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Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain
I recently earned my Masters in History at NWMSU and am now working as a language assistant in a Spanish elementary school.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Travels Through the Comunidad de Madrid

This past weekend everyone was either sick or away from the city, so I decided to take a few trips around the Madrid Community. The Madrid Community is the central "state" of Spain which includes the capital city and several miles of territory outside it. It is one of the smaller communities of Spain (in terms of area), but also one of the most populated (because of the capital city and other large towns such as Alcalá de Henares and Guadalajara. I thought I would visit some of the towns nearing the borders of the community.

On Saturday I went to Manzanares el Real, situated in the north of the Madrid Community. I took the train from Alcalá to the Chamartín train station which is situated in the financial district in the north of Madrid, AZCA. This is where the tallest skyscrapers in Spain are located as well as a new metal obelisk erected by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava:

I caught a bus at the underground bus station which is just below this obelisk (and even below the local metro line). I got on the bus which drove through a network of tunnels before emerging further north in Madrid. The bus made a few more stops in these outer areas of the city which contains several office complexes and large executive hotels for people coming to town on business. The bus continued past a military base and a police academy before completely leaving the big city behind. The snow-capped Guadarrama Mountains drew nearer as we crossed the Meseta Central (or "Central Plateau" which encompasses the majority of the Madrid Community and the Community of Castile-La Mancha to the south.). We passed several pastures spotted with grazing bulls, the symbol of Spain. After twenty minutes in the countryside, the bus passed through the relatively new-looking and very suburban town of Colmenar del Viejo. The town, which seemed pleasant enough, vanished as the bus once again entered rural territory. Ten minutes later we arrived at a lake at the foot of the Guadarramas where the town of Manzanares el Real rests.

Manzanres el Real is located near the mouth of the Manzanares River, the main river which runs through Madrid. (Don't let this last statement fool you. Central Spain is not known for its rivers, and the Manzanares is little more than a stream.) The town seemed very wealthy with many chalets and hunting lodges (in Spain and the rest of Western Europe, hunting is a sport almost entirely pursued by the upper classes).

The main attraction of Manzanares el Real, however, is the Castillo de Manzanares el Real. This is one of the most well-reserved castles in central Spain.

The castle was built in 1475 by a member of the wealthy and powerful Mendoza family, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. The Mendozas were the same family of nobles who constructed the Palacio de los Duques del Infantado, which I visited in Guadalajara. When the castle was constructed, the city of Madrid was not yet the capital and only had a few hundred residents, and the nobles sometimes had enough power to rival the monarchs of the various Spanish kingdoms.

I spent a while walking around the castle, taking pictures of its exterior:
The castle is still technically owned by the current Duke of the Infantado, but in the 1970s he leased it to the Community of Madrid for a period of seventy years so that restorations may be made. I toured the interior of the castle which was almost entirely remodeled. There were many suits of armor on display:

The ladies waiting room was interesting. The room's layout was done in an Islamic style (a matress on the floor with plenty of pillows for lounging) which was apparently typical of Spanish drawing rooms for women until the 1800s. The clothing of the Mendoza family was also on display in the ducal bedroom:

A wooden stairway led to the gallery and the machiolated battlements. From here, there were some amazing views of the lake, town, and mountains:
You could also go inside each of the towers if you dared to climb the narrow and steep stairs:

To leave the roof of the castle, you can walk down one of the original spiral staircases located in one of the towers:

I then walked to the main plaza of Manzanares el Real where many people (and a dog) were enjoying the nice weather:

I went to the bus stop as the sun set and waited for the next bus to Madrid along with several fishermen and hunters who carried their poles and rifles with them. By the time the bus passed through Colmenar el Viejo, it was already dark. From the bus station I walked back to Chamartín and caught the next train back to Alcalá.

The next morning I awoke early and planned another trip for the day. At first I planned on visiting a town outside of the Comunidad de Madrid, in Castile-La Mancha, called Cuenca. A quick search online revealed to me that the train tickets to the town were sold out for the day. Instead I planned a trip to a town I had only heard a little about in a travel book, Chinchón. All I knew of the town was that it was located in the far south of the Comunidad de Madrid and that the Plaza Mayor was worth a visit. I set out with no expectations.

