Central Spain is dominated by Madrid, but there is much more to the region than just the capital city.
So, when I visited Madrid last year (see: Madrid in November: Palaces, Parks and Paseos), I decided to extend my stay and explore some of the countryside and historic cities in the surrounding area.
Although the local road and rail transport is efficient in this part of Spain, I decided to hire a car so as to have maximum flexibility to tour the area.
To my surprise, I found the rental in November cost only about £5 a day. My second surprise on the first day of my tour, was finding myself driving through thick snow just 20 miles northwest of the centre of Madrid, even though it had been a pleasant, sunny 10 degrees C when I’d set off from the capital.
My touring route through Central Spain covered about 250 miles over four days.
Having picked up the hire car from Madrid airport, I headed northwest up through the snow-covered Sierra de Guadarrama range towards Segovia. From Segovia, my route took me southwest to Ávila, before recrossing the Sierra de Guadarrama on the way to the former capital of Castilian Spain, Toledo. Finally I headed back to Madrid via Getafe.
Overall I found it a pleasant relaxed drive, with far less traffic than in say the UK or Germany. Some of the streets in the old parts of the towns and cities can be quite narrow, but by driving relatively slowly (with a few horn beeps from locals chivvying me along), I managed to get around quite happily. However, I depended a lot on my Sat Nav and had remembered to update my maps before setting off. See my article: Let the Sat Nav take the Strain.
Ten Highlights of My Central Spain Touring Holiday
1. Driving through the Sierra de Guadarrama range. I chose a small road through the mountains (the CL-601) rather than the main motorway and was rewarded with some superb scenery, made even more attractive by the snow. The ski resort of Puerta Navacerrada is near the highest point on the road.
2. Castle of the Mendoza in Manzanares el Real, a small town overlooking the Santillana reservoir. There has been a castle on this site for almost 700 years. Just a few ruins of the old castle remain, whereas the Castle of the Mendoza, dating back to 1475, is the best preserved castle in the region. It has featured in several films including El Cid. Seniors 60+ get a 40% discount on the entrance fee.
3. The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso on a hillside as you approach Segovia. This 18th Century baroque palace was formerly the summer residence of the Kings of Spain. Entry to the extensive gardens is free. Seniors 65+ get a 60% discount on entry to the palace.
4. The Aqueduct of Segovia. I’d read a lot about the aqueduct and knew that it is one of the best preserved Roman monuments in Spain. However when I actually stood under its towering arches, I found it quite breath-taking. It is difficult to believe that it dates back to the 1st Century AD.
5. Plaza Mayor, Segovia’s main square. The square is roughly half way along the scenic walk from the Aqueduct to the Alcázar. It’s a good refreshment stop along the way, with Segovia Cathedral forming a magnificent backdrop.
6. Alcázar de Segovia. This distinctive castle, shaped like the bow of a ship, was reputedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. Dating back to 1120, but much expanded and remodelled over the centuries, it has served as a royal palace, a military college and a prison. Seniors 65+ get a 40% discount on the entrance charge.
7. The Walls of Ávila. The city is reputed to have the highest number of Gothic-style churches in Spain relative to its population, with the extramural ones being the most impressive. However, I was more interested in the city walls which extend to 2.5 km, interspersed with 88 semi-circular towers. You can walk on the walls for about half of the circumference. In some ways it reminded me of York, although Ávila’s walls and towers are much more regular.
8. Strolling around Toledo and getting lost in the narrow, winding streets. Walk down the steep paths to the Tagus River, which surrounds the city on three sides, and get great views back towards the massive castle, the Alcázar de Toledo.
9. The Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. This 13th Century High Gothic cathedral is considered one of the finest in Spain, if not in Europe. There is much to admire in the fine architecture and artwork in the interior.
I was particularly impressed with the unusual carved skylights, cut into the roof in the 18th Century to improve the lighting, and the fine El Greco paintings – the artist lived in Toledo for more than 30 years. Retired persons get a small discount on the entrance fee.
10. The Cerro de los Ángeles (Hill of Angels) in Getafe. This site, which is at the exact geographical centre of the Iberian Peninsula, offers great panoramic views over Madrid towards the Sierra de Guadarrama. Take care, it’s tricky to find, even with a Sat Nav.
Accommodation and Gastronomy
Hotels in the cities along the way tend to be small, independent ones, which I booked through trivago. During November when I visited, a double room in a four star hotel could booked for less than £50 a night. Paradors were a little more expensive, with the Parador de Toledo being about £90 per night.
The local delicacy is suckling pig, particularly popular in Segovia. I sampled some excellent local cuisine at the Restaurante Casa Cisneros in Toledo. See: Historic Eateries in Central Spain.
Travel and Car Hire
How I travelled to Central Spain was discussed in my earlier article on Madrid. Car hire was booked through Auto Europe. The hire company was Firefly, the budget subsidiary of Hertz, and, as mentioned above, charged only about £5 per day for an almost new Seat Ibiza.
The same car in the summer months would have cost about £35 per day! Book to collect your car with a full tank and return full, otherwise you will pay a premium supplement for the fuel.
It is important to take out car hire excess insurance in Spain to avoid not only normal car hire excesses, but also charges for tyres, glass, underbody etc. I booked mine through CarHireExcess.com for £1,99 per day.