Not far from Madrid, Toledo is an easy and beautiful day trip from Spain’s capital city. Holy Roman emperor Charles V established his court here in Toledo in the 16th century, giving the city its nickname, the “Imperial City.” Toledo is a city that has given birth to kings and queens, nobles and commoners alike – even the famed artist El Greco comes from this desert gem. Toledo is a place with a long heritage, vastly effected by its mix of the three dominating cultures of the Iberian Peninsula: Christianity, Islam and Judaism – not to mention functioning as the Visigoth Capital from 542 – 725 AD. In existence since before Roman times, it is little wonder that this desert city was recognised by UNESCO. Wander the lovely streets, casting your eye at the diverse architecture inspired by its various cultures before heading to the very top of the city for a terrific panoramic view of Toledo and its surroundings. Neither small nor large, Toledo is easy enough to explore on foot (if you don’t mind hills and steep roads!), but nor is it too small to get bored.
Pro tip: Perhaps you might want to try some tapas or paella while you’re here! Toledo has many small family-run restaurants in which to do so. Wear sturdy shoes – the streets are cobbled, uneven and sometimes steep. Trains run hourly from Puerta de Atocha station in Madrid, with a 30 minute duration. Check Renfe’s website for more info.
Alongside the amazing Puente Nuevo on the cliffs of Ronda, the Arab Baths are among Ronda‘s most impressive and fascinating sights. At first glance, they seem a look a lot like Roman baths – and indeed the builders were inspired by the design long perfected by the ingenious Roman architects. The main difference here is that instead of hot water heated from below, the baths the Moors built used steam sweat out pollutants from the body. The Arab Baths of Ronda were built by the Moors, a conquering culture on the Iberian Peninsula that originated in North Africa, changing the architectural and cultural landscape of modern-day Spain and Portugal. For the Moors, the baths were built for sanitary reasons but also as for religious ‘purification’ purposes. At one time, Ronda used to be full of Moorish (or Mudejar) architecture, from mosques to Medinas to fortified walls and bridges, though little remains now. Today, Ronda is a wonderful town right in the heart of Andalucia, a perfect base for exploring all of those picturesque pueblos blancos.
Pro tip: Visiting the Baths at night adds as extra atmospheric element and sets the scene for some lovely photos. Also – it will be cooler and there are far less tourists about! These days, the Arab Baths are open until 19h00 on weekdays (closing at 15h on weekends) and cost €3 to enter. Sometimes they are open later.
Probably most famous for its role on HBO hit Game of Thrones(part of Dragonstone), the craggy islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – meaning the Rock Castle from the Basque language – is perhaps one of Europe’s most fascinating and fantastical monuments. With its picture-perfect monastery perched perilously at the top of a formidable rock pinnacle, its not hard to see why San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was chosen as a location in the fantasy land of Westeros. Narrowly perched on the Bay of Biscay deep in Basque Country, the sea crashes endlessly at the islet, eroding away at the rocks. After a long walk to the island, across the causeway and up the rough-worn stairs, you arrive at the monastery or hermitage. This little building, dangling 80 metres above the sea, is dedicated to John the Baptist, and dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries and is the final resting place of medieval monks. Its location was long considered strategic and played a role in several battles – the place where the Lord of Biscay confronted the King of Castille in the mid 14th century, the site of a sacking from Huguenots (Protestants persecuted in France) from La Rochelle, an 18th century English raid and even a naval battle during the horrific Spanish Civil War. Despite its tragic history, today San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a place of great mystique and wonder – not to mention an amazing place for budding photographers!
Pro tip: This place was busy pre-Game of Thrones and the fantasy series will only continue making it more popular. Avoid the crowds (and the heat!) as best as possible by visiting in the off season, or early in the day. Get the most out of your visit by hiking from Bakkio town along the coast.
Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra in Andalucia, Spain
Andalucia is a dry, sunburnt land in the south of Spain. The region is among Spain’s largest and most populous regions, with small communities spread out over a blanket of brown hills, jagged mountains and rolling fields. Many such communities are part of the Pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, picture-perfect villages beloved by tourists. This particular pueblo blanco, Zahara de la Sierra, is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooked by the Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra. The castle dates back to the Moorish era of Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was inhabited by the Moors, broadly defined as muslims originally from the Maghreb living in southern Europe, who greatly influenced Spanish art and architecture and even language (Andalucia, for example, comes from Al-Andalus) until finally being driven out completely by the 1490s. Very little remains of this once-impressive fortification in the village of Zahara. Today, all that’s left are the vestiges of a few walls and a signal tower, which, once climbed, will provide stunning views of the cheery white-washed walls and orange roofs of Zahara, the azure waters of the local reservoir, the sun-kissed chocolate-coloured fields hugging the village, all the way out to other nearby villages. Though beautiful, it is evident to see why this may not always have been an easy place to live. The castle, and the village below it, is carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop, with heights ranging from 300m to 1100m, and the village’s name “zahara” comes from “sahra” meaning desert. The seemingly-romantic sun-kissed fields, rocky outcrops and windswept panoramas may be seem idyllic today, but life in such a dry and remote place (it’s 100 km from the sea after all) wouldn’t always have been so perfect!
