Spain: Toledo

Today I am taking the train from Madrid to explore the city of Toledo. Toledo is a city in Castilla-La Mancha known for its history of Arab, Jewish and Christian influences. Toledo is about a 30 minute train ride from Madrid from the Madrid Atocha station. It is easy to get a last minute ticket since there are about 15 trains a day that do this route. I have a little delay on finding where to buy the tickets initially but I eventually figure it out. I’ve decided to sign up online for a RENFE card. I earn points I’m not sure how to use but most tickets I buy from this day forward are in advance using my phone where I can log in and all my info automatically gets populated to save time.

I arrive in Toledo and follow the crowd towards town. There are a couple routes to get into the city, I choose the one with many stairs. Starting my day breaking a large sweat seems to be the theme of my traveling the next couple weeks. I like hitting the shoulder seasons when I travel but it seems I’ve hit Spain at the beginning of the hottest time of year.

On the walk into town

As I get closer to the old city I feel the need to take some photos with my fancier camera. I haven’t used it extensively for a while. It immediately starts acting up. The after market batteries I bought in Southeast Asia in 2019 are no longer holding a charge and the battery gets stuck in my camera. I can’t seem to get the stupid battery out. I eventually get it out with my room card but I vow to toss that battery later. I put the camera away for now and continue to the old town.

After I climb many stairs I end up in the main thoroughfare where there are shops and cafes. I am enjoying the shade cloth they have along the street. It is a very hot day and every little counts. I note this in another city days later. I think it is a fantastic idea.

I head first to the church Santo Tomé, a small church that is famous for its El Greco The Burial of Count Orgaz.

Toledo is all about El Greco and by the end of the day I am El Greco’d out but this is a nice start. It is a quick visit.

Toledo had a view large Jewish population in the 1400’s until they were expelled in 1492. The Tránsito Synagogue and Jewish Museum shows the history during that time. I enjoy looking at the wooden ceiling and Mudéjar architecture.

I wander over to San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio built by catholic monarchs as a tribute to the victory at the battle of Toro. It is said to have been originally designated as the resting place for Isabel and Ferdinand (Note: They are in Granada). It is another great example of Mudéjar style. There are again some really impressive wood ceilings.

Nearby is Sinagoga de Santa María La Blanca a Jewish synagogue built in Moorish style that was later converted to a Christian church. It is once more an example of the melting of three religious cultures in this city.

I stop for a couple minutes and eat my bocadilla I bought in the morning then head over to the Museo del Greco where I observe the unhinged looking personalities in his paintings and the paintings of people who studied under him.

I’m getting el sicko of el Greco but I have one more stop on the El Greco tour, the Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo or Toledo Cathedral.

I get burned out easily when I see tons of cathedrals but this one is definitely worth the stop. I’m glad I am here in the late afternoon since I’ve seemed to miss the crowds of all the day-trippers….yes I am a day-tripper too but I’m not in a group that crowds up the place.

The cathedral is Spanish Gothic style with a hint of Mudejar architecture inside. I especially like the main chapel with its over the top pictorial of new testament scenes.

Behind the main chapel is a pretty spectacular display that goes all the up to the ceiling where it appears heaven itself has so boldly provided the lighting.

I love this and can’t believe its the first time I’ve heard this story of the giant that carries people across the river.

A visit to the chapter house shows a display of portraits of its Archbishops as well as some nice frescos.

Soon I’ve hit the El Greco’s again. I admit they are nice but I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten my fill of El Greco for a lifetime at this point.

My favorite by far of the church is the choir. I am delighted when I notice the odd bottoms of the choir seats. The seats also contain wood carvings of various battles.

I am tired since this is my first full day of sightseeing, I am about to call it quits after the cathedral even though I still have some hours to go before it is time for my return train to Madrid. I walk by the Ermita “Mezquita” del Cristo de la Luz which is still open. Here I see a small Catholic church that was once a mosque.

With time to kill I wander a bit more. I am looking for a cafe to have a snack and a drink but I’ve hit the dreaded siesta time and there doesn’t seem to be much open that fits what I need.

I find an outdoor park with a limited menu cafe and order a beer and some mass produced patatas bravas. I am not really a big fan of potatoes in my every day life but they seem to be a staple here so I dive into a plate.

