Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Madrid: Spain's Royal Capital -- Including Daytrips To El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Avila And Cordoba

August 16, 2022 David Paul Appell and Jose Balido, long time travel writers and travel consultants, are expats who love their Spanish city and offer terrific insights and tips. Episode 65
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Madrid: Spain's Royal Capital -- Including Daytrips To El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Avila And Cordoba
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Madrid is a grand capital city of Spain,
and David Paul Appell and Jose Balido moved there to enjoy it. We compare the city to Barcelona, and discuss the history, art scene, food, gardens, architecture and vibe of this great city from the viewpoint of insiders who love it.

David and Jose then offer info about outstanding day trips from Madrid including to  El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Avila and Cordoba.

Jose and David end with special memories of their adopted Spanish  city.
David Paul Appell and Jose Balido are longtime travel writers; David was executive editor of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. Before moving to Madrid, they lived in New York City and Miami. They run a social-media-management company with mostly travel accounts, as well as the website, a social media network and group blog with members in more than 120 countries, focused on travel, culture, food, and wine.

Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.

Contact Lea! 
@lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website:

New episodes drop every other week, on Tuesdays. Please tell folks about us, and follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!

Lea Lane  0:06  
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.

Madrid is a city of joy and life. It has elegant boulevards, expansive and manicured parks and rich repositories of European art. Madrid is the capital of Spain, and reflects the historic grandeur of the Spanish Empire. And it's home to the Spanish royal family as well as the Spanish government. It's a modern metropolitan city, and an economical industrial center of Spain and with a population of nearly 3.5 million people, it's also Spain's biggest city. Our guests are David Paul Appell and Jose Bolito. Both are longtime Spain experts and US expats for over two years. And they love their city. Welcome, David. And Jose,

David Appell  1:08  
Thank you for having us. Thank you.

Lea Lane  1:10  
Let me just ask you, what's it like being expats and why did you choose Madrid?

David Appell  1:14  
Both of our connections to Madrid in Spain actually go back many years. I spent a year abroad in Barcelona studying, and last year in high school. And that's when my love affair with Spain sort of really got started. And Madrid has been a favorite city of mine since then, as well. So when we visited here many times, visited throughout Spain many times; and we were looking for a way to get over here and found it in at the end of 2019. At the beginning of 2020, we finally made the move and here we are. Jose goes back even farther. 

Jose Balido  1:52  
Yes, we made the move in 2020. Just in time for the pandemic It was great. My roots in Madrid go back to 1967. My father and I came here when we left Cuba. I was five years old, spent four months here, and that's when my love affair with Madrid started. I knew then that it was a great city and one day I wanted to live here. 

Lea Lane  2:14  
Excellent. Can you give us some history of Madrid and the Spanish Empire? 

David Appell  2:19  
Well, Madrid is actually not one of the oldest cities in Spain. It was founded in the 16th century, when the kingdoms of Castile, Leon and Aragon came together. The king at the time, decided to move the capital to a small town called Madrid, which used to be the Moorish [__]. It was founded by the Moors, the Arabs that came up from North Africa in the seven hundreds, and ruled a lot of the Iberian Peninsula. So once the king's court moved here, they started building like mad. Most of the architecture dates from that period onward, nothing medieval. So you get a lot of Baroque, Rococo, Renaissance and 19th century Belle Epoch. 

Lea Lane  3:09  
Well, Madrid is often compared to the capital of the region of Catalonia and Barcelona. How would you compare the two cities?

David Appell  3:17  
It's a little bit apples and oranges. Barcelona is on the sea, but more of a Mediterranean outlook. It has more historical monuments and  diversity of architecture than Madrid. Madrid is a landlocked city on the Castilian plane, very dry, newer than Barcelona. 

Jose Balido  3:37  
Barcelona has buildings going back to Rome in time. So it's a very old city. It's a very beautiful and grand and almost Parisian-feeling city, with boulevards and Art Nouveau architecture that blows your mind away and fabulous food, while Madrid also has fabulous food, but the architecture in Barcelona is very exuberant. 

