Archive for Travel – Page 2

Discover Five Towns



When’s the last time you took the back road? The slow way from A to B, through villages where “nothing” is going on – just life as usual, but in a setting so charming that you park the car and have a coffee, end up chatting with the locals (no matter what your language skills), buying local wine and cheese, and leaving with notes for a detour to another lovely spot or restaurant two towns away…

Sure it takes longer, but if you can arrange the time, the journey between two points becomes part of your experience, instead of “starting your vacation” when you reach your destination. This is even more noticeable walking or cycle touring – no, slow-track travel is not for everyone, but the discoveries made stay with you forever.

Here are five villages discovered while cycling or walking around Spain. Some have been “discovered” in a larger sense and will sound familiar to intrepid travelers. Others are Huh? unknowns. It was hard to select five – there are lots more on my list of favorites – so these are all north and / or east of Madrid, leaving others for another time.

Distances shown are straight line, just an indication to help you find these places that may not be on less-detailed highway maps. All these villages have at least one place to eat and most more than one – Siurana and Calatañazor can get crowded, Majaelrayo is known for game (in season).

Siurana (Tarragona): About 18 kilometers northwest of Reus, on the edge of Priorat wine area. Tiny Siurana is on the way to nowhere – the paved highway ends there on a high bluff. As you drive up the steep (very steep!) highway, imagine pushing a loaded touring bike up and up and up (gasp. pant). Magnificent setting, quaint old stone houses.

Puentedey (Burgos): About 70 kilometers north of Burgos, just north of highway N232. Small village on a natural stone bridge. Be sure to take path under the “bridge” to see the back view, and for the best photo op, take road up to cemetery. Exploring back roads in northern Burgos will lead to other fun discoveries.

Calatañazor (Soria): About 30 kilometers southwest of Soria. This village was basically a pile of rocks on my first trip, but now many of the old houses have been rebuilt and there’s even an ethnographic museum – try to see a “pinariega” chimney: conical outside, free-standing inside the house. Ruins of a castle, anthropomorphic tombs carved into stone nearby. Ask a local to tell you the rhyme about the name of the village, a musical instrument and a certain Islamic ruler.

Chulilla (Valencia): About 50 kilometers west northwest of Valencia, in the Requena-Utiel wine area. A white village with twisty alleys, set against a reddish cliff with the ruins of a medieval castle. Small, recently renovated spa about 5 kms away (

Majaelrayo (Guadalajara): about 55 kilometers north-northwest of Guadalajara, west of Ocejón peak. One of the “black villages”, made almost completely of slate with an odd construction technique. Some of the abandoned villages in this rather spooky region are now coming back to life thanks to rural tourism. Majaelrayo is the usual trailhead for the challenging hike up Ocejón; Valverde de los Arroyos (a more classic “pretty village”) on the east side of the peak is also worth a visit.


Girona houses on river

Girona houses on river

A city as pretty as Barcelona throws a long shadow, making it easy to forget anything else in the region, but if you’re a curious traveler interested in exploring different destinations, you should definitely consider visiting  Gerona (Girona in Catalan).  It’s an easy day trip north of Barcelona, but it’s really worth more time, especially if you can arrange a few more days to explore the surrounding area.

Girona city has a long history –  Iberian, Roman then briefly Muslim; a wealthy city with a large Jewish population during most of the Middle Ages. The legacy of that long history is a beautiful medieval quarter, old churches and parts of city walls from different periods.

What to see, some highlights: Cathedral:  Widest Gothic nave in Europe, with a lovely Romanesque cloister and the famous Creation tapestry; impressive views of the Cathdral from the bottom of the stairs leading up to the main façade. Sant Feliu church, a little downhill from the Cathedral, another mixture of Gothic and Romanesque, often closed but with automatic lighting arrangement at the door. “Arab Baths”, unusual 12th century Christian baths from a period when failing the sniff test was part of Christian cultural identity. Cinema Museum, educational and fun, relatively kid-friendly.  Centre Bonastruc Ça Porta, museum explaining the Jewish history and culture in Spain. Sant Pere de Galligants monastery, interesting 12th century church “recycled” as an archaeology museum.

