Toledo

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning.

If you do visit Madrid, I highly recommend you take a day out to also explore Toledo. There aren’t many destinations that make me literally say ‘wow’, but Toledo is definitely on that list.

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We booked the bus excursion to Toledo with Sandemans. At €25 per person, it’s definitely not the cheapest way to get there (if you’re travelling on a budget, I’m pretty sure there’s a direct train) but I would highly recommend it. When we arrived in Toledo, we were joined on our bus by an excellent tour guide. She took us on a panoramic drive of the city outskirts first, and then walked us into the city for a much more detailed tour. Myself and my friend were the only two non-Spanish speakers, but the guide went out of her way to translate everything so we didn’t miss a thing.

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Toledo wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The ancient city, one of the most impressive I’ve seen, sits atop a hill and inside thick city walls. At the bottom of the hill, the river further protects the city. You can try Europe’s longest urban zip line over the gorge. I did feel a little pride when I noticed the ‘urban’ had been recently added to the promotional material, the longest overall zip line in Europe now being in North Wales.

The very modern escalator that takes you from the bus station up to the top of the hill seems very out of place in the ancient city, but the majority of people wouldn’t have any breath left to explore anything if they had to take the steps instead.

If you’re particularly into religious history, you’ll love Toledo. And if you’re not, it’s lovely just to get lost in the narrow streets and wander.

Top tip – there are some lovely wine bars on the back streets of Toledo where you can taste some incredible, and very cheap wines. Also, there aren’t really vegan options in Toledo (the one and only vegetarian restaurant has closed), so you might want to take some food along with you.

El Retiro Park

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Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read from the beginning. 

Although I live in a city, and I enjoy visiting cities, I also quite often need to get away from all the hustle and bustle. Every good city has a great park. In Madrid, that park is El Retiro. Over 125 hectares of peaceful, tranquil surroundings help you forget you’re in a large city. There is so much in the park to explore, especially on a nice sunny day. Here are a few photos from my time there.

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Madrid

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The eagle-eyed amongst you, especially if you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, will know that I actually visited Madrid before I went to Jersey. My intention was to blog about Madrid first, but then life got in the way and that’s not how things turned out. I definitely do want to tell you about my trip to Madrid, though, because I loved it there so much.

There have been quite a few new followers to Sasieology recently. First of all, welcome to all of you. For those of you not yet aware of our philosophy, Sasieology is all about achieving your dreams. One of the goals I have set myself is to visit as many new destinations and try as many new activities as I can. A good friend of mine, who I actually met when I was working overseas, and I try to meet up once in a while. As Ryanair had a sale, we decided it would be fun to go somewhere in Europe for a few days.We looked at our options, and Madrid was the one place neither of us had been to, so that’s where we went.

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I wouldn’t recommend Ryanair as an airline, but if you want to get between two points and not spend much money they will get you there. Although they inflate their estimated flight times to make it look like they land a lot earlier than they actually do, they also want to avoid paying compensation so will usually get you there on time as well. Safety is the number one priority for Ryanair, and the only thing they will not compromise on. The downside to flying with them is that they will compromise on everything else, and try to save/earn money wherever they can. On our flight we were joined by a very loud, rowdy, offensive group of British men. It was clear pre-takeoff that they were going to be a problem, but the cabin crew continued to serve them alcohol and did little to control them. The Spanish passengers were visibly shocked at the behaviour. Quite a few people complained, including families with young children, and for doing so were met with a torrent of abuse from some of the men. The attitude of the cabin crew was that they didn’t really want to get involved, and as they work for an awful company that probably pay them peanuts I couldn’t blame them.

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Fortunately, Madrid is big enough that we didn’t bump into the abusive men from our flight again. We booked 4 nights accommodation only at Hostal Santillan. In Spain, a hostal is different to a hostel, although they do have plenty of the latter as well. A hostal offers private room only accommodation to the same standard as a hotel room. It’s like you’re staying in a hotel, but without all the extra facilities. Hostal Santillan is located on the top floor of a beautiful old apartment building on Gran Via, one of the main streets of the city. Our en-suite room was the perfect place from which to explore Madrid.

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As is now my habit when I visit a new city, the first thing I did was find information about free walking tours. If you are of at least a moderate fitness level, I highly recommend joining free walking tours. They are a great way to get your bearings in a city, learn about the history and culture, meet new people (considering we have such a small population, there always seems to be one other person from Wales!) and find out about other things to do. The guides are people who live in that city, and they will often tell you about events and hidden gems off the beaten path that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about. Their income, ie the tip you give them, depends on how good an experience they provide so they’re always keen to impress. Our guide, Sebastian, explained the slightly complicated and almost unbelievable history of the Spanish royal family to us by convincing others in our group to play the different characters. It was the most entertaining history lesson I’ve ever attended.

