The Heart of the Iberian Peninsula
by Michael Morcos
Published in the January-February 2005 Issue of Canadian World
Photos by M. Morcos and Courtesy of Instituto de Turismo de
España, TURESPAÑA www.tourspain.toronto.on.ca
Visiting Spain is not only about sun, great cuisine, and a
warm welcome, but also about its rich heritage of monuments
and dazzling natural environments. There is a perfect Spanish
destination to suit everyone’s expectations, and due to its
semi-arid Mediterranean climate, Madrid is considered as an
all-year-round destination. This was reaffirmed on my recent
five-day trip to Madrid and environs organized by the Tourist
Office of Spain in Canada and Air France for Canadian travel
I had visited Spain quite a while ago during my backpacking
days and was amazed this time at how much Madrid had grown and
changed, whilst still retaining its legendary Iberian charm.
Over the past decade, the Madrid Region’s population had
dramatically increased and currently stands at over five
million. Madrid is now considered by many observers to be one
of the most dynamic, liberal and tourist-friendly European
One: Getting There
After a Sunday evening departure from Montreal’s Pierre
Elliot Trudeau International Airport with Air France, I
arrived at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris on the following
Monday morning for a connecting flight to Madrid’s Barajas
International Airport, which lies just 17 kilometres outside
of the city. Our tour group, accompanied by our Tourist Office
of Spain representative, was whisked to the ultra-modern and
well-appointed five-star Hotel Hesperia, located in the heart
of Madrid's commercial and business centre at 57 Paseo de la
After checking in, we enjoyed a delectable lunch at the
hotel’s Manzana Restaurant. Although experiencing the
customary jet-lag after a transatlantic flight, I was
impressed by the range of virgin olive oils that were
available at our table for the Spanish custom of bread-dipping
prior to the main course. The restaurant also offered a fine
selection of wines that complemented its impressive menu.
Out and About
I spent the rest of Monday afternoon exploring downtown Madrid
by foot and on the city’s extensive subway system (the
Metro). There are 190 stations on 12 interconnected lines that
run for some 226 kilometres (www.metromadrid.es).
Practically every attraction or point-of-interest is close to
one of these stations. During my unescorted walk, I was
impressed by the amount of new construction sites and the
constant bustle in the city. Madrid’s young people were
attired in the latest fashions and sported all the modern
That night we were wined and dined at the Restaurante El Botin,
located at 17 Calle de Cuhilleros. El Botin was founded in
1725 and is the world’s oldest restaurant, according to the
Guiness Book of Records. The menu featured fish and seafood
dishes of hake, sole, clams, shrimps and squids, as well as
the traditional Spanish fare of roasted or grilled meats and
roast chicken. The house specialities are hearty servings of
roasted suckling pig and baby lamb. El Botin’s historic
exterior and interiors, including its vaulted wine cellar
which now serves as one of its four dining rooms, are
definitely key ingredients of an unforgettable dining
Day Two: Touring Madrid
We began our escorted tour of Madrid’s attractions on
Tuesday morning. The city has been the capital of Spain since
1561. Founded by the Moors in the 9th Century, Madrid is
currently a modern, active city offering innumerable
attractions to the visitor. But its architectural heritage is
immense. Its beginnings as a medieval village have been
preserved around the Plaza de la Paja.
Madrid of the Austrias
We visited the quarter known as Madrid of the Austrias, near
the Puerta del Sol. This is the traditional city centre, which
was constructed in the Golden Age. In this area are found the
Plaza Mayor, which is colonnaded and considered to be one of
the finest in Spain, and the Plaza de la Villa, with its
beautiful City Hall Building. Both are Baroque in style and
date from the 17th century.
Real de Madrid
Next was a tour of the Royal Palace, surrounded by gardens
that are now partially open to the public. It is a magnificent
example of 18th century palatial art. The Royal palace of
Madrid was built in the eighteenth century by order of Philip
V on an ancient fortress site that had previously been a
Sachetti began the work in 1738 and it was completed in 1764.
Sabatini created the southeast wing and the grand staircase or
staircase of honour. The base of the building is square with a
large central courtyard. Principe (Prince) Doorway, on the
east side of the building leads to the central courtyard. The
Sabatini gardens as well as the Campo del Moro (Moor's Field)
are two other notable attractions of the palace, along with
all of its façades. There are conflicting views as to
categorising the palace within a specific style, as some parts
are more Baroque while others are Neoclassical in essence
depending on the architect.
There are many interesting rooms on public view inside the
building, the most outstanding of which are Alabarderos Hall,
Columnas (Columns) Hall, Espejos (Mirrors) Hall and the King
Charles III of Spain's Room. The palace walls are adorned by
paintings by Velazquez, Goya, Rubens, El Greco and Caravaggio,
among other masters.
