Touring 5 Cities in Spain: What You Need to Know

Rene Cizio

Spain is a country of many unique cities, each with its own special character and history. Lucky for us, they’re also one of those countries that make it easy to city hop and see different places while enjoying their great food, art, architecture, and culture. My daughter, Autumn and I went to see what it was all about.

Here are five places we visited.

Madrid

The beauty I saw in Madrid came from this palpable sense that it is the beating pulse of the country. Madrid is a place where culture and history blend seamlessly and their love of art and the written word is demonstrated loud and proud. What better place could there be?

Literary Quarter

Madrid is a city made for walking and no place more than the Literary Quarter with its old narrow streets with golden lettering embedded in the sidewalks urging you forward.

The lettering quotes, like whispers in the streets, honoring Spain’s greatest literati, such as Cervantes, Quevedo, and Lope de Vega, who lived and wrote there in the Golden Age.

Even though the quotes were in Spanish and I barely understood a word, I couldn’t stop myself from walking around looking for them while admiring the small shops, restaurants, and cafes.

Russian Salad

We stopped at one of those cafes for lunch planning to order a salad. My Spanish, despite years of practice, is very poor. ¿Lo entiende?

Perhaps it was lost in translation, but to me, a “salad” is made up of leafy greens, while to the waiter, a “salad” was something else. The language was correct, but our understanding was not the same.

He delivered my salad, “Ensaladilla Rusa” or “Russian Salad” and seemed quite proud of himself. This Spanish specialty – a potato salad with tuna – was not what I wanted … at all. My first Spanish meal, I hoped, was not an indication of things to come. (Spoiler alert: it was).

Iberico ham

I read that Iberico ham was so divine you’d write songs (or Spanish literature) about it. I’m not a big meat eater, but I am open to experience and after the potato salad, I was grateful to have another dish to try.

Iberico ham is cured, made from black Iberian pigs, and found only in Spain and Portugal. You will see ads for it plastered across every menu and restaurant in the country. To me, it’s prosciutto. In case you’re wondering, no, it doesn’t pair well, Ensaladilla Rusa.

Prado Museum

We walked across town to the Prado Museum because when in Spain …

The Prado is best known for its Spanish works by Velasquez, Goya, and El Greco. If you like Renaissance art, you will enjoy a visit here, me, not so much – give me the Impressionists.

Thyssen Bornemisza Museum

The Thyssen-Bornemisza was more up my alley. This museum has more modern art from the 13th century to the late 20th century.

Especially interesting was their surrealist collection, namely several by Salvator Dali, that alone make the visit worthwhile.

Seville

We caught an early morning train across the country on a quest to Seville to find the Flamenco dancers.

In Seville, we took a horrifying cab ride through narrow streets no car should be driving on. We nearly killed several people while the driver beat his wheel and cussed at those he nearly murdered.

After exciting that hellscape, we walked around the old, old, Roman streets filled with Seville oranges growing on trees lining the city streets. We strolled through a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets, browsing the small shops selling beautiful art, fabric, and flamenco dresses.

Pro tip: While many oranges are growing along the streets, they’re not the eating kind – just for decoration! These oranges are tart and sour, and you’ll be sorry if you bite one … not that I know from experience.

Flamenco dancers

Seville is considered a birthplace of flamenco, and while we were able to see a few shows, none were as mesmerizing as our first in Seville at Museu del Baile Flamenco.

There is a hypothesis that the word flamenco comes from the Spanish word “Fuego,” meaning “fire,” to describe the dancers’ fiery behavior. Indeed, they are fiery.

The feet of the dancers at Baile Flamenco move so fast they could catch the boards on fire. They move so quickly, sensually, you must pay attention. But they are a whirling dervish and it’s hard to focus on any one aspect. The feet, the arms, the dress, the story, a red flower in her hair …

Before you know it the dance is done and you are left breathless and wondering … a little bit in love.

“I was down at New Amsterdam
Staring at this yellow-haired girl
Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation
With a black-haired flamenco dancer
You know, she dances while his father plays guitar
She’s suddenly beautiful …”
Mr. Jones” ~ The Counting Crows

La Giralda tower

While in Seville, take a look at something that inspired one of our famous Chicago buildings. Attached to the St. Mary of the See Cathedral is the La Giralda tower from the 12th century. Architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & Does it look familiar? It might. White used it as inspiration for Chicago’s Wrigley Building’s design.

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Before departing Seville, we stopped at a small cafe where I ordered a salad – with lettuce – and was so happy to be immediately understood by the waitress. She returned a placed before me, Ensaladilla Rusa. It was no more appealing the second time.

Toledo

We took a tour bus to Toledo, driving through winding Spanish roads where we began to climb in elevation to the old stronghold at the mountaintop about an hour outside of Madrid.

Toledo’s entire white brick city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its extensive monumental and cultural heritage. Toledo was home to El Greco at the end of his life and is the subject of some of his most famous paintings, including “View of Toledo,” which is my favorite and an inspiration for visiting.

We walked up many flights to enter the ancient city where again the streets were so narrow cars could barely pass through though they did. The sidewalks were about as wide as a dining chair and we couldn’t even walk side by side through most of it. Fun fact: all of the streets and roads in Spain are insanely narrow.

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Fun fact: Toledo’s road is known as the Route of Don Quixote, as described in the novel by Cervantes. The Spanish Golden Age must have been an amazing time to be alive. I picture these artists casually drinking wine and ale together all day long while creating art that would last for centuries. Sigh. The good ol’ days.

