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A week-end in Menorca: a few good tips for an unforgettable escape

 

Menorca is a magnificent island, offering turquoise water inlets, white sand, excellent fish restaurants and charming hotels, all of which are a perfect combo for two-three day trip. Here are some tips that will save you time if you’re planning a visit.

Guesthouses: two excellent addresses
Tres Sants hotel is located in the very center of Ciutadella. The decor is tasteful and refined and it only houses 8 bedrooms , which makes it fully booked most of the time. Make a reservation way ahead your trip.
Ses Sucreries is located in Ferreries. Not a particularly interesting village, although well situated in the center of the island, for hose who plan on trekking. The French owner also decorated it simply and tastefully. Breakfast is lovely and prices are more affordable than Tres Sants.

Two good restaurants 
Restaurante Trébol at Es Castell. Two good reasons to eat there. The first is that you will find at Es Castell’s charming little port, close to Mahon, and the second is that it has very fresh and well-prepared fish on its menu. The service is first class (although we have to admit we were there at low season!).
S'amarador, at Ciutadella’s port is also excellent value. You may dine out on the terrace or in the inner patio, all well decorated. Fish is excellent and the “arroces”, to die for!

Where to have a drink?
Cova d'en Xoroi. A very famous bar and night club up on a cliff full of very old dug galleries. Quite a touristic place, although having a glass there at sunset is a must! 

Some extraordinary inlets
What’s lovely about Menorca is that you can go from one inlet to the other by taking a walking path usually along the sea. Here are three walks leading to unmissable inlets.
Cala Galdana - Cala Macarella - Cala Macarelleta - Cala Turqueta
Park your car at Cala Galdana and walk from inlet to inlet until la Cala Turqueta. Take a bag of food with you because the restaurant at cala Macarella is not really a stop (bad location and food). Crystal-clear, breathtaking water!
Sant Tomás - Platges de Binigaus - Cala Escorxada
Sant Tomás’ beach is not really interesting but we highly recommend a drink at the restaurant located all the way to the right. Then you may take a walk along the sea and the beautiful and long Binigaus beach until Cala Escorxada. The path is gorgeous all the way. 
Cala Mitjana
Probably the most beautiful of all with its white cliff overlooking turquoise water, its fine white sand and rocks that are an excellent alternative if the beach gets too crowded. To get ther, park at Cala Galdana and take a path that will lead to this extraordinary inlet in about fifteen minutes.

 

Alcalá de Henares

Just a half hour drive east of Madrid is the municipality of Alcalá de Henares. The city boasts a number of historic titles including being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the first university of Spain, and the birthplace of Spanish poet, playwright, and novelist Miguel de Cervantes.

The historical importance of Alcalá de Henares is strongly based in its prestigious position within the Golden Age of Spain as a hub for intellectuals after the creation of Spain’s first university, Universitas Complutensis, in the 15th century. Although the university has since moved to Madrid, the original university center structure known as the Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso is still used in accordance with the city’s strong scholarly tradition, including for the honorable presentation of the Cervantes Prize for Literature. The complex still boasts classrooms from the original structure as well as Renaissance and Baroque courtyards and cloisters. The 16th century Plateresque façade of the building was designed and built by some of the most skilled carvers of the time. Within proximity to the university is the site of the Colegio del Rey, now the Cervantes Institute responsible for the development and dissemination of the Castilian language, but was once the building to which the family’s of the king’s attendants would send their children to study. The preserved historic city center displays the grandeur of life during the Golden Age as the streets of the old quarter are lined with Colegios Mayores, student residence halls from the 16th and 17th centuries that have been transformed into restaurants and hotels. One of particular note is the Colegio Menor de San Jerónimo, now part of the Parador hotel network, with its Trilingual Courtyard, so named after the study of languages that takes place there, that was built in the 16th century according to the Renaissance and Mudéjar styles. The establishment’s restaurant is a great location to try the local Castilian cuisine amongst the facilities colonnades and garden.

No visit would be complete without sitting for a moment within the Plaza de Cervantes, named after the famed author of Don Quixote. Within the plaza one can sit back and enjoy the city’s architectural heritage, with many of the surrounding buildings constructed to the guidelines of the romantic style.

If becoming better acquainted with the Miguel de Cervantes is your desired agenda the Casa de Cervantes provides free entry to anyone desiring to tour the literary master’s birthplace and residence.

