Prior to visiting Spain, my preconceived notions were of late dinners, afternoon naps, and tapas. After visiting Spain?... Sure, my preconceived notions were confirmed, and my stomach yelled out for food as I waited impatiently for restaurants to open. However, in all honesty, now when I think of Spain my thoughts wander to ideas beyond the superficial. I see images of the good life, and savoring the little moments. Images of world class art and innovation. Feelings of immense power and influence.
Nothing conveyed the feeling of power more than standing in the throne room in the Royal Palace of Madrid. Upon entering, the grandeur of the room overwhelms you. As you approach the throne, you are not-so-subtly reminded of the power of those whom you are approaching. At the feet of the king and queen is a large tapestry with the image of the two hemispheres of the world. At the height of their power, the king and queen could claim that image represented the breadth of their empire. They had discovered the New World, and their influence spanned the globe. Even living in the present day did not dampen the feeling of awe, and fear, at the sight of this display of authority.
For more awe-inspiring sights, make sure to visit the Prado Museum to see one of Europe's best collections of art. You would need weeks in order to appreciate every work held within its walls, but we didn't have the luxury of that much time. For that reason, we put Velazquez's painting, Las Meninas, at the top of our list. Widely regarded as one of the world's masterpieces, Las Meninas strikes you with its composition, immediately drawing you in as if you are the subject, not the figures on the canvas. If you plan to visit Barcelona during your trip, and view Picasso's works, viewing Las Meninas in Madrid becomes even more powerful once you understand the impact it made on Picasso.
We also decided to journey out from our home base of Madrid and see some of the surrounding sights. First on our list: Toledo.
Toledo is an ancient city set on a hill above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain. It was the former home of famous painter El Greco, and contains one of the finest cathedrals in Europe. By the way, only Americans say "Holy Toledo." Spaniards and the English don't recognize the phrase. Locals say it's likely from Sephardic Jews (Spanish branch) who eventually emigrated to America. To their American ancestors, Toledo was the most holy Jewish city in Europe. Holy Toledo!
While visiting, take a moment to wander in to the town's cathedral. One of the most unique in the world, the cathedral has its own skylight. If that amazing architectural ingenuity isn't enough to catch your attention, you can also find one of the world's great paintings inside: El Greco's The Disrobing of Christ. Toledo is where El Greco produced most of his mature works, and The Disrobing of Christ is just one of others that you can see in town. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, another masterpiece, is also on display in Iglesia de Santo Tomé.
From Toledo, our next adventure was out to El Escorial, a vast building complex located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid, in central Spain. The building is the most important architectural monument of the Spanish Renaissance. Construction of El Escorial began in 1563 and ended in 1584.
The project was conceived by King Philip II, who wanted a building to serve the multiple purposes of a burial place for his father, Holy Roman emperor Charles V; a monastery and a palace. The interior of the Escorial was decorated by many notable Spanish and Italian artists of the 16th and 17th centuries, including El Greco, Luca Giordano, and Claudio Coello.
The Library, Regia Laurentina, is one of the most important historic libraries in the world. It contains almost 45,000 printed works from the 15th and 16th centuries, and some 5,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish. Its original furnishings are in an excellent state of preservation. The ceiling is decorated with frescoes by Italian Pellegrino Tibaldi related to the sciences and learning. It also contains an immaculate armillary sphere, the only one surviving of the two made by Antonio Santucci for Ferdinand I de Medici.
Another wonderful day trip from Madrid, we found Segovia to be surprisingly beautiful. We did not expect to find such a historic city but yet with such character just northwest of Madrid, in central Spain's Castile and León region. Its centuries of settlement have resulted in a rich architectural legacy, including medieval walls, Romanesque churches, a former royal palace and a Gothic cathedral. Its iconic ancient Roman aqueduct, dating from the first century, has more than 160 arches, most in the original mortar-less granite, and stands above Plaza Azoguejo in the heart of the city.
In Salamanca we were spoiled by our own personal tour guides. Pat, Tim's brother, and his wife Amanda, were our hosts, and graciously and proudly showed us around their hometown. Salamanca has something for everyone: a University town with great food (tapas!) and culture, rich history, beautiful cathedral, one of the best plazas in all of Spain, and a quick train ride from Madrid.
At the time of our stay, Amanda was nearing completion of her doctorate. Upon completion her name would join the others written in bull's blood on the ancient walls of the University, a tradition that spans centuries. It's the University that gives this town its unique atmosphere. One of the leading centers for learning in the world, it is also the oldest in Spain, dating back to the 1200s. This history mixed with the energetic culture of the young minds it attracts, make for a fun time hanging out in one of the country's best plaza's, Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Take a stroll through town, stopping in at each bar that looks inviting, eat some tapas, repeat, and end up in the plaza for some laughter and singing.
