Springtime in Spain

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-2: Seville
  • Days 3-6: Madrid
  • Days 7-10: Barcelona

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: May 8-17, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

I think the only word that can attempt to summarize both our excitement about getting to Spain and the amount of sheer enjoyment we had there is- yayayay! During our last few days in Morocco, where we were before flying up to Spain, I began feeling homesick, frustrated with travel, and basically I just wasn’t having fun anymore. This was the first time I felt this way on this trip and I wanted so badly to have something familiar- Tim’s condo, ordering delivery, my bed.

Unexpectedly, Spain gave me exactly that. In hindsight this shouldn’t have surprised me too much- I’d been to Spain before while studying abroad in college, and while neither Tim nor I speak Spanish, the language has become, in a way, familiar to us after our time in South America. But it was the little things that made the biggest impact- a comfortable hotel room, a cold beer with a good meal, a night out socializing with a friend of Tim’s from the US, finding Golden Grahams cereal at the grocery store, seeing the progress made on the Sagrada Familia since I was last there, etc. It seems that when the excitement of new experiences fades into stress, as it did in Morocco, being in the presence of the familiar goes a long way to grounding you back to yourself- back to memories of places you’ve been to before, tastes you’ve enjoyed in the past. And once you’ve caught your balance again, you’re ready for the next wave of new experiences.

Our first night in Spain went a long way in restoring our energy and revitavlizing us. It was actually magical, in the most mundane ways. We got to our hotel in Seville, which was a Marriott I had booked using reward points, and we were both enamored with the luxury of the room- a great bed and black out curtains. Perfect for relaxing. Our first priority in this town in the south of Spain was to find something to eat, so we headed out on a walk around the neighborhood and discovered the most perfect little spot- “100 Monteditos”, which I translate roughly as “a hundred little sandwiches!” (exclamation point mine). For only 6 Euros you can get a plate of 7 little sandwiches that range from hotdogs and hamburgers to brie and pate. Beers are also just 1.50 Euros as is a phenomenol little red wine/Sprite combo drink simply called “tinto” on the menu. To top it all off, their dessert sandwiches (chocolate bread with whipped cream and Oreos, for example) were orgasmic. After nearly two weeks eating only tagines and couscous in a dry country, you can probably imagine how joyous this simple meal was.

This was the evening we also learned about the “Feria”- Spain’s largest festival, according to some of the Sevillians we met. This agriculture festival lasts nearly a week in Seville each year two weeks after Easter, and nearly everyone in town was involved in some way. Celebrating farming never looked so fancy- walking down the streets on their way to the festival, women and girls wore traditional flamenco dancing dresses with poofy sleeves and ruffles all around in an array of bright colors and patterns. Tim and I immediately decided that the next night, Friday, would be spent living it up Seville style at the feria.

Friday day we slept in and had a fairly relaxed morning, enjoying hot hot showers from a waterfall shower head and the cozyness of the king sized bed. When we did eventually get up and venture out for the day, our first order of business was finding our way downtown, as our hotel was about a 45 minute walk from the city center. After some failed attempts at finding the bus stop and route we wanted, we decided to make the walk along the river, which ended up being an utterly pleasant decision. The river walk took us along a tree-lined path, blossoming with beautiful violet colored flowers. The petals dotted our path and made for a calming mid-morning walk.

Our sight-seeing itinerary for the day started with a visit and guided tour to Seville’s famous bull fighting ring, which is also the oldest in the world. This was a fascinating place and unlike anything we’d seen previously. We got a view of the ring from the stands as well as visited the museum showcasing the history of bull fighting in Spain. It began in medieval times as a way of training men for battle, but evolved into an art over time. In the mid 1700s building began for a circular ring at the present-day site, but wasn’t fully completed to its current state until the late 1800s. Bullfights still occur regularly there, particularly during the festival, but as we are on a back-packer’s budget, a simple tour of the ring supplemented with some YouTube research later to see the art in action (if you’re curious-http://youtu.be/QV9bFkgPZ2A) was a much more affordable way of experiencing this aspect of Spanish culture and history.

Our next stop on our self-guided tour was the Seville cathedral and its famous Giralda, a remnant of Spain’s Islamic history. The cathedral itself is considered to be the largest Catholic cathedral by volume, while the Giralda, or bell tower, has become an icon of the city. Another interesting note is that this tower was modeled after the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco- which we had seen just under 2 weeks proir.

