In March 2019, while living in Andalusia, South Spain, my husband and I went on a fantastic road trip to the discovery of the Castiles (Castile- La Mancha and Castile and León).
We took a couple of days off and our car and just left for our new adventure.
That was a part of Spain I had never visited but always wanted to, especially because I knew that was also the region of the famous windmills of Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and honestly, windmills have always fascinated me. Besides, it was the first Spanish road trip we had even done together, so it was even more exciting for me.
On this road trip through the Castiles, we visited Toledo, in Castile-La Mancha, Salamanca, Ávila, Segovia, and Soria in Castile and León.
But, let’s buckle up and get this “A delightful Spanish Road Trip through the Castiles” started with no further ado.
The first stop of this trip was the wonderful city of Toledo, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive monumental and cultural heritage.
This stunning city is also known as the “Imperial City” as it was the main venue of the court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in Spain, and as the “City of the Three Cultures” for the cultural influences of Christians, Muslims, and Jews reflected in its history. It is also famous for the historical production of high quality bladed weapons, once standard weaponry among the Romans, and now common souvenirs of the city.
It was once the capital of Spain, until 1560, when Philip II of Spain moved his court to Madrid that’s approximately an hour’s drive away.
The essential sights of the city include the stunning Cathedral, the Alcazár (Fortress), the breathtaking Monastery of San Juan de Los Reyes, two Synagogues, the Church of St. Tomé, the Mosque of the Christ of Light, the astonishing Bridge of Alcantara, the Gate of Bisagra, and the Gate of the Sun.
The site of the Cathedral dates back to Roman times. Under the Visigoths, it was a basilica then, under Moorish rule, it became the city’s main mosque. After Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085, Alfonso VI promised to preserve the building as a mosque for the city’s large Muslim population. He broke his promise, though, and the construction of the great Gothic Cathedral of Toledo began in 1226. They did not complete the building until 1493 and, as a consequence of these two and a half centuries of work, there are different architectural styles employed in the construction, notably Mudéjar (Moorish style whilst under Christian rule) and Spanish Renaissance. Amongst the priceless art collection inside the Cathedral, the highlight is El Greco’s Twelve Apostles.
Be sure to climb the bell tower of the Cathedral, standing 44m/144ft tall, and relish the incredible city views from the top.
Admission fee: 10€ / 11.75$ p.p. (bell tower not included) or 12.5 €/ 14.7$ p.p. (bell tower included).
Perched on one of the highest points in Toledo, the Alcázar overlooks the city. This old fortress dates back to the 10th century, when it was the most important city of central Moorish Spain. Under Christian rule, it was supposed to be a royal residence, but the court of Carlos I moved to Madrid, so it served little purpose and became an army academy.
It became famous during the Spanish Civil War when it was almost destroyed during a 70-day siege. Franco, the Spanish dictator, had it rebuilt as a military museum.
If you’re pushed for time, or not interested in these kinds of museums, just have a look at the building from the outside, as the interior isn’t that interesting.
Admission fee: 5€ / 5.9$ p.p.
Monastery of St John of the Kings
The Monastery of St John of the Kings (Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes), with its exceptional cloisters, was originally a Franciscan convent built by Fernando and Isabella (Los Reyes Catolicos- The Catholic Kings) between 1477 and 1504 to celebrate their victory at the Battle of Toro. They had planned on being buried here but later preferred Granada as their final resting place after they took the great Moorish city (you can read more about Granada and its beauty here). Its cloister reminded me of the one in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon (click here to have a look at the article where I talked about it and let me know in the comments if you noticed a certain similarity as well).
Admission fee: 2.8€ / 3.3$ p.p.
After 1492, Fernando and Isabella expelled most of Spain’s Jewish population. In Toledo there had been 11 active synagogues before the expulsion, today just two remain as museums.
The Synagogue of the Transit (Sinagoga del Tránsito), dating back to 1355 is the most significant, as it has Hebrew inscriptions along its walls. It now houses a museum about the history of Jewish culture in Spain.
