“He may hit the roof if there was turbulence!” I thought to myself as I tried to smile and pacify the gentleman next to me. With just 70 odd seats and minimal amount of headspace in the aircraft, he was having a tough time with his height and seemed nervous about flying too. Well this was a good orientation for me to the cheaper no-frills flights within Europe.
I flew to Seville from Lisbon to begin my Spanish sojourn and then headed to Madrid and Barcelona respectively.
Unlike in Lisbon, Uber wasn’t easily available in Seville. I had to take the local taxi. Keep the address handy as communication may be a challenge with the local taxi drivers who don’t speak much English. My hotel, Las Casas De Los Mercaderos was very centrally located with all important places to see, eat and shop at walking distance.
So here’s a glimpse and my recommendations on what to see and do in Seville:
- The Seville Cathedral – It’s the 3rd largest church in the world and the largest Gothic Church. The area around the Cathedral is a cobbled street with no vehicles allowed. If you don’t feel like going in, just walk around and admire the Gothic architecture.
- The Alcazar – The royal palace in Seville is apparently the oldest palace in Europe that is still being used and is also a UNESCO world heritage site. The arches and ceilings of the palace are a fascinating blend of Arabic and European styles like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I was reminded at many places by other travellers that the Lawrence of Arabia and the more recent Game of Thrones were shot in the palace.
- The Barrio De Santa Cruz – This is the maze of narrow lanes and alleys dating back to the times when this was predominantly the Jewish quarter. For those who may have toured India this will remind a lot of the narrow lanes of Banaras. One of the alleys is so narrow that it is called the Kissing Alley as the walls on both sides are so close that they may end up kissing each other ( am sorry that there wasn’t a more spicy story linked to the name!). Do not waste your time taking a guided tour of these alleys. You can just walk around yourself. Getting lost in these alleys has a charm of its own. Just be careful of your belongings.
- Eating and Shopping – There are many eating joints all around the Santa Cruz neighborhood to enjoy the Tapas. They are mostly crowded with people drinking beer and talking quite loudly. The buzz feels like they are discussing a soccer or football match all the time. It has a huge shopping area and I would recommend buying Spanish souvenirs here as compared to Madrid or Barcelona as I found them cheaper in Seville.
- Skydiving and Hot air balloon ride – Seville is a great place for skydiving and hot air balloon rides in Spain. However you can do these in Madrid and Barcelona as well. I did my hot air balloon ride in Barcelona as the rides were cancelled due to the weather conditions in Seville
- Flamenco Dance – You can watch a Flamenco Dance performance alongwith dinner or drinks in Seville. I booked one but cancelled it as I found out that the tickets are cheaper in Madrid.
My next destination from Seville was Madrid. The Renfe express trains are the best way to travel from Seville to Madrid. The train takes a couple of hours. You can leave your luggage in the area at the beginning of the coach made for storing luggage instead of lifting it to the overhead spaces above the seats.
My hotel Room Mate Mario in Madrid was next to the Plaza Del Isabel II. The Square was surrounded by restaurants and had a Starbucks as well for those visitors missing their regular coffee dose. I would recommend this hotel. The staff was very helpful, the room was spacious and the location made it very easy to walk to all the famous sights in town. Here are my recommendations for things to do and see:
- Plaza Mayor – the center of the city at one time, this is Madrid’s most vibrant square. There are restaurants with outdoor seating along the periphery of the square. While you can see tourists mostly huddling at the centre of the square for pictures, the locals throng the eating joints all around to enjoy their coffee or drinks. This area around this square is a busy shopping area. There is a Flamenco theatre/restaurant near this square called Las Carbonera where I enjoyed the Flamenco performances over a couple of glasses of Sherry Wine.
- Royal palace of Madrid – just a 5 minute walk from my hotel, the eastern façade of the palace opens to the Plaza De Oriente a rectangular park with multiple gardens. The north and south boundaries of the central gardens are marked by a row of statues, popularly known as the Gothic kings. I took a walk around the palace which was extremely serene and peaceful.
- Puerto Del Sol – This is also one of the most touristy places in Madrid the statue of The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, the heraldic symbol of Madrid. It also has a mounted statue of Charles III of Spain and the famous clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes and the beginning of a new year. A 2-minute walk from the Puerto Del Sol took me to the BBVA building which is a bank office but popular for the Quadrigas or the sculptures of chariots with four horses on top of the building.
- Plaza De Espana – This is the central point of Madrid where a lot of tours start. As you walk about the Plaza the stone sculpture of Miguel De Cervantes is very noticeable. You will invariably cross this square if you are doing any day trips from the center of Madrid so I wouldn’t suggest planning just to visit this place.
- Half day tour to Segovia – While there are full day trips to Toledo and Segovia from Madrid, if you are pressed for time, I would definitely recommend a half day tour to Segovia. Buses leave in the afternoon as well. The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia dating back to the 1st century A.D is amongst the most beautiful sights I saw in Spain. The aqueduct marks the entrance of the quaint town. You can walk through the town to visit the Alcazar of Segovia, a restored 12th century castle that looks like an inspiration for Walt Disney features. As we walked back from the castle, I took a turn from the Pharmacy as suggested by our tour guide to take some good elevated shots of the aqueduct without having to climb the stairs. Remember this tip if you want some good photo shots of Segovia.
My last destination in Spain was Barcelona. True to its fame, the boisterous vibe of Barcelona is contagious. It looks crowded but not busy. I had booked my hot air balloon ride in advance as the weather conditions did not permit it in Seville and Madrid. My hotel in Barcelona, Hotel Ginebra was at the Plaza De Catalunya which is the city center and the arterial roads lead to everything you want to see in the city.
Being at the square was what I ended up doing most of the time doing occasional walks to places of interest like the La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s renowned unfinished church.
The very touristy La Rambla boulevard which was visible from the hotel is a good place to have a pitcher full of your favorite drink along with the local Paella. The street has been made into a pedestrian street with cars only allowed side lanes. Restaurants from both sides of the street put up open air seating on the pedestrian only portion. There are shops all across the street and kiosks with some interesting wares in the walking only area. I saw a crowd gathered at a place looking at a balcony only to notice that it was the Erotic Museum with a model in the balcony demonstrating Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt scene as an advertisement! I couldn’t help but smile at this unapologetic self-gratifying enjoyment this was causing to the bystanders.
I spent half of my day there doing the hot air balloon ride at Vic which was about 70 kms from Barcelona. Away from the sounds and merriment in the city, the views from the hot air balloon overlooking the Pyrenees was an experience of a lifetime. I also met interesting co-passengers including a group of 7 polish men who tried hard with no luck to make the rest of us have a polish wine that they themselves said they couldn’t handle!
Spain was all I expected it to be. On one side were the beautiful remnants of the Gothic architecture while on the other side was the boisterous merry making Spanish culture. Unlike all that I had been scared off reading experiences of people being mugged and robbed, I did not have any such unpleasant experiences. I would definitely recommend listening to locals who ask you to be careful of certain areas. The lanes do feel a bit lonely at night as I felt during my return from the Flamenco performance. However the company of a Golden Retriever and a Cocker Spaniel who appeared from side lane with their owner was enough company to make me feel safe :-).