Pro tip: There’s a lovely wee restaurant with a comfortable terrace perfect for people-watching called El Rincon De La Ermita.
Though not actually located on the sea despite its name, Santillana del Mar is one of northern Spain’s loveliest hidden spots. In fact, it is nicknamed the ‘Town of Three Lies’ as it is not on the sea (mar), nor is it flat (llana) or a saint (santo). More accurately, the name is a slightly-mangled derivation or Santa Juliana, whose final resting place is tucked away here in an ancient monastery. The cultural hub of Cantabria, don’t expect to have this medieval masterpiece to yourself – not that that diminishes from the sheer beauty or culinary pleasures! A medieval marvel, Santillana del Mar is a charming stone village in the north of Spain that exudes beauty on every street. Known for its cider, Santillana del Mar, like most of Spain, is a place to slow down, relax, and enjoy the finer things in life such as food, drink, fresh air, sunshine and conversation. Whether you’re people watching, spending time with friends or loved ones, or simply admiring the architecture, Santillana is a place to lose yourself, leaving the busy real world behind.
Pro tip: Just outside of the town is the famed Altamira Cave Painting site, rich with prehistoric art. And as stated above, be sure to try some of Santillana del Mar’s local cider while in town!
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
Orange roofs contrast against the deep azures of the Mediterranean and the whitewashed walls of the fairy-tale houses crowding the narrow streets of medieval Peñíscola. Beautiful, curved (oft handmade) terracotta roof tiles are perhaps one of the images most associated with Spain and its hard not to conjure up images glasses of tinto de verano and sangria, massive plates of Valencianpaella, and delicious tapaswhen you see roofs such as these! The little medieval town of Peñíscola clings desperately to the sea, encircled by walls and containing a labyrinth of weaving streets, tiny alleys and jumbled plazas – crowned by the squat castle in the centre. Sometimes called the Gibraltar of Valencia – or locally as “The City in the Sea” – Peñíscola is a fortified city built onto on an easily-defensible headland that juts into the sea. The 13th castle was erected by none other than the infamous Knights Templar (our friends who also built Segovia‘s Church Vera Cruz) – and it is from here that one enjoys the epic panorama of city and sea.
Pro tip: Aside from wandering the lovely streets, be sure to visit the castle, lighthouse, bateria, and House of Shells. There are several nice terrases for sangria or “tapas and caña” (tapas, or small plates of food, that accompany a glass of beer).
Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse), Cantabria, Spain
Cantabria is a little-visited region on Spain’s north coast. Though on one side of the region is Basque Country and Bilbao, and the other, the famous Santiago del Compostela, few people know of the region’s existence much less add Cantabria to their Spanish itinerary. It is an out-of-the-way place categorised by mild temperatures, regular rainfall, quiet harbours and green hills. The ocean is the region’s constant companion, supporting a bustling fishing industry – notably, the anchovies of Santoña, which are world-renowned. Not far from Santoña is the rugged Monte Buciero on a spit of land that juts out into the Cantabrian Sea. At the end of the point, at the bottom of hundreds of steps carved into rugged rocky pinnacles is the squat little Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse). Erected in 1863 on this forlorn outcrop of the Spanish coastline, the steps and foundations of the Faro de Caballo were placed there by prisoners of Santoña’s jail. From the 1800s to 1993, the light of Faro de Caballo shone through the waters, warning ships of the Cantabrian Coast. Today, the Faro de Caballo is part of the Las Marisma de Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Nature Park. To get there, start your hike in Santoña and walk along the coast, passing the forts of San Martin and San Carlos and following the rough path through the woods until you arrive at the steep staircase (the route is said to have some 600-700 steps, so wear good shoes!). Be sure you bring your swimming gear as well, as there are several diving ledges of varying heights as well as a swinging rope for the less-adventurous!
Pro tip: The whole hike from Santoña is about 7km, though there is another way (from the other side of the peninsula, by Berria Beach – though I feel that it is more accessible from Santoña. Don’t try to kayak there from Santoña unless there are low winds and you’re an experienced kayaker, as the winds past the headland on the way back can be rough; better to access the lighthouse on foot, bringing all necessary swimming or snorkelling gear with you!