It is almost time to go so I head to the train station and catch the 7:20PM train back to Madrid. I leave town a different way than I’ve entered so I get a different perspective.

Its a short ride back to Madrid and somehow I still have energy stores. I clean up and try to check out Calle Cava Baja in Madrid, a place popular for tapas crawls. I’m still early but the place I have chosen, La Perejila, is already very busy. I insert myself into a small spot at the bar and order a vermut and a pintxo. I’ve been here before but I wanted to return since I found it charming last time. Eventually a table clears and I am offered the table. I much rather sit at the bar but I am in an awkward spot so I take the table. I mean to stop at another spot but I am exhausted and head back to the hotel. After all I have another busy day scheduled tomorrow.

Calle Cava Baja

Flying to Madrid

I am starting my Spain adventure in Madrid. My last trip to Madrid was ten years ago. I feel like I got to see most of the city last time. The goal in staying in Madrid isn’t really to visit Madrid, the goal is to use it as a home base for some day trips: Toledo and Segovia.

My international flight from the USA is out of JFK. I try to schedule padding between my international connections in case of flight delays. Unfortunately this time my international flight is delayed. This time the plane is at the airport but there is a delay to taxi the plane out of the storage area where it has been sitting for the past few hours. We are delayed hours waiting for the plane to be brought to the gate. In addition, the Delta terminal at JFK has seen better days; the airport has broken bathrooms, broken ipads, and very slow staff. The terminal is crowded and having that extra time in the airport is not a comfortable experience.

Eventually we board the plane and fortunately the flight is pretty pleasant. In the past I slept well on long flights but find it hard the past couple years. I probably have a total of an hour’s rest on the flight. Luckily I have nothing planned the first day.

Metro Station at airport in Madrid

I make it to my hotel early so I drop my bags and go walking nearby. This is my first time staying at a hotel at the Room Mate chain (Room Mate Mario Hotel). It isn’t the cheapest stay but I’m happy with what I get for the price point I pay. I am near the big opera house. It is a central location and close to a metro stop.

Opera metro station and theater in the background

I walk over to the Royal Palace of Madrid and take a stroll. It is not on my agenda to go inside but I do take some pictures of the outside and the nearby Catedral de la Almudena. I walk a little further into the nearby area which mostly seems new to me because I don’t recall the area much from my last visit to Madrid.

Royal Palace of Madrid
Gotta love Europe in the summer. Look at this weird bear.

Soon enough it is time to check in so I return back to the hotel to check in and get cleaned up from my flight.

I get the wifi password and it doesn’t work. One of the symbols looks like a variation of the British pound symbol. I try different iterations and nothing works. I am too tired to go get a new password and decide to deal with it later; plus my Spanish is rusty (even after a month of Duolingo reviews). I dislike defaulting to English. I don’t like being that type of traveler I like to at least attempt the primary language of the land. I give it my best effort.

After cleaning up I wander to one of the favorites of my past the Mercado de San Miguel where I order myself a nice glass of Vermut (Vermouth). Nothing compares to the vermouth I get in Spain. The market is a nice and easy place to try different types of pintxos (pinchos or small tapas) and regular size tapas. It isn’t cheap and it gets crowded in the evening but vendors at the market are used to dealing with tourists so it is an easy way to jump into the Spain tapas experience. It is also perfect for my first jetlagged evening.

It is still early but I am tired so I slowly stroll back to my room to go to be early. I have my first day trip scheduled to Toledo tomorrow.

I’m traveling again

Its been a couple years since I’ve traveled internationally as I’ve been too scared to book a trip. I’ve done some domestic travel but the fear of the world shutting down again lingered over me so I hesitated to book a trip outside the USA. I eventually worked through that fear and decided to go somewhere, anywhere. I decided to pick a country I have traveled easily to before and book a plane ticket. I’ve been to Spain twice before but felt like there was so much I didn’t have time to see on previous trips therefore decided that was a good choice for my starter trip post-covid-19 (yes I know covid-19 is not over yet). I recently received another booster shot so feel confident I am protected against contracting covid-19 (I was wrong, but more about that in a little while). So I begin creating a spreadsheet with possibly itineraries and start watching airline ticket prices. The tickets are way more than I want to pay and the prices are not coming down; it appears I waited too long to book. I am not giving up on this trip though. I close my eyes and book an airfare that is refundable. Who knows if I’ll be able to travel forever, its just money, right?!? I decide to do an open-jaw flight since there is virtually no price difference in booking a roundtrip from the same airport and I dislike backtracking when I travel. The plan is to start in Madrid then head south and finish up north to fly home from Barcelona.

