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Trip Report Trip Report -- Just Back From Spain

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I've just returned from 9 days and 8 nights in Spain (which became a bit longer, which I'll get to later). This will be just a nutshell summary, not my ordinary 10 pager, since I'm not feeling well, but I wanted others to benefit from my experience.

Barcelona ' two nights
Hotel Constanza: This ended up being the gem of the trip. I loved this hotel. The location, while very central, was in a very quiet, safe-feeling neighborhood. It is very modern, clean and attractive. The staff was attentive and friendly. I had a single room across from the elevator, and heard no noise other than the footsteps on the linoleum outside occasionally (not the elevator itself). I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone in the future.

Restaurants:
La Rosca (Frommer's recommendation): This restaurant doesn't look like much at all. In fact, it looked closed. It appears to be a remnant of the Franco era, but the one old guy running the place had a great personality and was very friendly. When I asked for a menu (which was a silly question) he said, 'no, I'll direct you'. So he picked my meal. And it was really very good. I started with a soup with chicken, sausage, rice, noodle and macaroni. Then I had butifarra, which is a spicy local sausage in a tomato/peppers sauce which was really very good. I topped it off with crema catalana, which is a lot like crème brulee. Total price, 8 euros. That's not a typo, you read that right. 8 euros.

El Pintor (Rick Steves recommendation): This ended up being my best meal of the trip. This is a rustic, candle-lit two-level loft-like restaurant with waiters in white coats. It felt pretty swanky and the food was to match. I started with a specialty ' beans catalan style, which had ham and black pudding with it. The main course was salmon done in apple cider with braised apples on top. This was absolutely delectable. I ended the meal with cheesecake with homemade Bailey's ice cream. Phenomenal. Total price, 34 euros.

La Pallaresca Granja-Xocolateria: For churros and hot chocolate. What more can I say, a memorable experience, although I will say of all the hot chocolates I tried in Spain, none can top Angelina's in Paris!

Sights:
Barcelona cathedral is covered in scaffolding, which was a bit of a bummer, but the cloister is beautiful and those geese are pretty funny.

The Opera House is a must-see. Pictures just don't do it justice at all. I'd love to see a performance there. All of the accents are overwhelming to a point but also are just so harmonious and creates an ambiance.

La Sagrada Familia was just unbelievable. This alone made my trip to Barcelona worthwhile. I was just blown away by the whole thing. I knew it was 'unfinished' but when you're inside and can see just how unfinished it really is and realize that this is really still a construction zone, it's mind-numbing. I didn't think I'd like Gaudi's architecture, but this really just blew my mind. Again, like the Opera House, I think it can be overwhelming to the point where it'd turn some people off, but I really enjoyed it.

Picasso Museum was the other stop that made Barcelona worth it to me. I was not a Picasso fan but as an art aficionado felt I had to go. Well, I was converted. This museum is so well-presented and covers such a broad range of his works that it was hard not to fall in love with it. It was a great learning experience, seeing through his work how he was influenced by the people he was with at certain times and how he dabbled in so many different styles (and was so good no matter what he did). I loved his take on Velazquez' Las Meninas, really extraordinary. This really got me excited for Madrid to see both Guernica and Las Meninas. I bought a book on Picasso and Guernica at this museum that I managed to read before I made it to Madrid, which really helped me enjoy and appreciate that experience all the more (called Picasso's War).

I stopped at the Chocolate Museum because it was nearby the Picasso museum. I wouldn't make a special trip but seeing La Sagrada Familia in chocolate was a trip!

Seville ' two nights
Hotel Amadeus: The location of this hotel is really good, less than 5 minutes from the cathedral and Alcazar, about 10 from the shopping streets. I got the feeling this hotel had seen better days though. I had the room off the reception area, which I had read about on Trip Advisor. There was no changing it though. While it was clean and comfortable, the room felt worn down and old and being off the reception area (with the non-stop music and traffic) did not help the situation. The staff was friendly enough and helped to make flamenco reservations for me. But part of me thinks that my overall impression of Seville would have been better if I'd made a better choice here.

