The Old Spanish Capital

Well that was Toledo’s status until the upstart village of Madrid down the road began to take on airs and pretensions. It was the Visigothic capital of Spain and remained so until the Arab conquest. As a result it is packed full of old stuff and, as readers will already know, DonQui is particularly fond of old stuff.

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Toledo may not be a bustling hive of modern activity so those seeking exciting nightlife and cutting edge fashion should probably go elsewhere. DonQui, however, is in his element trotting up and down the narrow, winding, cobbled, medieval streets. Around every corner there is another church, monastery, convent, synagogue or some other edifice which had been around since the time when most Anglo-Saxons were living in mud huts.

San Roman

Best of all is the Museum of Visigothic Culture set in the old Church of San Roman which had been a church, then a mosque and then a church again. The walls are covered with 13th century paintings which remind DonQui that at one time all medieval churches were painted like this.

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The Visigoths have not left much from their 300 year reign but DonQui is obsessed enough to get quite excited by the smattering of inscribed columns, coins and other artefacts. The explanations are in Spanish only but the setting is worth the trip alone and the normal €1 entry is waived.

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Not so at the main cathedral where entry is €8. DonQui hesitates for a moment. The helpful lady explains that this includes an audio-guide which produces a barely disguised look of disgust as DonQui cannot abide audio-guides. DonQui digs deep into his pockets, produces the required cash and trots inside. It is, of course, quite magnificent and the cathedral is held up as the epitome of the Spanish Gothic style (which has nothing to do with the Visigoths). In layout and decoration it is very much like the cathedral in Seville — designed to be an awe inspiring demonstration of church and state.

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The battle scenes carved on the backs of the wooden choir chairs are a not so subtle reminder of the connection between temporal and spiritual power. Depicting the reconquest of Spain by the Christians they show towns being besieged, Muslim defenders falling from the battlements and their leaders kneeling in capitulation.

DonQui actually much prefers his military to ecclesiastic history so he is delighted to learn that the old Alcazar — the great citadel — has been transformed into a most excellent military museum covering the entirety of Spanish military history from the Roman conquest through to modern Afghanistan.

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Very well laid out over several floors with good explanations in both Spanish and English it keeps DonQui enthralled for a good couple of hours.

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There is even a whole exhibition devoted to the history of toy soldiers with some magnificent dioramas and displays. Those who know DonQui well will understand how much he enjoyed this.

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There is not much going on in the evenings. With dinner starting no earlier than 9pm, and most locals arriving after that, there are worse ways to pass an evening than sipping on a drink or two and sampling the tapas — the latter coming in larger than normal portions. El Trebol and El Embrujo are DonQui’s favourites.

stones tributeOne evening as he makes his way back from dinner DonQui comes across a local Rolling Stones tribute band playing in the cathedral square. The setting is incongruous and the band not very good but DonQui finds it delightfully entertaining none the less.

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DonQui is in Toledo for 3 days. Much of his enjoyment in a new place comes from simply wandering around the streets and seeing what he can find. He never takes guided tours, preferring to sacrifice efficiency for exploration and quiet contemplation.

DonQui

He is quite surprised, therefore to see that the tourist board seems to have set up a number of signs to help him find his way around.

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These lead eventually to a statue of Miguel de Cervantes — author of the story about DonQui Oaty’s namesake. This is La Mancha after all.

Practicalities

For those less obsessed with old stuff than DonQui a day or two would probably suffice.

Toledo is easily reached by the fast efficient train from Madrid Atocha station which takes 33 minutes when the Spanish railway workers are not on strike. Every time DonQui has been in Spain there has been a strike but fortunately on the days he travelled his journeys were not disrupted. A car would be worse than useless as Toledo is a medieval city far more suited to Donkeys than automobiles.

DonQui secured a wonderful apartment in the heart of the old city through Airbnb. This is now his first port of call when looking for a place to stay as for less than the price of a hotel room he can have more space, greater privacy and the advice of a local to recommend good places to eat and drink.

