“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá. Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid station Atocha or Chamartin, if you buy tickets from the machine.
A sort of Spanish Versailles, Aranjuez Palace is a massive royal complex roughly an hour from Madrid, though it is lesser-known than its French counterpart. A former royal residence established during the era of Philip II in the early 1500s, the Palace of Aranjuez once functioned as a seasonal residence, inhabited by the royals and their entourage each springtime. Encapsulating the utter extravagance and overabundance of the wealth, power and influence the royal family once held, the palatial space allowed them to host enormously opulent and excessive Great Gatsby style parties. Though today the Spanish royal family is little more than a symbol, it is still a powerful symbol of conservatism, religion, and traditional values, not always keeping up with the modern world. Today however, the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a UNESCO protected site, is open to the public as a museum, displaying art, furniture, royal artefacts and more, offering a cheeky peak behind the royal curtain of what being part of the Spanish royal family and its court actually meant. To get there, take the local commuter train from Madrid’s central stations to Aranjuez and walk 15 minutes to the palace at the centre of town; last entry is one hour before closing.
City of Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), Valencia, Spain
Some of Europe’s strangest architecture can be found in Spain – from Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum to Gaudi’s everything (Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell and of course Sagrada Familia Cathedral). As one of the 12 Treasures of Spain and Valencia’s most visited site, the bizarre architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences deserves to be on the same list. Covering roughly two kilometres of the former riverbed of the River Turia, this bizarre complex is a homage to modern arts and architecture, yes, but also to science, culture and technology. An opera house, a science museum, an IMAX cinema, a vastly diverse park with walking paths along an open-air arts gallery, an aquarium and a concert venue make up this colourfully bizarre futurist complex. Contrasting strangely with Valencia’s old town, both halves of the city are worth the visit!
Andalucia is one of Europe’s most enchanting places. Vast tracts of farmland stretch to the horizon, dotted with snug farmhouses tucked among the golden and chocolate-coloured foothills. Rugged landscapes colour the foreground while the jagged spires of the Sierra Nevada Mountains set the backdrop. Beautiful Andalucia is home to the famous pueblos blancos, the magnificent white villages peppering the golden brown hills of southern Spain. In this region, time seems to slow to a standstill. People take time to live their lives slowly, to appreciate the simple joys of everyday. Groves of oranges and olives climb the sunburnt slopes until they finally disappear over the hill crest. The over-abundance of oranges and olives, not to mention tomatoes, grapes, almonds, cereals, and sunflowers is evident – pop-up open air markets are everywhere, in each village. Old wooden tables groan under the weight of the fresh produce – aficionados of the farm-to-fork movement at its purest! Vineyards, too, abound in Andalucia and further afield in Spain. It’s easy to find good yet cheap wine (no need to ever spend more than €10 per bottle…). Better yet, enjoy a cold glass of delicious sangria while basking under the Andalucian sun in villages like Grazelama, Zahara de la Sierra, or the town of Ronda. There are a lot of incredible places to watch a sunset, but the green and golden checkered fields, bone-white villages and rugged landscapes – not to mention the cloudless skies – make for some pretty spectacular performances. Best enjoyed with a sangria in hand…of course.
The exotic-sounding words Zubri Zuri simply means ‘white bridge’ in Basque, the local language of Bilbao and the surrounding Pais Vasco(Basque Country). Euskara, or Basque in English, is a fascinating language that, interestingly enough, has no ties to any other Indo-European languages! Bilbao and Basque Country are truly unique. Connecting the more modern side of Bilbao with the more historic side since 1997, the bizarre modern design of Zubri Zuri sports a curved walkway, overhanging arch, translucent glass bricks, and zigzaging ramps. Built as a pedestrian route to allow tourists to reach the even more bizarre Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Zubri Zuri Bridge has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Though a convenient way to get to the Guggenheim Museum and certainly worth the experience of crossing this unusual bridge, at some point be sure to walk along the River Nervion opposite of the Guggenheim for phenomenal views of the iconic museum’s strange futurist architecture! One of the things that Bilbao does best is the melding of old and new – Bilbao’s extensive Old Town’s meandering streets, beautiful churches, quiet alleys and quirky shops contrast well to the shining skyscrapers, quirky futuristic architecture and intriguing street art of the West Bilbao. Wander from Bilbao from west to east as you slowly go back in time in this strange but enticing Spanish city (is it really Spanish? Some would disagree…but that’s a discussion for another day) in northern Spain.
