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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Spain

San Sebastián, Spain

Coastline, cuisine and a lot of cider: Thomas Rees enjoys the fine pleasures and tasty treasures of the Basque Country’s new European Capital of Culture

There were walnut shells strewn across the table. Songs full of prickly Basque consonants – Ks, Ts and Xs – reverberated around the room and the cellar echoed to shouts of “txotx” (let the cider flow). My new friend Juancho grinned as he leaned up against one of the vast chestnut barrels, his hand on my shoulder: “Yo sé que volverias,” he said: “You will come back, I know it.”

It’s easy to fall for San Sebastián, or Donostia as it’s known to its Basque inhabitants. As a naval port close to the French border, the city spent much of the 18th and 19th centuries getting sacked, shelled and burnt down by forces belonging to Napoleon, the Royal Navy, and then local Cartels, who sought to change the rules of royal succession. But when peace prevailed and Spain’s royals started heading there in the 1840s, to trundle up and down La Concha beach in ox-drawn carriages and bathe in the tranquil waters, the city’s fortunes changed.

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La Concha Beach

Palaces, bath houses and elegant seafront promenades sprang up. The fearsome batteries atop Monte Urgull fell silent and peace spread out across the bay. Nowadays, three of the best city beaches in Europe are within its limits: La Concha and Ondarreta – arcs of golden sand sheltered from the Cantabrian Sea by Santa Clara Island – and Zurriola, on the other side of the River Urumea. Here, surfers slice through the breakers and the air smells of salt.

More recently, San Sebastián has become just as well known for its pintxo (Basque tapas) bars, where glasses of Txakoll wine line the counter and plates of grilled octopus fly out of boisterous kitchens. It has a small constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants and more stars per square metre than anywhere else in the world save Kyoto, yet it’s healthy and active too. The local donostiarra seem as keen on cycling, swimming and coastal walks as lazy lunches washed down with rioja.

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This Is How A Pintxos Bar Looks Like

Each September, Hollywood comes to town for the glitzy international film festival. Modernist sculptures by Basque artists dot the seafront and take pride of place in the San Telmo Museoa, built around the honey-coloured cloisters of a Dominican convent. And, as if you needed another excuse to visit, San Sebastián has spent the past few years preening itself for its tenure as one of 2016’s European Capitals of Culture (ECC) – meaning it’s never looked better.

Throughout the year, the city’s programme of ECC events will be heavy on traditional Basque pursuits – everything from drumming to feasting. Which was how I ended up in a 16th-century farmhouse, drinking local cider from a barrel, eating walnuts and sheep’s cheese with Juancho and a crowd of locals, and promising that I would come back. It’s an easy promise to make. In truth, it was leaving San Sebastián that was the hard part.

  • a couple of years ago
  • Spain

A Journey Across Spains’ World Heritage Cities

The Spanish Group of World Heritage Cities is an association of 15 cities that have been awarded the World Heritage Designation by UNESCO with the objective of preserving these cities’ historic and cultural heritage. Spain has the third-highest number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, including the Alhambra in Granada and the Gaudí architecture in Barcelona.

The country will astound you with its many historical facets, rich arts and culture, medieval architecture and a plethora of other attractions.

Alcalá de Henares

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Plaza de Cervantes

This was the first city in Spain to be built as the site for a university. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was born here. Must-visits are the University, the Casa de Cervantes Museum and the Plaza de Cervantes.

Toledo

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Toledo at Sunrise

Toledo’s striking resemblance to Jerusalem makes it a unique setting during Easter Week. Toledo is an amalgamation of three cultures – Arab, Jewish and Christian – all of which have left an extraordinary architectural ensemble here.

Cuenca

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Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) in Cuenca

Between two rivers lies the city of Cuenca. Its historic center looks out over rocky canyon walls in the heart of the Cuenca Mountains. Admire the cobbled streets and Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses).

Basque Villages

Taste the piquant peppers of Espelette, try a game of Basque pelota and spot pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago

Neat rows of plump red peppers, threaded onto thin pieces of twine, hang from the matching red timber struts of an immaculately-kept house in the Basque village of Espelette. The shutters are painted the same shade, and pots of scarlet flowers add another pop of colour to an already arresting scene. The villages of France’s Pays Basque have their own unique visual identity, even using an angular font to spell out the names of houses and shop signs in what is one of the oldest languages still spoken in Europe.

