Destination: Spain

Jun 7th, 2012 Culinary Travel, Cultural Experiences, Destinations, Europe, Natural Wonders, Popular Destinations

Spain resonates with a distinctive blend of relaxed warmth and proud grandeur. Travel with us from sun-soaked Sevilla in Southern Spain—where even the earth is fiery red and the sounds of flamenco issue from cool cellar doors—to Barcelona, a city known for its sophistication, mix of cultures, spectacular food—and of course, Gaudi’s fantastical architecture.

Seville – Flamenco Tablaos

Flamenco traces its origins to centuries-old gypsy singing traditions from Andalusia. El cante (the song) later fused with el baile (dance) and el toque (guitar play) and flourished in 19th-century café cantantes (nightclubs). Peñas (flamenco associations) have kept the tradition alive as the art continues to develop. Two main styles—jondo (deep and serious) and chico (happy and light)—dominate the many types of flamenco. As the Andalusian capital, Seville is one of the best cities in Spain to see this display of soulful dance and song. Flamenco bars and tablaos (small flamenco halls) dot the city in quaint neighborhoods off narrow cobblestone streets and city squares. At Alvarez Quintero, located not far from Seville’s cathedral in the romantic old district of Santa Cruz, you’ll be in for an authentic treat. Nightly shows in this intimate tablao last about an hour. The absence of food and drink service keeps the focus strictly on flamenco. If you’re moved to learn more, give it a go at Taller Flamenco, which provides group classes and workshops in dance and technique, guitar, singing, percussion, compas and palmas (rhythm and clapping), as well as Spanish language.

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Seville – A Moorish-Christian Legacy


Seville’s fantastic plumage of color and culture find expression in the medieval palace-fortress of the Alcázar (castle), located directly in the city center. Six centuries of Arab kings made the fortress their domicile, until King Pedro the Cruel refashioned it in the mid-14th century as a palace. Using craftsmen from Granada and fragments of Moorish buildings from Andalusian cities, Pedro developed one of the finest examples of the Mudéjar style still in existence. Translated as “those who stayed,” Mudéjar refers to the style contributed by Muslim artists and architects who stayed behind as Christians regained control of Iberia. The palace still serves as part-time residence of the royal family today.

Wander through reception rooms, corridors and courtyards to admire exquisitely detailed plaster carvings, domes, keyhole arches, coffered ceilings, vivid tile work and tapestries. Stand at the reflecting pool in the Courtyard of the Maidservants and imagine the legendary harem of 100 virgins that Moorish kings purportedly demanded as tribute from Christian kingdoms in Iberia. Visit the chapel where Christopher Columbus met with Ferdinand and Isabella following his voyage to the New World, and roam through marbled passageways to feel the cool whispers of Spanish past. Immaculate exterior gardens, fountains and pavilions blend Arab, French and Renaissance elements and provide soothing escape from the summer sun. To see the Alcazar in fairy-tale light, take the evening tour and experience a floodlit evening of magical Arabian nights.

Seville – The Bullring

The last corrida (bullfight) in the region of Catalonia took place in front of a sold-out crowd at Barcelona’s 20,000-seat Monumental Ring before a regional bullfighting ban went into effect on January 1, 2012. But in the heart of Andalusia, this fiery Spanish custom continues on as an important piece of Spain’s history and traditional life. As birthplace to some of the ultimate toreros (matadors), Seville has no rival in the lore of bullfighting. Elevated to mystical status by poets, writers, artists and composers who have paid homage to it, the tradition of corrida is viewed as a beautiful and dangerous form of art where the artist engages in a dance with death, rather than a fight or a sport to kill.

Constructed in the 18th century, Seville’s Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza (called “the Cathedral” by locals) is the oldest operating bullring in the country. As a bastion of Spanish bullfighting, it takes on near religious significance to fans and matadors. Many of the theatrical customs of the matador developed here, as corrida evolved from horseback to foot. Guided visits into the ring, the royal boxes, the horses’ courtyard, bull stables and the on-site museum explain the traditions and their significance. A chapel for the matadors and the on-site infirmary illuminate the fact that this elevated form of art performance is taken very seriously, as the artist can be killed or maimed at any time by the subject he is courting. The season’s most esteemed bullfights take place during Feria de Abril, Seville’s famous weeklong celebration of its heritage. Otherwise, corridas usually occur on Sundays.

