A Tour Through Southern Spain-Overview


This spring we decided to take our first international trip in over two years due to the pandemic. It felt so good to be out in the world again! The COVID situation is changing rapidly as I write this, but we found the actual travel to be very easy. We decided on southern Spain for several reasons: While we had toured northern Spain (and as far south as Toledo) a number of years ago, we had not previously visited some of the primary tourist destinations in southern Spain (such as Seville, Cordoba, and Granada). Also, Spain’s COVID travel restrictions as of this spring were a little less restrictive than other countries. Finally, we love Europe!

Our primary destinations were: Trujillo, Merida, Seville, Ronda, Gibraltar (U.K.), Granada, Córdoba, Conseugra, and Cuenca, with a number of other interesting stops along the way.

The Roman Temple of Diana in Merida.

Pandemic Travel

The biggest hassle was the paperwork required by the airlines (United and Lufthansa) prior to departure and return. We had to upload our vaccination cards and fill out questionnaires besides providing the typical passport information. All this information had to be approved by the airline prior to receiving boarding passes, but not more than 24 hours in advance. Frankly, it was easier just providing all the required documentation at the airport check-in counters. Spain required us to fill out a straightforward questionnaire and obtain a QR code ahead of time that we could show (upon arrival at the Madrid airport they just scanned the QR code and that was it, simple). Traveling back to the U.S. (at the time) required a negative COVID test which we were able to get at the Madrid airport prior to our departing return flight (test results were available in less than 30 minutes). Masks were required indoors in Spain, so we just kept our masks with us at all times, and also kept our vaccination cards with us in case anyone asked (which they didn’t).

We traveled in early March, a pretty good time to go. Tourist sites were not crowded, and the weather was generally pleasant (we had one rainy day and one stormy/windy day with Saharan sand covering our car with a fine layer of dust and turning the sky an orange hue).

Tourist Site Reservations

The only reservations we made ahead of time were for the Alhambra in Granada and the Cathedral/Rooftop Tour in Seville. There were no lines to speak of at either site, but we thought it would be smart to book ahead for these popular sites. Under normal travel conditions, reserving tickets for the Alhambra is a must.

A view of the Alhambra in Granada. In March, the mountains were covered in snow.


As we typically do, we rented a car (through Avis this time) and are very glad we did. Having a car allows you to explore surprising little out-of-the-way villages or sights that would not be accessible otherwise. Examples include Alcalá la Real, Calatrava la Nueva and Alarcón – more to come on these little gems in later posts.

Alarcón castle – now a parador (hotel).

We covered about 1,600 miles during our two-week tour and didn’t need to drive more than about 3.5 hours in any given day. A map of our approximate route is shown below. We will break down the trip into segments for future posts.

Our approximate route through Southern Spain and Gibraltar. We covered a lot of ground over two weeks, but never felt rushed. We saw an amazing number of interesting sights and also enjoyed the varied landscape.

We stayed in lovely apartments in most destinations and found some great deals at the time – often not more than $100 US per night for 2+ bedrooms, kitchen, clothes washer and often 2 bathrooms (we had 4 people in our group). Our hosts were very prompt, friendly and welcoming.

Street entrance for our Granada apartment, in the old Albaicin quarter of the city.
Our bedroom in Granada, we loved the old architecture.

It felt GREAT to be “back on the road again”….keep a look out for more to come on this amazing adventure!

The Canary Islands – Part 2 of 2 (Tenerife)

Let’s just call it what it is…Tenerife is beautiful and it’s easy to see why it’s the most visited spot in the Canary Islands, and one of the top destinations in Spain and Europe, for that matter. Tenerife is the largest (and most populated) of the Canary Islands, and the north/west and south coasts are especially beautiful. It’s only a short (20 minute) plane ride away from Gran Canaria. The 12,198 ft volcanic peak of El Teide dominates the island and is the highest point in Spain. Probably the second most popular sight is Los Gigantes, a stunning set of high cliffs jutting out of the ocean on the very southwest coast.

Puerto de la Cruz

This is a primary tourist hub on Tenerife and it’s where we stayed. Its location at the midpoint of the island on the northwest shore provides a good base for exploring the island and is quite a beautiful setting – with the waves crashing over the jagged volcanic rocks along on the shore.

