Siesta in the Sierra

Excursions in the Provinces of Madrid and Castilla-León


It may appear as if British Expat’s travel correspondent has lost his touch on exotic locations.

No more 1001 nights in Kurdistan.

No more incidents with Ossetian rebels on a Georgian mountain pass to Russia.

No more clashes with corrupt policemen in the Balkans.

Instead a column about Paris and now a travel feature on Madrid. Is Hajo’s World finally joining the mainstream of travel websites?

Not at all. A trip to Azerbaijan is firmly planned. The home of vampires, Transylvania in Romania, remains top of the list for 2002. Other Southeastern European destinations such as Slovenia and Albania, often postponed, may finally materialise this year or next. And a long planned visit to Scotlandistan has almost reached the flight booking stage.

But unfortunately a full business agenda, with the only welcome distraction coming from monthly flights to Bucharest, has slightly slowed down the pace at which Hajo seeks world domination, or exploration.

Hence, until all planned journeys have realised and afterwards found their way to my keyboard, I will have to feed you with some easily digestible material collected on more or less recent city trips.

Excursions around Madrid

During the summer months, leaving the city for a milder landscape may come as a welcome refreshment. Air humidity in Madrid often goes down to twenty per cent, turning every city tour into torture. On such a day, one should head for the countryside. Avila, Toledo and Salamanca are the most popular choices for daytrips, but also the most touristy ones. On a slightly less beaten path, let us explore the western and northwestern neighbourhood of Madrid.

El Escorial & Valle de los Caídos

30 miles west of Madrid, the town of El Escorial is the site of the Royal Monastery Residence. Built from 1563-84, it is one of rather few Renaissance buildings in Spain. The monastery is one huge square block with a tower in each corner and several courts and side wings on the inside.

At the centre of the building are the Basilica, the Royal Pantheon and the Pinacotheque with renaissance paintings of Flemish, Italian and Spanish masters. The Basilica is worth a look for its beautiful large altar room, but the rest of the church is rather plain. So is the pantheon, but it exudes the spirit of history – most Spanish kings are buried here. A highlight is the library with its beautiful paintings and frescos, unmatched anywhere else near Madrid. The library contains over 40,000 books from the private collection of Philip II.

A further 8 miles north of El Escorial lies Valle de los Caídos, a huge burial ground for victims of the Spanish Civil War. Although the graves themselves are not visible – except that of former dictator Franco – there are over 40,000 soldiers buried here. At the centre are the Basilica and the huge Santa Cruz Monument, a 150-metre high cross which overlooks the entire valley.

This site is somewhat controversial in Spain, because the monument and basilica were built in a 16-year long construction period by prisoners of war, many of whom died in the process. But one cannot really travel to Spain without visiting a memorial for the civil war, an event which has influenced Spanish consciousness throughout much of the 20th century.

Sierra de Guadarrama

Now for something much more beautiful and inspiring. The north and northwest of the Province of Madrid is made up of a scenic mountain range, the Sierra de Guadarrama. The one-hour drive from El Escorial leads up the pass to the town of Navacerrada, a popular Spanish ski resort. The road is very steep and full of hairpin bends, and thus requires good driving skills. This would truly make for one of the more difficult stages of the Vuelta, the Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France.

Along the way, there are spectacular views to be had of mountains, hills and valleys, and conifer woodlands. The railway to Puerto de Navacerrada follows a less steep route through the valley, but is no less picturesque. Outdoor fanatics may want to stay at the centre of Sierra, for some extensive hiking in the Valle de Fuenfría National Park near the town of Cercedilla.

At the peak of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain pass, the Puerto de Navacerrada marks the border between the Province of Madrid and the Province of Castilla León. This place has snow well into April, and even on midsummer days it can get rather chilly up here. Just the kind of refresher you might be looking for when in Madrid you can fry eggs on the bare floor.

From Navacerrada the road leads down to the town of San Ildefonso in a series of hairpin curves.

La Granja de San Ildefonso

La Granja de San Ildefonso is a beautiful palace and park on the northwestern slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama. It was built in 1720 by Felipe V, a grandson of the French king Louis XIV, and Felipe attempted to recreate his childhood memories of Versailles in the construction of La Granja.

Upon arrival, the Palace offers a beautiful front view: large old chestnut trees set against the baroque façade. The baroque style continues on the inside. Marble, gold and velvet are spread all over the place, and the room ceilings are decorated with magnificent frescos and huge crystal chandeliers. Although a fire destroyed much of the castle in 1918, all the rooms have been fully restored.

The real treasure of La Granja de San Ildefonso lies in its widespread park. Indeed one feels reminded of Versailles by the numerous fountains, lakes, bushes in all shapes and colours, and rows of chestnut trees. In the dry and hot climate of central Spain, San Ildefonso is a green oasis, sheltered from the burning sun by the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains.


Segovia lies ten miles west of San Ildefonso. Unlike many other old Spanish cities which gained importance either during the Arab rule or in the late Middle Ages, Segovia was already a centrepiece of the Roman Province Hispania Tarraconensis, under its Latin name Secuvia. According to legend Segovia was founded in 1076 BC by a great-grandson of Noah, Hercules the Egyptian. Thus Segovia is one of the few Spanish towns which bear remains of all periods of Iberian history.