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Seville – An Ancient Tapas Bar on a Small Corner

On the premises of a former convent, the watering hole of El Riconcillo (meaning “small corner) began its more heady history in 1670 when a Seville nobleman purchased the convent’s refectory and canteen for the poor and fashioned a tavern. Almost two centuries later, the tavern was sold to the forebears of its current owners. Since then, the same family has kept its heritage marvelously intact. Besides wine and beer, traditional and innovative Andalusian and Mozarabic (usually meat or game in sweet, fruity sauces) recipes in the form of tapas, entrees and desserts elicit Spanish flavors in spades. Gazpacho, espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas), salmonetes fritos (tiny fried fish), chacinas (chorizo, cured ham, spiced sausage), jamón Serrano and wild mushrooms are just a taste of what’s on offer in a colorful array of meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. The mahogany bar, flagstone floors, Moorish brickwork, Spanish tiling, oak barrel tables, ham hocks hanging over the bar and locals that have frequented the place for generations make for rich Sevillano ambience. For the traditional experience, stand at the bar or at the barrels (no chairs) and order tapas or drinks from waiters who write your order in chalk on the bar. To sit down with a more extensive dinner menu, head to the back or upstairs. Closed during mid-July.

Barcelona – Pilgrimage to the Serrated Mountain


The mountain and shrine of Montserrat has been etched into spiritual lore since a legend spoke of local children reporting holy visions and heavenly song coming from the mountains in 880. It is said the visions emanated from a cave, where an image of the Virgin Mary was discovered. An hour’s metro/rail journey northwest of Barcelona and a steep cable car trip up the mountain reveals a dramatic medieval Benedictine monastery that represents the spiritual soul of the Catalan people. Playing a key role in preserving Catalan culture and language during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), its spiritual draw never waned. Fabulous views and scenery, unusual rock formations, mountain footpaths, the working monastery, la Moreneta (a small 12th-century statue of the Black Madonna) and Santa Cova (The Holy Grotto) continue to lure visitors, pilgrims and overnight hikers. As a local highlight, the famous Escolonia (Montserrat choirboys) perform Gregorian chants with the monks daily in the monastery’s basilica. Besides all that, Montserrat’s Museum owns an important collection of paintings from the 13th to 18th centuries, including works by El Greco and Caravaggio; modern painting, with works by Dalí, Picasso, Rusiñol and Monet; Byzantine and Slavic icons; and archaeology of the Biblical East.

Figueres – Day Trip for Dalí

Salvador Dali House

The birthplace of Salvador Dalí, Spain’s controversial and acclaimed surrealist painter (1904-1989), lies in the far northeast corner of Spain. Figueres and points nearby shoulder his eccentric legacy and make a great day trip from Barcelona.

Dalí Theatre-Museum – Called the largest surrealistic object in the world, this Dalí-designed structure stands on the ruins of the Municipal Theatre. Behind the fascinating surreal exterior, a broad range of Dalí’s non-conventional, outlandish and disjointed worksfrom serious to silly—reside inside, along with interesting tidbits, like the fact he worked with Walt Disney, and the crypt on the lower level where he is buried.

Dalí Jewels – Adjoined to the Theater-Museum, the jewel gallery displays the jeweled version of Dalí’s surrealism in a collection of 37 highly unique pieces. Ruby lips with pearl teeth, a diamond eye with ticking clock and a ruby and diamond honeycomb heart are just some of Dalí’s inspirations, many of which are accompanied by his design sketches and paintings on paper.

House-Museum Dalí (in Cadaques) – The fun and fantastic visions of Dalí don’t end in his art. Tucked near the small-town jewel of Cadaques on the edge of the Mediterranean, his living quarters have no less spunk. From 1930 to 1982, Dalí transformed fishermen’s cottages to a quirky labyrinthine residence and workspace, where he created most of his masterworks from 1931 onward. The view from the studio’s window served as background to many of his works. Giant heads on the hillside, a taxidermy rhinoceros head sprouting wings and a pool area in the shape of male genitalia give an interesting glimpse into the artist’s distinctive world.

Gala Dalí Castle (in Púbol) – Dalí took up residence at Púbol Castle in his last years after the death of his wife and muse, Gala, for whom it had been purchased. The medieval castle features his imaginative efforts to create special surroundings for her.

