Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! It’s about time I finish up the Spain posts. Lotssssss of pictures from Seville so let’s dig in. Seville is much larger than Avila or Toledo and we walked a ton over our three day stay. We saw and ate quite a bit. Here are three highlights and some recommendations: Continue reading “Spain Part IV: Seville”
I wonder if UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office needs a brand ambassador… I’m quickly becoming one of their biggest fans. If you’re traveling or planning a trip and something is listed on the world heritage register, do yourself a favor and make sure you check it out. Like Ávila, the whole city of Toledo is on the list, and this was my favorite stop on our Spanish roadtrip. Also, FYI, it is not pronounced like Toledo, Ohio. The vowels and the “d” are all very soft – good luck.
The drive from Ávila to Toledo was gorgeous. Tell me this doesn’t make you question the point of leveling the land and cramming millions of people together in relatively small spaces. I prefer the below.
Anyway, Toledo is known as the city of three cultures thanks to the history of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence (and rivalry). The churches, synagogues, and Mudejar architecture are gorgeous and the city is very well cared for. It is larger than Ávila with more to see and do, very hilly, and very walkable. The Spanish painter El Greco lived here and his pieces pepper the churches and museums. If you’re a fan of his this is a great city to visit.
We visited the 13th century cathedral, 14th century El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum, 16th century Museo-Hospital de Santa Cruz (free in the evening for the last hour or so), 14th century and Mudejar style Iglesia de Santo Tome which contains El Greco’s famous painting Burial of Count Orgaz, and wandered and wandered and wandered. If the weather is nice, losing yourself in the tiny streets is such fun.
Due to the constant need to navigate through the twisty streets, I didn’t use our camera as frequently so some of these pictures are from my phone. Sorry about the quality!!
Everything in Toledo seems so ancient. In fact, our Airbnb was one of six “modern” buildings in the city. Meaning it was built in the late 1800s! I love the grandness and detail of the doors, the cobblestone streets hardly wide enough for a Vespa, and all the efforts to preserve the past. Many shops sell traditional Toledo steel knives, swords, and collectors’ items. The steel-working trade has been a major part of life in Toledo since 500BC. You can also watch damasquinado artists at work, decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. I picked up a pair of damasquinado earrings and had to force myself not to buy more. You don’t have to own to appreciate has become one of my mini-mantras as we travel. So much pretty around every corner and as much as I want to take a piece of every place home with me, I can’t fit it all in my carry-on only life!
We bought a box of marzipan de Toledo (some sort of special recipe) and had some wonderful food and wine here. If you’re eating out often, learn how to ask if the bread is free with dinner, because it usually is not, and unless you can eat a whole bread basket, it’s a total waste.
One final observation: attending mass in Spain will not give you free access to the cathedrals. We tried in every city except Madrid where the cathedral is free. This trick works really well in Italy and in England. Attend a service or an “evensong” (St. Paul’s… Westminster Abbey…) and you’re good. In Spain, you enter a small chapel through a separate door, say your prayers, and out you go.
We spent 2 nights in Toledo and then drove south to Seville, stopping briefly in Mérida to see some Roman ruins and have lunch.
Mérida contains Spain’s largest collection of Roman ruins. Scattered throughout the town are the remains of a 6,000 seat amphitheater, the longest of all existing Roman bridges, the Forum, Temple to Diana, Trajan’s Arch, Circus Maximus, an aqueduct, and more. We only had time for the aqueduct and it was seriously impressive. The arches are sprinkled with giant storks’ nests. This was not part of our itinerary but was worth the stop. Mérida is only a couple minutes off the motorway and we had no trouble parking in the neighborhood for 30 minutes while we wandered.
One more post coming soon about Seville and then I’ll be bombarding you all with pictures of glorious England once again!
Ávila is a tiny town only an hour or so from Madrid that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Famous for its towering medieval stone walls, 12th century cathedral, and ties to St. Teresa of Ávila, this was a wonderful place to stay for a night. After massive amounts of walking and exploring in Madrid, I was immediately charmed by the size of the city and solitude of the surrounding countryside.