If you are coming from San Ildefonso, your first view of Segovia will be the Roman Aqueduct. Built in 26 BC, it spans over 700 metres length and 30 metres height. The Aqueduct was in use until 1884 to transport water from the Acebeda river 10 miles away from the city.

The direct path to Segovia’s other attractions would be one of the steep alleys that lead up into the old town. Yet I would recommend that you take a little side trip along Plaza del Gila, Calle de San Millan and Calle de San Valentín. The latter leads to the park and Rio Clamores below the old city, from where one can catch a great view of the cathedral and the castle.

Stairs and alleys lead up from the river park to the central sight of Segovia, the cathedral, which has had a very troublesome history. The original Santa María Cathedral from the 12th century was located on a different site opposite the castle. In 1520 a revolt broke out in Castilla, led by Emperor Charles V. His followers gathered in the cathedral, whereas the Royalists occupied the castle. The result of the battle was the almost complete destruction of the old cathedral.

The construction of the new cathedral started in 1525. Although this new church is mainly Gothic in style, the incorporation of some of the remains of the old cathedral has resulted in a mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Plus there are many elements of the typical Spanish style which has resulted from the mix with Arab architecture in the early Middle Ages. Many of the side altars are baroque. Hence the cathedral of Segovia constitutes a combination of architectural styles which is rarely to be found elsewhere in Europe.

At the end of the huge rock which is the ground for the old part of Segovia, the Alcazar castle reaches into the landscape like the bow of a ship. The Alcazar is a mighty fortress. Its construction began in the 12th century and lasted well into the 16th century, and the latest expansion was carried out in 1764 to house an artillery academy. Much of the castle was destroyed in a fire in 1862 and subsequently restored.

On the inside the Alcazar resembles an oriental palace, which results from the Trastámara Dynasty’s love for Segovia. Henry IV turned it into his royal residence and in 1452 had the oriental elements added, including a whole hall with pine cone decoration. In 1474, the famous queen Isabella I of Castilla was crowned in Segovia, and in 1492 Cristobal Colón (Spanish for Christopher Columbus) came to the Alcazar to report to Isabella his discovery of what he thought was the sea route to India.

When you’re done with the main sights, Segovia is an inviting spot to stroll around the old city with its picturesque small alleys. Or you may wish to rest over a cup of coffee in one of the many street cafés on Plaza de la Catedral or Plaza Mayor. A promenade along the old city walls provides some nice views of the surrounding area. Segovia is also a good place to buy souvenirs and handicraft works, they are a lot cheaper here than in Madrid.

You shouldn’t leave Segovia without enjoying an extended dinner. The local cuisine is famous for piglets and lambs. Start your meal with grilled local chorizo sausage, and pick a lamb joint as your main course. If you are travelling with a larger group, a whole suckling pig may be the perfect choice.

Having come that far, you don’t have to go back through the mountains to return to Madrid. The direct route through the plains lasts around one and a half hours and is easy to drive even at night.

Some Travel Advice


Travelling to these recommended sights is most convenient by car, in fact for some places this is the only possible transport. El Escorial, Segovia, and Puerto de Navacerrada (Sierra Centro) can also be reached by train from Madrid; however, they are badly interlinked. If attempting this excursion with public transport, it would have to be split into two separate tours.

Seasonal Variations

The mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama carry snow until the end of April. Thus the climate in the villages of the Sierra and at San Ildefonso is a wee bit chilly during winter months. Should you be taking the mountain route from Madrid to Segovia via the Sierra and San Ildefonso in winter or spring, do expect road jams due to masses of Spanish skiing tourists. A more sensible approach during the winter may be to limit the tour to El Escorial, Valle de los Caídos and Segovia and stay on the main roads in the plains.

Travel Literature

Cees Nooteboom, Roads to Santiago
Harvill Press, New Edition 1998, ISBN 186046419X
Paperback, 320 Pages with Photographs, UK List Price £8.99

This book is an absolute must for anyone travelling to Spain for anything other than its beaches. Cees Nooteboom is a prolific Dutch novelist, poet and essayist born in 1933, with a huge fan community particularly in continental Europe. I personally believe that he is a good bet for a future Nobel Prize for Literature.

In Roads to Santiago he has picked up on the medieval theme of the pilgrimage on the Jacob Path and has come up with an intelligent and insightful collection of essays on Spanish sights, landscapes, history and culture.

Since the Middle Ages both pilgrims and skilled craftsmen have embarked in thousands on a journey from Northern Europe and the British Isles through Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Whereas the pilgrims have sought absolution and cure from disease, the Cathedral of Santiago has been the main inspiration for Gothic buildings in Europe. Many British masons learned their craft here and applied it to the Gothic cathedrals of the British Isles.

Nooteboom himself does not restrict his modern-day pilgrimage to the Jacob Path alone, but has expanded his observations to the whole Spanish mainland, and has embraced history, philosophy, architecture, nature and fine arts in his essays. The result is an extremely enlightening book and an intellectual, yet easy-to-read travel guide to Spain.

Roads to Santiago includes two essays on Segovia and San Ildefonso, which are part of the excursion I have described in this article.

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