Many months ahead, we four friends planned this trip to Spain for the end of February, into March. Two of the women had traveled to Europe before, none of the three had ever been to Spain, my Catalan friend would join us mid-journey, and I always go there. I wanted to show them Spain via some city and some country, from the urbane Barcelona to the small cities of the far western region of Extremadura. We all wanted relief from the Upper Midwest winter. Could we all get our expectations met on this trip? This is how it all went down.
I left for Barcelona one week ahead of the others on uneventful flights. That is a good thing. I spent my time visiting old friends and walking around the city. One day I fell into a student demonstration in Plaza San Jaume, complete with riot police from whom all of us, supporters or not, had to make a hasty retreat. During the same time period, I got an education watching soccer on TV, from my friend’s brother – which means all things Mesi. Another night we watched the classic Spanish film, “Soy Minero”, with Antonio Molina and another evening, “Division Azul”, two diametrically opposed views of Spain, one liberal, the worker/socialist situation, the second, conservative, the Franco dictatorship’s worldview.
The departure of my three American friends was delayed 24 hours by a Michigan snowstorm that left them grounded on the first leg. One day later, I met them at the Barcelona airport, from there we took the train into town and rolled our suitcases a couple of blocks to our apartment, home for the next seven nights, which was the last full week in February. We had a four bedroom, two bath apartment in the Example area, Negre apartments, which has been reviewed by others. I will do the same in the reviews section, along with all our other hotel reviews which have already been published.
Well, the days and nights in Barcelona were spent doing what everyone does. They were fascinated by this city and I never tire of repeat visits. Since many others have reported so well and thoroughly on Barcelona, and we did nothing unique, I will skip the details here and go on to the rest of the trip.
The Country Part – Extremadura
I have long been intrigued by a stretch of road that goes through the Siberia of Spain. It runs from Ciudad Real into Extremadura. I posted the question in the forum and got details of the time necessary to drive this route. To save drive time, we flew from Barcelona, on a Vueling flight, that landed in Ciudad Real. Here we picked up our rental car. I made sure the attendant showed me how to open the latch to the gas cover – a problem on a previous trip. The car was nicely parked so that I could drive out straightforward, onto a lightly traveled highway and we were on our way. The open road!
After a few hours, it was Spanish midday meal time and we were hungry. We pulled into a venta, a restaurant along the road in the open country. It was full of other vehicles, many dirt covered due to coming and going from the fields on a work day, a good sign. About 90% of the customers were male, in work clothes, with reinforced patches on the elbows, knees and shoulder (for holding up the butt of a rifle or shotgun). We could see the cook grilling over an open fire inside, another good sign. On the menu del dia was venison. That was my menu choice.
After an excellent meal, we got into the car again. Hmm … why can’t I get it into reverse? I am following the diagram on the stick. After much frustration, two of my companions get out to physically push the car back so that we can drive forward. At that exact moment, a car of the Guardia Civil pulls up beside us. They say, “It looks like we arrived at just the right moment.” I patiently explain the predicament, the broken reverse gear … surely it must be that. One of the guardians gets in the car, lifts a small and very insignificant plastic “collar” around the stick and then slides it easily into reverse. I thank him and also asked that he not repeat this incident of foreign women drivers to any of his companions. He, muy caballero, of course, promised not to – until we got five kilometers down the road.
We continued along the road through Siberia, beautiful scattered oak trees and open green plains, at this time of the year many flocks of sheep, a few shelters off in the distance, pure undisturbed country. I do recommend this route, it has none of the negative connotations that “Siberia” could suggest, especially since there was no snow.
After a few hours, the road started to climb as it approached our evening destination, Guadalupe. This was my third visit, over a period of 30 years. We pulled up to the Monastery and got our rooms, which I reviewed in the hotels’ section.
That evening we did tapas and turned in. The next day we did the official tour of the church, sacristy and museum of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We were four foreigners in a larger group of Spaniards who had traveled from Madrid. In the upper chamber of the Virgin, one of the women sang a solo to the Virgin. Very moving.
After more tapas in a bar in the charming plaza, we got back in the car and started the journey South to our next destination. The road slopes down the mountain, the fields are dedicated to flocks of sheep and not much else. It is an unpopulated but serene countryside.
We spent only one night here, in the Parador. The daylight hours were used to wander around town and see all the Roman ruins. The best part was walking back and forth on the stone bridge across the Guadalquivir, the very same bridge that Roman legions used!
There is also the forum and/or amphitheater to visit. I think it is written that Merida has the greatest concentration of Roman ruins outside of Italy? Even if it is short that title, there is a lot to see.
Next day we headed West, right to the border, but just short of, Portugal, to the town of Olivenza. This town and territory has been in dispute between the two countries over centuries – to the advantage of Olivenza itself. It has gained influences from both cultures and it shows in its unique architecture, food and spoken language. We did a lot of walking around town, visited museums, churches and watched workmen laying down an intricate pattern in pieces of stone on one of the main streets in the older part of town. This was to replace the boring smooth pavement.
