The Ebola scare was at it’s peak. Teresa Ramos, a nurse who had travelled to the affected African states, had been diagnosed with Ebola and was just released from the Carlos III Hospital in Madrid – which in the irrational paranoia, seemed only a stone’s throw away from our hotel. Eventually, after the nominal waiting period, the WHO declared Spain Ebola-free on December 2nd, 2014, just a week before we flew out from San Francisco on one of our most anticipated journeys.
Fact: Over 14 days, we drove through southern Spain – Andalusia. Starting out in Madrid and mostly recovering from jet lag, we crawled through Segovia (with a quick side trip to Penafiel), Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, the Pueblo Blancos (Arcos de la Frontera, Rhonda, Zahara, Olvera and Osuna), the stunner that is Granada, and a short stop in Valencia towards our final two days in Barcelona.
Tip: Here is the geo-image of the full trip. If you need a .kml of this so you can zoom in to every nook and corner of the places we visited in Google Maps or Google Earth, drop us a note. The .kml would be very useful to locate places we stood at to photograph, the good views, the best parking locations, the restaurants we had food at, to name a few.
Tip: Folks search for destinations to travel to in Winter, and come up with either the beach (and a deep depression when you return), or anywhere south of the Equator, which is peak season and expensive. Spain, on the other hand, is a fabulous destination to visit over the winter holiday season. It’s not that cold (typically no snow, and nothing that a good jacket cannot protect you from – and I am from India), its relatively available, less crowded, festive and economical.
The flight from SFO to JFK was painless, except for the nonexistent American Airlines service. Having been through countless delays and cancellations on United, I was more than happy to have reached on time to catch the second leg of our flight on Iberia. JFK, on the other hand, was as maddening as ever – a claustrophobic cacophony of confused crowds. We managed to get a small table at a McDonald’s to rest a bit, amidst the incessant hand-gel applications.
Our next leg from JFK to Madrid was on Iberia Airlines. I had taken Iberia once earlier – a local flight from Lisbon to Madrid – and found it no different than the commuter chaos shuttle that a Ryanair would operate. But this one, this one was a surprise. Posh, clean, white. Even the passengers seemed upscale. Maybe it was the contrast from the chaos of JFK or AA, but we were in for a good flight. But I speak too soon.
The World’s Melting Pot
Not being able to doze off, my mind started racing with anticipation on what to expect from our trip. Spain has probably the most intermingling of cultures and religions than any other place on this planet, except for maybe Jerusalem and the adjoining regions of the Middle East, and India.
The documented history and culture amalgamation started when the Phoenicians first appeared in Spain around 900 BC, and formed settlements around Cadiz and modern day Malaga – where one is now hard pressed to find any Spaniard, as it is overrun by tourists from the German and English speaking population. The Phoenicians occupied Spain for roughly 250 years before the Carthaginians took their place at around 575 BC – Carthage having been formed by a Phoenician queen. The Carthaginians occupied Spain for another 400 years.
Fact: To put things in perspective, the combined Phoenician and Carthaginian rule over Spain lasted for 800 years – that’s as long as the duration of the Holy Roman Empire which lasted from 962 AD to 1806 AD. Another tidbit, take one guess where the Phonetic nature of most of our languages comes from.
Tip: Not much is left to see from the Phoenician occupation at this time. There are some remains around Malaga and south eastern Spain.
The Romans started forming settlements in Spain around 200 BC and had completely conquered the Iberian peninsula by 19 BC. From then on, till their empire dwindled, Romans built bridges, aqueducts, churches, arenas (coliseums), forts, walls, towns, and everything else they were good at building. They introduced Visigoths and other immigrant soldiers in their armies. As it is with most cultures that mature and start leaning towards art and culture, and delegation of the menial and difficult work to folks who are hungrier – immigrants.
The Visigoths overthrew their lords and were one of the critical reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire globally, and so it followed in Spain as well, where Visigoths took over large pockets of the Iberian peninsula by 480 AD and ruled it till about 711 AD. The Visigoths were friendlier to the Jews, who migrated in large numbers from the troubled Middle East and settled in Spain.
Tip: Next to Italy, Spain has the grandest display of Roman architecture, culture and influence. Whether it was bridges, roads, forts, walls, aqueducts, or complete towns, things were (and are) not much different from Italy in terms of Roman ruins.
Fact: By 700 AD, there was already an amalgamation of Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Visigoth (Goth) and Jewish influence in the architecture, art, literature, foods and religions of Spain.
And then came the Moors, or the Muslims from Damascus. The Damascenes, from present day Syria had moved towards Morocco and crept into southern Spain (Andalusia) in 711 AD, and by 720 AD, had occupied almost all of the Iberian peninsula.
Tip: Because of those 750 years of Moorish rule, the face of the Iberian peninsula changed forever, and it’s also the reason why Spain looks different from any other country in Europe. The Moors brought spices, exotic foods and recipes, distinct architecture, fine handicrafts, gorgeous art and literature.
Fact: For the next 750 years, till 1492 AD, the Moors / Muslims ruled Spain.
To put things in perspective, the United States of America is only 250 years old. The British Rule in India lasted a mere 300 years. Italy as we know it has existed only for 100 years. And the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt as well as the duration of the Roman Empire were both just 500 years long.
The 1400s were significant for Spain in may ways. Queen Isabella of Castille y Leon had married King Ferdinand of Aragon and had formed the largest Christian kingdom of the Iberian peninsula. The Moorish rule was waning, and the Reconquista that Isabella had started from the north, was slowly inching the Muslims out from Andalusia and the rest of Spain. And Isabella, fearing the might of the Portuguese and French empires, and under pressure of finding an alternate spice route to India because of Portugal having done that through Vasco da Gama’s valiant seafaring journey around Africa, put her trust in an unknown sailor, and gave him the support he needed to go find that route.
In 1492, two critical things happened. The unknown untrusted sailor discovered America for the European-centric world. And Isabella managed to throw out the remaining traces of Moorish rule from Spain, uniting the country in a single Christian nation. Christianity came back with a vengeance. And Columbus’ discovery brought unprecedented riches from the Americas to Spain.
Fact: Spain was one of the most feared superpowers for the next 500+ years. It was the first global colonial empire, and was (along with the Portuguese) one of the longest lived Western Europe Empires.
Tip: All across Spain, the architecture is a perfect amalgam of Roman, Moorish and Christian influences, and surprisingly, none of the religious and political leaders demolished what existed. Which enables you to witness a church within a mosque (Cordoba), a Christian king built wall above a Roman Wall (Barcelona) and a tower made of Roman, Moorish and Christian architecture slapped one above the other (Seville). This makes Spain the most unique country in the world.
Christianity and Christian kings and queens reigned supreme all the way to the modern age, when the infamous dictator Francisco Franco overthrew the young Spanish king in 1936, and via the bloodiest civil war this Earth has seen in her history, converted Spain into a Fascist state – hidden away from publicity as the rest of the world was dealing with two other fascist dictators just next door – Mussolini and Hitler. Spain suffered through this (and it’s gradual conversion into a totalitarian state) till as recently as 1975, when after Franco’s peaceful death, Spain finally became a democratic nation.
What we see as Spain today is only 40 years young.
A Tale of Two Countries
I started recalling an article I had read in one of the in-flight magazines around the history of Spain, and how tourism has just started to flourish there compared to Italy, which has been a tourist destination for decades. The two countries are so similar, it is uncanny.
When it comes to food and wine, you could crave Jamon or Prosciutto; Risotto or Paella; Cava or Prosecco; and you would do ok. Olives are staple in both countries. Both countries had crazy fanatic dictators around the same time period – Italy got its Mussolini, Spain got its Franco.
Italy’s olive and wine region, Tuscany, has rolling dry hills, with countless medieval villages perched above each hilltop as far as the eye could see. One could retire here amidst the luxurious food, wine, scenery, history and culture. Spain’s olive and wine region, Andalusia, has rolling dry hills with countless medieval villages perched above each hilltop as far as the eye could see. What’s more – each village is immersed in brilliant whites, with a singular church and a singular fort breaking the pattern. One could definitely retire here amidst the delectable food, wine, spectacular scenery, history and culture.
And finally, one Italian, Christopher Columbus, walked over to Queen Isabella of Spain and promised to find a new route to India for the Spice Trade.
Day 1 : Acclimatization
The New Capital
Toledo was the capital of Spain when the Visigoths ruled over the Iberian Peninsula. During the Moorish rule the capital shifted to Cordoba, and briefly even went as far south as Granada. After the Christian Reconquista, the capital was moved back to Toledo. King Philip II was kind of sick of the Roman Christian Church wielding power over the Spanish kingdom for the past 100 years, so he decided to secretly move the capital to Madrid using the construction of a new church as an excuse, and wrangle himself and his monarchy out from the grips of the Roman Church. Since 1561, Madrid has been Spain’s capital city.
We landed at Barajas at 7am in the morning, and walked what seemed like miles in the clinically clean airport towards immigration (flawless) and baggage claim. And there we waited. All the baggages rolled around the conveyor except ours. A few futile hours later, it dawned on us that they had been misplaced, leading to hours of standing in queues, painful calling, filling out forms, while the kids got irritated and hungry.
