Thursday, October 30, 2014

Spain Travel Diary #2: Madrid

You cannot go to a country and miss visiting the capital city. Even though Madrid is fairly a new city compared to rest of Spain, it has rich culture and history. Not as big as Barcelona or exquisite as Valencia or lush with heritage as Granada but there is a charm to this city which no other has! It is chosen as the capital merely because of it's geographically convenient location, in the heart of Spain.
I expected an urban environment, with tall modern buildings, corporate crowd, heavy traffic etc, like most other capital cities in the world but this one took me by surprise. In the historical part of town, there are still a lot of ancient buildings with stunning architectures that are well preserved and they look like jewels of the city. We stayed on Gran Vía street, one of the most popular streets in Madrid and I could spend hours just looking at the buildings there and admiring them!! They are indeed extremely beautiful. No matter how many photos I clicked, I wasn't satisfied as you just cannot capture that beauty but only soak it in and experience it! So if you visit Madrid, I highly recommend staying on Gran Vía and no where else..


After enjoying long walks on Gran Via, shopping, eating, strolling, photographing (sometimes in rain), our next stop was to explore Plaza Mayor. The advantage of staying on Gran Vía is that it is very close to many of the city's attractions and they are all in walking distance. Walking is a great way to explore any city, in my point of view. The walk from Gran Vía  to the plaza is enjoyable especially if you go through the alley ways and some of the narrow streets. Plaza Mayor is a very touristy place so it can get very crowded so be wise in choosing what time you go there. We went there during sunset and it was raining lightly at that time so there weren't too many people. It is surrounded by several tapas bars, cafes and restaurants where you can indulge in Spanish cuisine to your heart's content.
Talking about food, one of the specialities of Madrid is 'Chocolaté con Churros' which is thick dark chocolate (with or without milk) along with salty churros. It is delicious and you should not leave Madrid without having this for sure!! And of course, there is the usual list of tapas you can try all over spain, one of which is Patatas Bravas.  There is a chain of Pizzeria called 'Papizza' where we loved eating. They have a good variety of vegetarian pizzas and pastas and it is an eye candy and mouth-watering to watch those pizzas in the counters with fresh cheese and tomatoes!
Chocolate con Churros
Patatas bravas
If you are a football fan, you will love visiting Santiago Bernabeu stadium which is the home for Real Madrid football club. I am not, so it was a no brainer for me to skip this one!
If you still have time left after indulging in tapas and pizzas, then Royal Palace would be a great option to explore. The palace itself from outside is nothing exquisite, but the gardens around are very beautiful and worth spending time. Once you go inside the palace, into the courtyard, the open space and the views are gorgeous and so are the paintings and artwork inside the palace building.
There is more to explore in the city but it depends on what you are interested in. I am not a museum person but if you are, then Prado museum is something you would want to consider. I was happy with the 2 days we spent there and what we explored because I could get a flavour of the city, which I loved.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Spain Travel Diary #1: Barcelona

Spain had always been on my list of countries to visit. Everything about that country has been very attractive to me - culture, language, cuisine, people and more! It was literally calling out to me this year and we finally made a trip there is month! The weather was just perfect, not too hot, not too cold, just pleasant and nice. I am so glad we didn't go there during peak summer or tourist season. Not that there weren't many tourists now but it would have been way more crowded in summer.
So according to me, the best time to visit is October/November.
As always, when I plan a trip I ask which places would be the most contributing to visit and I look at which one invites me energetically. So the itinerary started with Barcelona to Madrid, Seville, small towns in Andalucía mountains, Granada, Murcia, Valencia and back to Barcelona. The trip was a combination of trains and car. Driving around in southern spain has an advantage as you get to see these small villages which are not accessible by train or bus easily.
Started this awesome journey in Barcelona. Having spent just 4 days in that city I would still call it one of my favourite cities in the world. I loved everything about it. The city has it's own charm, even though it is seen as very touristy, you can get the local flavour of Catalonia everywhere you go. Apart from visiting the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral, we lived there like the locals, exploring restaurants, cafes/bars and relishing on the delicious tapas, shopping in La Rambla, strolling through the markets and the neighbourhood. This is a totally different way of enjoying a place when you travel, rather than visiting the museums, standing in long queues at the attractions, taking guided tours which most people do. Try it, at least in Barcelona and you will fall in love with the city for sure!
As we didn't visit all the touristy attractions, obviously I will not be listing all the places to visit, on this blog! ;-) You can find that on google or any travel book in the store. But what I am writing here is the way I experienced the city and hopefully that would inspire you to go there too!
What we did -
1) Sagrada Familia - is the famous Roman cathedral by Antonio Gaudi. This church is a UNESCO world heritage site and I didn't know about it until I visited. (There is something about UNESCO world heritage sites that always attract me!) You will find loads and loads of cathedrals all over Spain but this one is truly unique. The gothic architecture is extraordinary and stunning to say the least and I stood there just admiring the building from outside for a long time! This place can get very crowded, so if you want to go inside, then highly recommend buying tickets in advance from their website. They have limited/fixed slots too.

2) Montjuic mountain - If you want a beautiful bird's eye view of Barcelona city and the coast, then definitely don't miss going on top of this mountain. It's extremely beautiful up there! You can either take a cable car up, a train or even a cab. We took the cab as it was the fastest. There can be an hour long queue to go up the cable car!
3) La Rambla - a very popular street in Barcelona, for food, drinks, shopping, artwork, galleries, flamenco shows  and more! Just taking a walk up and down the street is an amazing experience. Even though it gets very crowded, there is still an ease and joy in strolling through. It is beautifully lit, very lively even past mid night and so much to do and explore. There are people who do sketches by the street side and you can get some caricatures/ sketches of yourself done as a souvenir!  Do not miss the La Boqueria market on this street. Never been to a market which was this crowded! Watch your bags/wallets while you are here. You will find the best local fruits and fresh fruit juice here along with many other local delicacies and pizzas and tapas bars.
4) Eat tapas, tapas, and more tapas - yes, you heard it right! Spain has a popular tapas culture which is small portions of finger food/starters served along with your drinks. If you are a vegetarian like me, don't be disappointed, there are still good variety of them to try. Patatas Bravas, fried padron peppers, stuffed olives, croquettas, bread with tomato and olive oil, and so much more! Try them with wine /Sangria for sure.  I went crazy happy eating all of these. Just for tapas I would go back to Spain again. Simply loved this culture!!!
5) Plaza España - Barcelona has a lovely night life and it is best spent in Ramblas and Plaza España! There is a building called Arena at this plaza where you can go on the roof top to get a view of the entire plaza. Even the elevators going up here have great views. The fountain in the centre of the plaza is worth a look!
6) Take a day trip to Montserrat - When you have soaked in the city enough, consider taking a day trip to Montserrat mountains, which is about an hour by train from Barcelona. You can even do it in half a day but a full day is a better option. The serrated mountains, monastery, trains going on steep slopes, cable cars, hiking, shopping and so much more. It's truly a memorable experience, to be missed and you get to see the outskirts of Barcelona too. I will be writing another post with more details on this this space!
7) Watch a live Flamenco show/Opera - We did this in Seville where Flamenco originated but if we hadn't planned it there, Barcelona would be a place where we would have watched it. There is a theatre in La Rambla which had great reviews. Flamenco is unlike any other dance form and gives you a great experience of Spanish culture! And if we had an extra evening we would spend it watching Opera on La Rambla for sure....
When in Barcelona, be a local and soak in the culture!!