I had visited this most pleasant town years ago with my brothers and we still rave over a pastry from there called, Tecula Mecula. Was it really as good as I thought I remembered? Yes! It was. The four of us on this trip each bought a piece for dessert to savor after our midday meal. But after we sampled just one little bite, we finished up our entire pieces while we sat in the sunny plaza. So much for saving them.
We did not spend the night there but continued on. We took the road around Badajoz to link into the road that headed us North, still snaking along the invisible Portuguese border towards our next stop.
Personally, I have wanted to visit here for a long time, because of the namesake (our N. Mexico) and from descriptions in old (from the 70’s) Spanish travel guidebooks. So, this is a first-time visit for me as I drag along my unsuspecting companions. Seen from many kilometers away the town rises up from the plains, capped by a fortress castle. But that castle is under repairs and we could only approach the lower bulwarks which are now residential streets of the town. This means I will be returning because it looks to be a very impressive site.
In the meantime, we did the aperitivos in a bar on the main plaza and lunch in a restaurant which was good but nothing to write home about – or report on here. English is not spoken here, the menus are only in Spanish. This is the kind of solid Spanish town that probably has its double in the towns we live in back home – except for the castle.
We departed late afternoon heading mostly East on the very lightly traveled EX 303. It goes through a big expanse of “dehesa” open land, small oaks and bushes, shallow ravines, rock outcroppings. We saw herds of bulls and sheep. In my opinion, some of the most evocative countryside I have seen.
There were no towns or settlements on this stretch until we joined onto the A5. It is now a limited access freeway that skirts around many villages that one used to drive through. One can see the old highway running parallel almost all the way. We skirted around Caceres to make for our next destination.
My favorite small Spanish town. Having visited here several times over the years, this time I took a guided tour and learned many new facts about this charming town of almost unbroken architectural cohesiveness. I write a few words on it because I have covered it in past Trip Reports. We spent two nights here and the search for a hotel was an event in itself. It is covered in the hotel review section.
Continuing on our way to Madrid, we stopped at Oropesa to tour the Parador/castle there. There is a fantastic vista of the surrounding plains from many windows and balconies. Soon after, we left the main highway and circled around Toledo, seeing the outline of the city from many angles. We did not enter because of time and our next destination.
We entered the town in the middle of the Medieval Fair in full swing. Walking up the streets, there were booths that sold herbs, artisan bread, clothes and all kinds of merchandise. Finally getting into the main plaza, we saw acrobats performing, demonstrations of birds of prey like falcons, more things for sale, games for children, troubadours playing music and King Fernando and Queen Isabel in full regalia making an entrance on horseback! What good luck to arrive on this exact day.
It just happened because our plan was to stage ourselves here for the night because I wanted to make the drive into Madrid on a Sunday morning with the least amount of traffic possible. I still got turned around but we finally got to our hostel in the town of Barajas, the town nearest the airport.
Leaving the car in Barajas, we used the metro to get into Madrid center for only 1 each no traffic, no parking, what a relief. With our half day, we wanted to visit the Prado, which has free entry on Sundays from 5pm to 8pm. I dont know if I would recommend this way to see the Prado because there were so many people taking advantage of the same deal. Later, tired and with time to kill, we went into a beer joint (cervesaria.) There were several enticing ones on this street and area, all with old tile work and lively crowds. We chose La Daniela, on c/ Jesus. Monday, and Madrid was a pivotal day for all of us, many pieces had to fall into place. Two of the American women were returning home, and my Catalan friend was flying in to continue the trip with us. Our hostel offered free shuttle service to and from the airport. I went on the shuttle to see the Americans off and be there to meet my friend. It all worked out and now three of us got back in the car and negotiated the Monday traffic to head South out of Madrid.
We would all be back here in 8 days. But before that…
Our destination was Andalucia but we did not want to make a lightning drive there, because there were things to see on the way. On the list was the castle in Tierras de Calatrava. It is located way South of Ciudad Real. On Monday, unfortunately, the castle was closed for visits but the drive up to the top and the view from there was formidable. It was built to defend Castilla from Moorish invasions and the defenders were probably successful in that endeavor, I mean, it was difficult enough in a car on a road.
On any roadmap, you can see that we took the only obvious road to Puerto Llano where we expected to spend the night. Dropping down from the castle, we drove on a secondary highway through a gorgeous valley, following a river. But after many miles, our senses were assaulted by the site of an oil refinery and it did not stop. It was about 10 miles of an industrial complex, towers, fences, smokestacks and cinder block residences for the workers.
The road finally led us into Puerto Llano. We stopped at the center and asked where we could find a hostel and what there was to see. An employee in a drug store told us that for diversion, many people in town drove back out along the refinery road to see all the lights of the complex. This, from an educated pharmacist, recommending the outstanding feature of her town! We decided not to stay there and drove on.
