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Spain
Discover Spain

Sitting on the southern edge of Europe gazing toward North Africa, Spain beckons the traveler with a distinctive blend of European flair and Moorish mystique. Its sunny landscape and sparkling seas complement a vibrant and colorful culture with a deep, rich history. Pack your bags and come along to explore this spirited land that has captivated artists, authors and adventurers through the ages. The tips below follow our journey from Northeast Spain across the country and back, down the Iberian Peninsula, to the Southwest.

Obidos

 

El Bulli – A Run for Roses

El Bulli

It is said that 2 million people compete for the 8,000 coveted seats available each season at this esteemed dining locale. Sitting at the head of the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list since 2006, El Bulli is a destination unto itself for food connoisseurs worldwide who come to savor chef Ferran Adrià’s magnificent creations. Armed with a coveted reservation sometimes years in the making, gourmands will do whatever it takes to taste their slice of gastronomic heaven in Roses, located two hours north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava.

The flavors, the scenery and the legends of El Bulli can be a fleeting dream, as it’s only open six months of the year, but don’t let that stop you from trying to secure a seat. Email the restaurant your requested dates as soon as the reservation gates open—keep checking the El Bulli website for information on when this occurs. Some hints from previous winners:

  • Carefully inspect the El Bulli calendar for dates when the restaurant is open during the season
  • Be flexible with dates by offering a range of availability
  • Be polite and exercise patience in getting a reply

If your itinerary isn’t adaptable, there’s still a chance. All reservations are confirmed 10 days in advance, and a legendary few are said to have slipped in when the unfortunate few had to cancel.

¿Un Parador, Mi Amor?

Paradores

Those seeking a unique stay in Spain should familiarize themselves with paradores. Maintained by the government, these are high-quality accommodations offered at reasonable prices. Meant to preserve heritage and stimulate regional tourism, paradores are often situated in a castle, convent, palace, farmhouse or other such enticing site.

Whole parador routes can be planned according to theme or interest. All feature comfortable, clean and modern standards with restaurants offering regional fare. While some paradores are quite spectacular, others may appear rather ordinary, located in areas of historical or picturesque significance. Parador de Cardona, the remarkable 9th-century fortress situated northwest of Barcelona, presents a grand medieval lodging experience like no other. Check the official parador website for one suited to your interest or itinerary.

The Chanting Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos

One would hardly know to look here, unless a passing pilgrim might tell you. Located southeast of historical Burgos in Castile and León lives a serene secret with mystical acclaim. Each evening, those fortunate to know about it slip into the quiet pews of an abbey ensconced in an ancient Benedictine monastery within the tidy village of Santo Domingo de Silos. By the start of evening vespers, the place is filled with people and the mesmerizing Gregorian chant performed by these internationally acclaimed Benedictine monks. Pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela often stay at the monastery to breathe in this piece of heavenly song.

Many Roads Lead to Santiago de Compostela

Spiritual, momentous, emotional, challenging—all describe the famed pilgrim walk to Santiago de Compostela, the final resting place of St. James the apostle. A network of routes covers hundreds of kilometers, traversing cities, villages, plateaus, coastline and mountains, passing immense cathedrals, tiny chapels and all manner of nature. Hostels, inns and monasteries along the route take in weary pilgrims for a nominal fee, but are in high demand during summer and filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Preference is given to foot travelers, then cyclists and lastly to car travelers. Most pilgrims begin their month-long journey in the springtime. The height of passage is July 25, the annual feast day in Santiago when most pilgrims converge on this small town. Whether taken as a religious journey, a cultural experience or an endurance test, this ancient path has challenged even the most devoted cynic to contemplate the divine.

A Castle Fit for Fairy Tales

Castles

Spain has no shortage of castles and palaces. Featuring splendid medieval design of both Moorish and Christian influence, at one time as many as 10,000 dotted the region. Built for more than just a fairy tale, many of these grand relics were constructed to fend off invaders and to secure borders and fiefdoms between battling Christians and Muslims. Castles and fortresses later developed into residential palaces fit for royalty and their court activities. Spain’s central regions of Castilla y León and Castilla la Mancha boast the highest concentration of castles.

If you’re going to Madrid, it’s worth a day trip north to Segovia to see the structure often said to have inspired Disney’s Cinderella castle. Among Spanish fortresses, the Alcázar of Segovia is perhaps Spain’s most enchanting. A key stronghold and residence for the Kings of Castile, the structure witnessed many alterations and additions through the ages. It boasts a moat, turrets, conical spires, spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and comes equipped with historic interest galore. The surrounding city of Segovia carries equal historical legacy in its superbly preserved Roman aqueduct and Old Town, both christened UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Alhambra – A Moorish Treasure

Alhambra

Known as “the Red One” in Arabic, southern Spain’s best-preserved Moorish wonder reigns grandly atop a hillside, surveying the ancient city of Granada like a monarch of art and architecture. Floodlights illuminate this historical gem by night, creating an exquisite medieval majesty best viewed from the city’s Albyzín Moorish district, another UNESCO World Heritage site located on the opposite hillside. Visitors flock to see the Alhambra’s four sites of interest:

  • The original 14th-century Moorish palace
  • A 13th-century fort
  • A Renaissance palace erected by the conquering Charles V
  • The summer home and gardens of the Moorish kings

Tickets to the Alhambra often sell out and should be reserved well in advance. Strict entry times are designated to stem the flow of visitors. Late-night visits to the Alhambra do not require an advance reservation, but include only the palace.

