Reflections on Spain
Off the Beaten Path in Spain
I travel to Spain in April with my wife Ruth. Planning our trip is half of the fun, and I thought I would pass along some of my ideas on how to have a memorable and enjoyable trip to this wonderful country.
First, a few tips for the first time visitor. Driving in Spain is easy: the highways are in excellent condition (generally better than ours) and signage is good, you can use your US license. ATMs are plentiful, and credit cards are accepted virtually everywhere, but be sure to alert your bank that you are traveling. Use Booking.com for making reservations. You can cancel or revise with no penalty until 24 hours before. If possible, avoid July and August, which is the traditional holiday time for locals and tourists alike. May and October are ideal.
Once you arrive, there is a whole world of culture and food to explore. Spain is a country of incredible variety, with at least four languages and 17 distinct regions. Because of its location, many cultures have streamed through Spanish history, each leaving a lasting mark. The Romans laid a foundation of language and culture throughout Iberia. Andalucía, in the south, is heavily influenced by the presence of the Moors who lived there for more than 700 years. Galicia is affected by the longtime presence of the Celtic people. In fact, some say Galicia is the source of the people of Ireland. So expect bagpipes, seashore, cow's milk cheese and green hills.
Another reason for this wonderful variety is explained by the mountains. Next to Switzerland, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe. Before mechanized travel the mountains were a very real and intimidating boundary. Crossing a mountain pass was not only strenuous, but also filled with the danger of brigands and outlaws who might attack a traveling band. Because of this physical separation, people living less than 20 miles apart developed different customs, food traditions and dialects.
Your first decision is how you narrow the field, otherwise, you will end up seeing a lot, and at the same time experience very little. A friend of mine from Spain planned a similar trip to America a few years ago. He wanted to show his wife the United States in ten days! He flew into Washington, DC, from Sevilla, visited us in Williamsburg for Thanksgiving Day, then flew on to Las Vegas the next day, followed by a rafting trip on the Grand Canyon, then Death Valley and San Francisco before returning to Sevilla. I am exhausted just writing about it!
In the past, I attempted similar trips in Spain. I love the Andalucians who live in the far south, just north of Morocco, and I equally enjoy the Celtic people in Galicia who live by the ocean in the far northwest corner of Spain. I couldn’t decide whether to visit the Alhambra of Granada or the pilgrim cathedral of Santiago. A couple of times I have attempted to fit in both regions, with Extremadura tucked in between. I ended up exhausted trying to stuff in so many memories.
So my first suggestion is for you to focus on which part of Spain you want to visit. Over 70 million visitors a year visit the country, and there is a lot to see. It is a good thing Spain is so large, for it easily absorbs them all, with the exceptions of Barcelona and perhaps Malaga which at certain times of the year have more tourists than locals!
This time we have a dilemma. Do we fly south to Sevilla in order to visit cherished Spanish friends in Córdoba, Cádiz and the sherry towns? But then we also want to go to a rustic fishing village on the northern coast of Galicia which has very moving processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week). Maybe we can top it off with Easter at the medieval cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and then fly home.
When we were young and foolish we would have packed it all in, but now we realize you can't do everything you want to. Since our trip will end on Easter Day, we decided to concentrate on the pilgrimage towns of Galicia. Next time we will visit our friends down south, and revisit the magical port of Cádiz (which is the favorite town of many seasoned travelers, such as the NY Times writer Penelope Casas).
Since we are less familiar with the interior of Galicia we decided to rely upon the amazing Parador system of hotels and inns which dot the country, sometimes located in beautifully restored palaces and castles (Paradores.es). Some of our favorites are the Montfort de Lemos palace, built next to the site of a 9th century monastery, Verín, a fortress and monastery site for pilgrims, and finally on Easter we will stay at an extravagantly beautiful hotel first built in 1496 by Queen Isabella as a hostel for pilgrims. It is adjacent to the 12th century Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Many tell me that they are going spend their first trip to Spain in Barcelona. To some extent, it is like saying you are going to get to know the United States by spending your vacation in Manhattan. Don't get me wrong, Barcelona is an exciting, fascinating city which you should explore by walking down the Ramblas, seeing Gaudi's amazing constructions and visiting the amazingly vast food market. But I urge you to do more. In the city you can visit the Museum of Catalan art on Montjuic. There are sublime thousand-year-old murals taken from the walls of mountain monasteries. If this moves you, you can rent a car and drive for only one hour to the ancient city of Vic in the Pyrenees, which has an exquisite new Diocesan museum filled with amazing polychrome wood carvings you will see nowhere else in the world. I can give you the name of an excellent and knowledgeable guide should you want to drive into the mountains for three or four hours.
