Friday, 23 April 2010

Madrid: My way or the guide's way?

When I think of guided tours, I automatically conjure up a mental image of a large group of rucksack-wearing, camera-toting middle aged tourists (some of whom are committing that most incomprehensible fashion faux pas of combining socks and sandals) being herded around a city's key sights by a harried-looking guide frantically waving an umbrella in the air for the flock to follow. I realise that my imagination is stereotyping wildly, but there's at least a grain of truth in there somewhere. As I'm the kind of girl who prefers to do some pre-trip internet research, grab a good guide book and go for a wander, I had avoided guided tours until earlier this month. Two friends visiting for the weekend effusively recommended the Madrid tourist board's Gran Vía Centenary Year tour, so I decided it might be a good time to put aside my prejudices and give guided a go. I reasoned that a shorter, more focused tour concentrating on a particular area of interest was probably a safe option for my first experience.

On arrival at the point of departure, I was pleased to note that none of my fellow guidees was sporting a dodgy footwear/ hosiery combo, and even more cheered by our guide's enthusiasm (you need a bit of a kick start on a Sunday morning, after all). Our sprightly guide soon brought the history of Madrid's main street to life, banishing any lingering trepidation: you see, I've never been a big fan of Gran Vía. I tend to think of it as a slightly less hectic Spanish version of London's Oxford street with a bit of the West End thrown in for good measure. Come to think of it, that actually makes it sound quite nice... Devised by the tourist board as part of the ongoing series of events to celebrate Gran Vía's 100 year anniversary, the visit began at the street's oldest end, close to Calle Alcalá. As I followed our guide up the first section of the street, which was built in three distinct phases, she pointed out beautiful buildings I had previously passed without really noticing. One such gem was the Oratorio del Caballero de Gracia, an 18th century church which was cleverly preserved when Gran Vía was constructed, and now sits in a 20th century 'frame' created by its next-door neigbhours. We learned that the vast Telefónica building was designed by an American architect, adding a 1920s Chicago style to the street's architectural medley. As our group was small we had the chance to go inside and witness the clever fusion of art deco and state of the art; a curious juxtaposition of patterned marble floors and staircases flashing with animated graphics. But it was the anecdotes that really made the tour a great experience: our guide was a knowledgeable local lady who regaled us with tales of Gran Via through the years, describing its exclusive gentlemen's clubs and sharing the secret of Sofia Loren's late nights at the famous Chicote bar. Apparently Ms Loren had a weakness for bartender Perico Chicote's gin and tonics and regularly propped up the bar until closing time when she was in town. After an hour and a quarter of architectural insights and amusing stories, I found myself much more disposed to the idea of a guided tour, seeing how a local guide can help to bring a place's history to life and encourage you to really see the streets you walk down. Although I still wouldn't want to take a whistle stop tour of a city's highlights before being shoved on a bus to the next destination, a tour like this one is definitely a good idea for those with specific interests or who want to see a particular area in more detail. Equal opportunities fans will be glad to know that I'm shelving my stereotypes and planning to take a tour of Madrid's barrio de las letras.

Guided tours may never have been trendy, but it now seems that their more successful travel aid the guide book is getting a bad press. The Sunday Times Travel Magazine recently published an avidly quoted and re-tweeted article on guidebook alternatives, which included options such as podcast tours and mobile phone apps. Call me cynical, but aren't these just guidebooks reformatted and tweaked to appeal to the iphone generation? As a traditionalist with a mobile phone that just about has a colour screen, I think I'll be sticking with good old print for now. I do understand why travellers are seeking new options, though, as it's become a common sight to see multiple tables of travellers clutching the same Lonely Planet at restaurants around the globe. The mass-market appeal of travel guides can lead to visitors following the same routes, taking in the same sights and dining in the same spots. That said, I personally wouldn't be without one: I love beginning to research a trip by cracking open a new Rough Guide or Time Out Shortlist, dreaming of the places I'll soon be visiting. However, I always make sure to use them as a starting point rather than the gospel that must be obeyed to the letter, as for me, travel is an experience that broadens the mind, rather than something which follows a rigid itinerary.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Alcalá de Henares: A capital escape

Most visitors to Madrid choose either Segovia or Toledo as their day trip destinations. Their popularity is understandable: Segovia boasts an impressive 894 metre long Roman aqueduct and a fairytale-esque castle said to have inspired its Disney counterpart, while Toldeo is renowned as 'the city of three cultures' and has a wealth of Christian, Jewish and Muslim monuments to explore. However, being so appealing comes at a price: from spring to autumn, both towns are almost taken over by tourists, especially at weekends. So, for those seeking a bit more solitude on their sojourns out of Madrid, the university town of Alcalá de Henares is a great option.

Often overlooked by foreign visitors to Madrid, Alcalá is a mere 35km and 45 minute train journey from the city centre. Not only is it home to the third-oldest university in Spain (after Salamanca and Valladolid), Alcalá is also the birthplace of the renowned author of Don Quijote, Miguel de Cervantes. As the self-titled 'city of arts and letters', modern-day Alcalá certainly isn't lacking in culture either: it has an annual Cervantes festival and a nineteenth-century theatre with a diverse programme of concerts and performances. In June it plays host to a month of plays by Golden Age greats including the famous dramatists Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega. If you're wondering what I'm rambling on about, it's probably worth pointing out that I'm a closet Spanish theatre geek who once studied these two writers.

For those of you who don't share my admittedly specific interest in Spanish theatre, fear not: there's plenty to attract the casual visitor too. Stepping off the cercanías commuter train, it's a short walk from the station to the centre of town. And what a centre it is; full of well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings, pretty plazas and the colonnaded Calle Mayor, part of Alcalá's former Jewish quarter. My visit began with a bargain breakfast on the sunny terrace of Café de los Libreros - just €2.50 for coffee and a generous serving of toast. After soaking up the spring sun for a while, we took a wander through the town, acclimatising to the relaxed atmosphere and gentle pace - a welcome change from the constant commotion of the capital city. We noticed lots of storks' nests perched atop the towers and spires of Alcalá's historic buildings: a bit of research has since informed me that the town is home to around 90 pairs of storks, attracted by its location near the Henares river. Whatever the reason for their presence, it was certainly quite an experience to see the huge birds swoop through the sky before landing in their rooftop nests. We reached the beautifully-designed Plaza de Cervantes, Alcalá's main square, and sat for a while on a bench amid the flower beds, watching the alcalaínos saunter past and being watched by the storks, sitting proudly above us.

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