Ten tips from 12 days of Spain

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.

Dragon sculpture, designed by Modernist architect Anton Gaudí, at Park Güell, originally planned as an early 20th century luxury home development, but now a much-loved public park in Barcelona.

#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).

A June sunset, from the 9th floor rooftop at El Cortes Ingles department store in Madrid, where we enjoyed Mexican food and margaritas. After sunset, browse the gourmet market, a great spot for picking up foodie gifts.

#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.

The main plaza in the mountain village of La Alberca, a National Historic Site, with homes preserved in the medieval style. Note the crucifix dominating the square. The village is popular with local day trippers and with hikers seeking to exploring the surrounding Sierra de Francia trails.

#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?

My favorite elephant, a popular meet-up spot at Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, the largest in Spain.

#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.

Enjoying a pre-dinner glass of wine on the grounds of Hacienda Zorita, near Salamanca.

#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.

Our Devour Madrid tapas tour took us to the narrow streets of old Madrid, where each tapas bar has a signature dish, such as the garlic shrimp offered here along with a glass of sweet Spanish vermouth. We never would have found these places without a great deal of time and research.

#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.

In the summer, locals flock to Barcelona’s Plaça D’Espanya for the fountain show, street entertainment, and evening breezes.


#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.

The unexpected surprise of mountain goats wandering the around the 15th century monastery at the 5,682-foot summit of Peña del Francia, outside of La Alberca. Another surprise on the almost-deserted mountain: good coffee and drinks in a summit café.

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.




About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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4 Responses to Ten tips from 12 days of Spain

  1. arif says:

    I wish I could afford”luxury” for such exotic travel. I have enjoyed reading about your experience but it’s unlikely I will ever be able to go on such a trip. It has given me some vicarious reading about your trip and the imagery you have given. I don’t go beyond 30 miles, maximum, of where I live but I just drove all the way to relocate in Ohio from California.

    • Thank-you for reading my blog. Driving from Ohio to California is a huge trip; I had a similar adventure, more than 30 years ago, when I drove from Maine to Wyoming to start a job at Yellowstone Park. California is a world unto itself, full of great places to visit, and I hope you get to explore that great state. This trip to Spain was more “luxurious” than most of my travels, but for most of my life, travel has been a budget adventure, and there is so much you can do and see for very little money.

  2. JM says:

    Love the goats! They’re strange, but lucky creatures! I hope you’re enjoying your travels as much as I’m loving mine!

    • Thanks for stopping by. The goats were a fun surprise at this lonely outpost for 15th century monks (although I think it is less lonely on weekends and in the full swing of summer, when many pilgrims visit).

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