Restaurants:
La Juderia ' I was planning to go to a Rick Steves recommendation across the street from this but it was full, so I ended up here, which is a related restaurant. This was a delicious meal though. The appetizer was fried eggs over fried potato slices and slices of chorizo. The main course was fried cod chunks, which just melted in my mouth. I had a puff pastry filled with cinnamon cream custard for dessert. I don't remember exactly, but with two sangrias (for a mere 2 euros a piece!) I think this meal was about 35 euros.

El Caballo Rojo (daytrip to Cordoba) ' this is a Frommers recommendation and a very worthwhile one to track down just outside the Mezquita. I had to wait for them to open at 1:00, but it was worth the wait. My appetizer was a peasant gazpacho with ham cut up into it. This was very tasty but beware if you don't like a LOT of garlic! I had a cut of beef, which in addition to being massive was perfectly cut and simply delicious. Here, I was too full for dessert. This was a splurge at 30 euros, no dessert or wine.

Sights:
Alcazar: Well, what can I say. It's a must see and I did see it, twice. I squeezed an hour in before they closed when I got off the plane on Sunday, and went back on Tuesday and did the audio guide, which I highly recommend because it makes it all come together for you in a way that guide books just can't. The architecture and tiling is just beautiful. You can't go to Seville and not go here!

Cathedral: Yes, you must see it. The altarpiece is beautiful and who doesn't want to say they saw where Columbus is (allegedly) buried? The climb up the Giralda is worth it on a clear day.

Plaza de Toros: I took the tour which was mandatory, and I'm glad I did. I'm one who enjoyed it (I've read others thought this was a waste). But it made me wish I was seeing a fight. They take you right into the ring at the start of the tour, so after that it's kind of anti-climatic, but I had no idea how close you are, even from the higher seats. It is very intimate and I imagine very exciting. The museum and other aspects of the plaza are interesting and you certainly come away with an appreciation of how much they value their bullfighters!

Flamenco: My hotel set me up with reservations at El Arenal, which of course was full of tourists, but it was a wonderful show and it was cool to see flamenco in person in Spain. There were three female dancers, three guitarists, two male and a female vocalist/clappers that anchored the show and a male dancer who did a cameo of sorts. It was exciting and exhilarating to see, and I'd recommend El Arenal to others heading in that direction. There are different tickets you can buy, including just a drink, a drink and tapas or a meal. I just got the ticket with the drink, which I think was 34 euro.

Daytrip to Cordoba: due to poor planning on my part, I was in Seville on Monday when just about everything was closed. So I daytripped to Cordoba instead. The Mezquita is extremely impressive. Again, I recommend the audio guide or a tour here because otherwise you have no idea what you're looking at and the history behind it all. The stories behind the expansions of the building itself (and how many more people it could hold after each expansion) was interesting. The design and tile of the Mihrab is extraordinary. As much as I enjoyed the visit to the Mezquita, I found the surrounding streets a bit depressing and rundown. Maybe because it is off-season and there aren't many tourists, but once I was done with the Mezquita and lunch, I was off back to Seville to shop.

Madrid (four nights)
Hotel Lope de Vega: this is a business class hotel. Once you get past that and accept the character-less-ness of that, you're fine. It's extremely clean, quiet, comfortable and well-run. The staff are efficient and a step ahead of you. Breakfasts come on three various levels, ranging from just coffee and a roll to full buffet, but the prices change dramatically from one to the other (2 euros to 12 euros). For an art fan, the location is perfect. I was in the Prado within 2 minutes of leaving my hotel. The Thyssen is less than a five minute walk, the Sofia Reina perhaps 10 minutes. Atocha station is about 10-15. There are two metro stops within a 10 minute walk.