Puerto de la Cruz (3)

The rugged and beautiful coastline of Puerto de la Cruz.

Puerto de la Cruz

An evening scene in Puerto de la Cruz – lots of diners fill the streets in the evenings.

Puerto de la Cruz (2)

A church in the main square of Puerto de la Cruz.

El Teide National Park

The soaring volcano mountain of El Teide is a national park and contains a lot of rugged terrain. Going from sea level to 12,000 feet in elevation within just a few miles (as the crow flies) means you are ascending at a very steep rate and negotiating a lot of switch backs.

El Teide National Park (2)

A volcanic outflow “flower” in the park.

The roads on Tenerife and ascending into El Teide National Park are narrow, steep and winding. Once you get into the park, there is a nice visitor’s center with good maps and signage.

El Teide National Park (35)

A view of the peak in the distance.

There is a (expensive) tram that takes you within 600 feet of the summit, but to climb the last 600 feet you have to plan ahead and make a reservation.

El Teide National Park (15)

The tram going up to the top of El Teide.

El Teide National Park (18)

Near the peak of El Teide, where the tram ends.

Otherwise, you can hike around the peak just below the summit for the views and scamper through the jagged volcanic rock, which looks other worldly. Unfortunately, on the day we had allowed for our visit to the park and peak the lower elevations were socked in with clouds for a period of time, but we were still able to get a few views.

El Teide National Park (9)

The moon-like landscape of El Teide National Park.

Los Gigantes

This is the postcard view of Tenerife. In fact, it was a post card I saw in a friend’s office that put Tenerife on my “must see” list. At the port, you can arrange a boat trip (of varying lengths of time) that will take you for a tour, including whale and dolphin watching, depending on the time of year.

Los Gigantes (6)

A view of the port of Los Gigantes with the cliffs in the background.

Los Gigantes Dolphin (2)

A dolphin comes near our boat.

Your boat tour will also stop at the beach for a short time, or you can arrange to disembark at the beach and take another boat back, which is what we did. While we were on the beach, a huge boulder came crashing down off the cliffs which could have easily killed someone. Luckily, it fell and rolled (at great speed) right between some very scared tourists who were running in every direction. It happened so quickly I could not get any video footage.

Tenerife Los Gigantes Masca Beach (2)

The black sand beach among the cliffs of Los Gigantes.

The best access to Los Gigantes is by taking a boat tour out of the nearby port town of the same name. You can also hike down from the town of Masca (discussed below).They aren’t joking when they say on the hike down from Masca and at the beach to be extremely careful of loose rock.

Tenerife Los Gigantes Masca Beach (4)

Enjoying a swim at Los Gigantes.


The main reason people come to the little village of Masca (in addition to seeing the beautiful setting), is as a starting point for hiking down through steep ravines to the cliffs and beach of Los Gigantes.

Masca (6)

The winding road going into Masca. On most of Tenerife you are either going up or down!

It’s about a 3-hour hike, and once you reach bottom you can catch a pre-arranged boat back to the port. Most people take a taxi to Masca to begin their hike, since it’s a one-way route (unless you’d like to spend a few more hours ascending straight back up the gorge).

Tenerife Los Gigantes Masca Canyon

Looking up into the narrow gorge of Los Gigantes. Hiking up through this gorge leads to the little village of Masca.

A couple other great beach areas are shown below.

Los Cristianos

Near the southern most tip of Tenerife is Los Cristianos, another scenic beach spot and viewpoint, with the island of La Gomera in the distance. Ferries to other islands depart from here.

Los Cristianos

The beach at Los Cristianos.

Playa Americas

This resort area (near Los Cristianos) is a major tourist hub for southern Tenerife with a great beach and numerous hotels and restaurants. If you’re after nightlife, this is where you’ll find it.

Playa de Las Americas (5)

The beach at Playa Americas.

Playa de Las Americas (8)

There’s even a Hard Rock Cafe in Playa Americas.

Small Quaint Towns

Just like on Gran Canaria, there are some quaint small towns in the interior that are worth a little time exploring.

La Orotava

La Orotava (21)

La Orotava is known for its sand murals – in particular this square – see below.