What to see, wandering: Girona’s medieval Jewish quarter is one of the best in Spain. Centered on the carrer Força (good restaurants), this neighborhood is full of narrow, twisty streets: plan some time to get lost, soak up the atmosphere and relax at sidewalk cafés. Recommended: Sant Llorenc, the street perpendicular to Força along one side of Jewish history museum;  views of the houses overlooking the Onyar river from any of the footbridges (photo above), pedestrian Rambla Llibertad for a rest with a drink or food.  Other places to wander: gardens behind the Cathedral apse, with access to the top of the old city walls, should-do if you have kids. Good views of surrounding countryside from the walls and back view of the Cathedral showing different construction periods (the wall walk continues quite some distance but the best part is right behind the Cathedral, it gets less fun farther away, and accesses are few).  Archaeology walk, up the stairs from near the “Arab Baths”.

What to see/do, nearby:  Most or all accessible by train or bus from Girona city.  Figueres, a little north of Girona: Salvador Dali Theater-Museum and Toy Museum. Besalú, a little west of Girona:  charming small town with small medieval quarter.  Garrotxa volcanic area, west of Girona (mostly a little east of Olot):  natural park with extinct volcanic cones, mostly covered with forest including a large beech forest, great walking and some options for horseback riding.  Caldas de Malavella, a little south of Girona: small city with two spas.  And lots more!

Insider tips: wear good shoes in Girona cityas streets are often cobbled and hilly. And do try to arrange an overnight instead of just a day trip from Barcelon, the old quarter is even better at night.

Getting to Girona:  Lots of trains every day from Barcelona-Sants station, usually around 60 minutes, less if you take a high-speed train. Some direct service from Madrid on high-speed trains. Train schedules:

More about transportation:    The bus and train station are together in Girona. Luggage lockers in Sants train station (Barcelona) and also in Girona station (dump your stuff and explore unemcumbered until train departure time).   Having a car is not an advantage in Girona unless you plan to explore the surrounding area – and even for that, the excellent bus and train network can take you to most of the places listed above.

Places to stay:   The city website shown below  has an almost-complete list of hotels but does not seem to show one charming place:  Pension Bellmirall,    In Girona’s old quarter, this is an old mansion near the Cathedral.  It has some only-ok things: no elevator, bathrooms not fab on my last visit, Cathedral bells most of the night, no front-door car access BUT only seven rooms, nice shared space (breakfast in the private courtyard!) and lots of  atmosphere, inside and right outside the door

More tourism info:  Local tourism office (get your map and additional info):  Rambla de la Llibertat, 1   /  Tel. 972 226 575  Email

Ourense and natural hot springs

Ourense's Old Bridge

Ourense’s Old Bridge

New Travel tip: Ourense!

This city is a smallish provincial capital in the region of Galicia. Like Lugo  (another smallish Galician city with a full perimeter of Roman walls)  most people blow right by Ourense on their way to better known (and fabulous) Santiago de Compostela or the Rías Bajas (south Galicia coast).

Why go? Well, the compare-contrast between Ourense and Santiago Cathedrals is really interesting, there’s a beautiful Roman bridge, a good tapa scene AND Ourense has several thermal springs that have been used at least since Roman times if not before. What they’ve got is not quite a spa, but prices aren’t spa prices either.

The most spa-like is probably Outariz but there are at least three thermal pools absolutely free, where you can loll in hot water for up to X time (usually recommended max of 60 minutes). Several are along the Miño river, so you could even do a hot-cold-hot bath if you want. Cute “thermal train” from the Plaza Mayor takes visitors down to pools along the river.

For walkers: Pretty riverside walks, both banks, and themed walks in the city, info at tourism office and signs in the streets.

Very nice as an add-on to a Galicia trip!

Info on the city’s hot pools:


Where / getting there: Southeast of Santiago de Compostela and almost straight east of Pontevedra.  Ourense is only 45 minutes by train from Santiago so could even be a day trip from there.