Restaurants:

I'll admit the first night I ate at the Hard Rock Café. I was going there to buy collectors stuff for my sister, and was homesick for a burger, so I did it. Shoot me.

La Bola Taberna (Rick Steves recommendation): This was a great stop midday after touring the royal palace. I had the cocido madrileno, which is a stew. You really don't have much choice in the matter, as even if you're offered a menu the very gregarious, though aggressive, waiter convinces you to have this (not just me, I saw this played out over and over, with locals and tourists alike). It is the house speciality, and turned out to be really good, but don't go there thinking otherwise. The stew is cooked in an earthenware pot with a lid. The waiter brings it to you and at first pours off all the broth over a plate of thin noodles (think linguini). You eat that. Then the waiter returns and he pours out the rest of the stew: meats, sausage, potatoes, garbanzo beans. He adds some cabbage, you add some salsa and jalapenos, and you eat that. And if you have more room after that, you're a better eater than I. It was very hearty and would be great in the dead of winter.

La Parilla (daytrip to Toledo) ' I found this looking for another restaurant. This was a nice place up the street from the main square. Nice, quiet atmosphere and attentive staff. My appetizer was a plate of Iberian ham and manchego cheese. Some might be put off by noticing that they are carving your appetizer off the leg right there in the dining room, but once you taste it, you're quick to put aside any squeamishness. Delectable. My main course was a grilled sole, which was simple but very very good. I ended the meal with flan, which of course was wonderful. 35 euros for this meal.

El Cordero (daytrip to Segovia) ' This was included on the tour and I figured my only chance to try the Segovian specialty of roast suckling pig. It appeared to be the typical tourist type of meal: a bean soup, some roast pig (not the whole thing, thank goodness, I just had a leg) and a plate of Segovian specialties for dessert. On the whole, it was average, I'd say, but the pig was very succulent and tasty.

Sights:

The Big Three ' for museum lovers only
This was my big draw to Madrid and I was not disappointed in any sense of the word. I made two trips to the Prado, once for a couple hours before they closed one night and once right before I left so I could just stroll. This is a very nice museum and it has quite a few gems in its collection. I've been studying Spanish since I was in 6th grade, so a lot of this has been growing in my brain for many years. So seeing Las Meninas finally was a thrill. There is nothing like rounding a corner into a room and a picture causing you to smile. I was also thrilled to see Goya's Majas. But I was struck by how much I liked the El Grecos'his use of color and highlight is wonderful. I was excited to see more in Toledo (and how many more I would see!)

The Sofia Reina is also quite nice. I am not a modern art fan at all, in fact I tend to not appreciate it, but this was different. The whole Picasso experience in Barcelona may have changed me because I really enjoyed his works here, particularly Guernica and the studies leading up to it. I also saw a few Dali that I liked and a Man Ray. So maybe there's hope for me yet.

Thyssen ' this was the gem of them all for me. What a wonderful collection! It reminds me a bit of what the Frick in NYC would be if it grew a lot more. I saw so many works here that I loved that I just can't begin to mention them'other than to say that any museum that has four exquisite Rodins in its lobby is a friend of mine. But the bonus here was a Sorolla-Sargent exhibition going on that I also saw. How wonderful! I knew quite a bit about Sargent from his works at the MFA in Boston, so it was fun to see him in a different locale. But I also absolutely fell for Sorolla here, which led me to see the rest of the exhibition which was in a foundation off Puerta del Sol (for free, go figure) and then head out to the Museo Sorolla before I left on Saturday.

Museo Sorolla is just a wonderful place. I think it's what you'd hope every artist-specific museum could be. It is just chock full of his works, which are gorgeous. And to think, they are somewhat apologetic that the 'better' of his works are at the exhibition in other parts of town! The setting is his actually home and gardens, which are seen in many of his works. When I say chock full, I'm not exaggerating. His studio has paintings just stacked one on top of the other all around the room. It is just amazing.

