San Lorenzo del Escorial, Alcalá de Henares and Aranjuez have a lot in common: They are Unesco Heritage enclaves and are also denominated “Legacy Cities” of Spanish capital Madrid.
The Royal Palace of San Lorenzo del Escorial became a Unesco Heritage site in 1984. The Basilica, Felipe II’s rooms, its library with more than 6.000 manuscripts and the Friars’ Garden are testimony to this. But these are only a few architectural attractions of this beautiful town, framed by Abantos Hill and Herreria Mount, where every year a huge peregrination takes place.
At the centre of the town, San Lorenzo del Escorial delights the visitor with several edifications designed by Juan Villanueva (18th century exponent of neoclassical architecture), and its cobbled streets, really impressive due to their verticality.
Several restaurants offer dishes such as roasted lamb or a famous stew – Madrid “cocido” – that is served in the El Charolés outlet.
Alcaláde Henares, declared a World Heritage site in 1998, is the first university city in the world planned specifically for this purpose.
It is here that one can visit the birthplace of noted Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, now converted into a museum.
The city also hosts the Magistral Cathedral, one of two such in the world, along with the St. Peter’s in Louvaine. This means that all of its canons had to be the magister of the university. Late Gothic in style, finished with a Herrera which dominates the belfry, is the main architectural characteristic of this imposing building which stands out in the city.
A must-visit is also the Archiepiscopal Palace, residence of the archbishops of Toledo. Moorish, Renacentist, and Baroque styles coexist in this building.
The well-known Hospedería del Estudiante (Student’s Inn) mixes tourism and gastronomy, offering pure Castillian cooking with dishes like migas ilustradas (fried breadcrumbs), sopa boba (a kind of soup), salads, roasts and stews.
Aranjuez: Royalty and strawberries
Aranjuez had to wait until 2001 to be declared a World Heritage City. Its environment and architectural wealth are testimony to the perfect coexistence between art and nature.
The Royal Palace and its gardens constitute the most popular monument of this town. Located between the Tajo and Jarama rivers, this Herrera style building’s main facade has the statues of the three kings who helped in its construction: Felipe II, Fernando VI and Carlos III. Its white and red facade and the rococo balustrade staircase are its other important characteristics. The palace gardens are a huge open space with canals and several fountains.
At lunch time, garden products and, especially, the famous Aranjuez strawberries, are the stars of the local gastronomy.
But this is not all the area around Madrid has to offer to visitors. Many other towns and cities host beautiful buildings, which make this province a unique mix of culture and art.
A good example is Chinchón’s Plaza Mayor. Dating to the Middle Ages, this follows the round structure of many Castilian squares, guarded by an awesome lintel gallery and its wooden balconies.
No less impressive are the castles in Manzanares el Real and Buitrago de Lozoya. The first one, from the 15th century, has its base on an ancient Moorish chapel, with a Gothic gallery on the first floor, one of the most beautiful of its kind.
Buitrago de Lozoya, on the other hand, was built a century before, and so has a more impregnated Moorish pattern, whose main characteristic is its fine masonry. The town is also known for its Picasso Museum, which houses 50 works the famous Spanish painter gave to Eugenio Arias, his barber.
How to get there:
There are no direct flights from India to Spain. Take a flight to a European hub like Frankfurt or London and thence a flight to Madrid.
From Madrid to:
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
By car: The A6 highway will take you there in less than an hour; another option is following the M550.
By train: Line C8a of Madrid Short distance train.
By bus: Lines 661 and 664 that start in Moncloa bus station
Eateries: La Buganvilla, La Fonda Genara, Alaska.
Look out for:
Violet caramels, Bizcochelas (Cake made with chocolate and candied egg yolk).
Alcalá de Henares
By car: Through highways A2 (Exit 28) and R2 (Exit 28), 30 minutes from Madrid.
By train: Lines C2 and C7.
By bus: Line 223, starting at Avenida de América bus station and stopping
also at Madrid’s Barajas airport.
Eateries: Restaurante El Gato de Tres Patas, Restaurante Sexto Sentido and
Look out for: Costrada (cake with cream, toasted almonds and meringue), Alcalá (sweet bagels filled with cream), Garrapiñada (almonds covered in caramel from Clarisas’ convent)
By car: On A4 or R4 (Exit 47), a 45-minute drive
By train: Line C3 of the short distance service.
By bus: Lines 419 and 423 leaving from Madrid Estación Sur (Mendez Álvaro)
Eateries: Restaurante Vivaldi, Restaurante Carême, Restaurante Casa Pablo
Look out for: Aranjuez asparagus (really tender and easily recognizable by its bright green colour) and Aranjuez strawberries (sweet and big, they are the best in the region).