Travel Guide: Traipsing Around Sunny Spain
Dawn was breaking when the overnight train from Paris slowly crept into the old station of Irun, the first Spanish town across the border from France. I had been dreaming about going to Spain for quite some time and the chance came after we finished visiting the Louvre and the rest of the City of Lights. And now we’re here, I thought, in the land of señoritas, bullfights, and tapas.
Our first stop was Bilbao in the northern Basque region. From Irun, we took the bus, plopped our bags in our hotel room and headed for the Guggenhein Museum. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the building is tops on any tourist’s list due to its cutting-edge design, unusual shape and interesting combination of titanium and limestone cladding. It looks like a gigantic ship stranded on the banks of the Rio Nervion which bisects the city. Guarding the entrance is a huge 14-meter tall metal mesh dog sculpture covered with innumerable plants and flowers. We spent the whole morning looking at modern art and strolling around the riverside terrace. The rest of the day found us in the old part of the city strolling on cobblestone streets and visiting a couple of churches. The city, which flourished as an industrial hub, has a certain grittiness due to the numerous factories and steel mills, although recent redevelopment has broken up the monotone of urban sprawl.
The next day, we headed west for the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. Surprisingly, there are no direct train or bus connections to that part of the country so we rented a car to drive the 600 or so kilometers. Sure it was a long drive but the route was beautiful with mountains on your left and the Atlantic ocean on the right. We made a detour to Picos de Europa – Spain’s famous National Park – a 3,000 meter high mountain range just 15 kilometers inland from the sea. The heart-stopping zigzag road through towering gorges was a great thrill to drive through and the quaint towns along the way where we stopped for lunch and bought their local version of mouth-watering chicharon will surely take you back to the time of the Crusades. This was, after all, the place where the re-conquest of Spain by the Christians over the Moors began.
El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) is a pilgrimage route that stretches almost 800 kms. from the French Pyrenees to Santiago. Since the Middle Ages, people walked this way to pay homage to the relics of Saint James to have their sins forgiven. The trek takes about a month but since we didn’t have the luxury of time, we drove part of the route from Picos all the way to Santiago arriving well past midnight at the Casa that we booked.
Some twelve hundred years ago, a monk followed a field of stars to this small Galician town and declared that he found the lost remains of St. James, thus calling the place Santiago de Compostela (campo de estrellas). The majestic cathedral with its twin Baroque towers that stands there today serves as the beacon for pilgrims who come yearly from all over the world. It faces the huge Praza do Obradoiro where people converge to find the tile with the scallop shell that symbolizes the pilgrimage. After spending the rest of the day exploring the narrow streets and squares filled with an ensemble of historic buildings dating back to the 12th century, we settled down for a satisfying dinner of seafood. Santiago’s restaurants look like mini aquariums, proudly displaying all kinds of edible life from the sea: dazzling varieties of fish, clams, scallops, shrimps, oysters and even octopus.
Back on the road, we swung southeast on the wide motorway in the direction of Madrid, passing by wheat fields and the dusty plains of Castilla y Leon. A deep sense of history permeated the Roman ruins and medieval castles of every small town and city that we passed. As the sun set, we entered Segovia, a small city boasting three world-class sites. Situated on a high rocky hill was the Alcazar, the fairytale-like castle whose turrets, crenellations and sharp gable roofs became the inspiration for Disneyland’s castle. Further down, the Gothic cathedral with its flying buttresses and pinnacles glowed golden brown in the sunlight and looked really mighty impressive. But the big draw was the well-preserved aqueduct that straddles the city center. Built by the Romans in the 1st century, the remaining section runs almost a kilometer long, stands 33 meters high and has 118 arches. We climbed from the base to the top through a staircase and marveled at the view around us. Time seemed to stand still as we surveyed this former Roman military base that was shaped like a ship in the middle of an arid plain.
Located 50 kms. from Segovia where we spent the previous night in a warm and cozy pensione, is Madrid, the bustling capital of Spain – a city like any other where you can easily get lost! I drove around aimlessly for over an hour trying to look for our hotel and when we found it, there was no place to park so after quickly checking in, I immediately rushed out to return the rented Nissan to the nearest Hertz branch a kilometer away.
On foot, we started the exploration of the city starting from Puerta del Sol which is ground zero where a ‘zero kilometer’ marker indicates the center of Spain. The square is a tourist hub filled with fountains, statues and busy restaurants. A quick stroll brought us to Plaza Mayor, the cobblestone square flanked by colonnaded buildings with beautiful reliefs that told the story of 17th century Spain: bullfights, coronations and the dreaded Inquisition.
Continuing further, we ended up in the Catedral de Almudena, Madrid’s cathedral, with a contemporary Neo-Gothic facade. Fronting it is the Palacio Real, the official residence of the Spanish monarch though of course the Royal Family doesn’t live there nowadays. With more than 2,000 rooms, only a small portion is open to the public but that was enough for us to explore for the most part of the afternoon. Grand is an understatement when it comes to describing all that you are allowed to see in there. Behind the palace is a lovely, well-manicured garden where we rested our weary feet and argued where we would go next. So much to see, so little time!
We spent the next two days browsing around the Prado Museum with its overwhelming collection of Goya, Velasquez, El Greco and Bosch, strolling in the 300-acre Retiro Park, and eating tapas every chance we got. Unfortunately, there were no scheduled bullfights at that time.