Barcelona – The Extravagant Artistry of Gaudí

Gaudi's Casa Mila

One of Catalonia’s most famous artists made his mark through the creative genius of his architecture and design. Inspired by French medieval architecture and gothic art, Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) became the figurehead for Catalan Modernism. His fantastic structures in Barcelona are seductively surreal and deserve a tour of their own. Some of the highlights include:

La Sagrada Familia – Designed as an allegory of the Christian faith, this modernist, Gothic-style cathedral kept Gaudí at work for the last 43 years of his life. As his magnum opus, it was estimated to take 150 years to complete and is still under construction today. Magnificent facades, spirals, towers, arches, stained glass and sculptures fuse Gaudí-inspired design and Christian symbology, making this a major site to behold.

Casa Batlló – Renovated for a middle-class family, the curvy residence took its inspiration from the bone structure of animals. Fascinating futuristic design incorporates Gothic elements as well. A rooftop with chimneys fashioned of broken ceramic tiles placed into mosaics top the building.

Casa Mila (La Pedrera) – Built for a flamboyant developer as upper-end residences, Gaudí created undulating facades, wrought-iron balcony decoration, arched passageways, vast apartments furnished in his style and the fascinating rooftop with chimneys called espanta bruixes (witch-scarers). To stimulate mingling and socializing, Gaudí designed elevators to stop between floors so residents encountered each other going up or down stairs to their flats.

Parc Güell – Two gingerbread-like houses frame the entry of this public park. Intended originally as a garden-city for 60 upper middle-class homes, Parc Güell was designed to maintain and use the natural shape of the land without felling a single tree. With only a few purchasers, including Gaudí, the project went bust—but its legacy lives on. Broken remains of ceramic factories were used to make stunning mosaics, while gardens display over-dimensional forms. Take a cab to the park and hike to the top of the hill for fantastic views before making your way to the famous terrace area. Gaudí ’s pink home, in which he lived until his death, is open as a museum and features many of his furniture designs.

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Barcelona – City Tapas Tips

Besides housing La Boqueria, a historic, must-see food market packed with mouthwatering delicacies, Barcelona is a city inundated with tapas bars in every corner and crevice. Whet your appetite for Spanish cuisine by trying the following:

Cerveceria Catalana (Carrer de Mallorca, 236; L’Eixample neighborhood) – A modern, warm, lively atmosphere combined with an extensive selection of delicious tapas and local beer make this a point of progressive city flavor—at reasonable prices. Eat at the bar or dine early (at noon for lunch, or before 7 p.m. for dinner) to avoid a long wait for table seating. If you do have to wait, stroll the nearby Rambla de Catalunya or hang out in the bar area with a sangria to soak in the ambience.

Segons Mercat – (G.V. Corts Catalanes, 552; L’Eixample neighborhood) – What Cerveceria Catalana offers in urban liveliness, Segons Mercat provides in low-key calm. On a quiet neighborhood corner without the masses, enjoy delicacies like fried artichoke with foie gras, grilled asparagus and seared tuna that melts in your mouth. Their crispy patatas bravas (bite-sized fried potatoes doused in a picante paprika- and mayonnaise-based sauce) are loved by locals and don’t disappoint—nor do the prices.

La Plata – (Carrer de la Mercé, 28; Barri Gotic neighborhood) – This small, classic neighborhood tapas bar occupies a corner of a narrow, medieval street and keeps things simple. When you see the muraled roll-down door with the heart gushing water and fish, La Plata is closed. When open, it only serves three or four plates a night. Heavenly fresh anchovies and small plates of deep-fried sardines are a specialty. If you’re looking for an authentic, local Spanish experience, this is it.

Mallorca – Scenic Mountain Roads & Vintage Railway


Year-round sunshine and pleasing terrain bring flocks of Europeans to Mallorca for beaches and Mediterranean R&R. Located south of Barcelona in the Balearic Sea, Mallorca features far more than just beaches. Two mountain ranges, rugged cliffs, caves, underground lakes, resorts, racetracks, nature reserves, hiking and cycling routes, quaint villages, monasteries, wineries, citrus groves and over 7 million almond trees grace this blessed island. After a typical Mallorcan breakfast with the famous ensaimada (a sweet, spiral-shaped bun), get out to see some of the island’s stellar backdrop. A five-hour western circular drive from Palma via Sóller offers grand Mallorcan portraits with breathtaking views, watchtowers to climb, pine forests for picnics and hairpin turns. The route is further dotted with visions like the cobblestone streets of Andratx, the stepped seaside slopes of Banyabulfar and the postcard village of Valdemossa.