Lea Lane  3:58  
Yeah, I think I think Madrid has wonderful architecture too. I know I took a bus tour and I was surprised by the mix of the Baroque and some of the wonderful modern things. The stadium for example, is a beautiful example of contemporary architecture. So there's a mix in Madrid that is surprising around especially around the plaza mejor is some beautiful, beautiful architecture. Now, there are numerous museums and art galleries, but the big three are the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen. All are located in the area known as the Golden Triangle of art. Tell us about the Prado Museum. 

David Appell  4:36  
Oh the Prado, of course, is the big National Art Museum, founded in 1819, but as one of the world's great collections of European art, from the 12th to the early 20th century. A lot of that is Spanish. Of course, you'll find some of the great masters like Goya, EL Greco and Velasquez, but you also have others from Italy, France and the Netherlands. 

Lea Lane  5:00  
I have a wonderful memory; way back there was a an actor who played a gangster named Edward G. Robinson. He goes way, way back to the B-movies of the 40s 50s and 60s and so forth. And that was the first celebrity I think I ever saw. And he was staring at an El Greco painting and I thought, What's this hoodlum? He's staring at this painting because I thought of him as a gangster. And it was a shock because it was real life. And I remember that very interesting memory of Madrid. How about the Guernica in the Reina Sofia Museum? Tell us about the painting Guernica. 

David Appell  5:35  
Guernica is one of Picasso's masterpieces, and one of his largest paintings. It's the star of the Reina Sofia. The Reina Sofia was founded in 1990, and named after the then Queen of Spain, devoted to 20th and some 21st century art, mostly Spanish. Salvador Dali is big and the Guernica is the star of the show. It has its own room, it's almost the size of an entire wall, and it's a black and white, very stark, chilling, stunning rendition of the horrors of war based on the bombing during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, of a Basque town. Picasso was so moved and upset by this that he devoted the better part of a year to producing this art. And it was in the Museum of Modern the MoMA in New York City for many years until it was brought back to Spain in I believe, the 80s after Franco's death, obviously, and is now in the Reina Sofia. 

Lea Lane  5:35  
I remember seeing it at MOMA in New York. I remember someone telling me it's the most famous and most gruesome anti war painting and history. Anyway, my favorite museum is the Thysson. How about that, tell us a little bit about that little museum. It's nearby the Prado, right? 

David Appell  6:57  
That is also fairly recent, 1992, and showcases works from the world's second largest private art collection of German Hungarian industrialist, then Baron Hans Tysson, and the reason it's in Spain is because he married Miss Spain 1961.

Lea Lane  7:16  
 Oh, really. Interesting. 

David Appell  7:19  
A lot of it is not Spanish. It ranges from the medieval to the 20th century comes a lot from Europe and the US even, especially strong in the 19th century.

Lea Lane  7:31  
It's got a wonderful broad collection. It's a surprise to many people. Well, after that, you might want to have some lunch or some dinner. Tell me a little bit about Spanish cuisine.

Jose Balido  7:41  
Millennials love to eat, no matter how bad they say the economy is-- that you have 25% unemployment that you have 50% unemployment among youth, bars and restaurants are always packed no matter the night of the week. It's quite impressive. They're especially fond of the inexpensive, old timey kind of tapas bars, as well as newer variations on tapas and I think we don't need to explain what tapas are because at this point, everybody knows.

Lea Lane  8:05  
I had a wonderful bean and sausage stew -- is it Cosido? Is that the name of it? 

David Appell  8:12  
Bean sauces, stews, are found all over Spain for the most part, but cosido madrileno is this a local speciality, and there's also some less savory -- acquired taste, shall we say? And one called kaios al la madreleno, which is basically beef tripe, ie stomach.

Lea Lane  8:36  
Well, not really stomach, it gets even worse.

David Appell  8:39  
Sausage and, and blood sausage. Yeah. So that if you grew up if that's home cooking for you, it's great. But if not, it takes a little getting used to.

Lea Lane  8:49  
Well, there's wonderful ham. I know. And there was a very good fried eggplant I had with honey; it was cooked like potato chips. And I, I haven't seen that anywhere else. What is that called?

