Francine Prose visits Madrid, Segovia, Ávila, and Toledo to explore the region's heavenly aspirations--and succumb to its earthly passions

If Andalusia still conjures Bizet's Carmen bewitching soldiers on the banks of the Guadalquivir, Madrid summons images of women on the verge. Who can forget Almodóvar's Carmen--Carmen Maura, that is--setting fire to the bed she once shared with her lover in a penthouse apartment overlooking the city's rooftops?Or his Rossy de Palma passing out from gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills?Here, more than anywhere else in Spain, the ecstasies of the flesh are cloaked in a seductive weave of high seriousness and witty sophistication. Madrid for Christmas?Why not?Especially because that meant I could head into the rocky countryside that surrounds it, a backdrop more readily associated with ascetic mortification and spiritual enlightenment than worldly pleasures.

In late November Madrid goes into high gear, buzzing with hyped-up energy, turning the lights up brighter. Fashionable Madrileños stroll past the illuminated decorations and alluring shopwindows of Puerta del Sol (definitely the place to avoid on New Year's Eve, when this busy plaza turns into a Spanish version of Times Square). Throughout the city, branches of the popular Corte Inglés department store vie for the most extravagant holiday displays with gargantuan, glittering topiary, trumpeting angels, and yoked reindeer.

And on Sundays, the famous flea market, El Rastro--so large it's a neighborhood unto itself--takes on a special intensity. What's remarkable is the sheer variety of objects for sale, from tie-dyed T-shirts to antique birdcages, from flashy underwear to rusted auto parts, from tattered vintage comic books to faded maps of a world that no longer exists. Competing with the lure of bargain-hunting is an ongoing and often outrageous street theater. The star of the show one December afternoon was a paunchy transvestite crammed into a skin-tight black leather flamenco outfit, clicking castanets and strutting to the wailings and bouncy rhythms of a Gypsy band.

Yet beneath the city's love affair with the perverse are traces of a Spain much older and much closer in spirit to the Gothic cathedrals and fortressed medieval towns that surround it. The most magical market in Madrid is still the Christmas bazaar in the Plaza Mayor, with its rows of stalls selling Nativity figures and tree ornaments, as well as grotesque masks for the Feast of the Innocents, which commemorates Herod's slaughter of infants in Bethlehem, observed here on December 28. The plaza is surrounded by stone arcades that skirt elaborate 17th- and 18th-century buildings with wrought-iron balconies, slate roofs, and painted murals. Plaza Mayor is something like Paris's Place des Vosges, but with a dramatic, spookily Castilian edge; it was here, after all, that public executions were held during the Inquisition.

It has been awhile, though, since the plaza mayor trafficked in anything other than pure enjoyment. Some of the city's best tapas bars line the square, as do long-established emporiums selling hats and capes, hams and spices, offering a rare combination of time travel and shopping. Among these is the Casa Yustas, which specializes in exotic headgear: veiled evening concoctions, the three-cornered hats made famous (or infamous) by Franco's Guardia Civil, and hats that appear to have been on the premises since the place was founded a century ago.

History and tradition meet unrestrained carnivorousness at Botín, the oldest restaurant in the city and, legend has it, in the world; Francisco Goya is said to have worked here as a dishwasher before his art career took off. With its colorful tiled walls, open hearth, and gleaming copper pans, it's part cliché, part fantasy. This fantasy has been functioning since 1725, but, happily for me, my husband, and a number of stylish Madrileños, it's real, too.

We can't resist the house specialty, roast suckling pig, which looks and smells so delicious (in Hemingway's Sun Also Rises, the dish is Jake Barnes's idea of comfort food). The very fact that I, a reasonably health-conscious American woman, am devouring the irresistible parchments of crisp, salty skin--in the middle of the night!--is proof that I have already succumbed to the excess that is Madrid.

All the delicious and unhealthful foods that I have (dutifully, and at great personal cost) learned to stay away from at home--mammoth hunks of roast meats, crunchy pig skin, delectable deep-fried fish--are all-too-readily available throughout the city. Here, even side dishes arrive, as they do in the American South, accompanied by wicked little morsels of crackling and (still more) pork. In one form or another, the pig shows up in almost every meal we have in Madrid. One afternoon we grab a snack at a food emporium called the Museo del Jamón, which displays a positively exhaustive variety of magnificent hams and breads; another day, we lunch on a creditable version of cocido madrileño (an aromatic stew of meats and vegetables) at Terramundi, cheerful with its pale yellow walls and linens. Dinner at the funky La Trucha restores our faith in what can be done with simple ingredients--airy fried fish, silky spinach in garlic, artichoke hearts sautéed in olive oil with tiny nuggets of salty ham. And there's something weirdly titillating about dining at Viridiana, which, for some time now, has been among the hottest of Madrid's restaurants. Chef Abraham García's inventive creations are heightened by the kinky thrill of eating them amid stills from the Buñuel movie from which the restaurant borrows its name: the great director's brilliant meditation on sin, corruption, blasted innocence, and the twisted eroticism of not-quite-faithful Catholics.

