September 7, 2010 by David Gillaspie
(originally published on http://news.airtreks.com/)
Epic: surpassing the usual or ordinary, particularly in scope or size; heroic and impressive in quality.
Barcelona’s darkness and light play their never-ending game of shadow in Spain, and you should too.
WHERE TO STAY: For the ultimate in dark, there’s only one place to go in Barcelona, the Gothic District. Does it get any darker than Goth? You’ll leave a cab on a street in deep shadows. If it were an American city you’d stay in and lock the door, but it’s a Spanish adventure, so jump out. The apartment you rent might look broken down, but it’s not. Everything isn’t square in a building with a Roman aqueduct in one wall.
WHERE TO EAT: Find the tapas place on Las Ramblas with the Colombian waitress. Ask her about a restaurant with a bad location, bad décor, but, she says “very good food.” They serve a traditional lunch, but even more, the staff serves a big platter of Catalonian ‘smack-down.’
Spain won the soccer World Cup. Nadal won the Wimbledon tennis title. Contador won the Tour de France bike race. Pau Gasol won an NBA title with the Lakers. It’s a refreshing ‘in your face’ moment with the charm and grace you might expect in a Philadelphia sports bar.
WHAT TO DO: Buy an all-day ticket for the Jump-On-Jump-Off bus and cruise. You’ll see the beaches, the Olympic Village; you’ll see La Sagrada Familia. A world famous architect, Gaudi, in a world famous city got the green light to build an acid vision, a melting stone church of biblical proportions. Began in the 1800s and continuing today, it’s an old school church built the old school way for modern believers.
The ticket taker explained it clearly, “The construction is funded by money from sinners like you.”
IMPORTANT WORD: Asombroso (amazing)
Valencia holds the European Grand Prix on an outdoor track through its harbor, but that’s not the raciest part of town.
WHERE TO STAY: The Neptuno Hotel. Driving up to the front may be a challenge if gypsies in the middle of the road waving angry directions to empty parking spots frighten you. It shouldn’t. Just keep driving. The luggage cart at the top of the Neptuno stairs doesn’t come to the street, but it’s still helpful.
WHERE TO EAT: Next to Neptuno is La Pepica, the restaurant Ernest Hemingway made famous by eating their paella. There’s even a picture of Ernest eating paella. Whatever you do, don’t get the paella unless you want to be haunted by Rice-A-Roni. The difference between the two is not big enough.
WHAT TO DO: You’re on the Mediterranean. Go to the beach and jump in the water. Fair warning: The Spanish beach is top optional for men and women. What you see there, let it stay there, when you leave there. Avoid picking chunks of plastic bags out of the water. No one else does and it’s not that noticeable. If some plastic sticks to you, don’t scream like you’re being attacked by a sea monster.
IMPORTANT FOOD QUESTION: Does the calamari come with the whole squid body?
Granada marks an important stop in following the Moor conquest of Spain and the Christian re-conquest.
WHERE TO STAY: America Hotel inside the Alhambra. The Alhambra is unique any time while you walk the same paths kings have trod for centuries, but the night light is spectacular. From the intricate shadows in the gardens to the stars overhead, the Alhambra takes you to another world. Staying on the grounds makes coming back easier.
WHERE TO EAT: The America Hotel is an old house. The interior courtyard serves as a restaurant. Since the traditional Spanish breakfast is a small loaf of white bread cut lengthwise and toasted with stewed tomatoes on top, the America Hotel is a good place to start.
WHAT TO DO: If necessity is the mother of invention, then a late night emergency run to the local hospital will give you a view of Granada you won’t find in any brochure, as well as a chance to practice Spanish in total immersion. Further explorations show the hospital cafeteria has the best breakfast deal, along with a choice of three beers on tap.
If you leave the Alhambra the day Michelle Obama arrives, you’ll need to shift into high gear or end up stranded there by her advance security. Spanish taxi drivers seem amused by a panicked tourist fleeing the America Hotel before the American President’s wife arrives. “Why not stick around and say hello to your First Lady?” one asked.
IMPORTANT HEALTH QUESTION: Why is smoking allowed in Spanish hospital rooms with oxygen therapy?
Seville sits in the hot box of Spain, and the choice for Best City.
WHERE TO STAY: The Jewish Quarter on San Esteban. Book an apartment above a bike shop. It should have a rooftop deck offering a view of the city from under a shade porch along with an outdoor shower.
From San Esteban the best parts of Seville are within walking distance. The neighborhood has enough Old World charm and complicated past to satisfy both historian and compulsive shopper.
A small grocery, two aisles, sits across the street with super mercados (markets) near by. Taxis fly up the tiny street all hours if you’re feeling walked out.
WHAT TO DO: After lunch, stroll to the Alcazar next to the cathedral. Plan a day with bad weather. There is something supernatural about torrential rain with thunder and lightning crashing down while you huddle in a brick lined cave with other international travelers. It is easy to feel one with those in the same place centuries removed.
Tour the cathedral the next day. It’s listed as the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral. Christopher Columbus and his second son are in the church. Columbus’ remains lie in a crypt held by four statues representing Spain’s former kingdoms. Don’t ask the guide if the statues move. This is the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, not Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. They don’t move.
IMPORTANT QUESTION NOT TO ASK: Is that a real thorn from Christ’s crown displayed in the showcase?
LEAVING SPAIN FROM SEVILLE: Get up early for the fast train to Madrid. It won’t feel like 180 mph, but the AVE is a flyer.
Tour Madrid on a taxi ride to the airport. You’ll pass the national library, the American Embassy, and the Real Madrid soccer stadium. Engage the driver with questions until he gives up on your language skills.
Jump from the cab quickly to settle the bill at the airport. It ought to be around thirty-five euros. If you don’t jump fast enough, someone may load your gear on a luggage cart. The last memory of your trip shouldn’t be a scene with you chasing your bags through a terminal.
Europe deserves you at your best. For a complete experience, travel with your spouse and mother-in-law. Their observations mean you won’t miss anything, and you will share the challenges of the unexpected together. That is living to the limits.