A couple days after I book my airfare I start feeling under the weather. It is probably allergies I tell myself since 100% of the time up to this point it has been allergies – confirmed by countless negative covid-19 tests. This feels a little different though and I have plans to do a road trip to visit family and some friends in a couple days so I take my home test like I always do proactively. This time it comes up immediately as positive. I confirm it with a PCR test. I get sicker the next day so I cancel the week’s plans. I have had my first case of covid-19. It runs it course like a bad cold that symptoms are treated well by over the counter cold medicine. I don’t believe I even contract a fever. I get slightly worried that this sickness will interfere with my international travel plans. Thank goodness I bought refundable airfare. I test again 5 days in and I’m still testing positive even though I just have some congestion and tiredness lingering. I decide to wait until day 10 to test again so I’m not wasting too many tests. The CDC website says I am good to go in public now but I continue to mask up and avoid social events until I do end up testing negative. Luckily I still have a couple weeks left before my trip so I go full-speed into planning mode.

I’m definitely out of travel practice but I guess its like riding a bike since I am checking off my to-do list quickly once I begin. Many of the activities planned are ones I missed on previous visits so I make sure to book in advance many things. My itinerary is jam-packed and I am moving around way more than I like but its only for a couple weeks so I can handle it, right? (Note: Nonstop travel is a recipe for me getting sick while I travel. Luckily I already got the covid-19 immunity temporarily out of the way). I am packing way too many things since as I get older I need more things to simply survive. At the time of me packing USA still required a negative covid test in order to return to my home country so two of the things packed are two very large covid-19 tests (I pack two in case one fails as we are advised) that I order them off the internet because they have to be the kind that are confirmed online with a nurse. I had no idea how large they would be when I order them. I am super annoyed by how much room they are taking up in my day pack. Other than that I do have a good packing list though that has been developed from years and years of travel. I have 95% of the things I could ever need on that list. I just need to now go through the exercise where I narrow the pile of clothes I am taking to smaller and smaller piles.

I finally reduce things down to a sufficient size and do a test pack before the busy weekend before I leave. The flight is on Monday and the weekend before is busy with plans – I do end up canceling my Sunday plans though due to exhaustion since I don’t want to wear myself out BEFORE my travel.

Oh and I am using my old backpack that is falling apart since I can’t seem to find a new backpack that I like. A little sewing repair before I go gets it to a good enough state to travel ….

Can you see where I did my sewing repairs?

Bilbao Aste Nagusia

These guys are crowd pleasers

When I first arrive in Bilbao I notice preparation for some sort of festival. I have a hard time finding information on it and my hotel isn’t too helpful.

After some research I find this link Euskoguide and Wikipedia.

There is a big party planned and it is happening a couple days after I leave. I contemplated changing my travel plans to stay for the festival. However I already pre-paid for many things and am looking forward to my upcoming plans. I do plan on coming back to Bilbao for another night before flying out for Spain but I believe my hotel reservations are at an airport hotel far from the action.

I am pleasantly surprised to find my final Bilbao hotel is about a mile from the festivities and I am able to participate after all.

Walking around town I notice booths are being set up in pieces, mostly from scratch. People hang by harnesses to attach the metal structures that would later form the booths.

A combination of plastic coverings and wood panels are assembled. On the wood panels the artwork is hand painted.

Many of the booths seem to be political in nature but it is hard to tell because most of it is Basque, a local language for the region.

It doesn’t matter if it is somewhat political; it looks like everyone wants to have fun and the group is very inclusive with all ages, races, genders as participants. Seems like my kind of crowd, even if I can’t understand much.

The festival mascot

If you order a drink they give you a string to help you hold onto your drink cup.

I spent a good amount of time watching this band do their sound check. I got bored and walked on. When I got back there was a huge screen blocking the stage. Not sure if they ever performed.

This punk band was great. I could only get a side view because they were so popular.

I walked around for a little more and decided to start walking back to my hotel to plan for my flight the next day. As I walk back I catch a fireworks display.

What an wonderful impromptu day in Bilbao!

Crowds thrashed to these guys as well