Spain is more than bullfights, flamenco dancers and crowded beaches. It’s a spectacular and diverse country, the north resembling the rolling, green hills of Ireland and the south giving you a taste of Moroccan landscapes and architecture. Its tremendous history is reflected in its prehistoric cave paintings, Moorish palaces, crumbling castles, Roman ruins, Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals as well as some very unique modern architecture. The uniqueness of Spain lies in the separate kingdoms which made up the original Spanish nation. These regions remain diverse in their language, culture, cuisine and art. These regions include: Andalucía, Aragon, Asturias, Basque Country, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castilla La Mancha, Castilla León, Catalonia, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Madrid, Murcia, Navarra and Valencia. Areas of interest are not limited to each region, here are some highlights:
The Moorish influence (the Moors from Morocco were the dominating civilization for 800 years) in Andalucía can be seen in the sumptuous Alhambra palace in Granada, the mezquita , a former mosque in Córdoba and the Alcázar and Giralda tower in Sevilla. The White villages are hidden joys, as the small villages surrounded by natural beauty can not fail to impress.
Remarkable Christian monuments, from Romanesque to contemporary, can be found throughout Spain. A possible tour to the most fantastic cathedrals will take you through Toledo, León, Salamanca, Burgos and Segovia. The pilgrim route to Santiago is lined by gorgeous Romanesque churches.
Excellent and quiet beaches can be found near Cádiz and Almería in the south as well as near the coasts of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Euskadi. If you enjoy extremely developed resort towns, there are plenty of crowded beaches on the Costa de la Luz and the Costa del sol.
Fantastically preserved medieval towns are places not to miss and Toledo should be at the top of the list. Toledo is the capital of medieval Spain, at its best, with synagogues, an incredible cathedral and former mosques. Other interesting medieval towns include: Baeza and Úbeda (Andalucía), Ciudad Rodrigo (Salamanca), Trujillo and Cáceres (Extremadura), Albarracín, Sos del Rey Católico and Teruel Mudejar’s Unesco’s World Heritage ( Aragon), and Santillana del Mar (Cantabria).
The most spectacular Roman sites are based in Mérida, where you can also find an interesting museum on Roman era. There is also a remarkable aqueduct in Segovia and other fascinating Roman ruins in Carmona, Tarragona, Empuries, Italica and Caesaraugusta ( Zaragoza, Aragon).
Very unique modern art and architecture can be found in Barcelona and Madrid. The visionary architecture of Antoni Gaudí and the Picasso museum are in Barcelona while Madrid is home to Spain’s top three art museums.
If you would rather get some fresh air, Spain is filled with opportunities to visit wildlife parks as well as trekking. The Pyrenees, especially around the Aragón area, are the best areas for trekking. Andalucía has smaller mountain chains, though still spectacular. The Picos de Europa in Cantabria and Asturias are also worth a trek. Beautiful parks include Monfrague in Extremadura and Ordesa in the Aragonese Pyrenees.
Barcelona is one of the nicest cities to visit. Its museums, theaters, art galleries and nightlife are of an impressive high standard. Besides that, this art and design centre has a lot of interesting sights to offer to its visitors. The best place to watch people go by, to stroll or simply relax, is ‘Las Ramblas’, a pedestrian street with dozens of outdoor cafes. Here, you’ll find flower-stands, book kiosks and small market stalls where they sell birds and small animals. You’ll also find an endlessly fascinating flowing receptacle of pageant-jugglers, singers, dancers, puppeteers, sidewalk artists, living statues and assorted oddballs on parade. Nearby is ‘Plaça Real’, with plenty of bars and restaurants, and ‘Palau Guell’, built by the Catalan architectural genius Antoni Gaudí in his undulating art-nouveau style.
After having seen these sights, stroll the narrow winding streets of the ‘Barri Gotic’, the medieval Gothic quarter full of interesting tapas bars and cafes. Check out Picasso’s old hangout, ‘Els Quatre Gats’, which has been renovated without losing its bohemian charm. Or head for the old Barceloneta section on the waterfront. This working-class area, which was always slightly rundown and scruffy-looking, is now packed with paella restaurants. The new beach area, which runs from Barceloneta to the Olympic village, is much cleaner than the old beach area. Although some people believe that it has been cleaned up considerably, it might be a wise idea to stay out of the water. Fortunately, the beach itself is already a feast for the eyes (and ears), with its huge and roaring waves.
Catalans are known for their independent spirit and their sense of humour. Salvador Dali was a Catalan and his bizarre sense of humour is just one example of the region’s endearing weirdness. Spring is the best time to visit Barcelona, you can expect a temperature of round and about 20 degrees. During summer, it can get very hot (about 35 degrees) and crowded (because of the cultural events). Barcelona will be as expensive as you want it to be. Attention: Barcelona is pretty rich and so prices are much higher than somewhere else in Spain. Still, restaurants are relatively cheap (at lunch time you can find a two course meal and desert for 7-9€) and for a hotel, three meals and a night out, count on some 145 Euro for two persons.
