Bargain airfares, a favorable exchange rate, and a niece studying abroad pulled me to Spain this spring, my first trip to Europe in many years. Here’s my general spin on 12 days in Spain, with more detailed posts to follow.
#1: In Barcelona, you can never see too much Gaudí. But in Madrid, once you’ve seen 10 portraits of the slack-jawed 18th century monarch Charles III, you’ve seen enough.
#2: Remember the rooftops on hot Spanish evenings, especially in Madrid. Also, if you are staying in Madrid from June to September, spring for a hotel or AirBnB with a pool, to while away the hours of afternoon siesta when it is really too hot to be sightseeing (we didn’t and wish that we had done so).
#3: Ditch the car and ride the rails. Taking a cue from Japan, Spain is building a network of high-speed rail that currently connects most major destinations, including Barcelona, Seville, and Malaga, to Madrid. If you are planning on multiple legs, buy a RENFE Spain pass. The so-called AVE train zips passengers from Madrid to Barcelona in three hours, and from Barcelona to Paris in five.
#4: If you rent a car, be prepared to drive a stick shift and don’t skimp on paying for the Garmin. I did skimp, and the $20 savings decreased my life span by at least a couple of months on an otherwise lovely day trip to the medieval village of La Alberca, about an hour’s drive from Salamanca. The village is easy to find, but getting in and out of Salamanca, even with a map, was challenging without a navigation aid.
#5: Spend at least a couple of nights in a lesser-known or off-the-beaten path destination. We spent four nights in Salamanca, where my niece was studying and which is home Europe’s first university, founded in the 12th century. Initially, I thought it might be a stretch to fill four days in Salamanca, but as it turned out, we could have spent more time there. I loved the city’s lively Plaza Mayor and its cobbled medieval streets packed with history, cafés, and singing students. Who can’t love a town that boasts a public library housed in a 13th century building designed by Moorish architects?
#6: Throughout Spain, reduce your expectations of a foodie paradise. You will eat some very good food, but it’s also likely that you’ll eat meals that are just plain terrible. Generally speaking, you’ll find the best food at small neighborhood restaurants (especially in Barcelona), and the worst at places that cater to tourists: rubbery calamari, lukewarm microwaved paella, and salads drenched in mayonnaise-based dressings.
Even TripAdvisor let me down with its #2 recommendation in Salamanca, the Cuzco Tapas Bar. It was okay, for a bite of solid if not memorable tapas, but the menu was limited and offered nothing unique. The fact that this pedestrian spot earned the #2 rating illustrates the challenge of find the places frequented by locals. While walking around the city, we stumbled upon the excellent El Laurel vegetarian restaurant, which was packed with locals at lunch, and couldn’t seat us. We returned later that evening for a lovely and reasonably-priced dinner, albeit not a very Spanish one (except for the wine).
#7: Speaking of wine,when in Spain, plan on drinking a lot of wine, sangria, and tinto de verana (a refreshing blend of seltzer and red wine). It’s Spain, and you have plenty of time for a siesta. Consider visiting a winery for a wine-tasting, such as those offered at Oller del Mas Cellar by Castlexperience in Barcelona. Just outside of Salamanca, we spent a lovely evening at the winery-hotel, Hacienda Zorita, where we enjoyed a wine tasting and farm-to-table dinner.
#8: If you have time for only one adventure in Madrid, do a food tour, such as those offered by Devour Madrid. On our four-hour tour (mostly walking and standing until the last hour, when we sat down to a tapas meal), we enjoyed the best traditional tapas Spanish of our trip.
#9: Live like a local: ride the Metro and city buses. Both Madrid and Barcelona have efficient, easy-to-navigate Metro systems, along with route-finding apps that work without wifi. But heed the warnings about pickpockets, especially on the Metro. A very polished, well-dressed lady carrying a large coat almost managed to snag my wallet.
#10: Plan ahead, but discover day-to-day. In Barcelona, we loved the bike tour that we discovered. We planned ahead for the recommended hop-on hop-off bus, which was just okay (a lot of time on the bus). However, the bus helped us discover Òleum, the formal restaurant at the Catalan Art Museum on Mount Juic, and we returned for dinner with a view of the fountain show at Plaça D’Espanya.
Sources and resources
For more ideas on rooftop lounging, see “Madrid’s Best Rooftop Bars“.
For more information on La Alberca in the autonomous Castilla y Leon province, see the town website. The village is a popular weekend day trip for Spaniards and also for hikers who want to explore the many trails of the Sierra de Francia. On our visit, we drove to the summit of Peña de Francia to visit a 15th century monastery, now abandoned, although we did find a café in the understory of the modest conference center complex. The summit (pictured in the post header) is a destination for pilgrims. During the summer months, Mass is celebrated on a regular basis in the mountaintop church.