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Wonderful Weather, Incredible Sights, Spain is Sumptuous

History is rich here, with man-made beauty on naturally beautiful land

sunny 85 °F

Click here for my Winter 2004 trip to Barcelona

The city of Toledo -- guidebooks guarantee you will get lost in its old town!

It is an odd feeling, for me, to be flying transatlantic with an actual, paid ticket. So much of my travel is standby that I made it a point to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Everything went smoothly until my brother and I landed in Madrid and began our hotel search. None of the owners spoke English. Weird. I'd figured a country that had been the destination of pilgrims and tourists for nearly a 1,000 years would have a more multilingual hotel industry. Oh well, I was glad I brought a Spanish phrase book!

The first day featured an abbreviated sightseeing schedule -- a little walking around Madrid and the Royal Palace. Layered thickly in room after room of the palace was giltwork, carvings, paintings, chandeliers and absolute luxury. I was glad we took a guided tour (a rarity for me). Otherwise, we would have missed distinctive features of the rooms as it was easy to get numbed by the richness.

A major disappointment was the noisiness of our hotel room that night. Our window looked out on a nightclub which was obviously THE place to be that evening. I'd heard that Madrid night life goes on and on till morning. It did. Never was I so glad to have brought earplugs (even an extra pair for Brian). Shouting, horns honking, music blaring -- it was insufferable. It was still going on when we left that morning for our day trip to Toledo.

The medieval city of Toledo is tucked into a bend in the Tagus River, high on a bluff overlooking the countryside. Its walls shone pale orange in the slanting morning sun as we crossed the footbridge over a gorge into the city. The streets wound back and forth, climbing or descending steeply. We made our way to the main plaza, then veered off to the cathedral. It was an awesome spectacle inside. The domed roof was artfully pierced so shafts of light struck bright color from ceiling frescoes. Gold glimmered dustily on statues, crosses, ornamental carvings, chalices -- you name it.

From there, we wandered towards the Alcazar, which is Spanish for castle. This particular alcazar is more modern fort than anything historical. The building is mostly reconstruction. The only thing worthwhile is the great collection of swords, from 16th century wavy-bladed two-handed swords to corroded green bronze ones from 500 B.C. and before. We followed the visit with lunch outdoors in the main plaza. Then we wandered around Toledo a bit, checking out the thick, bastioned medieval gates, the walls, a former mosque now a church and the racks and racks of famous Toledo swords for sale in the shops. I resisted the temptation to add another one to my apartment walls.

The castle in Segovia, my favorite city in Spain

The next day we took the morning train to Segovia. An icy breeze greeted us as we steeped off, but it soon warmed up into a third gorgeous day. We bought a walking guidebook to the city and began at the cathedral. It was not as ornate inside as Toledo's, but more striking outside. We followed the guide's text along the streets toward the castle, stopping where it described interesting churches, facades, and carved, ornamental entrances along the way. The castle itself was impressive with pointy-roofed towers, tall main keep and a commanding view of the surrounding plains. It rises up from the leading edge of the ridge the city is built on like the prow of a ship. Also, inside the castle was an interesting collection of actual medieval and renaissance artillery -- bombards, mortars and such, as well as halberds, swords and armor. We made our way back through town, stopping where the guidebook pointed out the frequent churches, towers and nobles' halls. Many were six or seven centuries old.

After lunch, we made our way to Segovia's star attraction -- the Roman aqueduct. Built nearly 2,000 years ago, this bridgelike structure spans the valley from a nearby hill towards the town. Its arches rise higher and higher as it nears the walls. Its huge, gray stone blocks were joined together without mortar or cement -- and it still stands complete today. As I ran my hand along the ancient stone, my soul stirred. The Romans are my favorite civilization from History. This had been built by them, their legions had marched alongside it, and here I was, marveling, as I walked beside it. It was like touching History.

After that, it was down the steep hillsides into the plains below the city. We visited a church built by the Knights Templar -- warriors from the Crusades who were also monks. It was a strange, 12-sided building with another tiny, two-storey structure in its interior. We also poked through a nearby monastery, another church, and finally, I climbed a hill for an awesome view of the walled city rising up in front of me.

The next morning we took the bullet train to Seville. After finding a room, we walked down to the city center in the steadily rising heat. The Royal Castle was a gorgeous Moorish-style palace. The walls and ceilings were encrusted with intricate carvings of vegetation or abstract patterns. The palace was packed with tourists, as could be expected. We made it a point to put off seeing the nearby cathedral until later in the day to avoid some of the crush. We walked around the city after lunch, taking in a Moorish tower, the river, the bullfighting ring, etc., before finally tackling the cathedral. It is the largest in Europe, with an interior as ornate as we'd come to expect from Spanish cathedrals. As a matter of fact, Brian and I confessed to being a little "churched-out" by this point.

