by Lu Sobredo
Our family travels have included the large cities of Spain. Experiences have been nothing short of magnificent. Unexpectedly, some of the most unforgettable moments transpired while walking parts of the Camino pilgrimage across Spain in the summer of 2010. It was truly a blessing in more ways than one. The Camino was a spiritual journey for me. Moreover, it also introduced my family to small towns that we otherwise would not have sought out on our own. The Camino experience is described in my essay: Walking the Camino de Santiago: Pilgrimage in My Own Terms (Parts 1 & 2).
We decided to break up our hike of the Camino into manageable stages. We did so with the intention to take side jaunts between long treks across Spain. The family trek in 2010 and the solo Camino pilgrimage by my husband in 2016 took us to interesting rural enclaves and small towns. Some of the small towns on the trail were worthy of mention as must-see-places in Spain. Our growing curiosity about a locale was not surprising. While on our journey, we often wondered about what it would be like living there or visiting long term. Some towns were uniquely tranquil, genuinely friendly, slow-paced and less populated than the tourist frequented spots. Although the descriptors could apply to many of the small towns on our itinerary, the must-see-small-towns I plan to feature were surprisingly memorable and refreshingly relaxing.
Our travels to Spain in the last 10 years are rich sources of material for my writing. Each essay in this series showcases a small town that my family has visited more than once. Featured towns are those that captured our imagination and tugged at our hearts. My family’s account of these small towns are based on first hand experience. The essays are sprinkled with photos that hopefully would tickle and inspire the imagination.
I have narrowed the field to my top 5 favorite small towns in Spain for now, but the number could grow knowing full well I expect to explore more towns on this life journey. This life journey is very much in progress. The top 5 were selected by my husband (the outdoor adventurer, scholar/professor and celebrated photographer in his own right) and our college-age son (who has traveled abroad with us since age seven). Without them, the travel experience would not have been possible or as heartwarming. As travel companions, their presence is especially critical for me when transcending challenges faced after my diagnosis of a chronic autoimmune disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). I am learning to travel with my disability and managing to transcend the challenges it represents. Our collective memory makes for a richer and multi-dimensional perspective. Take a look at a popular post on my blog: Travel Abroad with My Son and a Disability.
Many people might share the opinion that visiting cities bustling with tourists from all over the world is mostly exhilarating. For example, I never tire of Madrid, the heart of Spain with its world class museums, beautifully manicured parks and myriad restaurants, or Barcelona in eastern Spain, renowned for its architectural wonders that seem to become even more magical over time. After all, it is home to the famed architect Antoni Gaudi’s works. In the northeastern Basque region of Spain, Bilbao has the iconic Guggenheim Museum and more. Seville, capital of the autonomous region of Andalucia, is touted as the cultural and financial center of southern Spain. And for history buffs, Seville was also where the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, (who commanded a ship on behalf of the Spanish Crown), set sail on his way to landing in the Philippines in 1521.
Yet, if you are looking for a calmer and a less exorbitant destination, small towns might just be the answer. Small towns could offer a little piece of heaven on earth. Or at least offer a respite from the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan landscape. A less harried pace with a delightful surprise.
Part I: Aranjuez, Madrid
I am so excited to introduce the town of Aranjuez! (Pronounced “A-run-weth” in Castilian Spanish). It is a town located at the confluence of Tagus and Jarama rivers, south of Madrid. Its population in 2009--over 54,000. It is ideal for walking—the town is compact and mostly flat. There are wagon trains or other options to move around town. No, it is not on the Camino Frances trail. Why a must-see-small town? Outside of the fact that this small town is the most familiar to my family, why indeed? Only minutes away from the center of Madrid, it is hometown to our close friends who have become extended family in nearly a decade. It is frequently our home base when visiting Spain.
While in Madrid, why not visit Aranjuez? Find out what’s the allure and its significance to building memories. Here are 5 reasons why we find Aranjuez appealing:
1. The Royal Palace of Aranjuez
|The Palace at Sunset. ©Lu Sobredo.|
The palace and the Island and Parterre Gardens together form the original nucleus of the Royal Site. Both gardens are a fascinating fusion of Italian, French, Flemish and Muslim concepts. The royal palace gardens are open until sundown in the summertime. The expansive gardens with monuments, statues, ponds and tall trees are ideal for leisurely walks.