A quick note on self-guided tours- Seville was the first city for which Tim and I each downloaded some different applications for our tablets to provide us more educational and historical information about the sights in a city, as well as maps of the city. I’ve been using Triposo, which has an offline travel guide available for virtually every country and allows you to plan your visit and “save” items to your itinerary, then see it mapped out for you. It also has the educational information about each place that we really enjoy. Tim has been using TripAdvisor City Guides, which has self-guided walking tours and offline maps that use the GPS on his device to guide us along. These tools have already saved us quite a few Euros, since we can go see a place without paying for an entrance fee or tour to learn more about it.

For example, we were able to appreciate the cathedral and its history from the outside without paying an entrance fee to go inside of it, and when we arrived at the nearby Alzacar, or old castle, we skipped the line and the 10 Euro fee and found a bench to sit on with a decent view to read more about it. It was constructed in a Moorish style in the 14th century under Pedro I the Cruel. According to some sources, it is the oldest palace still in use in Europe- but this obviously cannot be including Windsor Castle in England since that one has been in use for nearly a thousand years, so I am a little suspicious of that claim.

We ended our afternoon near Maria Luisa Park and the Plaza de Espagna. This was, I think, my favorite part of our walk about town. The park was bustling with locals in horsedrawn carriages dressed in traditional Andalusion style on their way to the feria- it was like going back in time. We also found an ice cream stand that had Magnum Double Caramels, which is now a staple in our diets, and enjoyed them sitting next to a waterfall. It was perfection. We then walked from the park to the plaza, which was a beautiful and impressive sight. The semi-circular building is ornately decorated with hand-painted tiles and mosaics, and around the plaza are images from each region in Spain painted on the tiles. The plaza was built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair, and is now the seat of many government functions- and a very beautiful place to visit.

At this point in the afternoon we decided to head back to the hotel to clean up, rest a bit, and get ready for the feria. The feria took place on the fairgrounds about a 45 minute bus ride away, and it let us off in front of this huge entry arch covered in lights. Beyond the arch are stalls owned by local families and decorated for the occasion. Everyone was dressed up and drinking wine or beer and dancing. It reminded me of horse racing events in the US- everyone is wearing elaborate outfits and enjoying drinks of the region. While most of the stalls are exclusive to family or club members, some are open to the public and we were lucky enough to find one. We ordered a pitcher of sangria and watched locals flamenco dance. It was a great way to experience the local culture and have a fun night out at the same time. After a long bus ride back to our hotel, we went to bed and enjoyed another leisurely morning before taking the train to Madrid that afternoon.

Our train ride to Madrid was our first time using our 90 day unlimited Eurail passes, which we bought before leaving the US. From now until August 1 when we fly to Bangkok, we are traveling almost exclusively by rail. I think it will be the longest stretch of time in the past 5 years I’ve had without flying…

In Madrid, Spain’s capital, we stayed at a guesthouse that was basically an apartment divided into several bedrooms. There was a shared bathroom and kitchen, which was fine since there are only 4 rooms total in the guesthouse. It was a basic accomodation, but nice enough and perfect for our needs. Since it had a fridge in the room, we were able to go grocery shopping and make most of meals at home. We absolutely love making our own meals.

Since it was a Saturday night, we decided to go out and explore the neighborhood since there were a number of bars along our street. If there is one defining factor about locals in Madrid, I would say it is that they are incredibly friendly. Just walking down the street we encountered a bachelorette party, and while you may be thinking that doesn’t count since those parties are friendly by default, we were also approached by a group of 3 guys at an Irish pub who invited us to play darts with them. One of them even sent us an email with a ton of recommendations on what to see and do in Madrid.

The next day we went on a free walking tour of the city. The meeting point for the tour was in Plaza Mayor, the main plaza of the city, and while waiting for the tour to start, Tim and I each heard our names being shouted from above. We looked around, a little confused, and then Tim saw that a friend of his from the US, Bridget, was on a balcony just above us. She came down and chatted with us for a few minutes and we all made plans to hang out that night. Tim and I both thought it was pretty cool to be standing in a random plaza in Europe and to have someone recognizing us, even though it wasn’t completely random since she knew we were in town and that we were doing a tour starting there at that time.

