Welcome to Spain
Spain is a great country to visit if you live in north-east Europe. Why? Because it's close (just about an hour's flight away) and usually much warmer. Which is good for winter, but probably a little hot for summer. And although it's on the euro, it's normally a little bit more affordable than The Netherlands, France or Germany. Oh, and the people are relly nice too, as is the food. Luckily, Spain has much more to it than what many British normally think: Ibiza or Marjorca. Anyway, he's some thoughts about the places we've visited in Espana.
We had been to Spain a few times without having actually visited Madrid. For a capital city, it's in a very strange place in that it's located smack bang in the middle of the country. You tend to go around it rather than through it. However, we did make it on our last trip and it was certainly worth it, exceeding expectations of a crowded, noisy and dirty city. Admitedly, we only spent the day there as we were staying about 1.5hrs drive away, so we parked on the outskirts and caught the very easy-to-use and very efficient metro into town, but watch out for the Tip Rats (by the way, Spain has some excellent freeways around the country - probably thanks to EU funding - so driving from point to point is easy).
Bear kissing the strawberry tree - near Sol metro station
Only having a day, we used it by taking the hop on, hop off bus tour around two different circuits - historic and modern (Madrid Vision, 17 euro pp for both circuits). A great way to see any city in such a short time as you can spend time travelling to the sites by metro, foot or taxi, but we find these open top buses let you see much more of the city (we've done them in Lisbon and Vienna too). In Madrid, each circuit took about 1.5hrs (without stops) and takes in places such as the Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, Jardin Botanico and the many splendid avenues and monuments spread across the city. The downtown area of Madrid is probably Puerta del Sol, where we got off the metro, and this place is packed with locals and tourists alike. Spread out from there are all the major shopping streets and this is a good place to start a walking tour. To the north (on the modern circuit) there is a Torre Picasso building, which is a nice but boring building made famous as it was designed by the same architect of the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and the Real Madrid football stadium (for all you sports fans out there). Madrid is probably worth spending a few days in as we imagine it would have a pretty rocking nightlife too.
Metropol - Madrid
Out of all of Madrid's landmarks, we probably know the international airport the best because we ended up spending more time there than in Madrid city itself. On our inbound flight from Amsterdam to Valencia via Madrid, we were delayed in Amsterdam so missed our connection in Madrid, with the next flight 4hrs away. So it was into the Iberia lounge to wait it out. On the outbound after a great week in Spain, our first flight from Valencia to Madrid was cancelled before we got the next one 3hrs later. Due to an air traffic controllers strike, our connecting flight from Madrid to Amsterdam was delayed...and delayed...and delayed...then cancelled. This was after midnight after spending 5hrs in the Iberia lounge. Then a one hour trip in a bus to some hotel in Toleda (which isn't even in Madrid anymore!), 2hrs sleep, then back to the airport to try to get on the 8:20am flight (waitlist only). No luck. Eventually got re-routed to Copehagen (4hrs in the BA lounge there this time!) and then onto Amsterdam, arriving at 11pm that night! However, from conversations we had with other stranded passengers and what we've read on the internet, we seemed to get away relatively well. That's airline travel.
Centre of Madrid
Visual arts museum - Madrid
The first visit to Barcelona was in 1994, not long after the city hosted the Olympic Games. Of course, most of the city was still looking pretty plush then after what we imagine to be a major beautification for the thousands of visitors who descended onto the city. But Barcelona is a pretty neat city anyway. Further visits have taken place more recently and the city is still as vibrant and interesting as ever. Most of the action happens on La Rambla, a street with a pedestrian type mall running down its middle that is swarmed with buskers, cafes and people! There is a great market off to one side - Mercat de Sant Josep - that has hundreds of fresh food stalls where you can pick up chicken feet, a sheeps head or just about anything else you need for a soup or stew. Also off to the side is some small courtyards of apartments that are worth exploring as they feature fountains and other interesting pieces of art. La Rambla heads down to Port Vell, which is great to walk around at any time of day or night, particularly is there a some very large and luxurious yachts berthed there. The beaches in Barcelona are ok, but pretty close to the city, so not that nice. Good for walking rather than swimming and there are better ones to the south out of Barcelona. Of course, Barcelona has some wonderful and weird architecture so great to wander some of the backstreets and check out some of these designs. La Sagrada Familia Cathedral is going to be one of the craziest and different churches you'll see on a trip around Europe. One of the highlights on every visit to Barcelona is once down to the end of La Rambla, turn right and head towards the hill of Parc de Montjuic. Its a steady climb up, but it offers fantastic views over the city and port. Explore this area, watching out for the tourist coaches, and you'll come across the diving centre from the Olympics (if you've ever see photos of diving from the Games it will all come flooding back to you), the Palau Sant Jordi indoor stadium that hosted gymnastics and volleyball, and the main Olympic Stadium, which is now home to FC Barcelona. Although not the world's most stunning stadium, it's easy to picture the Olympic taking place in there. When the weather is nice, this is a perfect place to explore as it's away from the hustle & bustle of the city.