A less ironic take on the transports of Christianity can be found in the Prado, among the miraculous paintings of Murillo, Zurbarán, and Ribera. With its recently restored collection of Netherlandish art--one of the world's most extensive, including masterpieces by Brueghel, Bosch, Weyden, and Patinir--and new galleries devoted to Velázquez, the Prado is more breathtaking than ever. As in all great museums, there's a shock in suddenly finding yourself standing before a favorite painting by Goya, Rembrandt, or Titian; it's like unexpectedly encountering an old friend.

Leaving Madrid for the countryside feels, in many ways, like stepping out of the 20th century and back into one of those paintings you've been studying at the Prado. The features I recognize from the works of art keep reappearing in the faces of farmers and villagers we see along our drive. The ascetic aura of Madrid's masterpieces so pervades this arid region that the ascent into the mountains surrounding the capital seems not just topographical but metaphysical.

If you don't mind dressing in layers and watching your breath form flowers of frost inside the great cathedrals, December is the best time to visit the provinces. Arranged in a sort of half-circle around Madrid, the cities of Segovia, Ávila, and Toledo, covered in snow, are all sublimely illustrative of the Old Spain. One can explore several thousand years of Castilian history in these three small towns alone.

When we arrive in Segovia, just before noon on a weekday, the delightful main square is still coming sleepily to life. Our hotel, the Infanta Isabel, has the sort of low-key Victorian charm I associate with inns in provincial France. From our window, facing the square, we can see the golden morning light striking the cathedral, and the aproned waiters at La Concepción café--anticipating an unseasonably warm day--setting out tables under the arched arcade that surrounds the plaza.

As in Ávila and Toledo, the historic center of Segovia is encircled by thick, crenellated stone walls, built during the Middle Ages. To walk from one end of the city to the other is like pacing off a time line. On the eastern border is the monumental Roman aqueduct; a few minutes' walk west brings you to the jewel-like church of San Martín, then on to a magnificent Gothic cathedral. Farther west still is the Alcázar, the Disneyesque castle that is a re-creation of the 15th-century original, which was gutted by fire in 1862.

Monuments aside, the pleasure of being in Segovia derives from turning a corner to discover a hidden plaza or a building decorated with esgrafiadio, the ornately patterned plasterwork characteristic of the region, or a rain spout carved in the shape of some fantastic creature. Not only does Segovia offer all the charms and grandeur of Old Castile, but it's also said to have the best food in the province. At the Mesón de Cándido, a venerable institution overlooking the Roman aqueduct, we have the most transcendent form of the game dishes for which Castile is celebrated--quail, partridge--and roast lamb so juicy and tender you can cut it with a fork.

From Segovia, it's less than an hour to Ávila through a landscape of quaint villages, castle ruins, and intimidating black bulls grazing the rolling meadows. Unless you're the one driving, close your eyes as you approach Ávila's hideous, overbuilt outskirts and don't open them again until you're in a room with a view of the cathedral, at the Hotel Palacio Valderrábanos. Ávila is, of course, best known as the birthplace of Saint Teresa, whose ecstatic visions inspired so much Renaissance and Baroque art. Amazingly for a 16th-century woman, she took on the controversial reform of the Carmelite order, struggling to purge it of the corruption fed by an excessive ecclesiastical love of luxury and comfort.

Ávila has three museums dedicated to Teresa, all filled with relics and memorabilia: letters, embroidered linens, a saddle, the tambourines and drums she once played, the rough log that she used in lieu of a pillow. I have always loved her for her no-nonsense, ironic spirit. ("If this is how You treat your friends," she is said to have told God during one arduous journey, "no wonder You have so few of them!")

At the church of San José, you can see the grate through which Teresa received Communion; at the Convento de la Encarnación, where she lived for 30 years, a young woman admits me to the chilly, austere cell in which Teresa received her visits from God. Just outside town, on the route to Salamanca, the Four Posts mark the spot where Teresa--who, as a small child, had run away from home with her brother in the hope of being captured by Moors and cruelly martyred--was found by her uncle and summarily returned to Ávila.

The drive southeast from Ávila is demanding and scenic. Its winding roads hug the dramatic slopes of the Sierra de Gredos, then rapidly descend through the sweet-smelling forests just north of Toledo, which appears suddenly--an El Greco painting rising up out of the plains. Hilly, steep, a labyrinth of twisting alleys, Toledo is one of those cities that soon outdo the mapmaker's--and the map follower's--best efforts. First you get lost, then eventually find, quite by accident, what you were looking for. Then you get lost again.

El Greco is to Toledo what Teresa is to Ávila, but fans of the painter will find better examples of his work in the Prado than in the local museum attached to the so-called Casa de El Greco, where he may or may not have lived. What's more, it's maddening to wait on line at the church of Santo Tomé and pay a comparatively steep fee to see El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz, isolated in a specially built and clinically sterile chapel.

