Monday, 15 July 2013

The Best of Spain

Spain is another European country that we had not explored before; one of the few. We were pleasantly surprised by what we experienced on this trip. The Spanish architecture, landscape and vastness of the country were much more that we were expecting.

This adventure, operated by Trafalgar Tours, took us to all the major cities and highlights of this delightful country. Unfortunately Spain is in the middle of an economic crisis with unemployment running at 25% but we were greeted by the people with open arms…..and a source of much needed revenue. You can follow our route using the map below.

Our starting point was the capital Madrid where we met our tour director Celia and bus driver Mario. Madrid is the highest capital city in Europe at 900 meters above sea level. The reason I mention this is because the weather was sunny and in the low 20’s but it felt much cooler. Spain is well known for tapas and it didn’t take long before we had our first taste at one of the oldest bars in Madrid called Meson Rincon de la Cava. Tapas is a Spanish tradition of a wide variety of hot and cold appetizers, or snacks (i.e. Olives and cheese, battered / fried fish). This was followed by a nice dinner, a city tour of the Madrid landmarks and a walk through the Royal Palace - Palacio Real. Our trip was off to an excellent start.

On the second day we headed to the city of Toledo which has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Here the buildings are lined with flags which give it a festive look and feel.

The Cathedral of Santo Tome is one of the 13 th century Gothic Catholic cathedrals in Spain and home of valuable pieces of artwork.....the most famous being El Greco's "The Burial of Count Orgax" painted in 1588.


We returned to Madrid for a fabulous dinner at the La Opera de Madrid Restaurant owned by Placido of the famous 3 tenors.  While we were eating dinner we were entertained by 2 young recently married opera singers. Now I do not like opera but they were awesome and a delight to listen to.  

The third day took us to the northern part of the country, where the weather was much cooler and cloudy. We stopped at the town of Burgos for lunch and a planned visit to the 13 th century Gothic Burgos cathedral which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site but unfortunately there was a special ceremony going on and the church was closed.  However we were able to watch the parade of priests complete with some unique walking figurines parading along the sycamore treed promenade. 

We continued our journey north through the Cantabrian Cordillero mountains to the city of Santander where we spent the night. Santander is a beautiful city on the Cantabrian Sea with large white sandy beaches. We wondered why there were so few people on the beaches but the weather was cool and we were a couple of weeks ahead of the busy tourist season. There was even a casino in town which we decided to visit. It was very small with only a few slot machines but we managed to lose a few Euros' in no time.

The next day was a beautiful scenic drive along the coastal mountains to the town of Bilbao which is known for the spectacular architecture of the Guggenheim Museum. I was extremely impressed which this modern day architecture and I highly recommend a visit…even if just for a photo stop.

We continued along the Cantabrian Sea to another beautiful seaside town of San Sebastian and a walk along the Bahia de la Concha beach. Again it was empty and all to ourselves.

After a scenic lunch along the water we travelled to the city of Pamplona, famous for the running of the bulls. We were able to walk the exact course that the bulls run every year starting July 7 and lasting for 8 days. The course is about 1 km which takes the bulls 6 minutes to run….it took us 15 minutes to walk it.

On the fifth day we made our way to the Catalonia region of Spain to one of the most beautiful cities in the world…..Barcelona. We drove up to Montjuic, which is the highest point in Barcelona, to get a bird’s eye view of the harbour and the city.


Barcelona is the city that the famous 19th century architect Antoni Gaudi did most of his brilliant work and the evidence is everywhere. He designed many of the buildings, balconies, parks and the most famous Sagrada Familia basilica. Although he died in 1926 his works will last for many centuries. The following pictures are just a small taste of his work that you can see throughout the city.

Gaudi’s most famous piece of work, designed in the late 1800’s, is the Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction for 130 years. It is not expected to be completed until approx 2025. Construction is slow because it relies on public donations and was halted because of the Spanish civil war in 1936. I was absolutely captivated by this basilica which has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It reminded me of a building you might find in Whoville from Dr. Seuss’s "The Grinch Stole Christmas". See for yourself.


