Randy and I had several goals in mind for this trip. Having made such a great connection while traveling together (with three other friends) on a 2017 trip to Italy, we wanted to celebrate that experience with a sort of “anniversary trip” for just the two of us.
I was ready to re-visit England, but Randy, for his next overseas vacation, was interested in seeing some of the Moorish cities in Spain, as well as a Neolithic site he’d read about that’s located in the south-central part of the country Neither of us had been to Barcelona and we both particularly wanted to see it. Plus I had long wanted to visit Peg and Gary, who’ve wintered in Valencia for the past six years, not only because it had been a few years since we’d last visited, but also to discover why they had picked Valencia over all the other places they might have chosen to live when they’re not traveling elsewhere in Europe (where they’ve lived for several decades). Since Valencia isn’t too terribly far from either Barcelona or from Seville, Cordoba, Granada, etc., we decided on a three-week trip to Spain in October.
We divided our trip into three main components: a full week in Barcelona, a total of about a week in Valencia, and a road-trip in a rental car to some Moorish cities southwest of Valencia. Granada (where they keep the Alhambra) was on our original itinerary, but we changed our plans to see it when we learned (while in Valencia) that we’d not be able to book advance admission to the Alhambra until after Christmas.
One of the distinctive and surprising features of this trip for me was the way each destination turned out to be more interesting than the also-interesting place we’d just been. Barcelona was suitably impressive – especially the Gaudi sites that we focused our time and money touring – but when we arrived in Valencia, I was immediately relieved to be in a smaller city. Ditto Seville and Cordoba.
That said, I am so glad I finally made it to Barcelona. Being there with Randy was a special treat, as it was fun not only to be traveling again with him but because Randy appreciates architecture and design as enthusiastically as I do myself.
Despite my long-time admiration of All Things Art Nouveau, I had somehow managed to spend 70 years with almost zero knowledge of the works of Antoni Gaudi. What a genius! I’d not encountered before anything remotely similar to his work, and am puzzled at why Gaudi has had so few imitators/successors. Each of the half-dozen or so Gaudi-designed buildings we visited was a revelation – and well worth the sometimes steep admission prices.
If you’ve not been to Barcelona, check out the Internet’s excellent exterior and interior photos of the Gaudi structures we toured. (Note: You may need to scroll down a bit to see the images at each of these links, and at the links to photos inserted elsewhere in this blogpost, but it’s worth the trouble!)
A few of the photos Randy took of some of these amazing buildings designed by Gaudi:
I now understand why so many architecture fans rave about Barcelona. Not only is it where most of Gaudi’s buildings are located, but other Art Nouveau marvels are there as well. That includes the Music Palace that we toured:
But my favorite non-Gaudi Art Nouveau extravaganza was the recently-restored St. Paul Hospital, a huge complex of amazing structures that took the better part of a day to tour.
Of course, Barcelona is full of wonderful architecture in other styles and from other eras as well:
While staying in Barcelona, we booked a day trip to Figueres, the birthplace of Salvadore Dali and where he renovated an old theater to house a museum for his work (and where he is buried). Both the inside and the outside of this building is appropriately bizarre, and it was gratifying to see more of Dali’s art after earlier this year having seen what’s on offer at the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Our guided bus trip to Dali-Land also featured a stop in the only other small town in Spain we got to walk around in, the charming and ancient town of Girona.
After enjoying a walk through the medieval part of the town…
…our favorite discovery there was the excellent museum of cinema located there (better, I thought, than a similar museum I’ve seen in Paris).
After our stimulating and somewhat exhausting week of sightseeing in Barcelona, we took a train along the coast to Valencia where Peg and Gary have been spending each winter for the past six years.
I quickly came to understand why Peg and Gary prefer to live in Valencia – at least in the winter – rather than, say, in Barcelona or Madrid. Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia’s got all the charm of Barcelona without Barcelona’s (or Madrid’s) bustle, traffic, and sprawl; it has fewer tourists, and, like Barcelona, is located on the country’s Mediterranean coast, so the winter weather is mild and dry most of the time. Like Barcelona, the food markets, the parks, the pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and the cultural activities on offer are exceptional.
And although Valencia features zero Gaudi buildings, it’s got plenty of Calatrava architecture to marvel at:
After re-energizing at Peg’s and Gary’s spacious, comfortable, and conveniently-located rented apartment in Valencia and after Peg and Gary showed us their town, we rented a car and headed further south along the coast in search of presumably quaint fishing villages. Discovering to our chagrin that the coastal towns we’d read about or seen videos of are actually decidedly non-scenic, highrise-infested resort towns, we promptly then headed west.
We devoted approximately half of our week-long road trip to sightseeing in Seville and Cordoba (two days and two nights in each of these towns). Just as Valencia seemed like a scaled-down version of Barcelona, Seville seemed like a smaller version of Valencia, with Cordoba feeling slightly smaller than either of those three metropolises.
As interesting as Seville and Cordoba turned out to be, we found the most congenial and easy to navigate destination was the smallest town we visited, a place I’d never heard of before called Antiquera.
Antiquera was also the site of the Neolithic structures (temples, probably) that Randy wanted to check out:
Spain is approximately the size as Texas, and the distances we traveled between the towns we visited were considerable. Although we certainly managed to see a lot in three weeks time – and did a lot of walking in each town we spent time in, I don’t think we tried to cover too much ground during our three-week vacation.