The second synagogue is the Synagogue of St Mary the White (Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca), which was built in the 12th century, making it the oldest intact synagogue building in Europe. In the 1400s, the Mudejar-style building became a church, although no major renovations were ever made.
Synagogue of the Transit entrance fee: 3€ / 3.5$ p.p.
Synagogue of St Mary the White entrance fee: 2.8€ / 3.3$ p.p.
Church of St. Tomé
Once a mosque, this tiny 14th-century church comprises a single room in the Jewish quarter in which El Greco’s greatest masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586) hangs from the main wall.
Entrance fee: 3€ / 3.5$ p.p.
Mosque of Christ of Light
Located inside the ancient medina where Toledo’s wealthy Muslim families used to live, the Mosque of the Christ of Light (Mezquita Cristo de la Luz) was built in 999. The square-shaped mosque is still in the same state as when it was erected, which makes it quite special.
When Christians took over Toledo in 1085, they converted it to a church. Then it became a hermitage.
On the building’s facade, you can make out Kufic (early Arabic script) inscription that was rediscovered in the 19th century.
Once inside, look up at the vaulting, which is just one of the many similarities with the famous mosque in Córdoba, built 30 years before.
Admission fee: 2.8€ / 3.3$ p.p.
Bridge of Alcantara
The bridge of Alcantara might just be the most beautiful of the historic bridges in Toledo.
Crossing the Tajo river, the old Roman bridge used to be the only entry to the city for pilgrims, below the medieval Castle of San Servando.
They rebuilt the bridge you see today in the 10th century after it was damaged.
They added a baroque triumphal arch at the bridge’s entrance in the 1700s, and standing below it you’ll have a wonderful view of the bridge’s crenellated tower framed by Toledo’s walls and Alcázar.
Gate of Bisagra
This magnificent construction that provides access to the city, the Gate of Bisagra (Puerta de Bisagra), dates back to the Moors, and while they reconstructed it in the 16th century, some of the original elements are visible today.
The name comes from the Arabic “Bab-Shagra“, meaning something like “the door that leads to the field”. The exterior comprises an arch of triumph, accompanied by two beautiful semi-circular towers, and crowned by the city’s imperial coat of arms.
Gate of the Sun
They built this northern city gate at the end of the 14th century showcasing the Mudejar design that you’ll see across the city.
It’s a hefty stone portal topped by battlements and with lots of interesting little flourishes. The walkway is a classic Moorish horseshoe archway and above this are smaller, intertwined scalloped arches.
The gate gets its name from the frieze above the passageway, which shows the ordination of the Visigothic scholar Ildefonso.
On the south side of the gate, there was once a moon painted here and on the north side a sun.
Then, we left Toledo toward Salamanca, whose historical centre UNESCO has also declared a World Heritage Site.
Famous for its University and for being one of the oldest worldwide, Salamanca is also known as “La Dorada” aka the “Golden City” for its sandstone buildings, which seem to change colours as the day goes on. In the morning they’re white, in the afternoon they turn pink and when night comes, the lights make them yellow. We also know it for the plateresque and Renaissance styles of its buildings.
Its highlights include the Plaza Mayor, the University of Salamanca, the Old and New Cathedrals, the House of Shells, the Art nouveau & Art Decó Museum, the Clerecía Church, and the Convent of St. Stephen.
One of the largest squares in Spain, the Plaza Mayor is the heart of the bustling city and one of the most beautiful in Spain, with its Baroque architecture and intricate decorations.
Small shops and restaurants are spread out around the bustling square and in the evening, musical groups provide some entertainment.
Along with the University of Salamanca, they consider Plaza Mayor as the emblem of the city and a National Monument. There’s simply no other place to start a visit to Salamanca.
On the ground level are 88 arches belonging to an arcade that runs around the entire perimeter of the square, broken up only by the entranceways. Above each pillar is a medallion portraying a famous figure from Salamanca’s prestigious history.
