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April 12th 2016
Published: April 12th 2016
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We’ve been to Spain quite a few times but always to the coastal areas and love it. We have considered buying a holiday home or moving here to live. To help us make a decision we have decided to spend 2 months travelling through the country and getting to know it a bit before we commit ourselves either way.

Brittany Ferry to Santander (Cantabria Province), Spain

As we have never been to the Spanish hinterland we are taking the car on the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth. We intend to drive down the spine of the country and stay in Nerja on the Costa near Malaga – an area we are particularly keen on, & also enjoy the delights of Andalucía – a region we love as it has so much to offer, and then drive our way back visiting some of the delightful Spanish towns and cities we have heard much about.

The drive to Portsmouth is straightforward from London and we get there in time to leisurely check in and get straight onto the ship. Leaving a short time later we stand on deck as we go past Portsmouth city and it definitely looks a lot nicer from the sea than from street level.

It’s a 24hr journey – we have our own cabin which is spacious, comfortable and has an awesome shower. Surprisingly the costs of food and drinks on board are quite reasonable. However, to make the journey fun we have brought a ‘picnic’ to help kick start our Spanish adventure. This includes lobster tails, prawns etc. for dinner and a few bottles of good red wine to wash it down. It goes down a treat.

The Facilities on board are pretty good – ranging from a cinema, bingo, wildlife talks (the bay of Biscay has dolphins & other sea life which can be spotted sometimes), 2 bars, a restaurant you have to book, cafeteria, a spa, and shop. The only tip for travellers is buy in pounds not Euros as it’s much better value for money – even the cashiers would advise you of this. We even treat ourselves to a great ½ hour massage each for £25 per person and enjoy the rest of the smooth crossing.

We arrive at Santander in the region of Cantabria at 4.30pm EU time. The beach of the city looks lovely as the sun is out. Driving to Burgos, our first stop, we pass lush countryside - the small countryside villages remind us of Italy. There are amazingly cute churches with huge bells in small bell towers in every settlement - one church was relatively new and round in design - really impressive.

Burgos – The city of El Cid & the world’s best Black Pudding (Morcilla)

We get to Burgos (in the Castilla Y Leon Province) sooner than expected and luckily find the Hotel Rice Maria Luisa where we are booked in, easily – thanks to our trusty iPad. The place is quite comfortable and very central. Also there’s plenty of parking nearby and it’s free as its Saturday and after 1pm - A Spanish custom which is quite handy and helps save us a load of money on parking.

The Old Town or Old Quarter is on the north bank of Rio Arlanzon, and very close by. Burgos is charming with a lot of history. There’s a huge Gothic Cathedral (world heritage listed), which is the resting place of El Cid, a legendary figure (described as a heroic mercenary). M remembers the film with Charleston Heston as El Cid & Sophia Loren the love interest.

There’s a small Plaza Mayor, which is lit up at night, as is the impressive Puente de San Pablo Bridge across the river with huge statues along the side – one is a romanticised statue of El Cid himself.

As its Saturday the main bar area by the Cathedral is like ‘Tapas Central’– packed with locals and a great atmosphere. Burgos is famous for it’s morcilla, queso (cheese) & Cordero Asado and we set out to discover these delights.

Dinner is at Casa Ojeda, a local institution, and we are lucky to get a table. We settle for soup with Morcilla, beans, pork & chorizo to start – really lovely, then Oxtail & Cordero Asado (a regional speciality) washed down with a carafe of wine & a Magno (Spanish brandy) to finish. Awesome!!

Breakfast next day is in a small place a few doors away from the hotel, with fresh orange juice and a croissant done ‘a la plancha’ (warmed on a griddle) & it’s really good – more a northern Spanish experience we discover. Generally prices are so much cheaper than the UK for everything. Wow!

We leave the in the rain for our drive to Madrid passing Lerma which looks like a beautiful village on a hill with a large castle in the centre and feel that we might stop here on the way back. The drive is across high plains, quite flat and not much to see except vineyards – Rioja & Ribero del Duero, the local & national favourites are grown here.

Madrid – the capital of Spain

As parking in the capital is likely to be difficult we have booked a cheap Car Park at the Airport for the duration of our stay. It seems easier and cheaper to get the train into the centre where we are staying. 3 days parking at the airport is equal to the price of 1 day’s parking in the city and it’s also more secure.

There’s a free shuttle around the various airport terminus and the Station. It’s then only €2.50 for a train straight to Sol Station where we're staying. (The Renfe Train (over ground) goes from T4 to Nuevos Ministerios then we change to platform 8 and get C3 or C4 to Sol). We got a lot of good travel tips (most of which was not in our LP guide book) from the guy at the ‘Information Desk’ who spoke good English. We also get a 3 day metro pass which includes airport to city and all local transport for €18 each. This is a really good deal. The Metro system is also very clean and frequent which makes getting around the central area very easy.

We are booked into Hostal Madrid right in the centre near Plaza Mayor and the Centro area. It’s a great place and we have a good room with balcony and only £30 per night! The weather at last starts to brighten up (though doesn't last). Then it’s off to Ventas and the Plaza de Toros del la Ventas to collect our tickets (booked online) for this evening’s Bullfight. We are not sure that this is a good idea but it’s so much a part of Spanish culture we feel we should at least check it out – even once.

The venue is pretty big and impressive on the outside but the inside is pretty basic and the seats look like they are concrete. We have to hire cushions for a Euro to make the sitting down more comfortable. As it’s a semi-professional show the arena is pretty empty. At the start of proceedings there’s a lot of pageantry – the main players in elaborate costumes of Matadors actually called Toreadors. It’s all pretty colourful.