Counting Sheep (and Cows and Goats)

Sheep in Navarra just before starting  five-day migration to winter pastures

Sheep in Navarra just before starting five-day migration to winter pastures

Sheep have the legal right-of-way on two of Madrid’s busiest streets. What? Sheep on the streets of a major European city?

Madrid streets Alcalá (east-west) and the Castellana (north-south) are part of Spain’s nation-wide system of livestock routes, used for centuries to take animals between summer and winter pastures until it became easier to move them by truck or stay year-round in containment lots.

The traditional calendar called for two migrations every year: down from the high summer pastures in the early fall before the first snows, back up to those pastures in the late spring. Some of the original migrations took weeks and crossed half the country, between summer pastures in the mountains well north of Madrid to winter pastures in southern or western Spain.

Today most of the longest migrations are no longer necessary, but even now some four – six day migrations take place. Walking these traditional routes with the flocks is sometimes the best way to reach isolated grazing areas.

A bit of history: Created in the middle ages for the powerful sheep-owners organization (the “Mesta”), these routes are a highway system for migratory livestock, an incredible network of primary, seconday, terciary routes and rest areas.

Depending on category and location, route width varies from 82 to 20 yards, reach a total length of about 125,530 kilometers (78,000 miles) in Spain and cover about 1% of Spain’s total area. This sounds unbelievable, but the routes are the animals’ road and dining room, so they need to be wide enough to sustain large herds during long migrations.

The full network of livestock routes is public land with public right-of-way, but as the routes fell into disuse in the middle of the twentieth century, local governments and private individuals began using the land for farms, private homes, highways, streets, golf courses, soccer fields and other uses, often cutting off the legal right-of-way for animals and people.

Protests by ecologists and the remaining migrating herders forced some protective legislation in the eighties and nineties. There are still infractions against the routes, but now there is a legal structure in place to protect this part of Spain’s rural heritage, varying in effectiveness depending on the region.

And now? With the growing popularity of active tourism in rural areas, walkers, bikers and horseback riders are finding new uses for these old routes. Even without four-footed companions, these routes are a great way to see rural Spain.

European Union mandates to protect traditional lifestyles also help. Originally with EU funding, Spain funded partial recovery of a few migrations, using different routes and stopping in towns and cities along the way to educate the young (and remind the old) about a way of life from Spain’s not-too-distant past.

Spain. Madrid. Calle Mayor

Madrid’s calle Mayor with people in traditional dress waiting for the sheep

In Madrid, this is a sight to behold. As part of the traditional ceremony, the head shepherd, in full regalia, pays the traditional tax to the mayor of Madrid. And for a Sunday morning each year, Madrid’s streets belong to the sheep and to their keepers.

The streets are crowded with people, the sheep endure excited children and way too much asphalt, snatching mouthfuls of street-side greenery whenever they can. Elderly men comment on the flock, still knowledgeable of rural ways after forty or fifty years in Madrid. The herds are accompanied by shepherds, musicians, and groups of people from the herds’ home territory, all dressed in traditional costumes for this “sheep fiesta” in Spain’s capital. In the last few years, cell phones and digital cameras have added an amusing touch to this event: imagine a woman in a long skirt and wooden clogs on a rope-haltered donkey talking on a cell phone! A quirky mixture of old and new, modern and traditional, like all of Spain

So during your next trip around Spain, if you see a herd of sheep, cows or goats on the streets of Madrid or rural highways, slow down, stand aside and enjoy the sight. You’re seeing part of a centuries-old tradition.


Take the Train

Old train engine at Madrid's train museum

Old train engine at Madrid’s train museum

Trains have improved immensely over the last twenty odd years. Gone are the ten-hour overnight expreso trains with people selling sandwiches through the windows. Gone are the scratchy-plush seats, the long unexplained delays in nameless towns, unintelligible but important announcements on the PA system. Now most Spanish trains are punctual, clean, comfortable, well-appointed, sensibly scheduled and on-schedule.