Interestingly, Plaza Mayor isn’t quite a square as all four sides have slightly different lengths.
Historically, this spacious square of Plaza Mayor has served as a setting for ceremonial occasions, as well as bullfights until the 19th century.
The University of Salamanca
Founded in 1134, the University of Salamanca is one of the most beautiful universities in the world. It is mostly because of the Escuelas Mayores, the main building whose crafted façade adorned with carvings represents an excellent example of the plateresque style added in 1592 by the Catholic kings. It is the first university in Spain, modelled after the University of Bologna in Italy, and also the third-oldest operating university in the world.
At one time, it was among the most prestigious in the world, and today it’s the main reason Salamanca is a prime destination for people who want to learn the Spanish language.
Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most well-known writer and author of the novel Don Quixote, was a student of the university.
You can find all the university’s main buildings centre around the Patio de Escuelas.
Old and New Cathedrals
Salamanca’s impressive New Cathedral and Old Cathedral lie next to each other.
The New Cathedral construction began in the 15th century and lasted until the 18th. It is considerably larger than its historic counterpart, and is one of Spain’s most impressive examples of Gothic architecture, while also featuring Baroque and Plateresque elements.
The Old Cathedral, the oldest Christian monument in Salamanca, can be accessed via the New Cathedral and was completed in the 14th century in an enchanting combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles.
While both represent different architectural styles, they are in harmony with each other. Visitors can climb the towers and stroll along the battlements, which offer a dazzling panorama over the city.
Admission fee: 6€ / 7.05$ p.p. (includes the Old and the New Cathedrals, the Cloister and Chapter Houses).
House of Shells
Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight of the Order of Santiago de Compostela, built the historical House of Shells (Casa de las Conchas) in the 16th century.
The most notable feature of the palace is the facade decorated with carvings of scallop shells, the symbol of medieval pilgrims travelling the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. Over three hundred shells sculpted from sandstone adorn the outer walls of the building. The building also has Mudejar architectural elements, typical of Isabelline art. Notice the Gothic coat of arms on the entrance door and the intricate wrought-iron grilles on the windows.
While it served as Maldonado’s palace back in the 16th century, nowadays the House of Shells is home to the public library and an information office.
Originally known as “the Royal College of the Company of Jesus”, the Clerecía Church was built in the early 1700s by the order of the wife of Philip III of Spain, Margarita of Austria, and featured typical Baroque elements.
The building incorporated a section for the church, and classrooms and a monastery space where the monks lived.
They built its towers to bring believers closer to heaven and offer a dazzling view over the roofs of the city. Known as the Scala Coeli or “stairway to heaven”, a visit here involves a climb up the church tower to admire some outstanding views.
Nowadays, the Clerecía is the headquarters of Salamanca Pontificia University.
Art Nouveau & Art Decó Museum
The exceptional Museo Art Nouveau y Deco, also known as “Casa Lis”, is one of the most renowned in the region and offers artistic masterpieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. The artefacts range from impressive collections of paintings, sculptures to ceramics and art deco pieces.
The dazzling building was originally a private palace built for the wealthy local entrepreneur D. Miguel de Lis and eventually opened as a museum in 1995. The intricate glassworks and plays of light make it one of the most stunning architectural constructions in the country.
The museum features the largest collection of porcelain dolls in the world and its chryselephantine statuettes and glassworks are noteworthy.
Admission fee: 5€ / 5.9$ p.p.
Convent of St. Stephen
The Convent of St. Stephen (Convento de San Esteban) is another of Salamanca’s prime examples of plateresque style architecture and one of the city’s most impressive churches in the city.
They built it as a convent of the Order of the Dominicans in the 16th and 17th centuries. While the church’s interior features impressive architectural features, it is the façade with its intricate carvings that are remarkable.
The building comprises three cloisters, with the Royal Cloister as the most noteworthy.
