Spain – what a wonderful country!
I consider those European countries we’ve visited: The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Italy. Spain is probably closest to Italy in vibe, but with a warmer charm, laid back, more Latin compared to the others. Slightly rougher around the edges, with its arms wide open in welcome.
Everywhere in Spain we found the beautiful implication of trust in people and their ability to behave. This is in some contrast to many places in the United States. An example would be rope barriers around historic sites instead of metal barriers or glass. Another example would be in crowded tapas bars. After 2 hours of eat and drink, you ask for the bill and they ask you what you had so they can sum it up. Morning cafes the same way, even at the train station. A matter of trust.
Our ability to speak the native Spanish, for some of us haltingly, was certainly a nice benefit we didn’t have in other European countries.
Madrid. We’d expected a brusk urban tempo and certainly found that in some corners. But even despite the obviousness of our tourist status, we found smiling faces everywhere, from apartment managers to cafe servers to tapas bartenders to rental car clerks.
A great Metro in Madrid, rivalling the one in Paris. Extremely easy to use and a great value. 5-day pass great to have.
Crowded airport, at least in Madrid. Better elsewhere. Not as paranoid as US airports so the security process is saner. But still an undesireable way to travel. Train travel was supremely better although can be more expensive. It can be hard to turn down a $20 fare from Ryanair.
Car travel in Madrid is not recommended. The streets can be jam packed and there are numerous nasty roundabouts. All the taxis we took were very reasonably priced, esp. compared to taxi fares in the US. And the Metro in Madrid can get you anywhere you need.
Valencia. Much more peaceful than Madrid. Beautiful. Our visit was much too short but making friends with the Bonafonts was supremely special.
Sevilla. Also very peaceful. Excellent place to walk around and discover all manner of shops, cafes, and tapas bars. Easy place to get lost, although we navigated it just fine. Stunning architecture – the cathedral is unbelievable.
Granada. Maybe my favorite stopover, even though I was ill. Its grittyness, variety, and warm vibe are almost surprising in the midst of its abundance of tourism.
Finally, it is no revelation that we enjoy sampling different foods, and we found the food culture thoroughly excellent throughout the country. Spaniards obviously love to eat, and frequently, and the focus seems to be on flavor and not on quantity. We found this very enjoyable, and probably a more healthy way to eat than our usual “three squares.”
Some superlatives, conjured while sipping wine and eating jamon at El Siete bar in Madrid our last night:
Best Accommodations: 1st Madrid apartment in La Latina
HM: Apartment in Sevilla (El Arenal barrio)
Best Walk Around Town: Madrid on Christmas Eve
HM: Through Triana west of Sevilla
Worst Walk Around Town: To train station in Córdoba, in freezing downpour
Best Culinary Discovery: Janel – boquerones (salty little fishes)
Linda – fabada (white bean casserole)
John – Kas (canned drink with intense flavor)
Rich – bacalao (salt cod), solomillo (sirloin), sidra (fermented cider), olives
All- the jamon!
All – the cafe!
Forgettable Culinary Discovery: Croquetas
Best Purchases: Linda and Janel – shoes. Rich – scarf, Twisties (snack)
Worst Purchase: Whyanair (Ryanair) tickets
Best Transport: Metro in Madrid
HM: Rental car to Segovia, Pedraza, and Sepulveda (the driver would contest this)
Worst Transport: Whyanair (Ryanair) to Sevilla
Best New Word in Spanish: Rich – cortado, Bici Critica
John – somos chulos
Janel – socarrat
Worst Word emulating Spanish: listamos [This actually means “we list,” but I jokingly used it to mean, “We are ready,” which seemed to annoy the better Spanish speakers among us.
Best Restaurant Madrid: Asturiana place
Best Restaurant Sepulveda: Figon Zute de Mayor, the lamb WOW!
Best Restaurant Valencia: Restaurant in La Albufera for paella
Best Restaurant Sevilla: Kiosko de las Flores in Triana
Forgettable Restaurant Sevilla: Tourist place that served Tio Pepe (Tio Peepee) sherry
Best Restaurant Córdoba: Extremos, try the rabo de toro
Best Restaurant Granada: Arab place in Albaicin with the candles
Best Coffee Experience: L’abad in Valencia
HM: Marimba in Madrid
HM: Cafe de San Millan in La Latina barrio, Madrid
Worst Coffee Experience: Trebol, dinky place on Delicias in Madrid
Best Food Items: Venison and jamon at Bonafonts, jamon at El Siete in Madrid, lamb in Córdoba, sardines in Granada, Cien Mondaditos fast food, beef cheeks, ramen soup, roasted red pepper soup, Mom’s chicken on Christmas
Most Authentic Dish: We learned that the paella we enjoyed with the Bonafonts actually originated in the mid-1800s in the very town where we had it served, in tiny Albufera just south of Valencia. The version we had, with rice, meats, caricoles (land snails), etc. is the authentic Valencian version of paella.
Forgettable Food Items: Roscon de Reyes (sort of a joke because we never tried it), hot dog tapas, croquetas
Best Tapas Bars: When this topic was first proposed, everyone protested that it would be impossible to choose. The wide variety of atmospheres and tapas delights in the many bars we visited makes this selection almost impossible. However, I must make mention of the two that stand out in my mind:
- El Siete in Madrid, for its free tapas, including the occasional jamon iberico, and for its charming super laid back friendly atmosphere
- and El Espejo in Granada, also for its free tapas, atmosphere, and for its upbeat effervescent staff and shamelessly catchy pop soundtrack.
Best Historical or Tourist Site: The Mezquita in Córdoba – the architectural collision of an ultra grand Muslim mosque with even grander Gothic cathedral.
HM: Plaza Sol on Christmas Eve in Madrid
HM: The Alhambra in Granada – three rare and intricately carved Muslim palaces and a fortress from the 14th century. The water features in the Generalife gardens are quite amazing too.
HM: The Cathedral in Sevilla – tremendously huge and beautiful Gothic cathedral
Forgettable Sites: Parade that never happened – Madrid January 5
HM: Inside any Ryanair jet
Best Service (tie): Gentleman server at Extremos in Córdoba for lunch, Lady server at El Rincón in Madrid for lunch
Worst Service: Sourpuss servers at Cafe Mingo (although this is not mean-spirited).
Sites You Wish You Had Seen: Janel: NY the Seville
Rich: More of the tapas scene in Granada (missed due to illness)
Linda: The Prado in Madrid
John: Tres Reyes (The Three Kings) – this is sort of like sitting on Santa’s lap