Spain has it all: powerful religious icons, fabulous museums, and a party atmosphere to rival the best in the world, says SACHA MCDOUGAL
THE car weaves and I clutch my bag. A song on the radio propels us forward in a language I don’t understand. Welcome to Spain. As we’ve just established, I don’t speak the language and my taxi driver, Manuel, speaks no English. We shook hands before we departed though, and I am vaguely confident that he understood where my hostel is. I try to keep up, but somehow he doesn’t understand that speaking Spanish very slowly makes absolutely no difference to me.
Flying into Spain, I intend to spend a few days in Seville before dividing my time roughly between Madrid, Barcelona, and parts of Portugal. As we cruise along, Manuel’s phone rings and he reaches under his seat to answer it. Muttering away, he hangs up and with rolling eyes, shrugs and says something to me. “La Esposa?” I quietly question. He looks at me surprised for a moment, and there is silence before a gentle slow chuckle creeps up around his throat. “Si Si,” he says. I have correctly said the word for ‘wife’. I’m making progress.
Seville is small on the scale of metropolitan cities, and is therefore one of those places in which you can spend an entire day just wandering the streets. Stumbling through quiet lanes and large parks like Pasarel gives you the opportunity of finding something remote and special – untouched even. A lone park bench is an ideal place for lunch, away from the hustle – and inflated prices – of street cafés.
The architectural beauty of the Plaza de España is something to marvel at. Sitting to the side with baguette rolls filled with brie and ham, we watch as horse-drawn carriages lure snap-happy tourists and wandering gypsies sell stalks of rosemary. Begging for business with a smile, they are quick to mutter obscenities that I don’t understand when I won’t get out the cash.
Seville’s overpowering religious ethos is hard to miss: a cathedral on every block and religious elements are everywhere you turn. It is also the home to some of the greatest bull fighting in all of Spain. A visit to the Plaza de Torres is a must, and a great place to learn the history of what has become a tourist exhibition. I’m surprised to learn that after a fight, the best matador gets to keep the ears and tail of the bull and in the entire history of this sport, only three matadors have been killed during contests. On these rare occasions, Spaniards kill the bull and the bull’s mother.
If however, you’re just not up for a history lesson, then sitting by the river with friends and wine is the perfect way to laze away an afternoon. The chimes from the numerous church bells will mark the hours as they slip away, and the sunsets on the banks of the Dársena Rio are among the most beautiful you’ll find anywhere.
If you are travelling down for the fighting, make sure you get over to Portugal for a few days. Lagos is a must. Beautiful beaches line the tourist hub while small markets selling pottery and coral jewellery dot the streets. Lagos is a place you go to rest easy in the sun, and then party hard through the night. It’s surprising how many bars they have crowded into such a small town, but they have done it well. Zanzi Bar on the main strip is a firm favourite – mainly due to the strawberry daiquiris which provide a useful way to pretend your fruit and veg quotient is being met for the day.
In a decision of exhilaration mixed with pure stupidity, we hired mopeds and rode up the coast. At a cost of €25, we rode nearly 30km to Sagres and then another 6km on to Cabo de São Vicente, where a lone, red-tipped lighthouse marks the most south-western tip of Portugal.
Heading north to Lisbon is a recommended break, if only for a few museums and the beautiful Castelo de São Jorge, or the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos near the Torre de Belém. However, if time is limited, staying south in the Algarves may be best and also a lot cheaper. Accommodation in Lagos costs as little as €10 a day, and meals and groceries won’t break the budget.
Travelling across from Lisbon to Madrid was next on our agenda. Trains and buses book out during peak periods, and the bull festival will be busy so if you can, pre-book. Otherwise you risk, as we did, paying for expensive sleeping cabins on the train.
In Madrid, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is a beautiful museum for those interested in Spanish art, highlighting fantastic works from the likes of Dalí, Picasso and Miró. It’s worth a visit alone for a look at one of Picasso’s intriguing works, Guernica. Completed during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, it’s a powerful take on a country in crisis.
If you’re still looking for an art fix try your luck at the Opera House. At the rear of this grey building, opposite the Royal Palace, is the ticket office. If you’re lucky you can line up at the right time and get tickets that can be as much as 80 percent off the regular price. This offer is only available to those under 26, so if you can, take it.
Travelling through the Spanish countryside on the train from Madrid to Barcelona reminds me of my forgotten crayon art experiments. A dozen shades of green line the valleys with splashes of vibrant red highlighting where the poppies grow in groups.
Arriving in Barcelona, I make my way to the famous and fabulous Las Ramblas, the centre of town both literally and figuratively. A humming place full of character, it’s here the street performers make their change, con artists make their money, and restaurant staff make their wages. It is also where some serious sightseeing comes into play. From Montjuïc up to La Sagrada Família, and further north to the great park designed by Antoni Gaudi, Parc Güell.
The Picasso Museum is worth a visit – as long as you get there early – as queues continue to grow throughout the day.
For the most authentic Spanish experience, take the time to wander down the great Las Ramblas. From the centre of the city, Plaça Catalunya, straight through to the water, it is truly stunning.