Exploring España: Madrid, Toledo and El Escorial

Mollie Herlocker is a student at California Lutheran University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Mollie is currently studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain on an ISA Fall 1 program.

The Plaza Mayor of Madrid on a gloomy day.

I’m finally in Salamanca and really enjoying my time here so far! I can’t wait to have time to actually explore this city! Madrid, however, has got to be one of my top three favorite cities in the world:

  • I think it might be a rule somewhere that you’re not allowed to visit Madrid without making a visit to El Prado. I definitely enjoyed my visit there significantly better than the last time I visited (it’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of classical art) and I think having a guide helped. We got a fairly comprehensive look at the major styles featured in the museum through the art of El Greco, Diego Velasquez, and Francisco de Goya. Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Child is still my favorite.
  • The other major art museum I visited (I still haven’t made it to one of the big three) was El Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which is where all the modern & 20th century art is. I much prefer the Reina Sofia to El Prado, partially because I’m a 20th century history nut/major, but especially because this is where Guernica is located, along with other masterpieces by Miro, Dali, and Picasso. Guernica is breathtaking to see, if nothing else because it is absolutely gigantic.
  • For lunch on the very first day we went to a restaurant called El Brillante, which is really close to the Atocha train station. I had a bocadillo con chorizo and it was super delicious. They are most famous for their bocadillo de calamares, which is fried squid rings on a bocadillo roll, and I would say, if you like squid, get it. The people who did order it said it was really good. And the restaurant is a great value: for about 3-4€ you get a decent sized sandwich. We were all struggling to finish ours!
  • Just outside of the Plaza Mayor is Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel, which has been around for nearly a century. It is a glass-and-iron-enclosed version of a typical open-air market, with stands selling any food you could think of: from juice to fish to fruit to meat to pastries to wine. My roommate, our friend and I ended up getting coffee and pastries here and it was wonderful.

    A Panoramic of Toldeo with the Rio Tajo.

Toledo looks exactly how one would expect a Spanish city to look.

  • When we arrived we stopped at this amazing vista point where we got a full panoramic view of the city and the river. We then went on a walking tour of the city starting from one of the Roman bridges on the west side and ending at the main plaza near the east side. Our guide in Toledo was really cool and had fun with his Spanglish lecture on his hometown and really enjoyed the fact that I knew a lot of the answers to his history questions!
  • In any city in Spain, you will find at least one cathedral and at least one really old church (probably more). Toledo is no different. Here we walked around the Cathedral, which isn’t as large as Sevilla’s but is still quite large. We also visited the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, which was built in honor and gratitude for victory in the battles against the Portuguese in Toro in 1477. It is adorned with the chains of the Christian prisoners after they reconquered Granada in 1492. We went inside the church and we learned about the history behind the different elements of the declarations and some history of the Spanish royals. There are carvings of the different kingdoms of Spain at the time of construction (with Granada and Navarra added later) over the doors inside along with the traditional, ornate decorations one would find in a Gothic Era church.
  • Because of its location, Toledo is one of the cities where it was very common for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to live together in relative harmony. This can be seen through the architecture of the city where Catholic churches, a synagogue, and a mosque are all quite near each other, and all of which have a blend of architectural styles working the different cultures together. For example, in the synagogue, which is now a museum about the history of the Sephardi Jews, the ceiling was constructed by Muslim carpenters and has a Moorish style to it.
  • For dinner, I decided it was important for me to sample the classics of the local cuisine, which, in Toledo can mean many things. I chose to have Carcamuscas, which is a pork and tomato stew that is fabulous. The pork was super tender and the flavor was really delicious.
  • We also saw what is said to be El Greco’s greatest masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. This huge fresco depicts the mourners of a Toledan philanthropist from centuries past as his body is buried and his spirit ascends to Heaven. The painting was commissioned by the city, which is why it is in Toledo and not Madrid with many of El Greco’s other masterpieces. The sheer size is quite amazing and some of the details, like the addition of El Greco’s son and El Greco himself within the painting, are fun to quickly look for as people are shuffled through the room.

    Me next to El Escorial with a beautiful blue sky.

On our way to Salamanca, we made a stop at El Escorial, a humongous monastery, basilica, library, and palace built by King Philip II.

  • The entire area of El Escorial is decorated with huge, stunning frescoes. The library fresco depicts the seven liberal arts. Over a staircase there’s a floor to ceiling fresco that’s similar in idea to the fresco in the Sistine Chapel, but includes Spanish history and was painted in 7 months by an ambidextrous artist.
  • El Escorial is also where the royal family of Spain, of the Hapsburg and Bourbon Dynasties, has been entombed since King Philip II. In the Pantheon of Kings are the sarcophagi of the Kings of Spain and their mothers (the Queen Mother). Additionally, the one queen regent since Philip II (Isabella II) and her father are entombed there. This room is officially full once the bodies of the previous king and his wife have decomposed and are laid to rest. There are other tombs throughout the catacombs for the other members of the royal family past.
  • As we were leaving the tour, our guide left us alone near the entrance of the courtyard to ask someone a question. When he returned, we went back through the building to one of the smaller chapels and had the rare opportunity view a Holy Relic that is only available for viewing on the last Sunday of September. La Sagrada Forma dates back to the 16th Century when Dutch Protestant mercenaries entered a Spanish Catholic church and plundered it. As a final insult, a mercenary stomped on the consecrated Host, which broke into 3 pieces and began to drip blood from the piercings, which caused them to think that it was the actual blood of Jesus. This event caused the mercenary to convert to Catholicism, which is why it is regarded as a miracle. Being able to see something so rare was a pretty cool, unique experience.
The beautiful people of Salamanca Fall 1 outside of Toledo!

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