Culturally the Basque region shares as much with neighbouring Northern Spain as it does with France. While traditionally French food features little spice, the Espelette pepper is a cornerstone of Basque cuisine. In the village that gives it its name, peppers adorn most houses, hanging to dry in the sunshine. Every Wednesday, at the indoor market, stallholders display produce in a kaleidoscope of fiery shades: jars filled with pepper salt, piperade (a stew made with onions, green and Espelette peppers and tomatoes), and powdered peppers, all neatly lined up for sale.

At Boutique Bipertegia, her shop on Espelette’s village square, Véronique Darthayette lays out various samples on the counter. “The Piment d’Espelette has a lot of virtues, and isn’t really a very spicy pepper,” she says. “On the Scoville scale, it is at 4/10 – compare that to a Caribbean red pepper, which is at 8 or 9/10.” The Espelette pepper is to Basque cuisine what black pepper is to French, she explains. “We use it in every dish – even some desserts. It’s a lot more digestable than black pepper, much less aggressive.” Peppers are so important to this village that church services are held to ensure a good crop, and the product is celebrated with an annual Espelette festival.

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House in Espelette, a Basque Village

The Basque climate is also different to that found in the rest of France: the region gets double the amount of rain, turning it a uniformly luscious shade of green. Above Espelette looms the jagged peak of La Rhune – locals say that when there’s a cloud over this mountain, it’s going to rain and when there isn’t, it’s going to rain too. Cutting through the landscape, with its abundance of ferns and fields filled with neatly geometrical rows of corn, is the twisting road to the neighbouring village of Sare. On the verges, sheep and little Basque horses – called pottoks – graze the grass.

Sare has the Basque trilogy of church, town hall and fronton: a single-walled court used for pelota, a game not unlike squash. Today, two amateurs have a go, wielding wooden palettes to whack the ball against the wall and, on the bounce, contorting their bodies to avoid a forbidden backhand. Eventually over-exerted, they slump under the shade of a plane tree.

A little further east, in a cafe window in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a poster advertises a professional pelota match on tonight at the town’s fronton. In this small, lively place spread across the banks of the Nive de Béhérobie river, talk at the pavement tables is of the match. Weary passing hikers pause to take a table, lowering their bags to the cobbled floor. Scallop shells hanging from their backpacks mark them out as pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago route. Most stay to tuck into galettes with piquant piperade – for now, their mission can wait.

Essentials:
On the village of Sare’s main square, stone-built hotel-restaurant Arraya dates back to the 16th century and remains traditional in appearance, with wooden shutters and cream walls. There are 16 rooms, the most luxurious of which have balconies opening onto the manicured garden below. Bedrooms are country in feel, with antique furniture and luxurious fabrics.
Buy Espelette pepper products at Bipertegia.

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Hotel Arraya – Sare Village, Basques Villages

The Principal Madrid

When you are next in Madrid, look up and you’ll notice something strange. It’s a five-storey city. The Spanish capital sits in its own charming space, neither ancient nor modern, not overwhelming but no shrinking violet. It must be a candidate for Europe’s most relaxed metropolis.

A city that generally stops climbing at five gives the six-storey Principal (seven, if you count La Terraza) a distinct advantage. This beautiful boutique hotel is a sublime expression of Madrid itself: elegant, grand in an unassuming way and, though it’s relatively new, already feeling comfortably lived-in.

The almost-secret entrance off a corner of the Gran Via gives a clue to its particular qualities. A doorman directs you to the lift, in which you ascend to the sixth floor that hosts the reception, dining area, lounge and Ático restaurant, all drenched in natural light by day and stellar panoramas of the city by night.

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The entry of The Principal Madrid Hotel

These distinct elements hug the circular floor plan, which surrounds the staircase and atrium. The real trick of this curious layout and the atmosphere it generates is to give the hotel the feel of a private members club, in which discerning visitors or Madrilenians will feel both at home and in exclusive company.

The Ático is overseen by Ramón Freixa (whose two- Michelin-starred Único is just around the corner in the well-heeled Salamanca district) and offers top-end Spanish/ bistro fare, such as croquettes of baby squid in black ink, monkfish with chicory and herb mustard, and cheesecake with candied pine nuts and honey.