True, we’d hoped to find more visit-worthy hilltop villages than we managed to find along our route through south-central Spain. In retrospect, it would’ve made more sense – or at least have been cheaper – if we’d used trains instead of renting a car to get to the cities we spent the majority of our time in. On the other hand, if we’d done that, we’d’ve missed two unscheduled scenic drives that ended up being some of the most spectacular hours of our trip.
In any case, wandering around the steep, narrow, winding streets of Antiquera reminded me of how – is it an age-related thing??? – I am coming to prefer smaller European towns (especially their medieval town centers) over the admittedly more jam-packed-with-touristy-sites national or regional capitals. The bigger places are more difficult to easily navigate (especially on foot!) and there’s always more to see than one could possibly get to unless one lives there.
After our two nights in Antiquera, we headed for Seville, where we also stayed two days and nights. When we finally located our difficult-to-find hotel, we were astounded to discover yet another Calatrava mega-sculpture looming over the hotel’s parking lot:
Seville reminded us both of a calmer version of Valencia, and it features a river flowing through the middle of its oldest sections instead of a 15-mile-long linear park that cuts through the middle of Valencia (which replaced a river the Valencians re-routed to prevent the river’s next catastrophic flooding).
On one of the rare nights in Spain when we were out and about instead of collapsing in a hotel room after a long day of sightseeing and/or driving, we had dinner at a restaurant on the river just as the full moon was rising over the city:
After puttering around Seville, we headed to Cordoba for two days and nights there. Seeing the restored remains of its Moorish-era mosque was our principal reason for going there, and we were not disappointed. The interior of this huge building is one of the most serene spaces we found ourselves in during the trip.
In addition to the Gothic cathedral that the city’s Christians built right in the middle of the mosque after defeating the Moors who had occupied this part of Spain for centuries,
…the mosque complex also sports a minaret that Randy decided to climb while Cal took a nap along the edge of a fountain in the main courtyard of the mosque.
Another highlight of our Cordoba visit were the dozens of courtyards we toured:
We were also impressed by the bridge across the river in Cordoba (the same river that flows through Seville). The bridge (now used only by pedestrians) was built during the time of Julius Caesar:
After Cordoba, we returned our rental car to Valencia and spent a couple more days visiting with Peg: Gary had left the city for Amsterdam, to put the boat he and Peg recently bought into storage for the winter; they’ll move into it next spring.
On our next-to-final evening in Valencia, Randy and I traveled to the edge of the city, near the beach area that Peg and Gary had taken us to when we’d been in Valencia the week before. Our destination: a circus Randy had seen an advertisement for.
The circus was billed as “Apocolypsis: The Circus of Horrors,” and turned out to be a sort of Goth version of Cirque du Soleil.
The circus performers (including many of them doing their stunts on roaring motorcycles) all had tattoos, wore elaborate (often elaborately tattered) costumes. Most of the males – and not a few of the females – wielded ropes, whips, and/or chains as part of their performances. There was a delightfully prolonged punk-style Flamenco standoff. Everything was accompanied by loud and relentless electronic music, with frequent intervals of Mohawk-sporting “clowns” yelling at and kibbitzing with the audience (all the ranting, alas, in Spanish). The spectacle was enhanced with impressive lighting effects and stupefying visual projections. It was a circus all right!
Here’s a selfe of us waiting for the show to start, with Cal definitely uneasy about what’s likely to unfold:
A very, um, different kind of cultural event (at least for Calvin – Randy’s a longtime fan of all sorts of circus things). It turned out to be definitely worth its 30-Euro ticket price.
What else to mention about our recent adventures in Spain?
Well, besides all the sightseeing we did – and we did do a lot of walking: on some of our excursions, Randy’s pedometer reported that we’d walked seven miles; on another day, nine! – we also enjoyed a lot of terrific meals.
Having failed on my previous trip to Spain (back in 1983) to figure out how the tapas tradition worked, I was determined to master that this time around, and we had some wonderful tapas lunches and dinners. Eating two tapas meals a day for most of three weeks is a lotta tapas! Randy’s snapshots of a sampling of those delicious meals:
In addition to the gustatory delights, we happened upon many visual ones that were not on our list of destinations. All of the cities we visited featured multiple murals and street art and graffiti was ubiquitous, some of it very arresting:
Of course, we toured or peeked inside many an ancient church as we tramped through the cities we visited. Very few of these sanctuaries, however – despite their extravagant (and often Baroque) use of gold leaf and the astounding paintings on their walls and ceiling vaults – were as interesting as the Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Cordoba’s mosque turned out to be.
As with most European cities, the storefronts and inventive window displays in the Spanish cities we visited offered plenty of free eye candy. Among its other delights, Barcelona is home to what I now consider to be the best paper goods stores I’ve ever drooled over! (One of them was five stories tall.)
Finally, another memorable thing about this trip was the amazing tile work we saw everywhere we went. I eventually just stopped taking photos, there were so many photo-worthy tile displays. But when it came to my deciding what sorts of souvenirs I wanted to bring home, the things I bought usually ended up being tiles or images of tiles on magnets, coasters, etc. If you’re a fan of tile work, Spain should definitely be part of your travel bucket list!
If it seems like we crammed a lot into our three-week vacation, it’s because we did! And even though I did a lot better than I have in the past with pacing myself and not burdening my traveling companion by overdoing it, there were definitely times when this 70-year-old tourist was very much in need of a nap! And, dear reader, I took one whenever I could!