A meteorological effect caused by the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight and water, rainbows generally takes the form of perfectly-curved arcs of every colour arrayed across the sky. Often associated with Ireland thanks to Ireland’s watery, damp climate, this particularly splendid double rainbow was spotted over the Cantabrian Coast of Northern Spain. The double-rainbow effect is all the more intriguing since locals of the region often describe Cantabria as ‘reminding them of Ireland‘ – so I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find such a prominent and splendid rainbow here along the Northern Spanish coast. The region of Cantabria bears little resemblance to the rest of Spain. Hugging the Atlantic Coast, Cantabria’s weather is mild, its hills are rolling green, the air is damp, the rain is often. It is an easy region to love, but it feels very far from Spain we all expect to know, from the orange and olive groves and terracotta roofs and flamenco dancing and spicy tapas of the picturesque south. Cantabria is easygoing, tranquil, pretty, emerald. The coasts are quietly wooded, the cliffs steep and unforgiving. Villages like Santillana del Mar hold true to their medieval roots, while others, like Santoña, to their industrial roots. It is an wonderful, unhurried place of beauty and inspiration.
Escalinata Staircase in Teruel, the Aragon region of Spain
Though the Escalinata Staircase technically a purpose-built construction – meant to connect the centro de la ciudad to the railway station – the Escalinata Staircase has become so much more. The town of Teruel, an easy day trip from the modernist city of Valencia, is often called the “town of mudéjar architecture” (meaning Moorish-influenced architecture), notably Teruel Cathedral. The region of Aragon’s densely-concentrated Mudejar architecture (construction corresponding with the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance) is now under the domaine of UNESCO. Mudejar architecture developed after the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This style was created by those who stayed behind, called moriscos, or Muslims that converted to Christianity. While the stairs were constructed in the early 1900s, the style chosen is neo-Mudejar. It also pays homage to the infamous Lovers of Teruel, a rather ridiculous story. Unable to marry his sweetheart due to his financial status, the hero leaves to make his fortune in 5 years, but miscounts the number of days and returns just after she marries. The overly devout and prude heroine refuses to kiss her dying hero for she is now married (by less than 12 hours, mind you), and he dies. The following day at his funeral, she finally kisses him and dies herself (of what, who knows. Guilt? Loneliness? Grief?) Moral of the story? Perhaps it is simply to chose your spouse wisely, marry out of love… and learn how to keep track of things!
Spring is just around the corner -and also happens to be the perfect season in Spain! The sun isn’t too overbearing; the air isn’t too hot and sticky. The crowds are less thick than in summer. Cafe terraces are still peaceful, waitresses still patient, beaches still quiet. Peñíscola is the perfect place to spend a spring day. The narrow, winding streets of the old town are full of hole-in-the-wall cafes, restaurants and shops. The oceanside breeze is refreshing – perfect for taking a stroll. The white-washed walls of the city are delicate and calming. The locals happily chat in the street and overhead across the balconies. As you climb, terraces criss-cross, affording great views of the town and the nearby beach. Stop for an afternoon spritzer or glass of wine before continuing on to the castle, where the views across Peñíscola are the best! Orange clay roofs, white walls and blue waves pepper the quilted landscape below the castle walls. In the city below your feet, there is the hum of life but up here, there’s nothing but fresh air and the cries of seagulls. As the afternoon sun bathes you in warm life, you lean against the ancient stone wall of Peñíscola’s fortress and let your mind wander. There’s nothing like spending a spring day atop a castle in a small Spanish town!
Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.
The golden sun touches down on the sunburnt region of Andalucía. Adorable pueblos blancos – or white villages due to their white-washed appearance – dot the landscape among scattered scrub bushes clinging to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Grazalama, like the previously mentioned Zahara de la Sierra, is one of these such ‘white villages.’ Quaint yet lively, Grazalama – like the majority of the pueblos blancos – emits the true spirit of the region: local tradition seeped with food, drink, dance and merriment. Here, take a step back in time to forgotten generation. Take a step away from the glitz and glam of modern, fast-paced European cities like Madrid and London, Paris and Oslo. Instead, take a moment to relax under the warm Spanish sun with a cold cerveza in hand, plates of tapas – fresh seafood, various types of pork, local veggies, to-die-for olives, you name it – in front of you, while the sounds of upbeat Spanish music make your feet try to dance. Your chosen restaurant is located in a building older than your great-grandmother. Miniature shops selling local wares line the square. People chat happily away in rapid-fire Spanish in animated conversations necessitating many hand-gestures. Glasses clink, bells toll, and smells of something savoury waft from the kitchens. As the setting sun warms your back, you realise you found a miniature paradise deep in the heart of Andalucía.
