Espana: Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid

I recently spent nine incredible days in Spain, trying to see as much of the country as I could. Alas, there is much I missed - Bilbao, San Sebastian, Canary Islands. Next time! Here are the things I saw and enjoyed! First up: Barcelona.

Overall I very much enjoyed Barcelona but there were three places that I spent quite a bit of time: the beach, La Rambla, and Placa Reial.

Placa Reial

Placa Reial

Just next to La Rambla, Placa Reial is a happening place - I went there two different days for meals. The first day, there was an upcycling craft show, with everything from clothes to art to purses to jewelry. The second, a serious coin collection fair. More importantly, the square was ringed with interesting buildings and great restaurants.

Lunch in Placa Reial

Lunch in Placa Reial

Lunch in Barcelona. It's hard to see, but on my tablet is a Kindle version of Lonely Planet's Spain guide. Most of the Lonely Planet books are free through the Kindle Unlimited program (10 bucks a month). Highly recommend for serious travelers. Currently, I've got books for Germany, Spain, France, Amsterdam, and New York City on my phone and tablet, all through the subscription. The book isn't perfect on Kindle - it's difficult to jump from one section to another and the search function sucks, but it's still better than buying and carting around books or struggling to find WiFi to Google a site. The maps are just images, so there's no way to mark a specific location. Recommendation: use the Kindle version for info, then buy a physical map (most of my Airbnb hosts - 3/4 - gave me a map when I picked up the key) and mark the sites on the map with a pen.

More importantly, the picture is my first tapas sampling. Yes, it took a trip to Spain for me to try tapas. What the hell was I waiting for? It has all my major food groups - fried things, cheese, chorizo, potatoes. 

La Rambla

La Rambla

La Rambla is one of the main roads in Barcelona. There's is a large, tree-lined pedestrian section in the middle, littered with newspaper stands and outdoor restaurant seating, with narrow car lanes on either side. The street has everything - shops, restaurants, bars, and theaters!

Liceu Theater, Barcelona's Opera house, also on La Rambla

Liceu Theater, Barcelona's Opera house, also on La Rambla

Inside the Opera house - fancy!

Inside the Opera house - fancy!

In the house itself.

In the house itself.

Yes, I went to the opera in Barcelona! It was great to have a break from running around the city for site-seeing and the opera house was gorgeous on the inside. As for the opera itself...

First, it was La Boheme. Second, I am an idiot. The Rent film came out when I was in college and my dorm floor was obsessed for at least a month, with the film playing continuously in the commons and the soundtrack blaring from everyone room, including mine. I know all the words to La Vie Boheme! And yet, it wasn't until they were looking for her key with a candle that kept going out that I realized the connection. I am an idiot.

And an idiot who does not like opera, at that. Look, I like musicals. I like dance. And I wish I could like opera. I've tried! And here's what I can say: it's really great to listen to at work when you need to be productive. Opera singers are incredibly impressive. And now I've run out of positive things to say. But to those who enjoy it, everyone has their own taste!

I'm just going to go listen to the Rent OBC again.

La Rambla ends in style - the Christopher Columbus monument looks over the great road, leading way to the Port Vell and the sea.

Port Vell

Port Vell

The port was lovely - clear blue water, blue skies. There was a park and an aquarium. Here is where it gets sad - the aquarium. Old, a little rundown, and way overpriced. Recommend skipping that one and enjoying what's outside the aquarium.

Just down the road from the Port begins a lengthy stretch of beaches. Warning: there are several people along the way trying to sell stuff off blankets - jerseys, fake designer handbags, fake designer sunglasses, scarves, and sneakers. These guys popped up all over Spain but were heavily prevalent on the strip between Port Vell and the beaches. I did end up buying two scarves (two for five Euros!) and, while the sellers weren't aggressive, they were everywhere.

As for the beaches, excellent. Clean, sandy, clear water. There were several restaurants and bars along the beaches, some of which included beach service and all included 'takeaways'. On my last day, I took a sangria down to the water. There were also more people selling stuff on the beach. Every few minutes someone would walk buy, selling mojitos or beach wraps, offering massages or hair braiding. Again, not aggressive, just omnipresent.

Barcelona was my first European city with a beach and it was a great combination - site see the usual stuff during the day (old buildings, interesting architecture, important museums, famous cathedrals), and then go chill on the beach. Also, do not underestimate the Mediterranean sun. Sunscreen should be applied often. I was peeling for weeks afterwards. My Midwestern skin was not accustomed!

View from Park Guell

View from Park Guell

And the next major source of amusement in Barcelona: Antoni Gaudi! Gaudi is one of Spain's most famous architects, if not the most famous. His works are all over Spain but Barcelona is definitely the Gaudi capital. Up first: Park Guell.