Royal Palace ' I felt this was a bit of a letdown after having seen both Versailles and Schoenbrunn (which is my favorite of the palaces I've seen). It was an interesting stop but I wasn't terribly impressed with it. Seeing a quartet of Stradivarius instruments though was pretty cool.

Daytrip to Toledo ' this was really fun. Toledo is a fun town to walk around in and I had a wonderful day for it. I hit all of the major sights, except for the El Greco House and Museum, which was closed for renovation (figures!). Santo Tome was wonderful; seeing an El Greco in the environment it was made for really made a difference. The Santa Cruz museum also had a slew of El Grecos as did the cathedral'so if you weren't El Greco'ed out after the Prado, you would be now. It was just amazing. I also really enjoyed visiting the two synagogues, which were a beautiful combination of the religious influences in Toldeo

Daytrip to Segovia and Avila ' I took the Pullmantour and was glad I did as I don't think I could have covered the ground we did on my own. I'm not sure I'd recommend either for a first time visit to Madrid though, as I think time is better spent in Madrid itself or Toledo, which would be my first recommendation for a trip outside the city. Avila has its walls and Segovia has the aqueduct, both of which are outstanding, and I'm thrilled to have seen both. But I felt most of what we did the rest of the day, the stops we made in each town otherwise, were just filler. There was really nothing Avila that stuck out in my mind once I left. I had a headcold by this point too, so maybe I was just jaded. Or overmedicated. The Alcazar in Segovia was interesting, but I enjoyed the one in Seville more.


Miscellaneous

Getting around Spain was a piece of cake. A 10 euro ticket got me between Barcelona and Seville on Click Air (through Iberia). I was at my hotel exactly a half hour after landing, it is that efficient.

The AVE is a wonderful thing. Both the trip between Seville and Madrid and Toledo and Madrid were flawless and on time. The trains are comfortable and Atocha station is a marvel (I commute out of North Station in Boston, so if you're familiar with that you'll know what I am green with envy over Atocha!). I bought most of my tickets at El Corte Ingles travel agency rather than deal with the lines at either Seville or Atocha.

Crime ' well, most of the reports on here had me scared witless. This was my 20th trip to Europe and I'd never been so high strung about getting robbed as I was on this trip. I kept everything but petty cash in my money belt and didn't carry a shoulder bag, just a small across the chest bag that easily fit under my coat. This wasn't ideal, but I wanted to not be a target. By the time I got to Madrid, I started carrying a shoulder bag for convenience, for my water, souvenirs, umbrella, guidebooks, etc. I never saw anything going wrong and certainly wasn't robbed myself. Having been there now myself, I can say that if you just go and play smart like you will in any big city, you'll be fine.

Iberia Airlines'.well, you know, you get what you pay for. I got the flight for $600 including taxes. I got over there just fine, Bos-Mad-Bcn. Miracle of miracles, my luggage made it too. I knew it had to be too good to be true though. They bumped me coming home, after I'd called that morning to confirm my flights and get my seats assigned. I did get $800 for my troubles, they rerouted me through London and I had to stay there overnight although without my luggage. So I got home 14 hours later, in the same clothes I'd been wearing for nearly 48 hours straight and without my luggage (which showed up this morning at 4 a.m., thank god). The hassle really was irritating and right now I'm a bit angry over it, but I think it could happen on any airline, not just Iberia. I will say though that the two Iberia customer service agents I dealt with on the ground in Madrid were just phenomenal. One of them hugged me when I finally got on the plane to London, he was a really sweet guy and he really was trying to get me on a flight fast. I found that I got farther with sugar than others did with vinegar, so please, folks, keep that in mind if you ever find yourself in that situation.

Overall, I'd probably return to Madrid some day. I really wasn't enchanted with Barcelona at all, it just felt too young and cosmopolitan for me, and I quickly ran out of things to do. I'd love to see more of southern Spain and in particular see a bullfight down there.

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