yuste was not as thrilling as we expected.

I mean, the place has a ton of history: built in the 15th Century by Hieronymite monks and nestled between almond trees and rocky mountain peaks, the monastery has both renaissance and gothic architecture, quiet patios and allegories in classical literature.

inner courtyards of yuste

Yuste Extremadura

In fact, it was here that the Holy Roman Emperor chose to retire after abdicating the throne to Philip II (my favorite royal Spanish personality, thanks mostly to his silly hat and stockings), seeking peace and prayer in his final days. Ceded to the Spanish government after the Civil War, it was restored in the 1950s.

As the monarch that spearheaded Spain’s globalization of language, religion and culture, Yuste would be a must-visit for anyone who loves Spanish history.

Right from the beginning, I felt corralled as guides asked my to move along from the ticket counter (and, ouch, 9€!) through a small gift shop and to the first interior patio, which stood on the northern side of the chapel. As I snapped pictures, a blue-clad security guard cleared his throat behind me and motioned for me to move into the sanctuary.

gardens yuste

monastery at yuste

If Carlos V was looking for peace and quiet, he certainly wouldn’t have found it in the modern day monastery, and I couldn’t help feeling cramped during our brief visit. 

Perhaps the most interesting part were the royal apartments, built just a few years before Carlos V’s death so that the Emperor would have a view to the altar and feel the fresh afternoon breezes blow through. The torture device-looking chair that he was carried in on his final journey was also placed in the corner of the room facing expansive gardens to the south.

It was hard to imagine the tranquility he felt with so many families around chattering, so we beelined out of the bare rooms and into the warm March sunshine.

Carlos V apartments yuste

yuste monastery extremadura

The Novio, even more disappointed that it took us twice as long to get to Cuacos de Yuste and the monastery as it did to tour it, had one suggestion: let’s find the nearest town and the nearest bar, and enjoy the almond blossoms on a terrace.

If you go: The Monasterio de San Jerónimo de Yuste is located in the village of Cuacos de Yuste in northern Extremadura, making it accessible from Cáceres and Madrid. The site is open every day but Mondays from 10am, and tickets cost a whopping 9€. For more information, check the Patrimonio Nacional’s website. Carlos V has been resting besides his son in San Lorenzo de El Escorial for centuries, and that monastery is definitely worth a visit.

Want more Extremadura? Trujillo Villas | Guadalupe | Garganta de la Olla

Prefer to read about places I’m iffy about? Barcelona | Setenil de las Bodegas | Luarca

Have you ever visited a historical site in Spain? Or a place that fell short of expectations?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Madrid

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collage

Admittedly, Madrid and I did not get off to a very good start. I’d already been in Valladolid on a study abroad program for a month, and we were rushed around the capital for ten hours – we visited Plaza de España, Plaza de la Villa, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol and the Prado Museum, and then were given a mere free hour to see something else. I found the capital uninviting, lifeless and a bit dull (Tens-Years-Later Me is kind of mad that I could have cared less about seeing the Prado because I just wanted an ice cream cone).

Over time, Madrid became more than just a stopover between flights for me – I spend more time in La Capital than elsewhere in Spain, have friends and family there and find the city to be the injection of urban life that I need every so often. 

Name: La Comunidad de Madrid

Population: The urban area of Madrid itself is the third largest urban area in Europe, with over 6.3 million inhabitants. 

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2000px-Madrid_in_Spain.svg

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in the Spanish capital.

When: 3rd of 17, June 2005

About La Comunidad de Madrid: Located smack dab in the middle of the country, the autonomous community named for its capital city is one of Spain’s most illustrious, and usually a place where visitors hit.

Before the mid 16th Century, the city of Madrid was little more than a speck on the map and a town principally known in the farming trade. Felipe II (Spain’s greatest monarch because of his choice of haberdashery) moved the capital from Valladolid and made Madrid the center of his extensive empire, as the area had long been a favorite for nobles and was geographically sound.

Long before becoming Spain’s most important city, Madrid had inhabitants dating from Lower Paleolithic and saw a surge in population during the Roman Empire when it formed part of Lusitania. Populaton and importance fell once the Visigoths moved in.

El Oso y el Madroño

Because of its location, sandwiched between the Castilles and Al-Andalus, the region saw power change hands between Christians and Moors – in fact, the name comes from Arabic Mayrit and originated around the 9th Century, forming part of Al-Andalus until the 1083 reconquest allocated it to the Castillian kingdom, where it had territorial independence.

Madrid began to grow after its appointment as the seat of the Kingdom of Spain, and in the 1830s, a province of the same name was founded, shifting the political strong arm from Toledo. This act eventually led to a dispute between the pre-establish autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha and its northern neighbor, and the Comunidad de Madrid was, in fact, the last of 17 to be created.

Must-sees: Dios, what shouldn’t you see in Madrid? It seriously has something for everyone and is Spain’s pulsing, passionate heart.

Within the capital, there are an abundance of world-class museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen make up the so-called ‘Art Circle’ – as well as historical sites like the Royal Palace and adjacent Almudena cathedral. Spain’s version of Broadway is here. The government sets up shop in Moncloa. Every national highway passes through the Puerta del Sol. The Buen Retiro park is captivating at any change of the season.

mercado de san miguel pintxos madrid

Dining in Madrid is an absolute treat as well, from its typical taverns serving up fried calamari and grilled pig’s ear to swanky gastrobars and fusion restaurants. In Madrid, I get all of my favorite international cuisines, like Thai and Korean, and it’s a place where Old Man bars are the real deal – and vivan las tapas gratis (I don’t care if they’re day-old microwaved bravas – free is free!) If you’re new to Spanish gastronomy, consider a tapas tour or sip a vermouth while feasting your eyes and tummy on a food market.

Toledo Spain

If you’re able, consider a day trip out of the capital. Segovia and Toledo, two medieval cities, are on the cercanías commuter line, as is Alcalá de Henares, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and birthplace of Spain’s own Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes. You can also check out delightfully charming towns like Chinchón or Buitrago, contemplate Spain’s Golden age at El Escorial or reflect on its darkest days at Valle de Los Caídos. If sport is more your thing, the comunidad has loads of hiking trails and a ski resort.

My take:  While most who have made Spain their home claim that there’s far more to Iberia than its capital (I myself am of this camp), there’s no sense in skipping it. Madrid has everything – culture, art, gastronomy, nightlife and a handful of day trips. If Puerta del Sol is Kilometer 0, the rest of Spain seems to spiral around it.

metro of Madrid

I’ve probably spent more than two months in Madrid collectively and in every season. After exhausting all of the touristic options, one of my favorite things to do is pick a neighborhood and spend time popping in and out of shops, sampling treats at bakeries and sitting in sun-filled cafés.

Madrid always seems to embrace me when I’m there, even if it’s just a quick trip to El Diamante for a bocadillo de calamares before hopping a plane back home. I know Malasaña and La Latina as well as I know Barrio Santa Cruz, can name Metro stops and their corresponding colored lines and beeline right to my favorite international food joints. Madrid is an old, familiar pair of blue jeans for me. But the trendy kind.

Outside of Seville, it’s probably the only place I’d willingly move to in a heartbeat.

Have you ever traveled around the Madrid province? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia | La Rioja

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