Trains are more comfortable for long trips than buses or cars, are not subject to highway traffic returning to the city, don’t make people motion-sick and if you’ve got kids, might make a long trip easier because you can move around instead of just sitting. There are some drawbacks: they’re not always faster or less expensive than other kinds of transportation, they’re subject to schedules that may not be exactly your own, and they don’t go absolutely everywhere. But they’re a good option for people want to explore Spain, especially for a getaway weekend to a city or the beach, when you don’t need your car at destination.

For some Spanish train history and a bit of trivia, see the end of this post.

Getting information on the Renfe website, a quick guide: This is a quick instead of detailed guide because Renfe train company reorganizes frequently to highlight offers, so what is top right today may be bottom center next week. The website is huge and quite informative; it’s also partly in Spanish, so get out your dictionary or sit down with a Spanish speaker. (Language link at top right, but not all pages are translated)

What is what, what is where:  Renfe divides their service into three types by distance: Larga Distancia, Media Distancia and Cercanias (Long, middle and short distance). The Cercanias are mostly commuter trains are based on twelve different urban nuclei like Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Malaga. The Media Distancia trains now correspond to the Autonomous Communities and generally speaking are within a single Community or at most, entering a neighboring one. Larga Distancia trains usually cross several regions.

The next division is the kind of trains. The fastest are Alta Velocidad (AVE, the high-speed bullet trains) and the Avant: AVE is usually long distance and Avant short or middle distance, but some destinations have both types with different schedules and different prices. Other fairly fast trains are the Talgo, Alvia and Alaris, followed by the shorter-run Regional Express. The overnight Tren-Hotel is quite nice, far better than the almost extinct overnight Estrella. The classic Regional trains are less expensive and much slower, but sometimes are the only option for isolated areas. FEVE trains are only in the north, an older narrow-gauge system now operated by Renfe.

Schedules: For Cercanias commuter trains look for backwards C in a red circle and select your urban nucleus. You will probably need to tell the system the exact origin and destination stations (Madrid city has several) to get what you want. For middle and long distance trains look for Horarios y Precios (Timetables and Prices). That link takes you to the core of the website, where you get your schedules, special deals, and learn about how to travel with your bike, pets, kids or golf clubs.

Finding the deals: Go to the center of home page under Promociones y Ofertas (Prices and Discounts). Take your time here – it’s one of the sections that has not been fully translated and there are some great deals: round trip, frequent travelers, elders or kids. . . one of the best deals is the “Tarifa 4 Mesa” , where you get a 60% discount buying four seats on the AVE or other long-distance trains that have four facing seats at the end of the car (two facing backwards), often with a small table in between. You have to buy all four, but with that discount even if you use only three seats it’s still a great deal, and you’ll have a little more space. There’s something similar (though not such a big discount), for taking the entire compartment on overnight trains.

Payment, what’s new: In the past paying with plastic on this site has been difficult until credit card is “activated” by Renfe, but I think they now accept PayPal.  That said, a Renfe person told me confidentially that sometimes the best deals don’t appear for electronic purchase – she had just given me a 50% discount on two different trips. So sometimes it’s worth getting the information on the website and going in person to get the tickets, especially if you’re doing something special.

See the trains: Want to know more about the trains, including photos inside and out, or maybe discover where your seat is located? Look for Nuestros Trenes (Our Trains). You’ll need to know the train model, usually linked to the itinerary. Click on model name and follow the prompts.

Trenes touristicos (Tourist trains): This is one of the sections that moves around a lot, if it is not visible on home page look again once on the page for medium and long distance schedules. The special trains can be days trips to cultural sights with themed entertainment on the train (Medieval train to Siguenza, Cervantes train), wine themed in Extremadura or Galicia or even a multi-day “cruise” through fabulous scenery on a period train like the Al-Andalus, Transcantábrico or the Robla. These trains usually do not run year-round but they’re a fun option. (Madrid’s Strawberry Train is not operated by Renfe).