Although the city has a distinctly unique past linking it to the scholarly Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, the land on which Alcalá de Henares has been erected on has ties back to the Roman Empire. Roman ruins of the original city called Complutum have been excavated and are available for viewing, in particular at the House of Hippolytus, with preserved mosaics from an old estate, and the Monumental Complex Forum, where you can tour the ancient forum of the city.

Alcalá de Henares can be reached by bus, train or car. Both the C-2 and C-7 from Atocha Renfe or Estación de Chamartín will deliver travelers to this destination. Buses can be caught at the Avenida de América. However, a much more entertaining and educational way of reaching and touring the city is on the Tren de Cervantes (available only on weekends during the spring and autumn) on which guides donning attire from the Golden Age accompany passengers.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Seated 50 km from Madrid, within the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama, travelers will find the township of San Lorenzo de El Escorial along the slopes of Mount Abantos. Originally an agricultural and livestock settlement, interests by the monarchy in the mid sixteenth century have transformed the once isolated farming village into the UNESCO World Heritage Site and cultural learning center it is today.

The lifeline of the township is the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. With its commission by Felipe II the town grew as artisans and workers on the monastery settled in the area, thus to speak of the town is to speak of the monastery.  What Felipe II originally envisioned as a memorial for his royal family and to commemorate the Battle of San Quintin in France, has grown to be a complex of over 4,000 rooms, courtyards, fountains, cloisters and towers. Designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo and built by Juan de Herrera, it is considered an architectural wonder and is the foundation from which San Lorenzo de El Escorial’s Herrerian (Castilian Baroque) architectural heritage stems. A tour of the complex (17€) will lead you through the Courtyard of the Kings of Judea, the Basilica, the Royal Pantheon, the Pantheon of the Infantes and the Palace of the Bourbons. The basilica is considered a must see as it is inspired by and modeled after Saint Peters in the Vatican City. The Royal Pantheon is the final resting place of all but two of Spain’s sovereigns and is a spectacle of jasper, gold and marble. The Pantheon of the Infantes houses the remains of princes, infants, and queens who never bore royal children. Throughout the monastery as well as in the Museum of Architecture, which contains important documents relating to the construction of the monastery, the impressive Hapsburg art collection is on display with masterpieces from Goya, El Greco, Ribera, Titan, and Velasquez (just to name a few). If you can arrange a tour, the monastery’s private library will certainly be a treat for book lovers and historians, in particular the golden-penned Códice Aureo that is housed there. Within the gardens and parkland surrounding the monastery are the Casita del Príncipe and the Casita del Infante.

The town itself is divided into two parts, the lower part including the train station, and upper portion surrounding the monastery. Places of note to visit while on higher ground are the King’s Stables, housing the royal family’s carriages and horses for when they visit, and the Cottage of the Infante, originally built as a reprieve for the Infante Don Gabriel de Bourbon from court life and protocol that now offers splendid views of San Lorenzo for visitors. In addition, the Silla de Felipe (Philip’s Seat) marks the spot where the king would sit and watch from afar the construction of the monastery.

In addition to its royal past, San Lorenzo de El Escorial has held a prestigious position in the world of university education since the late-19th century and is considered a valued hub of cultural learning. Every summer both Spanish and international students attend courses of the Madrid Complutense University at the Euroforum Infantes, a building boasting magnificent views and a historic-artistic monument title.

The lower portion of the city offers plenty of dining options serving up traditional Castilian mountain cuisine. Be certain to try the grilled cooked Guadarrama mountain beef as your main entre.    

Travelers can reach the town by car, bus or train. Cercanias trains leave from the Atocha hourly on the weekends and 27 times daily on weekdays. Buses can be boarded at the Moncloa interchange.

A tourism office is located at C/Grimaldi 2. Comfortable walking shoes are advisable.

Aranjuez

A trip by train or car 42 km south of Madrid will bring travelers to the township of Aranjuez. As a UNESCO World Heritage site there is plenty of history entwined into the city’s layout, including the Royal Palace of Aranjuez (9€ for an unguided tour), the acting summer getaway for the royal family since the mid-1500s styled to the wishes of Queen Isabella II and boasting incredibly unique porcelain and smoking rooms, as well as a Plaza de Toros from the 18th century, one of a few still standing from that time (call ahead to schedule a guided tour of the facilities and museum). Yet, it is perhaps the remnants of the town’s lavish Hapsburg and Bourbon royal past that make it one of the best and most easily accessible places outside of Madrid to enjoy a relaxing afternoon.

