No trip to Spain is complete without day or weekend trips to the country’s minor cities, which give visitors a better understanding of the country’s history and heritage.
Barcelona and Madrid are obvious stops on most European travel itineraries, but travelers seldom make their way to Spain’s minor cities. However, to do the country justice, it is necessary to spend time in its smaller cities, which offer a wealth of history and culture that rivals that of the larger metropolises.
As a former capital of the Spanish empire, Toledo was a thriving multicultural city that was home to Christians, Jews and Moors. The town’s top tourist draw is the Cathedral, which boasts an art gallery showcasing the work of such artists as Reubens, Raphael, Goya, and El Greco.
The World Heritage-listed Monastery at El Escorial houses a royal palace, monastery, library, and basilica. The complex was the seat of the Spanish empire during the reign of Philip II, who did his part to stop the spread of Protestantism in Europe. In the Kings’ Pantheon, visitors come across the tombs of five centuries’ worth of Spanish kings.
Valle de Los Caidos
Set in a dramatic green valley, near El Escorial, it would be easy to miss this monument to Spain’s fallen Civil War soldiers were it not for a large marble cross. Built by political prisoners as a Fascist re-education project during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the monument houses a chapel and the graves of Franco and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Spain’s dictator prior to the Spanish Civil War. However, if you feel uneasy about visiting this monument, you’re not alone – many Spaniards would never consider making a trip here because of its association with Franco and Fascism.
Alcala de Henares
As the birthplace of Cervantes, Alcala de Henares is the Stratford-Upon-Avon of Spain. A short bus ride from Madrid, the quaint town provides a change of pace from the busy activity of the capital. The house in which Cervantes was born is now a museum and gives visitors a glimpse of 16th-century Spanish life as well as the humble beginnings of Spain’s greatest literary mind. The town is also the home of one of Spain’s oldest universities, the Universidad de Alcala, ensuring that there is an active student scene.
Salamanca is to Spain what Oxford is to England. One of the great Renaissance cities of Europe and home to one of the country’s most important universities, the town once attracted students from as far as France and Italy, including the likes of Cervantes, Hernan Cortes and Ignatius Loyola. The large student population also provides this town with a bustling nightlife. The Plaza Mayor is considered to be more beautiful than the one found in Madrid, a spectacular sight when it is lit up at night. When you arrive at the 12th century Romanesque Cathedral, try locate the frog and the astronaut carved into the exterior.
Segovia’s most recognizable landmark is the ancient Roman aqueduct. It is best viewed at Azoguejo Square, where it reaches its highest height of 28 meters. However, the highlight of most visits is the Alcazar, an 11th-century castle famous for being Walt Disney’s inspiration for the Cinderella castle at Disneyland.
Granada holds as much significance in Spain’s history as does Boston and Philadelphia in the history of the United States. The city was the last Moorish stronghold before the Christian reconquest in 1492. The Alhambra, a beautiful, imposing Muslim palace, citadel and fortress, is one of the top attractions in Spain. With so much Muslim influence to be seen and felt throughout the city, you may at times wonder if you were in North Africa rather than Europe.