For an authentic Spanish experience off the tourist beat, spend a couple of days in Valladolid, home to one of Spain’s most important museums and also a bit of a gourmet hotspot
First of all, let’s just learn how to pronounce it. All together now: vye-ya-doll-eeth. Try it once more. You see, it’s not that bad once you get used to it. The name actually comes from Valle de Olid, or Olid Valley (just in case if it ever comes up in a pub quiz). If you are learning Spanish, by the way, the city is reputed to be the place where the language is spoken with the clearest, most desirable accent.
Now the capital of the vast Castilla y León region, with a population of around 320,000, the city was the hub of operations for the Castilian monarchs until the mid-16th century, when Madrid became the capital of Spain. It did have another brief stint as capital from 1600 to 1606, under Philip III, but never really regained its former status.
Unlike some Spanish cities I could name, Valladolid is remarkably unshowy and I’d go as far as to say unfashionable. But don’t be put off: there’s a lot to be said for modesty in this look-at-me world, and this is a really rewarding place to spend a couple of days.
It is a city where people clearly live very well, with fantastic food and wine. The Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Cigales and Toro designations are all in the immediate vicinity of the city, so there is no danger of getting served a dodgy glass of wine here. But don’t ask for a Rioja, whatever you do. It really doesn’t go down well with the locals, who are justifiably fiercely proud and protective of the wines produced closer to home.
If you see one thing…
Make it the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio (museoescultorico.mcu.es). A bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Until mid-September, it was known as the Museo Nacional de Escultura, but got its new name after moving back into the splendid 15th-century San Gregorio building following a five-year renovation scheme. The museum houses some of the most outstanding religious sculpture in Spain, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries, with figures and altarpieces by Alonso Berruguete, Juan de Juni, Gregorio Fernández, Diego de Siloé and Pedro de Mena. You may well be thinking that this isn’t really your thing and it all sounds a bit stuffy, but I defy you not to moved to tears by the sheer beauty and emotion somehow conveyed by what are essentially old bits of wood.
Okay, let’s take it easy for the rest of the day. Life in Valladolid revolves around the Plaza Mayor, an elegant space painted deep red and framed by arcades housing a string of cafés. Walk around and choose your favourite. I love the Lion d’Or with its marble tables, but the coffee in the Continental is excellent, and there’s a bohemian vibe upstairs in the Ideal.
Leading off the Plaza Mayor, Calle Santiago is the main shopping street, with Zara, Mango and the usual suspects. If you turn off to the left along Calle Constitución, you can pop into El Corte Inglés department store then carry straight on to reach the Cathedral. Begun at the end of the 16th century by the great architect Juan de Herrera, but never finished, it is worth visiting to see the altarpiece by Juan de Juni. El Largo Adiós (Arribes 2), in front of the Cathedral, is a great place for a drink or two in the evening, with an interesting literary clientele.
Beyond the Cathedral, you come to the baroque University, with a statue of Miguel de Cervantes in the square in front of it. The author of Don Quixote lived in Valladolid at the end of his life, and his house (museocasacervantes.mcu.es) on Calle Rastro, near Plaza de Zorrilla, is now a museum.
Where to eat
Valladolid has some of the best tapas bars in Spain – it just chooses to keep quiet about them. Los Zagales (Pasión 13, 983 380892, www.loszagales.com) is one of the best known, and regularly wins awards for its creations in the prestigious competition held every year at the beginning of June. If you’re feeling brave (and not very hungry), order the Coctél de Mariscos, a concoction Heston Blumenthal himself would be proud to serve. Liquid carbon dioxide is added to white wine to create a gas that wafts over a tiny glass of chopped cockles and clams. Don’t ask me why. They do more conventional tapas, too, and there are also dining rooms where you can have a proper three-course meal. There are a few places worth checking out on Calle Correos down the side of the Plaza Mayor. I like La Mina (Correos 7), where the speciality is a tapa of layered courgette, foie and salmon, but do a tapas crawl and you’ll find your own favourite.
Where to stay
The Hotel Roma will never win any design awards, but it is comfortable and quiet with a great location just behind the Plaza Mayor, which is walking distance from anywhere you are likely to want to go. Wi-fi is free but hit-and-miss and the breakfast is a bit no frills, but rates start at around €65 for a double room so all in all, it’s a good deal.
The three-star Hotel Catedral has a bit more charm (though it's not exactly dripping with it, frankly) and is also dead central, with lots of bars and cafés nearby. Wi-fi is free in the lobby and room rates are in the €70-€100 bracket.
For something more stylish and contemporary, the Melia Recoletos Boutique Hotel is new but hiding behind an elegant early 20th-century façade overlooking the Campo Grande park and only a few minutes’ walk from the train station. There are 80 rooms, starting from around €90, but it's worth paying an extra €10 or so for a top-floor room with a kingsize bed. There is wi-fi throughout the hotel, but you have to pay for it.
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Valladolid from London Stansted and several other European airports. By train, the city is only one hour away from Madrid on the high-speed AVE service, and 80 minutes on the Alvia or Avant services (www.renfe.es).