Reflections on Spain
Beyond Madrid and Barcelona
Winter is nearly over, the daffodils are peeking through the soil, the baseball "Boys of Summer" are preparing for their marathon season by gathering in Florida and Arizona, and for me it is time to dream about a trip to Spain. This year, my wife Ruth and I will be visiting friends in Andalucía. The highlight will be the wedding of the daughter of good friends in Sevilla. Several summers ago, she spent a few weeks with us while she was still in school. Her dad's family produces the superb coffee called Catunambú, which some of you may have tasted.
As I was forming my plans, I thought I would send along a few thoughts which might help some of you who are also dreaming of a trip to Spain.
The first one is that Spain is a large country with 17 autonomous regions. It is extremely easy to rent a car and have the freedom to schedule where you would like to be. Most of the roads are modern and well-marked, and often they are better than what we have here. What I usually do is buy the latest Michelin Road Atlas online and identify these special places I would most enjoy.
Each region has a different landscape, different customs, and sometimes even different languages or dialects. A little planning with a map or guide book will help you make the most out of your trip.
My favorite way to get to know the real Spain is to get out among the locals. And that could be in the market, or at a café or strolling around town.
One region that is less known, but truly wonderful, is Galicia in northwest Spain, located above Portugal. The climate in some ways is similar to that of Ireland and the locals descend from Celtic stock - they even play the bagpipes! It is green and lush with cows grazing on the rolling hills which lead to the Atlantic Ocean just like the British Isles.
The bread from Galicia is legendary. That's why we bring some of it over for you to enjoy from the medieval walled city of Lugo. Galicia is famous for seafood, particularly shellfish that pair beautifully with the local Albariño wine. The capital, the ancient pilgrimage city Santiago de Compostela, is of one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations in the world. You may have seen the movie "The Way" by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, set on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Whether for spiritual reasons or for a sense of adventure, people from all parts of the world walk this ancient route - a life-changing experience.
Traveling to Galicia, or any other region of Spain, is easy. Simply transfer planes in the Madrid airport, and you will be in Santiago, Barcelona or Sevilla in less than an hour. Or catch one of the sleek Ave bullet trains for an even more civilized experience.
We love the drive from Galicia along the northern coast of the Cantabrian Sea, to the beautiful mountainous region of Asturias. The Asturians are proud that they were the first Spanish to turn back the invading Moors over 1,000 years ago. On Sundays, which is market day in the ancient mountain village of Cangas de Onis, you can spend a couple of hours sampling wonderful cheeses, wines and produce. The aroma of mountain cured cheeses is everywhere. And when you are done, you can take a breathtaking drive down the steep valleys of the Picos de Europa mountains until you arrive in León.
This monumental city has two fascinating cathedrals - one of them built by the Visigoths fifteen hundred years ago, the other a Gothic triumph with walls of stained glass filling the interior with glowing colors on a sunny day. Unlike in Barcelona or Madrid you will see very few tourists, which makes the experience special.
If you'd prefer to spend time in the classic sun drenched south of Spain, you could head south to Sevilla or to the sherry towns of Andalucía, where Africa is only miles away across the Mediterranean Sea. No more Celts, now the culture is decidedly Mediterranean with strong Moorish and Roman influences.
Andalucía was an important part of the Roman Empire. It provided ancient Rome with so much olive oil that to this day there are small mountains of olive pits from over two thousand years ago. By the ancient port of Cádiz, there are evaporating flats of saltwater that have produced sea salt since the time of the Phoenicians. Even Roman emperors such as Trajan grew up here.
In 711 AD, the invading Arabs and Berbers (fierce north African mountain people) were invited over to the Iberian Peninsula by quarreling weak Christian warlords. In one way or another, they ended up much of Spain for over 700 years! Perhaps their greatest architectural achievement is the mosque (now cathedral) in Córdoba with its seemingly infinite rows of striped arches and contemplative ambiance. A friend of mine who lives in the Basque Country told me that when he drove with me down to Granada, it was as if he were in a foreign country. Whitewashed towns overlooking plains covered in olive trees to the horizon provide a stunning contrast to the rustic stone villages of northern Spain.
I do not intend to write an extended travelogue, but rather to acquaint you with a variety of options that are available to you when you say you're going to Spain. The variety is so great. And I have learned that it is not a great idea to try to see it all at once. When I was young and foolish, I would fly to Galicia for a few days and then drive across Extremadura and Andalucía, trying to take in a dozen cities in a week. I was a crazy American! It would be like trying to visit the whole of the United States in just a few weeks!
Many of my Spanish friends have told me, "Oh I visited the United States and enjoyed it very much." But I soon found out that, in fact, they had only visited Manhattan or Miami. Similarly, if you only visit Barcelona or Madrid, you are missing out on the true heart of the country.
Barcelona is the city of choice for many travelers nowadays. It is a wonderful city, I recommend the fabled open-air market called La Boqueria, off of the Ramblas walking street, and then catch a taxi to the National Museum of Catalán Art at the foot of Montjuic park. You will see sublime medieval murals and replicas of churches in the Pyrenees that you will see no other place in the world. As for Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church, it is worth seeing if you can handle the mobs of tourists who will join you there!
After a day or two in Barcelona, I urge you to rent a car and visit some wonderful towns nearby. The town of Vic is famous for its white sausage, salchichón de Vic, but also for a precious museum of medieval wooden sculpture. Or drive to the beautiful ancient mountain city of Girona. In the cathedral, there is in a sublime 11th century tapestry called "The Creation." There is also a restored Jewish quarter and a fascinating cultural center there telling of the impact of the Sephardic Spanish on the country as a whole.
