Enchanting Spain

After a year without real vacation we decided it's time to have some time off and flew to Spain for a week. It became one of the best vacations ever! Spain is really beautiful and huge country that we couldn't visit all the interesting places and decided to see Barcelona and Madrid. We expect to visit Seville and south of the country next time...
In Barcelona we lived in La Ramblaz hotel that is located in the centre of the city on La Ramblaz avenue. Simple, right? Unfortunately this 4star expensive hotel just pretended to be good. We've got a tiny room that had a brick wall instead of a window but with private bath. We never lived in a room without windows and we were quite disappointed... The cleaning service wasn't thorough and electricity stayed ON only if you are in the room,so we couldn't recharge our batteries during a day... This hotel was probably the only disappointment during this trip.
Back to us. We arrived to Barcelona around 11am and were so hungry that Mike demanded lunch right away. So we went to the empty restaurant around 12pm but waitress said they are not serving lunch yet. Apparently lunch starts aroung 1:30-2pm in Spain and before that people have late breakfast or tapas. I read about this in the travel book but didn't believe until that day that lunch couldn't be served at all! So, we picked a few tapas and really enjoyed our meal.

Barcelona is a big and very modern city. There are so many things to see and do that we tried to pick the best and most famous one. First of all we went to the old part of the city and visited Musee Historia that has underground roman city and huge Cathedral.Unfortunately we couldn't go inside of Palau Royal as it was closed for the restoration. Old city is very close to La Ramblaz avenue that is very popular with tourists as there are many outdoor shops and restaurants.
La Ramblaz ends with a round square where Columbus Monument is located. The sea boardwalk starts on the other side of the square. It's nice place to walk but very crowdy even in March. I can't even imagine how busy Barcelona becomes during summer months... La Ramblaz starts with Square where children love to play with numerous pigeons and people enjoy beautiful fountains. These fountains surrounded by italian sculptures look amazing on the sunny day!

Barcelona is famous for its modern architecture. There are a few different buildings built by an architect named Gaudi at the end of 19th and beginning of 20st century.On our first evening we went to see Casa Mila with facade that looks like a wave and warrior columns on the roof. It was built as an apartment complex, so we walked inside one of the apartments - it's amazing, no straignt corridors and no square rooms, every room has a different shape, different windows... I would love to live in such place! Most of tourists hanged out on the roof; the roof has bridges, and arches, and columns that really look like warriors . And there is a great view of the city and famous Sagrada Familia church that was also built by Gaudi.
There are couple more modern buildings just across the street; one, Casa Battlo, was also built by Gaudi and has beautiful balconies, another one looks like moorish building.

Next day we have reserved a bus tour to the famous Montserrat Monastery that is located in the Pyrenees mountains near Barcelona. It's situated on the top of the mountains and one should take a cable car or a bus tour to get there. The road goes around the mountains and it provides both picturesque and scary view at the same time. The monastery still works and even has regular services. We listened to the young boys choir at the end of the service, they sang beautifully. Monastery also has small but nice museum that contains paintings by El Greco and Caravaggio. Cathedral itself is quite huge and hosts magical black statue of Virgin Mary. At the end we took another monorail to the peak of the mountains and made lots photos of mountains and surroundings. Basically if you ever need to go there it's not necessary to buy a tour because guide didn't tell much anyway, just take a cable car - it could be more fun as well.

Everybody in US was talking about Salvador Dali museum in his native town of Figueros but it's quite far from Barcelona. We didn't want to rent a car yet ,so we decided to take a train there and really loved. Train was clean, people were friendly, and we arrived to Figueros in 2 hours. Usually spanish people don't know English much, except for the restaurants, but we were pleasantly surprised when a conductor on the local train talked to us in good English. We just couldn't believe it! Imagine that a conductor in Russian train would be able to speak English?
Dali museum is decorated with eggs and golden statues on the roof  and some strange statues in the front. Basically one can understand that this museum is not an ordinary one. In my understanding it is a former Dali house and some of the rooms are still decorated with the furniture from his life. There are not many famous paintings but many pencil drawn pictures and statues. We liked the ceiling in the huge room that is painted with the figures of Dali and Gala flying the sky...
After enjoying Dali and having delicious sandwich at the train station (!) we head back to Barcelona.
Unfortunaely it was a rainy afternoon but it didn't prevent us from visiting the great Gaudi Sagrada Familia. It's under construction continuously since end of 19the century and builders needs 25 years more to finish the original Gaudi design. Nevertheless it's open for tourists and entrance fee is quite high. We walked inside the great white hall with construction cranes and workers around us :-) White spider-web ceiling in this hall is really amazing! At present time 8 towers are finished and there are 2 elevators on each side to go up. So of course we went up and walked on the roof and over the bridge trying to make photos in the rain. Second elevator was already closed so we went up about 20 stories by narrow stairs and walked on the other side as well. All in all this church is so different in a sense that it feels old but all the architecture and statues are really contemporary and unique...It's definitely worth to visit in 25 years!

