Spain is the home of Columbus and his patrons Ferdinand and Isabella, Cervantes and his hero Don Quixote, Picasso and his lament to war, Guernica. The range of its past glories mirrors the variety of sights a tourist can pursue. I began my sojourn in there on its Mediterrean coast in Barcelona and the towns and villages of the Costa Brava (The STAR, last week). Today I move on to tell you about more of its fascinations.
Mallorca is the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands – in the Mediterranean about a forty minute flight from Barcelona. The island is a vacation mecca with most beachside towns crowded with foreign tourists. We chose the privacy of the most secluded part of the island. Past Port Pellenca, on the peninsula jutting out at the northwestern part of the island, sits the Hotel Formentor (34 971 89 91 00, double seaside rooms with breakfast, $280/nite). The hotel, an imposing white edifice overlooking Formentor Bay, is a prestigious 127 room hotel with a palatial grandeur. The grounds, the gardens, the views are royal, although the decor is unfashionably old. The 1995 European Economic Summit was held here. And besides heads of state, the hotel has hosted celebrity guests from Charlie Chaplin to Michael Douglas to the Dali Lama. Kidman and Cruise stayed here as well and just envisioning that couple once sharing our abode, gave the place an added romance. There are tennis courts, putting greens, a heated pool, and the softest of sandy beaches with shallow turquoise water reached along a garden path. Dinner at their restaurant “El Pi” is al fresco, on a beautiful azalea draped patio overlooking the sea, with white coat and black tie service. Here we chatted with a British couple who honeymooned at the Formentor and noted, in praise of the hotel, that they had been coming here each year since for 35 years.
Mallorca has a diversity of terrain from desert chaparral to seaside evergreen forests. Particularly unique are the many hillside towns with extensive stone wall terraces supporting groves of olive trees. Surveying the island, there are miles of steep and windy roads. Drive to up to the lighthouse at Cap Formentor for the most spectacular views of the mountains and the sea; into the hills to the Monastery de Lluc, with Gaudi designed statues marking a spiritual hillside path; down again to the sea and the Caves de Arta with its cathedral like cavern; through the picturesque hillside towns of Deja and Valdemosa; and finally to the capital, Palma.
From our room in the ultra-modern Hotel Melia Victoria (43 971 73 25 42, double room with breakfast, $140/nite), our view was of Palma dominated by the beauty of its cathedral set atop a hill before a shore sprinkled with palm trees and a harbor dotted with hundred of masted sails. Downtown Palma has its sights – its 13th century Gothic cathedral with tombs of Mallorcan kings; the Almudaina Palace, the royal Moorish residence of the Middle Ages; and Bellver castle, a 14th century moated castle with a circular courtyard and turreted towers. But aside from its history, Palma’s charm lies in its nightlife along the beachfront strip of Avinguda Maritim. Here there are a myriad of outdoor cafes, restaurants, and clubs. The Hotel Melia Victoria sits on the Maritim and it was convenient to find a cafй nearby to people watch. A young man stood on our corner handing out invitations to a private club. He was selective, choosing only the most attractive or “hip.” So, downing pizza and sangria, we played our own game of guessing who he would accept and who he would reject. Late, we left to return to our hotel, too old, too weary looking, to get an invitation.
Spain’s capital, Madrid, is a 75 minute flight from Mallorca. We stayed at the Hotel Suecia (34 91 531 69 00, double room with breakfast, $150/nite). There was no glamor or elegance to the 128-room Suecia but its rooms were comfortable and well appointed, and its location near the Paseo del Prado was perfect for a walking tour to many of Madrid’s best attractions. Again, we surveyed the city by an hour long open air bus tour.
For me Madrid’s premier attractions are its museums. If you love art, there are three not to be missed and you can buy a tryp-ticket to all of them for about $7.00. In timing your visits, be aware of when they’re closed. The Prado and Thyssen Bornemisza are closed on Mondays; the Reina Sofia on Tuesdays.
The Thyssen Bornemisza was my favorite with a well organized and displayed collection showing off great masters from medieval to modern art. Their audio tour was wonderfully informative. Just a short walk down the Paseo del Prado is the Prado. Housed in a magnificent 18th century building, the Prado is often ranked with the Louvre in Paris as one of the world’s great museums. But in truth, while its collection is grand, it doesn’t compare with the grandeur of the Louvre and I enjoyed the Thyssen far more. In the Prado, there are no audio tours for rent and at the height of the tourist season, they had no English language brochures. But there are English speaking guides at the entry and it would be prudent to hire one to point out the highlights of the Prado’s vast collection of Goya, Valesquez, El Greco, and Murrillo. A half mile further down the Paseo del Prado, across from the old central train station, is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The prize of this collection is Picasso’s Guernica, which many regard as the most famous painting of the 20th century. Besides its huge collection of Picassos, the Reina Sofia also displays extensive works by Miro and Dali.
