When given the opportunity to travel with my grandmother, it was an exciting thought, but also one that required some consideration when it came to choosing a destination. She was gracious enough to let me choose, and ultimately we landed on Spain. This was largely because I felt the weather in early May would be warm but not too hot, and that the culture would be similar to those of France and Italy, places she had visited before and truly loved (it’s a big part of our heritage). While I was mostly right, Spain was so much more than just a warm destination full of friendly people.

Barcelona

After opting for Spain as our destination, my sisters decided to join in the fun, and together we came up with a quick-moving itinerary that gave us an introduction to some of Spain’s main cities. We began in Barcelona for three nights, and in an effort to not overload the first few days, we didn’t have anything planned for our day of arrival. However, once we checked in, we decided to join a catamaran cruise along the coast. It was truly the best way to start our trip, because who doesn’t love being on the water? Ours was a jazz cruise, so there was a guitarist aboard, as well as a bar, and it was such a relaxing way to begin our vacation.

From there, we joined a guided tour of the Sagrada Familia, which is Antoni Gaudi’s incomplete masterpiece, and the largest unfinished Catholic church in the world. Although the church sees approximately 5 million visitors each year, our visit was informative and easy to understand thanks to the headsets provided during the visit. Our Gaudi exploration was rounded off by drive-bys of Casa Mila (1905) and Casa Vicens (1883-1889) and of course a visit to Park Guell, the location of Gaudi’s home, several gardens and architectural components, with an expansive view over the city.

For our last full day in Barcelona, we chose to visit Montserrat, a nearby mountain range home to the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat. En route, we stopped at a family winery which was a highlight for our entire group. We were welcomed with open arms and walked through one of the former vats that is now used as a cellar while we learned about the family and their winemaking process. The third generation winemaker shared some of her private collection with us, including the last vintage that she made with her father. The warmth and familiarity with which we were received was a wonderful connection that we carried with us for our entire trip; it’s a memory that completely stands out—we’ll never forget such a one-of-a-kind experience.

After enjoying a taste of a cava, a white and a red, it was time to continue on to the abbey, which is located within the Montserrat mountains, and offers expansive views of the Catalonian landscape. The abbey is home to a black Madonna, patron saint of Catalonia, and a boys’ choir from the monastery’s boarding school sings hymns daily in her honor. To finish our visit, we took the Aeri de Montserrat cable car down along the mountain. This is not for the faint of heart, as you are swinging in a cable car 4400 feet above the mountain and river below, but the short ride is worth the views and the experience if you are not afraid of heights.

 

 

Madrid

Our next stop after Barcelona was a quick two night stay in Madrid. We chose to travel between cities by high speed train, and each train was relatively timely and quite an easy and enjoyable way to travel. All of the train stations require you to put all of your belongings through oversized security conveyor belts, so it is worth arriving at least 30 minutes prior to your departure to account for any short lines. As with most train stations in Europe, the platform is typically announced 20 minutes prior to departure, however this greatly varied during our experiences. The train from Barcelona to Madrid was easy enough, however our platform for the journey from Madrid to Seville was not announced until after we were meant to depart. With that said, everyone made it on the train without further issue. 

 

Madrid was our most surprising stop for me, as I was expecting it to feel more city, business-like and cold, however I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed our short stay. It feels very European from an architectural standpoint and is a very pretty city, with several parks and a botanical garden easily walkable from the city center. We enjoyed a food walking tour on our first evening, and were treated to a guided stroll through the Mercado de San Miguel for some traditional jamon iberico and manchego cheese before continuing on to a local restaurant where we enjoyed some more traditional tapas such as Spanish omelette and Pimientos de Padron, blistered Shishito peppers. 