All in all, maybe for your next trip you should take the train!

Website: Renfe: For all the schedules and information explained above

The train in Spain, some history: Plans for Spanish trains were discussed as early as 1830, but the first train was in 1848 – a 28 kilometer line from Barcelona to Mataro. The second line was 49 kilometers between Madrid and Aranjuez (1851), probably thanks to Queen Isabel II’s fondness for the Aranjuez Palace.

Spain’s early years of train service were euphoric but chaotic. No overall plan was created for a rail network, and a multitude of private companies built rail systems to serve specific areas, often with little or no connection with other areas or with other companies. That was the situation until around 1926, when the dictator Primo de Rivera tried to create a logical rail network, connecting existing rail lines and making plans for the future. It was an ambitious, necessary project, but the Civil War (1936-1939) brought reorganization to a grinding halt.

The war destroyed rails, bridges, stations and the trains themselves. Most of the private train companies were bankrupt and unable to make the necessary repairs, so in 1941 the Spanish state nationalized all train lines to create RENFE, Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles (Spanish National Network of Train Lines). As a state-run monopoly, Renfe managed all aspects of Spanish rail service until December 31, 2004.
On that date, following EU mandates on free commerce, Renfe ended its 63-year lifespan. On January 1, 2005, two new companies came existance: Adif for infrastructure and Renfe-Operadora for service (ticketing and all services to clients, freight). For now Renfe-Operadora has the inside track (pardon the pun) on managing the services, with regional companies in Cataluña, the Basque country and a few other places. Theoretically in the future this could change, though the logistical hurdles would be huge.

Fun train trivia:
Track gauge (width): Iberian train tracks have a different width from the rest of Europe: the traditional rail width in Spain and Portugal is 1,668mm (aprox 66 in.), and most of Europe is 1,435mm (aprox 57 in.). Spanish lore says that the Iberian rail width was purposely made different from international rail width so the French couldn’t invade by train – the Napoleonic occupation still a recent memory in the mid 1800’s. A more plausible technical explanation for the wider track width is that Spanish geography was more challenging in distances and hills, so a wider track width would permit more powerful train engines. In any case, now all new rail construction like the bullet train is done to international rail gauge, and a recent proposal suggests changing all of Spain’s rail system to international width. In the north the company FEVE runs a narrow – gauge (via estrecha) network with a 1000mm (about 39 in.) track width.

Distances: Spain has over 12,000 kilometers (7,460 miles) of classic track in service, and more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of high speed “bullet” tracks. In addition to converting the classic track to international width, Spain hopes to become a world leader for high-speed train service – they’re already in the top three, ahead of other Euro-Land countries like Germany and France.

AVE train speed: maximum speed is 310 kilometers / hour (193 miles) maximum speed, though they usually travel at closer to 200 kilometers (124 miles).

Red cap, red baton and whistle: Spain’s trains are entirely computerized and most road-track crossroads have been eliminated. But there’s one remaining bit of human control in many stations, including some near though not in Madrid city: the stationmaster confirms train departure manually, by dashing (or sauntering) out of the station, red cap and baton in hand. He or she goes to the platform where train is scheduled to depart, does a visual check , dons the red cap, raises the red baton and blows the whistle. This is fun to watch for – and an inside source (his wife is stationmaster) says that indeed, without the red hat the train engineers do not pay attention.


Ribadesella seaside promenade from Virgen del Guia chapel


Ribadesella lies on Spain’s green northern coast in the region of Asturias, about 70 kilometers / 44 miles east of Gijón. As the name tells us, it’s on the bank of the Sella river; actually, it’s on both banks, connected by a long bridge over the Sella estuary. A quick look at a good map shows us that the coastal plain is quite narrow and backed by mountains, first a lower coastal range then the majestic Picos de Europa. That location makes Ribadesella a great destination for exploring eastern Asturias, both the coastal plain and part of the mountains, with many options for cultural and active travel.