On our last day at Barcelona we tried to visit the remaining places as fast we possible. So we went to the Miro Museum where we expected to see many of his statues but instead it mostly contained his symbol-coded paintings that are really strange. After that we went to the traditional spanish village called Poble Espanyol. It was built for the world exhibition and contains houses of different spanish styles. Everything looks very clean, cute and so real! Orange trees are so picturesque along with white houses and terraces. This is a heaven for tourists because it hosts dozens of different gift stores, as well as pottery, paintings, clothes, jewelery and etc.  One can spend a whole day enjoying shopping there.
The only thing is it closes at ~6pm, so be there early! We also wanted to see fountain show near the Palau Nacional but we were out of luck. The show only runs on Friday and Saturday and we arrived on Sunday, so we were not able to watch it :-( Instead we went to the flamenco show one night, unfortunately it wasn't so great and we remembered once more that Barcelona isn't Seville.

Our next major city was Madrid. It's capital of the country and we had to see it of course. Train system is so good in Europe that we decided to take a train. We loved the whole experience. Train station was clean, no special checkout, come to the train, show your ticket and enter the train 15 minutes before the departures. Ride was soft and nice and we were in Madrid in 5 hours! Madrid fascinated us from the first moment. The center of the city looks gorgeous and noble as one can feel this city is a capital. We quickly found our hotel that looked charming.  We looked at the map and found that it was located in the very heart of the city close to the Prado Museum and Plaza de Cibles and almost everything else. After having lunch at the local restaurant we went to the most famous Madrid attraction for the russian people - Museum del Prado. We covered it all in the couple of hours, it's much smaller than Louvre in Paris or Metropolitan in New York. But its collection is amazing and we saw lots of famouse paintings by El Greco, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Ruebens, Bruegel,  Titian, and etc. We were amazed by the huge and beautiful Goya collection. And as we expected Prado was full of russian tourists ;-) On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the busy Plaza de Cibles amd made numerous pictures of the fountain and sculptures. We came back another night and shoot this fountain illuminated again.

Our goal was to visit the most places we can, so instead of being in Madrid for 4 days we rented a small european car for 2 days and took 2 day trips outside of Madird. On the first day we drove to Toledo that is located in about 1 hour drive south from Madrid. Toledo is very old city and it really smells like a historical place. Old city is located on the hill that looks down the river. It has old european feeling with narrow brick streets, a cathedral in the center and big adjoining plaza. First we visited the Cathedral that is very old and famous and has its own art gallery that contains paintings by many famous artists. In the middle ages Toledo was a multinational and multireligious city and it had huge jewish and moorish communities. It lasted for quite a while until the inquisition was born and so most of the jewish people was either killed or sent to exhale. Nevertheless there are still 2 remaining synangogues standing in the old city. We visited them both but they are only tourists attractions now standing empty and in really bad condition because of the subsequent catholic use and wars...  While strolling on the streets of Toledo we came upon a Confectionary shop that sold a traditional toledian marzipan cookies. They are really different and tasty especially when you eat them fresh. We left Toledo in the afternoon and drove to the town of Consuegra. It's located in the La Mancha province that is a historical place where Don Quixote traveled and fought with windmills. There are 7 windmills standing on the hilltop in this town and they look very picturesque and could be seen from far away. We drove up and walked to almost everyone of them. Despite the windy weather we've made lots of photos and even climbed inside one of the opened windmill. We felt like being in the XIV century at that time! But the day didn't finish here as we drove farther south to see Belmonte castle. Unfortunately it was closed but we still enjoyed the views. It was also built around XV century but still stands in the good condition.