What visitors to Aranjuez today encounter are wide avenues, bountiful gardens, and gangos, restaurants lining the Tagus River serving up the famous earthy local cuisine, with cooking traditions rooted in the hunts of the monarchy and fresh picked produce (of particular note are Aranjuez’s strawberries, asparagus, pheasant and rabbit). Aranjuez’s historical importance dates back to the Roman Empire, on through the Catholic Monarchs (Aranjuez was deemed an official royal site by Ferdinand and Isabella as it was their preferred summer destination). However, what visitors see today of the city’s historical past began taking shape under the direction of Ferdinand VI. During his reign the age of enlightenment began to take shape and ideas such as the balance between man and nature and harmony began to dictate daily thought. It was under these considerations that the royal gardens of Aranjuez were designed. The three main gardens-the Jardín de la Isla, Jardín del Parterre, Jardín del Príncipe-really make Aranjuez a spectacular and relaxing daytrip destination out of Madrid. Jardín de la Isla boasts a wooded forest with long walking avenues interspersed with fountains and statues of Greek mythology. Jardín del Parterre is filled with exotic and blooming flora encircling large fountains of water. Lastly, Jardín del Príncipe, spanning 3 km, offers a luxuriant walk through grand walkways under a diverse tree line. Within this large garden’s gates are the Casa del Labrador and Falúas Museum, the former a fine example of construction from the Bourbon dynasty and the latter a museum holding the sailing vessels and carriages of the royal family throughout the centuries. In addition, natural reservoirs and historic groves and walks make the Jardín del Príncipe a fine place to pass away an afternoon. In particular are the Mar de Ontígola, a safe haven for aquatic birds and riverside flora, and Regajal, a highly regarded butterfly reserve.

A tourism stand near the entrance of the Royal Palace provides free maps and information on site seeing and prices throughout the city. In addition, for 5€ you can aboard a local train that will tour you through the major sites and gardens of the city.

Aranjuez is reachable by car, however the Cercanias C3, which can be picked up at either the Sol or Atocha metro stops, serves its train stop. But a real treat is the Tren de la Fresa (Strawberry train), leaving from Atocha to Aranjuez on which the famous strawberries of Aranjuez are served by azafatas donning period style garments. The train takes you to varying monuments throughout the city and offers discounts at certain sites.

Aranjuez has a number of special festivities that take place throughout the year and these celebrations often present the best opportunity to enjoy the traditions of the township. During the month of September the city hosts a month long fair, originally meant to celebrate the end of harvest and to entertain the monarchs, and a restaging of the Mutiny of Aranjuez is enacted. Near that time, the Pirate Descent of the River Tagus takes place, a large spectacle where locals sail down the Tagus in vibrant vessels while onlookers cheer them on. The Celebrations of Saint Ferdinand, the townships patron saint, take place on May 30, during which the local traditions of bullfighting and artistry are displayed and celebrated within the streets of Aranjuez.

Segovia: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Perhaps it’s Segovia’s panoramic setting at the at the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama that gives the city it’s elegance and charm. Perhaps it’s the rolling golden hills that surround it. Perhaps it’s the city’s location at the convergence of the Eresma and Clamores Rivers, springing forth a lush, green landscape supporting an ecosystem of wild, budding flowers and pines. Or perhaps it’s the city’s warm terracotta roofs, gentle sandstone hued buildings, and decorative towers set in contrast to such graceful natural settings that make the city seem magical when looked upon. Regardless, the sight of Segovia, from afar or from within its both historical and contemporary streets and plazas, is one to be taken in with relish and with leisure.

Quintessential to any trip to the small town of Segovia are visits to the town’s three larger-than-life historical remnants. Each landmark in its own right attests to the city’s long and important role in the world’s history, garnering it the honor as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The oldest of these remnants is an enormous Roman Aqueduct dating back to the first century A.D. highlighting both the presence of the Roman Empire on the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the splendor and ingenuity of Roman engineering. Making its course through the center of town the massive structure of arches dwarfs the surrounding buildings. The structure has persevered throughout the centuries and is one of the best preserved in all of Europe. Walking along the Avenida Fernandez Ladreda one can enjoy a meal, shop, or simply gaze in the splendor of this dramatic ancient ruin. A set of stairs on the Northwest end of the aqueduct will lead you to some of the most magnificent panoramic views of the aqueduct, the city and its natural surroundings.

