My enjoyment of travel is in the adventure. The discovery of something new. But though my voyages have always been a joy, there are glitches in every adventure. And so began my trip to Spain.
I chose to fly Iberia. The advantage of flying a Spanish airline was that when using them for the international part of travel, they offer an inexpensive package for in-country flights. For about $165 you can take 3 flights anywhere within Spain. You also get American Airlines frequent flyer miles. Those are the benefits. The disadvantage is that when it comes to service, food, and comfort, Iberia does not meet the standard of most U.S. carriers.
We began our adventure in Barcelona. Spain’s second largest city sits on the Mediterranean and is considered by many its most beautiful, romantic, and exciting city. A taxi ride from the airport took about 20 minutes, finally making its way down a narrow two way street to the Hotel Colon (93 301 13 04, double room with breakfast, $150/nite). The Colon is a seven story, 147 room hotel – simple, comfortable, with an intimate lobby and sitting area. It is superb in its location – in the midst of the city’s Gothic quarter just across the street from the city’s 14th century cathedral. We could exit the lobby and sit in the square, sipping sangria, enjoying the passing events. But from our terrace window we could also enjoy the show – street musicians and custumed mimes, a festival in the square, folk dancers gathered to perform Catalonia’s regional dance, the Sardanya, and a constant unobstructed view of the magnificent cathedral.
The best way to start a visit to any new city is with a tour. There are several companies offering brief, 1-2 hour open air bus tours that survey the city’s prime attractions. You can get on and off if you wish but say aboard for the round trip. Mark your map, get your bearings, and decide what sights you want to explore more.
From the Hotel Colon, my wife and I began our exploration by heading for Las Ramblas, perhaps the most famous street in Spain. We ambled down the narrow La Portaferrisa, a shoe store mecca, to Las Ramblas’ tree lined central promenade. Here even the patterned stone sidewalk pavings were fascinating. We walked past kiosks selling souvenirs and magazines, past a colorful bird market; then flower stalls, finally stopping at a tree shaded cafй to watch the passing crowd and cool down.
Spain with its border at one point just 15 km. from the coast of Africa can get Africa hot. We visited in late May and June. July and August I’m told can be unbearable. But sangria, wine with fresh fruit and liquor over ice, is a great thirst quencher and is a ubiquitous beverage. Tapis, Spanish hors d’oevres, besides making for an excellent mid-day snack are also a social tradition. Tapis bars are dotted about the city and frequented by natives for midday meals and afterwork gatherings. Find one with an English menu or with food on display so you can be somewhat knowledgeable about what you’re ordering.
At the end of a walk down Las Ramblas, you’ll find yourself at the waterfront with its monument to Christopher Columbus. You can take a tiny elevator to a narrow enclosed platform atop the statue for a claustrophobic and somewhat dizzying view of the harbor area.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, one of Spain’s provinces. Its pride of heritage extends to its having its own flag and its own language with a distinct Spanish lisp. You’ll often find sites with signs written in Catalan instead of Spanish. Castell instead of castillo for castle. Placa instead of Plaza for town square. Avinguda instead of avenida for avenue.
At the opposite end of the “Avinguda” La Rambla” is the “Placa” de Catalunya. The square is decorated with splendid fountains and sculptures. Beneath it is the center of the city’s subway system and a collection of shopping arcades. A few blocks east is the Passeig de Gracia. Trek up here to enjoy the architectural wonders of a famous Barcelona native son, the turn of the century art nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudi. His sculptured buildings – Casa Batlo and Casa Milo (La Pedrera) – are unique in the world and add to Barcelona’s unique landscape.
Gaudi’s dying gift to Barcelona was his Sagrada Familia cathedral, the city’s most famous landmark with its great stalagmite inspired spires visible from many areas about the city. The cathedral is still under construction and besides enjoying the intricate designs of Gaudi you can gander at workmen and artisans in the on-going process of building a great cathedral.
In Spain you can’t fail to try paella, a dish that includes saffron flavored rice and olive oil mixed with an assortment of fish, shellfish, chicken, sausage, and vegetables. Several good restaurants serving paella can be found throughout the city. We chose one in Barcelonetta a oceanfront neighborhood revitalized for the Olympics. After dinner, walk a little further on to the Port Olimpic. There we found crowds, especially young people, enjoying the waterfront restaurants, cafes, and discos. In its center is the modern Hotel Arts with its wonderful indoor and outdoor dйcor. The Arts is one of Barcelona’s premier hotels and is next to the city’s casino.