Tip: Always keep some food, a change of clothes, enough undergarments, and your chargers in your carry on luggage. There has to be enough for the family to survive a couple of days with misplaced baggage.
We took a cab into the city and arrived at our hotel around noon, and explained to the front desk the situation with the luggage. And then we flopped on the bed and dozed off.
Tip: However tired you and the kids are, you should always crawl out and explore something. Even if it’s the local restaurant. And go to bed around the local bed time. Other tips for avoiding jet lag include, drinking tons of water (or eating hydrating fruits and veggies) and taking a nap on the flight (next to impossible with kids).
We shook ourselves out of the deep sleep as I had smartly reserved a table at Botin, the Oldest Restaurant in the World for our dinner that night. There was no choice but to get up and go.
Our first view of Madrid was spectacular. A pale winter sunset, and a peaceful walk across the manicured gardens of Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace), strolling beside the grand Teatro Royale (Royal Theatre) peering into bookshops, cafes and craft stores as we make our way towards Puerta del Sol, weaving through the throngs and inching ourselves towards Plaza Mayor.
A few steps further down, we found ourselves at the oldest restaurant in the world. Botin is incredibly intimate with a dollop of character not easily found anywhere else. And unlike a tourist trap, the food was delicious and the service impeccable.
After dinner, we walked back towards the cast iron and glass Mercado San Miguel – a smorgasbord of culinary delectables. It reminded me of the various other cast iron and glass markets that I had seen – from the Great Market Hall in Budapest, the Burroughs Market in London, to the Hogg’s Market in Calcutta.
With our stuffed bellies, we browsed through the produce sections of fresh tomatoes, cherries and other fruits and vegetables, the various kinds of jamon being sliced on the spot, and the scattered stalls of decorated eggs for Christmas, and other knick knacks. The one thing that couldn’t escape our youngest’s desires was the chocolate con churro – a pack of churro sticks, unlike the sugary versions you get here in the United States, but coupled with a cup of melted warm dark dense chocolate. You are supposed to dip the churros in the chocolate and eat them. We could have eaten a few pounds, and maybe did over the course of the next two weeks.
We stocked up on some breakfast groceries and caught a cab back to our hotel.
It was 11.30 pm by the time we came back to the hotel, and we were smack dab in the middle of jet lag – that is, fresh and wide awake. Kids were cajoled, scolded, threatened, and finally gave in and went to bed. We were up.
I tried to count sheep. Maybe that would work – I was that desperate. I closed my eyes and literally started counting sheep jumping across a wooden fence. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, … Was the supply of sheep infinite? Nah, it’s better if they go round and round in circles. Round and round they went. Faster and faster. Stop. Why did they have to be so cartoonish? Fluffy balls of wool. Why not the block-based Minecraft sheep? Or the smooth Toy Story kind? While we are at it, why white sheep? Let’s make them black – why discriminate? While we are at it, let’s complete the makeover and make them horses – way more elegant. It’s like watching an equestrian event at the Olympics – black steeds elegantly jumping over wooden obstacles. Grand and exciting. Argh. Let’s just make them cows – slow, always munching sloths with their hypnotic moos.
And I was up. Decided to work out a plan for next day instead, and booked a flamenco show for the evening so that we don’t sleep early enough.
Day 2 : Out of Memory
We didn’t wake up all night. All of next morning. All of the afternoon. Kids who would normally get up while we wanted to sleep – even they slumbered through the day. The world could have been struck by an asteroid and we wouldn’t have noticed. I somehow panicked and woke up at 5 pm – we could have gone for another few hours. It took us a whole two days to somewhat recover from jet lag, kids took a little longer.
Tip: Always plan your trip in a way that will allow you and your family to recover from jet lag and yet not lose time. For us, Madrid had sights to see, but primarily it’s a foodie destination, and we could recover from jet lag as well as get out late at night (when Madrid parties, even in winter) and enjoy the city. Also, pre-scheduled bus tours during this time could help kids sleep if they wanted, plus they aren’t walking around much to feel tired.
We took a cab to Las Ventas – the intricate yet grand bullring of Madrid, where bullfights take place to this date. It was off season, and neither are we bullfight lovers; we simply wanted to check out the architecture which was predominantly Moorish (the Mujedar style of architecture) even though it was built in 1931. Along the way, in regular chit chat with our cabbie, I asked whether he supported bullfighting. He said no, he doesn’t support nor does he like to attend it. And he doesn’t even like Flamenco for that matter. How so? – I asked. “Well, where are you from?” he asked, to which I replied “United States.” “Do all of you like the rodeo or country music?” Touche.
Upon asking, he also pointed out what he believed was the best tapas place in Madrid – a few blocks from the bullring – Los Timbales. I trust a local’s recommendations above everything else on the web. But after spending some time at Las Ventas when we strolled over to Los Timbales, it was 6pm and it was just opening. We decided to skip it, and took a cab down to the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), and decided to walk from there through Gran Via to Puerta del Sol and our flamenco show. All the monuments, streets, plazas were lit ablaze with color because of the holiday season – unlike here in the US, where things are generally pretty drab, except if you are a mall rat.
We rushed to the Flamenco show at Torres Bermejas – an intimate location that has hosted many famous Flamenco dancers in it’s history. The show was fabulous – for me, the music was as compelling as the dances themselves. Highly recommended. You could buy tickets directly from their website, or use Viator – both work well.
The city had just woken up to party by the time the show got over. We started walking towards Puerta del Sol – the busiest square I have been in after the Esplanade in Calcutta, India. People, all dressed up and merry, were teeming into and out of the square. It was like Times Square on NYE. It is supposedly the geographic center of all of Spain. Ten streets converge onto this busy square, and it seems to be the starting point of all nightlife in Madrid.
There are a whole bunch of not-so-good American fare in and around the square that you should be wary about. They are best avoided but kids were hungry, and wanted Mac and Cheese (what a surprise) – so we hunted for a decent enough tourist trap and had dinner there. The most forgettable in the entire trip.
There were two other things I wanted to accomplish that day – a quick visit to the Real Madrid store near Puerta Del Sol and a quick hop into La Cure Gourmande which sells the most delicious and flavored nougats in the world.
In and around the Christmas week, Madrid is bursting at its seams. There is literally no space to walk – even at 11pm at night, and we were trying to rush to the stores before they closed. Plaza Mayor, the old town square of Madrid, was immersed in a feria, and there were either food, toy or trinket stalls or homeless folks and urination stains and smell. Not the Plaza Mayor I had seen in summer a few years ago – if there isn’t a feria, the Plaza is a beautiful place to spend your evening.
Tip: Every square in every town or city in Madrid is immersed is ferias (fairs) that take place over the Christmas break. So if you are planning to visit in the month of December, be prepared to see them crowded, filthy and unappealing.
We barely made it to the Real Madrid store and bought our kids a jersey each. The store was cool, the service rude. We were in and out quickly. We didn’t have the energy to plough through the crowds to head to La Cure Gourmande, so we decided to just enjoy Puerta del Sol and revel in the cacophony that surrounded us before heading back to the hotel.
Day 3 : Magerit
The Source of Water
Whether the name comes from an Irish-Gaelic history (Magerit – place of abundant water), or the name of a Roman fort (Matrice – just the name of the river) or from the Moorish settlers who built a fort here (Mayrit – giver of life), it evolved into Madrid after the Moorish rule.
On the following day, we had booked a bus tour of Madrid followed by a more detailed walk through of the Palacio Real. The bus tour was leisurely, and kids could sleep on it which made the parent very happy.
Madrid is a grand, beautiful and impressive city – a city of about 4 million people with expansive boulevards, ornate palaces and gorgeous buildings. Wide tree-lined streets with good architectural principles in mind, beautiful mansions, stunning official buildings, large parks. It was serene. But somehow, it’s not picturesque, except for maybe the center around the Royal Palace, Theater or the two large plazas – Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol.
The afternoon was spent walking through the Royal Palace. No photography was allowed – so we walked light without the heavy camera gear and actually enjoyed the tour, rather than hurriedly photographing.
The Palacio Real or the Royal Palace is the largest functioning palace in Europe and the sixth largest in the world. The palace was royal indeed and grandly demonstrated the opulence of the opulence of the Spanish Empire. The current Spanish King and Queen still use it every once in a while for official functions, though they reside in a more down to earth palace on the outskirts of Madrid – Palacio de la Zarzuela. The palace stands where a 9th century Moorish fort (Alcazar) was built, and was rebuilt around the 16th century after being destroyed in a fire.
To me Madrid has the quintessential small town feel, and more importantly is a foodie paradise. Sure there is San Sebastian and Barcelona and Basque country – but those places evoke a formal, cold and somewhat formidable approach to dining out, while Madrid is like your mom’s kitchen. Every nook and corner, every side street, every hole in the wall, has incredibly scrumptious and delectable cuisine that you can spend a lifetime exploring.
After our tour, this being our last day in Madrid, we decided to do spend some time on a leisurely El Paseo – or the post-dinner walk – a centuries old Spanish tradition that is being morphed into and expanded in scope into what is now commonly known as Tapas bar hopping. It used to be more than that. It was a way for Spaniards to walk out and socialize, especially in the long summer months. It was a way for young men and women to meet as the men walked clockwise around the town’s main Plaza, while the women walked counter clockwise sending out encoded messages to prospective suitors via their flapping fans. There was no dinner and a movie; the dinner and paseo was the entertainment.