Our tour guide did a decent job, though I don’t think anyone will ever compare to Sonja in London, but we learned about Spain’s Facsist dictatorship from the mid 20th century, visited the oldest restaurant in the world, saw the old wall of the ancient city of Madrid, and ended the tour at the royal palace. We also learned a bit about the controversy of the current royal family. The king has typically been applauded for maintaining democracy and freedom and opposing dictatorships and military regimes, so he has had a good reputation for a long time in Spain. Unfortunately, he has apparently been imbezeling money from various businesses the royal family is associated with, which, in a country where the unemployment rate for adults under 35 is 50%, isn’t going over too well with the people.

That evening we met back up with Bridget at her apartment and got to meet some of her friends as well as see the view of Plaza Mayor from above. We had beer with Fanta (a typical Spanish way of drinking beer) and then went to bar and played a few rounds of Cheers Governor before heading to a hookah bar. I haven’t done hookah since college, and it was pretty enjoyable. The place also had greta mojitos. Conversation that night was really fun and it was refreshing to go out to a bar with a group of acquaintances- something Tim and I very rarely get to do nowadays. At the end of the night we went to a chocolateria next door to the hookah bar and ordered hot chocolate with churros. The chocolate is thick and creamy and churros are twists of fried dough that you dip in the chocolate. It’s pretty outstanding.

The next day we walked to Retiro Park, which is a beautiful park I visited before when I came to Madrid in college. We had an amazing time walking around the lakes and gardens, but the best part of the day was stumbling upon a part of the park separated off from the main strip of it. I hadn’t been to this part before, and it was very picturesque, but we were both quite surprised when walking along we discovered a peacock. And then another one. And then two more. There were peacocks all over this area of the park. They were beautiful and we even watched one spread its feathers for us and twirl around. It was an absolutely perfect surprise to our visit to the park.

That evening we participated in a tapas tour, which was a good cheap-ish way to enjoy some local food and drink. In the US, we think of tapas as small plates for sharing that are overpriced, but in reality they originated as free food that accompanied drinks in Spain in the middle ages. The story goes that peasant workers working for nobility didn’t make enough money to both eat and drink alcohol during their lunch breaks, so they would just drink on an empty stomach and return to work wasted. This lead to a drop in productivity obviously and so the king decided that all drinks must be served with a small plate of food to prevent people from drinking on a completely empty stomach.

During the “tour” we got to try paella (a seafood and rice dish), a fish spread, various cheeses, summer wine (red wine and lemonade), and various types of ham. Anyone who visits Spain likely notices that ham is a really big deal there. They have elaborate rating systems for the various qualities of ham and its the most prevalent meat at the grocery store. It seems random and weird at first, but the history of Spain really puts it in perspective. During the Spanish Inquisition, it was very risky to be openly Muslim or Jewish, because Catholicism was the law and the government executed and tortured those who didn’t adhere to it. Pork is a meat that is forbidden by both Judaism and Islam, so the perfect cover up for a family of one of those religions to avoid persecution was to hang a leg of pork in the window. This would send outsiders the message that certainly these people must be Christian, since they eat pork. It’s a tradition that stuck, because today you will still see legs of pork hanging in windows in stores and markets.

The tour ended at a bar specializing in a cider from the Basque region of Spain. This cider has a special way of being poured so as to aerate it- it basically must be poured from over the server’s head to allow it to breathe before getting to the glass. Tim tried his hand at it to fill up our glasses, and he did a pretty good job and spilled barely anything!

The next day we went out of town about an hour to El Escorial (which I pronounce “el squirrely-o), which is a royal monestary and palace that was commissioned by King Phillip II in the mid-1500s. What makes this site quite unique is that it served as a royal palace at the same time that it was a monestary. Phillip II was a deeply religious man of the Catholic faith, and his collections of art (primarily paintings of Jesus) and the positioning of even his bed chambers (overlooking the chapel so he could attend services from bed) attest to this. One of the most impressive parts of this site is the royal mausoleum, where the kinds of queens of Spain’s past, as well as their children, lay in elaborate stone coffins stacked on top of one another in various rooms throughout the basement of the palace. The highlight of this is the Pantheon of Kings- a magnificent room decorated with marble and gold and stacked floor to ceiling with coffins of the kings and queens. We also got to tour the royal apartments, and a highlight for us was seeing these elaborate doors carved from wood that portrayed images of animals in a forest. Lastly, the basicilica of the monestary/palace had beautiful, colorful paintings on the ceiling. They look as if they must have taken an incredibly long time, but we were surprised to learn that the artist was known as being a bit of a speed demon and finished the work not too long after he was commissioned to do it.

