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

Catalan National Art Museum – Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

An Unsurpassed Collection of Romanesque Art

Housed in the imposing Palau Nacional (National Palace), the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya houses the world’s finest treasure trove of Romanesque and Gothic paintings, sculpture, and metalwork. More than twenty-five works have been transferred here from churches and monasteries in Catalonia and displayed in simple settings that re-create their original locations.

The sobriety of Romanesque churches often con­trasted with the richness of the art within. Exhibited in sequential order, the master art­works offer a fascinating journey through the evolution of primitive Romanesque style to its zenith between the 11th and 13th cen­turies and the early stages of Gothic art that followed.

A highlight is the Pantocrator from the main apse of the Church of San Clemente de Taull, dating from 1123. Installation of these magnificent frescoes—which depict a majestic Christ holding a book with the Latin inscription “Ego sum lux mundi” (“I am the light of the world”)—was overseen by the director of the Sistine Chapel restoration.

The austere setting and overall effect here are no less powerful. Built for the 1929 World’s Fair and reopened in 1995 after a major renova­tion overseen by Milanese architect Gae Aulenti, the imitation Renaissance-Baroque National Palace is often referred to as the Prado of Romanesque art.

La Sagrada Familia – Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

One of Spain’s Most Extraordinary Buildings

To finish or not to finish? The enormous Sagrada Familia remains the incomplete, roofless masterpiece of the eccentric genius Antoni Gaudi. The Catalan architect, a national hero, was run over and killed by a tram in 1926 before he could complete his most bizarre, controversial creation.

The most famous proponent of modernismo (the Catalan avant-garde style, unique to the region, that flourished from 1890 to 1920), Gaudi put Barcelona on the architectural map. The Sagrada Familia is his most emblematic and idiosyncratic work, Art Nouveau with a twist.

Gaudi tapped into the same playful Catalan spirit one sees in the work of Picasso, Miro, and Dali, and more often than not avoided straight lines in favor of flowing, organic forms. He created a number of other surreal works, such as Parc Guell, the apart­ment and office building of Casa Batllo, and several private homes.

But the fantasist is best known for the Sagrada Familia, a melted sand castle frozen in mid-creation. Only the crypt, apse, and facade were completed before his death. Gaudi is buried in the crypt, where a museum displays scale models showing how he envisioned the church. Authorities say it may not be completed until well into the 21st century—if ever.

Museu Picasso – Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Tracing the Evolution of Genius

Adjoining 13th-and 19th-century palaces provide a handsome setting for one of Spain’s most interesting museums, a must for Picasso lovers. Beginning with the boyhood sketchbooks and marginal doodlings of the nine-year-old artist (born in Malaga in 1881), the museum provides the rare opportunity of following Picasso’s evolution as an artist, particularly in his earlier works.

There are paintings that hint of his Blue Period and studies for his seminal Guernica as well as The Maids of Honor, forty-four Cubist varia­tions done in the 1950s on the classic Las Meninas, the famous Velazquez painting hanging in Madrid’s Prado Museum.

Although this may not be the finest assemblage of Picassos, it is the largest, with 3,600 paint­ings, drawings, engravings, and ceramics. Dating from 1890 to 1967, many pieces were donated by the artist before his death in 1973, and the majority of ceramics were given by Jacqueline Picasso in 1982.

This modern col­lection is found on a narrow street along the outskirts of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), a quiet warren of medieval buildings and byways containing most of the city’s historic and artistic treasures along with numerous tapas bars to sustain one’s energy.

Cadaques and Figueres – Catalonia, Spain

Quaint and Charming Haunts of Artists and Intellectuals

The simple, whitewashed fishing village of Cadaques is often called the most painted village in the world. Picasso, Dali, Utrillo, Miro, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel took inspiration from its simplicity and classic Catalan beauty.

The last resort town on the Spanish coast before the French border, Cadaques, and its horseshoe-shaped bay, is hugged by the mountains of the Costa Brava. Despite its cen­tury of popularity with those who braved the narrow switchback road (only recently paved), Spain’s easternmost town hasn’t changed much since Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp played chess at Bar Meliton. The lazy, do-nothing pace continues, the bars and cafes filling after siesta and staying open till dawn.

