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Ten brilliant day trips from Madrid

Looking for the perfect refuge away from the city? The Local brings you Madrileños' top destinations for a day trip from the capital.

Ten brilliant day trips from Madrid
Sunset in Segovia. Photo: mariusz kluzniak/Flickr.

El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen

monastery of el escorial
The Monastery of El Escorial. Photo: Daniel Lázaro Fernandez/Flickr.

Just an hour away from Madrid is the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, dominated by the vast palace-monastery built by Philip II. 

Declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, El Escorial is one of Spain’s most beautiful Renaissance monuments and contains a wealth of artworks and the royal pantheon of tombs of Spanish monarchs.

The town is only an hour northwest of Madrid, easily accessible by the Cercanías train from Madrid's Atocha station.

A short drive away is the imposing and controversial monument of Gen Francisco Franco, The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen). The basilica hewn out of living rock by politcal prisoners of the dictatorship contains the tomb of El Caudilo along with 40,000 people who died during the Spanish Civil War.


Spain's imposing memorial to fascism. Photo: AFP

The site is marked by a giant memorial cross, visible for miles around but don't expect to be informed about the Spanish Civil War or subsequent 36 year-old fascist dictatorship as no mention is made of its dark history.

Relatives of the victims of Franco have called for the remains of their loved ones to be removed and given a proper burial while others call for the site to be turned into a museum. Still others called for it to be pulled down all together.  

Toledo

toledo
A view of Toledo's hillside. Photo: JP Newell/Flickr.

The charm of Toledo’s antiquated feel coupled with its winding cobblestone streets draws many visitors. Also a World Heritage Site, the city is a gorgeous medley of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish architecture.

Must-see sights include: The Castle of San Servando, the Alcázar fortress, El Greco Museum, the synagogues of El Transito and Santa María La Blanca, the Tornerías Mosque, the Roman Alcántara Bridge, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary. Aside from these, a relaxed stroll through Toledo’s streets is a must to truly appreciate its charm.

It is also famed for its regional cuisine.

Toledo is only a 33-minute ride on the high-speed AVE train from Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station. Tickets are as little as €12 and may be bought on the Renfe website.

Segovia

segovia's roman aqueduct
The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia. Photo: Arrano/Flickr.

Segovia is another picturesque city appealing for its medieval charm. Like Toledo, a wander through its beautiful little alleyways, especially the Jewish Quarter, is an absolute must; so is a visit to the Plaza Mayor, the Alcázar, Segovia Cathedral, and the magnificent Roman Aqueduct dating back to the first century.

Don't miss its fairytale castle, rumoured to be the inspiration behind Disney's Cinderella's castle. And no visit to Segovia would be complete without a taste of its famous roasted suckling pig. 

Segovia is 30 minutes by the high-speed AVE train from Madrid’s Chamartín station.

Ávila

walls of avila
The Walls of Ávila. Photo: paula soler-moya/Flickr.

Ávila boasts an extensive collection of Romanesque and Gothic churches, as well as impressively intact medieval-era walls encircling the city's interior. The Gothic Cathedral and the Basílica de San Vicente are other popular attractions. Lose yourself wandering through the narrow alleyways discovering little plazas.

Ávila is a 1.5-hour ride on the high-speed AVE train from Madrid’s Chamartín station.

La Sierra de Guadarrama

peñalara national park
Peñalara National Park. Photo: Javier Ábalos Alvarez/Flickr.

This mountain range features stunning scenery, diverse flora and fauna, and numerous hiking trails. Situated between Ávila and Segovia, its hillsides include the Peñalara National Park, and the rock formations along the Manzanares River known as La Pedriza. The sierra is also a prime location for mountain sports, from ski-ing or snowshoeing in the winter to mountain biking and rock climbing.

The journey from Madrid to the Peñalara National Park involves two Cercanías trains. First, take the Cercanías to Cercedilla from Madrid’s Chamartín station (the ride is an hour and 20 minutes). Then take a 40-minute train from Cercedilla to Cotos, where one of the park’s three offices is located.

Cuenca

hanging houses of cuenca
Cuenca's hanging houses. Photo: Colin Moss/Flickr.

This fortress town has an old-fashioned appeal similar to some of the other places on the list, but it offers you a sight you won’t find just anywhere – the Hanging Houses perched atop the deep gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers. Cuenca also has a multicultural assortment of religious architecture, notably El Castillo (an Arab fortress) and the Cuenca Cathedral.

The high-speed AVE train takes 50 minutes from Madrid’s Atocha station to Cuenca.

Aranjuez

royal palace of aranjuez
The Royal Palace of Aranjuez. Photo: Guillén Pérez/Flickr.

Another World Heritage Site, the beautiful town of Aranjuez served as a summer palace and hunting grounds for Royals of days gone by.  Its majestic architecture rivals that of the Royal Palace in Madrid and its magnificent gardens sprawling across 750 acres are worthy of an afternoon of exploration.

Aranjuez is a 45-minute train ride on the Cercanías via Madrid's Atocha station but for a truly authentic experience then take the Strawberry Train, made up of restored wooden carriages from the early 20th century. During the hour-long journey, you can sample delicious strawberries grown in Aranjuez itself.

Chinchón

chinchón
Chinchón. Photo: M.Peinado/Flickr.

Chinchón is yet another addition to the towns on this list that you can't miss simply for its charm. On your day here, visit the emblematic Plaza Mayor, famous for its irregular shape formed by medieval balconied houses.

Admire the view from the old clock tower, and buy titbits from its little artisan shops. It's full of quirky events too, like the anisette liquor festival in spring and the garlic festival in autumn.

Chinchón is barely 45 minutes from Madrid by bus.

Alcalá de Henares

alcala de henares
Alcalá de Henares at dusk. Photo: M.Peinado/Flickr.

The cobbled streets give this city, along the river Henares, east of Madrid, a well-preserved medieval charm. The Gothic Cathedral and the Universidad Complutense – one of the world’s oldest universities – are popular attractions, along with a recently excavated site with a Roman basilica and public baths.

The Jewish, Moorish, and Christian quarters offer a delightful blend of architecture from different cultures.

The city is famed for being the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.

Alcalá de Henares is 40 minutes from Madrid’s Atocha station on the Cercanías train.

Consuegra

windmills in consuegra
The windmills in Consuegra. Photo: Zoi Koraki/Flickr.

If you're a big fan of Cervantes' work, head over to Consuegra next. The town has been famous since the 16th century for its windmills – the setting of a famous scene from Don Quixote where the knight errant battle with the sails he mistook for giants. Other sights include the Castle of Consuegra and the Renaissance-style town hall. 

Buses from Madrid to Consuegra make the trip in about 2.5 hours.

 

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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