Even though our visit corresponded with one of the busiest times of the year, the feast day of St. Teresa, I would hardly describe the place as crowded. St. Teresa is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and she lived much of her life here. We visited her convent, church, and a mini-museum containing her diary, many original writings, the rosary and crucifix that she carried everywhere, and one of her fingers. We also saw her gigantic statue that is brought out on a “float” for processions. These are very common in Spain and they are carried through the streets during festivals and celebrations and then displayed for a few weeks before being tucked safely away. We saw them in each of the cities we visited, and I have to say they’re quite impressive and such a fun tradition. The one in Ávila was covered in flowers.
A visit to Ávila isn’t complete without touring the old city walls, or murallas. They date from the 12th century and are remarkably well preserved, standing atop old Muslim battlements. Stones dating to Roman times were also reused in the construction of the murallas, so the massive fortress is a kind of testament to the multiple civilizations that have occupied this hilltop. We climbed up and walked the perimeter of the city and I absolutely loved the views! Mountains in the far distance, little cottages and farms, and the red roofs of the town.
We spent about 24 hours in Ávila and then drove south to Toledo. Exploring smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track areas has quickly become my favorite way to travel! If you’re spending a few days in Madrid, I highly recommend adding a day to see Ávila or Toledo so you can experience Spanish life outside the capitol.
Ready for a really tardy party full of Spain pictures?! I’m sorry for my longer than usual absence. I can give you a whole list of excuses, but honestly, blogging hasn’t been flowing for me over the last couple months. My guilt caught up with me however, and here I am. Since my last post, we visited Oxford, hiked a stunning section of the Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales, spent more than a week in Spain with my parents, and I finally visited Chatsworth House with Connor’s cousin Elaine. I also hiked the Malvern Hills for a second time and found myself floating above the clouds. It was surreal. Instagram is the best place to keep up with these mini day/weekend adventures, especially Instagram Stories, so if you don’t follow me over there, hop to it!
Now for Madrid!
Connor and I spent a weekend in Madrid before my parents arrived. The city is very walkable and we had no trouble covering the central area in two days. We visited the Royal Palace on Saturday morning and absolutely loved it. The interior is stunning, but no photos are allowed beyond the entrance hall, so I have little to show for our time wandering the rooms. I tend to avoid historical interiors since they’re so often full of looping, recorded narratives and creepy manikins staged for “a day in the life.” Thankfully, this was not the situation at the Royal Palace. The rooms were beautiful and ornate, the number of chandeliers alone was incredible (maybe 100??), and now I feel the need to tour Buckingham Palace ASAP.
The Palace hosts art exhibitions from time to time and we caught the last day of a Caravaggio & Bernini exhibit. We also loved the armory (equestrian items were fabulous), room full of Stradivarius instruments, mini exhibits on Christopher Columbus/Ferdinand/Isabella.
We ate tapas, found a Spanish craft beer bar, visited a market, walked through El Retiro Park, visited the main cathedral, did a drive-by of the Prado, saw Plaza Mayor, and felt like we covered a good bit of ground. Unfortunately, because I’ve allowed this much time to pass since our trip, I don’t remember the names of the bars/restaurants/markets. Nothing was absolutely out of this world, though. Madrid was nice, but we both agree we would rather return to Barcelona and its ubiquitous olive stands. We didn’t see a single olive stand in Madrid! Only inside the markets where olives were 1 euro a piece. Crazy.
Sunday morning, my parents miraculously arrived at our Airbnb to pick us up. They rented a car, had Google Map directions printed out, and promptly got lost. After pulling up at various bus stops and trying to ask for directions (super fun when you don’t speak the language), they somehow ended up on the right street and Connor flagged them down. We spent the rest of the week in Avila, Toledo, and Seville (more on those in future posts), returning to Madrid on Saturday night so Connor could fly back to Birmingham in time for work on Monday. I stayed with my parents in Madrid until Tuesday morning and checked a few more things off the Madrid must-do list.