Madrid is a lively city – nobody is really sure when the Madrilenos sleep. It may be the afternoon siesta that gives them the endurance to keep things going well into the night. Try it.
The city is by European standards relatively new -it became capital only in 1561- but today Madrid spreads out all over the place. Fortunately, much of interest lies within the area that can be seen by foot. Check out Calle and Plaza Mayor (medieval Madrid) which is lined by beautiful buildings and the city’s oldest church San Nicolas de los Servitas (plan several hours for this section). Then go shopping at Calle Serrano and the Gran Via. Visit the Victory Arch the Palacio Real (the royal palace with its own art treasures and crown jewels) and the Plaza de las Cibeles and Puerta del Sol (the last two are major intersections with fountains monuments and shops). On sunday, you must visit the Rastro Flea Market, located in Latina, there you will find the Madrileño’s real essence!
Madrid is a museum-goer’s paradise. Including the Royal Palace, it has 15 important museums, dozens of galleries and several private collections. See the section on the art walk for more details about the three famous museums in Madrid: the Prado, the Thyssen Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia museum. You might end up spending more than one day just seeing museums. Actually, days could be spent in the halls of the Prado alone.
It’s actually quite possible to get tired of all these museums in Madrid; if this happens sit down at a terrazas (outdoor cafe) and watch the world go by or visit one of the many beautiful parks and lakes in the city. One of the nicest parks we’ve seen anywhere is Retiro Park near the Prado. Note the Victorian greenhouse and the Crystal Palace with its small lake and swans lazily swimming about. You can rent a rowboat to get in the relaxed festive mood that suffuses the park. For a panoramic view of Madrid take the elevator to the bar on the 26th floor of the Edificio de Espana which faces the Plaza de Espana.
Madrid is a city that never seems to close down-bars and restaurants are open very late and the city’s Santa Ana district never closes down. Dinner doesn’t usually begin until after 10 pm and after that revelers head off to their favorite disco show, jazz club or late-night cafe to play until dawn. For a concentrated area of late-night activity head to Huertas Street after midnight and you’re sure to find something to match your tastes. Hemingway fans may want to check out the Museo Chicote bar described in many of his Spanish Civil War stories (and a very trendy spot). Those who love traditional performing arts will want to go to the Teatro Real for Spanish light opera known as zarzuela. You can also find good flamenco shows in several nightclubs including Cafe Chinitas.
If you’re in Madrid during the second half of May be sure to join Madrilenos in celebrating the Feria de San Isidro which has music, operas, concerts, bullfighting dancing and all-night entertainment. During our last trip, we attended a concert devoted to American bluegrass music held in the Plaza Mayor. And mid August is when the city celebrates the Verbena de la Paloma. Outside of Madrid day trips can be made to Avila, El Escorial, Guadalajara, Segovia and Toledo.
As the Christian Reconquista advanced, the Moors enclosed the city of Granada in layer upon layer of fortification. The citadel was bitterly contested until 1492 when Boabdil, its last Moorish king, lost the city to the Catholic rulers Fernando and Isabel. Most buildings of that era were destroyed, but the spectacular Alhambra still attracts visitors from all over the world. It is one of the most important monuments in Spain and a UNESCO national heritage site, along with the Albayzin quarter, in the hill just opposite it. The beautiful whitewashed houses and the colourful flowers in the courtyards and on balconies are some of the things worth looking out for, as are the many sights of historic interest. Granada has a very lively flair thanks to the approx. 60.000 students of the local university.
The city is quite near the beach (but I wouldn’t try to go there during summer weekends) and during winter you can ski in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which is 30 kms. away (and uphill)
Among the modern attractions, El Parque de las Ciencias, a science interactive museum, is worth visiting. And, at least one day, you should try going to the Zaidin quarter, around the soccer stadium, or to the Chana, for beers and tapas. For 5€, you’ll drink 4 beers along with four tapas. BTW, ask for the excellent Alhambra 1925 or Mezquita beers (that will set you back a bit more than 1 €, though).
Málaga’s coastline forms part of the Costa del Sol, a special part of the Mediterranean. The climate is temperate, and the mean temperature is 22 C – from 16 to 19 in winter. This is due to the mountains that protect the coast from cold north winds. Málaga was first a Phoenician colony and later came under the control of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Visigoths, Arabs and Christians.
Today it is a maritime city rich in culture, some of whose remains are on view at the Archeological Museum. The friendly people and wonderful climate also encourage a stroll through the old walls and the remains of the Muslim palaces of the Alcazaba fortress; through its gardens next to the sea – they are adorned with palm and orange trees and jacaranda – and on to discover the house where Picasso was born, there on the wide, lively Plaza de la Merced. Or take in the view of the city from the top of the Gibralfaro Castle.