La Orotava

The square in La Orotava is transformed by sand murals – I wish we could have seen this incredible artwork – I had to settle for a picture of a picture! I wonder how they deal with wind?

La Orotava (16)

A display showing how the sand murals are created.

La Laguna

La Laguna (11)

The town of La Laguna is near the airport at the northern end of Tenerife. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Army in the 1600’s. It has a very quaint old quarter.


Vilaflora Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol (5)

The Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol in Vilaflora, a hermitage from the 1500’s.


Vilaflora (2)

The beautiful golden altar in the Iglesia de San Pedro Apostol.

If you have to pick just one island to visit in the Canaries, make it Tenerife. You will find a little bit of everything here – stunning scenery, beaches, mountains, pretty villages, good restaurants and nightlife. Five million tourists a year can’t be wrong!

The Canary Islands – Part I


If you want to visit a part of Europe that most Americans aren’t familiar with, consider the Canary Islands, an archipelago of 7 islands belonging to Spain located off the west coast of Africa. We wisely decided to visit the Canary Islands following our two weeks in nearby Morocco. We visited two islands (Gran Canaria and Tenerife), which are two of the largest and most developed islands. There are direct flights from Casablanca to the Canaries.

Firgas (1)

A map of the Canary Islands. We visited Gran Canaria (the circular island in the lower center) and Tenerife, to the northwest of Gran Canaria.

Even though these two islands house most of the local population, you can find remote and quiet areas very quickly. We really enjoyed this part of our trip. The difference between Morocco and the Canaries was a bit of a culture shock (the pace of traffic, roads, lifestyle, etc.), and we felt we were stepping from one world to another after our 1.5 hour flight.

Gran Canary Scenery (5)

The landscape of Gran Canaria, near the caldera of the volcano that was the island’s origin. The elevation here is about 6,000 feet.

For a combination of rugged volcanic mountains, loads of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and small quaint European towns, the Canary Islands are hard to beat.

Gran Canaria Hiking Sign

A sign showing hiking trails in the mountains of Gran Canaria.

The Canaries are only about 100 miles (depending on the island) off the coast of Western Sahara, a region of Africa administered by Morocco. While Spanish is the primary language, the high number of tourists (and residents) from the UK make English more common than in mainland Spain. Even though these islands are close to the Sahara Desert, they have a mild climate and pleasant temperature all year long. The climate zones vary greatly within each island and from island to island due to changes in elevation and the prevailing winds. Some areas are a bit desert-like, other areas are forested and green, and you’ll find everything in between.

Gran Canaria Guanches (2)

The Guanches were the native people of the Canary Islands, who were essentially wiped out during the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands.

To get around each island we rented a car (the roads are good, although sometimes more narrow than mainland Europe). To get from island to island there are numerous flights as well as ferries (we flew to save time).

I’ll share a bit about Gran Canaria in this post and then share more about Tenerife in my next post.

Gran Canaria

This island (and its largest city, Las Palmas) is the capitol of this region of Spain and the main business hub for the Canaries. Although the island is not big (about 35 miles diameter), many of the roads are narrow, steep and winding, so it takes longer than you might think to get across the island. There is one major freeway on the eastern shore.

Las Palmas Playa de las Canteras (45)

One of the main beaches and boardwalks in Las Palmas, Playa de las Canteras.

Columbus visited Las Palmas to take on supplies on his first voyage to the New World.

Las Palmas (23)

Statue of Columbus in Las Palmas.

There is an excellent museum about his voyages and world exploration at the end of the 15th century. He also is believed to have lived in this building as well.

Las Palmas Casa de Colon (19)

The exterior of the Museo de Colon (Christopher Columbus Museum) in Las Palmas.

Las Palmas Museo de Colon (7)

A map showing the route of Columbus’ first voyage – 1492-1493. He stopped in Las Palmas on his way to the new world.

Las Palmas Museo de Colon (14)

One of the exhibits in the Museo de Colon, showing the interior of a sailing ship of Columbus’ era.

There are other sites to visit in Las Palmas as well, including a great cathedral.

Las Palmas Catedral de Santa Ana (14)

Las Palmas Cathedral – Catedral de Santa Ana. Located near the Museo de Colon.