As in most parts of Spain there are plenty of cafés and restaurants but the number of places to sit outside and watch the world go by are unusually limited. Most stick to traditional opening hours with lunch between 2-4pm and dinner after 9pm.

DonQui found it quite difficult to find a place to sit down for a drink in the late afternoon or early evening. Breakfast options were even more problematic with no bakeries close by nor any cafés offering anything suitable. DonQui had to make do with bread he bought the night before. His was grateful that his apartment was suitably equipped for making coffee.

First Taste of Toledo

On his first evening in Toledo, DonQui trots down towards the Plaza de Zocodover which he is led to understand in a hive of local activity.

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His heart sinks when he sees the place dominated by McDonalds and Burger King. Although Toledo was the capital of Visigothic Spain, DonQui takes strength in the certain knowledge that the Spanish could not wholly succumb to such barbaric invaders so he wanders on.

El TrebolThere, just around a corner and tucked into a most inviting courtyard, he stumbles upon the delightful Cerveceria El Trebol. He has enough grasp of the Spanish language to feel certain that a cerveceria would serve beer and that is exactly what he wants.

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Not only do they have beer but they have a rather nice local brew. It may not quite stack up to a Southwold Adnams but it is far better than your average industrial lager. Encouraged, DonQui decides to stay a while and have a bite to eat as well.

He goes for a plate of grilled Iberico pork with potatoes and tomatoes. Coming from a special breed of acorn fed pigs, the pork is dark, rich, tender and utterly delicious. DonQui is not normally a great fan of potatoes but any he has sampled in Spain are much more to his taste that those he has at home in England. He does not know if it is the variety, the soil or the climate but they are firmer and nuttier in flavour. The tomatoes too are deep red with none of the insipidness of those picked green and transported from many miles away.

Iberico porkBetter than your average tapas, it is a simple and flavoursome dish which leaves DonQui feeling utterly satisfied. And at €7 it is a bargain.

He rather expects that he may be paying a return visit.

Madrid in 24 hours

DonQui is in Madrid for a day. Well two half-days to be precise but precision never was one of his strong points. He has not been to Madrid before and the fact that there is so much to see poses a bit of a quandary. There are basically two options for a first time visitor to a great city with only 24 hours to explore.

Refugees welcomeThe first is to read up in advance; make lists, notes and careful plans; print off maps; dog-ear travel guides; and pre-book as much as you can. This will help to maximise every precious minute and make it possible to cram in all sorts of incredibly interesting things.

The second option is to find a pleasant outdoor café, then settle in for a bit. After a few hours of soaking up the atmosphere one should contemplate seeking out a suitable establishment for a leisurely lunch. A brief nap in the afternoon will help to restore after the morning’s exertions and to prepare for an evening walk followed by a few drinks and then supper. Readers will probably not be surprised to learn that DonQui is most assuredly following the second option.

hotel Santa Barbera.jpgHe is rather pleased with his hotel Petit Palace Santa Barbara which is located on the eponymous plaza in the city centre. It is built around an inner courtyard which also serves as a bar. The rooms are very modern even providing laptop computers (firmly secured to the desk!).

IMG_7572a.jpgThe Plaza Santa Bárbara is strewn with chairs and tables so DonQui thinks it should be quite easy to find a spot to settle in. Not so! Every table is already full by 7pm. Watching the natives he surmises that the trick is to circle around like a vulture over a dying animal and then swoop as soon as someone gets up. His first attempt at this fails. He is too polite and waits for the previous patrons to completely move away. This gives an opening for a more aggressive vulture to swoop in first. His second attempt is much more successful. Table secured, DonQui remains glued to it sipping his beer, reading a book and watching the world go by.

IMG_7565By 9pm the restaurants are opening so DonQui goes off exploring for a likely place. Just around the corner by Alonso Martinez Metro station is the Sagasta28 Bistro & Gourmet.

IMG_7566‘This will do very nicely,’ DonQui thinks so he trots down the steps and settles himself. The atmosphere is laid back and friendly — the food is quite excellent.

IMG_7568A lovely meal of rosemary lamp chops and fried potatoes washed down by a glass of red wine and accompanied by rustic bread and a sample of various olive oils really hits the spot.

