When Philip II became king of Spain and defeated the French in the mid-16th century, he commissioned the building of El Escorial in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, just outside his new capital city, Madrid. The result was extraordinary, an enormous structure which is striking for its symmetry and for its vast number of windows – around 2,600 according to official statistics. Part monastery and part palace, it was much loved by Philip II and his family, whose apartments were built around the church and decorated in a rather austere style, at least by regal standards.
These Hapsburg apartments are in marked contrast to those of the later Bourbon kings who used a different set of rooms and had them sumptuously decorated with tapestries based on the works of Goya. Charles III also expanded the accommodation. During the 18th century he built a couple of casitas – literally little houses, although more accurately mini-palaces – within the El Escorial complex to be used by his sons, the Prince and the Infante.
But everyone was equal in death. Across the courtyard from the royal apartments is the Pantheon of the Kings, a chamber containing the remains of almost all the Spanish monarchs from Philip II's father in the 16th century to the 20th-century king, Alfonso XIII. El Escorial (00 34 918 90 59 02; www.patrimonionacional.es/en) opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, until 6pm in summer, admission is €10 (£7.70). It can be reached by buses 661 and 664 from Moncloa terminal in Madrid.
Alcala de Henares
Changing planes at Madrid? Try to make enough time for a side-trip to the Stratford-on-Avon of Spain. Alcalá de Henares, north-east of the capital and close to Barajas airport, is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes. The legacy of Spain's 16th-century national poet provides the municipal slogan, La Ciudad Literaria, and his birthplace is a museum. In the 21st century, Alcalá is thriving thanks to its large student population; the long academic tradition is indicated by the elegant colonnades, particularly on Calle Mayor.
Make sure you look up; in Spain's city of dreaming spires, nearly 100 breeding pairs of storks have colonised steeples and towers. Alcalá is on Madrid's Cercanias (suburban rail network) lines C1, C2 and C7, with frequent trains taking 36 minutes from Atocha station, for a fare of €2.45 (£1.90). It is also served by frequent Continental Auto buses from the Americas bus station (Metro to Americas) in the north of Madrid, fare €1.94 (£1.50).
You can reach this gem of a town in well under an hour by train from Madrid. The journey demonstrates how tough the terrain is in central Spain; it carves across the arid meseta, the plateau that supports the capital. (Madrid, of course, was something of an artificial creation, when the Catholic monarchs wanted a power base right in the middle of this large and complicated country.)
Arriving at Aranjuez is a blessed relief. The ground here is rather lower than the capital, at under 500m above sea level, and the two rivers that meet at the town – the Tajo and the Jarama – confer a verdant aspect. But your eye is mostly caught by the startling array of magnificent structures. The first you encounter is the Bourbon palace, built in the 18th century and sharing the same virtues as its French and German counterparts, Versailles near Paris and Sanssouci outside Berlin: an arrogance of scale offset by spacious, well-tended grounds. The gardens at Aranjuez run to the edge of the river and are populated by marble figures of notable Roman emperors.
On the other side of town, the Casa del Labrador shares a similar array of classical notables. The gardens here are far less formal, though, with towering trees conferring a certain modesty on this brick-built palace; to continue the Versailles theme, this is modelled on the French Petit Trianon, and peacocks wander through the ground. The name "Labrador", by the way, is neither canine nor Canadian – this is the "house of the farmer".
Back in the centre, a third treat awaits; a very large pair of semi-detached houses. These are baroque, not suburban, and were built to accommodate the essential supporting cast for Aranjuez: one is the Knights' House, the other the Trades' House. Trains on Madrid's Cercanias network line C3 from Atocha station (location for high-speed AVE services from Seville, Cordoba, Zaragoza and Barcelona) depart every half-hour or so, taking 42 minutes for a fare of €2.90 (£2.20).
Make sure you arrive at this pretty town with a good appetite – indeed, you could come here across country from Aranjuez, not far away, to feast after the appetising architecture there. Chinchó*seems to have a disproportionate number of delicious little places to eat and drink. Cheerfully chalked menus list the tasty options, ranging from tapas (at the morsel end of the scale) via raciones (more substantial) to the menu diario – a generous meal at a meagre price. The ideal location for a long, indulgent lunch is the plaza mayor, though don't expect the usual formal square. Chinchón's heart is an irregular but very agreeable oval which has something of the feel of a bullring, a sense reinforced by the amount of beef served in the restaurants around it. Elaborate galleries provide shelter with a view if the altitude gives the air a chill.
On the edge of town, the mellow, yellow walls of the Convent of the Clarissas (also known as the "poor Clares") displays a weariness of age shared by some of its occupants. They stave off financial oblivion thanks to a steady trade in tosquillas: pastries rich in eggs and honey, made with the milk of human kindness.
Bus 337 to Chinchó*runs approximately hourly from a stop near Madrid's Conde de Casal metro station. From the station, follow the sign to the Estacion de Buses, turn left on to Avenida Mediterranean and walk about 200m to the bus stop. The fare is €2.50 (£1.90).
It is hard to forget the first view of Toledo: the road loops around the hillside parallel with the river, and the ancient city seems to rise up out of the plain. The oldest part of Toledo is contained within medieval walls that are punctuated by a number of imposing gates. At the northern end of town the main entrance is the Bisagra Gate; now there is an escalator beside it, so that visitors can avoid the steep climb to the main part of the city.