Las Palmas Catedral de Santa Ana (12)

Interior of Catedral de Santa Ana.

Beyond Las Palmas, there is a whole island to explore, with small quaint towns and rugged mountains.

Arucas (7)

The town of Arucas on Gran Canaria

Arucas Iglesia de San Juan Bautista (4)

In the town of Arucas, there is a Gothic church (Iglesia de San Juan Bautista), which is not old, but quite beautiful and will remind visitors of the great cathedrals of Europe.

A couple other cute towns are Teror (don’t let its name frighten you away!) and Firgas.

Teror (3)

Street in the town of Teror.

Teror Basilica (6)

The Basilica of Teror, quite beautiful inside.

Firgas (3)

Many of these little towns have some sort of iconic site. Firgas, not far from Las Palmas, has a waterfall cascading down a street.

The southern shore of Gran Canaria has high cliffs that are an imposing sight and a lovely fishing village, Puerto de Mogan.

Puerto de Mogan (6)

Puerto de Mogan is an upscale little village on the southern shore of Gran Canaria.

The landscape at the higher elevations reminded us of our home state – Colorado.

Pozo de las Nieves (4)

This spot is known as Pozo de las Nieves, and is the highest spot on Gran Canaria. It offers views of the island of Tenerife, which can (barely) be seen above our heads. Also, just over Robyn’s head is Roque Nublo, a famous landmark and sacred spot to the Guanches (the native population).

Roque Nublo (11)

Another view of the rugged volcanic landscape found on Gran Canaria, near Pozo de las Nieves.

Grand Canaria is a gateway to the Canary Islands and definitely worth a few days of your time. In my next post, I will share some information on Tenerife, another “hot spot” in the Canaries.




Salamanca – Home of One of the Oldest Universities in Europe

Along with Toledo, Salamanca is one of my favorite cities in Spain. It has so much to offer in a compact area: an ancient university, two old cathedrals, a beautiful Plaza de Mayor, an old Roman bridge, and other remarkable sights. Salamanca is 132 miles (212 km) northwest of Madrid.

Salamanca is northwest of Madrid.

Salamanca is northwest of Madrid.

The founding of the city goes back to pre-Roman times. The stately architecture of the old town gives it an aura of distinction, which has been earned–Salamanca has been an important center of learning for a thousand years .

The narrow streets of Salamanca.

The narrow streets of Salamanca.

Plaza de Mayor

Although “Plazas de Mayor” are found throughout cities in Spain, one of the grandest is Salamanca’s. I had heard how great it was, but didn’t understand until I visited. This 18th century plaza is one of Spain’s largest, bordered by majestic architecture.

Salamanca's great Plaza de Mayor.

Salamanca’s great Plaza de Mayor.

The Plaza Mayor is a great place to rest and absorb the wonderful surroundings on a sunny afternoon.

Catedral Vieja and Catedral Nueva (Old and New Cathedrals)

These two cathedrals adjoin one another. The old Romanesque cathedral is from the 12th and 13th centuries and the “new” 16th century cathedral is more Gothic and Baroque in its design. Luckily the old cathedral was preserved, rather than being torn down to make room for the new cathedral.

Although hard to tell, the old cathedral is on the right and the new cathedral towers over the old.

Although hard to tell, the old cathedral is on the right and the new cathedral towers over the old.

They both have beautiful frescoes, altarpieces and other precious art. Be sure to go up to the roof for a great view of old Salamanca.

View of Salamanca from the roof top of the Cathedral.

View of Salamanca from the roof top of the Cathedral.

Salamanca University

Founded in 1218, Salamanca University is one of Europe’s oldest and still functions as a top university in Spain, attracting students from around the world. One of the lecture rooms still has its original furniture.

The 13th century student seating in this lecture hall is original.

The 13th century student seating in this lecture hall is original.

The elegant courtyard of Salamanca University.

The elegant courtyard of Salamanca University.

Columbus met with geographers here to make his case for his famous western voyage to the Indies (which of course turned out to be the Americas).

The Patio de las Escuelas of Salamanc University.

The Patio de las Escuelas of Salamanc University.