Meander through the upper streets that splay out at the top of the stairs and you’ll eventually make your way to Plaza Mayor, an elegant square where you can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee while people watching throughout the lively square. However, don’t let the light heartedness of the square fool you; this is the same plaza where Isabella was crowned the first Queen of Spain making it a historical landmark in its own right. Situated in the far corner of the Plaza Mayor lies another one of the city’s major UNESCO World Heritage landmarks, La Santa Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Seńora de la Asunción y de San Frutos de Segovia, also known as la Dama de las Catedrales (The Lady of Cathedrals). Gazing upon its stunning facade you understand why it is considered a masterpiece of Basque-Castilian Gothicism. Housed in its walls is the first-ever printed book in Spain dating back to 1472. There is an entrance fee for the cathedral, with additional costs to enter its adjoining museum.

To the far north-west of the city stands the Alcázar de Segovia, the iconic castle rumored to have inspired the original Sleeping Beauty castle designed by Walt Disney standing today at California’s Disneyland in the United States. It was in this castle that Queen Isabella first met her future husband and king, Ferdinand II of Aragon. This UNESCO World Heritage site has an entrance fee as well. Once inside you’ll have the opportunity to see first-hand the luxuries of the Spanish medieval court life as well as take in lovely views of the surrounding hillsides and rooftops. Pay an extra fee and you can climb to the top of one of the castle’s unique towers.  A walk along the Erasmus riverfront also offers a gratifying opportunity to view the Alcázar and the city’s other historical buildings from afar.

Aside from the city’s three main historical landmarks, there are a number of museums and churches to explore throughout Segovia. To lend the wandering visitor a hand, signs have been placed throughout the pedestrian-only streets to offer directions to any of the city’s historical, cultural, or artistic destinations. While wandering the streets from location to location you’ll find a variety of retail stores through which you can leisurely stroll and entertain yourself.

Segovia also offers up a lot in eateries, with plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from. Local cuisine is keen to La Granja broad beans, roast lamb, and Castilian soup. However, the true spotlight seems to fall on the suckling pig with a number of the restaurants windows proudly displaying their version of the cooked piglet.

Wearing comfortable walking shoes is highly advised.

Toledo: The Land of Three Cultures

Meandering through Toledo’s winding, labyrinth like streets one gains full appreciation of this medieval Spanish city’s diverse history. Nicknamed the land of three cultures, historical surprises, paying tribute to the combined influence of the Moors, Jews and Christians, await Toledo’s visitors around every corner and bend in the road.

There are no lack of historical sites to visit, keep an eye open for signs that indicate ruins and historical sites not indicated on the map. Do not miss the chance to walk through the Catedral Primada Santa Maria de Toledo and enjoy its French influenced gothic design that will leave you breathless. Facilitating the wealth of history of Toledo are a surplus of museums, ranging in subject from the three cultures that presided in the city to the El Greco, housing the great works of the Spanish Renaissance artist El Greco who found inspiration in Toledo’s surrounding areas. In addition, monasteries, covenants, synagogues, mosques and medieval architecture in the form of castles and bridges offer their own unique spin on the Toledo culture.

However, the experience of Toledo does not end with its history. Upon wandering its streets you’ll find a surplus of shopping, ranging from clothing and jewelry to souvenir shops that are home to unique gifts characteristic of Toledo, particularly highlighting its history of craftsman sword production. Be sure to take a moment to appreciate the world famous Damascene handicrafts, hailing from Toledo’s Moorish past, which have become the city’s main artisanal product. If you’re lucky you may wander upon a local craftsman in the process of designing one of the wares, still utilizing the ancient technique of inlaying gold or silver threads on non-precious metals in meticulous and intricate designs. These designs are then placed in a fire, oxidizing the metal till it becomes black, but leaving the gold or silver to shine brilliantly in contrast.

Last, but surely not least what seems like the city’s expansive and never-ending views. At sunset you will not be disappointed. It is highly recommended to climb several flights of stairs to the top of Iglesia de San Ildefonso to capture an awe-inspiring panorama of the city that inspires the name it holds, "the view from heaven."

Purchase a hand map of the city and be open to wandering the streets. Whichever path you choose in this city, you wont go wrong and you will find yourself partaking in a surplus of unexpected, but delightful experiences. Each corner of this city is a surprise waiting to be stumbled upon.

It is highly recommended to wear walking shoes. Toledo can be reached by bus or train from Madrid. Bus tours are an option for viewing the surroundings of the city, however due to the intricate and dense design of the cities they are not able to take visitors into the heart of the city.