Ronda – A Taste of Andalusia

Ronda

Standing atop two hills in the southern province of Malaga, this classic whitewashed town is sliced in half by the spectacular El Tajo Gorge, which is spanned by a dramatic stone bridge. Picturesque dwellings are perched on the edge of Ronda’s cliffs, with quaint, winding streets and Spanish countryside ringing the city. Both Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles spent many summers in Ronda entranced by its magical beauty. Steeped in tradition and mythos, it is known as the birthplace of modern bullfighting and boasts the oldest bullring in the country. Ronda is approx. 1 1/2 to 2 hours from Malaga by bus or train if you’re ensconced on the Costa del Sol, or a bit more from Granada and Cordoba by train. Things to do in Ronda:

  • Stand on the Puente Nuevo Bridge to gaze down the ravine and marvel at the surrounding countryside
  • Stroll through Ronda’s narrow cobblestone streets to take in the historic sites
  • Climb down the water mine of the Palacio del Rey Moro to get to the bottom of the ravine
  • View the well-preserved Arab baths
  • Relax with a glass of wine and a meal in one of the many restaurants

Dancing Horses of Jerez

Jerez

Considered a national treasure, Spain’s native Andalusian horses are world-renowned for their elegance, intelligence, strength and docile temperament. Formerly prized by royalty for their war prowess, Andalusian horses became known as ideal parade and carriage horses because of their beauty and high head carriage. They have often graced the silver screen in historical epics and medieval tales that include Troy, Gladiator, Braveheart, LadyHawke, Lord of the Rings and King Arthur.

The southern region of Andalusia provides a glimpse into this proud Spanish heritage at the Royal Riding School in Jerez, which offers colorful dressage shows and training sessions for public viewing. Presided over by King Juan Carlos, the elegant riding school seeks to preserve and improve the iconic Spanish thoroughbred, which wasn’t allowed export until the 1960s. The famous Lippizaner show horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, are direct descendants of these remarkable animals.

Tantalizing Tapas

Tapas

While some suggest tapas originated because farmers and laborers needed small sustenance between meals to keep working, others claim King Alfonso X first decreed them into existence after falling ill, able to take in only wine and small snacks between meals. Thereafter, no wine was to be served without an edible accompaniment to prevent drunkenness. In taverns, jars of wine were covered with a slice of cheese, bread, smoked ham or chorizo to keep out impurities and insects. One way or the other, sampling some of Spain’s gastronomic delicacies is best accomplished by trying these small plates of nourishing snacks, usually enjoyed with a glass of wine.

Olives, dry nuts and cold cuts are traditional tapas fare, but it also includes vegetables, seafood, meat and eggs with influences of Roman, Moorish and New World cuisine. Each region of Spain follows its own culinary traditions, but jamon y queso (smoked ham and cheese) can be found on most any menu. Tapas are served in local bars at any time of day. Since the dinner hour doesn’t begin until 9 p.m., Spaniards often go to a bar for wine, tapas and conversation to stimulate the appetite before settling into a restaurant for dinner.

A Palette of Spanish Art

Art lovers can indulge in a treasure trove of over 1,400 museums sprinkled throughout Spain, whose proud artistic heritage includes such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, El Greco, Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya. Considered one of the greatest art museums in the world, El Prado in Madrid houses a splendid collection of 12th-century to 19th-century European art, while Dali’s masterpiece, Guernica, lives at the Reina Sofia Museum. Here’s a brief list of Spain’s popular museums:

Barcelona

Barcelona

Catalan National Art Museum
Picasso Museum

 

 

 

Bilbao

Museo de Bellas Artes
The Guggenheim

Figueres

Dali Theatre-Museum

Madrid

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Malaga

Picasso Museum

Seville

Museo de Bellas Artes

Toledo

El Greco House

Valencia

Museo de Bellas Artes
Valencia Institute of Modern Art

Viva Sevilla

Obidos

To experience Spain’s intense vivacity at its height, organize your trip around a fiesta. Perhaps the largest is La Feria de Abril in Seville, one of Spain’s most colorful and vibrant cities. The sleepless, weeklong fiesta in April is an explosion of color and sound, complete with horse parades, strolling singers, flamenco music and dancing, exquisite costumes, bullfighting and hospitality tents adorned with thousands of lanterns.

Whether it’s celebrating flamenco, music, art, wine, patron saints or bullfighting, a cultural experience awaits at all times of the year somewhere in Spain. If crowds are not your cup of tea, you can also experience most of these activities in a more low-key manner. Pick up a city guide, look for flyers or ask the locals at your destination for tips and hints for finding local Spanish haunts. To research festivals (or avoid them), visit these websites:

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