Beyond Madrid and Barcelona

Don Harris | February 2018

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 in 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.