Beginning 35,000 BC, Celtic, Phoenician, and Romans landed in their turn, by fifth century A.D. Vandals arrived from North Germany, Visigoths from Eastern Europe, and then the Moors out of Northern Africa. A millennium ago local kingdoms arose with El Cid, and by 1469 Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Kings, ran out the last Moors, reestablish Christianity and established the Inquisition the same year they dispatched Christopher Columbus westward. Isabel’s grandson was the Habsburg Carlos I/Carlos V who became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. The Crown passed from the Austrian Habsburgs to the French Bourbons in 1700. Napoleon invaded in 1808. Thus began 167 years of Civil Wars to drive out either the French, the Bourbon monarchy, the Habsburg monarchy, the Carlist, the separatist, the church. In 1936 all Hell broke loose with the Mother of all Civil Wars. Enter the meddling and manipulations of the Falangists, Communists, Nazis, and extreme Nationalist. Enter and exit The Caudillo, Franco.
Delicious paella (seafood by far our favorite) can be found everywhere. Served in a huge cast iron skillet, it is served for two, priced also for a minimum of two. We were not as impressed with the Valencian paella with chicken and rabbit. Added to any dinner, whether culturally correct or not, is Spain’s beer or Sangria. I also tried their local dry sherry or vermut (vermouth) which is quite good.
Dessert? You cannot go wrong luxuriating with a cup of hot, thick, rich chocolate served with churros. I don’t know how this would be in the warmer months, but spring, it was wonderfully decadent. The absolute best was at Madrid’s Chocolateria San Ginés. In markets, look for huge, sweet strawberries. And though it is a Christmas seasonal delight, delicious marzipan can be found. Otherwise, after what is usually more food than one can eat, just enjoy another drink.
Many restaurants serve a “menu of the day” which includes three courses and a drink. You might also keep your eye out for Restaurante Las Palomas in Zaragoza, an all-you-can-eat buffet and tapas. It might be a chain found elsewhere. And of course, there is the tapa bar culture. We found, with a couple exceptions, unless a local or a heavy drinker, the drink is good but tapas are hit and miss with anchovies being the tapa most often received. It’s okay but I would be staggering before I ever got to the good stuff.
Truthfully, you can’t go wrong with food in Spain. And yes, they do eat late! We found a cafe for a late lunch and then dinner at 10pm almost reasonable. Dinner with drinks averaged $40-50.
Where to book a bed?
I used Booking.com exclusively. Three star hotels are excellent in Spain, excluding Madrid. In Madrid you get much less for your dollar. Our double rooms averaged $75 a night. Most rooms had a large bathroom, excellent mattresses, free internet, and many had balconies. In one room, we even had a jet tub. Rooms were quiet, which is important for late nights because no one seems to go to sleep before 4am, which explains the need for an afternoon siesta. The exception was Madrid where it was noisy, cramped and we had to sit side-saddle to use the toilet.
Driving in Spain
The metro system in Madrid and Barcelona is excellent and a good value when purchasing a multi trip card. The train to Toledo was fast but a little pricy. Trains, not inexpensive, will get one around most of Spain. However, I decided our route could be best covered by car.
Spanish roads are very good and speed limits 60-75mph. For those in a hurry, there is the more direct Autopista toll roads. However, generally the Autopista will only get you there a few minutes faster. And the tolls will outweigh the savings in time. One can easily spend $50 in tolls between Valencia and Barcelona. I paid over $16 for a short section of road between Gibraltar and Málaga and saved maybe 20 minutes.
The other problem with driving in Spain is parking. To say our hotels in Zaragoza and Segovia were difficult to reach would be a vast understatement. And in general, parking in their garages was a nightmare similar to trying to squeeze into your wedding dress after 35 years and four kids. Added to that is an average cost of about 15€ a day for parking, over $5 a gallon for gas, and road tolls and driving can be very expensive.
Would I drive it again? Probably not.
Playing the credit card game.
It is critical you know the benefits of your plastic. Read the fine print long before you leave. If you don’t like what you read, look for a good travel card. With my co-branded Chase Visa I get priority boarding, United Lounge Club passes, 10,000$ in trip insurance, car rental insurance, no exchange fees, and mileage. I love this card.
My chipped credit cards were accepted everywhere. Because the USA remains in the dark ages when it copes to pins, I was prepared to use cash (only time there was a problem was the army surplus store but that was their problem, not my card.) I always notify the financial institutions well ahead and confirm again before I depart; I carry 2-3 cards just in case one is compromised while traveling; I ALWAYS have notifications on and an email sent for EVERY international transaction, transactions over $50, and ATM use – I know of a problem within 2-5 minutes of misuse; no cards charge foreign exchange fees; and I now carry two ATM cards in case of a breach. My new Fidelity cash card can be used anywhere and refunds all fees. From now on, the BofA card is a backup to avoid charges of $7-8 per transaction.
