One hour from: Madrid

A Castilian pageant of medieval must-sees

Haul yourself out of bed after the madness of Madrid late nights to discover the Castilian gems which radiate out from the Spanish capital.

Haul yourself out of bed after the madness of Madrid late nights to discover the Castilian gems which radiate out from the Spanish capital.

San Lorenzo del Escorial

This medieval town, at the foot of the soaring Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, surrounds the magnificent monastery-cum-mausoleum-cum-palace El Escorial. Built by Felipe II to celebrate defeat of the French and as a retreat from the summer heat, the vast monument is one of Spain's finest, containing a fair selection of art not snapped up by the Prado. With more than 40 altars, nine towers, 86 sets of stairs, one of the best-stocked libraries in the world and more splendid chambers than you can walk through, this is a must-see sight.

By car: take the A-6 north and then the M-505 to El Escorial; journey time about 45mins.

By train: take a Cercanias train (line C-8a) from Atocha station via Chamartin; journey time one hour.

Segovia

Quintessential Castilian ridge-top town, packed with Golden Age grandeur. High spots are the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct with its 163 arches and the Gothic cathedral with its pointed pinnacles and multifarious flying buttresses. Topping the lot is the fairytale Walt Disney-style castle the Alcazar, with great views. Stop for lunch and tuck into Segovian specialities such as roast suckling pig (cochinillo asado) and roast lamb (cordero).

By car: take the A-6 north and then the N-603 to Segovia; about one hour.

By train: eight trains daily from Atocha station. Take bus no 3 from Segovia station to Plaza Mayor in centre; journey time one hour plus.

Avila

The perfectly preserved 1.5 mile-long city walls, with eight monumental gates and 88 towers greet you here. Dating from medieval days, Avila is picture-perfect and packed with religious shrines to the mystical writer and Carmelite reformer Santa Teresa. Do not miss the Convento de Santa Teresa, the Romanesque and Gothic cathedral, and the Monasterio de Santo Tomas, a monastery and royal residence built by Fernando and Isabel in 1482.

By car: take the N-VI north and then follow the N-110 to Avila; journey time about one hour plus.

By train: hourly trains from Chamartin station; journey time one hour plus.

Navacerrada and Valdes Coto

These two ski resorts are popular during winter with Madrilenos who flock here at weekends. The pistes are mostly easy and the runs fairly short, but nevertheless make for a different city excursion in the colder months. During the summer they are popular with mountain bikers and hikers.

By car: take the A-6 north followed by the M-604 and follow the signs; journey time about one hour.

By train: take line C8B from Atocha station to Cercedilla and change onto one of the special snow trains, which operate during winter to Navacerrada; journey time one hour.

Aquopolis

One of Spain's largest waterparks on the outskirts of Madrid is a must for those with children or those who are children at heart. It has a fantastic selection of wave machines, giant water slides and for the combat minded, there is a water-themed assault course. The grassy surroundings are perfect for picnics.

By car: take the N-VI north and follow signs for Villanueva de la Canada; journey time about 15 mins. By bus: take the Bus Autoperiferia 581 from Estacion Sur; journey time about 25 mins.

Toledo

Medieval city high above River Tagus. Pipped at post by Madrid for capital status, Toledo is famed for stunning buildings, which radiate out from the Plaza de Zocodover, in a warren of tiny lanes. El Greco lived and worked in the city and do not miss his work, the best of which is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, in the Iglesia de Santo Tome on Plaza del Conde. Stay after dark – Toledo is stunningly floodlit.

By car: follow the N-401 south to Toledo; journey time about one hour.

By train: nine trains daily from Atocha station; journey time one hour plus.

Kirker Holidays (020 7231 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) offers three-night breaks to Madrid from £359 per person, including return flights, car hire and b&b at the Cason Del Tormes.

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