Spain – Kosher Vacation
by Yehoshua Feigin
Madrid & Toledo
Madrid is a city that truly comes alive at night, with dangling lights above wide boulevards and a thriving bar and restaurant scene. There is a youthful vibe with the cafes and the spray painted facades of many buildings. Recommended by many is the Prado art museum. We really wanted to see Toledo though and we knew that we wouldn’t have time unless we squeezed it in on the first day. Immediately after landing at Madrid airport, we took a train to the city center, dropped off our luggage in a storage facility for a small price, and took a high speed train to Toledo. (As a side note, the vicinity of many train stations in Spain have luggage storage facilities where one can rent out a locker for a few hours. This came in very handy. Just check on google for the nearest one for the city you are in.)
Only half an hour away from Madrid with the high speed AVE train, it makes for a great day or half/day trip. Toledo originates from the Roman period, but much of the prominent remaining architecture comes from the Middle Ages. From the ornately decorated train station, there is a steep climb up a hill followed by a crossing over a Roman bridge to get to the hilly town. This approach through massive, arab style gates is itself quite impressive. Once in town, of particular interest is the Jewish quarter, which houses two synagogues: Santa Maria and El Transito. When we were there it was a Sunday and a holiday, and we were disappointed to find that entry to the synagogues was thus closed. Nonetheless, the beauty of the town’s alleyways as well as the Jewish themed shops made the visit well worthwhile. One can also quickly pop into many small museums. For a lighter first day in Spain, stay within Madrid itself for the first day, and on the second day do a day trip to Toledo. Checking out the town of Segovia is also possible and seems to be popular.
We had a late dinner at one of Madrid’s few kosher restaurants: La Escudilla. Unfortunately, the experience left us feeling unsatisfied and I would therefore advise checking out Madrid’s other kosher establishments (including a dairy pizzeria and an Israeli place) first. We stopped by Carniceria Elias, the kosher butcher shop, to pick up some groceries. This shop came in handy and it was really more of a small grocery than just a butcher shop. We picked up some deli, cheese, tortilla wraps, and snacks for the next few days.
On our second day in Spain, we walked around Madrid and then caught a fast train to Cordoba that took under two hours. We settled into our amazing airbnb, which was really five star. (Check out the host’s profile on airbnb for some other similar options.)
We spent two full days entirely in Cordoba, where there is a lot to see and do. We got up early to catch twilight and sunrise at the historic Roman bridge, which (along with sunset) is the prettiest time to see the illuminated structure and old town in the background. This made for some excellent pictures, after which we enjoyed some morning coffee in a cafe.
Shortly after, we began a tour of the city. First up was the Mezquita (or mosque). (Obviously consult with a Rabbi and determine what you feel comfortable with.) The inside is lined with rows upon rows of red and white stone archways, which create an impressive view throughout the structure. When the city’s Muslim population grew, the Mosque was expanded multiple times, and the confluence of developing styles is visible within each expansion. Interestingly, after the Muslims were driven out of the Iberian Peninsula, the Mezquita was converted to a Catholic Church. To walk through the building is to experience a cultural, political, and religious war played out through architecture. For this experience though, I felt that a guide was not necessary. Go by yourself, see the Muslim archways and construction, and avoid the Christianity in-your-face part as much as you’d like.
Next we hopped over to the nearby Jewish quarter (or Juderia in Spanish). In this area, many courtyards compete to decorate the white walls with the most impressive floral arrangements. Here is also where the Rambam grew up, and there is a statue (probably inaccurately) depicting him. Many hotels and businesses have the name “Maimonides” in their titles and it is nice to see Jewish history represented. There is a small Jewish museum called Casa Sefarad, where we popped into for a few minutes. We also visited an old shul, which was nice to see. After the expulsion of Jews in 1492 though, the Christians modified the structure, turning the Aaron Kodesh into an altar, and painting a cross on the walls. Hmmm… I’m starting to notice a theme here. Anyways, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia has left a noticeably lasting impact on Spain even to this day. Everywhere you look throughout the country, there are churches and reminders of Jesus. It got to be a bit much, so we turned it into a game of who could find the most crosses.
Our guide proceeded to explain some of Judaism’s practices to the rest of the tour group, such as how restrictive Shabbat and kosher are. He recommended the netflix show Unorthodox to the group to get an idea of what he was describing. (For those who do not know, this show depicts an unhealthy, ultra-orthodox Hasidic family in Williamsburg that pursues a young woman who attempts to escape her old Jewish life.) While to me it is clear that this show is over-dramatized, to a non-Jewish audience, that is not clear at all. It was upsetting that this media portrayal is what many people experience as their first interaction with Jewish culture. I approached the guide about this and we ended up having a really nice conversation about Israel, Jewish history, and Jewish culture, which hopefully gave him a more well rounded picture of the beauty of our nation and not just the netflix drama.