Barcelona seems to also be a convention city, so when there is a few things on at the same time, it's almost impossible to get yourself a hotel room, even if you are willing to pay 5*. On one visit there, we has to stay at a hostel (can't remember which one but it was the second or third we tried due to capacity) and it wasn't the most pleasant place in the world. Although, we're sure some of the hostels are really good, but when you're stuck, you're stuck.
Certainly a mix between old and new, Valencia has a number of architecually stunning landmarks, a former riverbed that has been turned into one continuous park with sports facilities, a modern port area with beaches, great shopping (more Zara, Mango and Massimo Dutti stores per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world!) and even a bull-fighting ring!
Valencia's bull fighting ring
Coming into Valencia from the airport, the easiest way is via the metro (1.80 one way) and we stayed at Chill Art Jardin Botanico hotel (www.jardinbotanicohotelvalencia.com), a short walk from the centre of town, with modern spacious rooms and friendly staff. The first thing we hit when walking into the city is gates of the former city wall, Torres de Serranos, which provides a grand entrance, and then the huge Mercato Central in Plaza del Mercado a little further on. Valencia has plenty of stunning buildings and bridges, all dating back many centuries but superbly restored, and the Town Hall is one such example. The modern Valencia is just as stunning however, If you fancy a very long walk, you can head towards the Mediterrean coast along the area that was once a thriving river through the heart of Valencia. Apparantly diverted a couple of decades ago after one too many floods, the area is now a stunning set of parklands and brilliant for running or cycling. The main attraction when you get a few kilometres on is the stunning set of modern buildings: Palau de la Musica (music concert hall), Palau de les Arts (opera house), Museu de les Ciències Principe Felipe (science museum). All of these are surrounded by bright blue pools of water that brighten up even the dullest of winter days. You can visit each of them if you wish, but simply walking outside and admiring the design and shapes is fascinating. However, if in the area in winter and desperate for the loo, visit them on the ground floor of the science museum. These have to be the largest, cleanest and warmest toilets in all of Europe! The cafe there makes a decent coffee too so a good place for a break.
The very modern Palau de la Muscia
Valencia has a pretty dynamic nighlife too. However, like everywhere in Spain, about 9pm is the earliest you can eat so stock on snacks to get you through otherwise you end up spending many hours drinking in a bar (you can't do this every night!). Spain has some great olive oil, bread and red wine so no problem there. We found Valencia to have a good mix of cuisines from modern Spanish to Italian to Mexican, and of course, Valencia is the home of paella and there's more tapas than you care to know about (not a big fan). Plenty of bars too, although alcohol there can be relatively expensive, and you also have to put up with the patrons freely smoking. Although banned in almost all parts of Europe, many establishments in Spain (even restaurants which is totally gross) are ignoring the ban and legally challenging it.
One of the many beautiful old buildings in Valencia
First impressions as you enter Cuenca is that it's a fairly regular, industrial type city. But head up some 20% gradient hills (we did on foot, not like the locals in cars) and you'll come across a majestic old city. The centrepiece is Plaza Mayor but this doesn't really offer much except the Cathedral. The real treat of being this high is the stunning views it offers down into the gorges where the Jucar and Huecar rivers run. Cuenca is almost based on the edge of a cliff and some of the rock formations are stunning, probably more so if you lived in one of the hanging houses. Hope the foundations are strong in these places! From the hanging houses, you can cross the San Pablo bridge, which is a relatively new bridge but extremely high above the road below. This perfectly paved road features a brilliant bike path that runs for some 15kms and one afternoon we ran some of this out from town, admiring the rock formations and river along the way. If you are a bike rider, Cuenca would be a brilliant place to base yourself as the roads are good and quiet, plus there lots of climbing nearby through the Serrania de Cuenca mountain range (it's all Gibbo could think about while driving around that area!).