Park Guell's famous lizard

Park Guell's famous lizard

Entrance to Park Guell

Entrance to Park Guell

Park Guell was designed by Gaudi for the Geull family in 1900, turned into a public park in 1926, and added to the World Heritage in 1984. It's definitely worth a stop. The views are incredible and the architecture one of a kind. The park itself is free but to see the Gaudi buildings, you have to buy a ticket. Absolutely worth the cost.

Me at my most tourist-ness. This is at the metro stop by Park Guell. It is literally the most impressive vending machine I have ever seen. Picture worthy. For a tourist, anyway. 

Palau Guell, that other thing Gaudi designed for the Guell family. This building is just off La Rambla. Unfortunately, I have no pictures to do the thing justice. I highly recommend a visit, with audio guide. In addition to the great hall, poorly pictured above, the most impressive part to me was all of the furniture that was built into the building itself. Gaudi was definitely a very complete architect.

And now for the biggie: The Sagrada Familia, still under construction since 1882. It's supposedly going to be finished in ten years, so everyone come back in 2026. I recommend booking something ahead of time for this. I had a guide. The whole thing was about an hour and a half and was absolutely worth it for the additional information and skipping all the lines. I also recommend coming right when it opens or right before it closes. The crowd was bananas. Pictured is the current entrance, though the actual entrance will change once the church is completed.

Current rear of the church

Current rear of the church

It is very much under construction - that white bit was added the week before I visited. The back of the church was incredibly detailed. Lots of sculptures depicting biblical scenes. Some of them were more famous than others (hello, crucifixion). I haven't picked up a Bible in at least seven years, so the guide was really helpful here. Off to the right of the picture is the gift shop and a museum. It includes a model of what the whole shebang will look like when it's finished, which was helpful.

While I had seen plenty of pictures of the exterior of the basilica, I had no expectations for the interior. And I was totally blown away. It's just this huge, cavernous space. There are little details everywhere, like the names of the regions in Catalonia and the significance of the stained glass window colors. Gaudi took a lot from nature for this creation, and most of his other works, and it's very obvious inside the La Sagrada Familia. I felt like I was underneath a canopy of trees.

The lighting inside was incredible. On one side, the stained glass windows represent the four seasons; across the church, they represent the crucifixion. Our guide suggested coming back at various points in the day as the interior changes dramatically as the sun rises and sets and the light filtering through the windows changes. I'm not sure how feasible this is but would be worth it.

And now we move to Passeig de Gracia. After La Rambla, Passeig de Gracia is a great street in Barcelona to check out. Lots of shopping and designer stores, if that's your thing. There are also lots of excellent restaurants. It also might be one of the most impressive streets in the world in terms of architecture. There are two Gaudi buildings. Pictured is the Casa Batllo. Inside, it created the impression of an underwater palace. It was extremely crowded when I went, so it might be worth checking out the suggested times before visiting.

And now for my favorite of the Gaudi's I visited: Casa Mila, also known as La Padrera. 

The roof of Casa Mila. It honestly felt like I had stepped into another world.

The Barcelona Cathedral, from the 1200s. AKA Barcelona's other church.

I didn't realize the extent of the Roman ruins in Spain. The Barcelona History Museum was incredible. Underground, over 4000 square meters of civilization remains, dating back to 1st and 6th centuries. Included were the remnants of a church, a wool-dying store, and a fish cleaner. To my interests - wine making! 

Saw this at the Palau Nacional. I've seen a lot of varieties of street performers in my travels around Europe, from the great (Opera singers in Vienna, those levitating guys), to the mundane (painting your face silver and asking people to take pictures with you for money). This was totally new: some guy had tamed seven pigeons and painted them crazy colors. Tourists then paid to take pictures with them. Giving him points for ingenuity.

Palau Nacional was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. Today, it's a Catalan art museum. I didn't have a chance to visit the museum itself (I went with the Picasso museum instead) but the building itself, and the park in which it resided, were lovely.

The view from Palau Nacional. There were escalators to assist tourists from getting to the Palau Nacional from the local subway stop. This and tourists in bikinis are the things Barcelona has in common with Las Vegas.

Happiness in Barcelona. Both the book and the sangria were excellent. After having lunch here, my last day in the city, I took a 'to-go' sangria down to the water and laid out. Barcelona - very tourist-friendly.

For our third stop, the third-biggest city in Spain, Valencia. Founded in 138 BC by the Romans, it is now home to almost 2 million individuals. Honestly, I probably could have done another day in Valencia. There were several things I missed. Valencia's public transit system isn't great so I really didn't have time to venture beyond the nearby, walkable places. Therefore, I wasn't able to hit the zoo, which my Spain Lonely Planet book told me was very unique and more animal-interactive, or the City of Arts and Science. Next time!