I had to take the train to the Atocha train station in Madrid and from there, the metro to a bus stop in the south of the city. This part of Madrid mostly consisted of high-rise apartment complexes with various restaurants, bars, and grocers on the ground levels. I boarded the bus to Chinchón and settled into my seat as music from the driver's CD (which I can only describe as the Spanish version of Tom Jones) played through the speakers. The bus left the city of Madrid behind in only a few minutes and the scenery changed into open plains which had been scorched by centuries of sunlight. These were intermingled with several large, irrigated olive orchards. The mountains of Toledo in Castile-La Mancha could be seen in the distance. The bus drove for thirty minutes through the countryside before passing through a small, rural town. We left this town, then drove another ten or fifteen minutes before reaching the outskirts of Chinchón where I stepped off the bus. As the bus entered the town, I had briefly glimpsed some castle ruins, but could not see them from where I now stood. On one side of the road sat the countryside, and on the other, several narrow streets. I had no idea which way to go, so I picked a random street and headed down it.

The narrow street seemed to envelop me as a walked down its winding path and I began to get a sense of this town. I felt transported into the past despite the few modern cars parked along the roads. I heard the Sunday church bells somewhere ahead of me tolling the hour. As I walked I passed the entrance to what looked like an authentic, rural restaurant which was closed for Sunday:
I wandered more through the winding streets, passing a very cool old Citroën,

before emerging upon a fifteenth-century church,
a clocktower,

and this view of the town with the Plaza Mayor and the castle ruins:
I then walked down an steep hill which consisted of even more winding paths and, passing under an archway, I emerged upon the Plaza Mayor. This was built in 1499 and consists of a large ring used in the summer as a bullring. The buildings which surround it were built from the 1500s to the 1800s and now hold restaurants where patrons can sit outside on the ground level or on the balconies:
I also saw this:

A burro taxi! Who doesn't love a burro taxi? I wandered around Plaza Mayor for a while, looking at bakeries and a shop which sold hollowed-out gourds. Chinchón has a certain rural, small-town feel to it. The food reflects this rural nature. In Madrid the food is a mix of the various regions of Spain: baby eels from the Basque Country, fabada from Asturias, paella from Valencia, and so on. But in Chinchón, the food is distinclty Castilian (the region of central Spain). You won't find hamburgers and pre-packaged seafood dishes here. The food is hearty and straight from the land: local vegetables, wild game, and beef raised just outside town. I sat at a terrace outside a restaurant and had a tapa of bull's tail, which is extremely tender and cooked in a thick mushroom sauce.

After eating, I wandered from the plaza and found some signs directing me towards the castle. I walked uphill to the outskirts of the town before coming upon the former residence of the Counts of Chinchón. The building was built in the early fifteenth-century and only the base remains.
There was also a good view of the countryside from here:

I walked back in to town and saw another plaza called the Plaza de la Chimenea:

I'm not sure what this chimney was originally for.

I went back to the plaza and wandered around. I found this shop which sold anís, a Spanish liquer made from the anis seed. Chinchón is one of the primary producers of this drink, which used to be distilled in the castle:

As the sun set I walked back up to the hill next to the church and took some more pictures:
As I stood waiting for the bus in Manzanares el Real the previous day, I couldn't wait to get back and look at my pictures on the computer screen. But as I left behind the town of Chinchón, I felt a little sad. It's a beautiful place, largely untouched by the tourism industry. Here the shopkeepers greet you with genuine smiles and tell you about their best products because they are happy to see outsiders. It feels like what Spain must have been like more than a century ago. It's a village which has maintained its own individual identity. That's something that seems to be vanishing from an increasingly modernized Western Europe.


  1. Wow Eric...great pictures. I love the one of the window. I might have to print a couple of these to hang up in Poot Manor. Looks like you saw some amazing things. And a Burrough Taxi...ha! Did people use them? Love you!
    Thanks for the bday wishes! IT was good to talk to you!

  2. This is my favorite post yet! I love the photos of Chinchon. The coloring in the photos is amazing. Can't wait to see some of these places for real!

  3. What great weekend trips. Would love to visit Chinchon. Looks like a very peaceful setting. Love the photos as well.