We spent the following day exploring the famous Ribera del Duero wine region, about 2 hours outside of Madrid. The region boasts some of Spain’s highest quality wines, primarily focusing on the tempranillo grape. As such, there are many different kinds of wine producers in the region, and we were able to visit a large and a mid-sized winery, and ended at a family winery where we were welcomed for lunch. This was my favorite part of our trip, as I always love to hear about why families get involved in winemaking. The winemaker Jésus chose to follow his passion of winemaking, but made sure to include a space where he can showcase his wife’s passion, which is dance. Throughout our visit the enthusiasm and dedication was infectious. Jésus is so committed to his craft that he has worked with a glass maker to design a wineglass specifically for his estate wines!  Our group all agreed that this was also our best meal of the trip, not only because of the quality of the tapas, but also due to the company with whom we shared it! 

Seville

The next stop of our trip was Seville, which we were all eager to visit. Although it was quite hot while we were there, the city itself is much smaller than Barcelona and Madrid, and is reminiscent of old world Europe, with narrow winding streets and cafes around every corner. We enjoyed a shared tour with a visit along the Guadalquivir River followed by a visit to the bullring, which is still in use today. Another highlight of our trip was our paella cooking class, where we learned about the importance of the size of the paella pan, as well as the size of the burner and how it will impact how much paella can be made at a time. We made a traditional chicken paella, as well as sangria, and learned about the cooking process, and that it is very much not traditional to combine meat and seafood in a paella dish, which we found surprising based on our experiences in the US. Our chef Maria shared stories of her time learning from the masters in Valencia and also discussed what it’s like to make paella for a crowd of friends (hint: if there is enough sangria, no one will notice if the rice is a little too crispy!)

 

At this point my sisters had to return home and after 7 nights eating and drinking our way through Spain, we were ready to slow down our pace. Our last day in Seville we joined a small group on an excursion to Córdoba, and this was definitely a highlight for my grandmother. The walled city sees a massive influx of visitors on a daily basis, and once you step into the expansive Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, it is easy to see why so many people make the trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city itself has had Jewish, Muslim and Catholic residents at one point or another throughout its history, and the seamless marriage of cathedral within mosque is fascinating. The current structure is about the size of two football fields, and its lasting impact on Islamic architecture is instantly felt while admiring the intricate honeycomb ceilings and horseshoe arches. Most impressive is that it has been added to at least 5 times and yet the design elements were largely carried through the additions.

Granada

From Seville we took an onward train to Granada, our last stop of the trip. I am not entirely sure what I was expecting when we arrived, but I was surprised to see that it was larger than I had anticipated, and full of young people (thanks to the nearby university). There were many squares surrounded by restaurants and cafés that made it easy to wander without any destination in mind. We had left the afternoon open, and decided to visit the Cathedral and Royal Chapel, each of which required a €5 euro ticket that was easy enough to purchase on the spot. As a student of European history, it was fascinating to visit Isabella and Ferdinand’s tombs, and to also admire some of their ceremonial clothes. 

We spent our last day visiting the Ahlhambra, where again I was surprised by the expansive nature of the site. The complex consists of several palaces and gardens and sits atop an outcrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with stunning views of the city of Granada below. As our guide walked us through the various palaces, I was impressed by the beautiful architecture that combines both Islamic influence and Spanish Renaissance style. We spent several hours here, but could have spent even more time wandering through the gardens and admiring the extensive tile work and honeycomb ceilings. 

In celebration of our last evening in Spain, our hotel made a reservation for us at a restaurant overlooking the Alhambra, and it was a spectacular way to end our journey.

In reflecting on our time in Spain, we agreed that early May was a beautiful time of year to visit, as the weather was comfortable and while there were people, most of the sites we visited were not totally overrun by tourists just yet. As with so many European destinations, we loved being able to enjoy a drink outdoors without feeling rushed, allowing us to appreciate the movement around us. My grandmother had never experienced tapas or sangria before, and she was hooked from the first day!  Traveling with my sisters and my grandmother made our trip that much more special, as we spent so much time laughing and telling stories, all while enjoying the scenery around us. It also gave us plenty of time to discuss our next trip, as we thoroughly enjoyed all that we experienced, but realized that there is so much more that Spain has to offer, so we must come back! 

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