From Barcelona, you can take a train or drive one hour to Girona. It has a medieval Cathedral, whose seemingly hundreds of stairs lead to a precious needlepoint tapestry of the creation made in the 12th century. Down the street, in the former Jewish Quarter, is the fascinating museum and library at the Sefardic Center which can connect you to volumes of information concerning Jews (Sephardi) in Spain. Girona also hosts El Cellar de Can Roca, a Michelin 5-star restaurant (you will have to make reservations months in advance).
This legendary restaurant serves Can Solivera Wild Olive Oil made by our friends Hans and Daida de Roos in a neighboring town. They are gracious and will welcome you with open arms and show you all there is to know about the production of gourmet olive oil. It will be an unforgettable experience. Send me an email to email@example.com if you would like to visit them.
I think by now you can see that with a little imagination you can stray from group travel and discover parts of Spain which are even more memorable. What I have described in these two provinces of Galicia and Cataluña is available to you, whatever your age. Good roads, warm and friendly people, amazing history which stretches back to pre-history - all of it is yours if you have an adventurous spirit.
"Great advice & suggestions. I’ll going to keep the email you provided if we can make it to those areas."
"Great information, Don, and some new things to consider for future trips. We’ve been asked to open the American Pilgrims on Camino program at Ribadiso this year, and always include time to explore more of our favorite country either before or after that."
B&C Harper, Williamsburg
"Hi Don, really enjoy your post on Spain. I had a aha!! moment where you talked about Galicia and the Irish people. I am Cuban. All my great grandparents came from different parts of Spain and the Canary Island. My DNA results from Ancestry.com came back mainly being from the Iberian Peninsula (which I expected) but also 24% Italian/Greek and 14% Irish, which totally surprised me. From what you mentioned it now makes more sense. I know some of my family came from the ’north’ and I believed it was Leon and Asturias, which are right next to Galicia (in fact I think I had a Gallego in there too!) - thus maybe that is where the Irish in me came up. Please keep writing about the different parts of Spain and your experiences. It was a pleasure to read. Thank you."
Virginia Linnell, Lincroft, NJ
"Sounds like a good approach and, of course, Galicia is just wonderful. If you have time visit the Parador Santo Estevo (Luintra) a bit west of where you are staying. We found it the most spectacular Parador we ever stayed in."
Pat Storey, Tolland, MA USA
"We are traveling to Spain in April, landing in Malaga where we have family and friends.Looking forward to ourfavorite coquinas,sardinas, pescaito frito, etc.etc. Then its off to Galicia, alsostaying with friends and getting our fill of wonderful marisco !!!!! Yes, we love to eat ! Have been to Spain many times and always looking forward to going back :-)"
Ingrid Masella, Longwood, FL . USA
"Lovely and thoughtful entry here! Thank you for the tips! Would love to take you up on some of your recommendations in the near future. Galicia truly is a magical and wonderful region! Cheers!"
Teresa, Pittsburgh, PA
"Having grown up in Spain in the 60’s and 70’s as an oil brat, I love your perspective on Barcelona. Being an avid Madrilena, I avoid Barcelona, but everything around there is amazing. Northern Spain is amazing, so doing the Camino del Norte ending up of course in Santiago is highly recommended. Totally envious of your annual April visits. It is great to travel that time of year! Buen viaje!"
Mary Paige Corcoran, Marble Falls, TX, USA
" ”Driving in Spain is easy: ... you can use your US license.” According to the Spanish Tourist office, that’s not true for us gringos. ”If you are the citizen of an EU member state, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein: you only require your valid driver’s license. If you are from another country you will require an International Driver’s License.” (http://www.spain.info/en_US/informacion-practica/consejos-viaje/consejos-practicos/conducir_en_espana/) Although the Guardia may be satisfied with a license issued by a US jurisdiction, I’ve heard this isn’t always the case, and some rental companies may require an International DL. I’m going to renew mine next week at AAA before heading over mid-March. "
Doug H., northern VA
"Don, this is great travel advice. Early on, my wife and I decided to visit one area of Spain at a time. Now after 10 trips we have been to all 17 continental regions of the country. Each one is different, and we love them all. My advice to others is to stay in a small town (or at least a medium sized town) in addition to a large city. Day trips don’t offer the same experience as staying in a town. For example, if going to Barcelona, stay in Girona or Vic, as you mentioned. If going to Madrid, head to Cuenca, Segovia, Toledo, or Salamanca. Each is within a few hours of Madrid and each offers a terrific experience of Spanish culture, history and life that you wouldn’t get in the big city. Also, don’t forget about Spain’s great train service – in just a few hours, high speed trains can get you from Madrid to Seville, Valencia, or other distant places. From there, you can rent a car and tour the remote landscapes and towns like the ones you will be visiting. Have a great trip!"
Lyle, Boston, MA