Other Sights

Venture south of the old town to take a look at the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge), built in the 1st century AD. The Torre del Clavero (a 15th century tower), other old churches, convents and museums also beckon.

The 1st century AD Roman Bridge in Salamanca.

The 1st century AD Roman Bridge in Salamanca.

The intracately carved entrance to the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban, a 16th century Dominican monastery.

The intracately carved entrance to the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban, a 16th century Dominican monastery.

Huge ancient manuscript in the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban.

Huge ancient manuscript in the Iglesia-Convento de San Esteban.

The Torre del Clavero (15th century) in old Salamanca.

The Torre del Clavero (15th century) in old Salamanca.

Just wandering through the old town is a joy. Be sure to visit Salamanca on your next trip to Spain!

Toledo – One of Spain’s Most Atmospheric Cities

View of the old town of Toledo. The Cathedral is on the left and the Alcazar is on the right.

View of the old town of Toledo. The Cathedral is on the left and the Alcazar is on the right.

Toledo is one of my favorite places in Spain, I think partially due to the setting. Toledo sits on a steep hill above the River Tagus (Tajo), which encircles about two thirds of the old city. The streets are narrow and the city’s walls, gates and bridges give it a real medieval feel.

The narrow streets of old Toledo.

The narrow streets of old Toledo.

The old walls of Toledo.

The old walls of Toledo.

Toledo is only about 72 km (45 miles) from Madrid, making it possible to visit as a day trip from Madrid. However, I would suggest staying at least overnight to enjoy the ambience of this town. A walk at sunset around the perimeter of the city is very romantic and peaceful.

One of the several bridges over the River Tagus in Toledo.

One of the several bridges over the River Tagus in Toledo.

There is plenty to see, including the 13th century Cathedral which has both Gothic and Baroque elements, the 15th century Franciscan Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes (one of the great monasteries of Europe), the rebuilt Alcazar (castle) and many other churches. We also enjoyed just wandering the hilly narrow streets and around the old town’s walls. For additional good views, consider the tram ride that goes around the far bank of the Tagus River.

The main entrance to the Toledo Cathedral. The building is so huge, it's hard to get a good picture from the narrow streets of the old city.

The main entrance to the Toledo Cathedral. The building is so huge, it’s hard to get a good picture from the narrow streets of the old city.

The Toledo Alcazar sits high on the hill, rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It's now an interesting museum.

The Toledo Alcazar sits high on the hill, rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It’s now an interesting museum.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is in the upper left, which was part of the old Jewish Quarter of the city.

The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes is in the upper left, which was part of the old Jewish Quarter of the city.

Due to its history as home to Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures over the centuries, Toledo has a unique atmosphere – feeling a bit like Jerusalem as well as medieval Europe. Originally, the Romans settled here, followed by the Visigoths in the 6th century and then the Moors in the 8th century. Toledo was also home to the famous artist El Greco (“The Greek”) in the 16th century. We stayed in the heart of the old town at the Hotel Santa Isabel which has a great view from its rooftop.

A view of the Cathedral at night from our hotel rooftop.

A view of the Cathedral at night from our hotel rooftop.

Driving is a nightmare in the old city, so take advantage of the large parking lot outside the northern perimeter near the bus station, and just hike up into the old town.

Images of Segovia, Spain

Spain is the fourth most-visited country in the world based on volume of international tourists (after France, US and China) and yet many parts of the country seem less “overrun” by tourists, possibly because it’s relatively large country. In future posts, I will share a few of the “hidden” treasures of Spain.

Just 92 km (57 miles) northwest of Madrid is the beautiful town of Segovia, which does receive its fair share of tourists, and it’s easy to see why – going from one end of the old town to another, we get to see a nearly perfectly preserved Roman-era aqueduct, great Gothic cathedral and fairy-tale Alcázar (castle).

The 1st century Roman aqueduct in Segovia. It was still in use until the late 19th century!

The 1st century Roman aqueduct in Segovia. It was still in use until the late 19th century!

A view of the 16th century cathedral in Segovia--the last great Gothic cathedral in Spain. There are beautiful Belgian 17th century tapestries here.

A view of the 16th century cathedral in Segovia–the last great Gothic cathedral in Spain. There are beautiful Belgian 17th century tapestries here.