We started our own paseo in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood on Calle Cava Baja, first stopping at El Tempranillo for a selection of pinchos (slices of baguette topped with meats, fish, fruits, cheese and jelly, or anything yummy you can think of) and then hopped from bar to bar carving our way through thick bustling crowds, taking a quick detour towards El Madrono for their famed Madrono liqueur in edible chocolate-coated wafer shot glasses. Walking further down Cava de San Miguel past Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world where we had dinner earlier, we wound back up at the iron-and-glass Mercado San Miguel and ended the day with significant doses of chocolate con churro.
We took a cab back to hotel late at night and found out that our luggage had arrived – 3 days into our vacation and almost in the nick of time before we drove off to Segovia. We went up to the terrace of our hotel and soaked in the view of the Palacio Real for a good 30 minutes in the cold winter night before retiring away from Madrid.
It was a good day indeed.
Day 4 : Towards Segovia
We checked out of the hotel and took a cab to the Chamartin train station to pick up our rental car. Thought process being that this would be closest to the freeway and I will have to drive the least inside of Madrid. In hindsight, maybe it didn’t matter, and I could have rented from anywhere including the airport.
Tip: While booking a rental car in Europe, make sure that you pick the automatic option, make sure you call the location a few days before you leave and confirm that they have an automatic, and even then chances are low that you will get one if you arrive later in the day – you might have to wait a while.
Tip: Carry an offline GPS in your phone. Sygic has been wonderful for us, and they have steep discounts. Google Maps is soon to turn on complete offline access on their maps, so that might be the way to go if it’s turned on by the time you read this.
Tip: Travel light. Even in winter. Cars are small and we had trouble fitting in 2 medium suitcases, 1 carry-on suitcase, and 3 backpacks into the car with us (4 passengers). And we had booked a mid-size. You could book larger, but then maneuvering the narrow streets and curves gets impossible.
We wanted to see a few nearby sights before we returned to Segovia for the afternoon. Upon looking at the possibilities, three options came up – the El Escorial, Valladolid and Penafiel. Valladolid was the capital of Spain for a short while and was heavily involved in the Francisco Franco led Civil War in Spain. El Escorial was a magnificent monastery – magnificent is an understatement. And not far from it is the Valley of the Fallen, the grand final resting place of Franco.
Valladolid was an easy skip – we would see many grand cities on our trip. We debated forever between El Escorial and Penafiel, and the photographer in me won over and we drove to Penafiel. In hindsight, a good choice, as the intimacy, eeriness, and remoteness of this village couldn’t be experienced anywhere else.
Ghosts of Spain
About 100 miles east of Madrid lies the town of Poyales del Hoyo, which serves as the backdrop for the gruesome acts of the Franco era Spanish Civil War as described by Giles Tremlett in his fascinating book Ghosts of Spain.
On a cold and rainy night in December 1936, a small truck pulled into the muddy rain-washed plaza in town with a macabre motive – to behead three women, convicted of fictitious crimes such as being able to read, or being a Protestant. The person in charge, Ángel Vadillo, would be later known as Quinientos Uno – or 501 – as he would have killed 501 rojos by the end of the war a few years later.
One of the women’s daughter, then 14 years old, recounts the stormy night in Tremlett’s book –
“We were already in bed .. Suddenly they were beating at the door. There must have been a dozen of them … armed with rifles and pistols. … My mother gave me a hug, and that was the last I saw of her. I ran back through the rain and shut myself into the house.”
The women were pushed in the back of the truck with the men who would kill them. The truck snaked past olive groves and orchards of cherry trees and figs, and past the looming peak of Almanazor, named after the 10th century Muslim prime minister of Cordoba. The truck stopped in an asparagus field amidst the dark pouring rain. One of the women was pregnant. Her skull was smashed and her belly ripped open by a knife. The other two were shot in the head.
While visiting the muddy and eerily quiet Plaza del Coso (pictured in this blog) in Penafiel, about 120 miles north of Poyales del Hoyo on a cold late December afternoon, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to that dark and stormy December night described in Ghosts of Spain. Not a single soul was visible for the hour that we strolled around the dead plaza, and the only sounds we heard were of the thunder rolling in from time to time from across the Penafiel Castle to the north, and the balanced cacophony of some birds perched on the olive trees surrounding the town. Its as if the truck had just rolled out of the square, leaving the town frozen.
Penafiel would be the northernmost point of Spain we would drive to. We turned south and started driving towards Segovia, and the fog started rolling in. By the time we were on the outskirts of Segovia, the fog had blanketed the whole town. Thankfully, it was high fog and as we rolled into Segovia, we were greeted with the magnificent Roman Aqueduct sprawling in front of us and welcoming us into the city. We stopped to gaze at the sight, and loved how the city continued to spread around the ancient Roman aqueduct as if it didn’t exist. By contrast, the Pont du Gard in France was preserved as a national monument. In Segovia, it’s just something that happens to be there as part of everyday life.
Fact: The Aqueduct was built around 90 AD (dates are unclear) and is roughly 93 feet high, containing a stunning 167 arches in it.
We wanted to see the Cathedral of Segovia, and we were driving deep into the city navigating it’s narrow streets, thanking our decision to rent a mid-size and not a large car. We were frantically searching for a parking spot when we saw a man signal to us and ask us to follow him. We do, and drive to his car which was parallel parked in a narrow street.
As he starts to leave, we ask him how to get to the Cathedral. He doesn’t understand. After much anxious conversation in the international language of mixed English words and hand waving, he goes – “Ah, the Kahtedraal!” and then proceeds to teach us “You say ‘Donde Esta la Kahtedraal’. What say? ‘Donde’ ‘Esta’ ‘la Kahtedraal’”. And we repeat multiple times after which he uses the international language again and visually creates the directions to the Cathedral. Important lesson, because we used Donde esta la Catedral in every town that we visited.
The chill in the foggy winter air penetrated through our layers of clothing and froze us to our bones. It was very very very cold that evening in Segovia, in sharp contrast to it being very very very hot when I was there last, in July. We shivered to the Cathedral, which was slightly warmer because it protected us from the fog. A quick tour around it, and we started our trek back to the car, hoping to get to the aqueduct by dusk for some photography. A quick stop for some hot chocolate and coffee, and we were back at our parking spot. (If you look carefully in the .kml of the map we shared, you would be able to find the parking spot. Perfect location to park).
Just out of sheer luck, Rachna spotted a few people leaning over a wall which was a few hundred feet from our car; and curious, we walked over to see what the excitement was all about. And voila! We were literally standing on the top of the Roman Aqueduct. What a perfect parking spot.
For the next few hours, we just stood there, mesmerized by the fog blanketing Segovia in thicker and thicker blankets of white, the fog-filled sky turning from grey to pink to violet to red against the red rooftops of the sprawling city in front of us, with the dome of the Cathedral jutting out of it and breaking the pattern; the Aqueduct dividing the city perfectly into half.
We wait for nightfall, and the kids getting cranky due to the cold and hunger, and drive down to the bottom of the Aqueduct, and hunt for food. Though quite a few restaurants seemed interesting, I wanted to try out the local Spanish fast food joint, 100 Montaditos. Most items at around 1€ including the local beer, and it was delicious!
It was late, cold and foggy when we finished dinner. We still hadn’t seen the Alcazar of Segovia, but unfortunately there was no time anymore. And our hotel – Solaz del Moros – was in the town of Anaya, a few miles away from Segovia. We knew that it was in the middle of nowhere, but we had no idea how small the town would be.
We started driving out of Segovia, and in the foggy chill, saw a ghostly Alcazar appear bleakly out of the fog. We stopped a couple of times to take a few snapshots, and then bid adieu to Segovia. Back on the freeway, within 10 minutes we were near Anaya. Missing the exit twice, we finally make it into town and were almost shocked at its size. At 135 inhabitants, the town amounts to at best 25 houses, assuming all those 135 still actually live there and it’s not just their official address.
It was 9.30pm when we finally reached. Not a soul was present in the village, if you can call it even that. Our hotel was at the tag end of the few hundred yards wide town, and as we checked in, the hotel managers asked a simple question which had a dramatic impact on us the next morning (thankfully) – “Do you need keys for the main door to walk outside or do you plan to mostly stay in your room?”. I declined and saw the managers driving away from the property for the night.
The next morning, we wake up and realize we were the only tenants in that massive Spanish mansion, in a village that barely had any souls walking around. It was surreal, peaceful and an unbelievable experience we will never forget. Also, highly recommended.
Day 5 : Toledo Steel
Driving back from Anaya, we saw a majestic view of the city of Segovia rising up in the stark surroundings against a snow-clad mountain ranges. Try as much as we could, I couldn’t get to the right spot along the freeway to capture that view. Frustrated, and running out of time, we took a quick detour to snap a few pictures of the Alcazar before gunning down the freeway towards Toledo.