However, the bullfighting itself is not much of a ‘fight’. The Bulls get speared in the back/shoulders by guys on armour clad horses quite early on which essentially weakens them, then after a few runs at Matadors by the bull – by now bleeding to death, some guys put spears in the back to soften them up and weaken them further. These guys seem pretty brave as they actually do it while the bull is charging them. Eventually when the bull gets really weak and is staggering around the main Matador does a bit more showman posturing while the crowds howl in glee, then he finishes it off with a sword through base of neck. Lots of folk wave scarves & cheer – personally we can’t quite see the ‘fun’ or ‘spectacle’ in this show at all.

To us this isn’t even a contest and we can’t quite see why the Spanish are so obsessed with it. The whole thing seems gratuitous and pointless. No wonder people are questioning the need for such a barbaric ‘sport’. Suddenly the heavens open and it really buckets down but they carry on ‘fighting’ more bulls and the spectators either go upstairs under cover, or to the bars by the entrances and watch it on TV while having a few beers.

We decide we’ve seen enough so leave and head off for dinner and a more pleasant way to enjoy Madrid. We go to the Tapas District – La Latina, which is more hype than exciting (San Sebastian is way better – see later). We did find a couple of places we liked but the area isn’t quite what they make out in the guide books.

We have a slight accident with the Laptop as it got accidently wet overnight when a glass of water tipped over & soaked the casing it was resting on. We try to get it fixed but no go. We are advised by a local tech company to put it in rice grains which should absorb any dampness in it. (Final note on this – we took it to an IT place that specialises in Sony Laptops – no luck. It needs a new ‘mother board’ they say. We wait till we get home to make an Insurance claim, and as we are making the claim, C tries the system and surprise – it starts and works perfectly. Bizarre!!)

We spend nearly a whole morning getting a ‘Pay as you Go’ SIM at Telefonica to use in our mobile and iPad in Spain – costs 25 euros for 3 months – not a bad deal we feel and it comes in handy in so many ways. Boy but they need to get their Customer Service system more efficient.

Next we follow a city walk recommended in our Lonely Planet guide. This takes us to areas such as Chueca the gay area, which looks interesting and grungy. We also go to the Salamanca neighbourhood which gets a good write up but we aren’t inspired or impressed. Next we go to the Parque de Buen Retiro, which for us is the most impressive area in Madrid - a sort of Hyde Park Corner with more class. Walking through the park we end up outside The Prado Museo which is a pretty unimpressive building, despite what the guide books say. We’re not sure the main contents are to our taste or interest so we don’t visit it.

After passing the Palacio Real (a sort of white block/concrete version of Buckingham Palace), and taking time out to find cover from the rain, we get to the centre of Madrid and come across an ‘Arch de Triomphe’ Madrid Style (at Plaza de la Cibeles), and the main artery leads into the central shopping area. The streets are full of banners for the feast of San Isidoro (the patron saint of Madrid) in a few weeks. This gives the area an air of a festive mood.

Food wise we find a few hits. Just near the hostel is a great breakfast joint with croissant a la plancha and terrific coffee. Up the road we try Churros at Chocolateria de San Gines – a local Institution - and the experience is fabulous on many levels. It’s the only dish in the place which has a lovely atmosphere, the service is traditional and the churros are awesome! Another day we try Churros at Valor which were disappointing although the place has a great write up in the guide book. However, later in our travels we discover that Valor chocolates are really good especially the ones with almonds – they use the famous Marcona almonds in them and taste delicious. Well worth the 3 euros for a large slab. We definitely indulge our sweet tooth with them more than once.

For dinner we head to Taberna La Bola for the Madrid speciality, Cocido a la Madrilena (meat & chickpea stew) – it’s a food institution and the meal is really good - 50 euro but cash only.

We try Casa Revuelta for lunch one day, which is famous (and rightly so) for its fried Bacalao. It’s definitely worth a visit. In the evening we go back to Chueca and visit Bocaito for some great Tapas with Cantabrian Anchovies with avocado, fried baby squid, Croquetas and Tortilla (our best ever) washed down with a Ribero del Duero, which is the wine of the region, and preferred to Rioja generally in the city.

Despite the life style which involves a lot of eating & drinking, we notice that very few people seem obese. We reckon if we carry on with all the yummy food and wine we’d be huge!

What is noticeable is how ‘Spanish & European’ the capital seems. It’s also quite insular with a lack of diversity in people, food and places. We only saw 2 Indian Restaurants, (which looked like dives), 1 Korean, some Japanese, 1 Thai and Lebanese eateries.

The only complaint we have is that some of the women tend to be very impatient and rude and hate to wait their turn to be served and just barge in; C is learning the Spanish for “Oi! Wait your turn!” But we do give full marks to drivers, who all stop for pedestrian at marked crossings & Spain has very many of them. Also where they have them, Pedestrian Crossing lights come on very frequently. Clearly a pedestrian friendly society! Many folks ride scooters and there so much less smog & fumes around. Even when it’s busy, there is little if any ‘Road Rage or Beeping’. Well done Spain!

Next day we head to Córdoba (via the airport car park) but screw up at the Metro station and buy Metro tickets instead of the Renfe train so pay €5 each instead of €2.60 and have to make more changes. So watch for this at the ticketing machines as it’s not very clear & there are no refunds. Hey ho! However, it’s still quite quick though to the airport to pick up the car.

We take the fast road so pay tolls but Cordoba is 250 miles away and we want to get there sooner than later so are happy to pay the Toll which isn’t too bad.

We’ve been to Cordoba before but this time we are staying and really looking forward to it – and the rest of our visit to Andalucia. See you there…..

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