Jose Balido  8:58  
It's very delicious. Of course, the hams in Spain are probably among the top hams in the world, the Seranno and especially one which is made from a special breed of pig that is a diet primarily consisting of acorns. And the the ham actually takes on a nutty kind of taste. Unlike anything you've ever had

Lea Lane  9:22  
The Black Label ham especially I think; if you splurge for that, it's expensive. But a splurge on that is worth it.

Jose Balido  9:29  
It's beyond expensive. Well, I will tell you it's so worth the splurge that my vegetarian sister and her wife who are coming in October are thinking of breaking the vegetarian ...

Lea Lane  9:38  
Well, I can understand it for that once right? Now are the rules so that you don't eat lunch before 1pm? And you don't eat dinner before 9pm? That's still true?

Jose Balido  9:48  
Pretty much.

David Appell  9:49  
I mean, they're not hard and fast rules, but that's the general custom. 

Lea Lane  9:54  
You must be hungry.

Jose Balido  9:58  
Let us say that after two and a half years are stomachs still are hungry at 6pm. And for lunch around 12;  so the way around that, if we're not planning dinner with friends, which then it has to be at the local time, like 9pm, what we do is we go to ethnic restaurants around 6pm like Chinese, and others will be open for dinner at any time.

Lea Lane  10:18  
I didn't realize that, okay.

David Appell  10:21  
And the way that Spaniards themselves kind of make it through, long stretch without as well is they have what they call meriendas; they'll sit down, they'll have a  tapa, they'll have a slice of tortilla, Spanish potato omelet, and calamares, fries. And they'll just have a little something to get them through to the late dinner.

Jose Balido  10:42  
Spaniards will have so many meals a day: they'll have breakfast when they get up, which will be like coffee and a piece of toast or something. Then they'll have a light snack or something around 11 or noon, so they can tide themselves over to lunch at 2pm. Then around 6pm They'll have the merienda and so they can tide themselves over to dinner at nine or 10pm Eating always, excellent.

David Appell  11:07  
And yeah, most of them are not fat. Although fast food, junk food, you're seeing rising levels of obesity here as well.

Lea Lane  11:16  
Yeah, it's interesting. I did wonder always how you managed to eat so late, but now I know you're eating all day. 

Jose Balido  11:23  
There's also another secret we've discovered; that the reason they have to eat that late is because if you turn the stove on at 6pm You die, it's so hot.

Lea Lane  11:31  
Oh, that's interesting. Is there still a siesta? Is that a tradition.

David Appell  11:35  
Yes, when they can they do? Yes.

Lea Lane  11:39  
I stayed in a hotel near the Neptune fountain buy the Prado so that I could walk to the museums and to the botanical garden or Parque de Buen Retiro,  it's the most famous park in Madrid. Retiro was originally a royal hangout, I guess a stage for garden plays, concerts, and it's a breath of fresh air. And it's convenient because you can take day trips from there; the buses come there, and you can visit some of the smallest cities. There are so many places to visit outside of Madrid. In an hour or so you can get to mountains and historical towns and royal palaces of the Castile region. I'd like to talk about three that are special, I thought, and I'd like to get your take on it. One is El Escorial. Tell us about that.

David Appell  12:21  
Right? Escorial is north of Madrid, about 40-50 minutes by car or by train or by bus. And there are basically two things there. The town is home to a ginormous monastery slash palace that was built in the late 16th century for King Phillip the Second, and he was very monastic in his outlook. So the complex is extremely austere.

Lea Lane  12:50  
It's immense. I know that. The first time I saw it, I couldn't believe it. It was so huge. And it's filled with art. It's just filled with art. 

David Appell  12:57  
It takes a minimum of two hours to walk yourself through. So you have to really pace yourself and bring good walking shoes.

Jose Balido  13:06  
But it's one of those places that's so atmospheric. I mean, it's so gloomy and dark and Castilian in a way that you really feel like you're transported to another century when you're walking through a fabulous experience because of that, because of all the artwork as you say, but it does have that power that it's one of the places that really transports you to another time.