So does DonQui actually do any touristy stuff in Madrid? Apart from strolling around a bit he does spend an hour or so at the excellent Archeological Museum. He particularly likes old stuff, especially Roman old stuff.

IMG_7635The museum has a very good collection, including exhibits from the Visigoths which are of particular interest to DonQui as his alter ego, Simon MacDowall, is writing a book about them.

Leisurely Lunch by the Beach

DonQui had one of the best of his Spanish long lunches a short stroll up from the beach at La Azohia.

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He found himself on a large terrace overlooking a classically curved Mediterranean bay. The restaurant — Antipodas — was at the end of the road, literally where the road ran out and the mountains began. This gave the place an exclusive and quietly secluded feel.

Antipodas view

DonQui looked out over the harbour and contemplated the wine list. There was a good Rioja on offer which after tasting it he deemed far better than average. The service was friendly and the place had relaxing a vibe that DonQui thoroughly enjoyed as he settled in for a couple of hours out of the sun.

The four course set menu of the day seemed interesting and at €12 it was great value. It was duly ordered and DonQui was delighted. Starting with a crisp fresh salad, the next course was a choice of chickpeas or vegetable soup. Both were very good.

Beef Stew

Then came a lovely beef stew which was aromatic and tender, with small pieces of meat and potatoes that stirred his senses. Now DonQui is not much of a potato lover but all the potatoes he ate in Spain were so much better than what he was used to. Instead of being floury and mushy they were firm and full of flavour.

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Duchess had a wonderful local fish — Melva, or frigate mackerel, which is a sort of cross between mackerel and tuna and an Andalusian speciality. It had been marinated in lemon and Duchess declared it was one of the best fish dishes she had ever tasted.

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The light crepe with soft dark chocolate was a melt in the mouth experience that perfectly rounded off the meal. So intent he was in finishing it off that DonQui forgot to take a photo until it was almost too late. Readers will have to forgive him for a moment of chocolate gluttony.

Sipping a café solo and contemplating a stroll back to the beach, DonQui began to think he might just dine at here again.

And indeed he did. In fact DonQui visited three times and each day tried the daily menu with varying success. Most courses were truly yummy but there were one or two not quite to his taste. On one visit Duchess went à la carte and decided to try the goat’s cheese salad which she reported to be ‘perfect’.

Rosé

The house wine by the glass was indifferent but there were some very good reds and rosés by the bottle at exceptionally reasonable prices. DonQui did not try any of the whites so cannot venture an opinion on them.

DonQui felt that luncheon at Antipodas made La Azohia a really great place to visit.

Lunch in Paradise

DonQui rather likes Granada — a city built for Donkeys not for cars.  The narrow, rough-cobbled streets of the ancient Moorish Albayzín district made him feel quite at home and he could imagine his ancestors carrying baskets up and down the hills to build the famous Alhambra.

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Now the Alhambra is justly famous and should not be missed. The problem is that everyone else knows this and the number of visitors each day are strictly limited.

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Buy a ticket in advance was the advice.

Excellent advice it was, except that when DonQui went online to reserve in early September, every day was booked out through to the end of November. The only option was a guided tour.

DonQui cannot abide guided tours.

Not to be put off he searched various websites. Most were fully booked but then Ticket Bar came up with availability in the afternoon of his first day in Granada. There was no immediate receipt for payment which gave DonQui a few nervous hours in case it had been a scam and then to his delight a voucher came through with an entry time to the Palacios Nazaríes at 15:00.

On the day, after wandering around the centre of Granada and looking in at the Baroque cathedral — all of which were so-so — DonQui trotted up the steps of the tourist information office.

By now it was around noon and DonQui’s ticket to the Alhambra did not allow general entry before 14:00 with a set entrance time to the palaces at 15:00. He wanted to know if there was a possibility to have lunch at the Alhambra before starting his visit.

The lady in the tourist office looked at DonQui — her face a picture of incredulity.

“But you will only have an hour. That is not nearly enough time!” she said, regarding DonQui as if he were a barbaric fast food Anglo-Saxon.