Unique, isn’t it? This squat, sunburnt little Romanesque tower and 12-sided polygon of a church on the outskirts of Segovia is impressive – and not the least because it dates back to the Middle Ages – the 13th century in fact. And who founded it? Why, none other than the infamous Knights Templar! More simply called “The Templars,” were a Catholic military organisation founded in 1139 by the pope. Most people know that they are closely tied to the Crusades to the Holy Land but what is less known is that they became very wealthy and therefore very powerful due to their role involved in the Christian bourse. Though the Templars are among some of the most skilled fighters of the Middle Ages (a fact that modern day video game Assassin’s Creed has exploited), roughly 90% of their order weren’t fighters. While the combatants where wrestling for the Holy Land, the non-combatants were slowly making a power play. It was they who put in place the economic infrastructure such as banking, loans, investments and the creation of landed estates (essentially paving the way for feudalism, and one might argue, capitalism) – all of only made them more rich. Part of their money went to building shrines to their movement – churches dedicated to the Holy Land they held so dear. One such place was the Church of Vera Cruz – a fantastic example of the kind sanctuary they perfected and how it differs from later churches. In fact, scripture from the Holy Land is inscribed at the alter of this little Spanish church. However, the Templars’ reign was short-lived. Such wealth gave them power, and power made them detested. Once they lost the Crusades, it was quite easy to demonise them – especially it you owed them money. One of those in their debt was none other than King Philip of France who took advantage of their fall from grace to blame, torture, and murder them to avoid repayment on his debt, forcing Pope Clement the V to disband them in 1312. The Templars disappeared in the early 1300s but they left behind a mysterious legacy – one that continues to inspire goosebumps to this day….
Pro tip: The Church of Vera Cruz lies just outside of the cluster of buildings in the historic centre. It’s open Tuesdays 16 – 19h and Wed – Sun from 10h30 – 19h (closed midday from 13h30 – 16h). Admission is a modest €2.
Andalucia is a region full of adorable white villages, chocolate-coloured fields and rugged landscapes. There are dramatic castles and sun-kissed farmlands basking under the brilliant Spanish light. Around each bend, there is something beautiful and heart-throbbing. One such place is the little hilltop village of Zahara de la Sierra. Tiny alleyways wind their way around the natural rock face. Quaint houses are painted white and framed with wrought iron lamps and pots bursting with colourful flowers. Intricate doorways frame picturesque steps that lead the wayward traveller up the hill towards the castle. And yet, what we think as quintessentially Spanish was actually brought here by the Moors. Though the Al-Andalus tribes left some 500 years ago, the mark they left is ever-present and has embedded itself literally into the fabric of Spain – or at least its architecture. Moorish architecture – married with Spanish creativity – is what inspired this doorway – just as it was that constructed the beautiful Teruel Cathedral or Cervantes’ birthplace (Alcalá de Heneres). Even more famously, Moorish design is what makes Andalucia’s most famous sites so unique in the world – Sevilla, Grenada, Cordoba. From big cities to tiny villages, Andalucia – and Spain in general – is full of hidden gems like this little doorway and alley, if only you set out to explore them.
Pro tip: Malaga might be Andalucia’s most convenient airport to arrive in the region, but spend as little time in Malaga and as much time in the rest Andalucia as you can. The beaches are meant to be nice (and are where most visitors want to go) but unless you love overcrowded sandy places that look the same as overcrowded sandy places anywhere else in the world, leave the coast behind and head inland for off the beaten path wonders like this one. Ronda is a great jumping-off point to explore the region.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Stairway, Basque Country, Spain
It’s not hard to see why even just the pathway and staircase to the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has captured the inspiration of thousands – or why fantasy film/series producers (like the unfortunate Game of Thrones where the stairs and islet stood in for Dragonstone) have chosen this place to be part of a fantastical world. Carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop on Spain’s north Basque coast, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient 10th century monastery perched precariously at the top of a rocky outcrop of an island. Reachable by a rugged causeway, the iconic steps and pathway were carved directly into the causeway itself. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the unpronounceable Basque name actually loosely translates to “St John’s craggy fort.” At the top stands a medieval hermitage with burials spanning the 9th – 12th centuries. As with most medieval hermitages, the location was chosen precisely because of its rough and remote location – all the better for monks and hermits to isolate themselves from the evils of the world and focus on prayer and god. That said, the rough and remote location later became important as a stronghold and was attacked several times (including by the nasty though strangely revered Sir Francis Drake). Today, the island’s amazing geography combined with the added architecture is a popular site to visit.