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The Ático Bar & Restaurant – The Principal Madrid Hotel, Spain

It is wise to copy the Madrilenians’ love of long lunches, and food halls provide an atmosphere that restaurants and tourist traps may lack, while still serving the very best tapas and traditional Spanish food. Otherwise, tucked away in the Platea food hall – a converted cinema in the edge of Salamanca – dishes such as the deconstructed flounder and the veal tartare ensure that Arriba is packed for lunch from 2pm.

After-hours Madrid

The on time you can guarantee the city will truly stir is after 10pm, so if you can retune your body clock, the Mercado de San Miguel is lively, young and stylish, with a wide range of superb seafood, meat and snack stalls, plus bars, sherry and cocktail seller.

As any boutique hotel with ambition would, the Principal has a spa, sauna, gym and welcoming and discreet staff, but the real joy comes from that feeling of relaxed exclusivity on the sixth floor. So when you’ve had your fill of Madrid’s nocturnal buzz, take your bucket-sized gin and tonic in hand and make the trip up to La Terraza for 360-degree views of the city from its (slowly) beating heart.

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La Terraza – The Principal Madrid, Spain

La Residencia – Deià, Mallorca, Spain

A Self-Contained Island Haven

Deià was beloved by both Frédéric Chopin and the English poet Robert Graves, who believed that the simple town possessed spiritually uplifting qualities. Artists and writers continue to be drawn to it’s quiet, unspoiled beauty, which has so far escaped the tour buses and overbuilding rampant elsewhere in the Balearic Islands. Sheer mountains loom behind, and Mediterranean coves lie below.

La Residencia, one of the islands’ finest hideaways, is surrounded by 30 acres of flow­ering gardens, set among terraced olive and citrus groves between sea and the slopes of a 4,000-foot mountain. Consisting of two creeper-covered 17th-century manor houses, La Residencia is aptly named. Luxurious but decidedly unglitzy, it’s like the impeccable Mallorcan home of a wealthy, art-loving, and flawlessly refined friend. Low-keyed despite its fame as one of Spain’s best, the hotel’s restaurant, El Olivo, is a cozy place that was once an olive oil press. Indoors, exceptional Mediterranean cuisine is served in a candlelit, romantic setting. In warm weather, dining moves outside to a palm – and bougainvillea-scaped terrace. An old mule track provides a delightful three-hour trek through mountain­side lemon and olive groves to the nearby village of Soller, although most guests prefer to experience nature through the pampering indulgence of algae and herb treatments and massages at the hotel’s new beauty center.

Madrid – Spain

”Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” – Ernest Hemingway

Madrid these days is Europe’s liveliest capital. Your first thought, and your parting one, may be that no one sleeps in this town – visit any of the neighborhood restaurants, mesones, or tapas bars around midnight for a loud and friendly confirmation.

The top ten sights:

Bullfights at La Plaza de Las Ventas – Bullfighting has become a controversial sport, but it is an inextricable part of Spanish history, culture, and national identity. Aficionados and the merely curious can experience a Sunday-afternoon corrida at La Plaza de las Ventas and understand something of the Spanish soul, old and new.

Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – Home of Picasso’s Guernica, Madrid’s contemporary arts museum occupies an 18th-century former hospital building located near the Prado. Its collection, separated into two floors – one pre-1939 and one post-, marking the end of Spain’s civil war – includes works by Spanish artists such as Miró, Dalí, Juan Gris, and Antoni Tàpies, as well as Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Jean Dubuffet, and others.

Flamenco at Corral de la Morería – Catering mostly to tourists but respected as the best flamenco nightclub north of Andalusia, Corral de la Morería is flashy, colorful, and drenched in tradition, reflecting the flamenco resurgence that’s been going on since the 1980s. Every night is an event, with first-rate performances and foot-stomping passion that never dissipates.

El Rastro flea market – Sleep late on Sunday morning and you’ll miss the bargains at the famous, sprawling, five-century-old El Rastro flea market, teeming with hawkers and gawkers selling everything imaginable. Everyone eventually winds up at the market’s most famous tapas bar, Los Caracoles – try the delicious snail specialty.

Museo Sorolla – The restored, elegant home of Valencian artist Joaquín Sorolla, Spain’s foremost Impressionist painter, maintains a lived-in feel (right down to his used paintbrushes) while displaying a collection of his works, including portraits of aristocrats and paintings of Spain’s common people.