Toledo was a city established by the Jews in the 5th century BC, and the Romans made it into a hub for trade. This city had historical co-existence of Christians, Jews and Muslim culture for centuries and is known as the “City of Three Cultures.” Conquering Toledo was of prime importance for every ruler as it was the economic hub of the Iberian Peninsula, and also a symbol of power.
Therefore, Toledo was built to be protected. The city sits high on a small hilltop with a deep gorge running around three sides of the city, made by the gushing river Tagus and its horse-shoe bend around the hill. Entry to the city is only possible through one gate, which is highly fortified.
It is said that you should get lost in the streets of Toledo, as there is nowhere to go but the river gorge – and you can always follow the river back to the gate. It is small enough, charming enough, and historical enough to get lost in.
We spent the afternoon wander the streets, shopping for the incredibly beautiful (and expensive) Damascene jewelry made with black steel and etched with gold; and also for the famous swords and knives made of original Toledo steel (these are unsharpened, so you can carry them back in the checked in luggage with no issues).
We also spent some time in the Gothic Cathedral of Toledo, which displays the wealth and opulence of the Spanish Empire and leaves no doubt that they were once the richest empire in the entire world. An almost eight storey altar made of pure gold will leave you speechless, while a massive skylight in the cathedral dome will leave you wondering how they ever did it. The riches that Hernan Cortes brought back after butchering the natives of Central America are partly responsible for the flowing gold here and in the nearby Alcazar.
There are very few places in the world that I would fly to for simply spending a few hours beholding the sight. The view of Toledo from across Tagus is one such view. Words, nor photographs, can do justice to this majestic view of the whole city and the deep gorge of the River Tagus surrounding it. You just have to be there and feel it. Not see it, but feel it. Soak it in.
Tip: If there are two sights you can pick to see in Spain, one of them would be the view of the city of Toledo from across the Tagus river, and the other would be the view of the Alcazar of Granada from El Albaicin. If someone put a gun to your head and asked you to pick just one, it would be the view of Toledo at sunset and dusk.
Getting to this view is not really described well anywhere. You have to pretty much ask where the Parador is (more on that later), and then drive over there. Along the way, you cannot miss it – it will stop your heartbeat. We arrived at the spot just as the sun was setting, and stayed till it was pitch dark, and still didn’t want to move.
Fortunately, we had booked a room in the nearby Parador de Toledo and additionally, I asked reserved a room with a view. So we headed back, and froze at the view we had from our room windows and balcony. It was identical – albeit, a little further away, and hence you couldn’t feel the grandeur of the gorge and the city as well as you could by being at the spot. That night, we ate dinner at the Parador restaurant, with a view of Toledo glistening to our side.
I spent a few more hours just sitting in my balcony, enjoying the view after dinner, my eyes refusing to get tired and go to sleep. The next morning, I woke up before dawn, and captured the city waking up and then getting engulfed with the nagging fog that we were about to experience through our drive down to Andalusia.
But first, we had to meet Mr. Don Quixote.
Day 6 : Towards Cordoba
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. Don Quixote said to his squire, “… Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them …” “What giants?” asked Sancho Panza, “Those over there are not giants but windmills.” 12 of these windmills are still preserved at Consuegra in La Mancha, 60km south of Toledo in Spain.
The fog in Spain rolls in quick, impenetrable and relentless. We started our journey from Toledo, with the fog rolling in early and covering the entire city, our Parador’s million-dollar view disappearing into smoke within minutes of a pale, cold sunrise. The plan was to drive down to La Mancha to view the famous windmills, all 12 lined up just as Don Quixote had seen them. For the next 250 km till the town of Linares, we were driving blind with roughly 50-100 m of visibility. And if you add up our experience at Segovia to the mix, you could safely peg the fog-ridden diameter of central Spain to 350 km – probably the largest region of contiguous fog I have ever experienced.
Taking the exit towards the small town of Consuegra, we were hoping the height of the hills would take us above the fog layer, and we would get a clear view of the 12 windmills in a row, aligned to the Consuegra Castle as the backdrop. But there was no such luck – we simply kissed the surface and were acknowledged with a solitary view of each windmill as we walked past each one of them. The grand view eluded us.
No wonder Mr. Quixote mistook these windmills as fire-breathing dragons.
Disappointed, we drove back into the fog, and continued our journey towards Cordoba. Along the way, hundreds and hundred of miles of olive groves. Beautiful. It felt like all of the world’s olive oil probably comes from Spain, but I am assuming a lot of it is consumed within the country itself.
We reached Cordoba late in the afternoon and directly went to the city center. The plan was to see the grand Mezquita that evening and maybe keep some time for other explorations the next day. For the next few hours, we spent searching for parking, and it’s a level of frustration I would not want to wish upon anyone.
After multiple detours, stopovers, frantic sign language communications, almost getting a ticket, and raising our blood pressure and heart rates to abnormal states, we found one at the east side of the old town. The walk from here to the Mezquita is quite pleasant and takes you through the old town. By the time we reached the Mosque-Church, it was closed, and we decided to visit the Alcazar instead. Not very impressed, so if you are tight on time, I would recommend the Mezquite for sure, and then the Roman Bridge with the view of the city from across the river Guadalquivir.
Beheading on the Bridge
Born in Damascus, near modern day Syria, a young prince of age 20, Abd al-Rahman and his family were overthrown as the ruling family in a revolt in 750 AD. The rebellion was led by the Abbasids who were ruthless and showed no mercy to anyone.
Abd fled with his brother, Yahiya, as the Abbasids followed them on horseback. They hid and ran from village to village, always dodging and escaping at the very last moment just before the horsemen arrived.
One day, as they were fleeing from the their assassins, they came across the River Euphrates. Both jumped into the river and started swimming to the other shore. While swimming, his brother Yahiya started floundering and for fear of drowning, began swimming back to the shore where the horsemen stood.
Abd reached the other shore only to find his brother just reach the shore where the horsemen stood waiting for him. With a quick swing, the horsemen beheaded Yahiya as Abd stood on the opposite shore shaking, unable to do anything. Yahiya’s body was left on the banks of Euphrates to rot.
Over the next few years, Abd hid, ran, and persisted through Palestine, Sinai, Egypt and finally reached modern day Morocco in 755 AD. He crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar to enter Spain near modern day Malaga.
The next few years were spent amassing forces, in small skirmishes with the army of the reining Moorish king, al-Fihri, and eventually a battle with more than 40,000 near the (then) capital of Cordoba. Abd merged victorious, and his army and allies chased al-Fihri all the way to Toledo, where they caught him and beheaded him.
al-Fihri’s head was sent back to Abd in Cordoba, where he hung it on the Roman Bridge and displayed it publicly as a warning to anyone who would have any desires for power. Abd and his descendants ruled Spain for the next 300 years, from 756 AD to 1031 AD.
Having quickly seen the Alcazar, we strolled across this very Roman Bridge to the other side of the Guadalquiver river to witness a stunning view of Cordoba in the setting sun. The pale sandstone-colored architecture of the monuments against the white walls of the surrounding old town houses created a dreamy visual that personally, not having been to Jerusalem or Jordan, I would think are only found in those countries. Magical.
We walked back to our car park at night, and proceeded to hunt for our hotel. It was late (9pm) and the kids were hungry – the saving grace of an ice cream bar on the Bridge having lost its charm by now.
Round and round we went again in the car, and finally found the generic location of our hotel. We started driving into the street that led to the hotel as per Sygic and Google Maps, and the walls of the city started closing in on me. Narrower and narrower it went. People couldn’t even move on either side of the car, and had to sneak past sideways. A few minutes later, I couldn’t even move forward – the road was narrower than the car. I was stuck.
I couldn’t even open the door an inch. I rolled my windows down and asked in the international sign language as to where our hotel was. No one seemed to know or understand my vocalizations. Well, there was no choice but to reverse back out of this narrow road. I was extremely thankful that no other vehicle had come in behind me.
The next 5 minutes have been the most difficult driving I have done so far. Reversing a car, in near-darkness, on a road that is barely a few inches wider than the car. No one could even step out and guide me, but I made it. And right where we stopped, was the door to our hotel, with valet parking included. And guess where the hotel was – a hopscotch and jump away from the Mezquita. We should have just checked in to the hotel when we arrived in Cordoba and avoided all the drama and frustration and panic that had followed.
The hotel itself was royal. Literally. The King and Queen of Spain had stayed there when they had visited Cordoba once. And we had a two room suite which was fit for royalty. A good end to a frantic and sometimes disappointing day.
Day 7 : Cordoba and Seville
Is it a Mosque or a Church? It’s a Mosque-Church
The next morning, we got up early and walked over to the Mezquita by 8am. We were told the previous night that there would be a Christmas mass at 10, and we would have to empty it by then.
Fact: Abd al-Rahman, who escaped the beheading by his assassins in Damascus and eventually ruled over Spain after beheading his competition, bought the small church and mosque that existed at the present day Mezquita, and built a single large mosque at its place and it was updated, expanded, modified over the new few centuries. After the Christian Reconquista in the 15th century, a large cathedral was built right in the center of this grand mosque.
Tip: Today, probably the only place in the world where you can see verses of the Quran and a Christian altar in the same building within feets of each other is at the Mezquita.
Fact: The red color in the arches in the Mezquita of Cordoba signifies the passion of Spain, and represents Spain even to this day.