Lea Lane  13:26  
Well another not-to-miss UNESCO site is not far south of Madrid. It's the medieval hilltop city of Toledo. Very special. What makes it special. 

David Appell  13:37  
Toledo is special. It's perched on a hill above the Tigris River, which loops around it. And the very famous view of Toledo by the painter El Greco, who lived in work there. The ancient city dates back to almost the beginning of the first millennium; it was the first to be conquered by the Moors in 711, among their first, and they were there for 375 years. And what made it special at that time, is that it was a place of harmony and tolerance between Muslims, Christians and Jews. And it became known for learning, for religious tolerance. And that's actually, by the way where the term, the phrase, Holy Toledo comes from.

Lea Lane  14:23  
Oh, not Ohio?

David Appell  14:25  
No not Ohio. Not that, man. Right. Holy Toledo was because the ability for the faiths to coexist together.

Lea Lane  14:36  
When you go there, I know you feel that -- you see mosques. You see synagogues. You see these convents and narrow stone paved streets. I really recommend if you only have a couple of days to not miss Toledo. What about the Segovia?

David Appell  14:51  
That was, I think, at the top of our list. You want to talk about that?

Jose Balido  14:54  
Well, Segovia's a pretty easy train ride from Madrid of just over an hour, and you can walk it in the better part of the day. And it's famous for three amazing landmarks. There's the aqueduct. There's a Roman aqueduct that's been standing there. It's like three or four tiers high of arches, stones placed without any mortar. And it's been standing there without collapsing for 2000 years. It blows my mind that it was actually in use to bring water to the city until not that long ago, at some point in the mid 20th century, I believe. So it's just an incredible work of ancient engineering. You just have to see it to believe it. There's also the massive Alcazar palace. The palace dates back to the 11th or 12th century; it was used by King Ferdinand and Isabella. And the most interesting thing to Americans no doubt is the fact that it was used by Walt Disney as one of the models for Cinderella's castle. It's full of spires and turrets and battlements and everything. 

David Appell  15:49  
Craggy. It just very imposing. 

Jose Balido  15:51  
Recently, for the first time we actually went inside, a self guided walking tour inside; it is more spectacular than I thought. It has rooms that really blow you away. It's again very Castilian, very historic, and definitely worth spending the time to do the walk through. And the third and very impressive place not to miss is the 16th century Cathedral, which was one of the last in Europe to be built in the Gothic style; very atmospheric, as you would expect. And apart from all that, I would add that just the city itself: it's small, but it's so lively and happy that you walk around the streets and downtown, you know where all the shops or the restaurants and you can't help feel good. It's one of those cities just lifts your spirits.

Lea Lane  16:33  
Sounds wonderful. Are there any other favorites that we shouldn't miss -- any one or two that you want to add to our list?

David Appell  16:40  
I would like to talk about Avila because Avila is in Castillo Leon. It's also very close to Madrid. It's about an hour and a half west. And what's cool about Avila is that it the old town is entirely encircled by medieval Romanesque walls begun in the 11th century. And it looks like something out of a fairy tale or something out of a medieval fantasy. So you go there and it's, again, it's a lot of churches and convents. One of its most famous associations is with a nun from the 16th century named Saint Teresa of Avila was known for ecstatic visions and ecstasies, including one where she supposedly visited hell. So she became quite famous for that. 

Lea Lane  17:28  
What did  she describe it as?

David Appell  17:30  
 Oh, it was hot. 

Lea Lane  17:31  
It was hot. Okay. We've got that already.

David Appell  17:35  
Yeah, maybe it was a hot flash. I don't know. There's a little museum to her, which also includes what is said to be her mummified finger.

Lea Lane  17:46  
Okay, it's can't miss that. Alright.

Jose Balido  17:49  
One thing to keep in mind about Europe and Spain, is that they have these high speed trains, like nothing that we have in the States. So that actually places that you might not think are day trips can be day trips. And I would say that one not to miss if you have enough days would be Cordoba, which is an hour and a half by high speed train, lovely high speed, luxury train experience. And Cordova has possibly one of the world's greatest mosques, which is now a cathedral, of course, but the architecture. And it's sublimely beautiful.