Suddenly her face cleared. She had a solution.

She told DonQui that he could take a taxi to the Parador which is a 5 star hotel in the centre of the Alhambra. It has a separate entrance and if he went there DonQui would not be bound by the entry times on his ticket. Looking at her watch the lady saw that it was nearly 12:30. A taxi from the centre would cost around €6 and would get him to the Parador before 13:00. This would give him a bit over 2 hours for lunch. Barely enough time, she acknowledged, but it might work.

And work it did.

DonQui often waltzes into 5 star establishments to have a drink and then use their facilities even though he is not staying. In his experience if one is dressed reasonably well and acts as if they own the place then no one questions their right to be there.

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So a taxi whisked him up the winding road past all the hapless tourists to drop DonQui off in front of the grand entrance where he was met by a suitably obsequious minion who guided him to a waiting table in the aptly named ‘gardens of paradise’ which had been designed for the Sultans’ pleasure many centuries ago.

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Duchess had a Gazpacho Andaluz…

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…while DonQui could not resit what the English translation of the menu called “fowl stew wrapped in fine dough”. The latter (Breua de pollo in Spanish) turned out to be very similar to a Moroccan bastilla — a delightful mix of chicken and/or pigeon, egg, almonds saffron and cinnamon amongst layers of ultra fine phyllo pastry. Washed down by an excellent rosé it was just what DonQui needed to set him up for his visit to the magical Alhambra.

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He suggests you should enjoy discovering it for yourself.

DonQui Recommends

Book Alhambra tickets in advance. The entrance times to the incredible Palacios Nazaríes are fixed for an exact hour but you can spend the rest of the morning or afternoon (depending on your ticket) wandering the grounds.

The Granada Card is worth considering as it gives entry to all the major sites, including the Alhambra, as well as the use of public transport.

Set aside at least 3 hours for the Alhambra visit. It is a place to enjoy at leisure not to rush around.

The Parador and the Hotel America are located in the middle of the Alhambra. You can go to them outside the official visiting times. Both are good for lunch or drinks with the former being top end and the latter more casual with old world charm.

Ticket Bar is a good Dutch website for obtaining tickets to various attractions. They got DonQui tickets to the Alhambra when Ticketmaster failed and there was no big mark-up.

Thieves and Vandals

DonQui knows that the Vandals took over much of Spain in the early 5th century. He thinks that some of their descendants still live their today.
Continuing his tale of car woes — in Tarragona the radio antenna and front licence plate were stolen from his car while it was parked overnight.

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In Granada DonQui woke up to find that thieves had smashed in the back window and then attempted to access the boot by pulling down the back seat to see if there was anything there worth stealing.

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There wasn’t but the bright Gold Car sticker on the back had obviously told thieves that it was a rented car and may have stuff inside.

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Now DonQui had a car without a back window. As he previously pointed out in All that is Gold Does not Glisten what he thought was full insurance was anything but.

Taking a deep breath he called Gold Car.

A very nice lady on the other end of the line told DonQui to take the car to Granada airport where it would be exchanged for a new one.

So far so good.

At Granada airport there was again a big queue at the counter. When DonQui got to the front an angry man told him he would have to wait until all other customers had been dealt with.
“We have to do a long report because of all the damage you have done to the car,” he barked.
When DonQui pointed out that he did not do any damage the man simply replied that it was DonQui’s fault for not taking out extra insurance on top of the extra insurance he already had and that he should go and wait in the café until they were ready to deal with his case.
Half an hour later a different man (not so angry) told DonQui that they were ready for him. He again pointed out that as DonQui did not have insurance with them he would have to pay for the damage himself and then try to claim it back of the non-insurance he had taken out with rental cars.com.

He told DonQui that he had two choices:
1: get it fixed himself and the man at the counter gave DonQui an address – CarGlass – where it could be done; or
2: They would exchange the car in which case they would charge more than what it actually cost to fix and “an additional €42 per day that the car could not be rented our while waiting to be fixed.”

“How long might that be?” DonQui ventured.

The man shrugged — a few days? a few weeks? He did not know.