Spicy, salty, vibrant. Oranges and yellows light up this striking Spanish square in the heart of Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico as the afternoon draws to a close. Though it may be a winter’s day far from beach season, this period is actually the ideal time to explore the famed city with your lover, and no place is more magical or romantic than Barrio Gótico (though Gaudi’s works such as Casa Batlló, Casa Mila, and the Sagrada Famillia give it a run for its money!) While parts of the Gothic Quarter date back to the Middle Ages, a controversial paper released in 2011 purports the idea that many of the ‘old’ buildings were elaborated or rebuilt at the turn of the century or in the early 1900s with the ambition of augmenting tourism dollars and making the city more exciting for the 1929 International Exhibition. This may or may not be true, but in any case, let’s leave the theorising to the scientists and simply enjoy this beautiful neighbourhood hand-in-hand with your spouse or lover, because authentic or not, the winding labyrinth that is the Barrio Gótico is one of Barcelona’s most alluring neighbourhoods! (One caveat: along with Las Ramblas, it is one of the top hot-spots for crime. Be very aware of your surroundings, leave unneeded personal belongings at the hotel, and do not talk to anyone on the street no matter how lost they claim to be. This is one of the biggest pickpocket hotspots in Europe. That said, don’t let that ruin your chance for an amble in this wonderfully beautiful place!)
Mirrors – are they the windows into our souls? Are they a reflection of us, what makes us tick? Or are they merely a useful tool when putting on make-up, combing our hair or trying on a new pair of jeans? Bilbao is one city that expertly fuses the old and the new, the past and the present, heritage and modernity – this mirrored building which today houses Basque Country’s Department of Health is just one example. Bilbao (not Bilbo!) is secretly an artistic city it would seem, both in regards to creative architects as well as artists themselves such as Jeff Koons (see this post regarding his flower statue, ‘Puppy’). Not only is Bilbao one of Spain’s cleanest cities, it is quite different than the rest of Spain in that they have their own language – Basque. Unrelated to any other languages, you will see signs covered with complicated words and littered with X’s and Z’s posted all over the city next to their translations in Spanish. Home also to the famed Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is certainly a unique city like no other. So my question remains, the mirrors – are they indeed the funky and fun reflection into Bilbao’s soul? I think yes.
The sun shines brightly on the ornate Teruel Cathedral in the city of the same name, located in eastern Spain. An exceptional example of Mudejar architecture, the cathedral dates back to 1171 when Teruel itself was founded by Alfonso II of Aragon. Originally constructed in Romanesque style, it was later much renovated at the end of the 1200s to fit the Mudajar style, with further modifications in the 1300s, by Jozaff the Morisco (a term used to describe Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity but who often still secretly practiced Islam). As this cathedral is one of the best examples of Mudajar architecture in Spain, it is of great interest to historians, architects and scholars – but also those who are searching for great beauty. The inside of the cathedral is just as beautiful as the outside; the ceiling is of particular beauty. For clarification, Mudajar is the term used to describe the Moors or individual Muslims who remained on the Iberian Peninsula after the famed Reconquista by the Christians. As they did not convert, they developed their own culture and style, of which many buildings remain to this day.
Toledo: one of Spain’s great, ancient, international cities. Though not large, Toledo is a magnificent and historical place. The sand-swept, hilltop town sometimes seems like something out of Game of Thrones’ imaginary Kingdom of Dorne. Regal yet humble at the same time, Toledo provides sweeping views of the beautiful Spanish desert spilling away from its gates. Within its’ streets, cozy restaurants, cheery cafes and sunny terraces invite visitors to take a break from admiring the city’s varied architectural styles (influenced by the different civilizations that once called Toledo home) for a cold cerveza, a sample of Spanish tapas or perhaps even Valencian paella. Sometimes known as the “Imperial City” for hosting the court of Charles I, it is also interestingly enough known as the “City of the Three Cultures” due to significant influence by historical co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Each of these cultures have left their mark on magical Toledo, including this church here which was built in Mudejar (Islamic) style, modeled on an ancient mosque in the same area. And if all that wasn’t enough, Toledo is also the adopted city of the Cretan artist, El Greco!
