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WHERE: Driving tour of Spain from Madrid to Granada, then to Barcelona

WHEN: June 17-July 7, 2011

HIGHLIGHTS: Every historic town was more picturesque. Barcelona became a new favorite after Paris.

Must do: town of Toledo; down time at Costa el Sol; bullfight (see below)


  • Highway driving is easy but in town is claustraphobic--get a small, automatic car! The highway from the Costa del Sol to Granada is pricey but really efficient; drivers are not nearly as crazed as on the autobahn.

  • You can eat any time although you may not get the full meal options (which often start after 8:30 p.m.). Best deals are “menu of the day” with an appetizer, entrée, dessert and drink for anywhere from $9E to $12E. 

  • Postcard stamps are available at any tobacco shop.

"Greco made this his home; his "denuding of Christ" is in the cathedral, the best in Spain, says Rick Steves."

The bullring "was so fascinating, we decided to change plans so we could attend an upcoming fight in Granada."

Barcelona is "filled with wonderful diversity, from mountains to beaches, history to modern shops, discoveries around every bend."


Spectacular variety of visual and spiritual splendors


June 17-July 7, 2011: Madrid, El Escorial, Valley of the Fallen, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Arcos de la Frontera, Zahara de la Sierra (drive by), Grazelema (drive by), Ronda, Gaucin, Gibraltar (nearly), Granada, Nerja, Sante Fe (outside Granada airport), Barcelona, Montserrat, Barcelona extended


One of our best vacations ever, with fabulous variety: mountains and sea; world class cities and ancient villages; people watching and hair-pin driving!


Memorable headlines: Jamon, jamon, jamon. Everywhere, ham ham ham. Hot, hot, hot (except in Barcelona). 100 degrees at 9:30 p.m. Everyone stays up to the wee hours to bask in coolness, including school aged kids, frolicking with their families at midnight. Bars and cafes are packed all the time except at siesta. Far fewer English speakers than in other European cities we’ve been; lots of street musicians, orange trees, smokers.


Very stressful driving, especially in historic towns, with a stick shift and an enormous Passat; GPS was nearly useless. Beautiful countryside, with numerous fields of sunflowers, olive trees, vineyards, planted blossoming flowers along the median. 


Destination highlights:


Madrid: Terrific walking city. Popped into the Prado during free hours (and confirmed we don't care for Greco or Goya); caught the Sunday street fair at El Rastro (hordes of people in tight quarters with oodles of booths mostly of clothes); visited the palace, rated third best in Europe after Versailles and Schonbrunn. View from church tower across the way was fabulous.


El Escorial: Felipe II’s palace (he chose not to complete dad Charles V’s palace at La Alhambra in Granada) has a beautiful library with 40,000 books. The pantheon holds remains of centuries of monarchs from Charles I to Alfonso XIII (queens are there only if a son eventually became a king). Three slots are left.


Valley of the Fallen: Franco’s gargantuan, somber, eroding monument to those killed in the civil war and his burial place, along with 40,000 coffins behind the stones. The 490-foot high cross is from mountain stone and soars over the basilica that’s 820 feet deep. Great controversy still over Franco.


Toledo: the former capital until 1561, it’s fabulous, with the Tajo (Tagus) river around 3 sides.


Greco made this his home; his "denuding of Christ" is in the cathedral--the best in Spain says Rick Steves. We Happened to be in town for the annual celebration of Corpus Christi, the biggest deal of the year--when the golden 10-foot, 430-pound tower built in 1517 is paraded about and pixes are allowed inside the church. Coolest sight: Archbishops get to choose where their hats will hang after their deaths so a dozen or so can be seen dangling from the ceilings.


The town features a variety of ancient Jewish, Moorish and Catholic structures, including Monasterio de San Jan de Los Reyes, which was built as burial for Isabel and Ferdinand (who ended up in Seville). There's a tourist train from the central Plaza Zocodover that's very bumpy and doesn't stop, but gives you a sense of the panorama you can see from other points including the Tajo river gorge.


Stayed at the Santa Isabel hotel: Close to the cathedral; very quiet, great small roof-top terrace. 


Seville: May be the most walkable city we visited. Toured the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranze bullring, built between 1761-1881, which was so fascinating, we decided to change plans so we could attend an upcoming fight in Granada. Sombre y sol”--shade or sun seats --are important choices, with prices up to over $100E! (Read about our bullfighting experience.)


