Charming Chinchón – Garlic, Goya, Anis, John Wayne & a picture-perfect plaza

Join me for a walk around a little slice of deep Spain, right on Madrid’s doorstep.

Located on the Tagus-Jarama river basin, Chinchón is just 45km from Madrid but worlds apart. Although it has grown beyond its village confines, visiting its antique heart is like stepping back into a charming, ramshackle past. Surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, Chinchón has an iconic Plaza Mayor, flanked by  15th-17th century galleried houses, staggered roofs and 234 green wooden balconies and even doubles up as the town’s bull ring.

Over the years, it has hosted royal announcements and celebrations, mock spear combats, bullfights, livestock fairs, public executions and even film shootings (Cantinflas, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles and John Wayne all took part in movies shot in Chinchón).

Chinchón has a tower without a church and a church without a tower,’ the popular saying goes. The Clock Tower is the only remnant of the old church, whereas the new(er) church, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, has no tower, although it does boast a painting by Goya entitled Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

I soak up the sights and sounds on the town’s Plaza Mayor, take a look at the church and clock tower and find out what the connection is with this small back water and the artist, Goya.

There is also a medieval castle, which, however, is somewhat damaged and also closed to the public. Its last use was as a distillery producing Anís de Chinchón known commercially as Anisette, an anise-flavored high-alcohol liqueur which the town has been noted for centuries. I sipped a glass for the first time in the square and there are three varieties – Chinchón dulce, seco, or extra seco. The sweet version is less potent! 

Chinchón became famous thanks to its aniseed spirit, and above all because of the Countess of Chinchón, who was responsible for the discovery of quinine, isolated by Pelletier and Caventou in 1820. The wife of the Count of Chinchón, who was also the Viceroy of Peru, had been cured of a tropical fever in the 17th Century, thanks to a remedy prepared by with Peruvian bark, and so she had some brought back to Europe. The Swedish scientist Linné gave it the scientific name of chinchona in her honour.

Though small, Chinchón is known for its festivals, a big draw for people from nearby Madrid, and those visiting it. Two of the biggest are the Chinchón Festival de anis y vino, a celebration of locally distilled anisette and wine, which takes place at the end of March, and the October garlic festival. In October of each year the central plaza is the site of a temporary bullring, with the profits from the bullfighting going to charitable causes.

In February, the square plays host to Carnival celebrations and a huge Medieval Market, featuring, parades, shows and an arts and crafts market. The event commemorates one of the times the Catholic Monarchs visited Chinchón. In August, during the local fiestas, the square turns into a bullring hosting bullfights, shows, verbenas (traditional outdoor festivals), running of the bulls, and sporting and religious events.  

October brings the Bullfighting Charity Festival, followed by the Garlic Festival. On Easter Saturday, around 250 locals take part in the re-enactment of the Passion of Jesus. As a prelude to the bullfighting season, the first running of the bulls of the year takes place on 25 July, followed by a novillada (a fight with young bulls and bullfighters).

Getting to Chinchón. Take the bus 337 from Metro Stop Conde de Casal. The journey takes just under and hour and buses leave every half an hour. Tickets cost 4.20 each way.