Barcelona, as does the rest of Spain, holds the sport of bullfighting in great esteem. “Plaza de Toros” bullrings are prominent landmarks in every major city. Setting any moral objections aside, if you watch a “corrida,” you can’t help but appreciate the glamor of the tradition and the death defying talent of the matador. Buy a sombre, shady side, ticket.
Our last stop before departing Barcelona was the Parque de Montjuic, a hillside park just west of the old town with panoramic views of the city. Montjuic is worth a visit but more difficult to navigate with most of its sights scattered along twisting hillside roads. An organized tour, a taxi, or your own car is best if you want to see the National Palace housing the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya; the Fundacio Joan Miro, a museum dedicated to Miro’s works; and especially the medieval Castle atop Montjuic that houses a military museum and remnants of an ancient Jewish cemetary that once stood atop the hill and probably inspired its name.
We departed Barcelona in a rental car. Our cars in Spain were never American – an Opel, a Renault, and a Peugeot. But they were all well made with plenty of comforts and power. Here is some driving advise. Don’t drive in the big cities. Competing with native drivers, hundreds of mini-bikes, and steering around circular islands with half a dozen poorly signed avenues as spokes, is an amusement park ride. We discovered, on arriving in a major city, that the easiest way to find our hotel or deposit our car was to hail a taxi and pay to follow it to our destination. The other lesson. Protect your exterior rear view mirrors. Pull them in when driving through the all too narrow streets of many old villages and towns.
We drove north to the Costa Brava, Catalonia’s “wild coast,” through picturesque seaside resort towns like Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar with beautiful beaches and fascinating hilltop castles with medieval walls. You can stop for a visit to enjoy the shops or the beachside cafes and find yourself the American minority among German and British vacationers.
Our abode in the Costa Brava was near the seaside village of Begur in the Hotel Aigua Blava (972 62 20 58, double room with breakfast, $110/nite). The hotel overlooks the shores of a rocky cove. Terraced rooms, a patio, and main dining area overlook one of the most beautiful bays on the coast, dotted with sailboats and with oh-so-clear, blue waters. Originally a family home, it was converted to a hotel in 1940. Further expanded and now with 88 rooms, a salt water pool, and tennis courts, the hotel still retains a homey atmosphere. Its best reviews come from its many patrons – businessmen, tourists, and families – who have been coming here year after year to enjoy a serene, incredible beautiful seaside setting. Dining here is also a treat, with linen covered chairs and tables, superb service, a view of the bay, and the delight of unusual appetizers like sardines skewered with watermelon, dipped in raspberry sauce and oil. Many tourists come here to enjoy the local golf. There are nine courses within a 10-30 minute drive from the hotel with green fees inexpensive by American standards.
Across the cove, with an equally impressive location, was the Parador Aigua Blava. Paradors are government run hotels, often uneven in their accommodations, but almost always in intriguing places like monasteries or castles, or in spectacular settings like Aigua Blava.
With Aigua Blava as our anchor, we drove north to Figueres, the birthplace of the famous surrealist painter, Salvidor Dali. The must visit attraction here is the Teatro Museo Dali, designed by Dali himself to show off his talents and eccentricities. Driving just a few kilometers further west we stopped in Besalu, a wonderfully preserved medieval town whose centerpiece is a picturesque stone bridge. But if your time is limited, move on from Figueres and take the A-7 toll road direct to Girona.
Find a place to park and enter the walled city of Girona with its ramparts, first raised by the Romans, still intact. You can take an “archeological walk” atop parts of these old walled fortifications. Girona has a Baroque-Gothic cathedral, several interesting museums, and an ancient Jewish quarter. Along the narrow alleyways of Carrer Forc you’ll come upon the Museum of the History of the Jews. We learned here that before the 15th Century Inquisition, seven percent of Catalonia’s population was Jewish.
Returning to the coast, we stopped at Empuries. On a promontory overlooking the sea, are the excavated ruins of Greek and Roman cities dating back to the 6th Century B.C. The setting has a park-like beauty and the pathways through the ruins are fascinating with excavations still in progress.
And so began our sojourn through Spain – home to castles and windmills, bullfights and flamenco, olives and wine, sun and a people of sunny disposition. Travel with me next week as me move on to Mallorca, to Madrid, and finally Seville.