As the summer vacation season is winding down, I am remembering one of my favorite vacations of all time. I went to Europe with my husband (then boyfriend) at the end of 2013. My favorite country on the trip was definitely Spain. The people in Spain are some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve ever met on a vacation. There is a difference between the kind of friendliness that one experiences due to the fact that they are a paying customer in a foreign country and that which is just the natural demeanor of people in a country. In Spain, it was clearly the latter.
We visited three cities in Spain: Madrid, Barcelona, and Cordoba. We began our trip in Madrid, the capital city. Just after Christmas Day, the city was bustling with tourists and vacationers, mostly Europeans as this was the low season for U.S. travelers to visit Europe. For this reason, I highly recommend visiting Spain in the winter months, as it is cheaper and less crowded without being too cold. Madrid is a busy, bustling city, as it is the capital of Spain. However, I was surprised at how small it actually is. In one day we walked our way across the length of the city and it felt like nothing. Since I’m American I am used to massive cities where walking from one side to the other is either unpleasant or nearly impossible, so this was a huge surprise for me.
Spain is famous for its thick, soupy hot chocolate, so we had to visit a Madrid hot chocolate institution Chocolateria San Gines. The place was packed pretty much all day, with a line winding around the corner even at dinner time. We managed to make our way inside, where a tiny table opened up. The wait was definitely worth it. I had never tasted hot chocolate quite like this before. It was almost like a melted chocolate bar and the combination of fresh, hot churros dipped in luxurious hot chocolate was a heavenly experience.
Of course any visit to Madrid has to include a trip to the famous Prado Museum, which houses a variety of European masterpieces. Admission is also free for students from all countries if you show your school I.D. Sadly, they do not allow pictures inside the museum. We ended our stay in Madrid with a delicious slice of flan. Who could ask for more?
Barcelona was another stop on our trip in Spain. Most people have heard of the great city of Barcelona. Magnificent Gaudi buildings, beautiful art museums, parks, shopping, filming location of Vicky Christina Barcelona, and home to the famous Sagrada Familia, this city has so much to offer. Just walking around and exploring the buildings and shops makes for a perfect day.
Both Casa Batllo and La Pedrara (Casa Mila) are open to the public as museums. We did not tour Casa Batllo or La Pedrara for the sake of time, but we made sure to purchase our tickets ahead of time for the tour of La Sagrada Familia, after seeing a long line for buying tickets winding around the block by 12 pm the day before. If you are lucky enough to get inside the spectacular Sagrada Familia, it is truly breathtaking. There is so much to do and see in Barcelona that three days was simply not enough! That is one of the cities I definitely plan to visit again.
Barcelona is located on the Mediterranean sea and has beautiful beaches. We spent a day strolling along the sunny coastline and were surprised to see that even in the icy winter water, some people were swimming! The weather was beautiful and mild, low-seventies with a nice ocean breeze. We ended the day walking along the crowded and touristy street, Las Ramblas, which is a famously long street winding down to the sea front. There is also a large monument for Christopher Columbus near the end of Las Ramblas, across from the beach . In December when we visited, the streets were decorated with beautiful white lights spelling out “Bones Festes” (Merry Christmas) in Catalan.
Cordoba was my favorite city as it was such a charming, quaint little town in southern Spain. Although we visited in the winter, the sun was so bright and luminous, without being hot or humid. Orange trees were in bloom all around and it was almost like being in a Medieval fairytale village from a children’s story.
The main historic attraction is the Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba, or Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, which was first a Catholic Cathedral, then divided into Mosque/Cathedral, then was fully a Mosque, and then finally converted back into a Cathedral in the 16th century. Quite a complex history! It is very amusing to see the mixture of Arab and Catholic architecture and decor somewhat randomly dispersed throughout. The Roman ruins, dating back to the 1st century, also are an interesting historic sight in this small city.
It was interesting to see the difference in culture in Spain versus the U.S. While there certainly is active nightlife in the majority of large and small U.S. cities, you don’t generally see people in their 70s and beyond out on the town at 10 pm. In Spain, there were people of all ages and physical fitness levels out eating and drinking and shopping well past 10 pm. In fact, Spain really seems to come alive around that time, when people leave work and go out for dinner. It made the trip more fun to be with locals out enjoying themselves well into the night.