Finally, we visited the stunning Alcazar. This building has a tragic history. Originally an Arab fortress and bathhouse, as it was used by Ferdinand and Isabella as a regional center for the Inquisition, where Jews were imprisoned and tortured, until they confessed to their deviation from Catholicism. Under fascist Francisco Franco, this same building was used as a political prisoner camp, where the execution of political prisoners was performed as late as 1974. Nowadays though, the Alcazar is filled with excavated Roman mosaics and bears little remnants of its horrid past. Outdoors is a courtyard built with long pools and fountains lined with aromatic citrus trees and jasmine. It is so tranquil nowadays that it is often used as a grounds for weddings.
Cordoba is a great place to catch a Flamenco show. The theater we were at is called El Cardenal. They had classic Spanish guitar, singing, impressive choreography and rhythm. Highly recommended. Another attraction is the Cordoba Hammam, an Arab style bath in a restored / reconstructed bathhouse facility. There are cold, medium, and hot pools plus a steam room and massages (for those interested). Everything is decorated in the Arab-influenced style of the region, the lighting is kept low, and there is soft music in the background. It is easy to have a private area and unwind after all the walking you do throughout your trip.
We then did a day trip by train to Granada, home to the Alhambra – a magnificent compound originally built by the Arab rulers of the area. When they were completely driven out of Spain in 1492 during the period known as the reconquista (reconquest), the Alhambra became a royal site to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in which they then signed the order to expel the Jewish population out of Spain. Strolling through the grounds, geometric patterned tiles, fountains, and stucco work make the structure come alive. This is definitely worthwhile to visit. Tickets sell out, so book ahead. We took a guided tour that was informative, but lasted too long for our liking. A good way to balance the desires to contextualize what you are seeing and to independently explore is to perhaps do a one hour tour of the main castle and then visit the rest of the complex unaccompanied. The Alhambra is located quite a distance uphill from the train station, so you will need a taxi to arrive there, though we walked the way back through old Moorish neighborhoods, which was quite nice and downhill.
Caminito Del Ray
On Friday, we took a rental car from Cordoba to Caminito Del Ray, a unique hiking path that originally provided access to a power plant. Nowadays though, it is a special activity for locals and tourists to traverse narrow bridges and walkways clinging to the sides of soaring overhead peaks suspended above a rushing river. This activity is not ideal for those with a fear of heights or an aversion to some physically strenuous movement. And as with many things, book ahead. To access the hike, the best place to park is in the town of El Chorro, where you follow the group of hikers to the trail’s start. If you park in one of the other lots, you might need to take a shuttle bus to reach the entrance. We did not complete the whole activity, as we needed to arrive at our accommodation with enough time before Shabbat, but we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
For the rest of the trip we based ourselves in Marbella, where there is a Chabad and some shul / restaurant options. We tried Milky cafe, which is a nice dairy eatery (as the name suggests) that was quite good. For Sunday night dinner, we attempted to go to Mamashh Kosher Experience, but we arrived only to see no signs of life, despite Google saying it was open. I called their phone number and the call didn’t even go to voicemail before disconnecting. Next door is Deli Kosher, which supposedly caters prepared foods and meals. They too were closed. I tried reaching out to them by whatsapp and email numerous times and got no reply. I don’t know if these places are permanently closed or maybe only open in the summer season.
We walked around Marbella on Shabbat and the old town had lots of character, but otherwise the city just did not do it for me. If I could redo it, I would spend more time at our awesome Airbnb in Cordoba or stay in the Sierra Nevada mountains – both places that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Over there (as a day trip from Marbella) we visited Ronda – a classic Andulusian whitewashed town. The special attraction here is a high bridge from the eighteenth century connecting two parts of town. You can hike down and get a great view of the impressive structure. From here, you can continue on to Setenil de las Bodegas, another town in the cliffs – though this town literally is in the rocks with giant boulders covering the main street. Or check out Zahara de la Sierra, another whitewashed town with a vast blue lake as a backdrop.
As another day trip about an hour away, we visited Gibraltar, a tiny city-state that sits at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and was believed by the Greeks to be the end of the world. To the left are wild monkeys found on the rock.