After a personal tour of Salamanca, along with a side trip to the walled city of Avila, we hopped in our car and drove south to Seville. Even though it was January, the middle of winter, the south of Spain gave us t-shirt weather. The sweet smell of orange trees lined the streets. We had no problem absorbing the warmth as we relaxed in outdoor cafes, toured the Alcazar palace, and lingered in the Cathedral with Christopher Columbus' tomb. To top it off, we were able to enjoy an intimate flamenco performance.
Flamenco is a thrill for your senses, a cultural wonder, and a must when visiting southern Spain. If you don't know what Flamenco is, it can best be described as a powerful and emotional display of traditional Andalusian culture through guitar, dance, singing and vocalizations, hand-clapping and finger-snapping. There are many ways to experience Flamenco, but as in everything, it is often best to try to avoid the typical touristy shows. You can find many organizations offering a large stage, bland food, and crowds of tourists, but this will leave you far from what should be an intimate performance, and left wanting. Instead, opt for a small setting, and look for some of the top local performers. We visited La Casa del Flamenco, and were absolutely astounded and thrilled by the performance. Treat yourself to this experience, and don't skimp on a second-rate performance. We certainly don't regret it.
Plaza de España
Built in the last 100 years, the Plaza de España is relatively new compared to the other sights in Spain, but it is no less famous. Constructed for a world's fair, the plaza has been featured in major films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars: Episode II. Strip away its history and it is still a beautiful place to enjoy some ice cream, people-watching, and good company.
After driving from Salamanca to Seville, we decided a few more miles on our rental car wouldn't hurt, and we very much wanted to tour the Alhambra, so we drove to Granada. Driving in Spain, like most European countries, is nothing to be afraid of, so long as you don't try to drive through the old city centers which didn't consider cars when they were constructed thousands of years ago. Granada is no exception to this rule, and in fact, it is much worse.
Don't use GPS for navigation in Granada. It won't work. We had rented a flat near the Alhambra, and naturally desired to drive as close as possible in order to avoid hauling our luggage across miles of cobblestone streets. Never-mind that Granada is notoriously undulating with hills and valleys. We drove in circles for far too long, often getting stuck on steep inclines, on dead end streets, in narrow alleys, inches from losing our side mirrors and trading paint with the local cars, and being tasked with reversing back through it all in a large delivery van (since that is what the rental agency decided to give us even though we reserved a small economy car). Thankfully, we avoided the need to use any auto insurance, and after what felt like an eternity of circling but never arriving at our destination we stopped and read one sentence in our guide book that finally eliminated all hope: Don't even attempt to use GPS to navigate in Granada. Find a parking lot, and walk...
Hauling our luggage up the hill, embarrassingly dragging it through the cobblestone streets of a market, rewarded us in a wonderful flat with a view (if you climbed to the roof) of the Alhambra. Originally constructed as a fortress over 1,000 years ago, it was later converted to a palace by the Moors in the 13th century. It stands today as arguably one of the best examples of Muslim art, especially in Europe. Exquisite craftsmanship is seen in every minute detail, from immense tile and mosaics with complex mathematical patterns to elaborate poems and inscriptions covering any and all open spaces. The Alhambra will take your breath away.
Barcelona is one of our favorite cities. Though technically a part of Spain, Barcelona is also the capital of Catalonia, and has a culture, energy, and even language, all its own. This, paired with beautiful art and architecture throughout the city by Antonio Gaudi, and you have a winning combination.
Gaudi's style and passion are evident throughout the city, and bring it to life in ways that other cities can only be envious of. Gaudi was influenced by his passions of nature and religion. He believed our world should be filled with color and joy, and this often whimsical style is uniquely Barcelona.
We started our tour in the place where you can see it it all: Park Guell. Situated on an elevated hill in the northern part of the city, the park makes for a perfect place to see all of what Barcelona has to offer. Created by Gaudi in 1926, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Here you will find several open spaces covered with tiles and mosaics, grand staircases with welcoming mosaic lizards, hidden pathways and several cute gingerbread-style homes. The park's architecture is uniquely Gaudi, and a great place to hang out and enjoy a sunny day. Nearly 4 million visitors find their way here each year so we recommend getting here early to beat the crowds. On your walk up to the park, grab some chocolate croissants from a local bakery to make your visit that much sweeter.