We visited the Prado Museum, one of the world’s largest art galleries with a great collection of European. As you would expect, they have a significant number of items by Spanish artists like Velazquez, El Greco, El Bosco, and Goya. The museum is free for the last couple hours in the evenings, so we waited in line and did a quick tour of some of the museum’s famous masterpieces. Our visit was more rushed than I would normally plan, but two hours in a museum is plenty when you’ve been walking for most of the day. Any time a museum offers free entry, I think it’s worth waiting in the line and saving the admission cost. It eliminates the pressure to stay and see every single thing to get your money’s worth. The Prado definitely has their system down because once they opened the doors for the free evening session, we were inside within 10 minutes.
We also visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum which is free on Mondays. It’s one of the largest private art collections in the world and contains items from time periods and countries not covered in the Prado. We spent half a day here perusing the Impressionists, Renaissance painters, and others, skipping some of the weird modern art rooms. Both museums were fantastic, but if you only have the time/desire/patience to visit one, definitely read about their collections and pick the one that interests you most.
A word of warning about free museum hours: tourists are not the only ones who take advantage of this. There were definitely fishy people wandering around in both museums paying more attention to visitors’ bags than the art. So keep an eye on your belongings and give the stink eye to anyone invading your personal space.
I made sure we stopped at Chocolateria San Gines for their churros con chocolate. This place has been serving only churros and chocolate for over 120 years. Sign. Me. UP. We waited in line. And then I choked and ordered 2 servings of this nonsense. For those of you who don’t know, I have a ridiculously insatiable sweet tooth and had to place myself on a cold turkey sugar fast earlier this year when I realized I was poisoning myself. Yes, poison. Puking, ruined day, skin issues… Just order one of these churro things, mmk? Share it with two other people and thank me later. I am literally still recovering from bad food decisions made on this trip.
During a break in the rainy weather we also walked through some of the gardens and parks, spotted green parrot-like birds, and I actually talked to a man for about 5 minutes in Spanish. Truthfully, he asked me all the questions I knew how to answer. I’ve been listening to the Coffee Break Spanish podcast over the last year and it was like this stranger knew the script. I highly recommend that podcast if you want to learn/brush up on your Spanish skills. Far fewer people spoke English in Madrid than Barcelona, and I was really glad I spent so much time practicing. For the record, I only have one semester of Spanish under my belt, which I took senior year of college because I was bored, so even total novices would like that podcast.
Also for the record, being a foreigner and trying so hard to learn basic words and phrases to get by in all these foreign countries makes me appreciate the people and nations that are friendly and patient with their visitors. In my experience, two nations have serious work to do. One starts with A. The other starts with F.
And on that note, excuse me while I go put a bag over my head so no one asks me about the election today.
Two days before we left for Barcelona we discovered that our flight home was on Wednesday, not Tuesday as we had originally thought. Cue ridiculous surge of excitement! A bonus day! With 5 whole days at our disposal we decided to try to have a more relaxing trip and not cram in a million museums. I was fine with this since I could get my art fix by walking around and looking at architecture. I did hope to see the Picasso Museum, but if you don’t leave something for next time, there will never be a next time. Amiright?
I’ll be as brief as I can here, but 5 days in a FABULOUS city is a lot of material, especially at the pace we’ve set for ourselves. PS: if anyone has a Mac version of Photoshop they want to give me, I can shorten these posts up by doing some sizing/combining work on all the images. Just want to throw that out there.
We arrived late on Thursday, and had great luck catching the last train out of the airport into the city. This time I followed the signs instead of running like a fool in all the wrong directions. Barcelona’s public transport system is really great and we used it all week. Very affordable, too, if you buy the T-10 ticket from any of the machines in any of the metro stations. It’s a 10-ride that can be used by multiple people, priced under 10 euro.
Day 1: Friday was Good Friday and we had 9am tickets to Sagrada Familia, so we were up early and over to the basilica before the crowds. Definitely a good choice. By the time we left it was crawling with people and not as peaceful as when we arrived. Entry tickets are rather expensive, but after you’re inside you don’t care about that anymore. Also, the ticket sales are helping fund the construction of the basilica, and the city is very open about this being a community effort. Gaudi, the famous architect who died in 1926, ran out of money for the project so he went door to door in Barcelona begging for contributions. Usually I’m averse to church entrance fees, but paying to help build a church? I can get behind that. Especially if it’s as awesome as this one. Connor and I agreed this is one of the most stunning buildings we’ve ever seen. The detail is incredible and varied. One facade looks like a drippy sandcastle. Another is polished and bone-like. The inside is built to resemble a forest and the ceiling looks like palm fronds. All the light inside is natural, and Gaudi took great pains to ensure the interior was neither too bright nor too dark; he described each extreme as blinding. The doors and windows are magnificent, and the colors inside change as the light shifts through the stained glass. Don’t skip Sagrada Familia if you visit Barcelona.
