A taste of Spain: 4 cities, 6 nights, numerous tapas, countless fountains
On my one-year anniversary of my move to the United Kingdom, my friend and I boarded a flight to Madrid, Spain and so began my first, ‘independent’ European holiday. By independent, I mean that I took on the role of Travel Agent and every expense, down to the last Euro cent, was mine. As this was the case, we did Spain on a mega shoestring budget! Even I, cheapskate that I am, was impressed. However, while triumphantly securing return flights, transport between cities once in Spain and six nights in two hostels for about 280 pounds, I had failed to consider how much I would be spending on tapas. These delicious dishes took up a decidedly large portion of our budget (which we soon exceeded) but I regret not one of them. OK, maybe just one of them. Accompanying us on the trip was my “Get by in Spanish” book and the fragments of basic Spanish my brain decided to remember from the few Spanish classes I took while living in the U.S. Although I failed to get past page 1 before embarking on our holiday, I did somehow manage to “get by”, even though my nose may have been burrowed in the book numerous times throughout our little vacation. I am now rather confident at saying hello, asking where something is, asking how much something is, asking for the bill, asking for the bathroom and, of course, ordering food.
Our plane arrived in Spain’s capital, Madrid, after midnight. We then took a night bus from the airport to our hostel. The hostel’s name, Hostel One Centro, did not disappoint. In the early hours of Sunday morning, the center of Madrid was alive and buzzing with hordes of people, most young, walking between bars and chatting loudly in groups outside. This was clearly the place to go out at night. Our hostel was a two minute walk from the popular Sol station. After meeting the friendly, helpful staff and retrieving a map of Madrid, newly marked with suggestions of where to go during our stay (we soon found out that the people of Spain love drawing on maps), we gladly collapsed into bed for a few hours of sleep before our first adventure of Spain began.
Day 1 - Sunday
We began our morning by venturing into our neighbourhood and surrounding areas. We soon ended up at Plaza Mayor, another central plaza where buskers and others entertained, passing colourful pashminas and gypsy-like clothing along the way. Later, we stumbled onto the impressive Mercado de San Miguel, an indoor food market filled with various colourful and beautifully arranged nibbles, together producing some mouthwatering aromas.
That afternoon, we visited the huge Royal Palace of Madrid and the Plaza Oriente, where the well-kept gardens are lined by statues of Spain’s monarchs and made beautiful by fountains, including a large, central fountain with a statue of Philip IV seated on a horse on top (Side note: Spain loves her fountains).
We ended off our first day in Madrid by visiting the gorgeous Parque del Retiro (“Park of the Pleasant Retreat”), a large park of big, old trees, lush greenery, sculptures and a large, calm lake dotted with rowboats. We walked around so we could sit on the steps and enjoy the view in the late afternoon sun.
Here, we also enjoyed a ridiculously long strip of pink, sweet goodness we bought from one of the dangerous sweet shops earlier that day. Of course, we had been eating throughout the day. We eagerly took on the Spanish lifestyle of eating many, small meals regularly (our pink dangly sweet being dessert number one).
Day 2 – Monday
As most museums are closed on Mondays, we decided to head off on a day trip to Toledo. Buses to Toledo leave every half hour from the bus station in Madrid and cost under 5 Euros one way, so we didn’t need to book beforehand. The journey there took only 40 minutes. Not having any idea what the countryside of Spain would look like, we were rather disappointed. After passing a very industrial area, we were surrounded by a dry and not extremely attractive landscape.
Toledo itself is beautiful. It’s like a little ancient city, lost in time in the middle of nowhere. We took a walk uphill to reach the old, main entry gates to the city and slowly meandered our way along the main roads and thin alleyways, stopping to admire the historical sights, browse the touristy shops and appreciate the good views. Oh yes, and to eat, on our arrival and on our departure.
We left Toledo later than expected – yes, it is possible to do it in half a day, but it’s just too beautiful to rush through – and arrived back in Madrid later that day. We then spent what was left of the afternoon and the early evening in the Chueca district of Madrid, a little north of our hostel, an interesting and lively area, great for shopping. There are all kinds of shops here, varying from the trendy, to the vintage, to the expensive brands. We then got onto the wide, busy Gran Via (“Great Way”) and made our way back to our hostel.