Abandoned warehouse (Former Albo Cannery) in Santoña, Spain
Arrested decay, elegant crumbling, slow fall into ruin. This little port-side town is generally off the tourist maps – and the economic charts as well. Little Santoña is known for one main export: anchovies. Its port is lined with little warehouses and canneries dedicated to anchovies such as this one – yet somehow, the warehouse district of Santoña doesn’t seem like a place to avoid. In fact, the warehouse district is actually snuggled into the ‘hip’ part of town, across from the marina and a sort of ship monument with a restaurant and look-out point on top. Though Santoña may be off the beaten path, hidden in a corner of northern Spain (which is ALSO off the beaten path!), a quick stopover on a northern Spain trek is a must. Not only does it have some of the best anchovies and affordable tapas, but it also has some of the best beaches (such as Playa Berria), ancient forts (San Carlos and San Martin), and wondrous nature (El Fraile Peak, the point with the El Caballo Lighthouse).
Masters of art, of culture, of language, of theatre, of architecture, of engineering – we can all agree that the Romans were impressive people. While much of their constructions dies with the fall of the Roman Empire, we can still catch a glimpse of Roman ingenuity from time to time. The Roman Colosseum, the Pont du Gard, the Pantheon, the Spa of Bath, the ruins of Aosta, the Fourvière Amphitheatre in Lyon…Roman ruins exist all over Europe, Northern Africa, and the M.E. However, one of the most impressive and most accessible exemplars is found in Segovia, Spain. Though the exact date of construction is a mystery, it is thought to date from the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), and runs for roughly 32 km on a 1% grade to the city centre. While most of it is still authentic, there is a hefty part (36 arches to be exact) that date from only the 15th century, rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Moors. However, this doesn’t affect the beauty or impressiveness of the ruins. The arches of the aqueduct march right through the town centre, traversing plazas and streets, cafes and buildings. The people milling about the ancient structure seem small in comparison to the enormous arches. When you finally approach the giant feet of the structure, and slowly make your way up the stairs to take you to the top, you feel the goosebumps on your arms as you realise just however impressive is that they constructed this magnificent engineering feat long before the age of machines.
Magical blue seas, waves lapping against rocky cliffs with hardy trees clutching to the sides and disused lighthouses perched on their edges. Northern Spain is often overlooked, and even when it is visited, places like Bilbao get all the attention. But hey, head out of the city to the countryside, to the forest, to the sea! And what better way is there to see a rugged coast such as that of Cantabria than by water? Rent a kayak and follow the coastline while searching for hidden coves or silent lighthouses. Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll find trails leading into the forest, old forts from bygone eras of sea invasion, or even a diving platform from which you can jump into the sea!
A little-known part of Spain is the northern coast running from Bilbao on one side to Santiago de Compostela on the other. One of the rainiest parts of Spain, it is also one of the greenest! Little towns like Santillana del Mar and San Vincente de la Barquera hug the coastline, famous beaches such as the one at Noja dot the coast (ironically this frequented surfers’ beach is located just next to a large prison…), roads sporting the shiny, yellow “El Camino” signs connect the towns (Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage). Winding grey roads, large green fields, limitless blue waves and bright orange roofs weave the patchwork quilt that is northern Spain. This is a region of tranquility, rarely frequented by tourists, colorful, happy and green. Whether you’re doing the Camino, surfing the waves, biking the coastline or merely soaking up the history and culture of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, you’ll fall in love with northern Spain in moments.
No matter when you visit Madrid, you are guaranteed sun and heat–even during a sunset such as this. While this makes a nice change from places where it rains or snows often, or others where it is cold most of the year, it can sometimes be too hot. However, the Spanish lifestyle is adapted to work around the heat. Most businesses are closed at midday and this time is instead set aside for eating. In Spain, mealtime is a sacred time of day. Mealtime is for eating, socializing, enjoying life, and you can in no way force a Spaniard to curtail this sacred ‘moment’ (which can sometimes last 3 hours!). Another way to escape the heat is to move everything back a few hours so that dinner is now later, around 10 pm. ‘Afternoon’ activities–like a stroll through the park, a beer at a bar, a quick shopping trip to the mall, dinner on a terrace, etc…this is all done during twilight or even after night falls. While still hot, this at least eliminates too much direct sunlight. Some would even say that twilight is the loveliest time of day!
This rough coast barely brings to mind images of Spain. Waves crash against the rocky beaches, cliffs fall dramatically to the sea. Located in Basque Country, Spanish isn’t the only language you’ll hear – their “native” language, Basque, is a very old, very distinct language, and has little roots in any other European language. Reaching the coastal inlet of Gaztelugatxe involves a bit of a hike (though taking a car part of the way is possible). Regardless, you’ll want to take to the trails as you hike to the monastery of San Juan in order to benefit from the beautiful views, thrilling landscape, exhilarating climbs and descents while listening to the relaxing sound of crashing waves.