I worried because of all the warnings about theft, car robbery and pickpockets. Probably needlessly. Pickpockets are everywhere and so are opportunists. My best advice is to be a harder target than the next guy. Use locks, use a money belt or inside zipped pockets. Use common sense! I love my ScotteVest. It has the secure inside pockets for everything from passport to iPad. It is with 99.9% certainty you are not going to be robbed or threatened – you’re confusing the rest of the world with the U.S. of A. But Europe does have the best in pickpockets, except maybe New York.
Reduced admissions can save enough for that sangria tonight.
Spain is unpredictable when it comes to reduced admissions for seniors and students. Some sites acceped our ages, some wanted a student card, some accepted only EU citizens. Ask. It saves quite a bit of Euro. There are also days or hours when museums are free. If their schedule works in your favor, take advantage. If not, pay the admission and enjoy.
“At the roundabout ahead, take the 2nd exit.” Repeated at least 500 times in two weeks. “In a quarter mile, make a slight right then a left.” “Your destination is on the right.”
Google Maps to the rescue. Because its mapping works so well offline, we downloaded directions before leaving our hotel and heard turn-by-turn directions throughout our journey. I could make a wrong turn, yet maps would pick up the car once back on route. Or, we could turn on the cellular and be rerouted to our destination. We could also use Maps to search for nearby gas stations, restaurants, and markets. Google Maps along with my personal GPS (Gabrielle Positioning System) worked beautifully. My portable Tom Tom is a thing of the past.
There were many Apps available to assist my travels. Metro for Madrid and Barcelona, plus UrbanStep for buses in most cities provided information for public transport. Others I downloaded before leaving home included Parkopedia Parking, Barcelona Map and Walks, Navmii GPS Spain. Several visited sites have their own App like the Alhambra in Granada. The potential for useful Apps is limitless. Complete a Google search before leaving home. Download any App that you might use and when done, delete the App.
I wouldn’t leave home without my Overdrive. Linked to my local public library, I can download reading material for my trip. Not that I had energy to read much on the road. Everyday, I also use MapMyWalk to log the miles I walk in the pursuit of history and a good beer.
Into geocaching? Possible to do some of this in most cities. It is a fun way to see the usual tourist sites.
When I travel, I take my iPhone, iPad, cables, dual USB charger, a surge protector, and an extra external battery for emergency use when out for the day. The first things I search for in a room are plugs. I have an international SIM in my unlocked phone that works for emergencies and texting. For my iPad, I take the easy route and purchase a data plan from AT&T. Because Wifi is available everywhere, I purchase the date plan for use when away from Wifi (pronounced WeFe in Spain).
I enjoy traveling with mi sobrina, mia napote, my niece. She is a good traveler, fun, willing and able to be an asset on any trip. Observant and engaged, Gabrielle is learning the ropes. She is developing her likes and dislikes and it is always interesting, and sometimes surprising, to hear them.
Favorite cities visited? Madrid and Barcelona, especially Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter and Rambles. Seems Gabrielle is becoming a “big city girl,” enjoying places with metro systems, the ability to enjoy night life and to walk and get lost.
Unique cultural differences that fascinated her? Topping her list were Semana Santa with its capriotes (hoods) and fiery candles, the obsession with football (soccer) and staying out late at night. What’s with the American music everywhere? We were not far from routine when in a little beach town’s McDonald’s eating egg mcmuffins – except we were served at the table while listening to American rock music. Seemed just like home except the coffee was better.
But a few things could be improved upon. Gabrielle suggested there be no admission to see churches, and if one pays to enter a museum or site, one should be able to take photos.
Would she go back to Spain? Yes, especially Segovia, Toledo, and Tossa de Mar. Anywhere but Zaragoza. Ah, that evil anticyclone wind did its dirty deed on the both of us there. Favorite sites were the monkeys on Gibraltar (but next time get a taxi, us not the monkeys), Sagrada Família, Toledo (loved the escalators), and a surprising winner, The Valley of the Fallen, (all that monumental monument stuff?). We both noticed that the air felt thinner there, perhaps a result of being at sea level for the previous week. I would stay elsewhere then El Escorial though. I realize it was rainy and a Sunday night but that town was q.u.i.e.t.
What’s all the hoopla award? Valencia’s Holy Grail. “Over-rated.” But the experience did change the song constantly running through my mind from “Granada” to the theme from Indiana Jones.
Memorable person? Joelle from Girona, as he has passion for the separatist movement in Catalonia.
What would Gabrielle do differently for the next trip? “I would pack differently, cut it to one bag and not so many clothes so I can dump the backpack. I hate carrying stuff. Coat pockets are life savers.” We found an army surplus store during the Sunday flea market in Madrid and bought a great multi-pocket safari/photographer’s jacket which should serve her for many trips.
Gabrielle is studying Spanish and getting quite good, just too hesitant to use it. “They speak fast, then they loose me. They seem to act like I look Spanish.” Maybe so. I hope she keeps at the language and feels comfortable speaking it. She wants to do that infamous “Grand Tour” after high school and any language will be an asset.
What did you learn about yourself. “That I have a good sense of direction and I need a day to chill out, to rest.” Chica inteligente. I have always had the first attribute but after 44 years of travel, still working on the later.