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The top day trips from Madrid are probably Segovia and Toledo, with good reason: they’re picturesque little cities, easily accessible by high-speed train and brimming with Instagram-worthy sights. But such popularity comes at a price – at weekends, they're often crammed with camera-toting tourists. So if you don't feel like adding to their number and fancy a weekend escape from the city crush, try Manzanares el Real instead.
|The reservoir in Manzanares el Real, el Embalse de Santillana|
Around 50 kilometres north of Madrid in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, Manzanares el Real is well-connected to the capital by bus. You can catch the 724 from Plaza Castilla once or twice an hour; the journey takes 45 minutes and the fare is €5.10. As the bus snakes its way into Manzanares, you'll see the the vast lake to the left, and the iconic castle to the right. Manzanares may be small, but it's definitely got enough to keep you entertained for the day.
The helpful tourist office can give you information on walks in the area, including a relatively easy one to up to the hillside chapel, the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Peña Sacra. If you're feeling more adventurous and visiting in summertime, you might fancy a trek up to La Charca Verde, where you can take a dip in natural pools. Manzanares is an ideal base or starting point for hikers, due to its proximity to La Pedriza: apparently the most interesting mountain in the area, if you're into that sort of thing. Think weird and wonderful rock formations, beautiful views – and a lot of thigh toning.
|El Castillo de los Mendoza|
If, like me, you'd rather limit your exertions to the town itself, Manzanares won't disappoint. The main sight is the medieval Castillo de los Mendoza, which dates back to 1475. The first batch of builders plundered stone from the town's existing castle, the now known as the Castillo Viejo, which has been reduced to little more than a wall. The Castillo de los Mendoza is in much better shape; it's one of the best-preserved castles in Spain, and began its life as a military fortress before becoming home to the noble Mendoza family. The palace-cum-fortress is open to visitors (€5), and you can explore its regal rooms, ramparts, courtyards and towers at your leisure. With views over the lake in one direction and out to the mountains on the other, you might have to become one of those camera-toting tourists after all.
The petite town centre is ideal for idle wandering, and there's often an artisanal goods market to peruse on Saturdays. For a little town, Manzanares boasts plenty of bars: perfect if you fancy a refreshing beer in the sun. Most bars and restaurants are concentrated around Plaza del Pueblo and Calle de los Panaderos, with La Jara being a great choice for abundant portions of tapas (and at much more reasonable prices than in Madrid). Once you've eaten, you can work off your lunch with a stroll across the ancient Canada Real bridge, which is as old as the village itself (although has thankfully undergone a bit of reconstruction since). Head out towards the Embalse de Santillana (reservoir), which is one of the Comunidad de Madrid's main water sources. It's also a pretty spot, with signposted walks around its tree-lined shores and beyond should you wish to continue. And if you don't, well it's back to the town centre for another drink.
Sights-packed Manzanares el Real may not be, but relaxing? Definitely. Oh, and it's photogenic too... just don't tell all those tourists.
If you're looking for more ideas for day trips from Madrid, you can find my other posts on the topic here.