Palacio Real – Begun in 1738 on the site of the old Moorish Alcázar fortress, the Palacio Real was the royal residence from 1764 until King Alfonso XIII abdicated the throne in 1931, and today functions as the king’s official residence, though he doesn’t actually live there. State business takes up much of the palace, but the rooms occupied by Alfonso and his family are open to the public, as are the Throne Room, the Reception Room, the Painting Gallery (with works by Caravaggio, Velázquez, Goya, and others), the Royal Armoury, and the Royal Pharmacy, all of them chock full of treasures.

The Prado – The key component of the “Golden Triangle of Museums” (with Reina Sofia and Thyssen), the refurbished Prado is a treasure house that could keep Madrid on the European cultural map all by itself. Sculptures, drawings, and works in other media are displayed, but the museum is primarily known for its collection of more than 8,600 paintings by El Greco, Goya, Murillo, Rubens, Titian, Bosch, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and many others. Eighty percent of Velázquez’s paintings are here, including his Las Meninas, the most visited among the 2,000 works the museum can display at any one time.

Sunday in El Retiro Park– A stroll through El Retiro Park is a Sunday morning ritual for many a Madrileña family. Laid out in the 1630s and once reserved for royals and their guests, the 350-acre park is full of fountains and statues, plus a lake, the Cáson del Buen Retiro (housing the Prado’s modern works) and the Palacio de Velázquez and Palacio Cristal exhibition halls.

The Tapas Crawl – If you want to act like a Madrileño, you must move from tasca to tasca, nibbling as you go, leading up to dinner around 11 P.M. The possibilities are endless, from albondigas (meatballs) to zamburiñas (small scallops).

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum – Fills in the Prado’s gaps with more than 800 paintings from the 13th through the 20th centuries, including works by El Greco, Goya, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Picasso. The collection was amassed by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Switzerland and acquired by Spain in 1993.

Other must-do’s:

The Plaza Mayor – The huge cobblestone square was completed in 1619 in the Castillian-Baroque style, and has seen its share of bullfights, hangings, riots, wild carnivals, and the nasty doings of the Inquisition. Today it remains one of the city’s great meeting places, the heartbeat of Viejo Madrid. Choose any of its nine arched exits that lead into streets filled with tabernas, tapas bars, and mesones, sometimes one on top of each other. Listen for the tunas, the wandering troupes of singing students dressed as medieval minstrels.

Seville – Andalusia, Spain

In the City of Carmen

Seville is lovely at any time of the year, but it is worth rearranging your entire itinerary and booking far in advance to be there in spring. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated throughout the Mediterranean and Christian world, but nowhere as it is in Seville.

Each evening of the week before Easter, members of the city’s sixty cofradias (brotherhoods), many of them hooded, bare­foot, and dragging chains, slowly parade through the darkened streets. There are can­dlelit processions of elaborate gilt and bejeweled floats bearing the image of Mary or Christ.

Haunting, deeply devotional songs give way, two weeks later, to the throbbing beat of the flamenco dancing and music that swirls around the flamboyant round-the-clock revels of Feria de Abril, a one-week hiatus from the worries of the real world. Women dressed in multicolored flounced flamenco gowns ride horseback behind their Caballeros, who wear the elegant, short-jacketed suits and broad-rimmed hats of the region.

Try to stay in the Alfonso XIII, perhaps the most exotic hotel in Spain, evoking Moorish opulence of old. Built to accommodate visiting royalty during Seville’s 1929 World’s Fair, it took its inspiration from the local mudejar architecture and decorative arts to create an exuberant Spanish palace around a central patio that would fool even a skeptical caliph.

Panels of Moorish azulejo tilework, cool marble floors, and inlaid columns and arch­ways offer an oasis from the heat and the traffic of its central location between the Alcazar and the cathedral, the city’s must-see landmarks. Check out the Alfonso’s lobby and courtyard where toda Sevilla goes for tapas or an evening sherry-sipping rendezvous at the piano bar.

Tapas are believed to have originated in Seville, and the unpretentious, no-frills, deli­ciously authentic tradition of tapas grazing remains strong here. The idea is to always stay a little bit hungry, and to eat your way around town at the city’s myriad neighborhood bars. Small and succulent portions of finger foods are classically paired up with the region’s famous fortified wines and sherries from nearby Jerez.

One needn’t look far for the ingredients— cured green sevillano olives from the gnarled groves of the surrounding hills, and paper-thin slices of Jabugo ham, which locals insist is the world’s best. There are slices of omelettes, deep-fried squid, slabs of spicy salami, and chunks of aged manchego cheese.