Ditch the car and step into the past with a ride on the electric Sóller Railway from Palma and ride aboard century-old wooden carriages. Roll through the Tramuntana mountain landscape in peace as the “Orange Express” makes its way to the quaint coastal town of Sóller on an hour-long journey that passes through long mountain tunnels and scenic terrain. A tram from Sóller station takes passengers through orange orchards to Port de Sóller. Stroll along the marina, find a spot for some seafood paella, imbibe the local Angel d’Or orange liqueur and taste some delicious orange ice cream before returning to Palma via bus for different glimpses of this lovely mountain route.

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Travel Tips: Spain

When to visit. How to get there. What to wear. Before you take your trip to Spain, read these travel tips.

Museum & City Passes

If you plan to see more than three museums in Barcelona, the Articket Barcelona (Barcelona Museum Pass) allows holders to save money on seven of the city’s leading museums, including permanent and temporary exhibitions. It also lets you skip the entry lines—a very worthwhile feature at popular destinations like Gaudí’s Casa Mila (La Pedrera).  City Passes/Tourist Cards widen the variety of attractions available for entry and discounts. The Sevilla Card (a smart-chip card) gives users access to the city’s hop-on, hop-off bus service, a river cruise, free admission to Seville museums and monuments as well as discounts at restaurants, major stores and flamenco shows. Choose from four different time increments, each offering a slightly different combination of inclusions.

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City Tours

To promote their city, the Turisme de Barcelona consortium sponsors a mind-boggling array of tours. Two- to three-hour guided Barcelona Walking Tours with expert guides cover everything from Bohemian, Civil War, Gaudí, Gothic and Gourmet to Literary, Modernism, Picasso and Tapas. If you tire of walking, try a guided bus, bicycle or moped tour instead. As a handy piece of information, Barcelona Free Tours offers two-hour Gaudí and Gothic walking tours that are offered at no cost. In Seville, ToursbyLocals lets visitors see the city on a private tour through the eyes of an enthusiastic local guide who will show you main attractions, local haunts and hidden corners. Select a guide and tour from their list, or suggest alternative sights and the guide can customize the tour to your wishes.

Perfume & Flowers

For an island the size of Rhode Island, Mallorca produces a staggering array of products. From salt, almonds, oranges, wine, liqueurs and olive oil, to pottery, glass, shoes and pearls. Sold only in Mallorca or on the website, Flor d’Ametler perfume stems from the island’s almond blossom—the Ametlla flower—which blooms in February and is collected by hand. The recipe of the perfume is a closely guarded family secret. To make sure you purchase the real deal and not a fake, note that the legitimate perfume has a flower inside.

Spanish Language Differences

Spanish, also known as Castilian Spanish, is the official language of Spain. However, different regions of Spain have regional dialects and secondary official languages such as Galician, Catalan and Basque. Since 1979, both Castilian and Catalan are the official languages of Spain’s northeastern Catalonia province (Barcelona), and, since 1983, for the Balearic Islands (Mallorca) as well. Having endured political oppression and the repression of their language during the 18th and 20th centuries, the people of Catalonia are fiercely protective of their heritage. In Barcelona, you’ll see signs in Catalan first, then Spanish. Although Catalan has many similarities to Spanish, it is not a derivative of it. In Castilian Spanish, Spaniards may use what many refer to as a “lisp” (actually only a pronunciation difference) that is quite distinctive when compared with the pronunciation of Latin American Spanish. The letter Z andthe soft C (ce and ci) are often pronounced as “th”, e.g., gracias = grathias or zapatos = thapatos.

Mealtimes, the Joy of Spain

Breakfast (el desayuno) – 7 to 10 a.m. – The first meal of a Spanish day is very light: café con leche (strong coffee with frothy milk), hot chocolate or orange juice accompanied by a croissant, pastry (like churros or bollos) or toast.

Mid-morning Snack – 10:30 to noon – In order to last until lunch, workers take coffee breaks with tapas (small snacks) at local bars or in the office.

Lunch (la comida) – 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. – The most important meal of the day involves several courses and include entrants (appetizers) such as cured meat and cheese; primer plato (first course), like soup or a vegetable dish, followed by meat or fish as a main, and then postre (dessert) such as fruit, cake or flan, topped off by coffee or traditional liquor. Wine, bread and water accompany the meal.

Afternoon snack (la merienda) – about 4:30 or 5 p.m. – With dinner still a long way off, children are often given something to tide them over until the next meal, and adults may head out for an afternoon coffee and pastry. Professionals often don’t leave work until about 8 p.m. and stop in at bars for a cañas (small beer) or wine with tapas on their way home.

Dinner (la cena) – 8:30 to midnight – served light and late with anything from seafood, lamb, chicken, fried potatoes or rice.

Ready to Go?

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