BARCELONA: After we left Italy, we did a 3-day speed-run across southern France to the Spanish border, then headed down to Barcelona for our first stop. We were treated to a warm and sunny day for our walk down Barcelona’s well-known Ramblas, a wide and busy pedestrian walkway through the heart of the city.
The highlight of the Ramblas walk was ‘La Boqueira’ covered market where enticing food and drink displays were a delight to the eye.
Other than people-watching, we found Barcelona rather uninteresting (i.e. little old-town character), just a very large modern city, very different from most of our other European travel destinations. Our final stop for the day in Barcelona was at ‘La Sagrada Familia’, a giant unfinished church that has been under construction for 130 years!
MADRID: The next day we drove into the heart of the Spanish countryside to Madrid, the capital and geographic center of Spain. We were amazed at the very high quality of the secondary divided highways that we drove along. Signage was excellent and design was very similar to the U.S. highway system. We actually made very good time along these roads, which was a pleasant surprise, knowing we had about 350 miles to cover to get to Madrid. I loved the giant bull silhouettes that popped up periodically along the route to Madrid.
From our vantage point along the highway, Spain looked to be a very rich country in terms of agriculture, with almost every acre under cultivation with either olive groves or vineyards. However, as we neared the cities and looked closer, we could find evidence of Spain’s woeful economic problems—many large shuttered businesses, frequent abandoned construction projects, and, in the cities, lots of street entertainers and beggars trying to eke out a few euros from passersby.
Madrid was much like Barcelona, a large modern city very unlike much of the rest of Europe. Large cities tend to have big problems when things go wrong, and Madrid was no exception. Apparently, the city was a few days into a strike by its sanitation workers. Trash was everywhere! Trash cans were overflowing! Such a stark contrast to Barcelona where the streets were neat and clean…
We had two planned destinations in Madrid. The first was the Royal Palace, one of the most sumptuous palaces in all of Europe and home to Spanish royalty since the 17th century.
We were beginning to realize that at most of Spain’s premier attractions indoor photos would not be allowed, as was the case at the Royal Palace. However, the Internet had plenty of those forbidden indoor shots, so I have resorted to posting a few. The palace rooms were beyond lavish,
with incredible porcelain walls in one small room,
and the world’s best collection of Stradivarius instruments in another.
The second reason we wanted to visit Madrid was for the opportunity to visit the Prado Museum, known for having one of the world’s greatest collections of European paintings. We were in Spain…so the Prado’s collection was marvelously heavy on paintings by El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez. Two of our favorites…
‘The Parasol’ by Goya
‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez, one of the finest paintings in the art world
Doing a daylong museum crawl can be one of the most exhausting kind of walks, but we both felt that the Prado was worth it.
We finished out our day in Madrid at a popular overlook where, apparently, it was custom to gather for sunset.
NEAR MADRID: From Madrid it was a short drive the next day into the surrounding hills where we had two destinations in mind. In the morning we visited the reflective ‘Valley of the Fallen’, Spain’s somber stony monument to the 500,000 victims (on both sides) who lost their lives in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The 450-foot cross that sat atop the underground basilica was impressive.
The basilica itself (no photos allowed) was quite lovely in a stark kind of way.
Al and I both felt that this monument was a splendid and appropriate memorial to a very sad time in Spanish history.
After checking into a nearby campground, in the afternoon we took a bus into the city to visit the Monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial, a 16th century combination palace/monastery from where Philip II directed the Spanish Inquisition.
The beginning of the tour was ho-hum…until we reached the royal mausoleum which housed the remains of 26 Spanish kings and queens over 4 centuries! No pictures were allowed (of course), but it was a ‘wow moment.’
Identical royal coffins were stacked ‘4 high’ in niches along the wall of a grandiose circular room. How did these pics from the Internet ever get taken?
TOLEDO: The next day we spent a short time in Toledo visiting the famous Toledo Cathedral. By now, we had visited many of Europe’s magnificent churches, so I think I can say with some credibility that the Cathedral of Toledo just didn’t meet our expectations…I found it rather disjointed in style and design, although I must admit that the altar area was grandiose.
In closing, our first impression of the great cities of Spain was a very favorable one, although it was a surprise to us that Barcelona and Madrid appeared so modern. Before the worldwide economic downturn, Spain must have undergone a couple of decades of a tremendous building boom. Hopefully, the Spanish economy recovers soon because, to our eyes, Spain appeared to have so much potential. We have certainly been enjoying its marvelous off-season climate. No wonder so many northern Europeans come to Spain to spend the winter. Now we are anxious to visit some of Spain’s smaller southern cities where we can get a look at some wonderful Moorish history and architecture. On to Cordoba and Granada!
“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” Moorish proverb