Admission fee: 4€ / 5.9$ p.p.
After the beautiful Salamanca, we visited Ávila.
Ávila is known for its formidable and perfectly preserved medieval walls, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Torquemada’s burial site, and its connection with Saint Teresa, patron saint of all kinds of things.
Its major landmarks are the Basilica of Saint Vicente, the City Walls, the Cathedral of the Saviour, the Convent of Saint Teresa, Plaza Mayor, the Jewish Neighbourhood, the Alcázar Gate, and the Viewpoint of the Four Posts.
Basilica of Saint Vicente
Outside the town walls beyond the homonymous Gate, the Basilica of Saint Vicente stands on the spot where they believe they have martyred Saint Vincent in AD 300. They built much of the church in the early 12th century, including part of the nave, the apses, and transepts; they completed the rest of the building in the 14th century.
The entrance is through a grand Gothic doorway framed by two towers. Within these are the “Chapel of the Orejones”, which is home to an inscription from 1321, and its twin, the “Chapel of the Palomeques”; access to the towers above is just inside the second entry.
The basilica has a Baroque altar and a nave that blends Romanesque and Gothic elements, with an impressive Gothic cupola, which dates from the mid-13th century.
Admission fee: 3€ /3.5$ p.p.
The ancient UNESCO-listed Ávila’s City Walls, which still enclose the Old Town (Ciudad Vieja), are the best-preserved in Spain. After the Christian Reconquest of Ávila, the ramparts became an important line of defence against the Moors. Raimundo de Borgoña, the son-in-law of Alfonso VI, built the massive circuit of protective walls between 1090 and 1099.
With a rectangular shape following the circumference of the town, the circuit extends 2.557 m/ 1.6 mi. The imposing stone wall stands at an average height of 12 m/39 ft, being never less than 3-metre/9.8-foot thick, along with crenellated towers and round turrets positioned every 20 m/ 65ft for guards to watch for coming invaders.
Nine entrance gates provided access to the city. The most spectacular of which are the Saint Vicente Gate and the Alcázar Gate, which incorporate repurposed Roman-era stones. Between these two gates is the apse of the Cathedral. Known as the “Ciborro”, the cathedral’s tower forms part of the town’s defences.
Another interesting feature of the wall sits on the north side of the town next to the Carmen Gate, a slender tower topped by storks’ nests (common all over the Castile region).
Visitors can begin a self-guided walking tour of the wall at the Carmen gate by taking the steps leading up to the walking path.
Admission fee: 5€ / 5.87$ p.p.
Cathedral of the Saviour
The spectacular Cathedral of the Saviour holds the distinction of being Spain’s oldest Gothic cathedral.
Its construction began in 1091 in Romanesque style, but they did not complete the building until the 14th century and the dominant architectural style was Gothic. The enormous granite structure has a fortress-like aspect.
One of the cathedral’s most notable features includes the figural decoration on the Apostles’ Doorway on the north facade that dates from the 15th century. A striking feature of the interior is the red and white granite stonework from the early building phase.
Other highlights are the 15th-century stained-glass windows in the transepts and the richly carved choir stalls with reliefs in Plateresque style.
Admission fee: 6€ /7.04$ p.p.
Convent of Saint Teresa of Jesus
The Convent of Saint Teresa of Jesus (Convento de Santa Teresa de Jesús) stands on the site of Santa Teresa’s birthplace. They designed it as a convent for Carmelite nuns, which, along with its church, the Church of St. Teresa, they inaugurated in 1636.
The church has a relatively plain Baroque facade with a statue of Saint Teresa over the doorway. The key feature of the interior is the “Capilla Natal”, the room in which Santa Teresa was born, converted into a lavishly decorated Baroque chapel. The altar displays a richly ornamented statue of Saint Teresa by Gregorio Fernández, depicting the moment of her vision of the Cross.
