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!

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

Málaga: Spain’s Sleeping Giant of Tourism

There’s a lot of buzz around Málaga these days. With a newly christened port, a thriving arts scene and enough Spanish charm to bring native son Antonio Banderas back yearly, my neighbor city to the southeast is being touted as one of Spain’s up-and-coming tourist destinations.

Why Visit Malaga

As one of the most interesting destinations in southern Spain and a true Mediterranean getaway, Málaga deserves mention among Spain’s best spots for international travelers. It’s not a bursting metropolis like Madrid or a renowned party spot like Barcelona—but it’s full of the kind of visual delights and general comforts that make the south of Spain a desirable location in the first place.

Perhaps the best thing about Málaga is that it’s situated closer to the sea than most might guess given that it’s a fairly large city. There are actually Mediterranean beaches within the city limits, though most tourists seeking beautiful coastline will likely opt to venture 15 or 20 miles beyond Málaga to some of the truly amazing beaches of Costa del Sol. Visit Costa Del Sol has a comprehensive guide to the beaches of the entire southern Spanish coastline, including options like La Malagueta, La Caleta, and San Andreas—all within very reasonable driving distance of the capital of the Costa.

It’s also worth noting that Málaga is particularly accessible as Mediterranean cities go. The drive from Madrid only takes about five hours (and from Seville, just over two!), and coastal highways make it easy to reach Málaga from just about any Spanish city near the water—or from Portugal, for that matter.

archidona malaga pueblo

The city is also large enough to merit an international airport and sometimes attracts very favorable travel deals from outside of Spain. Getting around is also easy once you’re in the city—a rental car gives you access to all of the beautiful surrounding areas and beaches with ease – as well as mountain towns and activities for outdoor enthusiasts.

But so far we’ve only covered Málaga’s surrounding beaches and how easy it can be to get there. The actually city itself is also filled with interesting perks for tourists. It’s one of the most fascinating visual and architectural areas in the whole country, thanks to its links to Moorish, medieval, and Roman culture. The Alcazaba palatial fortress is absolutely a must-visit attraction, and the Roman theater at city-center is also pretty fascinating. Really, Malaga is an interesting city to just look at, which might be one reason that there are multiple hiking trails in the hills and areas surrounding the city.

a cooking day food collage
And finally, there’s the food! I’ve written about a day of culinary preparation in Malaga, and while that was a great experience, it only touches on the vibrant culinary culture that has sprung up in the city, revolving around all the traditional elements of Spanish cuisine: tapas, fresh fish, olives, citrus fruits and of course, fine Spanish wine!

Sardine month is approaching and I can’t get enough sweet vino de pasas, so between defying death on the Caminito del Rey and the beckon of the beach, I may be finding myself close to home, savoring the city’s renewed experiences for a traveler.

Have you ever been to Málaga? What do you like or recommend visiting in the capital of the Costa del Sol?

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. 

madrid_flag

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

Tapa Thursday: Vermouth

vermouth in Spain

My biggest ambition in life is to become a Spanish abuelo. Who wouldn’t want to spend the days leisurely reading a paper in the bar down the street, sucking down a vermouth while looking adorable? I’ve already got the vermouth obsession down, after all.

My first taste of vermouth was actually on a food tour. I didn’t think I’d learn anything I didn’t know about Spanish cuisine, but an early stop at the Mercado de San Miguel’s vermouth bar proved that I had a lot to learn, and a new favorite beverage.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Vermouth is making a comeback hard in Spain, much like G&Ts not so long ago. Pop-up bars called vermuterías, tastings and pairings and even the Adrià brothers of El Bullí fame are spearheading a sort of vermouth renaissance. While this beverage never really disappeared, it’s become the drink of choice for hipsters and for me anytime I’m in Madrid or Barcelona.

On my last trip to the Ciudad Condal, I happened upon a small bottega, or local watering hole, where vermouth was poured from a tap in the wall. No frills, no sky-high price tag, despite being a mere 150 meters from tourist hell. The girl behind the bar filled my glass, shoved a few mussels and a toothpick my way and charged me 1,85€. Other patrons trickled in, drinking the sweet wine by the glass or simply asking the bar keep to fill up old water bottles. 

The Novio even came back from the capital with a gift from my soon-to-be familia política recently: a bottle of vermouth with its flavorless soda water.

Vermouth at Cafe Comercial

What it is:  Fortified wine has been drunk for more than three millennia, often for medicinal purposes. Its name comes from the German ‘wermut,’ or wormwood,  

At its most basic, vermouth is a young fortified wine brewed with aromatic herbs like cardamom and and cinnamon and occasionally its namesake, wormwood. Sweet varieties also contain a fair amount of sugar – around 20% – whereas dry vermouths contain less than 4%.

