Why visit Spain? For me the answers are easy. There are historic towns,
walled cities, Roman and medieval ruins, art and culture -- a lot like what you will find in Italy, but on a more manageable
scale. What many outsiders don't realize is that Spain includes geographical diversity and strong regional difference;
combining visits to the north and the south of Spain or any part of the interior with the seacoast will offer contrasting
experiences. Besides that, parts of Spain are unique. Barcelona is one of the world's great cities. Andalusia
has a flavor that you cannot find anywhere else. I happen to like the north of Spain best and find that Avila and Santiago
de Compostela offer a spiritual tranquility.
The Spanish people are a delight in every part of the country, and, especially
for those who understand the language, you will enjoy noticing regional differences in personality. The economic
and social changes since the end of the Franco regime have moved at a pace not matched anywhere else in the world. You
will find Spain to be a modern, efficient country, but one that values its historic culture.
The food and drink are superb. The wine is now famous worldwide, and although
many of the cheeses now are exported, you will find fresh local cheeses wherever you go. (Check out this great website:
Cheese from Spain. My favorite is #54 -- Torta del Casar.) Iberian ham -- the thinly sliced cured ham that is something like prosciutto -- is a specialty. Spain
is one of the best seafood countries in the world; the Madrid seafood market is said to be second only to Tokyo in size.
Everywhere you go, there are regional specialties, such as various kinds of lamb. Basque restaurants are excellent and
are present in all the big cities.
Breakfasts typically are coffee and a roll on the go in bars or cafes, but your hotel
may have a Continental style breakfast buffet, offering something for everyone. Breakfast typically is not included
in the hotel bill, but be sure to ask. Lunch typically is at 2 pm and can be a large sit-down meal. People who
work near there homes sometimes manage to join their families for lunch. Even on weeknights, dinner is no earlier than
9 pm, but in Madrid, some restaurants open at 8 pm for the tourists. In Spain, what Americans call "tapas" is simply
the food available at bars -- sardines, calamari, ham, small sandwiches and so forth. You don't need to wait for a late-night
dinner; you can enjoy a drink at a bar and eat these snacks. Not knowing Spanish will not be a difficulty, because so
many people speak English and are used to helping tourists. If you know any Spanish at all, you will have a very rich
and pleasurable experience.
Iberia is a modern airline, and you can get points in the American Airlines Advantage
program. It often is an inexpensive way to get around the country. There is only one high-speed rail line, from
Madrid to Seville, but express and local trains reach the rest of the country. Even with my knowledge of Spanish, I
find Madrid's train stations confusing, so I often choose Iberia. There also are efficient bus routes around the country
and they can be of great use to tourists for day trips to places near Madrid, such as Toledo, Segovia or Aranjuez. Ask
your hotel about them. Transportation is safe, and there is no reason to hire a car and driver. Spain now is blanketed
with superhighways -- "autopistas" -- and renting a car is a good approach to visiting the smaller towns. (As
in all of Europe, it is next to impossible to rent an automatic transmission vehicle.) I don't bother renting a car
if the goal is simply to visit one city or a series of cities. For getting around town, taxis are cheap and plentiful,
and the taxi drivers are well-informed and professional.
As with everywhere in Europe, consider my safety advice: Safety
The guidebook I recommend is Spain, in the Dorling Kindersley series (formerly
the Eyewitness Travel Guides.) Just get the book for Spain as a whole; don't worry about city guides.
Spain has historic buildings such as castles converted into modern hotels, or "paradors."
As long as they are located in the historic center of the city, I recommend them (check a guidebook). This is a link
to the parador website:
Avoid surprise closings. There are many religious holidays. Consult Holidays and Closings
Best advice for putting yourself in the mood? Forget Hemingway. Rent
the movie of the Bizet's Carmen, the edition starring Placido Domingo. It was all shot in Andalusia and it gorgeous.
During my regular business trips to Spain, I often tack on a day or two during the
weekend to be a tourist. Each of the places below (except Extremadura) is one that I have visited in recent years.
I will not offer priorities, because everyone's taste is different.
Avila - Europe's most intact walled city.
Quiet, spiritual atmosphere, especially for those interested in Saint Teresa of Avila. Stay at the parador, right in
the center of town.
Barcelona - Fantastic city in every way; world-class architecture.
Bilbao - Capital of the Basque region;
home of Frank Geary's Guggenheim Museum.
Cordoba - Smaller and more manageable than Seville; a weekend there is a great way to
get to know Andalusia.
Extremadura (Spain) and Alentejo (Portugal) - a series of very old towns; somewhat like visiting Tuscany or Umbria.
Granada - this is one of the world's treasures.
Madrid - many suggestions for the capital are included; this is one of the world's leading
cities for art museums.
Oviedo - don't overlook this town in northern Spain, famous for its treasurehouse of pre-Romanesque art and architecture.
Salamanca - home of an ancient university,
reminiscent of Oxford or Cambridge; one of the best city squares. Somewhat similar to Avila, but the students make it
a livelier place.
Santiago de Compostela - don't get me started, I have so much to say! One of the three top pilgrimage
destinations for Christianity, and a very spiritual atmosphere. Expect rain in this extreme northwest corner of the
Iberian Peninsula. Stay at the parador; built by Ferdinand and Isabela, it is the oldest hotel in the world.
Segovia - an easy daytrip from Madrid or spend a weekend, particularly to see the
Romanesque churches, the Alcazar and the Roman aqueduct.
Sevilla - the capital of Andalusia, and a big city. Full of things to do in historic
quarters. Avoid during warm months.
Toledo - a picturesque city, perched on a hill reachable on a daytrip from Madrid.
The former capital, there is no better way to learn about Spain's history than to visit Toledo. Fine art. Avoid
the tours from Madrid, if you can, because there is much to see and you will be rushed.
Zaragossa - a surprising variety of sights in this city, including buildings from the Roman
and the Moorish periods.
For what it's worth the nine cities in Spain declared by UNESCO to be World Heritage Sites are:
Alcala de Henares, Avila, Caceres, Cordoba, Cuenca, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Segovia and Toledo. http://www.ciudadespatrimonio.org/ing/index.htm
(Everyone wants to visit the beaches, but I am afraid that I don't have much to offer on that subject.
Maybe later!) Beaches, Sea Coasts
I have not been there myself, but Ronda comes highly recommended both by Spanish friends and by an American family that went there. It is an old town,
perched in the mountains above the Costa del Sol. Stay at the parador.
How to visit Gibraltar
With any luck, someday I will address my list of unfinished business:
Spain Personal To-Do List
I apologize to my Spanish teachers. It is hard to import the accents into the
text, and my spelling is inconsistent. Sorry.