Madrid and Toledo – Capital Cities Old and New

From Granada I took the bus to Madrid. This was pretty much a whole day affair, and once I arrived I took the metro out to my campsite. That’s right. I camped in Madrid. I had been unsuccessful in finding a Couchsurfing host for Madrid (you win some, you lose some), and the cheapest hostel I could find was €24. Then I found a campsite, Camping Osuna, that would charge me half the price of the hostel, was close to a metro station affording easy access to the city centre, and had good clean bathrooms and free wifi. The three nights that I spent there in my tent saved me enough money compared to staying in a hostel that the tent has already paid for itself now.  

My home for three nights.

My (barely visible) tent and the amazing sunset on my first night.

I didn’t really mind sleeping on the ground, but it was a bit cold at night so I had to wear all of my clothes. I had no mattress or sleeping bag or anything, just the tent and my glorious neck pillow, which felt like absolute luxury for my head when the rest of me was trying to get comfy on the hard ground.

Peddle boats, fish, and sunshine in Retiro Park.

My first day in Madrid I organised my own little tour. I researched the top things to see in Madrid, marked them on the map, and off I went. My day started off at the Retiro Park, a massive park that is really nothing in size compared to some of the other parks in Madrid. It had several outdoor cafés packed with people sipping sangria, a book fair, some small palaces, several monumental statues, and a big lake with filled with peddle-boats and fish. When you look at a map of Madrid, almost half of it is green. It has so many big parks, and it’s hot and sunny all summer. The parks are a magnet for locals and tourists alike to enjoy a day out surrounded by greenery.

Puerta de Alcalá.

At the northwest corner of the park is Puerta de Alcalá, a large impressive gateway to the city. From there it’s a straight road and not too far to Puerta del Sol, the central point for road measurements in Spain (km 0) and the location of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree statue, the symbol of Madrid. It’s not actually a strawberry tree because, you know, strawberries don’t grow on trees… It’s just some kind of red berry but the English translation of the Spanish name (el Oso y el Madroño) is strawberry tree. Anyway, it’s a cool statue and you can see the image of the bear and the tree all around the city.

The bear and the strawberry tree.

The bear is the symbol of Madrid and can be seen all over the city.

Continuing down the same road you’ll come to Plaza Mayor. The Plaza Mayors in Barcelona and Córdoba are modelled on this one in Madrid, and it’s a nice place to have lunch and soak in the lively atmosphere. I had lunch just off the square in a place called La Ideal that I had found online. Apparently the thing to do in Madrid is have a calamari sandwich and this place is one of the best, packed with locals, €2.90 for your bread roll stuffed to the point of overflowing with freshly cooked, crumbed calamari, and in a really accessible location. I got mayonnaise for mine, I needed more mayonnaise, or tomato sauce as well, but it was still really good and definitely filled me up for the rest of the day.

My calamari sandwich from La Ideal.

From Plaza Mayor I headed to the Cathedral and the Royal Palace of Madrid which you can pay to go inside or just admire from the other side of the fence, which is what I did. I sat on the steps of the Cathedral which overlook the Palace and watched a group of tourists zooming around on their segway tour while listening to a busker play his heart out on his violin. It was a really enjoyable moment and I think it captures a lot of what I found in Spain: impressive monuments and architecture, street performers, and people zooming around on segways and other even more ridiculous and bizarre motorised forms of pedestrian transport that I can’t name.

The Royal Palace of Spain and the segway tour.

The Cathedral facing the Royal Palace.

After the segways left I figured it was time for me to go too, and I headed further up the road to Plaza España where there is a pond and a monument to Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and statues of Quixote and his sidekick Pancho. Don Quixote is one of the most influential literary novels to be produced in Spain. It is one of the earliest examples of modern Western literature and often appears on lists of the best pieces of fiction of all time.

Cervantes overlooking his creations.

This was roughly the end of my tour of Madrid, and after saying goodbye to Cervantes I headed back to the metro to meet Arielle and Liz who had somehow ended up in Madrid after failing to get to Barcelona and had decided to come camping too, just for one night. We had kebabs and watched Bob’s Burgers, it was great.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

The next morning, after seeing Liz and Arielle off to their bus to Barcelona, I headed to a different bus that would take me to Toledo for the day. Toledo was once the capital of Spain and is known as the City of Three Cultures due to the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities having lived in such proximity with each other and the shared influence they had on the city. You can reach Toledo from Madrid for a day trip on a bus from Plaza Eliptica that takes about 40 minutes one way and costs €9.70 return.

Sneaky view of the Cathedral in Toledo.

Toledo’s first solid bridge. Before this one they only had floating bridges.

Toledo is a really nice city to walk around in. Unless it’s 38 degrees like it was the day I went there. The old town is well, old, and it’s built up on a hill surrounded by a wall on one side and a river with big bridges on the other side. There is the old Royal Palace, some ruins, a Cathedral, a Mosque and a Synagogue, and a zip line across the river, just for something different. The streets are mostly quite narrow and it does feel a bit like you could come across a medieval knight around any corner. And in fact, you can! This is the home of the renowned Toledo steel and there are shops selling very impressive looking swords and armour, and several figures on display decked out in full, shiny, battle gear. Many of these figures are supposed to represent Don Quixote.

One of the many shops selling products made of Toledo steel.

Toledo’s zip line.

And don’t miss taking a selfie with another, slightly more accessible, statue of Cervantes.

But first, let me take a selfie!


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