I just wrapped up two busy weeks traveling around the central plain of Spain — Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca, and more — updating the next edition of our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. And, as always, I snapped lots of photos and took careful notes. Enjoy these “postcards” from my trip — and please share your own Spain travel stories in the comments below or over on Facebook. Happy travels! —Cameron
We’ll begin in Toledo, Spain’s cultural (and historical) capital. About an hour south of Madrid, Toledo is a delight — and packs in more than its share of top-notch sightseeing.
It’s understandable why many Spain aficionados believe that Toledo has the country’s finest cathedral — including this exquisite gilded altarpiece. Holy Toledo, indeed! Times like this, I’m glad I bother to haul around the good camera.
In addition to its majestic cathedral, one aspect of Toledo that intrigued me was the strong Mudejar influence — the work of Muslim craftspeople who stuck around after the Reconquista made Toledo Catholic again in the 11th century. If you can’t make it to southern Spain (where the Moors hung around for another 400 years), you can get a good taste of this style in Toledo — such as here, at the Santa María la Blanca Synagogue-turned-church.
I have to admit…even after more than 18 years living in Seattle, I’m still a Buckeye at heart. And I still get a kick out of the street called “Calle de Toledo de Ohío”…complete with the official seal of my home state, in the upper-left. O-H!
Just outside of Madrid is El Escorial, a fortress-like monastery built as the country residence (and final resting place) for Spain’s austere Habsburg monarchs, as well as the headquarters for the Inquisition. The palace — like the people who built it — doesn’t have much personality. But the library, filling a vast hall with the collected knowledge of 16th-century Spain, is a highlight.
Spain’s devastating Civil War ended more than 80 years ago (dooming Spain to 40 years of Francisco Franco’s rule). And yet, the topic is still controversial in Spanish contemporary life. It’s surprising how few sights or museums relating to the Civil War you see in Spain. History museums tend to gloss over that topic, to avoid offending anyone on either side. (I spend a lot of my time in Germany and in Eastern Europe, where many people are willing to grapple with gruesome realities that took place far more recently.) For this reason, I share Rick’s affinity for the Valley of the Fallen, the massive, Franco-built monument and mausoleum for the victims of the Civil War (just up the road from El Escorial). While its architecture and its origins are unmistakably fascist, today it’s considered a rare monument to the darkest days of Spain’s 20th century.
I love Segovia. This was my first visit to this small city, just outside Madrid, and I was enchanted by the gigantic, fully intact Roman aqueduct that runs through the middle of town, as well as by its fine cathedral and its fanciful, Romantic Age castle (which I came to think of as the “Neuschwanstein of Castile”).
I finished my swing through Spain in the place where it all began: Salamanca, where I first set foot in Europe as a college student in 1996. This was my first visit back since my semester abroad here, and I was blown away by how elegant this fine old sandstone university city is…just as I remembered, but even better.
I was so excited to step into Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor — Spain’s finest main square — after all these years. But when I did, I was a little disappointed to see it cluttered with kiosks for a book show. (Don’t you just hate when that happens?)
Still, the space is grand — especially after dark, when floodlights twinkle on, the sky turns a murky blue, and everyone in Salamanca is out strolling.
Speaking of which, one vivid memory from my student days was what night owls Salamantinos (and all Spaniards) are. On my first weekend staying with my host family, I returned to the apartment around one o’clock in the morning. The next morning at breakfast, my host mother asked me worriedly, “Are you not feeling well? Why did you come home sooo early?” I recall seeing families out strolling with their little kids around midnight. Over the years, I convinced myself that I was exaggerating this memory. But on my Saturday night in Salamanca, sure enough, I snapped this blurry photo of a family out with their preschooler at 11:30 p.m. Some things never change.
You can read about my student days in Salamanca in this post about a visit to my host family’s farm.
I was in Spain to scout out additions and updates to our Rick Steves Spain guidebook. The 2019 edition will be available this December.