Day 3 – Tuesday
We took another day trip, this time to Valencia. This particular trip was a last minute decision and booked back in London only days before leaving for our trip. Sticking to my cheapskate guns, and also hoping to see some of the country, I had booked us return bus tickets. On the coast, south of Barcelona, Valencia was a bit of a distance to get there (9 hours on the bus in total) and, again, the landscape wasn’t extremely exciting, but the city was well worth the trip.
Only having a short time, we decided to buy a ticket for a hop on, hop off bus. One ticket includes two routes – the city route and the marina route. Unfortunately, we only had time for the city route, but here, we got to see some of the beauty and history of Valencia. Contrasted against the busy center streets, lined by orange trees, were large, ancient buildings of Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque styles. For the bit of walking that we did in the city, we were able to get up close and personal with the spacious plazas, old buildings and beautifully made bridges adorned by graceful statues, as well as the more modern structures, such as the Oceanographic Park.
Unfortunately, we really had to rush through the sights and, looking back, we both would have been happy spending at least one night in Valencia. That said, it was wonderful getting a taste of the city and gives us good reason to go back sometime in the future!
Day 4 – Wednesday
I’m sad (and yet not) to say that, on our fourth day in Spain, I compromised my values and sat with the rest of the bourgeoisie in the AVE train from Madrid to Barcelona. This cost (just under 60 Euros) was more than what we spent on anything else, including a one way ticket to or from Spain, and a four night stay in a hostel. I decided that it was worth splurging on at least one thing this holiday and comfy transport between our two main destinations in Spain happened to be it. And wow, was it comfortable!
We got to Barcelona early that afternoon and made the very short metro journey to our hostel. The hostel I had chosen was not in the center of the city this time, but a few minutes walk from Badal station in the Sants-Montjuic district. The temperature was noticeably warmer in Valencia so we were expecting warmer weather in Barcelona too, and we were not disappointed. Fortunately, we had had good weather our entire trip so far. Although it had been cold (especially in the shade and at night!), we had had blue skies and sun since landing in Spain. In Barcelona, I could finally leave my coat behind for the first time as we set out on our first mission!
Because of our proximity, we decided to explore Montjuic first. From the metro, we took the furnicular railway to Estactio Parc Montjuic. We then took a bus up to the 17th century Castell de Montjuic at the top, where there is a panoramic view over Barcelona. The view over the coast is great, but the view looking over the city isn’t too beautiful.
We then took the gondola lift down. That was fun, the few minutes it lasted. Once back to where we started, we explored the hill a little more, including a visit to the stadium used in the ’92 Olympics (which was first built in 1927), well-known statues of people doing the local Catalan “Sardana” dance, and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
Due to some incorrect translation on my travel buddy’s part, we thought we were at an ancient palace of some kind. It certainly looked grand enough to be one. However, after further reading, we realised that this was a rather modern building. Palace or not (and my partner in travel is sticking to her guns that it is), it is beautifully built. The view from the museum looked down over the city. Framed between flights of outdoor steps and escalators, we could see the Magic Fountain. Unfortunately, we weren’t at the fountain at the right time to see it ‘in action’ (lights, music, action) but we were just in time to enjoy this great view while the sun descended, all to the sounds of a busker’s soothing guitar performance. It was one of those moments that seem pretty close to perfection.
We ended our day by heading to the another great Spanish market, this time the famous la Boqueria market. It was close to closing time at this point, so we headed straight for our favourite section – food of course – where the sights were bright and colourful, the smells delicious and the authentic food beautifully prepared.
Day 5 – Thursday
Up and at ‘em early in the morning once again, we had a mission to see a good few of Barcelona’s attractions on our last full day in Spain. Excited to see the ocean for the first time in a good few months, we took a metro close to the beachfront and strolled along the seafront. Having not touched proper beach sand for a year, I was determined to take a walk across the sand and feel the temperature of the water. Later, I learnt that this sand was not, in fact, real and I felt rather cheated, which I imagine is how my friend felt on finding out that her old, historical palace at Montjuic was in actual fact a rather modern building.