Yes, several layers of architecture from again, these different cultures and different religions.

Part of it is from the Visigoths from the third and fourth century AD,

David Appell  18:28  
But the interior blows you away because it's a sea of columns, red striped columns and arches. And then right in the middle of all that they carved out a little typical, bombastic Catholic Cathedral space.

Lea Lane  18:41  
Yeah. I think one of the pleasures of Madrid is the central location, it sounds because we're talking that you can get to many wonderful places in an hour, an hour and a half, two hours, maybe. And that's one of the best parts of Madrid that you can do that -- you have a wonderful city and you have these other exceptional places to visit. So the more time you can give I think the better because it's not just the city. It's also the the outskirts. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So David and Jose, would you please each give us a special travel memory of Madrid. Jose, do you want to go first?

Jose Balido  19:18  
I was here when my family left Cuba in 1967. Franco was in power at the time --  dictator Francisco Franco. It was a very different city and yet to me, a small child coming out of Communist Cuba, it seemed wonderful, because there was all kinds of candy and ham and wonderful things to eat that we didn't get in Cuba at the time. I remember things like there were the Serrano's, which were these gentlemen who stood on the corners at night with a big bunch of keys dangling off their pant loop. And if you came in after a certain hour back to your building, you would have to clap your hands and they would come and open the door for you. And these are things that even young Spaniards don't remember, you know, because what they were doing actually was they were also kind of keeping an eye on the population; it was part of being a police state, right? But these were generally like retired police or whatever, who took these jobs to open the doors at night and also to provide assistance and worked mugged or whatever, which I don't think happened very much. But it's just a very interesting memory of a world that no longer is, and yet is still Madrid.

Lea Lane  20:19  
Fabulous memory. Thank you for that. Okay, David.

David Appell  20:23  
Mine is a lot more recent. I have a lot of nice memories associated with Madrid. But the most romantic perhaps occurred in January of 2021 when the city was buried under the biggest snowstorm in a century and it was called Philomena, three and a half feet of snow. And normally, Madrid gets a few flakes here and there. They don't even stick. Oh, look, a little flurry. How exotic, but this sort of threw everyone into a tizzy. It was fun. For the first couple of days, people were sledding and skiing down the streets, snowball fight, snowball fight. Epic snowball fights across Grandia. And you really had to watch out.

Jose Balido  21:09  
And most importantly, it was the first time our doggy saw snow, because he was a Florida dog we brought with us. 

Lea Lane  21:15  
Did he like it?

Jose Balido  21:15  
At first he wouldn't go outside. But then when he went outside and found that he could run off leash because there were no cars. He was running up and down the snow like an Olympic skier.

Lea Lane  21:24  
Well, he didn't have to shovel it. Really? Well. Anyway, it's a very interesting memory. I guess it tells us maybe we shouldn't necessarily visit in winter. Some somewhere in the shoulder season ...

David Appell  21:36  
Maybe the last time something like this occurs.

Lea Lane  21:39  
I think we're safest in the fall and in the spring.

David Appell  21:43  
And that's truly when it's the most pleasant to visit.

Lea Lane  21:46  
Thank you very much, David Paul Appell and Jose Balido. You chose to move overseas from the United States to live in the vibrant historic city of Madrid. I hope the rest of us are lucky enough to at least visit there. Thanks. 

Jose Balido  22:01  
You're always welcome.

David Appell  22:01  
And meantime, we'll see you in Miami soon.

Lea Lane  22:04  
Okay, bye.

David Appell  22:06  
Take care.

Lea Lane  22:08  
My book Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 countries is available in print, Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episode's show notes or on my website Until next time, make some travel memories.

Why David and Jose moved to Madrid
Comparison to Barcelona
Art and architecture
Food and food traditions
Daytrips: El Escorial, Toledo, Segovia, Avila, Cordoba
Special Memories -- Jose and David