After taking in the beautiful vistas, we made our way to toward the Passeig de Gracia and two of Gaudi’s popular architectural attractions: Casa Mila and Casa Batllo. Both designed and built by Gaudi, these uniquely different homes are very popular, and for good reason. Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera or the stone quarry, is a modernista home built between 1906 and 1912 by Gaudi for Pere Mila. Appearing like a massive stone rising from the earth, casa Mila from the outside is a curving, undulating structure complete with gnarled railings and chimneys galore. The facade of the building is solely for looks, providing no load bearing function. The 9 level structure includes two courtyards in a figure-8 plan. Head inside and see several floors with original furniture decorated as it was when the original owners lived here. Make your way to the attic and wander the 270 arched vaults of the ceiling which give the impression of walking thru the skeleton of a giant beast. Finally, be sure not to not the roof where 28 dancing chimneys dot the skyline. Each different with whimsical twirls and bends, many even feel like masks or faces watching over you. The views from here are sensational, including views of La Sagrada Familia in the distance.
From Casa Mila, walk a few blocks along the Gaudi designed tiles of the Passeig de Gracia to another Gaudi gem, la Casa Batllo. Strikingly different than Casa Mila, Casa Batllo is a mosaic of colors and tile-work. In 1904, Gaudi remodeled this existing structure in his famous style. The exterior, full of Art Nouveau blues and greens, gives the appearance of a colorful dragon swimming thru a beautiful sea complete with a ribbed tile spine on the roof. Find your way into the main level and wander through the rooms, all full of large windows and blue colored glass. The ceilings themselves are twisted into a vortex around its sunlike lamps. It’s uniquely Gaudi and something you won’t soon forget.
Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, was born in the Spanish city of Malaga and spent parts of his life in Spain painting the masterpieces we’re all familiar with. The Picasso Museum itself is a sight to behold consisting of five interconnected medieval palaces. While many are familiar with Picasso’s later work, we were surprised to see the style of his early life. The museum houses over 4,000 pieces by Picasso and is one of the finest museums in the city.
The Gothic Quarter encompasses the oldest parts of the city, including several Roman ruins. As you stroll the maze of small alleyways, most of which are closed to motor vehicles, make your way to the Roman and Medieval walls and the remains of a Roman temple.
The Gothic Quarter is home to two impressive cathedrals. The first is the Cathedral of Barcelona, built mostly in the 14th century. Also known by its official name of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, it is quite different from Gaudi’s work. The immense facade is full of delicate carvings and several large bell towers. Enter and find three large naives rising high into the sky. Ribbed ceilings tower above you in this dimly lit space. Be sure to find time to take the rooftop tour to see the intricate towers in close detail.
Not far away lies the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar. Built between 1329 and 1383, this is a great example of Catalan Gothic architecture. Nestled among narrow streets, this massive structure dominates the block. Enter and feel its immense size. The space feels vast in part due to the slender columns which are themselves spaced wide apart. The interior is vast but simple. The rose window is terrific as is the other stained glasswork. This simple yet beautiful church almost has a calming, reflective nature about it. It’s definitely worth a visit if you have time. Better yet, reserve seats, as we did, to a Spanish Guitar performance in the intimate setting to make a lasting memory.
Barcelona has nearly 2 miles of beachfront all within a short walk from the downtown areas. One of the most popular beaches is Barceloneta beach. Although crowded in the summer, Barceloneta beach is known for its collection of funky architecture including Frank Gehry's fish and the leaning monument called "Homenatge a la Barceloneta". The beach scene is lined with a terrific boardwalk and plenty of restaurants to grab some great food and an evening drink while you watch the sunset.
Each day as the sun began to set, we would make our way down La Rambla, one of the main thoroughfares of Barcelona. Complete with a center section for pedestrians, La Rambla is full of shops, carts, great food and people watching. There are numerous spots to grab a quick bite on La Rambla or some of the side streets and courtyards. We’d recommend finishing the day with some sweet gelato or, even better, chocolate and churros.
All across Europe you will find cathedrals; enormous structures with art and architecture that have awed generations, and taken the sweat and blood of generations to construct. Each cathedral has a different story and style, and yet all share similarities in their purpose of directing the worshipper's attention to the holiness of the Holy One.
Sagrada Familia stands apart. Gaudi's masterpiece, he knew he would not live to see it finished. Yet his vision, still under construction during our visit, leaves an impression on the millions of visitors that walk through its doors every year. Yes, it displays the holiness of God. But more than that its walls, pillars, and all that adorns them sing the praise of the Creator. The style brings together the lines and structures of God's creation at every turn, paired with a dramatic and bountiful use of light that leaves the visitor in complete awe and wonder. Trust us when we say that you won't see architecture like this anywhere else in the world. Even though construction isn't completed, in its current state it will take your breath away. We can only imagine what the finished product will be like, but you can be sure we will visit again to find out.