After an excellent lunch at La Broche located in the Hotel
Miguel Angel (www.occidentalmiguelangel.com),
we proceeded to the Prado, the Spanish art gallery par
excellence. The Prado is not only important to Spain but also
to the entire world, as it houses one of the most spectacular
pictorial collections ever assembled under one roof.
The museum is not only home to one of the largest art
gallery's in the world, it also houses sculptures, drawings
and other artistic treasures. The exhibits were in large part
acquired from the royal collections of Carlos IV. The works
are distributed over three floors, by author, schools, and
Of worthy note is the collection of Spanish painting from the
17th and 18th century, the period of the incomparable Velázquez
and Goya. There is an extensive collection of their respective
works exhibited in these rooms, amongst them the fabled Goya
“Majas”, the clothed one and the naked one. The content of
the museum is of incalculable economic and artistic value. 'El
jardín de las Delicias' by El Bosco or the famous 'Las
Meninas' by Velázquez are but two essential works (a
difficult choice) that must not be missed.
That night, after a short rest at the hotel, we were taken to
the Corral de la Moreria for dinner and a show featuring the
flamenco, a truly Spanish art (www.corraldelamoreria.com).
To feel the passion and energy it transmits is an
extraordinary experience. While in spain, everyone should
visit a tablao (flamenco club) at least once and experience
this "universal" art, whose roots lie in the deepest
of Spanish feeling.
flamenco, heartfelt song, accompanying guitar, rhythmic
tap-dance and clapping, all come together with the dance of
great artists, who often appear anonymously. Audiences are
unconsciously infected by the emotion and feeling that this
musical genre transmits.
There are many flamenco clubs in Spain (including the Madrid
Region), although they are most frequently found in Andalusia.
At a tablao you can have a drink, sample some tapas, or even
dine on some full-blown Spanish cuisine. Over the years, the
Corral de la Moreria has attracted an impressive international
clientele, as attested to by the huge wall in the entrance
hall covered with photos of famous personalities from the
entertainment, sports and political worlds.
Contact the local Tourist Office wherever you are staying in
Spain for more information. Bearing in mind that tablao clubs
usually have a limited capacity, it is well worth booking a
table in advance.
Day Three: San Lorenzo de El
On Wednesday, we left Madrid for the San Lorenzo de El
Escorial, located about 41 kilometres northwest of the city,
in the Guadarrama Mountains. This was the site chosen by
Phillip II for his magnificent Palace-Monastery. The work of
Juan de Herrera, the greatest genius of Spanish Renaissance
architecture, it was the grandest Spanish artistic undertaking
of its time. Its monumental importance is as great as the
influence it once exercised over the territories of the
Spanish Empire. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by
II used this Royal Residence as a pantheon for his family.
Building work began in 1563, under the direction of Juan de
Toledo. After his death, Juan de Herrera took up the reigns
and completed the work in 1584. The building has been made
with granite rock and is divided into three vertical sections,
with the King’s Courtyard in the centre. There are four
towers on the sides of the building, that measure 55 metres
tall and have been adorned with round metal balls at the top.
There are several rooms within the building which include
Ministries, a welcoming room, a religious service room, and a
Prince and Princesses room that are all joined together by
several arches. The church has a Greek-cross base, and the
chapel holds the funeral monuments of Charles V of Spain and
Philip II. The library also deserves special mention. It lies
on the second floor of the west wing and contains around
45,000 books dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries. This impressive complex contains 15 cloisters, 13
oratories, 86 staircases, 88 fountains, over 1600 paintings, 9
towers and 73 sculptures. Visitors to Madrid should not miss
this short one-day excursion.
After our tour, we had lunch at La Cueva Restaurant, a
rambling, 18th-century former inn, which specialises in the
regional cuisine of Castile-La Mancha.
Valle de los Caídos
Taking advantage of our visit to El Escorial, we took the
short trip 13 kilometres north to the Valle de los Caídos
(Valley of the Fallen), a grandiose funerary monument built
between 1940 and 1956 in memory of the victims of the Civil
War of 1936.
This lovely, secluded valley was chosen for the location of
the monument which stands in the mountains of Guadarrama, in a
landscape of granite rock and green pines. An imposing stone
cross, some 150 metres tall with arms reaching some 46 metres
wide, rises over the basilica that was involuntarily carved
250 metres into the rock face by Republican prisoners of war,
some of them dying during the 16 years that it took to build.
In the basilica, there is a white headstone that covers the
tomb of Francisco Franco, the infamous dictator of Spain from
1936 to his death in the 1970s. Hidden from public view are
the 40,000 tombs of the soldiers of the warring factions of
the Civil War.
Many Spaniards consider this monument to be a symbol of the
dictatorship (which thankfully ended with Franco’s death)
and therefore, it has been shunned by many tourists.