If Cadaques has escaped exploitation it is because of its lack of sandy beaches. An authentic working-class character persists, with a smattering of outdoor portside restau­rants serving the simple dinners of grilled sardines and dorado brought in daily by the town’s last working fishermen.

No-frills hang­outs like Dali’s favorite haunt, Casa Anita, continue to serve fresh seafood to new generations of artists. Locals love to watch newly arrived outsiders look around, soak in the atmosphere, and then declare the place too boring. Better they head for Ibiza.

From Cadaques, take a day trip to Figueres, home of the Teatre-Museu Dali. An ode to madness, it may enchant, fascinate, or annoy, but it leaves no visitor indifferent. It is fully in keeping with the eccentric artist, who was born in Figueres in 1904. Today the Teatre-Museu Dali, built in and around the 19th-century the­ater where his first exhibition took place in 1919, is the principal draw for this town in the heart of Catalonia.

From the plastic store mannequins to the pile of rubber tires out front, the entire display is best described as odd. “The museum cannot be considered to be a museum,” Dali himself said. “It is a gigantic surrealist object in which everything is coherent, nothing is beyond my understanding.”

Many of his prin­cipal works are here, together with paintings by El Greco and Mariano Fortuny from Dali’s private collection. Dali lived and worked here until his death in 1989 and is buried in the inner court, beneath the museum’s dome.

The protean artist also designed sets for theater and film, dabbled in literature, and wrote his own cookbook. That he and his wife, Gala, became loyal habitues of the local Restaurant Emporda is not surprising: al­though ordinary on the outside, it is Cata­lonia’s best eatery.

Some of Dali’s sketches and lithographs grace the walls, but patrons come for the artistry in the kitchen, which produces excellent game and seafood spe­cialties in the haute Catalan manner.

San Sebastian – Basque Country, Spain

A Coastal Belle Epoque Setting Fit for a Queen

Along with Biarritz, its French counterpart across the border, San Sebastian is the great Belle Epoque resort of the Basque coast. The potential of the lovely city and its crescent-shaped La Concha beach must have been obvious to the Spanish queen-regent Maria Cristina when in 1866 she decided to make it her summer residence and the royal court’s summer capital, thus raising it to the pinnacle of fashion.

Most of the turn-of- the-century architecture has remained intact, though its function may have changed: the classic horseshoe-shaped opera house is now home base for the well-known San Sebastian Film Festival, held in late September.

During the festival, the aristocratic Hotel Maria Cristina, which sits like a queen on the west bank of the Urumea River, serves as head­quarters for the film-world aristocracy. Once the destination of every titled head in Europe, the 1912 landmark still dazzles with its opulent lobby of ormolu, intricate marquetry, onyx columns, and Carrara marble floors.

For dinner, guests should make every’ effort to secure a table at Arzak, the gastronomic star of Basque country. A notoriously independent people of distinct ancestry, the Basques are fascinated with food, and their culinary tradi­tions are a source of deep regional pride, as a visit to the awesome La Brecha food market will confirm.

The Basque region (Euskadi, in the Basque tongue) is home to one third of Spain’s top-rated restaurants. And no one is more beloved for his culinary genius than Juan Mari Arzak. This local celebrity began gamer­ing stars in the early 1970s, and is credited as the originator of the nueva cocina vasca—a revolutionary movement that changed fine dining throughout Spain in the 1980s the way nouvelle cuisine did in France.

From heavy and traditional to innovative and light, from roasts to seafood, cooking is a masculine art in the Basque region, passed on from father to son. So it is curious and refreshing to see Arzak now sharing his kitchen and legend with his daugh­ter, Elena. After an unforgettable repast at Arzak’s, you’ll want to hug them both and exclaim, “Eskarrikasko!”—Basque for gracias.

The Way of St. James and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – Galicia, Spain

The Oldest Tourist Route in Europe

Follow in the footsteps of El Cid, Louis VII of France, and St. Francis of Assisi along the 1,000-year-old Way of St. James (also called the Road to Santiago). Along with Rome and the Holy Land, the city of Santiago de Compostela is one of Christendom’s three principal pilgrimage destinations.

Since the 9th century, millions have come from all over Europe and the British Isles to the cathedral, said to house the relics of Sant Iago (St. James, the Apostle), Jesus’ cousin (St. John the Divine), and Santiago Matamoros (Slayer of the Moors).