Nice overlook from Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) along the Guadalquivir river; saw a gay celebration party at Metropol Parasol, the largest wooden structure in the world; and Columbus' tomb (perhaps) at the cathedral . Built in (1198-1568), it's the third largest in Europe after St Peter’s at Vatican and St Paul's in London and largest Gothic anywhere taking 120 years to build with the largest high altar ever made (65 feet). Hiked up the 330-foot tower using 35 ramps that once were used by horses galloping up five times a day to give the Muslim call to prayer) for terrific views.


“Pueblos Blancos” aka white towns all along narrow, hair-raising steep curving roads with a 


Rhonda: Built on a fantastic gorge 360 feet deep and 200 feet wide off the El Tajo. 


Relatively easy hike down to most of the gorge under the ark bridge and around the picturesque top. Ronda is the spiritual home of bullfighting, with a ring inaugurated in 1785 and home to the father of modern bullfighting, Pedro Romero, who killed 6,000 plus bulls.


Stayed at hotel Don Miguel: small, quiet room with a window right out to the gorge; multiple terraces also spectacular.


Gibraltar: the rock was in our face! Plus you can see African mountains and some buildings behind harbor derricks on the African coast. The rock was signed over to Britain in perpetuity at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.


Granada: Famed for the Alhambra, bullfighting and the Royal Chapel housing Isabel and Ferdinand.


The Alhambra has a lot of warnings about advanced tickets and specific time slots. However, we bopped in at 12:10 and got tickets for 12:30. Alas, after numerous previous castles and mosques, the Alhambra wasn’t as impressive as others viewed it. The throne room, built 1334-1354 with a ceiling made of 8000 inlaid pieces of cedar of Lebanon, is where Boabdil signed surrender and where Columbus made his pitch to Isabel and Ferdinand. 


The royal coffins are hard to see due to the structure; you can view them through a small crypt window: plain black, and very small. Three others are their daughter Juana, her hubby and their infant son. 


Nerja: One of numerous towns overlooking the Costa Del Sol. We stumbled onto the Hotel Paraiso del Mar, atop the cliff with breathtaking views of the beach, mountains and sea. Private steps lead down to the beach easily.


Barcelona: A great city to get to know, filled with wonderful diversity, from mountains to beaches, history to modern shops; very walkable with discoveries around every bend.

  • Guadi's Sagrada Familia was intriguing: twisted and weird on the outside and lofty and inspirational on the inside. Started in 1883 and is expected to be completed in 2026! Great views at the top.

  • Las Ramblas is a sensory overload stroll with entertainers, art, history and more all about, under the shade of grand trees.

  • Montserrat outing requires several train rides that are seamlessly connected, including an awesome mountain ride to the monastery. We took the funicular up, hiked a bit, then stood in the very long line to view the famous relic, the Black Madonna. We left at 11:36 (the train leaves hourly) and returned around 5:15.

  • The Picasso museum features his early years, so we had to check out whether he had actual artistic ability before he got modern.  He did.

  • The Palau de la Musica Catalana is beautiful, with spectacular stained glass “sun” as the centerpiece. We took a tour (50 minutes) where photos aren't allowed; but when we attended a concert, everyone was taking photos. 

  • La Pedrera (aka the stone quarry or Casa Mila), Gaudi’s apartment building (now with 5 residents), has an intriguing rooftop terrace with whimsical and scary sculptures.

  • Very cool aquarium where you get to walk through the tank with giant fish, stingrays and sharks all around you.

  • Took Telerifico cable car and soared over the port, ending on Montjuic (go on a clear morning for views and pictures). Then you pay for another cable car to the Montjuic castle, which was a fort and site of political executions. Checked out the 1992 Olympic game remnants—the pools are still used and opened to the public.

  • Park Guell is packed but great fun—a sprawling wonderland of images, landscaping and architecture. Well worth the time. Go late in the day for better photo lighting.

  • The beaches are less crowded, with less clothing the further you are from town. Lots of activity: windsurfers, volleyball players, and the coolest: soccer volleyball players impressively controlling the play without their hands!

  • Barcelona airport tips: Terminals 1 and 2 are miles apart so you need to know where your airline is; make the time to buy food/drinks before you go through the final (shortest) hurdle because truly, as the sign says, there is virtually nothing beyond that point.

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