The Alhambra, Granada

On the way back to our room (in the mid-90 degree heat), we spotted a restaurant/bar advertising NFL football that night. We came back for dinner and watched the first half of Brian's favorite Broncos beating up on the Cowboys. It was a good time, despite not being a Spanish-style evening like Flamenco or a bullfight. My guidebook claims that fewer and fewer Spaniards approve of the sport, and it is becoming tourist dollars that support this cruel spectacle. In addition, since authentic flamenco is spontaneous and doesn't break out till well after midnight, we chose to skip the staged, tourist offerings, too. If I missed some crucial experience here, then I suppose I will have to live without it.

Another train ride took us to Granada, our final city on the trip. I liked Granada quite a bit. On one side, the wooded hill of the Alhambra picturesquely rises, crowned by the massive, walled palace complex the city is known for. Climbing up the other hill is the Albacin -- the old Moorish quarter with its square white houses, twisting streets, laundry fluttering in the breeze and Arab charm. We chose to wander through it first (after getting our room), saving the Alhambra for the less crowed late afternoon. We were also debating which of two hiking excursions we would take tomorrow. We made our decision over an outdoor lunch in a square.

Village in the Alpujarras

We took the mini-bus up to the Alhambra in the late afternoon. When you buy your ticket, you are given a half hour time slot for the Moorish Palace part of the complex. This is to keep down the crowds in the main attraction. Ours turned out to be for an hour and a half later, so we began our tour with Charles V's Palace, the walls and the dramatic views of the city the towers commanded. All this paled, though, when we entered the Moorish Palace. Picture an intricate, well-decorated wedding cake with multiple swirls and flourishes. Now blow that up to the size of a room, and that is what every chamber looks like. Every inch is carved, patterned or tiled. Walls, windows, floors -- everything. Much like the Royal Castle in Seville, you just tilt back your head and say, Wow!

If the Alhambra was man-made beauty, our destination the next day featured nature's beauty. The Alpujarra region (basically the southern face of the Sierra Nevada mountain range), is known for dramatic hills and valleys, with tiny, white villages clinging to their slopes. We took a bus to the highest of these and spent several hours strolling downhill through the various other villages. Since we were walking along paved road, it was hardly hiking -- but the scenery was excellent. The Arab-type villages were a delight -- many of the square, flat-roofed homes sported flowers beneath windows and decorative ceramic plates embedded in their white stucco. Granada was a fitting climax to our trip, allowing us to sample a far different flavor of Spain from Madrid.

On our final, full day in Spain, I spent several hours shopping for souvenirs in Granada before boarding the train north to Madrid. The cabin window provided a gorgeous view into the heart of the Andalusian region of Spain. Arid plains and hills, olive groves, rocky gorges, abandoned farms -- all flitted silently past. I'd read that this was a poor area, and the crumbling adobe walls and empty homes confirmed that. However, at our stops, entire families turned out to greet or bid goodbye to travelers on our train. Where life was, here, it still beat strongly.

I was able to reflect on the trip during the uneventful flight home. First, Spain had simply the best weather I had ever encountered. Every day was sunny and in the 80's (except Seville's 90-plus frying). I think we saw a total of five hours of clouds the entire week. With its historical sights, Spain had fulfilled my expectations. The people were friendly, for the most part, and I began to understand why travelers have come here for a 1000 years.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:47 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Barcelona, Spain, and its amazing History

Antonia Gaudi makes a trip to this Catalan city fascinating

sunny 81 °F

La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished masterpiece of Catalan architect Antonia Gaudi

So, what is it about a place that first sparked our interest? Was it a photograph, a book or article, or even a friend's account? Well, for me, it was an album. Ever since I first heard "Gaudi," by the Alan Parson Project, I wanted to go to Barcelona. I was intrigued by the voiceover: "In recent times, there is no one at all who can approach Antonio Gaudi. He started a new cathedral, in Barcelona, it is called La Sagrada Familia...The sad thing is they could try to finish it, but I don't think they will do it."

So, when my plans to see Malta this Spring fell through, I leapt at the chance to finally visit Barcelona. I arrived on a bus from Andorra, and quickly found that Barcelona's metro is quite easy to navigate. I bought a 3-day Pass and would use it often -- the first time to find my hostel on the Rambla de Catalunya. I hadn't stayed in a hostel in years, but accommodations are so expensive in Barcelona, I felt it was the only option, as I was trying to save money. Once checked in, I grabbed my camera bag and headed out to see the sights.

One neat feature of Barcelona's streets are its "Ramblas." These are wide, tree-lined boulevards with the biggest part, in the center, reserved for pedestrians. Two narrow lanes on either side of the Rambla are for vehicles and run one way in opposite directions. The most famous Rambla runs from the central transport hub at Placa de Catalunya -- not far from my hostel -- to the harbor. I strolled down it, stopping for lunch at a local pizzeria.

