Highlights from my trip to Spain

I’m back today with some photos from my recent trip to Spain!  We had such a great time and really enjoyed seeing so many different parts of the country.  We focused our travels on central and northern Spain, making a loop from Madrid to the northeastern coast and back, with several stops along the way.  We made hotel reservations in advance, but other than that, we let our rental car and guide book lead us on an impromptu adventure each day.

Madrid

On the streets of Madrid

We flew into Madrid and spent the weekend there, exploring this extremely vibrant and lively city.  To our surprise, our hotel was essentially in the TImes Square of Madrid, so we had a front seat to all the action!  Much of the architecture looked like the building above – cream and beige colored buildings about 5-6 stories high.  This was quite a welcome change from the steel and glass skyscrapers that we have in Boston and New York.  Typical of European cities (at least in my limited experience), everything was infused with history and was just beautiful.

Gardens of the Royal Palace

Sightseeing in Madrid included the Palacio Real (Royal Palace; in the background above), the Museo National del Prado (a huge and gorgeous art museum filled with Spanish art that you simply can’t find in the US), and the Parque del Buen Retiro (a large park in the middle of the city, complete with a gorgeous lake and impressively landscaped gardens).  Perhaps the highlight of our time in Madrid was seeing Goya’s Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings) in the Prado, which were so dark and insane that I felt chilled to the bone.  No joke!

Nearly everyone in Madrid spoke at least some English, but as is typical when traveling, locals will treat you better if you attempt to speak the local language.  I had a great time putting my years of Spanish classes to good use, even though I probably butchered the language, to the amusement of many locals.  🙂

I think the take-home message we received loud and clear from Madrid is that Spaniards love to have a good time and enjoy life.  People were out at all hours of the day and night eating, drinking, smoking, dancing, singing, the works!  Madrid made Boston look boring and prudish.  I could easily see myself moving to Spain one day.

Medinaceli

Roman arc in Medinaceli

Heading out of Madrid, we started our travels northward and stopped for a few hours in the historic town of Medinaceli, in the Spanish province of Soria.  Despite the town being almost completely empty except for a few tourists, it boasted gorgeous views of the countryside and lots of interesting and well-preserved architecture.  Above you can see me posing underneath a triple Roman arch, with a gorgeous blue sky in the background!

View from Medinaceli

Here’s the view looking away from the town on the opposite side of the arch.  As soon as we got out of Madrid, the landscape became very dry and deserted.  We noticed that cities in Spain seem to be well-bounded on all sides, with little in between, unlike American cities that blend seamlessly from one to the other.  It was such an interesting change of pace!  Despite being arid, the countryside in northern Spain was beautiful and extremely peaceful.

Unlike Madrid, no one in this little town spoke any English.  I was very proud of myself for successfully communicating with the woman in the tourism office completely in Spanish.  🙂  Granted, I had to say “No comprendo” (“I don’t understand”) a few times, but I managed to get the essentials.  I had purchased a Spanish phrase book ahead of time, and it was a lifesaver!

San Sebastian

On the streets of San Sebastian

After a stop in the city of Logroño for lunch, we arrived at our main destination, San Sebastian.  San Sebastian is described as a resort city, and I’d say that’s spot on.  This is definitely a vacation destination and is most definitely urban, complete with underground parking garages that gave John and me near panic attacks with their unbelievably tight corners and ridiculously narrow spaces!  Our rental car endured quite a few scratches.

Parking drama aside, this place was a true paradise.  Behold:

Beach at San Sebastian

I could have sat on this beach forever!  The beach is the main attraction in San Sebastian, and fortunately we arrived late enough in the season that it wasn’t packed but was still warm.  Our guidebook had warned us ahead of time that “any beach in Spain is a topless beach,” and we definitely found that to be the case!  Apparently this beach can also be a bottomless beach at times, and apparently Europeans don’t care if everyone sees their junk.  It was liberating!  I’m not saying I stripped down myself, but it was a welcome sense of freedom compared to American beaches.  Again, Spaniards make Americans seem like complete prudes!