We went up into one of the towers (there will be 18 but only 8 are completed at the moment) which gave us a great view over the city and an up-close look at some of the basilica details. There’s a lift to take you up into the tower, but the way down is all you – lots of spiraling stairs. I tried to SnapChat this while walking and that was stupid.
Our tickets included an audio guide and while nice to have, it was too simple for my taste. I ended up reading about the basilica quite a bit that evening and after arriving back in England. I would recommend skipping the provided audio guide, reading before you visit, and taking along a simple printed guide to orient your time there. I’m sure there are free podcast episodes somewhere too, but I didn’t look into it.
We also visited the crypt beneath the main basilica and a museum-like area that contains models, sketches, and items related to building the church. You can see into the workshops where artists and architects do their thing. I enjoyed this glimpse into artist life immensely. The crypt is accessed through a separate entrance, no tickets needed. Mass is held here until the basilica is completed.
Later, we made our way towards Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian drag into the city. We stopped at a few buildings designed by Gaudi and other Modernisme gems along the way. Modernisme architecture is really fascinating. So colorful and fun. The lines to enter these buildings were quite long, and after being inside all morning we were grateful for an excuse to skip out.
Our goal for the evening was to catch a Good Friday procession. Holy Week in Spain, or Semana Santa, is full of festivities and I was so looking forward to this. Very different from anything back home. We had a rough idea of where processions were leaving from, but no idea what route they took and where we should go to see this happening. Then it started raining and I was miserable without a rain coat. We took shelter in the closest open building, the Cathedral, and went through the Holy Door. At this point it was around 6pm and we were exhausted from having only 5 or 6 hours of sleep the night before, so we decided to skip the parade situation. I was disappointed, but also had no idea where to go. I was envisioning some spectacle similar to Dia de los Muertos that would be tough to miss, but that was not the case.
Pictures of the Cathedral, Placa Reial, and an initial wander through Barri Gotic are up on Flickr. I am backing up my photos there and have little narrative comments on some of the pictures so I don’t forget anything. Everything is in chronological order. You’re welcome to have a browse if you like more pictures than words.
Day 2: Saturday was a long, busy, and very fun day. We started at Parc Ciutadella, built in the 1800s and the only green space in the city for many years. Fountains, little boating lakes, museums, walking paths, gardens, a zoo… lots to see. We packed a lunch and wandered for awhile.
That afternoon we took a break at a restaurant outside Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th century Gothic church in the Ribera district. We checked out the church once it opened again in the late afternoon and explored the El Born area for awhile. Santa Maria del Mar is so unlike Sagrada Familia and gorgeous in a totally different way. Just massive, very Gothic, beautiful windows, but no superfluous detail.
Next we went to Mercado de la Boqueria, the huge, popular, main market off Las Ramblas, and very very crowded. We picked up some olives to snack on (soooo delicious!!) and I wanted to buy something from everyone. Spanish sausage, olives, tapas, wine, fruit, FISH, so much fish. The only thing stopping me was the crowds, honestly. Also the image of raw fish in my purse.
Then we went to the water!! Sunshine!!! We had our first successful barter experience of the trip when Connor decided he wanted sunglasses from one of the sidewalk dudes. He mimed that he needed some extra large glasses, so they would fit his head. (“Cabeza grande,” I offered. Their Spanish was worse than ours.) Not the most successful conversation. We moved on and at the next sunglasses dude, we offered half what the first guy was charging and Connor walked away with some slick new shades.
Barcelona has great shopping… many small places selling handmade, really unique, quality items. I’m not exactly a shopper, but I had quite the list of places that I wouldn’t mind popping into if we happened by, including an ancient candle shop, La Manual Alpargatera (traditional espadrilles), and a beautiful shop selling Spanish masks made on site. The masks were disappointingly far outside my price range, but the espadrilles were not! You pick a number, tell them your size and color when your number is called, and off you go. While I waited I watched a lady stitching up a new pair in the roped-off workshop.