Goes great with: Vermouths come in sweet and dry varieties, but salty snacks like potato chips, cured meats, olives or mussels in azabeche sauce are tart and will offset the sweetness or bring out the dry flavors. Typically, vermouth is consumed much like fino sherry wine in the South – as a before-meal drink, and most often at the weekend.

Where to find it in Seville: I have yet to find vermouth anywhere but the grocery store, and even then, it’s commercially branded martini mixes. I’ve yet to try smaller specialty shops, though sherry seems to be preferred to vermouth in these parts. You can find it for sale in 2.5 liter jugs at Bodegas Salado in nearby Umbrete for 7,20€.

 Are you a vermouth drinker? Any preferred watering holes, whether in Seville or further afield?

Is a Madrid Holiday Right for You?

You’re destined for Madrid – a city that’s vibrant but demure, traditional but avant-garde, a big city with a small-town feel.

Should I travel to Madrid

Ok, not that small, but per tradition, many madrileños stick to their neighborhood, making Europe’s third largest city feel like an overgrown village.

Madrid is a city that’s got one foot firmly planted in the past and the other, striding forward in the future. From its humble beginnings as a farming town to a bustling capital, this city of more than three million is Spain’s financial and cultural hub, boasting world-class museums, stellar nightlife and plenty of Spanish charm.

Madrid Plaza Mayor

Madrid truly is a haven for just about anyone – if you flipar for art, Madrid has three of Spain’s most celebrated museums. The Reina Sofia is an enormous contemporary arts collection, including Picassos’s celebrate “Guernica.” The Museo Nacional del Prado boasts fine art from Velázquez, Murillo, el Greco and Goya – and those are just the Spanish painters. The private collection at the Thyssen is also noteworthy, and the three make up the Triángulo del Arte perched on the east side of the center. Then add the dozens of playhouses, a world-class symphony and flamenco shows, and you’ll have an art hangover.

If gastronomy is more your flavor, La Capital has plenty of them to choose from. Visitors absolutely must make a stop to the Mercado de San Miguel for an introduction to the art of tapas, washed down with a glass of wine. The city has several fine dining establishments, as well as hole-in-the-wall favorites. The unofficial snack? A fried calamari sandwich from El Brillante, situated just in front of the Atocha train station.

tapas at mercado de san miguel

Shopping lovers should head to Gran Vía or Calle Fuencarral for specialty shops, or catch the el Rastro flea market on Sunday mornings in the La Latina neighborhood. History buffs will love Madrid’s traces of the Hapsburg and Borbón dynasties, its Egyptian temple and the sprawling palace.

Madrid is also a great landing point for visiting other points of Spain and other parts of Europe – all of Spain’s major highways begin and are measured from Puerta del Sol, which also hosts an enormous party on New Year’s.

Madrid Typical Bars

My advice? Ditch your map and choose a neighborhood. Stop into wood-paneled bars for a caña, or small draft beer, a slice of fluffy potato omelet and a taste of Old Madrid. Café Comercial, despite rubbing elbows with some of the city’s hippest bars and boutiques in Malasaña, is a great spot for jazz, great service and a sweet vermouth, a gato’s drink of choice. Or, head to trendy Alonso Martínez and window shop. Take a stroll in the Buen Retiro park and admire Gran Vía when dusk falls before dancing in a disco until six in the morning and ending the night with churros and chocolate at the city’s most loved churros place, Chocolatería San Gines.

I have to admit that Madrid and I got off to a rocky start – I found it a bit too sprawling, too presumptuous and too full of itself. Local gatos, as they’re called, steered clear of tourist-packed Sol and the streets spiraling out from it, and it was a sticky hot day.

metro of Madrid

But once I’d moved to Spain, Madrid became a frequent stopover on flights back home to Chicago. I take the train up for conferences and concerts, to visit friends and new babies. Slowly, the madrileño vibe oozed into my heart, and it’s now one of my favorite weekend destinations in Spain. 

Should you travel to Madrid? Sin duda – it’s one of Europe’s most complete destinations.

Please check out this quiz to see if going to Madrid is right for you. Wyndham Resorts that are in Spain could be great for your next holiday vacation to get away from the normal and visit the extraordinary.

This post was brought to you by Wyndham Resorts, but my MAD love for Madrid is all my own.

I’ll be spending quite a few weekends in Madrid as the Novio works there for a few months. I’m looking for hidden gems to add to my list of favorites, so leave me comments below por fi!

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