The British eventually took control of the territory from Spain in order to maintain military hegemony within the Mediterranean and now it is part of the United Kingdom. When visiting, make sure to pack your passport as you need to clear a quick border check. You can either drive in and park in a garage or park in Spain and walk over the border. Land based traffic in and out of Gibraltar crosses a runway, and it feels weird to be in the middle of an airport tarmac while also in your car. Interestingly, there is actually an Orthodox Jewish community here with schools, eateries, and a kollel. There are some historic synagogues to see, but we came during the middle of a work day so they were not easily open to tourists. I’m sure you could see them if you come for Shabbat or go around with a local. We did see many young Jewish students out and about. We also grabbed a solid dairy lunch at Amar’s cafe and bakery before setting off towards the cable car to the top of the giant mountain within the territory. Before we could depart though, we stumbled across guides offering a small group tour, which we opted for and ended up being the right choice. They took us up to the top, showed us the viewpoints, some history, and the wild monkeys in the area swinging all around. Without a tour, you could end up hiking for hours and hours, which we did not want to do. It made for a nice excursion, the food was good, and I liked the monkeys. But the town area itself was nothing remarkable and Gibraltar really does not feel like Spain. It was nice to see for a few hours, but I would not recommend spending more time here, and if you are tight on time and trying to see classical Spain, I would say that you can skip Gibraltar.
Buying Train Tickets – When it comes to organization and efficiency, Spain has other strong suits. Expect that times are not always exact and service is not always quick. An example of this is trying to buy a train ticket in Madrid. At the airport, determining how to take the train to the city center even stumped Spanish people. In the main train station, customer service is unclear and the signage is poor. Many trains, particularly long distance ones, should be reserved in advance. I tried using the Spanish RENFE website and kept running into issues. As a workaround, the British website/app Trainline sells tickets with a usable interface.
Food – As clear from the article, the kosher food in Spain is not great (in our experience). I was fully expecting this and therefore adequately prepared. We made sure that all our accommodations had fridges, freezers, and stove top burners. In America, I already cooked many things for the trip. I used a vacuum sealer to efficiently pack everything and then froze it all. To go with us to Spain, I used a Polar Bear freezer bag that kept the food even frozen until even past when we arrived. Throughout our trip, I defrosted things and heated them up with a small pot and cooked sides such as rice, eggs, vegetables. Then I also stocked up on a lot of things in Madrid at the kosher shop. I think it is technically forbidden to bring such foods into the EU, but there was not even a form at customs to fill out. We just walked right through with no problem. Obviously this approach was a bit more labor intensive, but for a trip of over a week, it made a huge difference to not need to worry about where we would get our next meal from in a country with limited options.
Weather – During our visit in January, the weather ranged between the high 40s and the low 70s. Bring a light, waterproof jacket, a sweater or two, and some t-shirts for when it is warmer. We were told that Cordoba during the summer is the hottest city in Spain reaching over 100 degrees. With the amount of walking and time spent outdoors, doing this itinerary in the summer would be tortuous. The winter was really nice because of less crowds and lower prices, and I imagine that fall and spring would be nice as well.
Conclusion / Summary
Spain has a lot of worthwhile historical sites, attractions, and natural beauty. The challenge is how to logistically fit as much as possible into one trip. Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1 – Sunday: Arrive in Madrid, drop off bags, day trip to Toledo
Day 2 – Monday: Morning in Madrid, train to Cordoba
Day 3 – Tuesday: Cordoba
Day 4 – Wednesday: Day trip to Granada / Alhambra
Day 5- Thursday: Cordoba
Day 6 – Friday: Rental car to Caminito del Ray + Shabbat evening in Marbella
Day 7 – Saturday: Shabbat in Marbella
Day 8 – Sunday: Day trip to Ronda / villages
Day 9: Monday: Day trip to Gibraltar
Day 10: Tuesday: Departure from Malaga airport with stopover in Madrid
This itinerary can be modified based on how long you are in Spain, your interests, your airports of arrival and departure, the day of the week you arrive, and where you spend Shabbat. You can definitely add another day in Madrid for a more relaxed pace, spend Shabbat in Gibraltar or skip it entirely, cut out some of the day trips, check out Seville instead of Granada, or start in Barcelona before arriving in Madrid. The possibilities are endless for how to plan this itinerary.
I recently read an article from Dani Klein of YeahThatsKosher (a great blog to check out for kosher travel) for an itinerary to Spain structured quite differently than mine. It may take some tweaking around to find the perfect plan.
We really enjoyed Spain. It was amazing for history, adventure, and culture. However, if your priorities are ease of travel, accessibility of kosher food, or needing little planning, Spain might not be the best option for you. If you get a chance to go though, you will have a great time!