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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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!
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. 🙂
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!