We walked the deeply uneven cobblestone streets and, high above everything, looked out and marveled at the surrounding countryside.

Tortilla, but it’s a trick

Due to my bad luck ordered salads, I was getting hangry, so we stopped at a cafe where I ordered a Spanish Tortilla. I licked my chops as I looked forward to a “Mexican-style” Spanish delight something, I imagined like a quesadilla. Sadly, it was not as expected. The language was correct, but our understanding was not the same.

It turns out a Spanish Tortilla has nothing to do with actual tortillas. It’s more like a breakfast frittata made of eggs, which I don’t really eat. Right before I received my food, I chastised Autumn for ordering from McDonald’s (Why does Toledo even have a McDonalds?!?!) Thankfully; she was forgiving and kind enough to share her fries with me.

Marzipan

Historians in Toledo say that nuns invented marzipan when there was no wheat to make bread but plenty of almonds and sugar.

They served the almond paste in many different ways, but most commonly in baked goods such as cookies, of which I bought and ate a dozen as we walked around. Cookies were something even I couldn’t mess up.

Metal weapons

If I learned nothing else that day, it would be this: Toledo makes weapons. Remember, I said it was a fortress?

Also known as the “Imperial City” this gothic city has a looong history in the production of bladed weapons, which are now common souvenirs and line every corner of the town.

Toledo’s metal weaponry is regarded as the best in Europe – in case you’re looking for a sword. And honestly, who isn’t?

Segovia

We took the tour bus to Segovia, one hour past Madrid, in the opposite direction.

Segovia is a beautiful walled city deep in the Spanish Mountains where Cypress trees line the mountainside. Both Segovia and its famous Roman Aqueduct are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Many consider the arched aqueduct with its dramatic presence in the mountains, among Spain’s most impressive structures. They’re not wrong. It was built in about 100 AD and was used to bring water from the river into the mountains and it was used until the 19th century. What?!!?!

We walked the ancient streets and learned the history of the place since before the time of Christ. We ended our visit with a walk through a castle – which happens to be one Walt Disney used as a model for Cinderella’s Castle. It, like me, looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

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Churros

Finally, food I could understand. I walked around Segovia and then Barcelona with a bag of churros the entire trip. Keeping it classy and repping the U.S.A., but I was no longer going hungry.

If you have not yet had this particular joy in your life, let me enlighten you. Created in Spain, churros are a traditional Spanish fried-dough pastry coated in cinnamon and sugar and – at least in Spain, dipped in thick hot chocolate sauce.

Barcelona

Another day another train ride, and we were in Barcelona’s coastal city, the land of Picasso and Gaudi, where art and architecture blend to create a magical place.

Picasso Museum

If you like Pablo Picasso at all, you must visit the museum.

Pro tip: Get your tickets in advance because they sell out daily and lines go around the creepy gothic block.

The museum has the most extensive Picasso collection anywhere, with over 4,000 works. Despite the massive size, they don’t have much of his most famous work, but they do have his earliest work and it is enlightening.

The exhibit includes school books, academic pieces, and paintings from Picasso’s Blue Period. Arranged chronologically, it’s fascinating to see his evolution as an artist.

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Architecture

Gothic Quarter

We walked the Gothic Quarter’s labyrinth-like medieval streets at night, going in and out of restaurants, bars, and shops and stopped to see another Flamenco show. Pro tip: Don’t see Flamenco in Seville first – it sets the bar too high for everything that comes after.

The quarter is the center of Barcelona’s old city, and walking there at night; you get the sense that if vampires were to live anywhere, it’d be here. (FYI Anne Rice).

Gaudi

Especially remarkable is the work of architect Antoni Gaudí, which can be seen throughout the city. His best-known work is the immense but still unfinished church of the Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and is not expected to be complete until 2026. That’s probably a conservative estimate.

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The Sagrada Familia is the most ornate, elaborate, beautiful, mind-boggling works of architecture you will ever see in your life, even if you live to be 1,000 years old. That is as it was intended.

We were able to walk through the building – long waits – and go to the top of the basilica for an up-close look at the intricate mosaic and sculpture adorning the structure – I can’t even call it a building … it’s pure majesty.

Mies van der Rohe
“God is in the details.”
Mies van der Rohe

On the other side of the spectrum, Barcelona is also home to an iconic building that came to symbolize modern architecture – the Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.

Designed in 1929 for the International Exposition for Germany, it is what many call the embodiment of van der Rohe’s maxim “less is more.” While Mies lived in Chicago, this building will seem most familiar to my Detroit friends who know about the Mies van der Rohe townhouses in Lafayette Park.

Electric bikes to the top of the … hill

We needed a small physical adventure to round out our trip, so we took an electric bike tour around the city. It’s a good thing those bikes were electric too because we rode up to the top of a mountain, er technically a hill, but still.

Once at the top of Montjuïc hill, we loaded our bikes onto the aerial tramway and enjoyed the view of Barcelona beneath us. Or maybe some people enjoyed the view. I fretted about falling the entire time and was doubly upset I’d land with a freaking bike on top of me in my death.

Still, if one must die tragically and dramatically, there couldn’t be very many better places to do it. Just add my name to the list of those great artists mentioned above.

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Solo nomad writing about travel and experiences www.middlejourney.com

Detroit, MI
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