Seeing Spain Our Way 9

Impressive food, art and architecture at every stop on this two-week adventure!

When my husband and I traveled to Italy several years ago for two weeks, we did it the easy way and booked a tour with a luxury operator. It was a great choice and we had a terrific tour guide. To see Spain, though, we decided to go a different route. We did it ourselves—from planning the itinerary to booking the air, hotels and tours. It was a big job, but it was well worth it!

Planning when to go was easy—May is ideal! Crowds are moderate, hotel availability and prices are good, and when booked months in advance, there are even some great air fares. Best of all, Spain’s May temperatures average between the high 60s to low 70s.

Deciding where to travel was tougher. Madrid and Barcelona are must-see cities. The more I researched, the more cities were added to my list—Toledo, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Valencia, Alicante, Bilbao and San Sebastián. Even in 19 days, that’s a lot of territory to cover.

After visiting with friends who had traveled to or lived in Spain, I consulted my team of experts at Frommer’s, Fodor’s and Trip Advisor. The itinerary was set. The next hurdle was figuring out how to get to all these places without renting a car. Thanks to Renfe, the great train system in Spain, a cheap flight on Vueling, and my husband’s top-notch navigation skills, our trip was routed.

Our journey began in Madrid, with a stay at the Petit Palace at Plaza Mayor (en.PetitPalaceMayorPlaza.com). The hotel is located right by the train station, near many major sites, and across from the Mercado Sao Miquel, a terrific place to sample tapas (small bites) ranging from cheese and olives to pastries, and some great sangria! To get a feel for the city, we went on a 3-hour bike tour (BravoBike.com). The rest of the afternoon, we spent at Madrid’s most famous museums—the Prado (featuring the works of El Greco and the great masters) and the Reina Sofia, a museum of modern and contemporary art, where visitors can view Picasso’s famed “Guernica.”

From Madrid, we took our first train ride for a day trip in Toledo. Toledo is known as the city of three cultures—Christians, Arabs and Jews. In Toledo, there are an array of artistic and cultural artifacts—from the paintings of El Greco to beautifully preserved churches, mosques and synagogues. Be prepared for the hills in Toledo!

Next, we traveled by train to Seville, Kansas City’s sister city and the birthplace of Flamenco dancing. Among other things, Seville is known for its breathtaking cathedral; the Giralda bell tower (which we climbed all 34 floors to reach the top); and its alcazar (great palace). In many cities, we took advantage of the wonderful “free” tours, given in English, by well-schooled guides. Tours may be free, but living in Spain isn’t. It’s customary to tip guides enthusiastically if they’ve given you a great tour. Seville is one of the few cities where we scheduled tours with a fee. But, the tours (SevillaWalkingTours.com) of the cathedral and the alcazar given by Concepción Delgado were well worth seven euros per person.

Following Seville, we headed to Cordoba, known for its Moorish architecture and Jewish Quarter, where Maimonides, a 12th century scholar, philosopher and physician, was born. Following our walking tour, we took the recommendation of our tour guide and dined on rabo de toro (bull’s tail). It tastes a lot like short ribs.

From Cordoba to Granada, it’s a 3.75-hour train ride. A super-speedy and more expensive train can get you there in a little over 2 hours, but the times are limited. Granada is best known for its Alhambra, a grandiose palace with luscious, ornate gardens. Word to the wise—book your tickets well in advance (Ticketmaster.es). If you don’t, there’ll be long lines to get in or no ticket availability on the day you want to tour.

Unfortunately, there’s no rail service from Granada to Alicante. The only public transportation is by bus (Alsa.es). Alicante is a beautiful waterfront city situated on the Costa Blanca (White Coast). Along the waterfront, you’ll see the Explana de España, a promenade covered with more than six million tiles in a tri-color wave pattern. Here, we stayed in one of my favorite hotels, the lovely Hospes Amerigo (Hospes.com). While in Alicante, be sure to venture up to the Castle of Santa Barbara, perched high upon a hill, for a wonderful view of the city.

Valencia seemed like a great halfway stop between Alicante and Barcelona. Valencia is known as “The Orchard of Spain,” because so many oranges are grown there. It’s also where paella, a saffron rice dish, usually mixed with rabbit, chicken or seafood, was created. Since I adore tours, I contacted Lladró, in advance, to book a tour of its factory. There, the family-run company has produced elaborate porcelain figurines since the 1950s. For dinner, we of course had paella and it was delicious!

It’s easy to fall in love with Barcelona. For a super cool place to stay, try The Mirror Barcelona (TheMirrorBarcelona.com/en). It’s sleek, super modern, all white and looks like it was designed by George Jetson. More notably, Barcelona showcases the work of Antoni Gaudí, whose designs melded architecture and building technology together in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Sagrada Familia, his most noted design, is a magnificent cathedral. After 130 plus years, the cathedral is still unfinished! Don’t miss a trip to Gaudí’s Parque Güell, which he originally designed as luxury residences. Barcelona is also a great place to explore the work of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró; museums there showcase each artist’s works.

Our last stops were Bilboa and San Sebastián. It’s a long way by train from Barcelona to Bilboa in Northern Spain. But, I just had to see Frank Gehry’s masterpiece—The Guggenheim. For this leg of the trip, we flew on Vueling, a low cost airline, from Barcelona to Bilboa. The Guggenheim is a magnificent museum. In fact, I was much more awed of this sweeping, silver structure than by the exhibits inside.

From Bilboa, we traveled to our last locale—San Sebastián, overlooking the Cantabrian Sea. San Sebastián is the perfect place to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. It’s also where you can sample pintxos, small Basque delicacies, ranging from prawns, cheeses and olives, to lots and lots of jamón (ham).

Clearly, Spain won’t disappoint as a vacation destination!