For the next two hours, we wandered around awed. Most of the Mosque-Church is covered with nearly 900 columns with red-and-white striped arches resting on them. 900 columns! With minimal visible hindrance between them, this is a sight to behold.
The arches span over three centuries – the mosque initially began with arches made from red bricks. Then the mosque was expanded with more arches with a different kind of brick which was inferior in quality which can be visibly discerned. The mosque was expanded furthermore with newer arches in which the red was just painted, and is a testament to the decline in power and wealth of the Moorish empire of Spain.
Orange County, Spain
While walking around in Cordoba, Seville and other small towns and villages, if there was abundance of one thing it was oranges. Every street, alley, pathway and every courtyard or square had orange trees – hundreds and thousands of them. It was as if no other tree existed in these towns, and there was plentiful.
Tip: Orange trees are in full bloom during the winter, and everywhere we went in Andalusia, trees were replete with large healthy oranges. An amazing sight to participate in. You could just sit in a square in any of these cities and just admire the trees in the abundant sunshine and the Mediterranean feel that came with it.
The one thing that bugged us was that no one, not a single human or animal, was plucking off one of those juicy, freely visible, and abundantly available oranges and taking a quick snack. From last afternoon till this morning, we hadn’t seen one person do it.
Either the fines were strict, or people were extremely self-disciplined, or both. We had to try one of these – one orange in thousands wouldn’t hurt anyone or anything.
So when an alley was empty, I stood watch while Rachna quickly plucked one low hanging fruit. We quickly peeled it open before anyone could see, and popped in a slice each.
And instantly threw it out. It was incredibly sour and bitter. It wasn’t the fines or the self discipline – the obvious never occurred to us – they were inedible. Nature’s fine for stealing one.
We read up later that Andalusian (and Seville) Oranges are a prime export of Spain for the manufacture of orange marmalade, and Spain supplies almost 12,000 tons of oranges each year to Britain for this purpose.
Checking out of our palatial hotel, we took a quick detour to the ruins of Abd-ar-Rahman III’s palace ruins, Medinat al-Zahr. The ruins were a 15 minute drive from the main town, and this being Christmas Eve, without any notice or warning, this Moorish site was closed. The ruins had red and white arches similar to the ones we had seen in the Mezquita, and rumor has it that the city that is being dug up at Medinat al-Zahr was larger than the old town of Cordoba itself. With not much else to do other than admire the ruins from outside, we headed out to Seville.
The Emptiness of Christmas Eve
Cordoba to Seville was a quick hour drive, and as we entered this gorgeous city, we found it less crowded, more organized, and more modern than Cordoba. Perhaps the best laid out and livable city in Spain. We later realized that the emptiness was largely due to the day being Christmas Eve.
It was a peaceful drive to the center of the city, and we parked near the University – midway between the Plaza Espana and the Seville Bullring. We started walking along the river, taking in the sights of the Torre del Oro, people basking in the lazy sun, horse carriages carrying passengers along the road, the Puente de Triana bridge and the colorful facade of Triana across the river.
After a quick set of pictures of the bullring, we started walking towards the old town center. Rachna wanted to hunt for a view of the Giralda Tower that would show Roman, Moorish and Christian architecture blended into one monument. Wandering aimlessly trying to get to that view of the tower, we find ourselves near a monument with a few people standing in queue. We join in, and when we buy the tickets, we realize that it is the famous Alcazar of Seville that we were entering.
Empty and peaceful, we wandered through the Alcazar at our own pace for the next 90 minutes. The city of Dorne in Game of Thrones has been based completely within the walls of the Alcazar of Seville.
As we walk out of the courtyard in Alcazar, we see the Giralda Tower staring at us directly, with it’s lower third Roman, middle third Moorish and last third Christian architecture all blended into a stunning bell tower.
Closing shops, restaurants gearing up for pre-booked Christmas Eve dinners, emptying squares, and hungry kids – all started converging as sunset painted the plaza in front of the Giralda in pale yellow colors.
I wanted to capture the Plaza de Espana during blue hour, and amidst protests from everyone in the family, we jumped into a cab and headed there.
The Grinch who stole Photography
A smattering of tourists were soaking in the last few hours before the city essentially shut down for the biggest family day of the year. As he dropped us at Plaza Espana, our young Italian cab driver warned us – “In another two hours, you won’t get a taxi to the hotel, and will have nothing to eat.” He was himself from Venice and had followed his girl down to Seville, carrying dreams of visiting New York some day. As I tipped him what would be considered a nominal amount in NYC, he remarked – “don’t worry about so much tip. This is not US”.
The Plaza appeared dreamy in the pastel winter sunset, and the coveted blue hour was approaching fast. As I rushed to the center of the Plaza to settle into a comfortable zone for capturing the next hour of captivating color, a fellow photographer and his wife rushed in from the opposite direction, and planted their tripod firmly in geographic center of the Plaza with six 9s of GPS accuracy.
The spot he chose was probably the worst (best) location he could have picked as far as other photographers were concerned. Any deviations to the left or right of him, and you would get the gorgeous fountain off-center. Take a few steps back, and you would get his unique posture in your images as seen in the above photograph – he didn’t quite blend into the generic crowd. A few steps forward, and you would be in his frame – probably with a similar posture. What is a photographer to do in such a situation?
I waited. And so did 4 other photographers. Minutes passed. About 10 exposures later, all of us inched closer to our friend – maybe he would take a hint – but he didn’t. His wife would glance towards us and say something to our friend, but nothing would change. A few more exposures laters, my fellow photographers starting biting the dust one by one, and pitched their tripods in what definitely must have yielded suboptimal images. I decided to inch uncomfortably close to my friend and raised my tripod above his shoulder, and started snapping. But subtlety was definitely not his strength, so eventually I had to do the obvious, and ask – “Would you mind if I took a few images from this central position?”
Grudgingly, and with a sense of entitlement, he obliged. I stood on borrowed ground, on borrowed time, quietly took a couple of photographs, and walked away to hunt for other viewpoints.
All this while, my wife and kids took a boat ride along the canals that border the Plaza, and then switched to a couple of rounds of horse-carriage rides. They had fun, I had fun, but we didn’t have fun together – and I am reminded of that every so often even now.
Day 9 : The White Villages
This being Christmas day, we decided to drive down and through the Pueblo Blancos of Andalusia.
Built around the 3rd to 2nd century BC by the Romans, the Pueblo Blancos of Andalusia are spectacular whitewashed towns and villages that dot the steep slopes of the mountains of Andalusia between the Atlantic in the west and the Mediterranean extending eastward. Each town is characterized by their Roman wall ruins dating back to the 2nd century BC, the solitary Moorish fort from when the western Arabs conquered Spain around 700 AD and used these towns as outposts across the region, and the final Christian stamp of a towering 15th-16th century church built after the Reconquista. Even so, it’s the Moorish influence that makes these towns interesting, with their labyrinths of cobblestone streets, their fortress-like walls, and their little whitewashed houses with the characteristic wrought-iron grilles.
Tip: You could start your journey either from the western end near the town of Arcos de la Frontera which played a critical role in the Spanish Christian Reconquista, or from the eastern stunner that is Olvera. Unfortunately, it is unwise to skip either of these bookends, which means that you are in for a good 5 hours of driving end-to-end, not to mention the time spent to soak in the sights.
This is not a one-day trip, but we ended up doing exactly that. That meant not stopping inside Arcos but pausing around it on our way to Ronda. We grazed past Zahara and skipped Grazalema altogether, but stopped in Ronda. The approach to Ronda was stunning – you could see the whole town perched high above the hilltop with miles of olive groves spread below.
All through the trip, you could see miles of rolling green hills, with a few higher hilltops scattered in between, each hosting a sprawling whitewashed village interrupted by exactly one church and one fortress per hilltop village. And finally, racing against time with every passing sunset hour, we were very lucky to barely catch the last few hours of light and the blue hour at Olvera.
We drove back to Seville at night, and hit the Metropol Parasol. We had to find food first – and the feria in and around the Parasol was as thick as the cold winter night. We glanced upon a restaurant called Jaipur – Indian food in Seville? Should we? Shouldn’t we? Ok, we could. And it wasn’t great – but at least the restaurant folks were happy to see up, and we enjoyed the service and the chitchat.
Tip: The next hour was spent on the Parasol, with grand views of Seville stretching for miles all around us. A definite must, and that too, preferably in the evening or the night. It was even better that night because of the Christmas lights dazzling up the city.
Day 9 : Seville
Just like Madrid, we had booked a day tour of the city of Seville for the next morning. The majority of the time was spent in the tour bus with three longer stops – one at Plaza Espana, the second at the Alcazar and the last one at Barrio Santa Cruz – the Jewish Quarters of Seville.
The Plaza de España in Seville was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, and the tour took us around all the other buildings from different countries. Very intricately built, most of these house embassies of their nations. The Plaza though, is a grand monument. It is an example of the Renaissance revival style amalgamated with the Moorish architecture, and is unique in its design.
