Spain Travel

Southern Spain – Guadalupe and Trujillo

The first two stops on our self-guided tour of southern Spain were Guadalupe, home of an important monastery and Trujillo, known as the home of Francisco Pizarro, conquistador of the Inca empire of Peru. Our interest in visiting Trujillo was not really about conquistadors, but more the well-preserved old town and castle.

The towns of Guadalupe and Trujillo are show in relation to Madrid. Guadalupe is 240 km (150) southwest of Madrid and Trujillo is 78 km (48 miles) west of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe

This little town is not really on the tourist map, but its glorious Monasterio de Guadalupe should be. The monastery was founded in 1340 and is right in the center of town (the town grew up around the monastery over the centuries). It was the most important monastery in Spain for four centuries. The monastery was a great center of learning, having one of the largest libraries in Spain, and home to schools of grammar and medicine. It was the site of the baptisms of some of the first native Caribbean people brought to Europe by Columbus. It has an amazing embroidery museum (I cannot fathom the hours spent in making these vestments), and an ancient texts museum, among other treasures. The only way to visit the monastery is with a guided tour (in Spanish only). It looks like a giant castle from the exterior and photos are difficult–from the outside due to its cramped location in town and the fact that photography is forbidden in much of the interior.

The Guadalupe town square and monastery. The circular font in front of the monastery is supposedly where the Caribbean natives were baptized.
There are over 90 large illustrated music and other books from the 15th and 16th centuries in one of the museum rooms in the monastery.
The beautiful Baroque style 17th century Sacristy in the Guadalupe Monastery. I had to take this photo quickly.
The cloisters at the Guadalupe Monastery.
Bronze baptismal font.

Trujillo

Trujillo is just 78 km (48 miles) west of Guadalupe, and we spent a night here in an old converted convent.

A view of Trujillo as we drove into town.
The courtyard of our 16th century Dominican Convent hotel, just below the center of the old town (Convento de Franciscanas Descalzas de San Antonio).

While the occasional tour bus makes its way into the main square, this is a pretty quiet town also. Trujillo has many historical structures, and as you wander the narrow little streets, signs on the buildings will give you some historical information.

Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, with a statue of Francisco Pizzaro in the center. The church is the 16th century Parish Church of San Martin de Tours.
Another view of the Plaza Mayor in Trujillo – historical municipal buildings and palaces line the Plaza.

We were able to wander into a few churches and climb their towers for great views and also visit the ramparts of the castle, which stands as a reminder of the battles for this land between the Moors and Christians during the 1200’s.

13th century castle walls built on the remains of an earlier Islamic fortress stand at the top of the hill overlooking Trujillo.
My wife and mother-in-law on the castle walls (foreground).
One of my favorite images from our trip.
Overlooking the old town of Trujillo and countryside from the castle.
A view of the castle from a church tower (I love to climb towers in Europe!).

There are also several 16th century palaces in Trujillo built with the wealth obtained from the conquering of the Americas. Many of the historical sites are open and charge a small entrance fee.

If you have the time, add a visit to Guadalupe and Trujillo to your Spain tourist experience! I love quiet, interesting, and almost undiscovered destinations like these.

I had to throw this image in. All along our route between Guadalupe and Trujillo we saw orange trees just loaded with fruit. We decided to try them. WOW – were these oranges BITTER! We found a few sweeter ones, but now we know why the oranges are just left to drop on the ground!

A Tour Through Southern Spain-Overview

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.

Logistics

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!

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!

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.

History

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.