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Spanish highs; Give the beach a miss this summer .. and discover the castles and grandeur of old Castile.

Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

THAT'S the thing about a holiday in Spain. You can lie on a beach in Benidorm and watch the warm Mediterranean melt your sandcastle, which is pleasant enough. Or you can go and see the real thing, which is far more rewarding.

Of the 2,000-odd castles in Spain, the majority are in the two Castile regions in the centre of the country - Castilla Y Leon, to the north and west of Madrid, and Castilla-La Mancha, to the south.

Everywhere you will discover the dignified, slow-paced heart of the real Spain - cool, dimly-lit tapas bars behind thick, ancient walls, outdoor markets selling fresh fruit, vegetables, exquisite lace and pottery. All in the shadow of buildings of extraordinary grandeur.

You'll be lucky to find much English spoken here, except in hotels and tourist offices, but you'll get by with a phrase book and some finger-pointing.

Here's a guide to some of the main sights. All these towns and cities are easily accessible on a fly-drive holiday from Madrid. If you don't fancy driving, they are also served by a good rail network. The Spanish railway website www.renfe.es has details of fares and timetables in English.

For more information on Castilian Spain call the Spanish Tourist Board on 0207 486 8077 or visit www.tourspain.es

Avila

THIS lovely old city, a 75-mile, 90-minute drive from Madrid, is perched on a hill, standing sentinel over rolling dusty plains to the north and the Sierra de Gredos mountains in the south. It's the highest provincial capital in Spain, and in the winter the weather's enough to freeze the panniers off a Spanish donkey.

Thankfully the city's huge medieval walls - among the best-preserved in the world, with 88 towers and eight monumental gates - keep out most of the draught.

Avila was founded around 700AD and its rich sandstone fortifications were fought over by Christians and Moors for hundreds of years. In the 15th Century Torquemada the Inquisitor did a lot of work with his red-hot poker here and he is said to be buried in a monastery in the city.

Avila's favourite daughter is Santa Teresa, a mystic - some would say slightly batty - Carmelite nun who founded a new order, the Barefoot Carmelites, all over Spain.

In any of Avila's dozen or so pastry shops you can buy yemas, a sickly- sweet confection of egg yolk covered in sugar, which the sainted lady was in the habit, so to speak, of eating at every opportunity.

Avila's buildings are beautifully preserved, with storks nesting on chimneypots.

There are broad squares, tiny cobbled alleyways, convents, monasteries and an impressive cathedral, which includes a painting by El Greco.

The 11th Century Basilica de San Vicente contains the sepulchre of Vicente and his two sisters who were martyred by the Romans.

Over the road is an original Roman cemetery.

The nightlife here certainly wouldn't make Saint Teresa blush.

There are good tapas bars and restaurants around the arcaded Plaza de Santa Teresa and the Bodeguita de San Segundo in Calle de San Segundo can get quite lively.

But generally Avila is a low-key place which trades mainly on its religious past.

Where to stay: The stunning Parador Raimundo de Borgona is a converted 16th Century palace packed with antique furniture.

Reckon on spending around pounds 80 a night for a double room. A cheaper alternative is the charming little Hotel Las Cancelas (pounds 41 plus tax), tucked away near the cathedral, which has a tapas bar and a highly-rated Castillian restaurant.

Segovia

THE Alcazar in Segovia, 60 miles from Madrid, is said to have been the inspiration for the Magic Kingdom castle in Disney theme parks. True or not, it is still a magical sight, perched high on a ridge above the town.

It stands overlooking the 80ft-high Roman aqueduct, which stretches for more than half a mile across the city squares.

Not a drop of mortar was used to build this huge edifice in the 1st Century, so watch your head.

Segovia was where the Spanish royalty often spent their holidays and from the main square, the Plaza Mayor, you'll get an idea of just how important the city once was, with dozens of Romanesque churches and perfectly-preserved mansions.

The cathedral has more than 20 chapels, as well as a museum, and from the main tower in the Alcazar you'll get great views across the region's mountains and rivers.