Ensconced in the luxurious coach of the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) train heading for Seville, we watched the landscape flash by at a dizzying 280kph. This was the bullet train of Spain and it whisks you pretty quickly to your destination. Hence, the 540 km. trip was a breeze. Two and a half hours later, at eight in the evening we arrived at Santa Justa and took a taxi to Barrio Sta. Cruz. This former Jewish Quarter is a pedestrian-only enclave with a maze of cobblestone streets which made it very difficult to pull our wheeled luggage as we searched for accommodation. To top it all, there was a sudden blackout that plunged the place into darkness! But the friendly locals helped us out and we had a good laugh over a candlelit dinner in a cozy restaurant which featured a beautiful woman dancing the flamenco. Quite fitting for this was, after all, the flamboyant city of Don Juan and Carmen where boys wanted to be matadors and girls dreamt of becoming flamenco dancers.
La Giralda is the third largest church in Europe after St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London. It has a 110-meter tall bell tower of Moorish design, which we climbed all the way to the top. Instead of steps, there are ramps designed to accommodate horseback riders who, in the olden days, galloped up and down to make the Muslim call to prayer. You see, this church used to be a mosque. Inside the cavernous interior is an art pavilion featuring a huge carved altarpiece showing 44 scenes of Jesus’ life from birth to crucifixion and a massive organ made of 7,000 pipes. Most interesting of all is the tomb of Christopher Columbus being carried by the kings of Castile – Leon, Aragon and Navarra. An adopted son of Seville, he had set sail for the New World from a port close to the city.
We spent the following day going around the well-tended gardens of the Alcazar, the big Plaza de Toros bullring (said to be the most magnificent in the country) and the Torre del Oro by the Guadalquivir River, where treasures from the Americas used to be unloaded, before taking the night train to Granada – the former capital of Spain.
Granada’s piece de resistance is definitely the Alhambra – the magnificent fortress was the last stronghold of the Moors before they were crushed in 1492 by the Christian Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel. There was so much to see since the fortress is composed of many complexes. First, we went to see Charles V’s Palace which had a unique layout of a circle within a square. Then, we went up the Alcazaba Fort that overlooked the city and the mountains beyond. This was the original and therefore oldest part of the citadel where the flags of the conquering Christians were raised.
And finally, we meandered through the best part of the complex: the Palacios Nazaries which was made up of numerous rooms, the Patio de los Arrayanes with its lovely reflecting pool, the Hall of the Ambassadors where the Sultan received his VIPs, and the Patio de los Leones with its sublime slender columns supporting graceful arches plus the 12 lions in the courtyard – arguably the most recognizable part of the Alhambra seen in many postcards and travel magazines.
The Albaicin district clings on a hillside opposite the Alhambra and this is where you can appreciate the fortress in all its glory. Amidst the cobblestone alleys stand lovely Moorish villas surrounded by wide gardens. A quick visit to the Royal Chapel where Ferdinand and Isabel are buried rounded up our brief stay in this city steeped in so much history.Next stop: Valencia. Two things brought us here – the Virgin of the Helpless and Santiago Calatrava. Both didn’t disappoint.
Next stop: The Virgen de Valencia. Two things brought us here – the Virgin of the Helpless and Santiago Calatrava. Both didn’t disappoint. The Virgen de los Desamparados, Valencia’s patroness stands high above an altar located in its own basilica, ornately dressed and lavishly adorned with flowers. In March, she is honored with Spain’s most spectacular fiesta – Las Fallas – where giant paper-mache effigies are burned with lots fireworks.
Calatrava’s buildings are located in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, a mind-blowing complex of structures housing an Imax theater that looks like an eye, a helmet-shaped palace for the arts, a dinosaur skeleton-like science museum and the Oceanografic – Europe’s biggest marine park, home to 500 species of fish and other sea creatures from every ocean of the world. We spent one whole day there which wasn’t enough because you probably need a week to see the whole place!
Gaudi, Dali and Miro – they all made Barcelona their home and this Catalan metropolis oozes art from every corner. Even the mimes are the most artistic that I’ve seen in the whole of Europe. We started our walk from the top of the two kilometer long tree-lined grand boulevard called Las Ramblas where the whole panoply of Barcelonian life happens. We passed by La Boqueira, a lively market where eating in one of the stalls is an adventure in itself. Fancy a ham sandwich? Take your pick from dozens ranging from jamon serrano to Iberica de Bellota – the best and most expensive. How about bull testicles? They’re cheap and, well, delicious they said. Though we backed out at the last minute! Seafood, exotic fruits, live snails, olives, the whole shebang was there for the tasting.
No visit to Barcelona would be complete without seeing the Sagrada de Familia, Gaudi’s Neo-Gothic church masterpiece that is still in the making, 126 years since it began. On a lesser but no less important architectural scale are La Pedrera, an apartment with curvilinear walls and anthropomorphic chimneys, Casa Batllo that looks like an organic skeleton of a house and Parc Guell, a 30-acre park with organic forms finished with bright mosaic tiles. All these represented a variant of Art Noveau design that swept Europe by storm early in the 19th century.
Exhausted and drowsy but feeling warmly satiated, we boarded the night train back to Paris thinking that one day, we had to come back to Spain once again in order to savor its vaguely familiar yet quite strange mix of tradition, people and culture. During the two weeks that we were there, we barely scratched the surface. Viva Espana!