Cordoba was the capital of al-Andalus, the highly civilized Arab state in southern Spain. During those days the city was dubbed the “Athens of the West”. The most important sight of Cordoba is without doubt the Mezquita; a mosque converted into a cathedral in a rather brutal way. When Emperor Charles the V visited Cordoba and saw how the old mosque, famous around the world, had been made into a cathedral he is supposed to have scolded the architects.
A stroll around the Jewish quarter with its maze like streets and nice patio’s is also absolutely worth your while.
Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostella is – of course – the city of pilgrims. Since the ninth century they have been coming from all over Europe to touch the relics of St James. He was the first christian martyr and the patron saint of Spain. Legend has it that his disciples brought his remains to Santiago to be buried. After Jerusalem and Rome, Santiago de Compostella is the third most holy city in Christendom.
Santiago’s population is around 90,000 and most locals live in the outer reaches of town, suburbs and apartments which could be in any European town. The regional assembly is also in this area – Santiago’s the capital of Galicia, the semi-autonomous province on the Atlantic seaboard of North Western Spain. The city is the home of the more than 500 years old University of Santiago de Compostella.
The bit of town worth seeing, the old quarter, is at the top of the hill. A medieval maze of narrow cobbled streets, gaping suddenly into large prazas (galego – the Galician tongue – for the Spanish plaza), it is beautiful and atmospheric. The Medieval city is a national monument and most of it can only be entered by foot. The main attraction of Santiago de Cmpostella is the cathedral. This has been the terminating point of the pilgrims route for about eighthunderd year now and it is still a sight to see today. The impressive Baroque facade at the Plaza de Obradoiro will take your breath away, as will the contrastingly sober and serene interior. With the cathedral you will find other interesting historic buildings like the treasury, the palace of Archbishop Gelmirez, cloisters, and an archaeological museum.
And if you have seen the cathedral, there are still dozens of monastries and churches left to visit. There is the large Benedictine San Martín, San Francisco (reputedly founded by Saint Francis himself while visitinf Santiago), Santa Clara, with it’s curving facade, and Santo Domingo, with it’s three seventeenth century spiring stairways leading to three different floost of the same tower.
Though not the capital of the island, Ibiza Town is where it all happens. In many aspects it’s the center of the island, its focal point. It’s here that you’ll find most clubs, bars Cafes and restaurants. The city itself is beautifully located on top of a small hill. Surrounded by a couple of fortresses, the stronghold still proudly dominates the bay and the harbour at her feet. There are three main area’s: The harbour and the Sa Peña quarter, the old city within the walls and the new city. All three have their own distinct and unique character.
Most people arriving with package holidays are parked in huge apartment complexes in San Antonio Abad or other villages on the island – that means that the skyline of Ibiza Town is to much damaged by the cheap white and ugly flat like hotels that have already ruined by most of the ones beautiful coasts of Spain. In Ibiza Town you find small pensions and rented apartments instead.
It’s pretty easy to find your way around town. From the Ferry Terminal the old streets of the Sa Pena quarter bring you up to the walled old city D’Alt Vila Within the walls there’re still quite a number of medieval buildings, of which the tower of the Cathedral is by far the most impressive. Here you’ll also find the more classy restaurants, hotels and apartments. For cheaper options you have to go down to the harbour or to one of the suburbs or other villages on the island. Just south from Ibiza Town are the suburbs of Figueretas and Playa d’en Bossa. Both have beaches, bars and restaurants.
Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon. It is a very Spanish city. Only small numbers of non-Spanish find their way to this large and lively city between Madrid and Barcelona. Actually half of the one million population of Aragon is living in Zaragoza. Besides some outstanding historic sights and its closeness to the central Pyrenees there are excellent restaurants serving Aragonese food. If you are in town during the Fiesta del Pilar around the 12th of october you can experience an outstanding party. For nine days the whole city goes crazy.
The city of Murcia has a population of 320,000. It is set in the heart of a rich fertile plain at 43 metres above sea level. Unlike the rest of the region, where the terrain is dry and rugged, the soil here is irrigated by the River Segura and the land has been widely and fruitfully cultivated.
In the city itself the old quarter is made up of a maze of narrow streets huddled together around the Cathedral. This labyrinth is only broken by some main roads crossing through it such as the Gran Vía Escultor Salzillo. The most pleasant parts of the city, indeed the most typically Murcian, are to be found around the gardens on the banks of the River Segura. A considerable part of the population of Murcia do not in fact live in the city itself, rather they live in houses and farmsteads scattered around it. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are grown not only for the Spanish domestic market but also for export to the rest of Europe. For this reason Murcia is often referred to as La Huerta de Europa: The Market Garden of Europe.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.