Or you can drive north to the Costa Brava, the "fierce coast" with its dramatic countryside. Craggy cliffs on the Mediterranean loom over quiet coves where you can spend time on the beach, or feasting on local seafood. In the spring, you can feast on calçots, delicious grilled spring onions that are a local passion.
Of course, I could say the same about Madrid. It is full of cultural sights - you can't miss the Prado Museum or the main plaza surrounded by wonderful restaurants. But very nearby you can visit Segovia with its Roman aqueducts, storybook castle and roast suckling pig. Or visit the city of Toledo with its grandiose architecture and El Greco paintings. Or visit the stunning walled city of Avila, surrounded by over 80 crenelated towers.
I have not even touched on the charms of the mountainous Basque Country, the rustic countryside of Extremadura, the vineyards of La Rioja or the beautiful islands of Mallorca and Menorca! My point is to encourage you to venture beyond the most popular destinations and discover the stunning variety of landscapes, architecture and cuisine that make up Spain.
"How is it it took so long for anyone to talk about Southern Spain. How about talking about Jerez. The famous school of the horse dance. Or Archos De la frontera it’s beautiful. The food in the vetas along the the roads. The tapas and the wines from the south. Southern Spain is beautiful, the people are warm and kind. They are always willing to help the stranger. I loved Spain and I lived there for over 12 years while in the military."
"Your comments on the joys of Spain bring back fond memories, having lived near Madrid for several years in the 80s. Your opening picture of Segovia had me going to maps to plan a favorite journey - Madrid to Segovia with an afternoon dinner at Candido’s at our favorite window table overlooking the aqueduct. There are so many historical places to visit along the way that I could easily turn it into a week long journey. Keep up the good work. "
"Great article and describes why we love Spain so much. I tried to share the article on Facebook but I guess the way you are set up does not allow linking to specific pages."
"You are SO right! There are so many fine places to visit in Spain--and so many fine dishes to eat."
"My family and I were fortunate enough to spend 4 years stationed at Torrejon AB near Madrid. Traveled extensively. 2 areas you did not mention were El Escorial (truly magnificent if you are a history buff, even if not) and a little known castle - Castle Coca. 1500 year old Moorish armor, Moorish castle, was being converted for the forestry ministry. And last but not least, Nava Cerrada, the mountain outside of Madrid."
"Great read. We will be in Andalucia in late April. Granada, Cordoba, Jaen. Any restaurant recommendations?"
"I am from Madrid, Spain and I am so glad you have such positive comments about my country. I have lived in the USA for fifty years now. I find this country spectacular, wherever you go. My husband, an American, loves Spain. He always says that Spain has everything the USA has but in miniature. I agree with that, anywhere you go in Spain, you will find so much history, delicious food and wonderful people, ready to help.....and feed you!!! As you said, the best thing is to mix with the people. Actually, we like to spend most of our time in a little town just 35 miles from Madrid, named La Torre de Esteban Hambran, in the province of Toledo. Just 1500 population. Good food, great wine from the D.O. de Mentrida. Peaceful place but fun fiestas in September. Thousand of places like this are all over Spain. Recommended for all ages."
"Of course I am already a customer, but really appreciate your vignettes of Spain, esp Galicia where there are mussels a plenty and the beautiful coastal towns around Vigo, just south of Santiago de Compostella. Have been several times and just about any lunch goes with Albarino wine. Thanks again and for your excellent website, recipes and products."
"Santiago de Compostela in Galicia is far and away my favorite part of Spain. I have traveled extensively in the country and find the people and customs there delightful. Go in the summer, around the 25th, to enjoy the fiesta."
"Don has provided excellent guidance to us on our travels to Spain, last year we visited the Alcala de Real castle, absolutely amazing!! We also met with Fermin of Senorio de Vizcantar and his wife, lovely people and the BEST olive oil!"
"Another great article Don. I concur wholeheartedly with getting away from Barcelona and Madrid. My wife, originally from Jerez de la Frontera, and I visit a different region during our annual trip to Spain. Last year we flew to Barcelona, visited with relatives, and then took off for the Pyrenees and toured Aragon and Catalunya. Beautiful scenery, great food and friendly people. This year we are off to Asturias. Keep the great articles coming, we enjoy them."
"As always I enjoyed your brief travel log, Don. Jennie and I so look forward to experiencing Spain once again after our introduction with you and Ruth in 2016. The land is so varied and the people so family oriented that it feels like home and yet so exotic at the same time. Look forward to a not too distant return... Tu amigo, Jeff"
"Thank you! I am a Basque from the beautiful city of San Sebastián, married to an Italian man and living in the state of Texas which is bigger than my country of origin. Nonetheless, Spain is so varied in landscape, food and customs that as you suggested, one really needs to go a number of times to really enjoy it and its ancestral cultures. Being from Spain away from Spain, it warms my heart to see your enthusiasm and dedication to Spain, its people and its food. Gracias!"
"Cada vez que vamos a la tienda, nos vamos con ganas de viajar a Espana para conocer directamenta las maravillas alimenticias y turisticas que se ofrecen. Pensamos ir este setiembre. "
"Great article, great suggestions! There are so many wonderful places to experience throughout Spain. You have included a picture of one of our favorites, Siguenza (love the town, love to stay in the Castle/Parador) but did not mention it in your discussion."