My sightseeing began with the Museo d'Historia de la Ciutat, which takes you down into the city's subterranean Carthaginian (the famous general, Hannibal Barca = Barcelonia), Roman and Visigothic roots. There are also numerous stretches of its Roman walls still extant, and it was an interesting cruise through underground passages. From there, I walked down to the harbor, then along the bustling harborfront to the Christoper Columbus monument. This tower, with a statue of the mariner pointing out to sea, has an elevator that whisks you up for a grand view of the city.

Barcelona's famous Rambla walk

As dusk was falling, I headed back to my hostel for a break before venturing out for dinner. That evening, I thought it would be fun to check out the Travel Bar, which bills itself as a place to meet other travelers. It was enjoyable, but I'd say the bar pushes its Pub Crawl and getting smashed a little too hard for my tastes.

The next day was my Antonio Gaudi day, when I would visit his numerous buildings, including the signature cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. Although I am normally not a fan of Modern Art, I loved Gaudi's architecture. His outlandish use of curves and weird shapes and textures somehow worked for me in a buiding, where it doesn't on canvas. Plus, despite his odd designs, his work is immensely practical, I feel. He would do ingenius things, like freeing a building's facade from holding the weight so that he could make immense windows to bring in more light. The mixture of oddities and practicalities kept me fascinated all day long. I started with Casa Battlo, then moved onto La Pedrera -- which I highly recommend. If you visit one museum or building of his BESIDES the must-see La Sagrada Familia, make it La Pedrera. Nowhere in Barcelona did I find exhibits that did a better job of bringing the early 20th century ascetic architect and his work to life.

The bizarre rooftop of La Pedrera

From there, I headed to the madhouse of crowds that is La Sagrada Familia. As advertised, it IS still a construction site, and it is still many, many years from being finished. However, what is done is very interesting. I was particularly enthralled by the pillars which are formed vaguely like trees with a main trunk and branching out progressively with more limbs to support the weight of the ceiling. I waited nearly an hour for the elevator ride up one of the towers, but it was worth it. You get a close up view of the colorful ceramic decorations on the towers. The museum in the crypt didn't hold a candle to La Pedrera, so I breezed through that.

Afterwards, it was time for lunch, and I jumped at the chance to "bag" a Pizza Hut in another country. I know, but hey, the pope kisses the ground when he gets off a plane, I can have my own traditions, right? After lunch, I took the subway up to Gaudi's foray into garden design at Parc Guell. If you're into gardens, I imagine it would be worthwhile. I thought it was kind of overrated, and wouldn't say it was a highlight. Then again, I'm not really into gardens (and I like Pizza Huts!), so who am I to say?

I finished up the afternoon with Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, its main cathedral and another modern art building or two. For dinner, I stopped in a local bar and had real live Catalan cuisine to make up for my Pizza Hut faux pas (white sausage sandwich, which sounds like a euphemism for...well, never mind). I finished the evening using my hostel's free internet to catch up on e-mail and read some posts on my favorite travel site, Travelpunk.com.

My final day of sightseeing saw me taking a cable car up the Montjuic Hill, that overlooks the center of the city, to Barcelona's castle. The views from up top were gorgeous because -- of course -- it was another warm, sunny day. Counting my trip to Spain with my brother years ago, this made something on the order of a dozen days in Spain with nothing but warmth and sunshine. This country has the best weather I've ever seen in all my travels! Anyway, after pacing around the Late Renaissance era fort, I headed below to its Museo Militar. As a military history buff, I couldn't resist. After an hour-plus of looking at swords, armor, etc., I was ready for a little outdoor hiking. It was a good thing, because my sense of direction failed me utterly at this point. I took the L-O-N-G way down the hill. I still did see what I wanted to -- the sporting facilities from Barcelona's hosting of the 1992 Olympics, and the Vatican lookalike outside of the Museum of Art -- I just took quite a looping path to do it all.

Barcelona's caste and its view

After a late lunch at a cafe, I decided to try one more museum -- Barcelona's Maritime Museum. It was the best in the city, I felt. The funky little headset they give you to walk around the museum with was great, with incredibly atmospheric music and good narration. The highlight was the full size reconstruction of the flagship galley from the famous Medieval sea Battle of Lepanto. The Catalan people (NE Spain, basically) have a rich seafaring tradition, and the museum did a wonderful job of personalizing its subject and bringing history to life.

As darkness was falling, I knew my time in Barcelona was drawing to an end. After dinner, I wandered over to take one last look at La Sagrada Familia, lit up at night. I lingered for a few minutes, the tune and words to a decades old Alan Parsons Project song in my head. "Especially the dosing lyrics, "Until the next time, until the next time..."

Antonio Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:59 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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