As with their medieval prede­cessors, the motives of those making the “route of forgiveness” today can be spiritual or not, but all say it is a trip that stays with them for life.

Modem pilgrims can pick up the Camino de Santiago at Roncesvalles, in the Spanish foothills of the Pyrenees, the most popular of the eight routes that make up the Way of St. James. They travel 500 miles through the vineyards of the Rioja and the former king­doms of northern Spain.

Those who don’t have the time or stamina for the four-plus-week journey by foot walk the final 90 miles through the green and enchanting region of Galicia. Tired but elated travelers typically get their first glimpse of Santiago’s cathedral and its twin towers from Monte de Gozo, 2 miles from the finish line.

Construction of the extravagant Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was begun in 1078 on the site of a 9th-century basilica that had been destroyed by the infidels (who took the bells back to Cordoba as a souvenir).

The cathedral’s elaborate, two-towered Baroque facade was added in the 18th century, cov­ering and protecting the original Door of Glory, which becomes visible as you enter; pilgrims press their fingers into the holes made in the stone by a millennium of their predecessors.

The impact of the cavernous interior, as plain and simple as the facade is ornate, is heightened by the golden-cloaked, bejeweled statue of St. James in its place of honor above the main altar.

Outside, the spacious Plaza del Obradoiro (“work of gold”) and the magnificent 16th-to 18th-century buildings that flank it evolved around the cathedral. The plaza is also home to the Hotel Reyes Catolicos—allegedly the oldest hotel in the world—with what must be the world’s most beautiful hotel doorway.

In 1499 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella founded the Royal Hospice in Santiago to serve as a respite for the countless pilgrims who were pouring in from all corners of Europe. The hotel is the oldest building on the square, and if you’re lucky enough to get a room overlooking the cathedral, you’ll feel like one of the reyes catolicos yourself.

If not, console yourself with a lovely view over one of the four cloistered courtyards, with original fountains and open loggias, formed by the building’s cross-shape design. The Reyes is one of Spain’s most glorious paradores (historical sites transformed into govern­ment-owned hotels). If it’s all too grand in proportion and price for the pilgrim in you, you can still drop in for a simple but excellent dinner.

The Caves of Altamira and Santillana del Mar – Cantabria, Spain

Fragile and Invaluable Link to the Ice Age

Forbidden to all but a chosen few, the Caves of Altamira (las Cuevas de Altamira) are often described as the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art. Together with Lascaux Cave in France (also closed except by special permission), they contain the best Upper Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe.

Discovered in perfect condition by a local hunter in 1879, the red-and-black bison, bulls, horses, and boars demonstrate early man’s love of beauty and astonishing artistic skill. The cave paintings date back to between 20,000 and 15,000 B.C and range from 4 to 8 feet high.

Unfortunately, a century’s worth of tourism has resulted in serious bacteria-caused deteriora­tion, and the number of visitors has been drastically curtailed. Twenty to twenty-five people are allowed to enter each day, and pref­erence is given to those with legitimate scholarly interests.

For flexible travelers plan­ning a trip to Spain a year in advance, a fax to the local museum and a lot of patience may result in the coveted letter of admission that will allow you into the cave. A remarkable replica cave next door re-creates the same set­ting and paintings (including before-and-after photos that show the damage done), but lacks some of the excitement of the real thing.

In town, you can still capture the medieval spirit of Santillana del Mar’s small cluster of per­fectly preserved mansions and palaces. Jean-Paul Sartre called it “the prettiest little village in Spain.” Despite its name, Santillana del Mar lies 3 miles inland from the sea. This rural com­munity does not live by tourism alone.

Local dairy farmers sell fresh milk and cheese from their stable doors. Stroll through town to the 12th-century church of St. Juliana, the burial place of the 3rd-century martyred saint. Over time her name was corrupted and transformed to Santillana. At the other end of the main street is the 400-year-old Convent of the Poor Clares, whose museum contains a surprisingly rich assemblage of religious paintings and statues.

If you’ve fallen under the spell of this tiny town, end your stroll at the Plaza de Ramon Pelayo, where the Parador Santillana Gil Bias has been created within the elegant but coun­trified 17th-century ancestral residence of a local family. A more recently built and less expensive annex absorbs the overflow of guests. A visit to Santillana is incomplete if there’s no room at this inn.