After a tour of this enchanting city we headed down to the Olympic village area, where they held the 1992 Summer Games, for a fabulous dinner by the Mediterranean Sea.

The next day was a highlight for me as we headed about an hour’s drive from Barcelona to the mountain top Benedictine abbey at Montserrat. Montserrat is a multi-peaked mountain composed of strikingly pink rock. The architect Gaudi was so inspired by these rock formations that he designed the spires of the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona after them.

The next day we headed towards the city of Valencia which I found to be one of my most favourite cities on the trip from an architectural perspective. First we stopped at the beach side resort town of Peniscola for lunch and a walk along a beautiful beach on the Mediterranean Sea. The town is famous for the filming of the historic epic movie El Cid in 1961 starring Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren.


When we arrived in Valencia the first stop we made was the highlight of the entire trip for me. We stopped at the new modern Arts and Sciences buildings that were opened in 2009. The buildings consist of an open-air Oceanographic park, Imax Cinema, Planetarium, Laserium, and an Opera house; all designed by Santiago Calatrava. This modern architecture was absolutely stunning and the most beautiful I have ever seen. I wish the modern day architects would design buildings like this in Canada.

The next day we headed towards the city of Granada but not before our hidden treasure stop. We travelled through the picturesque Iberian mountain range and stopped in the small town of Gaudix for a unique visit to a modern day cave dwelling inhabited by Paco and his ancestors for 6 generations. The temperature inside the cave is a constant 19 degrees Celsius year round. Although there are no windows, the interior was decorated in bright colours to brighten up the environment. The family served us a homemade brew of sangria for 40 people. Yummy


On day 9 we visited the spectacular Moorish Alhambra Palace with beautiful views across Granada and the surrounding hills. The 14 century Islamic architecture was extraordinary and the water gardens exotic.

In the evening we enjoyed a visit and dinner in the small hill top village of Mijas. Perched high up, it offered splendid views of the coastline with quaint narrow streets and white washed houses.


And now it was time to relax for a few days and walk the beaches in Costa del Sol (the Spanish Riviera) on the Mediterranean Sea. The weather here was very sunny and hot (in the mid 30’s C)…..perfect for the beach.


We enjoyed a trip to Malaga, known as the capital of the Costa del Sol region, with its palm tree lined streets and its long sandy beaches. Here we visited the Moorish castle of Gibralfaro built in the 15 th century and also toured the house in which the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was born.

The following day we travelled to the former capital of the Andalusia region – Cordoba - where we visited the Mosque of the Caliphs, featuring striking arches and Byzantine mosaics.

On day 12 we stopped at the Rock of Gibraltar which is the gateway to the Mediterranean. It is only 10 square miles in size and from the top of the rock we had clear views across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco and Algeria, Africa. Gibraltar is also famous for the Rock Apes which can be vicious it you reach out to them. We saw one tourist reach out with his cell phone to take a picture and the ape ripped it out of his hand and the phone crashed to the ground. We visited the St. Michaels Cave which is a network of limestone caves. They were absolutely beautiful and well worth the visit.


After Gibraltar we headed for our hotel in Seville which was a very unique design. The Las Casas Del La Juderia Hotel was a former duke’s residence that has been converted into a hotel. The hotel consists of Moorish-influenced buildings joined together and connected by a series of hallways, gardens, and courtyards.



The next day in Seville was another highlight for me as we toured the beautifully architected buildings and visited the Moorish Alcazar and Seville Cathedral where the explorer Christopher Columbus’s body lies.

Our trip was coming to an end.  We took the high speed train, with speeds of up to 300 kms/hr, back to Madrid for a tour of the famous Prado art museum and our farewell dinner.

With another successful trip under our belts we now have the pictures and memories to remind us of how beautiful Spain is. I highly recommend a trip to this wonderful country.