Flashes of history: Local cave Tito Bustillo shows population from prehistoric times, though the first written record of the town is from the Greek historian Strabo in the first century BC and the official town charter is thirteenth century under King Alfonso X. In the seventeenth century there was a project to make Ribadesella the main port in Asturias by connecting the town to inland Castilla region, but in the end that honor went to Gijón (main pass into Asturias is Pajares, accessing Oviedo then Gijón). In the early nineteenth century this strategic town was occupied by Napoleon’s troops during the Peninsular wars. Early in the twentieth century the town was a favorite summer residence, as shown by the mansions remaining along the beach; King Alfonso XIII visited here though usually stayed at Santander to the east. At the beginning of the Civil War (1936) Republic forces held the town to try to stop Franco’s army westward march after taking Bilbao and Santander; in their retreat west the Republic soldiers blew up the bridge to slow Franco’s forces.

Originally the economy was based on timber coming down the Sella river, shipyards, maritime trade, fishing and whaling. Nowadays it’s mostly tourism with some farming, livestock (cows for cheese!) and a bit of fishing.

What to see, in town:
Long, lovely beach on west side of the Sella river. Architecture promenade with mansions from the early 20th century along the beach, explanations of the most notable buildings (two now hotels, one the youth hostel).

Tito Bustillo cave with cave paintings, one of several prehistoric caves along this coast (Altamira to the east is the most famous). The cave is very interesting, though English speaking guides not always available and cave closed November – March as well as part of the week rest of the year to preserve the paintings. If visiting the cave is too problematic, the attached visitors’ center is excellent (information English as well as Spanish), so good that doing both is worthwhile for people who like history. More info at their website

Virgen del Guia chapel, on the bluff on the east side of estuary where it meets the sea, visible from most of the town. This chapel was founded in the sixteenth century at a strategic place for controlling the entrance to the estuary and port; the cannons were thrown into the sea by the French in their retreat, returned to their original site in 1999. It’s a bit of a climb to reach the chapel, but the views of town and to the east are very good. The easiest way up: from the east end of the seaside promenade, just under the chapel, where a marked path zigzags up the bluff. Way down: once up there it’s easy to see other alternatives for walking back down.

International Sella descent, from Arriondas to Ribadesella, a big yearly event in early August. With professional kayakers and canoers at the front, inner tubes and other recreational floats at the back, it’s a big party as well as an elite sports event. Spectators can take the narrow gauge train that runs on the riverside spur only for race day.  More info

La Cuevona cave, not exactly in town but so close it is included here. This huge cave is a little south of Ribadesella, on the west side of the Sella river. It’s so big that it was refuge for eight villages during the Civil War (1936-39). The paved road through the cave is the only access to town Cuevas del Mar.

Sella estuary looking inland

Sella estuary looking inland

What to see, nearby:

Asturias Jurassic Museum has lots of information the dinosaurs that roamed this area. Where: a little west near Colunga, website More dinos: Many beaches along this coast have dinosaur tracks. Cute towns: Llanes to the east, Lastres and Tazones to the west. Many good beaches between Unquera in the east and Gijon in the west. Oviedo (Asturias capital city) to the west has several outstanding pre-Romanesque churches; other similar churches are nearby.

Active travel, walking: Ribadesella is on the northern Road of St. James. Since that route is linear, take bus or train one way and walk the other. Strong walkers could take the Road west to Vega beach (near Berbes) and return to town along headlands through village of Leces. There are several circular walks from town, though not all well marked. More info on those routes on the town website and at the tourism office.

Active travel, other: Several local travel companies can organize kayaking on the Sella river, usually the descent from Arriondas with option to shorten partway through (most of the year that’s an easy paddle even for beginners). Some of those travel companies can also help with routes in the Picos de Europa, most notably the classic Cares gorge, a spectacular linear route where organized drop-off and pickup makes this day hike much easier to manage. Bike rental and even surfing classes also available locally; golf course a little west in Berbes.