I find it far more satisfying to wander around the upper cloister of San Juan de los Reyes, a late-15th-century church, above the handsome garden and nearly at eye level with the fanciful gargoyles. I visit the Sinagoga del Tránsito, with its elaborate Mudejar tracery and decorative Hebrew calligraphy, and the Sephardic museum, filled with artifacts of the culture that flourished here before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. A few minutes away is Santa María la Blanca, another former synagogue, this one from 1203 and the site of a pogrom in 1391. Perhaps that explains the aura of stark desolation that haunts the building despite the lively intricacy of its plasterwork and ornamental carvings.

It's easy to feel slightly overwhelmed by Toledo--by the steepness of its streets, by the variety of its monuments, and especially by the gigantic scale of its cathedral, built in a mélange of vastly different yet somehow harmonious styles that reflect the changing tastes through the centuries (almost three) required to build it. Before we'd left for Spain, a friend who had lived there for many years sent us off with quasi-Gothic portentousness: "Something extremely strange always happens in Toledo," he said. It was not until our last night in the city that our friend's prediction came true.

It was after dinner, almost midnight. As we wound our way back to our hotel through the dark streets, we heard someone playing a trumpet, slightly off-key. Entering the main plaza, we saw a group--a flock, really--of women, all dressed in chicken costumes. Wearing fuzzy white suits, red combs, and yellow beaks, they were rehearsing a parade that was to be held in honor of the New Year; they looked very much like creatures out of a Bosch painting. The disparity between their hilarious costumes and the seriousness with which they were preparing for their roles seemed nothing less than the embodiment of the tension between the spiritual and the carnal, the penitential and the joyous--everything that is most endearing about Toledo and Madrid, Ávila and Segovia, the cities of Old Castile.

Toledo, Segovia, and Ávila make comfortable day trips from Madrid. Toledo and Segovia are each 40 miles from the capital. Ávila is 53 miles to the northwest; Salamanca, one of the world's oldest university towns, is 53 miles farther and is worth a visit.

Hotel Palace 7 Plaza de las Cortes, Madrid; 800/325-3589 or 34-91/360-8000, fax 34-91/360-8100; doubles from $393. Since 1913, the 465-room Palace's discreet staff have kept hush-hush the goings-on of their famous guests; maybe that's why Mata Hari chose to stay here. The legendary bar is where politicians, stockbrokers, and business types trade secrets.
Gran Hotel Reina Victoria 14 Plaza de Santa Ana, Madrid; 800/448-8355 or 34-91/531-4500, fax 34-91/522-0307; doubles from $172. Hemingway and the toreador crowd he ran with used to frequent the halls of this 1920's-era establishment. The 201 rooms may be old-world formal, but the hotel faces out onto the hopping nightlife scene and tapas bars of Plaza de Santa Ana.

Botín 17 Calle Cuchilleros, Madrid; 34-91/366-4217; dinner for two $65. The best Castilian-style roast pig anywhere. There's a reason all the tourists come here.
Viridiana 14 Calle Juan de Mena, Madrid; 34-91/523-4478; dinner for two $131. An eclectic menu (scorpion fish stuffed with clams) served amid giant movie stills from Buñuel's film of the same name.
La Trucha 3 Calle Manuel Fernández y González, Madrid; 34-91/429-5833; dinner for two $65. Locals crowd into "the Trout" for its tapas. Simple, tasty, and affordable.
Mesón de Cándido 5 Plaza Azoguejo, Segovia; 34-921/428-103; dinner for two $52. Cándido has attracted the likes of Orson Welles and King Juan Carlos with its classic Castilian cooking. Save room for the tarta de ponche, a regional dessert specialty made with marzipan.
Mesón del Rastro 1 Plaza del Rastro, Ávila; 34-920/211-218; dinner for two $50. Dark wood beams, wrought iron, and a menu of flavorful stews--beef, veal, lamb, kid.

Best Books
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner)--Don't even think of going to Spain without reading this. If you've already read it, read it again.
The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself (Penguin)--Saint Teresa's account of her spiritual life.

Best Values
Hotel Infanta Isabel 1 Calle de Isabel la Católica, Segovia; 34-921/461-300, fax 34-921/462-217; doubles from $64. Right on the Plaza Mayor. You can almost touch Segovia's Gothic cathedral from the windows of this 19th-century stone town house; the 27 rooms are simple and snug.
Hotel Palacio Valderrábanos 9 Plaza de la Catedral, Ávila; 800/223-1356 or 34-920/211-023, fax 34-920/251-691; doubles from $98. In a 12th-century building, the Valderrábanos's 73 rooms have a medieval feel despite all the modern comforts--satellite TV, business center, and voice mail.
Hostal Cardenal 24 Paseo de Recaredo, Toledo; 800/645-3876 or 34-925/224-900, fax 34-925/222-991; doubles from $60. The stately 18th-century residence of Cardinal Lorenzana, built right into the city walls, is now a 27-room inn with an excellent restaurant whose specialties include partridge, venison, and wild boar (dinner for two $60).

On the Web
Spanish Tourist Board ( background, fiesta roundups, hotel listings, and city maps.
Softguide Madrid ( comprehensive site, with guides to entertainment, dining, and boutique shopping, as well as suggestions for day trips to Ávila, Segovia, and Toledo, among other places.
--Robert Maniaci