After our (fake) beach stroll, we went to the center of the Old City, known as the Gothic Quarter, to a plaza where the parliamentary buildings stand. On this day, there were protesters outside. Apparently this is a frequent occurrence. Here, we met our bicycle tour guide and began our three-hour bike tour around the city center and along the beach.
The Gothic Quarter is so interesting – full of big, beautiful buildings from medieval times, Catalan architecture, narrow, winding alleyways, flat upon flat with clothing hanging above, colourful graffiti, old churches, plenty famous and historical sights and last but not least, fountains.
After our bike trip, we headed up to Park Guell in the Gracia district. Designed by Antoni Gaudi and built in the early 1900s, this garden park is known for its mosaic, which covers benches, houses and a well-known lizard which can usually be seen molested by tourists. Again looking down on Barcelona as the sun began to set, we enjoyed another great view of the city before heading back to our hostel to get ready for the night.
On our last night out in Spain, we bought tickets to see a short Flamenco show. Most of the Flamenco shows included supper or a drink and were 40 Euros or more. We found this one online for the smashing price of only 6 euros and it happened to be at Placa Reial in the Gothic Quarter. This quarter, like most of the others in the center of the old city, is spacious in the center with restaurants lining the outsides. Here, you can also find lamps that were designed by Gaudi.
The flamenco show comprised of a five-man band and two female dancers. Although short, it was really enjoyable. I especially liked the band and had never heard music like that live. We then looked around for somewhere to eat. Pretty hungry at this time (our stomachs were still adjusting to eating after 10pm), we got frustrated from going around and around trying to choose the best tapas, and ended up settling for one that seemed reasonable from the outside. Big mistake. Our bike tour guide had told us which areas to avoid for food (including the big touristy street, Las Ramblas) but we had not heeded his advice. Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought that this restaurant looked fine from the outside, since there were images of food outside that looked exactly like those photos you’ll see outside kebab shops in London.
Also on our tour guide’s advice that decent, chilled bars could be found in the district of Gracia, we took a metro to this area, but, once at the metro station, weren’t quite sure where to go, so we ended up heading back to the center of town which was the busiest.
Walking along Las Ramblas (just like walking around Sol station in Madrid, and I’m sure like most of the main areas of the bigger Spanish cities), we were hounded by promoters trying to get us into one of the clubs. We ended up going for one of these on Las Ramblas, and, fortunately, it was pretty decent and not entirely plagued by the rest of the city’s tourists (yes, we may be tourists, but my increasingly improving Spanish skills could have fooled you… OK, even if that were true, the red hair and ghostly white skin seemed to throw people off and immediately put me at a disadvantage).
After a cocktail, we moved on and ended our night at a downstairs club in the same building as where we saw the flamenco. From your traditional club pop, we moved on to 90s hip hop. Different, but fun, especially since 90% of the crowd could have made careers as dancers.
Day 6 – Friday
We had one morning left in Barcelona and we still had a bunch of sights we wanted to see. Unfortunately, we could only fit in two more. We started off with some last-minute shopping back along Las Ramblas and then headed up to the famous Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. This gigantic Roman Catholic church, designed by Gaudi, is still being worked on (and is apparently the cause of much debate) but is magnificent in appearance. Unfortunately, we couldn’t admire its beauty for too long as we still had to rush off to the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat. At this museum, you can go downstairs to old Roman ruins and, by listening to an audio guide, learn about an ancient way of life. It’s very interesting and I would have loved to spend more time there, as well as in the rest of the museum. I was sad to rush through it.
Alas, we had a plane to catch back to London and had to wave Spain goodbye. All in all, it was a top notch holiday. Going over our highlights and low lights on our way home, we couldn’t even think of any real low lights. We settled on our bike tour as our highlight (it was a great way of covering some good ground and seeing many sights in Barcelona as well as going through those windy alleyways ). The only lowlight we could really think of was our disappointing supper on Thursday night, and even then, all the other good food made up for it.
There’s lots to go back for though and so we plan to do just that. One day. A spring trip to Barcelona with a ferry ride to Ibiza is one of my ideas. I’ll add that to the list. So, that makes….. hmmmm…… 1 000 000 and 1?