Gastronomy: Lots of restaurants with good seafood, too many to mention here. Many are along the seaside promenade (especially east side of the Sella), and with that variety you can pick and choose – they tend to be a little less expensive farther out. If you’re in town fall to spring, try the fabada bean stew: with sausage and other yummy things this is a hearty meal not usually available in the summer, and not recommended for dinner. Asturias region has a huge variety of cheese, from sinus-clearingly strong Cabrales (blue-ish) to very mild and gooey or crumbly, with everything in between. Drink of choice in Asturias region: hard cider, somewhat of an acquired taste though the obligatory pour from arm’s height into a big glass is fun to see and almost a ritual in the region. Chocolate shop with a big variety of things made of, well, chocolate. Just looking in the window is a treat, fun place to get gifts. Ok, maybe it’s Ghirardelli, but part of the fun is finding a place like this in a seaside town in Spain.

Nuts and bolts for Ribadesella:

More information: For pre-trip planning, town website Part (not all) of the site is in English. In town: tourism office near east end of the big bridge. Good map for entire region of Asturias: Michelin Zoom España number 142.

How to get there, public transportation: Ribadesella has frequent buses west to Oviedo and Gijon, and some buses east to Santander. More info (English) on Alsa website The narrow-gauge coastal train between Santander and Oviedo is somewhat less convenient due to schedules and station location, but the train route is prettier than the highway and the train is more fun (especially with kids). More information on FEVE section of Renfe website:


Toledo, Offtrack


San Juan de los Reyes



Toledo. (yawn). Too many Toledo visits have you burned out on that destination? Does the idea of another day in that city make you roll your eyes or start wondering if your guests can manage on their own?

Please re-think. Everyone goes to Toledo, often many, many times. But the majority of visitors see only the big-name sights like the Cathedral, Tránsito synagogue, Greco masterpiece in Santo Tomé church, maybe Santa Maria la Blanca synagogue or San Juan de los Reyes monastery.

Does that sound like your own experience? It certainly was mine, until I decided to visit Toledo and not see a single Important Monument. And wow, what a revelation!

This post shares some of the things I found that day and on later “offtrack” visits – this is not an art guide, history book or even an all-inclusive list of off-track sights, it’s just an attempt to get you past that yawn and into some exciting discoveries.

A good strategy for visiting off-track Toledo (or any other well known city): do some reading before the visit, have a sort-of plan but be ready to ditch your ideas if something more interesting comes up. That’s especially true in Toledo, where part of the fun is just wandering – the discoveries made on those wanders are even more special because of the surprise factor.

Here are some off-track ideas, purposely excluding all the big sights.

Jewish Toledo:  The old Jewish quarter merits some serious wandering, down along the river and partway up to the center city.  Two synagogues remain, both converted to churches or other uses after the Jews were expelled in 1492.  The Tránsito (now an excellent museum but as a “major” site not included here).  Don’t miss the “old” synagogue Santa Maria la Blanca, especially if you also visit one of the old mosques:  that gives you an excellent opportunity to compare / contrast and ponder the implications of a synagogue that looks like a mosque or a mosque that looks like a synagogue.

Muslim Toledo: The main tourist track in Toledo completly ignores the few remaining Muslim monuments, check them out to balance your visit to Toledo, City of the Three Cultures.

Mudejar architecture (walk-by noticing). Many of Toledo’s older churches are mudejar style, built by Muslim craftsmen who stayed in Toledo after it was conquered by the Christians. They continued to build in the style they knew well: decorative brickwork, interlocking arches and “onion” or lobulated arches and windows. Sign of the cultural plurality of medieval Spain: no one found it odd to have some Muslim-looking style in a church or synagogue (both synagogues have some Muslim-style decorations).

Cristo de la Luz: When I found this little jewel I was shocked I’d never seen it before. It was built as a mosque in 999 (less than 100 years before Toledo was conquered by the Christians) and later converted to a church, an unusual bit of Muslim culture in the “City of Three Cultures”. Stand to one side to see the scant difference between the original Muslim building and the mudejar-style apse added in the 13th c after it was converted to a church; be sure to look up at the nine cupolas in the original building (now the entrance). Recent excavations uncovered a Roman road in front of this old mosque. Ask someone to tell you the legend about Alfonso VI’s horse (hint: if you’ve done the Wall Walk in Madrid that legend may sound familiar). Location: North side of city, not far from Bisagra gate.