The next day we left in the early afternoon for Barcelona via train. Tim booked a room for us on Airbnb in an amazing location right off La Rambla (the most famous street in Barcelona) and beside the Boqueria (the main market in Barcelona). Since we got in before the market closed, we walked through there to grab something for dinner. We ended up spending 10 Euros each (accidentally) on an amazingly huge and delicious (but woefully overpriced) organic burrito/pasta/salad bowl. We each had the leftovers for lunch the next day, so that minimized the guilt factor to this guilty pleasure.

The next day we joined a free walking tour with our second favorite tour guide- Tommy. He did a great job conveying a lot of enthusiasm and expertise for the region of Catalunya (in which Barcelona is the largest city). Catalunya has a fascinating history, as it is recognized as an autonomous community in Spain, with its own language (a mix of Spanish and French) and distinct culture. The majority of folks in this region are in favor of seeking independence from Spain and forming their own country, and there is a vote taking place later this year in September on the subject. The vote is considered illegal by Spain, so it is unlikely that Catalunya will be successful in its succession, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

This bit of history is especially fascinating in light of learning about the Spanish empire over the past few months. At one time Spain was so large and powerful as to have spread its empire into nearly all of South America. Now, it is a nation with a weakening economy, a king who has lost a lot of respect, and at least two regions (Catalunya and Basque) that would rather not be a part of Spain.

Speaking of fallen empires, the Romans were also in what is now Spain, and we got to see some ruins of an ancient temple on this tour. It was quite impressive how well preserved they are. It’s also been interesting throughout our time since leaving South America learning about just how vast the Roman empire and its influence really was. It seems fitting that after 4 months in this region of the world we’ll be ending our time in Europe in Rome.

That evening we bought a cheap bottle of wine (the twist off top variety) and headed to the Magic Fountains of Monjuic. We climbed on top of the base of a column and enjoyed our wine while listening to music and watching a magnificent fountain, water and light show. It was a very relaxing and pleasant way to spend our evening, with the fountain in front of us and Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which is an impressive building adorned with fountains of its own, behind us.

We also got to experience another, darker, aspect of Barcelona’s culture this evening- petty theft and pick pocketing. Thankfully nothing was actually stolen, but while sitting on the base of the column, a man came up behind us and put his hand on Tim’s backpack, which was sitting directly behind us. Tim had carabinered the bag to his belt loop so we were never at risk of actually loosing it, and thankfully Tim caught the man anyway and slapped his hand away from his bag and told him to leave. Meep!

After the fountain show we were in good spirits (thanks to the good spirit in us) and decided to stop at some bars on the way home. We only made it to one- Bar Stage, offering 1 Euro shots. This was basically the best deal ever at a bar in Barcelona.

The next day we slept in (this was quickly becoming a trend) and in the afternoon ventured out to Parc Guell, a famous park in Barcelona that was designed by architect Antoni Gaudi and built between 1900 and 1914. Gaudi’s work is all over Barcelona, and he is famous for his use of the Modernism style in his works. The park is very playful and colorful- mosaics and odd shapes define the space. The best way to describe it, I think, is to imagine illustrations from Dr. Seuss books. After a few hours in the park, we made our way to the Sagrada Familia, another famous Gaudi masterpiece, this is still far from being completed. It still has nearly 15 years before its estimated completion date, though Gaudi has been long dead. The goal is to complete it by the 100 year anniversary of his death. Work on this cathedral halted in the mid 1900s due to the Spanish Civil War and the start up on finishing it has been slow going. What was very fascinating to see, though, was how much has been built since I was there in 2008. There are two whole side sections there now that were not there when I visited previously.

That night we went on an organized bar crawl that took us to 3 bars and then a night club. We had a really fun time socializing with new friends and playing drinking games. It was pretty apparent that the whole thing was both run by and geared towards college kids studying abroad in Barcelona. Tim won a beer bong race, and I played a bit of beer pong, so all in all it was a success. The crawl also took us to our favorite cheap Barcelona bar, Bar Stage, which we thought was pretty funny.

The next day, after sleeping in yet again, we made our way to check out the beaches of Barcelona. We spent the day relaxing on the beach, doing not much of anything at all, before returning back to our apartment and treating ourselves to a meal out. We got a big bowl of paella and I got churros with hot chocolate for dessert. Not a bad way to end our time in a beautiful, vibrant, complex country!

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