DonQui went for option 1.

He now has a plastic rear side window fitted by the very friendly and efficient people at CarGlass and is waiting for the real window to come in. The men at Car Glass pointed out that Gold Car was actually fully covered for glass on their insurance policy so even though they would have charged DonQui huge sums it would have cost them nothing to fix it.

The Moral to the Donkey’s Tail

Before signing up for any extra insurance policy from any of the car rental websites check out the details and make sure that you understand the fine print. All the web booking sites such as rentalcars.com and holidayautos.co.uk seem to offer full insurance when in fact they are selling a separate policy to cover you if you have to pay something for not having insurance. Even when you read the fine print this may not be obvious as the websites dress it up to look very much like full insurance buy using words such as “full protection”.

By all means use web comparison sites to see what is available but if you want full insurance in most cases you will need to buy it from the car rental company.

If you rent from a budget company such as Gold Car, be aware that, like Ryanair, they make money by selling you all the extras such as a tank of petrol, drop off charges and their overpriced insurance policies. It may end up being cheaper, not to say less frustrating, to go to a larger more established company. Also many budget companies are off site in big airports like Heathrow so it may also involve a shuttle bus trip as well.

In Spain Gold Car’s low starting prices seem to ensure there will be very long queues at the airport and you may have to wait an hour or two before you get to pick up your car.

Car theft is a major problem in Spain so never leave anything at all inside the car. If you can take off all advertising stickers that tell would be thieves that it is a rented car.

All that is Gold does not Glisten

DonQui wanted to get around and see a bit of the Spanish countryside so he looked on line to see what a rental car would cost him. He saw what looked like a pretty good deal on rentalcars.com £75.00 for 8 days, pick up at Seville and drop off at Alicante with “Damage Excess Refund — Full Protection.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Well quite a lot actually.

car rental 1

DonQui’s heart sank when he saw the queue at Seville airport. The car was booked with GoldCar and if DonQui had read the reviews on TripAdvisor he would have avoided them like the plague.

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It took one and a half hours before DonQui made it to the front of the queue. There were three people working at the counter but it took them ages to process each person.

car rental 3

DonQui cast his eyes dolefully at the other rental car counters – no queues and when someone approached they were processed quickly and efficiently.

“You do not have full insurance,” the man behind the counter said after signing, photocopying and doing all kinds of stuff with lots of pieces of paper. “We recommend you take out ours.”

“Ah… but I do have full insurance,” DonQui replied smartly. He handed over the voucher, feeling pleased that he had signed up for the full coverage when he booked on-line. It cost more than the daily rental but he felt it was better not to take any chances.

“This is not insurance, this is ‘damage excess protection,” explained the gruff man across the counter.

Surely this was the same thing.

No it wasn’t at all.

The ‘non-policy’ that DonQui had bought from rentalcars.com had been dressed up to look like a full insurance policy but if he had read the fine print DonQui would have realised that it provided no coverage at all. What it did say it would do was to reimburse DonQui if he had to pay any excess to Gold Cars in case of accident or theft. They would take a €950 deposit, or block a credit card for that amount, and if something went wrong DonQui would have to pay and then try to claim it back from rentalcars.com.

The man behind the counter gave DonQui a rather patronising look and again recommended taking out additional insurance.

Not wanting to throw good money after bad, DonQui declined.

“Now you just need to pay for the tank of petrol,” gruff man informed him, “…And the drop off cost at Alicante.” That came to €100 each. When DonQui snorted in protest, gruff man tapped on the fine print in the contract. Gold Car’s policy was to sell you a tank of petrol at double the price and then the renter can return the car empty rather than the usual return with full tank. Although the car had been booked from Seville to Alicante for the £75 price quoted by rentalcars.com at the bottom of the contract was the note that explained the requirement to pay the car rental company an additional drop off charge. Gruff man’s face had an even more patronising look than before.
More than two hours after joining the queue at Seville airport DonQui was finally in the car and on his way to Granada.

“Thank God that is over, DonQui thought to himself,” with a sigh of relief.

However his car troubles were only just beginning!

To be continued…