Nevertheless, the magnificence of its views and the monument
itself make a visit highly recommended.
On returning to Madrid, we had a well-earned rest at the hotel
before being escorted to dinner at the fabulous Cafe de la
Opera, where the waiters are lyrical singers! While serving
the courses, the waiters and the chef took turns singing arias
from famous operas, much to the delight of the patrons. The
restaurant is located in the Hotel Opera at 2 Cuesta de Santo
right in the very heart of the historical centre of Madrid, in
front of the Teatro de la Opera and only a few metres from the
Day Four: Toledo
On Thursday, we made the 68 kilometre trip Southwest from
Madrid to Toledo, the historic capital of the autonomous
region of Castile-La Mancha. Surrounded on three sides by a
bend in the Tagus River, Toledo stands atop a hill overlooking
the arid plains of New Castile, a natural fortress in the
center of the Iberian Peninsula. It was the longstanding
capital of Spain, though it lost that title to Madrid in the
Toledo is one of the Spanish cities with the greatest wealth
of monuments. It is known as the “city of the three
cultures”, because Christians, Arabs and Jews lived together
there for centuries. Behind its imposing walls, Toledo still
preserves its artistic and cultural legacy in the form of
churches, palaces, fortresses, mosques and synagogues.
great diversity of artistic styles makes the old quarter of
the capital of La Mancha a real open-air museum. This has led
to it being declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Nearly
every stage of Spanish art and architecture are represented in
Toledo, which has Moorish-Mudejar-Jewish buildings, such as
the Transito and Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogues; Gothic
structures, such as the splendid cathedral: and many
well-preserved Renaissance buildings.
In the 16th century, the city became home to El Greco, and
Toledo has many of his paintings, among which is "The
Burial of the Count of Orgaz", his masterpiece which is
housed in the Mudejar Church of Santo Tome. Among its many
museums, of special note is the one located in the old Santa
During our fascinating day-long tour of Toledo, we paused for
lunch at the Parador Hotel (www.parador.es).
Paradores are hotels that are located in restored castles,
palaces and convents across Spain, rescuing them from ruin and
abandonment and preserving Spain's historical and cultural
heritage. Located on the Cerro del Emperador by the river
Tagus, Toledo’s Parador offers an incomparable panoramic
view of the monumental buildings of Toledo, including its most
precious jewels, such as the cathedral, the Alcázar
(fortress) and the synagogues.
Typical dishes from Castilla-La Mancha are offered in the
Parador’s dining room. Our group discovered tasty regional
dishes such as stewed partridge, roast lamb, cheese and honey
ice cream, and Toledo’s famous marzipans.
After retuning to Madrid, we had another Spanish culinary
delight in store. On the last night of our visit, we dined at
La Barraca (www.interocio.es/labarraca), located 29 Calle
Reina. La Barraca is reputed to serve "The Best Paella in
Madrid." They are said to have been serving it since
1935. Anyone who wants to sample true Spanish paella will not
The "Paella Mixta" was incredible and is meant to
serve two. The flavor combination of the saffron rice mixed in
with the seafood and chicken were absolutely mouth-watering.
Combined with an excellent Spanish wine, friendly service and
a cozy ambience, this restaurant was a fitting finale to a
memorable sojourn in today’s exciting Madrid.
Day Five: The Return
As I checked out from Madrid’s Hotel Hesperia, thanking the
hotel’s management and staff for their gracious hospitality,
I was still spellbound by the amazing amount of sights, sounds
and tastes I had experienced in just five days. Imagine if I
had had more time...
On the flight from Madrid to Paris and the connecting flight
back to Montreal with Air France, my head was filled with
memories of the fun-loving people of Madrid, the rhythmic
sounds of Flamenco, and the delectable aroma of Paella.
A Note about Air France
Air France offers the best route from Montreal to Madrid (via
Paris), as neither Iberia nor Air Canada flies directly to
Spain and necessitate making connections through US airports.
Moreover, there are obvious advantages in using one carrier
for the entire trip. On my recent trip, I had the good fortune
of being upgraded to Air France’s business class for the
transatlantic flights and I greatly appreciated being treated
to the extra comfort and perks.
For More Info:
Tourist Office of Spain in Canada
2 Bloor West,
Toronto, ON M4W 3E2
Tel.: (416) 961-3131
1, Square Westmount, Bureau 1456
Westmount, QC H3Z 2P9
Attn: Consul General Montréal
Tel.: (514) 935-5235
2000, rue Mansfield, Bureau 1510
Montréal, QC H3A 3A3
Tel.: (514) 847-1106
E-mail: See Website
JFK Int'l Airport, Terminal 8
New York NY
to Destinations & Articles Listing