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In order to see as much of Madrid as possible, we combined the walking tour with a ticket for the Madrid City Tour hop-on hop-off bus. Central Madrid is fairly easy to walk around, it’s not very big, although I would recommend using Google maps if you don’t have a great sense of direction. Here are some of my favourite bits.

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Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor is the focal point of Madrid’s medieval quarter, also known as Madrid de los Austrias in reference to the Habsbury Dynasty who ruled Spain from 1517 to 1700. Having both worked in Austria, my friend and I have long since accepted the inability to escape the legacy of the Habsburgs. It was no surprise to us to be hearing about them again in Spain. The square is surrounded on all sides by restaurants and expensive-looking apartments. This is also where you’ll find the tourist information office. Just off the square is Sobrino de Botin, a restaurant that was founded in 1725 and is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest continuously operating in the world. It’s not recommended for vegans, though, their speciality is suckling pig. The reason I wanted to mention the restaurant, though, is because it plays another big part in the history of Spanish food. Tapas literally means ‘cover’ or ‘coaster’. Back in the days when Sobrino de Botin would have been one of the few places for weary travellers to stop for a bite to eat on their way into the medieval city, beer was the drink of choice. Back then, water was far from the healthiest option because it usually contained a lot of things you definitely wouldn’t want to drink. Beer, on the other hand, was fermented and therefore much safer. However, is was also very popular with the flies that lived in the hot climate. Restauranteurs, also concerned about the drunken state their customers were in when getting back on their horses, began handing out small portions of food that neatly fit on top of the beer glasses. The  happy patrons, a stomach full of tasty food and no flies, went on their way.

In the middle of Paza Mayor is a statue of King Philip III riding his horse. The statue originally stood in the extensive El Retiro Park, a much more spacious location. When the statue was moved to the plaza, a horrendous stench emitting from it led to a rumour that it was cursed. It was only when the statue was pulled down by protestors during the Franco dictatorship of Spain that the truth was revealed. Hundreds of bird bones fell out of the statue, causing the protestors to flee in fear. Later, a small hole was found in the statute that the birds could enter through, but due to the angle they couldn’t fly back out again.

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Street Signs

This may seem an odd thing to highlight in a city as exciting and varied as Madrid, but they have the most intruiging street signs I’ve ever seen. Every street is named for a particular meaning, and the signs are illustrated with intricate paintings on ceramic tiles. You only have to notice one to become addicted to the game of translating the Spanish name and working out what the picture means.

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Meninas Madrid

The Meninas, or Maids of Honour, of Madrid are placed all around the city as part of an art project. Each one is designed by a different artist. I’ve seen similar projects in other cities. Here in Cardiff, we had sculptures of dogs in aid of a local charity. As with the street signs, you soon become very excited to find another Menina that you’ve not spotted before as you walk around the city. If you feel the need to find them all, there’s an online map you can follow.

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Temple of Debod

As well as all the classical periods of architecture you would expect to see in an old European city, Madrid also has some unusual sites as a result of various influences. My favourite by far is the Temple of Debod. I think I would love this Egyptian temple, reconstructed brick by brick in the centre of Madrid, wherever it was in the world. Although the public are not currently allowed to access the temple, it’s so serene to walk around the outside edge of the still pool. But what makes the temple so special is that, right behind where I was stood taking this photo, there is a bustling major European city.

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Puerta del Sol

As well as being a great point at which to gain your bearings in Madrid, which with my sense of direction I had to do a few times, Puerta del Sol is also the centre of the radial network of Spanish roads. Look for the queue of people waiting to have their photo taken at km 0  on the opposite site of the road from the metro station.

Puerta del Sol is a cool place to hang out, day and night. This is where the 2 bus routes of the Madrid City Tour cross over. Some of the most extreme human statues I’ve ever seen mix with other street entertainers and photo opportunities. There’s also a web cam on the corner of one building that transmits a photo every few seconds, so your friends and family can watch you live. Be careful, though, pickpockets take advantage of the large crowds and easy distractions.

Useful Info

Ryanair flight Stansted to Madrid return: £51.56 per person

4 nights twin room at Hostal Santillan: £265

Madrid City Tour hop-on hop-off bus: €21 per adult