One of my favorite personal photos ever - taken from the west side of town, the rays of the late afternoon sun on the Segovia cathedral.

One of my favorite personal photos ever – taken from the west side of town, the rays of the late afternoon sun on the Segovia cathedral.

One of the narrow lanes in the old city of Segovia - the Alcazar lies ahead.

One of the narrow lanes in the old city of Segovia – the Alcazar lies ahead.

The great Segovia Alcazar. Rebuilt after a fire in 1862. This image is taken from an old Templar Knights church (Church of Vera Cruz) outisde the city walls.

The great Segovia Alcazar. Rebuilt after a fire in 1862. This image is taken from an old Templar Knights church (Church of Vera Cruz) outside the city walls.

Inside one of the halls in the Alcazar.

Inside one of the halls in the Alcazar.

The Vera Cruz Templar church - from the early 13th century. Well worth a visit itself and for the views of the Alcazar (just behind the church).

The Vera Cruz Templar church – from the early 13th century. Well worth a visit itself and for the views of the Alcazar (just behind the church).

On the way from Madrid, be sure to stop by El Escorial too, about half way between Madrid and Segovia (see my post on El Escorial here).

The Monastery of El Escorial – A Great Day Trip from Madrid

El Escorial is huge–a view from the western side.

El Escorial (the official name is The Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial) is in a beautiful setting, on a hill looking towards Madrid, Spain with green tree-covered mountains as a backdrop. It is massive. Getting a good picture of the exterior is a challenge given the size of the building. It is very stern looking—some describe it as looking more like a prison than a monastery and palace. I would agree.

Looking out from the royal apartments onto the well-mainicured gardens.

While on business recently in Madrid, I had an afternoon free up and decided to visit this sight which is located about 48 km northwest of Madrid. I had missed the monastery during a previous holiday in Spain, so it was really a pleasure to have the opportunity to visit during this trip.

El Escorial is just 48 km northwest of Madrid, Spain.


The monastery was built between 1563 and 1584 at the suggestion of King Philip II of Spain, who also closely supervised its construction.  Its uses were very clearly specified in a charter in 1565:  A convent for monks of the Order of St. Jerome, a church, a public and private palace, the royal and princes pantheons, a seminary, a school, a library, a hospital and rooms for scientific research. Many rooms are still in use today. The building is constructed from huge blocks of granite, and I cannot imagine all the blood, sweat and tears that went into cutting, hauling and placing these massive blocks, most of which are larger and taller than a person.

The northern (main) entrance to El Escorial (although used as an exit for tourists, the tourist entrance is on the eastern side).

Other Visit Information

Photographs are not allowed in most parts of the monastery, and it is heavily secured—there are security guards posted in just about every room along with cameras; however I was able to capture a few images, with permission. Tours are self-guided, either with an audio guide or just with the signage posted in Spanish and English.

The ceiling paintings in a main stairway.

Although I’m sure I saw just a small portion of the entire complex, I was able to see exhibits of the construction techniques, rooms where the royal family lived, the pantheon where the kings and queens are buried, a long hall with rooms of tombs of royal children who did not live into adulthood, and another long hall with amazing wall paintings of successful battles by the Spanish Kings, an incredible library—due to both the ceiling artwork and the priceless volumes it contains, and the basilica which is so huge it reminded me of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, and various other rooms.

The artwork on the ceiling of the magnificent library.

The entrance to the huge basilica from the inner courtyard at El Escorial.

El Escorial’s pantheon–resting place of many kings and queens of Spain.

The tombs of royal children–many did not make it to adulthood.

There is a €10 entry fee and I would suggest allowing two hours for your visit. The town of San Lorenzo also is pleasant with many restaurants near the monastery.

Travel Logistics

Trains depart from Madrid hourly (I caught the Renfe train at the Nuevos Ministerios station, which is a metro and train station) and the trip takes just about one hour to reach the town of El Escorial. A round trip ticket was €7.60.

The train statiion at El Escorial. The trains are very clean and efficient.

Please note that the monastery is actually located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial and upon arrival at the train station there is a bus (timed to meet the incoming train) immediately outside the station that will take you to San Lorenzo (which is just a couple km further uphill) for €1.30 each way.  After your visit, you can catch this same bus back to the train station, which again is timed to allow you to arrive back at the train station a few minutes before the next train to Madrid—very nice system!  There is also bus service to San Lorenzo from Madrid.