Planet Naboo and Star Wars
Every once in awhile when your expectations are least, you get pleasantly surprised. Tour bus trips generate the least expectations from the photography point of view. While I enjoy the friendly banter, historical knick-knacks, and sometimes even crave the mind-numbing drive-me-anywhere carefree nature of these trips, I know deep inside that this is my day off from photography, and have always contemplated leaving the heavy DSLR bag back at the hotel, only to reluctantly carry it just-in-case.
Having walked through Plaza Espana a day earlier at dusk, I wasn’t expecting to do much when our tour bus stopped at the expansive square on this cold winter morning. But I am glad I didn’t leave my camera bag back at the bus. The weather was crisp and the cold southern sun shone weakly through the Moorish arches of this Mudejar marvel. While the tour guide rambled on about the exquisite details and historical significance of the structure first in Spanish and then in English, I literally ran across the various corners of the surprisingly empty Plaza and captured the interplay of light and shadow till the group walked back to the bus.
A few days ago, I learned another little titbit about this Plaza from Wikipedia. Due its unique architecture and expansive size, Mr. Lucas used it (and other Moorish and Spanish influences) as the location for the Royal Palace Plaza, City of Theed on Planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace, as well as Attack of the Clones. Here is a screen grab from the movie.
The next stop was the Alcazar. Since we had visited the monument earlier, we simply walked around and listened to the banter. Plus, compared to the previous evening, this day was crowded and overflowing – so in a nutshell, bad for photography.
6 months ago, we visited Seville and the Andalusian White Villages (Pueblo Blancos) and heard about Game of Thrones for the first time in our pitiful non-HBO existence so far. As we drove around Andalusia we kept hearing about the actors, scenes and shoots from the locals. We came back to the US on January 1st and promptly signed up for HBO Go. Within the next 3 months we had devoured the first four seasons and were excitedly ready for the new 5th by the time April rolled around.
And then we waited.
We waited for Dorne to come around. We started getting glimpses of it as early as Episode #2 where the Water Garden is shot in the gardens of the Royal Alcazar of Seville. By the time the Season came to an end, almost every nook and corner of the Alcazar had been highlighted in the series.
Here were some of our favorite highlights from the Dornish, I mean, the Sevillian Palace.
Ambassador’s Hall: The meeting between Jamie Lannister, Doran Martell and Ellaria Sand occurs in the Ambassador’s Hall of the palace. The first two photographs are ours, the other two are from the show.
Capture of Jaime Lannister: Incidentally, the Golden Ceiling that Jamie passes while walking to the meeting with Doran also happens to be in the Ambassador’s Hall – so in a way, he came back to square one. But who is counting. Again, the first two pictures are ours.
Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken: Ellaria and the Sand Snakes plot the killing of Myrcella Lannister in the Moorish Baths of the Alcazar. The left photograph is what we took, while the right one is from the show.
The third stop at Barrio Santa Cruz was an enchanting walk through narrow alleys and small plazas in an intimate sense of the word. All the houses were whitewashed with mustard-colored borders, and there were tapas bars, restaurants, trinket shops and spice stores everywhere. Yes, spice stores – the kinds one would see in Morocco or other parts of India or the Middle East.
At the end of our walk, it was lunchtime and we were all starving. While Rachna shopped for some scarves and wool hats, I took the kids to an ice cream parlor. Rachna joined us and enquired the parlor owner about the best tapas bar where locals would go to eat – not a tourist trap, and both the owner and the customer sitting in the store vehemently voted for Las Columnas. “Left, straight, left…” or something like that and then “Columnas. Las Columnas”.
From her mannerisms I thought the restaurant had columns, and for the longest time we were searching for a building with columns. Giving up, we found a tapas bar called Bodega bulging with people – folks spilling over into the streets and courtyards around it. We decided to just go in thinking this may not be too bad. After lunch, we realized that Bodega Santa Cruz and Las Columnas were one and the same – confusing as hell, but the crowds gave it away. And yes, there were columns in front of it – they were just hidden by the overflowing crowds.
Lunch was interesting. The insides of the Bodega were packed like an Indian local train with not an inch to move or stand. The menu was long – long and huge – and handwritten – in Spanish. And no one, not a single person, behind the counter spoke English.
Luckily, we found a chair, then two chairs – made the kids sit down – and eventually discovered a whole table nearby. Rachna and I squeezed near the front of the counter, and began conversing with a young couple next to us – asking them to suggest whatever was good at this place. 6-7 recommendations later, we were well armed. Croquetas de Bacalao were stunning, and so were a few of the other fish, chicken dishes and Jamon Serrano – dried and cured in the freezing air of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few hundred miles from Seville. But what took the cake for me was a glass of dulce tinto vino – or sweet red wine. It was a cheap €2 and was delicious and smooth – maybe cream sherry, a Pedro Ximenez sherry (since Andalusia is primarily a sherry growing region) or a close cousin of the port, along with a bowl of complimentary locally grown Spanish olives.
Stuffed, we went inside the Seville Cathedral, which in hindsight wasn’t too different from the Toledo one with similar excess of gold everywhere. The one big highlight being the coffin of Christopher Columbus, with it’s pallbearers pointing west.
Tip: There was one more church I wanted to see – Basilica de la Macarena – a church built in 1947, which was famous for it’s weeping Mary (Virgen de la Macarena, or La Esperanza), her tears depicting her sorrow as Christ was crucified. It is said that this church had emotional healing powers, and is not to be missed.
From Rick Steve’s website (and also heard on his wonderful podcast) –
Mary, complete with crystal teardrops, is like a 17th-century doll with human hair and articulated arms, and even dressed with underclothes. Her beautiful expression — halfway between smiling and crying — is moving, in a Baroque way.
And as you enter the Basilica, a strange kind of calm engulfs you. I would highly recommend sitting here quietly for at least 20 minutes, and feel the peace, and sometimes the sadness surround you. There are multiple folks around you who would be emotionally at their breaking point and crying. Very humbling and serene.
Tip: The one thing we noticed in Spanish churches and cathedrals was that Virgin Mary was given more prominence than Jesus himself, with Mary always occupying the center stage in the main altar.
Darkness was settling in as we bid goodbye to Seville, picked up the car and drove through countless more Pueblo Blancos towards our destination for the night – Osuna.
The Accidental Game of Thrones at Osuna
While planning our trip across Andalusia, we had decided to stay in one of the smaller White Villages that dot the region, sprawling and tumbling over sandstone-colored hilltops. Some of the notable ones – like Arcos de la Frontera and Ronda – were too big for our intent, but since we were traveling with kids, we didn’t want to go extra small, notwithstanding our surprise stay at Anaya, a town of less than 135 people.
A quick search through Expedia and Tripadvisor brought up Marques de la Gomera as a quintessential Spanish Villa with pretty high ratings in the town of Osuna. Since this hotel seemed to be along the way towards Granada which is where we were headed the next day, it made perfect sense to stay here. And so, a family suite (it was off-season, and hotels went relatively cheap) for 4 was booked and forgotten about.
While driving down A-92 out of Seville, I had completely forgotten the name of the town or the hotel, and nightfall was approaching. Having experienced some of the small hotels shutting down early for the day, we thought it would be prudent to call the hotel up that we would be arriving late. The Expedia app on my phone showed Marques as the hotel and displayed its phone number, so we called ahead and made sure everything was confirmed. Upon arrival, and after a few retries of trying to park the car in what seemed like a parking space for a motor-bike, and my eventual frustration and failure to do so, we went inside the Marques and were taken to a room that could only be described as regal. We freshened up and decided to walk to dinner and asked the lobby for suggestions on an interesting tapas bar, and were gladly provided one within 10 blocks of the hotel.
It is then that the fun started. I decided to Google “Osuna” to figure out what else would be worth looking at in the town and whether we could walk to any of those places, and this link came up – Hilltop Spanish town hopes for major tourist and employment boost as ‘Game of Thrones’ begins filming. And there it was, our hotel, pictured right smack-dab-center of the article! (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2804012/Game-Thrones-starts-shooting-fifth-season-Spanish-town-Osuna.html#i-e0786a6c6277ac04). While walking to the tapas bar, all we could talk about was how disconnected we have been from GoT and maybe we should start watching it once we are back in the US.
Casa Curro was an archetypical small-town tapas bar, and was empty when we landed up at 7.45pm. On the positive side, we easily got a seat at the bar and began a fluid conversation with its curator, Ramon (below), in spotty English and sign language. One look at the tapas menu in Spanish, and I reverted to asking Ramon to surprise me with his best. For the next hour, Ramon brought out delicacies such as Presa Iberica con Foie and the surprisingly Indian-curry-like Pedro Jimenez pork chaps (not chops) cooked in spices and bay leaves.
While walking back after our hearty meal, another search brought up Casa Curro as having benefited from the recent GoT Season 5 shoot.
Day 10 : Granada
Osuna was very clean and symmetric town, and we wanted to do some quick photo shoots before we left Pueblo Blancos behind forever. So after breakfast and after a quick checkout, we did a personal walking tour of the town, snapping some of the better looking photographs of the family against empty streets lined with sparkling white houses, freshly painted brown doors and windows and a red flag hanging down from each and every balcony in sight. It felt surreal walking through those streets early in the pale winter sunlight.