Like most Spanish cities, Ávila has a central plaza that is the natural gathering place for socializing. Ávila’s Plaza Mayor, also known as “Plaza del Mercado Chico” or the “Plaza Mercado Grande“, may not be the largest of its kind, but it is a wonderful place to visit.
This lovely plaza has a typical arcaded perimeter lined with plenty of restaurants and shops.
Gate of the Alcázar
The Gate of the Alcázar is the one closest to the old castle. It has two towers with battlements, which soldiers used to protect themselves from the enemy attacks against it.
This entrance had distinct elements to defend the city. One of them was an embrasure; its purpose is to allow weapons to be fired out from the fortification while the firer remains undercover. It also has a drawbridge and a moat.
The viewpoint of the Four Posts
The viewpoint of the Four Posts (Mirador de Los Cuatro Postes) is a monument comprising four five-meter Doric columns that frame a large cross made of granite. Built in the late 16th century, they intended it as a stopping point for those on a pilgrimage to the hermitage of Saint Leonard, significant for being one spot where Santa Teresa de Jesus rested.
This popular vantage point allows tourists to see Ávila and the entirety of its historic walls from above, as well as panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
We stopped here with our car on our way to the next stop, Segovia, as it stands a couple of kilometres (something over a mile) out of the city walls.
Segovia, whose city centre UNESCO declared of World Heritage in 1985, is famous for its historic buildings including three main landmarks: its midtown Ancient Roman aqueduct, its cathedral (one of the last ones to be built in Europe following a Gothic style), and the castle or Alcázar, which served as one template for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.
Other places of interest include the Church of the True Cross, just outside the historic town.
Ancient Roman aqueduct
The Ancient Roman aqueduct is one of the most spectacular legacies of the Roman Empire in Spain. It comprises 166 arches spanning over 17 km / 10.6 mi of the aqueduct, which transported water defying the laws of gravity, since the only thing that keeps the structure standing is its balance of forces; they used no kind of mortar in its construction.
Legend says that Segovia’s Aqueduct results from a pact between a girl and the devil in which she offered him her soul for water to reach her house before the crack of dawn.
Built around 50 AD, the aqueduct channelled water 17 kilometres from the Acebeda River in the Sierra de Fuenfría mountains through a deep valley to the ancient city.
The best place to view this monument is at the Plaza del Azoguejo, the hub of the Old Town, where the aqueduct reaches its maximum height of 28 m / 92 ft. The aqueduct ends at the Alcázar in an underground channel.
This majestic Late Gothic cathedral, the construction of which began in 1525, stands at the highest point of the Old Town dominating its surroundings. It was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain.
The cathedral’s intricately articulated facade and soaring towers create an impressive effect. The decorative Door of Forgiveness (Puerta del Perdón) was the masterpiece of Juan Guas.
Upon entering the enormous vaulted interior, its Gothic grandeur strikes visitors. Illuminated by vibrant stained-glass windows, the 105-meter/344-foot-long sanctuary has a sense of serenity and harmony.
Fine sculptures, artworks, and altars decorate the cathedral’s 20 chapels, which are closed by grilles. The beautifully crafted main altarpiece of marble, jasper, and bronze and displays a 14th-century ivory figure of the Virgen de la Paz.
Admission fee: 3€ / 3.5$ p.p.
Dating back to the 12th century, the Alcázar served as the royal residence of King Alfonso X in the 13th century. They enhanced the building in elegant Gothic style for Henry IV in the 15th century. They completed the last architectural renovation in the 16th century.
The entrance to the castle is at the “Torre de Juan II”, a 14th-century tower ringed by 10 semicircular turrets.
Visitors can tour all the rooms of the Alcázar, which are exquisitely furnished in period style with tapestries, arms, and armour. The Throne Room (Sala del Solio) is noteworthy for its stunning gilded ceiling. The Galley Room (Sala de la Galera) has arched windows offering exceptional views of the river valley. You can also ascend the Tower of John II to admire the views. From this vantage point, the views of the surroundings are amazing, including stunning panoramas of the town, the Sierra de Guadarrama, and the Meseta.