We tried two towns in the area and neither had a hostel. We were forced back to Puerto Llano to spend the night in a hotel there. I did not review that hotel, because I would not recommend visiting that town. This experience was a real eye-opener for me, an ugly town in Spain with nothing to attract visitors. The whole area has been turned over to the refineries. I guess it has to be done somewhere. The next morning we headed out early for our next destination. It was a refreshing drive over the range of low mountains on the N420 South from La Mancha to…
Mid-morning we stopped at the only town of any size along the road, Venta de Cardena. Asking for a place to eat, a lady literally took me by the arm and delivered us to the only bar in town. Passing through the fly curtain, this in March, we entered a big open room with a wood fire burning at the far end. They served us but also said they were about to close for the day because they were going out to the country – for me, we were already ”out in the country” – for the annual killing (matanza) or harvest of something. Never was clear. We continued on to…
This major town of Roman origin is built along the upper ridge of the river Guadalquivir. Parking the car, we walked the streets and sat for while in the main plaza. There were many skinny dogs that tugged at my heartstrings. I went to a butcher shop and bought a bunch of chicken wings. The butcher asked why me why a foreigner (i.e., rich) was not buying better pieces of meat. No shame of curiosity here. When I told him it was for the dogs in the plaza, I only got uncomprehending looks from him and other shoppers by my side in the store. Well, at least those dogs filled their bellies that day.
We, three humans, headed for the town casino for lunch. This was a beautiful old building. We were seated in the glass roofed courtyard. Here we had our first – of many – glasses of Montilla, the Cordobes verison of sherry (fino). Our American friend was introduced to her first taste of Andalucian tapa delicacies, like baby eels and other unmentionables. We were also given a tour of the whole building, from the basement that used to hold prisoners of the Spanish Civil War, to the upstairs salon with windows onto the Semana Santa parade route, places for the two extremes of Spanish society.
After driving through the traffic, we dropped off our rental car at the train station and caught a taxi to our hostel. The driver had to fold in the mirrors of the car to pass through some of the streets in the old city, which is exactly where we were going to stay for the next six nights! We had a triple room reserved for us at the Interjoven Youth Hostel, a few streets away from the Mezquita. I reviewed the place in the hotels section.
We spent six nights here and explored Cordoba up, down and across. For me, this was the most rewarding city of all the Andalucian capitals. People were very friendly. Seldom was it necessary to ask for directions. Many times when we were studying a map, a Cordobes would approach us and offer help. We did and saw so many things that I am going to just list them. Everything was a good experience. I cannot say one negative thing about our time in Cordoba.
- Museum of Bellas Artes, great building itself and of course, the art works.
- Bar el Gallo, old time bar filled with old men, here our glasses were filled to the rim with Montilla.
- The Casino, we were given a tour of some gardens normally off limits and invited for a drink in the members only bar.
- Caballerizas Reales, the royal horse stables, for a demonstration of dressage, done Spanish style, “Doma Vaquera” with music and costumes.
- Palacio Viana, twelve patio gardens, fountains, furniture, art etc.
- Alcazar, museum, vistas and the extensive, just renovated, gardens.
- Banos Arabes, steamy cleanliness and massages in tiled rooms.
- The Bridge, perfect place for a stroll.
- Food, we ate and had tapas at many places, too many to mention, 90% were excellent.
- Shopping, an array of shops to buy ceramics, leather, jewelry, scarves and more.
- La Mezquita, what can my words convey, you must see this site.
We did and saw other things not listed but even with six days, we did not venture out to Medina Azahara, and the Julio Romero Torres museum was closed for renovations.
Finally, we had to leave. We had reservations on the AVE going to Madrid. The ride was a nice change of pace for me who had been the driver. I could sit back in the quiet and roomy cars and watch the countryside float by.
We were back in Madrid because my Catalan friend was headed back to Barcelona from here, while I and the remaining American friend were going to stay longer. Years ago I had hosted a Spanish foreign exchange student. Now we were the invited guests of her and the family. I last saw her as a 15 year old, now she is a 20 year old university student and a young woman. We had an emotional meeting at Atocha station and she drove us to her home in the suburbs, Las Rozas.
They made sure we saw important parts of the capitol, Plaza del Sol, Café Real, after a tour of the palace, Plaza Mayor, all with stops in landmark cafes and bars. By car they drove us along Paseo de la Castellana, up to Torres Quiro. I had once seen the outlines of these buildings from on top hills about 40 miles away to the North.
My personal best experience was the visit to the Sorolla museum. The collection is superior but also the setting. The museum is inside the house (mansion) that the artist designed and resided in with his family.
They took us on a day trip to Toledo where we also saw the important sites and lunched at the Parador with vistas of the Toledo skyline. Back at their place we watched more soccer games on TV.
Another day trip by car headed us to Salamanca, climbing over the foggy and snowy Guadarrama pass and then dropping into the open, sunny Castillian plains. In Salamanca, we walked, sat in the plaza, took the tourist trenecito, visited Calixto garden, crossed the Roman bridge back and forth and ate at Casa Paca, on Rua Mayor. On the way home we stopped at Avila but this town really requires its own day to do it justice.
When the day came, they drove us to Barajas airport for our early morning departures. We each had separate flights with different routes but we both ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan at 11pm at night. A safe end to a five week sojourn in Spain filled with memories to last a lifetime, or until next year.