In the water at San Sebastian

Besides the beach, the main reason to visit San Sebastian is the world-renowned pintxos (Basque for “tapas”) bars.  San Sebastian is considered by many to be the culinary capital of the world, which made it an easy choice for our main destination.  🙂  The bars here are tiny with no tables and few chairs, but with counters jam-packed with bite-sized works of art.  We fought the crowds and managed to sample a few, and they did not disappoint.  Many feature Iberian ham and shellfish, two specialities of the region.

Hands-down, the highlight of San Sebastian (and our trip overall) was a dinner at Restaurante Martín Berasategui, a three-star Michelin rated restaurant located a few miles outside of the city.  All I can say about this experience is WOW.  This was by far the most interesting, most creative, most delicious, and most expensive meal that I have ever eaten in my life.  While most people were taking photos of every dish that came out, I preferred to leave my camera alone and just soak up the experience.  As a surprise treat, the chef himself came out afterward, and each table got to shake his hand!  If you ever get the chance to eat here, I’d say it’s an opportunity not to be missed… just make sure you have enough room on your credit card beforehand.  🙂

Getaria

View from Getaria

We explored a few other cities in the Basque Country along the northeastern coast of Spain, including Getaria, a quaint and historic city just a few miles from San Sebastian.  As it turns out, Getaria is the birthplace of Cristóbal Balenciaga and features a museum in his honor.  What a delightful surprise this was!  The museum was paradise for any dressmaking enthusiast (like me) and included dozens of couture dresses from his multi-decade career spanning San Sebastian, Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris.  Photography wasn’t allowed inside, but I have my memories.  🙂

Getaria is also known for its fresh fish, which we sampled heavily during lunch.  ¡Delicioso!

Lekeitio

View from Lekeitio

After an afternoon of driving along very narrow and winding roads along the northern coast, we finally arrived in Lekeitio.  Unfortunately the afternoon was overcast and didn’t do this beautiful city justice, but we enjoyed walking around, dipping our toes in the water along the beach, and sampling the local café (i.e., pretty strong espresso!).  Oddly enough, the city was nearly deserted on the weekday afternoon when we visited, but the quiet atmosphere and rolling waves were very peaceful and relaxing.  We saw a handful of locals sitting at cafés along the waterfront, reading the paper, gossiping, and generally enjoying life.

Segovia

View near Segovia

Unlike the lush, forested, and mountainous northern coast, we encountered more arid countryside on our drive back down to Madrid.  Look at this gorgeous shot that John took from a gas station!  This was taken just outside of Segovia, our main stop for the day.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia

The historic city of Segovia has two main features: (1) beautiful architectural sights, and (2) TOURISTS.  We had no idea what a huge tourist trap this place was, but the historic sights were definitely worth dealing with all the tour buses.  Above you can see the Roman aqueduct, a documented civil engineering marvel and consequently one of my favorite sights of the trip.  Not only is its size impressive, but it was built without a drop of mortar and is completely water tight.  I was truly in awe.

Alcazar in Segovia

The other major feature of the city is the Alcázar, a castle that supposedly inspired Walt Disney when he designed Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  A gorgeous cathedral in the historic city center capped off an enjoyable day of sightseeing.

View of Segovia and city wall

Here’s a view of the stone wall surrounding the historic part of the city – just gorgeous!

As with any trip abroad, there are bound to be some misadventures.  Unfortunately our day in Segovia featured a minor medical emergency involving my foot and a slew of *closed* pharmacies during the afternoon siesta.  Thankfully this was the day before we were flying home, so I carefully wrapped up my injury with a makeshift bandage and got it taken care of back in the US.  What an adventure!

We spent that evening in a hotel in the Salamanca district of Madrid, which is apparently where all the “beautiful people” live, including Real Madrid soccer stars.  Everything was abundantly perfumed in this district.  It was lovely.  🙂  (We also found an open pharmacy to get some antibiotic for my foot, thankfully.)  We flew home the next day.

