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.
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!
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!)
Orange umbrellas by orange roofs in Barcelona’s famous central plaza, stylised in the short-lived but spectacular Art Nouveau design. Orange is surely the national colour of Spain! Spain, after all, is a vibrant, lively country despite any economic mishaps. Everything is fun in Spain – from eating to drinking to taking naps to commuting (try out one of those mopeds!). Everybody is always outside, in the streets, on the balconies, in the plazas. Thanks to the largely sunny climate, life is nearly always spent outside – except during mealtime of course (14h-16h), which is traditionally taken inside with all the family, particularly if you live in a village or small town. And despite economic troubles, you’ll see nothing but smiles!
This regal plaza is one of the Spanish capital’s two main squares (the other being Plaza del Sol, literally the epicentre of Spain, as it is located in the very centre of the city/country). Plaza Mayor, however, is even more beautiful than its sister. Dating back to the 1500’s and the reigns of both Phillip II and Phillip III, the plaza was designed to augment the beauty of Madrid after the king decided to make Madrid the new capital. Over the years, Plaza Mayor has seen everything from public markets, street fairs, bullfights, demonstrations, public executions, football matches (not sure how that one worked out), and trials of the Spanish Inquisition. In the beginning, it was called Plaza del Arrabal, and was once the meeting point for tradesmen pouring in from the then-larger city of Toledo. Today, these four beautiful, 5-story walls of this amazing Spanish square marks the very heart of Madrid, and Spain itself.
While Malaga itself might not be the prettiest place to be, heading out into the Andalusian countryside is certainly a fantastic way to experience southern Spain! While much is Spain indeed a desert, that does not make it any less beautiful. Andalusia is dotted with beautiful little Pueblos Blancos (White Villages), both quaint and awe-inspiring. However, be sure to pay attention while traversing the countryside in search of these villages – along the way, you’ll be privy to some interesting architecture as well as some of the most spectacular scenery. Spain is a very old country with a long history of changing nationalities. Unlike many central European destinations, it was not razed during the world wars. Peppered throughout the countryside, you will find ancient buildings, beautiful towns, amazing recipes in tiny restaurants, charming villages, lovely people and a vibrant culture. Keep yours eyes glued to the window because you never know what kind of treasures you may find – like this fantastic abandoned building, only a few kilometers from Malaga!
What comes to mind when you’re caught getting this birds-eye view of Spanish roofs? Lots of things: olives, fiestas, sangria, the tango, beaches, paella, terracotta, tapas, ancient architecture, the Spanish language, glasses of wine. Spain is a place that should be part of every person’s life. Take a leaf out of their cheerful, orange-y playbook and enjoy life. The Spanish comprehend the meaning of life better than most of us – perhaps not the reason we’re here, or anything that profound – but they do understand something very important that most of us routinely forget: we’ve only got one life on this earth, so why squander it doing things we don’t like? The Spanish may not understand the meaning of national debt or a strong economy, but they sure know how to eat, drink, sing, dance, travel, talk, cook and shop—at any given moment of our 24-hour day. Work comes second; life comes first. Maybe it’s not the richest country, but they sure are one of the happiest. Even though we’re not all cut out for life as a émigré Spanish person—we sure as hell are cut out for enjoying life like the Spanish.
Welcome to Valencia’s odd opera house, standing in the midst of the modernist complex of La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences) – the exact opposite of Vienna’s very traditional opera house. Opening in 2006 and rising 75 meters off the ground, it is the tallest opera house in the world, and certainly one of the strangest. Resembling a strange-looking space helmet, or perhaps a scurrying beetle, it is indeed a unique and unforgettable place to see a ballet, opera, dance, theatre or concert! Even if the opera doesn’t interest you, a mere walk through the whole complex will yield breath-taking results.
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