The stars aligned for my family to travel to Spain recently. Those precious ten days proved just what we wanted and much more. We enjoyed quality family time, cultural enrichment and gastronomical pleasure, but what surprised us was España’s rich and complex history, stunning Gothic, Islamic and Mudejar (a blend of both) architectural marvels, and a picturesque countryside that rivals any popular European destination.
Our trip itinerary ran Madrid – Toledo – Cordoba – Sevilla – Ronda – Grenada. The stops other than Madrid lie in the region called Andalusía. Perhaps you will want to add Spain to your travel bucket list after reading this post or will simply enjoy re-living your travel experience if you’ve already had the pleasure of visiting.
The present-day capital of Spain is Madrid, a world-class city with chic hotels, fabulous restaurants, museums….like Paris but without the attitude. After arriving and acclimating, we spent one and a half days touring this vibrant city, beginning with a Tapas Tour.
I can think of no better way to become acquainted with Madrid and its funky tapas culture. Our jovial guide, arranged by our travel advisor Caroline Wallace, expertly escorted us through four tapas (pronounced táhpahs) bars, each one with its own specialty.
Day 2 in Madrid led us to the Palacio Real,
King Philip V modeled the royal palace to rival Versailles, his birthplace.
lunch at the San Miguel Market with something for everyone,
and a visit to the Reina Sophía modern art gallery (instead of the nearby Prado museum which would have taken more time than we had to do it justice). The Sophía is home to several works by native son Salvador Dalí.
Pierrot Playing the Guitar
The most riveting piece was Picasso’s Guernica. Guernica is a town in the Basque region in northern Spain that was bombed by the Nazis as practice during the Spanish Civil War. Permission was granted for the bombing of the civilians by Franco. It is a compelling and emotional depiction of the grief, agony and destruction of the innocent Basques.
oil on canvas mural, 11′ x 26′
Holy Toledo! Now I know the provenance of the saying. Forty minutes away (by high-speed train) from Madrid sits 1000-year-old Toledo. Once the capital of the Iberian Peninsula, it was the home to a prosperous population of Jews, Moors (Muslims) and Christians who lived together in relative peace until the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478. Can you imagine that coexistence today?
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, the ancient city is strategically perched high above the river Tajo. Go to Toledo to see a microcosm of Spain’s glorious history.
San Juan de los Reys, built to be the final resting spot for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel.
The ancient synagogue named Santa Maria la Blanca, has also served as a church and hospital. The Jewish Quarter is decorated with small tiles representing (top to bottom) Hai (life), the Menorah, and the Hebrew symbol for Sephardi meaning Jews from Spain.
Travelers visit Córdoba, a charming medieval town that thrived during the Dark Ages, to see La Mezquita, the grand Mosque of the city dating to 785. The exterior is rather tame for Islamic architecture,
but the interior is like nowhere else on the planet. It should be one of the 7 Wonders of Something.
The clever Moors scavenged old Roman columns from existing structures and repurposed them. See, most are different.
Matchy-matchy wasn’t important to the Moors, but saving time and money was. What’s even more intriguing is once the Christian Catholics conquered the city, they built a cathedral inside the walls of the mosque. The Catholics had the good sense not to destroy the majestic structure in order to erect their house of worship.
Inside the cathedral of St. Peter, it’s hard to believe that it’s located within the Grand Mosque.
From Córdoba, we made the 1½ hour drive to Sevilla and arrived at our hotel the Hotel Alfonso XIII,
which opened in 1928 to welcome the Iber-American Exposition to Sevilla. Its central location allowed us to walk to most destinations. We began our exploration of Sevilla with a half-day bike tour, familiarizing ourselves with places we wanted to tour later, like
the Royal Alcazar Palace and Gardens, still in use by Spain’s royals when in Sevilla,
and the charming Santa Cruz neighborhood with winding narrow streets, plazas and outdoor restaurants and bars.
Sevilla is a gorgeous city that we hated to leave,
but Ronda had more in store for us the next day.
This ancient city held more surprises-per-step-walked than any other we visited. One of the white hill towns in Andalusía, Ronda was founded by the Celts on a cliff overlooking a gorge.
It has been home to Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and Christians, who all fought for this enviable natural defense site. The spectacular gorge
leaves nothing to the imagination when contemplating what might happen should one go over the edge, accidentally or not.
We walked from the bridge to the old Arab baths (fed by Roman aqueducts) located at the bottom of the gorge.
This was the first aqueduct I had ever seen, having only read about them in 6th grade history class. The other notable site was the Plaza del Toro, the bullfighting ring.
Modern bullfighting originated in Ronda. We did not see a bullfight, nor would I want to, but it is a huge part of Andalusían culture and history and still quite active today. After our half-day in Ronda — we could have lingered longer — our van left for Grenada a few hours away for our grand finale.
Grenada was the last Moorish kingdom to fall to the Christians. Its crown jewel, the Alhambra, was a planned city built by the Moors’ king as a compromise with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel.
Let me and my people live here in peace, and we won’t bother you.
That lasted until 1492 when the Spanish monarchs decided to finish off the last Moors and drive them out of Spain.
It takes at least four hours to tour this ancient city.
I shared a few glimpses of the Alhambra, but there is no substitute for seeing it with your own eyes. We should have spent two nights there, but our finite time together was coming to an end. We returned home with a new appreciation for España, its colorful and complex past and hope to return to experience more of its splendors.
I feel blessed to have experienced this amazing country with my family. Our shared journey will make for fond memories and re-told stories in the years to come. ¡Salud!
March 25, 2014