But the drive to Granada was long, and we just had that one single afternoon-evening to see one of my most anticipated sights – the Alhambra of Granada. I slammed on the gas pedal and drove east as fast as I could – not stopping for anything, however pretty, along the way. We reached the outskirts of Granada at 1.30 pm, and quickly found ourselves at the Alhambra parking lot.
Fact: Granada, with the Alhambra, was the last stronghold of the 700 year long Moorish (Muslim) rule of Spain that finally ended the same year Columbus sailed from Andalusia to the Americas, in 1492. The palaces and fort were originally built in AD 889 and was largely forgotten by the mid 16th century, finally getting re-discovered in the late 19th century.
It was crowded! All the deceptive photography and Christmas break closures didn’t help here – all tickets to the Nasrid Palaces (Palacios Nazaries) were sold out for the day, and only the garden tickets were available. Upon probing further, we realized that there would be a night tour today – and apparently we were lucky, since this doesn’t happen all nights. We would have gone back empty – and I would have thrown someone off of the Sierra Nevadas that day if that had transpired.
Tip: There are very few days in the year when you get to tour the Nasrid Palaces at night. The night tour is highly highly recommended and you should plan your trip to hit one of these days in Granada, though I would recommend a twofer – both the day and night tours.
We walked around the gardens all afternoon. They were good but nothing compared to the two other sights waiting for us, sights that we could see from the gardens – the district El Albayzin (or El Albaicin), and the Nasrid Palaces themselves at night.
El Albayzin is a very painful place to drive up into. Two connections of highly packed “red-line” buses do take you all the way up the Albayzin hillsides from the Alhambra, via a bumpy, curvy, and back-twisting journey – a much more convenient alternative is to let someone else drive and take a taxi.
The district is a winding maze of white houses, steep hillsides, and narrow curvy roads. There are many restaurants, handicraft and gift shops, and lots of people just walking and having fun. I could have spent a few hours or days just wandering the narrow streets of Albayzin, but we were on a mission and the sun was setting fast.
We reached the Mirador San Nicolas square about an hour before sunset and found the plaza packed, jostling with mostly locals and Spanish tourists. A little tussle later, I found an opening within the swarms and propped my tripod down and did not budge from the location for the next two hours.
There are a few places on Earth that captivate you to the point of blissful surrender. Whether it was the Angel Glacier appearing spiritually from behind dark stormy clouds in Jasper or the local singer lamenting his long lost motherland in the middle of a hot summer diner in Belgrade, these images are personal, private and their significance cannot be conveyed to anyone other than you. The fortified palaces of Alhambra in Granada as seen from Albayzin against the snow-clad Sierra Nevada mountains represent one of those moments for me.
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it. … There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me’. But beauty is fugitive, being frequently found in places to which we may never return or else resulting from rare conjunctions of season, light and weather. How then to possess it?” – Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.
I struggled with this statement at Granada. I wanted to just stay there, gazing at the sights till it burned into my synapses, never to be etched out. I wanted to capture the depths of the valleys between the Alhambra and me and the smells of the fresh crisp winter evening in ways that I will always remember them. I wanted to memorize the exact shades and sequence of white to yellow to orange to pink to violet to blue on the snow capped Sierras as they reflected off the cold setting sun. How does one do that? One can simply take consolation in the fact that you were there, you saw it, and it mattered to you, and will do so forever.
Over the next 90 minutes, I sat there in the chilly evening simply glued to the fantasy unfolding in front of us, capturing almost 100 images of every shade and every subtlety of the winter sunset.
Living like a Moorish Emperor
After dark, we had to spend time for till 8.30 pm before we could head out to our night tour of the Nasrid Palaces. As we looked down from the San Nicolas square, we saw a restaurant – El Huerto de Juan Ranas – and thought, what better way to spend some time than having dinner with a grand view of the Alhambra in front of us. Alas, in the bitter cold and under the stress of hunger, and with the getting-crankier-by-the-minute kids, we decided too quickly on the restaurant. There are hundreds of restaurants in El Albayzin with a view of the Alhambra – but we didn’t have the time and energy to research.
El Huerto was a disaster. Fabulous view, check. Good ambiance, check. Service – horrible. Food – never arrived. We sat for an hour (yes, in the warmth, and munching on the complimentary bread) but nothing arrived even after 4-5 reminders. Frustrated, hungry and out of time, we got up and left. Bought a bag of chips and some candy from the nearby grocery store and hopped into a cab towards the Alhambra.
Tip: Carry a card from a cab company in El Albaicin. There aren’t any cabs you can just hail off of the street. And the bus might take forever. We got a card from the cab driver who brought us up here, and thanked her mentally for that piece of advice.
Granada, at the mountain top where the Alhambra sits, was freezing on that post-Christmas night. Apart from the foggy bone-chilling evening in Segovia, this was the other spot where we froze to our core.
But the night tour through the Nasrid Palaces was mesmerizing. It was a moonlit night. There were rooms that I wished I could have seen during the daytime – intricate carvings from ceilings to all the walls around us embedded with various colors and precious stones. And then, there were rooms and courtyards that I was happy I saw at night – it was as if we were transported back to the 14th century, where these places would have been lit the same way via dim candles and the natural moonlight.
I was the Emir of the Alhambra for one hour that night.
Day 11 : Guadix and Valencia
The next day involved a painful 5+ hour drive to Valencia, with just a nightly stop before continuing further north to Barcelona.
Along the way, as we bid goodbye to the Sierra Nevada mountains in our rearview mirror, a storm was hitting the snowy peaks, and the freeway was windy and cloudy. We stopped for a quick gas refill on the massive plateau and couldn’t stay out of the car even for a minute.
Fully refilled, we head towards Guadix – a small town at the edge of the Sierras where people have been literally living inside the mountains for centuries – to save or heating or cooling.
Tip: You could get on to Airbnb and stay within one of these caves yourself, and explore Guadix at your own leisure.
The Barrio de las Cuevas – or the cave region – of Guadix is really unique. While some caves have a white facade and doors to make them look like a regular house, most don’t bother – and you could see hundred of tiny holes along the mountain side that serve as windows. The houses do have a chimney each, which are mostly painted white – so you see a brown bleak mountainous terrain stretching for miles interrupted by white chimneys sticking out like matchsticks.
Right in the center of the Barrio, there is an interpretive area with one of these houses open to the public. The gentleman (I forget his name now) sells pottery and other knickknacks made from the soil around the area, and expects you to buy one after the tour – though this is never forced. His wife passed away a couple of years ago, and he stays alone in that house supporting himself from the sale of this pottery.
Leaving Guadix, we drove nonstop till we hit the outskirts of Valencia. This side of the drive is not picturesque, though you would come across the occasional old town perched on a hilltop, but we had no time to stop.
We reached Valencia around 4 pm, and called our hotel to get recommendations on where to eat; more importantly where to get the best Valencian Paella. They suggested El Coso along the beach, but first, we wanted to see the stunning modern architecture of Hemsferic, L’Oceanografic, Umbracle, Palau de les Arts and Agora.
The complex that includes these buildings, the pool in front of them and the stunning Pont l’Assut de l’Or is completely out of a futuristic 3001 AD movie, or from a different alien planet altogether.
It was breezy as hell, but we survived, and like everywhere else in Spain, even this futuristic complex was inundated with locals participating in a local Christmas feria. Snacks, tinker toys, rides, and some grocery stalls were all packed below the Umbracle. While I took my blue hour photographs of the fascinating complex, Rachna and the kids enjoyed some snacks and the rides in the feria nearby.
Starving and tired, we drove to El Coso and encountered maybe 3 more ferias along the way. El Coso itself was pretty sparsely occupied when we arrived at 7.30 pm but as with all places in Spain, was getting packed by the time we were leaving. The ambiance was excellent, the food very very good, the service – could have been better, primarily because we had a hungry cranky 6 year old who was fussy before his tummy was full in their posh surroundings. But that can be forgiven.
As we walk out, we see a photograph of the King and Queen of Spain as they were leaving after their dinner at the restaurant.
Day 12 through 14 : Catalonia
Barcino, not Spain
We reached Barcelona mid-day, and after dropping the car reached our hotel on Las Ramblas by around 2 pm. After resting for a bit, we started walking down Las Ramblas towards the waterfront.
I wasn’t impressed with Barcelona at all. It was like a normal large European metro, and like many other large European tourist spots, there was rude behavior, cheat shopkeepers, and pickpockets everywhere. Maybe even a tad bit more than a normal touristy large European city.
As we walked down Las Ramblas, we found ourselves walking past garish souvenir shops with overpriced items, hot dog stands, pizza outlets and Nutella crepe shops.
This wasn’t Spain anymore.
It seemed like every inch of Spanish or Catalan culture had been yanked out of the city and replaced with generic tourist traps. As evening fell, we hunted for some good restaurants, and found a decent one in the Barceloneta district. As we got on to the cab, I made the mistake of asking the local cab driver for a recommendation for a restaurant. He promptly responded by taking us to a tourist trap from where he got commissions – we could see cabs coming in droves and getting handed cash by the restaurant workers standing outside, dropping unsuspecting diners into the trap.
Tip: Restaurant Salamanca in Barceloneta should be avoided at all costs – pricey food, terrible taste, bad service and a tourist trap. Pick your destinations and tell the cab drivers where to go, and don’t budge on local recommendations.