2. Michelin Star Restaurant
|Casa Jose Restaurant under Refurbishment in 2016. ©Lu Sobredo.|
Home to Michelin Star of not one but two restaurants: Casa Jose and Casa Pablo, open from September thru July. If prices to Michelin Star eating establishments in the big cities are prohibitive, Aranjuez offers an affordable option popular to even the most discriminating of Madrilenos (people of Madrid). Prices for main courses range from €14-€19 to a set menu at €75. Not only are these restaurants known for carefully and artistically prepared dishes, the taste is exquisite. My hubby and our Spanish friends also swear by how personable the head chef and staff are.
|Careme Restaurant. ©Lu Sobredo.|
I missed out on experiencing one of these eating places in 2016. Our friends go-to Michelin restaurant was being refurbished during our 2016 summer visit. For the next best thing, a Michelin chef and cafe owner recommended an alternative--Careme. Careme was a recognized Michelin Star restaurant in 2007 and 2015. Having a meal there was a special treat. My palate was in seventh heaven. Located in one of the wings of the Royal Palace, it overlooks the elegant water fountain surrounded by an expansive meticulously-cared-for flower garden. During summer months when dining, one is refreshed by periodic misting of the balcony where we chose to dine. Cost could vary from €50-€100 per person. It is worth setting aside an amount to splurge on yourself. (See my blog post about: Happy Eating on a Budget in Spain).
3. Safe Plaza Even at Midnight
|The Church of San Antonio at the Palace Square: Ideal Setting for Outdoor Concerts. ©James Sobredo.|
The town is safe (low to no crime) and friendly. Local families congregate at or near the Plaza de Armas Square at night until around midnight in the summertime. Summer concerts bring out locals who stroll out of their homes to enjoy the cooler weather late at night. Children and adults treat themselves to cones of ice cream. It is common to have restaurants open late at night. No wonder the location is a favorite for weddings, with the town’s main Hotel on the premises. Other hotels are mostly 10 minutes out from the palace grounds. Everything in town is within walking distance even for a woman with limited mobility because of RA like myself. If walking is not your choice, a call to a taxi company is a convenient option. Unless, of course, you know someone locally who could provide a car ride.
4. Proximity to Madrid
|Renfe Train Station in Aranjuez. ©Adrian Sobredo.|
Aranjuez is 42 kilometres (26 mi) south of Madrid. Proximity to Madrid is a plus. Only 45 minutes by train (Renfe) from Atocha or Chamartin stations in Madrid, the location offers a more laid back environment and friendly locals. Once at the train station in Aranjuez, the walk to the Royal Palace grounds is only 10 minutes. Taking the Renfe is our preference.
Taking the bus is another option. Bus departs from the C/Mendez Alvaro Estacion Sur bus station in Madrid every 15 minutes with a travel time of about 50 minutes. Aranjuez is a nice respite from the mostly expensive bustling city that is Madrid.
So when visiting Madrid, take a day trip by train to experience a peaceful oasis like Aranjuez. From there, access to other historical and picturesque places like Toledo is a short drive away by car or taxi. Toledo is 44 kilometers (27 mi) from Aranjuez.
5. Open Air Markets
|Colors and Scents of Fresh Produce. ©James Sobredo.|
Open air market on Saturdays offer reasonably priced fresh produce—fruits and vegetables (organic of course), locally made crafts, clothes, footwear and much more. Locals will proudly tell you, Aranjuez is known for their locally grown strawberries. Vendors are warm and friendly. Besides, it is fun to interact with locals.
While in town, stop by the best place to buy churros by a basketful. The price won’t set you back. Churro con chocolate is what my taste buds long for, long after we leave Spain. My family had the unfortunate encounter as tourists who got taken at a Cafe near the famed Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona where we paid €29 for six pieces vs. paying €13 for 30 pieces in Aranjuez. A hard lesson learned. Read about this and more in this essay: Eating on a Budget in Spain.
The Next Featured Town
Do you want to expand your travel itinerary to include small towns? You couldn’t go wrong venturing to Aranjuez. You might just have a delightful time. It has so much to offer. A desirable small town on my top-5-list, it has a depth of Spanish royal history. It is safe and friendly. It is a garden-flushed environment. It is a place where one could experience a tasty gastronomic adventure, iconic of what has become of Spain—a gastronomical hub in Europe. Maybe, I’ll see you at one of the Michelin Star cafes or one recommended by a celebrated chef.
Watch for the next featured small Town: Foz in the Northwestern part of Spain in the province of Galicia. Being a coastal town, Foz satisfies my family’s affinity for the sea.
©Essay: Lu Sobredo. All Right Reserved. Guest Co-Editor: Adrian Sobredo.
©Photos: James Sobredo, Adrian Sobredo & Lu Sobredo. All Rights Reserved.