About eight miles out of town is the 18th Century palace of La Granja, built by King Felipe V as a replica of his grandfather Louis XIV's palace at Versailles.

The elaborate gardens with their 28 fountains are a must-see (admission about pounds 3) which includes a tour around some of the palace's rooms.

Segovians only eat one thing, pig, so if you're vegetarian you might go hungry. The speciality is cochinillo asado, roast suckling pig and the best place to try it is the Meson Jose Mariain Calle del Cronista.

Meson Mayor, in the Plaza Mayor, is an old tapas bar which gets quite lively in the evenings.

Where to stay: The city's parador is perched on a hill outside town and is disappointingly modern. A better bet is the Hotel Ayala Berganza (hosteria ayaber@ futurnet.es), a converted 15th Century palace near the Plaza Mayor, which costs pounds 82 for a double room including breakfast.

Salamanca

THIS is the Oxbridge of Spain, a magnificent university city 90 miles from Madrid which seems to be built almost entirely of golden sandstone. The central Plaza Mayor is the finest square in Spain, a massive space with open-air cafes, iron balconies and graceful arcaded walkways which echo to the chatter of many of the city's 10,000 students as they stop for a beer or coffee on their way to lectures (or skip lectures altogether).

The university was founded in 1220 and was one of the world's most enlightened institutions in science, law and the arts.

Today it has slipped down the academic league table behind Madrid, Barcelona and Seville but, like Oxford and Cambridge, it still has a certain cache, particularly among well-heeled foreigners who come here to study Spanish. From the Plaza Mayor it's a stroll around the corner to the main entrance to the university which is decorated in sandstone sculptures of mythical heroes, kings and queens as well as religious scenes.

There are small lecture rooms around the courtyards inside, and upstairs is one of Europe's oldest libraries.

For around pounds 2 you can take a tour from 4pm to 7pm daily. Salamanca has two cathedrals. The biggest and most impressive is the 16th Century Catedral Nueva, designed by the architect Churriguera.

He did domes well. Next door is the Catedral Vieja, with a 13th Century fresco and the world's oldest church organ in a cloister chapel.

The city is packed with convents and palaces, parks and gardens.

But when the sun sets the place comes very much alive. Students pile into bars around the Plaza Mayor, which become impromptu music venues.

For eating out try the Meson Cervantes or the Restaurant El Clavel, both in the centre.

Where to stay: The Palacio de Castellanos (0034 923261818) in Calle San Pablo is a restored 15th Century palace with a glass-covered cloister. A double room costs about pounds 91 plus tax.

Toledo

STILL known as Spain's Imperial City, Toledo is the seat of the Catholic church in Spain and lies 60 miles south of its great rival Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha.

It also styles itself the City of Three Cultures, where Jews, Muslims and Christians all lived together in comparative harmony ...for a while at least.

Toledo is built on a hill with the River Tajo flowing past on three sides . The Zocodover, once the Arab souk, is the main square of the old town and the centre of a maze of medieval alleyways. The Alcazar is the old Moorish fortress, now a military museum. The 13th Century cathedral, one of the finest in Spain, dominates the entire city and inside there are paintings inside by El Greco, Toledo's adopted son. There are two medieval bridges across the river and much of the old city walls are walkable. Just outside the walls at the Puerta Nueva de Bisagra is a shaded park from where you can see the remains of the old Roman circus.

If Segovia is pig city, Toledo is the home of the cooked partridge, which seems to feature on most menus. Try El Patio, in the Plaza de Vicente, which has a lovely courtyard. Student bars abound in the old city. Try Lupulo, in Calle de Alfonso XII.

Where to stay: The Parador Nacional Conde de Orgaz (toledo@ parador.es) which sits on the southern bank of the Tajo and has splendid views of the city costs around pounds 47.50 p.p. B&B. The more central Hotel Carlos V (pounds 38 B&B) in Calle de Trastamara is a cheaper alternative.

CAPTION(S):

The Bisagra gate in the city of Toledo; The magnificent medieval walls around Avila; Amagical kingdom; Playa Anaya and the university in Salamanca
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Apr 6, 2003
Words:1520
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