Start in Madrid
Madrid. All roads lead to Madrid. Invariably I start a road trip from Madrid by recovering from the flight, visiting my favourite galleries (e.g. the unbelievably well curated Reina Sofia) and unhurriedly soaking in the city.
Madrid is a city that has grown on me over the years, with a soft seductive and self-assured charm. It lacks the overt, self-aware hipness of Barcelona but, in its place, it has a darker edge, that always charming Spanish aversion to authority, and an affection for the eccentric.
I highly recommend staying in the well located Dormirdcine where rooms are quirky, well priced and, as the name suggests, has a cinematic theme. Each of the rooms are uniquely decorated by international artists with themes from Hitchcock to the Hulk to Heroes of cult cinema.
Palacio de Cristal in Parque del Buen Retiro, one of the best parks in Europe and across the road from the best curated modern art museums in the world the Reina Sofia as well as the Prado
Madrid surrounds: An afternoon of Spanish madness
Just outside of Madrid are some truly unusual sights, unlikely to ever reach the tour guide books. They can quickly be reached by car on your way to or from the airport.
Mejorada del Campo Cathedral: A madman’s dream
On the North East outskirts of Madrid, a Monk (presumably on a calling from God) decided to build his own Cathedral. He makes the cathedral out of secondary building materials (including waste) and is completing it with the help of the odd tourist that comes across this bizarre tribute. To visit a place created solely through the heart and drive of one man is inspiring. This man has made his own cathedral from nothing, what have you done with your life?
Parque Europa: Why? So bad it’s good?
Relatively close to the Mejorada del Campo Cathedral is the Parque Europa. The next time you feel the need to laugh at the Americans tacky attempt at recreating Venice in a Las Vegas casino, I would remind you of Parque Europa in Torrejon de Ardoz on the outskirts of Madrid. The spacious and free park consists of a garish mishmash of remade European landmarks including the Trevi Fountain, the Berlin Wall, the Eiffel tower and the little mermaid. I have no idea how or why this place was ever developed but I suspect it is a legacy of the madness of pre-global financial crisis Spain. If you’ve ever watched a movie that is so bad it’s good, then this is the park for you…
North-West of Madrid: A fast forward tour through Spanish history
A relatively quick drive from Madrid to the west can take you through a fascinating day trip through Spanish history of Roman occupation, imperial opulence and the horrendously brutal Spanish civil war.
Valle de los Caidos: Glory of a dictator
About 45mins from Madrid is a stark reminder that the impact of Spain’s civil war should not be understated. The ferocity of the street-against-street and brother-against-brother civil war fighting cast a dark shadow over Spain, as has Franco’s legacy. The Valle de los Caidos is a basilica and monument in memorial of those who fell during the Spanish war. It’s also the resting place of dictator, Franco.
Work started in the 1940’s and was meant as “an act of atonement” although they proceeded to use a substantial prison workforce, including many political prisoners from the losing side. The architectural scale and style is of a nature that could only be instigated by a dictator and it dominates the enormous valley beneath it. To get a sense of the size and scale, refer to the worrying statement of Franco himself who described it as being able to “defy time and forgetfulness”.
I recommend sensitivity in visiting the site given it is visited almost solely by Spanish (and a disturbing rallying point for racist factions) and the raw emotions that Franco still evokes. Despite this, the monument provides a fascinating insight into Franco’s Spain and is a visual feast of art deco architecture.
El Escorial: Bask in the opulence of Imperial Spain
Located in the same area as the Valle de los Caidos (a fact that I’m sure Franco was aware of when choosing his final resting site), El Escorial was a seat of both religious and royal power in the 15th and 16th century. The opulence of El Escorial is a demonstration of the seemingly inexhaustible wealth that flowed from the New World and transports you to an era of shameless wealth.
Avila: Medieval walled city
Just an hour from El Escorial is the walled city of Avila which has been occupied since pre-Roman times, as demonstrated by the Bronze Age boar statues. The real drawcard are the imposing medieval walls which dominate the town and look so impenetrable that they will stand for millennia to come. Inside the walls is a wealth of gothic architecture, which remains intact due to the decline of the city. It’s not hard to imagine being part of the city at its medieval height.
Segovia: Living beneath the Roman empire
Driving north from Avila you arrive at the Roman city of Segovia where the aqueduct of Segovia dominates the city spanning hundreds of metres. It’s hard not to recall the famous Life of Brian scene “What did the Romans ever do for us?” when confronted with the magnificence of its engineering. Contemplate the roman contributions to everyday life while sitting under the aqueduct sipping another roman invention – wine – in the setting sun. Within the city there is superb eating and drinking, worthy of a night out.
1. Mejorada del Campo Cathedral
2. Parque Europa
3. Valle de los Caidos
4. El Escorial
This is a multi-part article exploring Spain by car. Next up: Part Two – South of Madrid or check out the intro The Perfect country for a Road Trip.