Beautiful street signs in Cuenca
We spent NYE in Cuenca and intially were struggling to find a good restaurant to visit. Upon exploring the old town, we came across Figon del Huecar (www.figondelhuecar.com) which had a menu in English (we understand very little Spanish) and was set for NYE at 70 euros pp. Upon being almost the first to arrive at 9pm - earliest booking available - we discovered the set menu was in fact 7 magnificent local courses including unlimited bottles of wine (we had two bottles of great Spanish white and a bottle of Spanish red), champagne, and the customary 12 grapes to be eaten at midnight. Service was good, food and wine superb, and a great party atmosphere. One of the best NYEs we've had. Accommodation in Cuenca was at the Sercotel Torremangana (www.hoteltorremangana.com) which is very comfortable, good English spoken, one the edge of a park in the new town and an easy walk to the old city. If you've got a car, parking on the street is easiest as meter times are pretty flexible (around seista) and cheap. We wanted to catch the bus up the hill and back on NYE and we waited at the bus stop for 20mins before concluding that the Spanish bus drivers had decided not to work on NYE, although according to everyone the buses were running (we didn't see one in any direction). Like the attitude.
Cuenca's famous hanging houses
The amazing rock formations just outside of Cuenca
Driving to Alarcon, you are pretty much going through 'no man's land' (this includes the town immediately before of Mortilla del Palancar which is a dump, but it has a great supermarket that we in The Netherlands could only dream about having....) and wonder how such a stunning place, apparantly situated on a hill, could be anywhere near this flat farmland area you are travelling through. However, as you draw close, you realise the town is on a hill but is surrounded by gorges all around, so you drive into a gorge before heading up into the town.
Amazing walks around Alarcon
We stayed at Spa Villa de Alarcon (www.hotelvilladealarcon.com) a very nice 4* hotel that is right next door and much cheaper than the Parador Hotel which is situated in a ruined medieval castle. The views from the room were beautiful and the surrounding area is fantastic for walking. Deep gorges, the Jucar river, forests and amazing rock formations. They have signposts around for a number of different walks so difficult to get lost and unless you go on driving day trips (or you are there in summer and can use the outdoor pool and terrace or go canoeing) there is nothing else to do in Alarcon. After walking one day for a few hours, we headed out in the car, but found there is very little around that part of the world for visitors. Most of the towns seem deserted and the large lake to the north-west was very low on water, so all a bit desperate. One highlight was stopping in La Almarche (another hillbilly town) for coffee with the locals. They thought we were a real treat...
Medieval town of Alarcon
On the second night of our stay, we ate in the restuarant of the Parador and it was a magnificent and grand venue serving a regional menu (that has an English translation). For starters, Gibbo had "Breadcrumbs of the Sheperd with eggs and grapes" which turned out to be crumbs scraped off the bottom of the roasting pan, allowed to go cold, with two fried eggs (for dinner!!) and five red grapes. Completely strange and not very nice, but it was something different. Main course for both of us was "suckling pig" which was quite nice. A good bottle of Spanish red wine went down a treat with it. On the subject of food, avoid the breakfast at the Spa Villa as they charge 15 euro pp and it's a disgrace. However, in the town, there are NO other options as it has two restaurants and two bars (one that is run by Tip Rats).
Parador in Alarcon
SEVILLA, SAN SEBASTIAN, GRANADAWe've also visited these three great cities too. Our favourite was San Sebastian, which is only a fraction over the French border, with nice beaches and good weather (at least when we were there). There's plenty of places to stay, but we found a great little pension called Pension La Perla which was incredibly clean, comfortable and in the city. Trip Advisor rates it as No.2 in places to stay in San Sebastian. Sevilla is another great city that's full of history and has some amazing buildings. However, we remember it best as we were heading directly to New York afterwards and wanted to get tickets to the NBA, so Nicki was in a phone booth to the US trying to secure tickets to the Knicks (which she successfully did and it was awesome!).
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