Most of Madrid’s attractions can be easily reached by their extensive subway system. At the west end of downtown is the huge and lavish Royal Palace. Prepare for neck strain as you scan each impressive room, gawking at ceiling frescos, monumental paintings, unique marble floors, exquisite furniture, and the most remarkable variety of huge, ornate brass and crystal chandeliers. Built by Philip V, Napoleon rightly declared it to be the equal of Versaille.
Just southeast of the palace is the Plaza Mayor. Walled in by 17th century buildings, the plaza, filled with outdoor cafes and souvenir stores, is not particularly attractive. But it is worth walking through just to see where the trials and executions of the Spanish Inquisition were held.
The Salamanca district, in the area between Calle de Serrano and Calle de Jose Ortega y Gasset, was my wife’s favorite tourist attraction. Margaret considered this Madrid’s best shopping area. Here you’ll find everything from the department store Cortes Ingles to an assortment of upscale establishments like Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Versace.
You can’t leave Spain without seeing flamenco. The flamenco restaurant Torres Bermetaj (34 91 531 69 00; Mesonero Romanos, 11) is an intimate place with Moorish dйcor and tables so close that you make immediate friendships with nearby diners. And that was perhaps as much a joy as the show itself.
Our last destination in Spain was Seville, an hour flight from Madrid. Here again we stayed in an unremarkable but comfortable and well-located hotel, the Hotel Becquer (95 422 89 00, double room with breakfast, $135). The Becquer, a 118 room hotel with exceedingly warm and attentive service, sits in the heart of old Sevilla. It is just a block from the riverwalk and from several good outdoor riverfront restaurants on the Calle Betis, and a ten minute walk to the city’s main attractions – the bullring, the cathedral, the royal palace.
Seville, Spain’s fourth largest city, is much smaller, more walkable than Barcelona or Madrid. The first area in Spain conquered by the Moors in 711 and last area recaptured by the Christians in the 13th century, Seville has more than 500 years of Moorish culture still engrained in its character. Seville was the setting for the passions of Don Juan, Bizet’s Carmen, and Mozart’s Figaro. Spain’s 16th century explorers returned here from the new world depositing their treasures in the Torre del Oro, the Tower of Gold, a tourist attraction along the riverfront.
During a casual walk on our first day in Seville, we crossed over the bridge, Puente Isabell II, to explore the Triana area, an old gypsy neighborhood reputedly named for the local sailor who was the first to sight land on Columbus’ 1492 voyage. Here we had the fortune to run into crowds celebrating the Fiesta de Triana. Hundreds of locals were dressed in traditional, gypsy-like garb, preparing for a religious pilgrimage to the city of Huelga, 60 miles to the south. Dozens of wood-sided and canvas covered wagons pulled by horse and tractor were readying to transport the celebrants, following a statue of the virgin carried under a silver filagreed canopy.
At Seville’s cathedral with its landmark belltower, La Giralda, another celebration was in progress with soldiers on parade. At this stage of our journey, we were perhaps suffering from a cathedral overdose, blind to the grandeur of Seville’s cathedral, one of the largest gothic churches in the world, comparable to St. Peters in Rome and St. Pauls in London. But inside, I was most enthralled with the Tomb of Columbus, an ornate marble coffin carried by four bearers representing the kings of Spain. It was only a little disappointing to discover that this was but one of two tombs alleging to hold Columbus’ remains.
The Reales Alcazares just across the square from La Giralda was the palace of the Moorish kings and later the Christian kings of Spain. Its mix of fanciful gardens with fountains, terraces, and shaded pavillions about a palace with many central courtyards, ornate archways, and intricately designed tiled walls, is called Mudejar style architecture.
Besides the ancient city, Seville also has wonderful architecture of more modern eras. To the west, across Seville’s main river, the Rio Guadalquivir, are several unusual suspension bridges leading to modern pavillions and an amusement park all built for Seville’s 1992 Expo World Fair. The Plaza de Espana in the south of the city was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. It is a marvelous semi-circular pavillion with a central waterway where you can rent row boats. Across from the Plaza de Espana is Maria Luisa Park, worth a stroll for its wonderful landscapes, fountains and statuary.
Perhaps the premier place to stay in Seville, one certainly to be my choice should I return, is the Hotel Alfonso XIII. The interior is modelled after a Moorish palace, like the Alcazar, with fabulous handpainted tiled walls and ceilings, marble pillars, ornate archways, and a cool, serene central courtyard and fountain. We sat here in the late evening listening to the wistful melody of a piano and violin playing “our song.”
And so came to an end a two week sojourn in Spain, an old, yet modern country that well rewarded this visitor with its history, its beauty, and its hospitality.