Madrid: Great days out

Just outside the capital, you'll find beautiful towns full of history
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The Independent Travel

Imagine, for a moment, that the city of Madrid does not exist. The region would still demand to be visited, because of the array of superb towns and cities spread around the centre of Spain. Happily, the capital is very much alive, and its lovely satellites are very easily accessible from Madrid. You could even decide to stay in the hills around the capital, la sierra de Madrid. Villages such as Rascafria, Guadarrama and Patones offer opportunities offer agro-tourism locations.

Most visitors, though, base themselves in Madrid. In an hour you could order another coffee on the terrace of La Suiza in Plaza Santa Ana and take time to reflect on the many pleasures of the capital. Or you could use the same length of time to escape the urban jungle for a while - and to be amazed at the royal flourishes, architectural spectacles and Wild West scenery surrounding Madrid.

The sign on the platform at the handsome station at Aranjuez, 45 minutes south of Madrid by train, announces that you are precisely 494.3 metres above the level of Mediterranean at Alicante. Half a kilometre up, the autumn air is crisp and clear - and the sheer indulgence of this fine city is in the sharpest of focus.

After a journey across the arid meseta, the sun-baked high ground that surrounds the capital, it is a relief to have descended to the valley where the Tajo and the Jarama rivers meet. Wander along an avenue to the 18th-century Bourbon palace. Yet the grounds are even more impressive, extravagantly tailored to the edge of the river and populated by sculptures of Roman emperors.

Just to the south, a vast Baroque pair of semi-detached houses extends almost to the horizon. The nearer part is the Knights' House, the farther the Trades' House; I could not spot the join through the colonnade that surrounds them.

Exploring to the east of the town centre, in the direction of Chinchón, a sign points the way to the Casa del Labrador - nothing to do with dogs or Canadian provinces, but meaning "house of the farmer". This is the understated name for a mansion set in parkland and modelled on the Petit Trianon in Paris.

The approach to the town of Chinchón, around and over dry-roasted hills, is dappled with olive groves. The first you see of the town is the imposing castle. On closer inspection, it looks someone has taken a large bite out of the tallest tower (the forces of Archduke Carlos, in 1706, were responsible).

Happily, the rest of the town has borne the centuries in much better shape - and provides plenty of surprises for the visitor. The first is, in the midsts of a parched landscape, the preponderance of bodegas - wineries - offering tours, tastings and the inevitable retail opportunities. Chinchón initially may feel like a dozen other drowsy and pretty Spanish towns. But when you reach the main square, you realise that this is a singular place.

Instead of the traditional, formal and very square plaza mayor at its centre, Chinchón has a stadium - or that is what it feels like. The heart of the town is an oval space hemmed in by elaborately galleried and balconied buildings. Imagine a distorted version of the Globe in London and you will get the idea. Conveniently, several of the premises are cafés and restaurants, providing an agreeable place to contemplate the novel shape.

Don't dawdle for too long, mind, because Chinchón has more to demand your attention. The town drapes across the hills, allowing some rewarding urban rambles. Call in at the Convent of the Clarissas - the Poor Clares. The building they inhabit is stout and mellow, and the convent is doing its bit to ward off poverty by selling home-made tosquillas - sweet pastries rich with eggs and honey.

To appreciate the amazing Spanish capacity for staying up late, go the Americas bus station in the north of Madrid at around 7am on a Sunday morning. The first few departures to the city of Alcalá de Henares are likely to be full with homeward bound clubbers. But there is a good reason for joining them: to watch this beautiful place come to life.

It's a banal comparison, but Alcalá de Henares is Spain's equivalent of Oxford, Cambridge and Stratford-upon-Avon all rolled into one. La Ciudad Literaria, as Alcalá de Henares styles itself, is a big university city and also celebrates Spain's national literary hero: Miguel de Cervantes, who was born here in 1547. His birthplace is now a museum, one of the many impressive structures along Calle Mayor - Spain's longest colonnaded street.

Besides the town's large student population, Alcalá has another easily identifiable and surprising community. Look to the top of churches and other high building and you may see a couple of tall, elegant creatures - one of 89 breeding pairs of storks that enjoy the protection of this lovely city.

GETTING THERE

Aranjuez: the town is served by trains every half-hour or so from Atocha station in the south of Madrid, with a journey time of 45 minutes, and one-way fare of €2.55 (£1.85).

Chinchón: served by bus 337 every hour or so from the terminal near Conde de Casal metro; follow the sign from the metro station to Estacion de Buses, then turn left on to Avenida Mediterranean and walk about 200m to the bus stop. The fare is €2.15 (£1.50). Note that you can easily include Aranjuez and Chinchon on the same trip, thanks to the bus service running between them, though at weekends there are only a couple of services on the route.

Alcalá de Henares: the literary town is served by frequent Continental Autos buses from the Americas bus station (Metro to Americas) in the north of the capital, with a fare that costs €1.94 (£1.40); and also by regular trains departing from Atocha station, with fare of €1.95 (£1.30).

See linked stories for details of unlimited-travel passes

Royal indulgence: El Escorial

In 1561, Felipe II moved the political heart of Spain to a small town on the central plains. With the earnings from Spanish possessions in the New World, he created a capital in Madrid. And a couple of years later, he began work on his out-of-town residence, San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial.

El Escorial (as it is thankfully truncated) is a rectangular structure that lacks much of the decoration of other palaces on the outside - though the 200m-wide facade and 2,673 windows make it difficult to miss. Inside, the complex of palaces of Felipe II and the Bourbons, together with the Pantheon and the Basilica, are suffused with colour and elegance.

Getting there:

Frequent trains from Atocha station take an hour, €2.40 (£1.70); frequent buses from Moncloa take an hour, €3.40 (£2.40)

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