El Salvador church:  Another old mosque converted to church. This one is bigger than Cristo de la Luz. Probably built arount 1041 (shortly before Toledo became Christian again), has some archaeological remains from Visigothic and even Roman periods. The tower is original from the mosque, with belltower added after it was converted to a church.  Go up the tower for a view of neighborhood, and down to left and along side of nave to back for more remains.

Belltower of Santiago del Arrabal church (next to Puerta Nueva de Bisagra): This brick belltower may have been part of a mosque.

Mezquita Tornerias: Remains of a mosque on Tornerias street. Closed for rehab, but ask at tourism office just in case

Upper city: When the bustle of the busy tourist streets starts getting on your nerves, head for this area, with lots of cloistered convents and monasteries. You’ll find yourself walking between high walls with few windows and doors, routed this way and that by cul-de-sacs and tiny squares, sometimes along tunnel-like alleys with buildings over the streets (the “cobertizos”). Some of these convents have art collections, but schedules tend to be quite short so they may be hard to visit. But even without those visits a long walk in this part of town gives an entirely new vision of Toledo – and it’s usually almost empty.

With a map and a good sense of direction, you can find the Virgen de Gracia lookout, right over San Juan de Reyes monastery (see photo above). At the top of one of Toledo’s many hills is San Román church, now the Visigothic museum. Toledo was one of the most important cities under the Visigoths (aprox 450 – 711 AD), but these remnants and a few architectural bits and pieces are almost all that is left from that time. Location of the cobertizos : northwest of the Cathedral: find San Vicente church (go inside for a surprise) then along narrow alley to the left of church to Santa Clara square, around lower part of Santa Clara with retaining wall on your left, under the cobertizo and turn left at cross street under next cobertizo, then wander with map in hand.

Toledo City gates: Seeing a few of the gates will help you appreciate the importance of Toledo’s walls and the different periods of this ancient city. Most people only see the New Bisagra gate and the Arco de Sangre – get beyond that with the Cambrón gate, near San Juan de Reyes and the Valmardon gate near Cristo de la Luz mosque. The first has a good view over the plains and a space between the inner and outer doors with a fun sign; the second gate was from the original walls and ended up inside the city when new walls were built farther out. My two favorite gates are the old Bisagra gate (to the right of the New Bisagra gate when outside the city) and the Alcántara gate and bridge. Alcantara bridge was originally Roman, rebuilt several times, the gate Muslim as shown by the double-dogleg entrance. The gate is one of prettiest in the city, and you or your kids can climb up to part of the walls (note: this gate is close to the train station).

What else? In addition to all this, there are other sights not always on the “biggie” list: Museo de Santa Cruz (off the Zocodover), with a good permanent art collection and good temporary exhibits. Roman ruins, in-city the baths in Amador de los Rios square (signage and lighting could be improved but interesting as contrast with other periods), other ruins a bit farther out. San Ildefonso (Jesuitas) church in Plaza Juan de Mariana – go up the tower (no elevator) for an amazing view of Toledo. If you can’t face the climb, view from front door is pretty good. And last but definitely not least, El Greco house and newish museum (near the Tránsito synagogue, never really Greco’s house but a representative house of that period.

Important tips for your Toledo visit: The only way to really see Toledo is walking, so be sure to wear the right shoes – it’s no fun to stop exploring just because your feet hurt, while the rest of your body and brain are raring to go. Seriously: no flipflops or heels! Best is something with thick soles between you and the knobbly pavement. If you are at all unsteady on your feet or have knee problems, think about taking something to keep you upright – I’ve seen travelers in Toledo using hiking poles in the city, which is probably a good idea, given the cobblestones and the constant ups and downs. Get a good map, and take a small compass. Toledo’s streets are winding, and there aren’t a lot of streetsigns.