Toledo is a lovely place to wander, with its winding streets, historic houses, cosy bars and small shops: look out for those along Calle Santo Tome selling mazapan, small sweet confections made out of almond paste. And the city has plenty of more obvious attractions – the magnificent Cathedral; the Moorish fortress or Alcazar which dominates the skyline; the synagogues and museum in the Jewish quarter. But what draws most people to the place is El Greco.
Although he was born in Crete, the artist spent half his life in Spain, settling in Toledo and painting many works for the city. Although the main El Greco museum is currently closed for renovation there is still plenty to see. One of the artist's masterpieces, the Burial of Count Orgaz, can be seen in the Church of Santo Tomé, and there are other portraits in the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
Toledo is 71km south of Madrid. High-speed trains from Atocha station (www.renfe.es) race to Toledo in just half an hour, for a fare of €9 (£7). Buses ( www.alsa.es) from Mendez Alvaro bus station depart every half-hour from 6am-midnight, reaching Toledo an hour and half later. Return tickets cost €7.90 (£6).
What's new in central Spain?
Plenty of visitor attention is likely to focus on this part of Spain from 14 June, when an international exhibition, Expo 2008, opens in Zaragoza ( www.expozaragoza2008.es); its theme is water and sustainable development. Visitors will be able to explore the various pavilions and to see the new Bridge Pavilion, designed by the architect Zaha Hadid, which will take pedestrians across the River Ebro from the city to the exhibition site; those arriving be train will be whisked from the ultra-modern Las Delicias station straight to the exhibition by cable car.
To accommodate all the visitors who are expected to head to the city this summer, several new hotels are available, including the Hotel Tryp Zaragoza on Avenida Francia (00 34 976 28 79 50; www.solmelia.com) and the Hotel Eurostars Plaza Delicias at 11 Calle Los Fayos (00 34 976 34 04 40; www.eurostarshotels.com).
Las Delicias station accommodates high-speed trains ( www.spanish-rail.co.uk) which connect the city to Madrid in 90 minutes and Barcelona in under two hours. Since February a direct service has been covering the 660km between the capital and Barcelona in two hours 35 minutes. The AVE train service has a "commitment to punctuality": if your train arrives more than five minutes behind schedule, you get a complete refund of your ticket price.
In the capital, the 17th- century Casó*del Buen Retiro, which was built as a royal ballroom, has been beautifully restored and it will be open to the public for a series of open days. This is a wonderful opportunity to see the fresco painted by Luca Giordano on the ceiling of the main room, as well as a number of his other works. The Casó*opens 11am-8pm daily until 14 May.
Another artistic highlight in Madrid this year is a special exhibition at the Prado (00 34 91 330 2800; www.museodelprado.es), "Goya in Times of War", which is part of the commemorations for the start of the Spanish War of Independence in 1808. It will feature two important Goya paintings of 2 and 3 May 1808 which have recently been restored. The exhibition runs from 15 April until 13 July, and the museum opens 9am-8pm Tuesday-Sunday.
Anyone who likes to get ahead of the trend might welcome the opportunity to see the Prado's other special exhibition, "Portraits of the Renaissance", which runs from 3 June until 7 September before transferring to the National Gallery in London, so this is an opportunity to get ahead. It will look at the development of portrait painting which flourished during the Renaissance, and will contain nearly 70 examples of the genre.
Spain's capital is en fête: not just because of Holy Week, which begins tomorrow, but because there are many exciting events punctuating the summer. This brief selection should give you a flavour of the hot events peppering the calendar.
The Reina Sofia museum is one of the three artistic gems of the capital – along with the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza – and the home of Picasso's Guernica. Until 5 May, it is hosting a special exhibition of the artist's other works, including some outstanding paintings, drawings and sculptures (www.museoreinasofia.es/0208/).
Meanwhile, along the road at the lovely Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the highlight until 18 May is a study of the work of Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) from the moment of his arrival in Paris in 1906 up to his premature death at the age of 35. Although it focuses on a single creator, it includes not only Modigliani's most important works – primarily paintings – but also those by artists from hissocial and professional circles (www.museothyssen.org).
The title of one of the biggest musical events in the world may lead you to the coast of Brazil, but in fact Rock in Rio will be celebrated in landlocked Madrid on 27 and 28 June and 4-6 July. Pop and rock megastars such as Lenny Kravitz (right), Alanis Morrisette and The Police will be playing loud enough to be heard across the Atlantic. (www.rockinriomadrid.terra.es)
Midsummer is going to be irrepressibly busy in Madrid. EuroPride last year took place in Madrid, Spain, and turned out to be the biggest EuroPride ever. About 2.3 million people attended more than 300 EuroPride events over a 10-day period in the Spanish capital to celebrate the enormous advances in rights for gay men and lesbians in Spain over the past few years, including marriage. This year, Madrid Gay Pride – "El Orgullo" runs from 27 June-6 July. Concerts and special events will take place all around the centre of the city, with special exhibitions at art galleries, gastronomic happenings at some of Madrid's top restaurants, and a feast of fashion with national and international designers.