There’s usu­ally sawdust on the floor and hams hanging from the rafters; sailors mix with the upscale young set—a copa of wine is the great leveler. La Albariza uses empty, upended sherry casks as tabletops to accommodate a rather tony crowd, while Las Teresas is exactly how you’d imagine the quintessential tapas bar. Either way, you’re bound to walk away with newly forged friendships and tomorrow’s hangover.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – Basque Country, Spain

A Masterwork of Architectural Sculpture

The dazzling titanium- and stone-covered edifice that dominates this ship­building and steel center is one of the century’s most talked-about museums—the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The bizarrely shaped structure is described by its architect, American Frank O. Gehry, as a ship run aground on the Nervi on River.

Art lovers vis­iting Europe now include Bilbao as an essential part of their itinerary. The strikingly unusual building has jump-started the city’s desire to create a new image of cultural and economic revival and an openness to the world after its long history of Basque sepa­ratism. The New’ York-based Solomon R.

Guggenheim Foundation manages the opera­tion, rotating parts of its own permanent collection and helping to organize temporary exhibitions. The vast, free-form Bilbao museum is almost twice as large as its New York sibling.

The Basque regional government has covered the $100 million construction costs and created an acquisition fund. Resembling a huge, spectacular sculpture from afar, this is one museum that will never serve as a mere backdrop.

Its eighteen galleries promise an interaction between structure and contents, so that the building remains sympathetic to its rotating exhibits, never overwhelming the artwork. It is, declared Philip Johnson, “the greatest building of our time.”

Meson de Candido – Segovia, Castile and Leon, Spain

King of Spain’s Culinary Gem

For sheer atmosphere and the best roast suckling pig (cochinillo asado) in a country that prides itself on roast suckling pig, this 100-year-old eatery is the place. In what may be the most beautiful city in Spain, many generations of the gregarious Candido family have entertained everyone from Hemingway to Salvador Dali.

Their restaurant has become a culinary pilgrimage for royalty, politicians, bullfighters, and artists. No one leaves with­out the conviction that a more delightful and quintessential Spanish repast cannot be found. The cochinillo is rivaled only by the cordero asado (roast baby lamb), another exquisitely prepared regional delicacy.

It’s siesta time after a memorable meal here, so before savoring Candido’s outstand­ing food, savor Segovia’s monumental sights. It is believed that Walt Disney took the castle-palace Alcazar as inspiration for the castle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

It is one of Spain’s most photographed and beloved sites, built during the 12th and 13th centuries on a high crag visible from afar. The equally well-preserved Acueducto Romano (Roman Aqueduct) is one of Europe’s finest surviving examples of Roman architecture, its 166 double-tiered arches constructed without mortar more than 2,000 years ago.

Make time for a retreat to the cool interior of the graceful 16th-century cathedral, the last and most ele­gant to be built in the Gothic style at a time when the rest of Europe was well into the Renaissance.

La Catedral de Toledo – Toledo, Castile La Mancha, Spain

Fascinating Confluence of Three Cultures

Because of its artistic riches, the city that so inspired El Greco makes for a rather frantic day trip from Madrid—the average time unsuspecting tourists allot. Better to spend a little more time. But any visit, brief or leisurely, should start at Toledo’s famous cathe­dral.

Ranked among the world’s greatest Gothic structures, it was built between the 13th and 15th centuries on the site of an old Arab mosque. This layering and juxtaposition of the artistic, architectural, and historic legacies of Toledo’s Catholic, Moorish, and Jewish com­munities are what make the city fascinating.

After Alfonso VI captured Toledo from the Moors in 1085, a cosmopolitan tolerance endured for five centuries, encouraging intel­lectual exchange and trade. The ensuing prosperity and Toledo’s role as a center of cul­ture and learning filled the city with master craftsmen, whose superb talents can be admired in the cathedral’s exquisite details.

El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz, hangs in the nearby Iglesia de Santo Tome (Church of St. Thomas), but the sacristy here has close to thirty of his paintings as well as works by Velazquez, Titian, and Goya.

Toledo’s best restaurant, Hostal del Cardenal, is housed in an elegant 18th-century cardinal’s palace, which is also the most charming place to spend the night, guaranteeing the luxury of seeing this intriguing city before and after the daily deluge of day-trippers.