Admission fee: 9€ /10.57$ p.p.
Church of the True Cross
Listed as a National Monument, the Church of the True Cross (Iglesia de la Vera Cruz) is a splendid Romanesque church on a lonely road outside the historic town. Founded by the Knights Templar in the 13th century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the knights originated, inspired it.
The church has a simple, austere interior with three semicircular chapels and Mudéjar-style vaulting. One can feel a sense of mysticism in the sober sanctuary.
There’s a raised gallery around the nave and the flags and insignia of the Order of Malta are draped around the interior.
Admission fee: 2.5€ /3$ p.p.
Being just outside the town of Segovia, we visited it on our way to our next and last stop, Soria.
They linked the History of Soria to the neighbouring Celtiberian settlement of Numancia, whose inhabitants led a heroic defence of the city against the siege of the Roman Empire (2nd century B.C.). Later, because of its strategic situation, the area was the subject of a battle between Christians and Muslims (9th century). After its incorporation into the Crown of Castile, Soria experienced its peak during the reign of Alfonso VIII (12nd-13rd century) and throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, as it was an important manufacturing centre based on wool production. It still keeps an important Romanesque legacy in its network of medieval streets.
Its major highlights include the Palace of the Counts of Gómara, the Church of St Dominic, the Co-Cathedral of St Peter, the Monastery of St John of the Duero, and the Hermitage of St Saturio.
Palace of the Counts of Gómara
The Palace of the Counts of Gómara (Palacio de Los Condes de Gómara) is a gem of Renaissance architecture and the main city monument of Soria. Built between 1577 and 1592, today it is the seat of the provincial court.
Church of St Dominic
The Church of St Dominic (Iglesia de Santo Domingo), with a 13th-century façade, is one of the best in all of Soria’s Romanesque architecture. They decorated it with blind arches supported by stylised columns on the sides of the doorway. The capitals and the archivolts surrounding the tympanum depict showing scenes from the Old Testament.
Co-Cathedral of St Peter
They built the Co-Cathedral of St Peter (Concatedral de San Pedro) towards the end of the 12th century and rebuilt it in the 16th century. It has a hall plan with five naves, combining Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance elements. Its plateresque façade is interesting. Inside it houses altarpieces, a painting by Titian and the triptych of The Crucifixion, a Flemish work from 1559.
Free admission (except for the cloister, which entrance costs 2€ / 2.35$ p.p.).
Monastery of St John of the Duero
On the other bank of the river Duero, you can find the 12-century Monastery of St John of the Duero (Monasterio de San Juan de Duero) and the 13-century Church of the old Monastery of St Polo. The Monastery, which once belonged to the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, contains elements from Jewish, Islamic and Christian cultures. It is one of the finest examples of Medieval Christian, and one of the most inspiring things to see in Soria. It has a temple with a single nave and rectangular apse and houses a small museum inside. But the most striking thing is its 13-century cloister, with interlaced arches, a Mudejar work of oriental influence.
Admission fee: 1€ /1.2$ p.p.
Hermitage of St Saturio
Further south, on the same bank of the Duero river, at the end of the walk stands, and in a landscape of singular beauty, stands the Hermitage of St Saturio (Ermita de San Saturio). It is an 18th-century baroque temple on a rocky promontory built over the cave where this saint, patron of the city, lived around the 5th century. Inside, visitors can see beautiful frescoes telling the life story of San Saturio, as well as his sepulchre.
With Soria, our “delightful Spanish Road Trip through the Castiles” ended. On our way back home, though, we could finally see some of the famous windmills!
We loved this road trip through the Castiles, especially Toledo and Segovia, for their ancient history and delightful medieval atmosphere. Those two are probably two unmissable places to visit during a trip through the Castiles and in central Spain, in general.
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