Later on, we had tapas and awesome Spanish wine at Zona d’Ombra (very very good! one of the best places for local wine in the city), then we went to a flamenco show at Los Tarantos in Placa Reial. Shows were only 30 minutes and more affordable than the fancy theatres. While it caters to tourists, it’s definitely a good option if you want espadrilles AND flamenco but don’t want to devote your whole evening to dinner and a show. Such a fun way to experience this piece of Spanish culture!
Day 3: Sunday we checked out Montjuic, a hilly area south of the city where the Catalonian history museum, Font Magica, and Montjuic Castle are located. There are great walking and biking trails, beautiful gardens, some restaurants and cafes, and quite a bit we didn’t have time to see. The fountains were beautiful and we had another picnic in one of the gardens. The Volta Catalunya cycling race took place in Montjuic that day and we watched and cheered for the cyclists for awhile. I’ve never seen a live bike race and it was very exciting!
Despite my weak protestations, we took the funicular down the hill because we were tired. It’s just a stupid gondola and way too expensive. 10 euro or something each for a 5 minute gondola ride. Skip this for sure.
We walked from Montjuic back towards the beach for an hour’s rest, and then went to Easter mass at the cathedral. It wasn’t swimming weather by any means, but sitting on the sand and staring at the water was so refreshing and glorious. Evidently we weren’t the only people to flee gloomy Britain during the Easter holiday. We saw many British families sleeping on the beach, kiddos playing in the water even though it was freezing, and all of us had sunburns by the end of the long weekend.
Day 4: Monday was wine tour day! Catalonia produces the vast majority of the world’s cava (sparkling wine, fermented in the bottle like champagne) and Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is the region just outside Barcelona that churns out more cava than anywhere else. Neither Connor nor I had ever visited a vineyard and we had a great time on this excursion. Freixenet is the major producer in the area, and they have a combined train ticket/winery tour deal that is really great value. At the train station, you buy a “Freixetren” ticket and off you go. Tours need to be reserved via email in advance but you buy the combined ticket in person at the train station on the day of. (Ignore my usage of vineyard/winery/producer/whatever. I realize they are all different and no, I don’t really care.)
As it happens, champagne and cava are made exactly the same way, and all the rules apply about only being allowed to label yourself as cava/champagne if you are using the specific grapes that grow in that specific region. After fermentation, the wine is bottled and a secondary fermentation takes place in order to carbonate the wine (like beer! who knew?!) and eventually they remove the sediment by reopening the bottles. Crazy! There’s a whole process of rotating and tipping the bottles upside down over the course of months to get all the sediment to settle in the right place, and then they freeze the neck of the bottle (the reason for the bottle’s unique shape), pop open the cork, shoot out the ice cube with the sediment trapped inside, and then re-cork the bottle. Sorry if you already knew this. I did not. Super fascinating, and the tasting at the end was delicious.
Freixenet has something like 15-20km of tunnels, and 3 or 4 different floors or levels all underground. It was a total maze and so gigantic. Our tour guide had to go find a few other girls who had wandered off. Very easy to get lost.
We decided to turn the day into tasting day, so we also visited Mikkeller Bar Barcelona and tried some of the famous Danish gypsy brewer’s incredible beers. This was way out of our way and totally worth it. We also visited BlackLab Brewpub back down in Barceloneta area near the water. Also a great place with outdoor seating. We went out for tapas that evening to hold us over until a later dinner, and we walked through Parc Ciutedella again and watched the sunset. DISCLAIMER: Tasting your way around breweries in Europe is a lot easier than in the States. Everyone offers pints and half pints, and many breweries offer 1/3 pints. Some offer flights of even smaller glasses. The majority of places we’ve been to simply cut the price of a pint in half or thirds, so you don’t lose out by buying the smaller glass, either. So there you have it. We were by no means drunk the whole time. I wish places back home would offer 1/3 pints. Perfect for someone like me.
