On two visits to the Spanish capital to visit friends, seeing children out to dinner or in a play area on a street corner (there are lots of them) convinced me that this was a city my five-year-old son would love. My desire to take him was encouraged by the fact that flights to cities often cost much less than those to beach resorts, despite them being fascinating places for family holidays – especially if you find the right place to stay.
For a week-long trip over half term, the fare was much cheaper than the going rate for a weekend break – mainly because desire for the latter is much higher. Not wanting to get under my friends' feet for the full week but unable to afford seven nights in a city-centre hotel, I decided to look outside central Madrid for somewhere with a pool and lots of outdoor space. Essentially, I was looking for two holidays in one: a city break and a Mediterranean holiday (minus the small detail of the sea).
Camping Internacional Aranjuez has good children's facilities and good, cheap access to the capital (45 minutes on the spotless Renfe train). Our two-bedroom bungalow was air-conditioned, much more spacious than I expected and with a better-equipped kitchen than my own (which isn't really saying much). There was a pleasant on-site restaurant and reasonably priced supermarket. It was much quieter than it must be in July and August, when they lay on children's entertainment and activities. Still, there is a lovely play area, plenty of pine and rose-scented gardens to charge around, two pools (one for little ones, one for grown-ups) surrounded by ample loungers and watched by a lifeguard, kayaking on the river Tajo and bike hire.
As tempting as it was to soak up the lull around our ‘hut’, I took Tom out to explore Aranjuez. The former spring home of the Spanish royal family, this UNESCO World Heritage site has a magnificent royal palace at its heart. Tom and I went for a wander in the sprawling Jardin del Palacio and got completely lost, meandering between woodland, Chinese fountains, baroque sculptures, mazes and citrus orchards. It was all a bit Alice in Wonderland and I didn't have a clue where we were, but I never panicked, mainly because the place was so beautiful and intriguing. When I later looked at a map, I realised we'd walked for 2km and never covered the same ground.
A mini-train gives tours of the town and gardens throughout the day and parks up at the campsite in the evening. On our last night at ‘the hut’, we went for a walk to see the stunning palace at sundown, then hitched a ride home on the back of the train (much to Tom's delight). It felt very much like a behind-the-scenes look at this peaceful town, which has a smattering of tapas bars and shops but seems to remain open largely for the tourists who flock there by day. Chugging slowly past the sage-green river, I realised we didn't need to go to the seaside to breathe fresh air and unwind.
As for the city-break part of our trip, it was non-stop. We saw a brilliant street puppet show, rode rollercoasters in the excellent Parque de Atracciones near central Madrid (there’s also the much-loved Warner Bros themepark only 25km from Aranjuez), visited art galleries, wandered in the Parque del Retiro, drank juice with the protesters at Puerto del Sol and (on ‘my’ afternoon) discovered a whole street of vintage boutiques. The only thing we didn't get round to was stopping off at one of those street-corner play areas – but I don't think Tom minded about that at all.
Read more about family breaks in Madrid, including our hand-picked child-friendly accommodation recommendations.