Final Thoughts

Me getting my feet wet in the Atlantic Ocean

I have wanted to visit Spain for about 20 years, and I’m absolutely thrilled that John and I were able to go in celebration of my newly-earned PhD.  We ate, we drank, we swam, we practiced our Spanish, and we generally had a fantastic time enjoying this very vibrant and lively country.  There is a passion in Spain that is infectious and uplifting, and like I said, I would move there in a heartbeat.  The only thing I missed was American-style coffee with milk… thank goodness for Starbucks!

What’s the number one spot on your vacation list?  Next on my list is somewhere in South America!

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14 thoughts on “Highlights from my trip to Spain

  1. Sounds dreamy! Hope your foot healed up okay, I’m sure that’s not what you wanted to do the last day of your trip. Ah, I wish I had a vacation list… currently all travels are family visits!

    • Thanks Lisa! My foot is just fine, thankfully, but it was an interesting experience needing medical attention in a foreign country when all the pharmacies were closed. We basically had no options other than calling for an ambulance, which would have been overkill. Family-related travels are always fun, with hopefully the added bonus of free lodging. 🙂

  2. I can’t believe you visited the corner of the world I come from! I’m glad you enjoyed the pintxos, and had I known you were going to visit Basque Country I could have given you a bunch of off the beaten track recommendations. Next time! =)
    A few years ago I attended a wedding reception at Berasategui’s and I can only describe it as sublime. I have since tried another highly rated restaurant in the same region and, boy, is the experience worth it.

    • Oh my gosh Vaire, I didn’t know you were from Basque Country! I’m jealous now that I know how beautiful the region is. 🙂 Out of curiosity, where else would you have recommended visiting? We didn’t quite make it to Bilbao but heard it was worth a visit. And yes, that restaurant was an out-of-this-world experience. We only had the time (and money) to visit one, but it would be wonderful to try the others one day.

      • In terms of places to visit, I believe San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a must, although quite touristy now. I also like the Oma forest, painted by local artist Ibarrola. There are plenty of hiking trails if you are keen on walking. And Zumaia has impressive rock formations if you are into geology (or striking landscapes). The list could go on!
        And of course, not all pintxos are created equal, and we all have of favourites 😉

  3. It sounds and looks like a wonderful trip! I’ve been to Spain twice but I never had time to look around and view much. The last time was this year in June to visit a conference. I’ll have to go back to experience it as a tourist. When we visit Germany we always try to speak German which usually works out alright. I can read it quite well because many words are similar to Dutch and if people speak slowly and repeat things I can understand them but it’s always difficult to speak it because my active knowledge of the words is so limited.

    • Yes, that’s exactly my situation with Spanish! It’s comforting to know that you don’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to visit and enjoy a country. A little bit goes a long way. I got a ton of use out of the phrase book – all the essentials neatly organized in your pocket. Probably my most frequently spoken Spanish phrase was “Where’s the bathroom?” 🙂

  4. it looks like a great journey and you had such a great time visiting all these different places!!, i’ve never traveled to spain would love though to visit one day!! i’m glad you like classic litereture, i love the russians too 🙂

    • Thanks Aida! Spain was a lot of fun – definitely worth a visit. I do love classic Russian novels… although one day I’d love to read them in Russian! I have a long way to go before that happens though. 🙂

      • Carolyn, we have to meet, I know this sounds wierd but what you said (wrote) here are my thoughts exactly, I wish too, one day to be able to read Dostojewski or Gogol in russian, I also started german cause I wanted to read Thomas Mann in german, still working on that, my german are not that good yet!!!

  5. I went to Madrid after Barcelona and I didn’t like it as much (plus 2 of the big galleries/museums were closed, one for renovations and one had a gas pipe explosion!) but gosh I loved Segovia, we went at the beginning of winter and hardly any tourists ;o) I did a spanish language diploma while I was doing my phD (because I’d been reading a lot of latin american fiction) and I was so excited to use it, wish I had been keeping it up. I want to go back to Barcelona and go down to Cordoba/Granada/Seville.

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