Pro tip: It’s best to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the off-peak season or early on in the day. To truly appreciate the views, take the bus from Bilbao to Bakio and hike the rest of the way, about 6km. The steps are steep and rugged, so wear sturdy shoes and only attempt if fit. It’s a popular place so expect fellow pilgrims!
Rivendell? Gondor? Narnia? Hogwarts? Sadly, no to all. However magical it looks, this is no fantasy world but instead the Spanish town of Ronda is a magical city set deep in the sunburnt deserted landscapes of Andalucia, optimistically built onto a cliff split by a colossal gorge. The two sides of Ronda are tethered together by this stunning bridge known as Ronda’s Puente Nuevo. The newest of the three bridges that crosses the breathtaking El Tajo Gorge carved by the mighty Guadalevin River, Puente Nuevo was finished in 1793 after a long 34 years of construction. It is a master of engineering and an impressive work of architecture, calling in at a shocking 66 meters long and 98 meters high, built straight into the solid rock of the El Tajo Gorge. The small window just visible in the side of the bridge was once used as a prison – with condemned prisoners simply thrown from their cells to meet their doom on the rocks at the bottom of gorge a la Vlad Tepes Dracula. Today, it is both tourist attraction as well as a fully functional bridge, connecting forevermore both halves of the city of Ronda, capital of the famous Pueblos Blancos.
Pro Tip: The Puente Nuevo bridge is best seen from below. Descend along a narrow path that leads down the side of the gorge, but beware, the path is eroded and in poor condition so be sure to wear proper hiking gear.
Gaudi is possibly the greatest thing to come from Barcelona! Born 1852, Antoni Gaudi is the most famous architect from Catalonia (and Spain), as well as a trendsetter in modern architecture, particularly Catalan modernism, or modernista. Organic and flowing, Gaudi’s buildings were inspired by the harmony of man, nature and religion. A mix of modern architecture, art nouveau, neo-gothic with a bit of his own bizarre or absurd additions sprinkled in, Gaudi has become one of the most recognisable architects of the 20th century. In fact, his most famous work the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is still being completed. Other famous works found on the Block of Discord (a city block of unusual architecture), including Casa Mila, as well as Casa Batllo, as seen here. Remodelled at the turn of the century by Gaudi, this fin de siecle Casa Batllo uses almost no straight lines. Its facade is a quilt of broken mosaics and on the roof, the back of a dragon rises up, coupled with a cross thought to represent Catalonia’s patron saint, St George (who once slayed a dragon). Wavy, rounded stain glass windows look out onto the street, turning ordinary Barcelona into something magical and out of this world. The building is collection of apartments centred around an extravagant stairwell. Today, you can visit some of the rooms, where you can see a collection of art nouveau furniture as well as modern art exhibits. In the attic, explore the attic vaulting reminiscent of a giant animal’s ribcage, similar to the apartment mentioned in Dan Brown’s 2017 book, Origin (though his character actually inhabits Casa Mila).
Pro tip: Barcelona is a hotspot for pickpockets – be careful with your affairs, don’t carry more than you need, and be wary of any distraction schemes!
Wait… Egypt in Spain? Why yes indeed. Madrid’s Parque del Oeste houses the ancient Egyptian Temple of Debod. Originally constructed in Aswan, Egypt in 200 BC and dedicated to Isis, the UNESCO temple had to be moved in 1970 as result of the Aswan High Dam project which created the artificial Lake Nassar in the temple’s original emplacement. The decision was made to donate the Temple of Debod to Spain in graditude for Spain’s aid in saving dozens of the ancient sites and monuments from the reservoir created by the dam. Though the only Egyptian temple in Spain (strangely enough!), Debod Temple has sister temples that you may have seen, each donated for the same reason as Debod. Notably this includes the Temple of Dendur located in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Temple of Ellesyia in Torino (Italy) and the Temple of Taffeh in Leiden (Netherlands). Parque del Oeste, not too far from Madrid’s Royal Palace, is a lovely spot for a walk by day – but it is the soft glow of the setting sun and the romantic glow of moonlight that shows the Temple of Debod in its best light. Under a brilliant crescent moon, gaze upon the ancient temple reflected into the pool encircling the monument.
Pro info: Parque del Oeste is located a short walking distance from the city centre; closest metro stop is Principe Pio. Entry free. Best visited at night when the tombs are lit up!
“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.
Pro tip: Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid stations Atocha or Chamartin , if you buy tickets from the machine. Madrid stations aren’t always manned, and buying tickets can be complicated, so be sure you leave extra time to buy tickets
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!)