Next day we drove up north to the town of Segovia. We took the picturesque road thru the mountains and really enjoyed. When we left it was nice and warm weather in Madrid but mountains were covered with snow and the roadway was still icy, it even looked like ski resort was still open at the top of the mountains. Our first goal was to find old romanian aqueduct which we were afraid to miss but it suddenly appeared right in the center of the city. It's very high and run across old and new parts of Segovia. It's fun to see how buildings are located on teh both sides of aqueduct. It stands for about 2000 years and was still used in 19th century. It's amazing how well roman people could build such a huge  construction... We walked underneath and then climbed up the stairs to see it from the top and entered the old city. As usual the Segovia Cathedral stands in the center of the old city and  of course we visited it as well. It's beautifully decorated and in really good condition. Alcazar is another interesting attraction here. This castle looks imposing and exactly like we've seen castles in the movies.  It was built long time ago but then rebuilt in 14 and 18 century that's why probably it looks so cool! Despite the rain and even hail we climbed to the roof and enjoyed gorgeous view of Segovia Cathedral and the whole old city. After lunch we left beautiful Segovia and drive to the town of Avila which is the center of province. Our main point of interest here was Wall of Avila that surround the old city and are still in great condition. We were allowed to walk on the top of the walls making pictures of the old city and the river. And then there is also Four Points monument where we enjoyed the view of the Walls and Old City from the distance.

To say that our day trips were successful is to say nothing, we enjoyed them tremendously! We were able to see so many different towns and smalls villages while driving in the country. Spain is really beautiful and a place of constrast with snowy mountains and green valleys, old white windmills and dark castles... So car is a way to go if you have time. Highways are great, speed limit is high enough but everybody drive 20km over the limit anyway and smaller roads are not bad either. We were also impressed with good road signs and availability of parking even in old Toledo. BTW, about subway system. We used subway in Barcelona and Madrid a lot and it was very convenient and fast. Barcelona has newer trains and stations but metro is very effective in both cities.

Palacio Real was scheduled for our last full day in Madrid. First we strolled in the Jardin and glimpsed at the Palace from behind and then we took a tour inside the Palace and really loved it. It isn't that huge as Versailles but beautifully decorated and really feels noble. I really loved the open plaza between the Palacio and Monasterio de Escorial... Next we strolled along the streets stoppping at Plaza De Villa, Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor. This last plaza is a huge square surrounded by the buildings on all four sides and people enter only thru couple of arches. King XXX monument stands in the middle and this square was used for bullfights, executions, fireworks and other ceremonies during the ages. Now the Plaza is closed to the auto traffic and is very popular with tourists and different artists. We listened to the street musicians while having lunch at the sidewalk cafe there. After the lunch we decided to enjoy art again and visited Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The museum is quite large and nice but it doesn't have many famous paintings although there is a collection of 20th century art. We were kind of tired but couldn't stand the temptation to visit Centro De Arte Reina Sofia as it's located in 1 block from the "Thyssen". Sofia Art Center is a huge museum built in a modernistic style with glass elevators outside the building. Admission was free that day and so it was very crowdy inside. We decided to check out only the most famous works here and went to see Picasso's "Guernica", Dali and Miro. We went right out after that but I bet one can spend easy 3 hours in this museum.

I want to talk more about spanish food. Every day and evening we went to a different restarant and tried spanish food. Unfortunately we had couple of incidents where a dish we ordered looked completely different to what we expected. It was mostly because we don't know spanish but most of the menus are only in spanish. Majority of waitresses can say only 'fish', 'chicken', 'meat' without describing something else... But we enjoyed numerous tapas in the evening instead. We usually just went to the bar that has lots of tapas on the show and just pointed our fingers to the ones we wanted.
Tapas are delicious and are for everybody - vegetarian, seafood, chicken - and whatever your heart desires! I also would like to mention spanish bakery. They are hundred times better that american ones and only couple of times better than russian. When we entered one once we spen 10 minutes deciding what to take as there were so many delicios pastries to order! And about the flamenco. There are a few restaurants in Madrid that have a stage where flamenco artists perform. We found one using our travel book, had a great dinner and reserved tickets for the next day show. Stage was really small and only two people were able to dance at the same time. Several musicians were playing live guitar music sitting in the chairs on stage as well. Both men and women were phenomenal and we enjoyed the performance very much.

Last morning we went to the
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando that is located next door to our hotel. Unfortunately its collection was really small and not impressive... So we checked out of the hotel, took a taxi and arrived to the arrived. Our flight back was good except for some worries in Paris again where we had really small window to change planes. Even managed to get last sandwich on a baguette! So we arrived home happy about our vacation and knowing in our hearts and minds that we'll definitely come back to Spain some day...

Created: February 28, 2005