Frustrated by our first day in Barcelona, we were hoping for better treatment on the next two days.
All about Gaudi
The next day was our guided bus trip through the city. It felt as if there was nothing else in the city of Barcelona except for Gaudi. So if Gaudi’s style is not your style then refrain yourself from coming to Barcelona – the exact words of our guide, who wasn’t bashful about her opinions.
We started at the Olympic park (Montjuic) with a grand view of the city and the Sagrada Familia rising from the city dwarfing everything else in its wake. We drove down to the Sagrada Familia next, a church that is being constructed for the past 100 years and is still incomplete, with a planned completion date of 2025 AD.
You can find a plethora of information about Sagrada Familia on the web. For me the highlights were as follows.
- Pay attention to the new and the old. The stones, the details – all look different. It almost feels like the love and care is disappearing in the rush to now finish the church in the next 10 years. Apparently the stone quarries are different as well – so there is even a color mismatch between the old and the new.
- The inside. Magnificent. Grand. Will leave you speechless. If you had to visit one church in your lifetime, this would be it. Not because it is bigger or better – it is uniquely different to anything else you have seen. Enough said.
- The altar. Again, unique. Christ on his cross literally floats in mid air, allowing you to look at him from every direction, with a sense of openness and welcoming that is absent in other cathedrals.
- The sunflower ceilings. Grand, majestic. Enough said. And the stained glass windows with their complimentary and agreeable color palates – not mixing the cold colors with the warm. It’s art education inside of a modern church.
Tip: On the exit side of the Sagrada Familia, you can see the crucifixion of Christ, with a group of masked men looking on. The masked men uncannily resemble George Lucas’s Storm troopers – maybe inspiring him for the depiction of the Dark Forces.
The Art of Seeing
I am only trying to teach you to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market. One of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than he went in. The other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter woman’s basket and carries away with him images of beauty, which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. – John Ruskin
On our bus tour we were in the company of a couple from the San Francisco Bay Area. The woman was carrying a high-end Canon DSLR with a serious L series lens attached to it. Over the course of the day, we came to realize that the contraption was being used to snap pictures like a 5 year old with a smartphone. At every stop the woman would get down, and partly looking at the guide and the point of interest being spoken about, and partly glancing behind her back, she would lift the camera to shoulder height, not bother to even look through the viewfinder (or the LCD screen), and fire away on high-speed multi-shot mode while simultaneously rotating the camera around. She seemed to be the least concerned about the content – whether it was the tour group that made up most of those shots, or the floor or sky, or maybe she was lucky enough to capture a tilted portion of the point of interest in one of them.
Bits are cheap – Flickr offers a terabyte of RAW storage online for free, and Google Photos goes unlimited with JPEG storage, so there is a growing trend to capture, document and share comprehensively at the cost of not being there at all.
Rather than using photography as a supplement to active, conscious seeing, they used it as an alternative, paying less attention to the world than they had done previously from a faith that photography automatically assured them possession of it. – Alain de Botton
A quick search on Amazon will bring up a plethora of books on photography and the art of seeing, and Freeman Patterson’s seminal book teaches every aspiring photographer that the essence of photography is to learn how to appreciate the world around it. You may never get better at it. But you will definitely acquire the knack to pause, observe, immerse in and appreciate the world around you.
The bus tour took us through Barrio Gothic – the old quarters of Barcelona, which were literally a few yards from our hotel. Chic, with a mix of modern and old, this is probably the tourist center of Barcelona. There was a lot of street art and graffiti everywhere (in a good artistic way) – probably inspiring the brand Desigual, and it is no wonder there were multiple Desigual stores in and around Barrio Gothic.
Fact: The owner of the brands Desigual, Zara and Mango, Amancio Ortega, is the richest man of Europe, and is a Spanish citizen.
We stopped for lunch in Barrio Gothic – probably the best place to have a bite, with its multitude of restaurants and cafes serving all kinds of fare, the most prevalent being the Pintxo – a slice of bread topped with all kinds of delicacies you can imagine – from cheese and jelly, to all kinds of meats, veggies, mushrooms and fish, all layers held together with a toothpick.
We opted to walk into Sagardi as the place looked inviting, interesting, delicious and it was crowded, so hopefully good. And we weren’t disappointed. Even more interesting was how you were billed for the food. Upon entering the restaurant, you are supposed to pick a plate each, and just grab what you want, however much you want. Finished your serving and still hungry? Continue picking more pintxos.
At the end of it all, carry you plates to the cashier, who dutifully counts all the toothpicks on each plate and multiplies them by the price of a generic pintxo – which in our case was €2. Done. No fancy menus, no complicated billing system. Just don’t throw away any toothpicks – that is completely based on your integrity.
Since that day was my daughter’s 10th birthday, and we wanted to treat her (and us) to some good dinner, at lunch we asked our guide for a restaurant recommendation for a birthday dinner. She recommended Restaurant Siete Portes (or 7 gates) which was in Barceloneta, and relatively close to our hotel, and had a Michelin Star – something that we realized later. But her reason – when she was as young as my daughter (around 10), her family had brought her here for dinner, and this was the birthday dinner she remembers the most so far. We were sold, called up immediately to make a reservation. We were put on a waitlist.
After lunch we headed out to Park Guell – Gaudi again at his quirky best. It was overflowing with tourists, and it was mid-day, not a perfect situation or time for even a decent shot. Helpless and frustrated, the tour drove towards our last stop – La Pedrera – an apartment complex designed by, you guessed it, Gaudi. The most fascinating part of La Pedrera is the rooftop and it’s incredibly artistic chimneys, and of course the view of Barcelona that comes with it. Since this was our last stop, the guide left us to wander on our own as she signed off.
We spent quite a bit of time on the rooftop of La Pedrera, watching the sun go down and taking as many photographs of the unique chimney as we could. We heading back to the hotel for some rest and to freshen up, and then took a cab to Siete Portes. We waited for almost 30 minutes in the cold outside, but it was well worth it.
The restaurant, in the words of Lonely Planet –
Founded in 1836 as a cafe and converted into a restaurant in 1929, 7 Portes is a classic. It exudes an old-world atmosphere with its wood panelling, tiles, mirrors and plaques naming some of the famous – such as Orson Welles – who have passed through.
A small sliver of the paneling all across the restaurant was dedicated to hundreds of framed pictures, notes and signatures of celebrities that have been to this restaurant in the last hundred years – very tastefully decorated. The table we sat at had a signature of Steve Winwood hanging to the side – alas, we couldn’t get anyone more important, but we did get one of my favorite singers. Even though it is ostensibly known for it’s paellas, we ordered varying fare, and it was delicious.
Our last day in Barcelona was New Year’s Eve. We decided to take it easy and just stroll around and take in the sights of the city by foot. Starting out from our hotel on Las Ramblas, we first headed to the well known Boqueria – the local market that sold everything from seafood, to vegetables, to candy and dessert – a place where you could have a very healthy and delicious lunch or dinner just walking down the numerous aisles.
Having been to the other cast-iron-and-glass markets in Europe (such as the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid), I was impressed by the size of the Boqueria, but completely underwhelmed by it’s charm. This was more of a farmer’s market and less of a charming place to have a bite.
We walked further down to Barrio Gothic and spent some time revisiting the places we had seen the day earlier, and stopping by at Euskal Etxea for some more pintxos. Euskal seems to be a close cousin of Sagardi as we found plates from Sagardi in Euskal. The pintxos were similar, but still very delicious.
The next few hours were spent shopping in the Barrio. Desigual for sure. We had read a lot about the cafe Els Quatre Gats, or 4 Cats, that Picasso used to frequent, and wanted to at least have a coffee there. In 1899 at age 17, Picasso started to frequent Els Quatre Gats and carried out his first exhibition in this cafe. When we arrived, they were closing for the day, but through Rachna’s persistence and persuasion, we were allowed to have a quick cup. Interesting place, but I wouldn’t go in there if it weren’t for the history with Picasso.
Next, we picked a cab and headed to the beach near Port Olimpic. We spent time on the beach seeing the sun set for the last time for the year, taking some pictures of the W Hotel in the distance and admiring people who were still out there exercising in the late evening of NYE.
After sunset, we took the cab back to Las Ramblas, spent a few hours wandering around in the gathering excitement and increasing density of crowds for the upcoming NYE celebrations. Fearing that restaurants might close, we ended up at a decent place which had the least amount of wait. Food was delicious, and I had their famed pulpo, which tasted primarily like potatoes.
Walking back through Las Ramblas at about 11.30, it was becoming difficult to walk through the dense crowds, and there were beer bottles lying everywhere and cops gathering on the streets. It felt a little out of control with our kids walking with us, so we retired back into our hotel. The hotel room fortunately had windows that opened into Las Ramblas, so while the kids dozed off, we opened the windows and reveled in the festivities from 2 stories above the action.
At the stroke of midnight, we could hear the church bells of Barcelona chime 12 times through the shouting and screaming of the thousands strong crowd below. Legend has it, that with each and every chime, you are supposed to eat one grape for good luck. Well, we had none.
The next morning was all about the rush to get back to the humdrum of San Jose, California.