This past October my husband and I took a trip to explore parts of Spain and Portugal and learn more about their rich history and culture. We started in Southern Spain, in the region called Andalusia, which has a rich Moorish heritage and where one can find some of the most spectacular landmarks in Spain. We chose Córdoba and Sevilla, both for their history and their proximity to each other, and spend one day in Córdoba and two in Sevilla. To get there, we took the fast train (AVE) from Madrid to Córdoba (1 ½ hours), after spending a day in Spain’s capital city.
Arriving in Córdoba, we discovered that early October is high tourist season in that part of the country where summers are unbearably hot. Indeed, the weather was great and the place was packed with tourists, mostly from Europe and Scandinavia.
Old town Córdoba, where we stayed, has narrow cobblestone streets lined with bright-colored buildings with lovely façades. We enjoyed walking around them snapping pictures and looking at the local craft shops.
Córdoba’s main attraction is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, considered one of the most beautiful examples of Muslim art in Spain. It was built in 785 by the Muslim emir Abdurrahman I on the site of an ancient Visigoth church. After the Christian conquest in 1523, Christians built a cathedral inside the mosque, while preserving much of the original building. It’s a unique monument to both Muslim and Christian opulence!
In Seville we focused on its most important landmarks: the Seville Cathedral and the Royal Alcazar of Seville, both registered by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. They are absolutely stunning. The Alcazar is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe, and St. Mary Cathedral, where Christopher Columbus is buried, is among the largest of all medieval and Gothic cathedrals.
Since we had a little more time in Seville, we were able to visit the gorgeous Andalusian palace known as Casa de Pilatos, and enjoyed long walks around old town’s winding streets.On our last night, we saw a great traditional Flamenco show at Casa de La Memoria de Al-Andalus with terrific dancers and singers and had the best tapas at Taberna Poncio. Seville is definitely worth visiting.
Lisbon and Porto
We arrived in Lisbon on a rainy day and the weather remained cloudy and rainy during most of our stay there. We had to resort to riding tourist buses and trolleys to get a general sense of the place.
When the weather permitted, we spent an afternoon in Belém, where we saw the Belém Tower, the Discoveries Monument, the Jerónimos Monastery, and of course ate and bought some delicious pastéis de Belém. We also enjoyed walking around the hilly streets of the working-class barrio of Alfama and exploring the grounds of the São Jorge Castle. A brief walk around the Chiado and Bairro Alto gave us a good sense of where Lisboetas go for good shopping and to enjoy a good cup of coffee.
Our second stop in Portugal was in the northern city of Porto. There, too, rain was an issue. On the rainy days we took long bus rides through the various parts of the city.
We spent an interesting afternoon on the riverside area, with the houses on the Porto side and the world-famous Port wine houses lining the Vila Nova de Gaia side. There we enjoyed a great Portuguese “bacalhau” meal and a visit and wine tasting at the Calém Port cellars. But we left Porto with a sense of unfinished business and will have to come back when the weather is better.
From Porto we flew to Barcelona, which was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. And indeed it was! I loved everything about Barcelona. It has so much character, incredible architectural gems, trendy shops, good restaurants, and a lively atmosphere. We spent only four nights there, which was not enough. You need at least a week to enjoy all Barcelona has to offer.
In spite of the short time and the rain, we got to see most of Barcelona’s main attractions, such as the beautiful Palau the La Música Catalana, the Juan Miró Foundation/museum, which I loved, the Picasso Museum, which I found disappointing, and the amazing architectural works of Antoni Gaudí that grace the city with their whimsical style. We had a great time walking around the Gothic Quarter and the famous Ramblas.
But the high point of the trip for me was the La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Gaudi’s masterpiece still under construction, where I had an unusual experience. I had spent some time outside taking pictures of the colossal towers and the amazing sculptures that form the gigantic exterior of the cathedral and was already completely in awe of it.
When I finally walked into the cathedral and looked up, I gasped and inexplicably burst into tears! I don’t understand what happened. I’m not religious, nor am I prone to publicly displaying my emotions. Yet, there I was, shedding tears at La Sagrada Familia, in the middle of the crowd! Maybe I was stressed from standing in line for almost an hour in the cold and rain? Well, all I know is that for whatever reason, I was overtaken with emotion by the organic beauty of Gaudi’s magnificent masterpiece. Wiping my tears, I took pictures that in no way do justice to that architectural and artistic gem. But I found this absolutely amazing HD video of the inauguration of La Sagrada Familia, which shows it in all its splendor, every detail, every angle, inside and out. The images and the music are fantastic. They’ll make you gasp for sure. Let me know if you cry. I, of course, cried again…
And then there was Sandy…
We ended our trip in Madrid, where we planned to spend a day and catch a plane back to New York the next. As it turned out, hurricane Sandy hit New York on the day of our trip and our flight was cancelled, forcing us to stay three more days in Madrid. As tired as I was after three weeks of travel, and as disappointed as I was by the unexpected delay, I thought spending some extra days in Madrid was nothing compared to what folks in New York and New Jersey were going through having to deal with that monster storm.
A final thought
I was very impressed with the spirit and resilience of the Spanish people. In spite of their country’s economic crisis, Spaniards were still upbeat and cities everywhere were lively as ever. Olé, Spain!