The Mercado Central, a recently renovated covered market that was first built in 1928. It has over 900 stalls of every variety, from wine to fresh seafood to chocolates and cheese. I had lunch at a great tapas bar in the middle of the market. It was there that I happened to sit next to a British couple. On the day of the British vote! We talked about their election, the American presidential race, and travel, of course. They're huge fans of the Obamas but were still planning on going with 'Leave.'

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento in the center of Valencia. A beautiful square built of colorful, gorgeous buildings. The town hall is free to enter and includes a balcony with excellent views of the square.

Valencia's catedral, consecrated in 1238. Side note - cathedrals and other churches are usually free to enter, or suggest a donation. Not the case for the majority of the churches I visited in Spain... This one was five Euros to enter. But there was a lot inside to eye-ball, including a treasury and a small art section. The cathedral is also in an excellent location, a lively neighborhood with bars and restaurants, shops.

But this is the real reason you pay the five bucks (or Euro-slang equivalent): the Holy Grail! The chalice is definitely from the right time period and has been with the cathedral since 1436. According to Wikipedia, most scholars think this is the one most likely to be the real deal.

Thing I thought was really cool: the green and sand portions to the right of the picture are the Turia garden. A large river, Turia, used to run through Valencia. However, following floods in 1957, Valencia decided they had had enough and started a diversion project, redirecting the river to flow around the city. The riverbed was then turned into a green space. 

The botanical gardens in Valencia. The grounds were lovely - well-organized and shadey, a break from the heat. Also: so many cats. The Lonely Planet book mentioned cats but it took me a few minutes to find one. And then they were everywhere. Lounging on benches and in the middle of the paths and among the plants. They did not give a fuck.

And our final stop on the Spain tour: Madrid! This is one of the best views of the city, from the top of the Circulo de Bellas Artes. It was four Euros to get to the top and so worth it. Spectacular views. And...

Rooftop bar and terrace! If I had more than a weekend in Madrid, I definitely would have spent more time up here. There was a restaurant, plus several lounge spots, as you can see.

Aside from a Picasso museum in Barcelona, my Spain trip had been somewhat lacking the art department. Madrid made up for it! I visited the Thyssen-Bornemiscza Museum, Museo Nacional del Prado, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The Thyssen museum is the second-largest private collection in the world and featured everyone from Goya to Van Gogh. Pictured is Dali's surreal Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate, a Second Before Waking. The museum was eclectic and well-laid-out.

After Thyssen, I continued down the 'Golden Triangle of Art' to the Prado museum. The museum was extensive, with over one thousand pieces on display. Luckily, the museum included a list of major pieces and where to find them. My favorites were Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Son" and Valezquez's "Las Meninas", having seen Picasso's interpretation of that painting in Barcelona just a few days before.

Finally, there was Reina Sofia, a 20th-century art museum. Worth the visit alone - Picasso's Geurnica.

And now let's get out of the museums and try the Puerta del Sol, Madrid's most famous and busiest public square. The square is surrounded by famous and important Spanish buildings. Additionally, it has a New Year's Eve tradition to rival Times' Square. Grapes are involved!

The symbol of the city in Puerta del Sol: a bear eating from a madrone tree. Also, tourists!

Kilometre zero, also on the square. All Spanish roads are measured from here (like Notre Dame in Paris!). Shadow and sneakers are mine.

Mercado de San Miguel, just around the corner from the Puerta del Sol, is one of Madrid's oldest markets. I was expecting something like the one in Valencia. Nope. Inside, the place was stuffed with people and stalls, each stall overflowing with offerings, ranging from tapas to yogurt to cheese to wine. I picked up ice cream and a sangria for an afternoon snack. If I had more time in Madrid, I absolutely would have stopped for additional meals.

Plaza de Oriente, across from the Royal Palace. Rumor has it these statues step down and stretch their legs at night.

Monument to Philip IV: for the physics concerns, the front legs are hollow.

Royal Palace of Madrid. My Airbnb hostess suggested I skip this one. It wasn't the highlight of my trip but I'm still glad I got to see it. Also, everything I know about the Spanish royal family, I know from the Fug Girls.  I mostly agree with the Queen's fashion choices. Thanks for the info, Fug Girls!

Buen Retiro is the largest park in Madrid and is quite impressive. Here is the crystal palace within and the Monument to Alfonso. In front of the monument is a lake. When I was there, it was overcome with paddle-boaters. In general, the park seemed like a go-to place for a Saturday afternoon, filled with locals and tourists, lots of options for food and drink, entertainment.

Puerta de Alcala, a city gate built in the 1700s.