Day 5: By Tuesday we had walked quite a bit and we just wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather. A market sets up not far from the Barceloneta beach so we planned to buy some food there and spend a few hours relaxing near the water. First we stopped to check out the Hospital de la Santa Creu which was pretty close to our Airbnb – a bit outside the main part of the city. Beautiful Modernisme building! We walked by Sagrada Familia again for a last look, braved the crowds on Las Ramblas, and made it to the water.
One thing about Barceloneta beach: every minute, no exaggeration, someone walks by you trying to sell something. Under normal circumstances, this would drive me up the wall, but I think traveling is teaching me to be more patient and less irritated in certain situations. Also, I wanted one of the beach blankets. I had been eyeing them all week. The first day at the beach, I only had 3 euro in coin. You can’t barter and then hand them a 20 and ask for change. Not worth the trouble. We tried various ways to barter down to 3 euro, and after an hour we knew it wasn’t going to happen. The next day we tried again. Only this time, all the guys recognized us as the couple who only had 3 euro. They started avoiding us. A few had a sense of humor and kept coming back. After yelling “solo tengo tres euro” countless times I realized that very few of them actually knew Spanish. The ones who did weren’t that desperate to part with their wares.
We tried again the next day, and Connor held up 3 fingers to the first guy who approached us and said “tres” and the man thought we wanted 3 blankets. He was thrilled. When he realized solo tengo tres euro, he laughed in our faces. “Where are you from?” “Chicago.” “I see. I’m from Pakistan. Chicago must be very poor country.” Wah Wah.
He came back a few times but I just wasn’t going to pay 20 euro for one of those things. We eventually settled on 10, but I sort of feel bad… he has to make his money somehow. Also, I was so focused on the fun of bartering that I ended up buying a white beach blanket. What is wrong with me? What am I going to do with a white beach blanket? Connor thinks we’re going to have all these lovely picnics on the lovely new blanket that will cease to be lovely the first time it hits the slug infested grass. Ugh.
Other things we could have purchased: mojitos of a very vivid green not found in nature, tattoos, massages, beer… The people selling drinks were the worst. They were walking around with half empty bottles of booze that were all different shades of brown that they would mix into the unusual green mojitos. They do that trick where they somehow manage to force one in your hand.
Me: Five what? No, I don’t want this.
Him: OK special price. Four.
Him: OK special price for you. Two for eight.
Me: That’s the same as four. I don’t want one.
Him: OK fine. Two for seven.
Him: OK fine. Special price. Only for you. Two for six.
I mean I was about to just dump out the drink or tell him I was pregnant. He was actually rather mad that I didn’t want his drink.
Another fun beach story: two super jacked bro-like dudes were sitting behind us all super handsy with each other, and really enjoying having their shirts off at the beach. I positioned Connor so he wouldn’t have his beach time ruined by PDA, but he eventually noticed. Maybe half an hour after we arrive I hear one guy say, “So… you travel a lot for work?” Answer: “Well, I recently moved into a different role and I’m traveling more than normal, but no, not really.”
How very fascinating! They didn’t even know each other!! Pleasantries continued to be exchanged for quite some time and I was just amazed. Am I missing something? I lean more towards the Stranger Danger end of the spectrum, but apparently some people are more Stranger = Opportunity for PDA on the Very Public Beach.
So anyways. Sorry for that. After a few hours fighting off the drink guys we wandered through the Gothic Quarter again and relaxed at a cafe, checked out a few more shops and just enjoyed some favorite spots before packing up that night.
Such a fun trip! The city combines modern conveniences like great public trans and longer opening hours (two of our gripes about Italy), has all the great food and bev that you hope for on vacation, great places to hike, a waterfront, really friendly locals, fabulous markets, colorful and accessible cultural events, and many many day trips to choose from. If we make it back, we’ll add a museum or two to the itinerary and maybe a trip to Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi, or a day trip up the coast to a small town. Scooter rental! We almost did this, but sort of ran out of time to make it work. While locals speak Catalan, they know Spanish and were really friendly about switching to English when our rudimentary skills ran out. They didn’t mind letting me practice though, which I appreciated. Now it’s time to cram our brains with Budapest, and a week later, Bruges. Wish us luck!