Avila – Castile and Leon, Spain

A Saint’s Birthplace Conveys a Vivid Sense of the Past

The near-perfect 11th-century walls of Avila are a protected national treasure. Ten feet thick and 40 feet high, they took more than 2,000 workers ten years to build. For a mile and a half they wend around this hilltop town and include 90 semicircular guard towers, 9 narrow arched gates, and more than 2,300 embattlements.

The results still look astonishingly new. A walkway around the top allows you to envision an approaching army of Moors. Even the city’s plain, rugged 12th-century cathedral—half fortress, half church—was built as part of the walls and served a military function.

Avila has long played a role in Spain’s religious and spiritual his­tory, particularly as the hometown of St. Teresa, who was born here in 1515. A frail, witty Carmelite nun from a wealthy local family of Jewish descent, she would become one of the most famous of all Catholic saints and the female patron saint of Spain. (St. James the Apostle is Spain’s male patron saint.)

A stay at the Flotel Palacio de Valderrabanos puts you in the spiritual and geographic heart of Avila. It was built in the early 1300s as a bishop’s residence, with rooms over­looking the cathedral. Try for a suite in the fortified lookout tower for a special view of the past.

Leon – Castile and Leon, Spain

A Most Unusual Cathedral and a Shelter for Knights

Begun in 1205, the walls of Leon’s Gothic cathedral were built more with glass than stone. One hundred twenty-five stained-glass windows, three giant rose windows, and fifty-seven oculi fill the lofty interior with bejeweled shafts of light. In the cathedral­ building mania of the Middle Ages, European cities strove to outdo each other with the highest steeples, the biggest rose windows, the largest churches.

Leon’s contribution was certainly the boldest, amazing even modern-day critics and architects with its illusion of weightlessness and the profusion of light. Some of the windows soar as high as 110 feet and are the original 13th-century glassworks; cumulatively, they cover more than 18,000 square feet.

Designated the capital of Christian Spain in 914, Leon is now a charming provincial town that retains the aura of its regal past. Some of the country’s most important and interesting sacred art can be found in the Cathedral Museum. Once an important stop for pilgrims on the historical Road to Santiago, it is an obligatory stop today for anyone interested in medieval architecture.

The Parador San Marcos deserves a prize for its entrance alone—a sumptuous “plateresque” facade (so called because of its resemblance to lacy silver plate work) that seems to stretch forever. The entrance hall is replete with an elaborate coffered ceiling and a 16th-century grand staircase.

Awed visitors might even miss the 10-foot-high cast-iron chandelier overhead. One of Leon’s principal attractions and one of Spain’s finest examples of Renaissance architecture, San Marcos is also Spain’s largest parador since the addition of a modern annex. Its original wing was com­pleted in 1549 upon the earlier orders of King Ferdinand to shelter knights and weary pil­grims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Only 30 of the 250 rooms are housed in the historic wing, as is the regional restaurant with views of the Rio Bemesga. Both the Antiguo Monasterio de San Marcos and Museo Arqueologico, all part of the same landmark edifice, are open to the public. Vast common areas are distinguished by precious antiques, a remarkable mudejar ceiling, tap­estries, and museum-quality artwork, creating high drama that is carried over in the suites.

Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor – Castile and Leon, Spain

Spain’s Most Beautiful Square

No nation has as many World Heritage Cities as Spain, and of its six municipalities so designated by UNESCO, Salamanca may be the most delightful. Visitors naturally gravitate to the heart of the town, the lovely 18th-century Baroque Plaza Mayor.

All the ancient city’s other attractions are within walk­ing distance, but linger awhile here to take in the spirit of Salamanca. What was once Europe’s most important university was founded here in 1218 by Alfonso IX, and its current pop­ulation of 15,000 students keeps the city young and vibrant.

They fill the cafe tables that pour out from the plaza’s shaded arcades—no one seems to be studying. Visitors and locals alike wind up here in the Plaza Mayor at some point, often serenaded by the roving groups of caped student minstrels.

A “new” 16th-century cathe­dral stands cheek by jowl with an older and smaller Romanesque sibling. Both are must-see sites. So is the Hotel Rector, formerly the pri­vate mansion of a wealthy family. They now live upstairs, and leave fourteen faultlessly deco­rated rooms below for travelers in the know.