The pleasant town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

The monastery is open until 8 pm during the summer, allowing a late visit if desired. Since this is a popular tourist attraction, I was surprised to see ample available auto parking available directly on the north side of the monastery, even in mid-June; however most people probably arrive by tour bus or train as I did.

Top 5 Reasons to Visit Northern Spain

A few years ago we spent two weeks in northern Spain, which receives fewer tourists than the more well-known southern Spain. There are a number of fascinating “out-of-way” spots in this part of the country, but for sake of brevity I’m sharing my top 5 reasons to visit this part of Spain below.

Pedraza de la Sierra - a perfect medieval village - one of the "out of the way" spots in northern Spain

1. Santiago de Compostela. The Cathedral and town are the end points of the El Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrimage route to the relics of St. James, said to be housed in the Cathedral (spreading the word of sacred relics was a way of encouraging pilgrimages and therefore money for the churches). Santiago de Compostela was the 3rd most important place of pilgrimage in Christendom (after Jerusalem and Rome). I’ll say more about the pilgrimage in another post. The Cathedral is a sight to behold, the current building dates from the 11th – 13th centuries, with Baroque exteriors and towers added in the 18th century. The interior altars, carvings and decorations are some of the finest in Europe. Due to the wetter climate in this part of the country, the towers are tinged with moss. In the Praza do Obradoiro (square) in front of the cathedral is the sea shell marker (symbol of St. James), which marks the end of the pilgrimage route.

The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The end of the El Camino de Santiago in front of the cathedral

2. Segovia. Segovia is located only 50 miles north of Madrid. What a perfect city for the tourist looking for layers of history: The Roman aqueduct is one of the largest in existence (built during the Emperor Trajan’s time – about 100 AD), still functional, and made of stone blocks without any mortar. The castle (known as the Alcazar) is one of the most picturesque in Europe (admittedly rebuilt after a fire in the 1800’s). Close to the castle is the Vera Cruz church, a 13thcentury 12-sided Romanesque structure, built by the Knights Templar. Entering this church is a step back in time. This is a great spot to get a picture of the castle too.

The Alcazar of Segovia

The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia (built around 100 AD)

3. Salamanca. One of my favorite cities in Europe, let alone Spain. It has a famous university, plaza and two intertwined cathedrals. The city’s architecture is beautiful, dating from many historical periods. The Plaza de Mayor is one example—I had heard this was the most beautiful Plaza in Spain, and I now know why. Built in the early 1700’s, it is the “living room” of Salamanca. The university, founded in 1230, provided Columbus with travel information for his famous voyages. In one of the old lecture halls, there are wooden benches and tables dating from the 1200’s. The old (12th century) and “new” (16thcentury) cathedrals, built around each other, are some of the most fascinating structures in Europe, with unique paintings, frescoes and tombs. An old Roman bridge on the south side of the city is still in use.

Plaza de Mayor, Salamanca

The Roman bridge (foreground) and the cathedrals of Salamanca (in background).

4. Two of the greatest gothic cathedrals in Europe (Leon and Burgos). Although Spain has had many different cultural influences over the centuries, as evidenced in the varied architecture, it was definitely influenced by the medieval gothic cathedral construction of France. The 13th century cathedral of Leon is world-renown for its stained glass, all 19,350 square feet of it, much of it original. The Burgos gothic cathedral, also 13thcentury, has extremely elaborate stone carvings, and was altered and expanded in the 1400’s and 1500’s.

The gothic cathedral of Leon

Burgos Cathedral

5. It’s cooler and greener. Even in June, the weather in northern Spain was very pleasant, and could even be considered cool, with rain always a possibility (it rained on us one afternoon in Santiago de Compostela). The countryside was green and fresh. Visiting the mountain town of O Cebreiro felt more like Ireland than Spain, both due to the architecture and the surrounding green hills.

The beautiful green countryside of northern Spain

The stone houses of O Cebreiro

Information Sources: Rick Steve’s Spain 2006 and DK Eyewitness Spain 2006.