Spain’s best for last?

Valencia

Valencia offered an opportunity for relaxed sightseeing as there weren’t too many “must-see” places requiring advanced tickets or tours, and I welcome that. We began with a quick breakfast at a cafe near our hotel, and then it was off to Central Market to see why it is on the list as a special place tourists must visit. We found a fantastic display of foods and vegetables along with places to grab a bite to eat. I think you can get about anything in the Central Market. You could do your daily or weekly grocery shopping, get something for a special occasion, like an exquisite bottle of wine, and maybe grab a croissant or three for a snack. I wish I had a place like this within walking distance of my apartment, or perhaps it’s best I don’t.

After gorging our eyes on the display in the market, it was time for some history, so we walked the short walk to the Cathedral of Valencia. The tour costs eight euros each, but it is worth seeing the craftsmanship of the artists who sculpted and painted the interior. The basement lets you explore some of the ancient ruins that have been unearthed over the years. Like other things we’ve seen in Spain, this Cathedral is built on ruins from the Romans and before. Although I am sure you could pay for a guided tour, I don’t think it is necessary. Of all the cathedrals we have toured on this trip and others, this one is the most organized, with some of the most exciting displays available. It is a spectacular place to visit. 

Of course, there is the Cathedral’s coup de gras, a chalice that might be the Holy Grail. My inner Indiana Jones was excited to see what the cup of a carpenter might look like. As for the grail, well, it is one of a dozen or so cups that could possibly, maybe, be the actual Holy Grail. No one will know for sure, but that is part of the fun. As for its decorations, the cup itself is rather plain, so it isn’t far off from Indy’s pick. It sits atop a rather ornate cup holder, but the cup itself is not gilded or over-the-top. 

The Holy Grail?

After the Cathedral, we decided it was time for a hike. Not a proper rugged mountain hike, mind you, just a pleasant walk of a few miles on a hot summer day to see some local sights. One of the cultural centers of attraction in Valencia is the City of Arts and Sciences. The buildings are unique and worthy of the walk for the architecture alone. They are the work of the prolific Valencian-born architect Santiago Calatrava. One of his recent works includes the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York City, which was apparent as soon as I saw them when we drove into the city. 

Spectacular

We didn’t go inside the museums but marveled at the design and layout of the buildings and facilities. The buildings brilliantly incorporate water features, and art pieces are displayed throughout the area. The water looked inviting, and as it turns out, you can rent kayaks in one section near the Aquarium. The main attractions inside are the Museum of Science, the Aquarium, and the performing arts center/opera house. Whether you tour the museums or walk around outside, this facility must be on your list when visiting Valencia. 

Dinner was at a place we saw on our morning walk to the Cathedral, San Tommaso, a fantastic Italian restaurant in the heart of the old city. I casually checked their website to see if they took reservations and thankfully snapped up one of the last tables they had for the night. This was one of the best meals we’ve had on the trip; you must go if you are in Valencia. For dessert, get the chocolate cake, but only one piece to share; it was about the size of my head. 

Wandering the streets of the old town of Valencia at night is kind of magical. People are milling around, enjoying the fountains and squares. Buskers perform on corners, many of whom are as good or better than people you would see in any nightclub. It is a beautiful city. 

The Walk

Having learned our lesson the day prior, we began the day with breakfast at the Central Market. I had a fantastic “American” style bagel sandwich and coffee. I may or may not have also added a few pastries as a sweet treat. After breakfast was complete, we had a relaxed itinerary ahead of us, or so we thought. 

On our way out of the market area, we discovered the Plaza Redonda, which has been a small circular market for years. It was a neat little place with several small shops of varying quality. We made the short walk to the Ceramics Museum, where we experienced a unique display of ceramic and other art pieces from several eras. The most intriguing aspect of the museum was honestly not the ceramic pieces but the former residence that houses the collection. The whole place was incredibly ornate and decorated as if it was an actual palace. The family that called this place home was wealthy, but I think they were trying a bit too hard to look like more than they were. I could be wrong, but that’s the feeling I got from the place. 

The beach! A very windy beach.

After that, we tried to tour the bullfighting ring, but it was closed due to private events. With the bullfighting ring unavailable, we decided to walk to the beach. This decision was something of a debate because the walk was not inconsequential, it would take an hour and ten minutes, and we are not slow walkers. But we figured we could walk there and take the Metro back. So, we hit the streets for our five-ish-kilometer journey. The walk wasn’t that bad, and we got to see the more residential area of Valencia before reaching the port. The only issue was the beating sun roasting us as we went. That proved to be a significant energy drain for the rest of the day. The wind off the ocean was fierce when we arrived, and we were hungry and in need of rest. We stopped at one of the beachside restaurants that had decent reviews. It was okay, but it was a place to sit down and have a beer, water, and snacks to recharge. After looking at the Metro and realizing it wasn’t running that day. With this revelation, we decided to walk back to the hotel for even more exercise. 

The walk back was in the shade, but the sun had already taken its toll; we were exhausted. We finally reached the hotel with enough time for a brief siesta before getting cleaned up and getting a taxi back to the beach for dinner at the famed La Pepica

Valencia and the surrounding regions are known for many things in Spanish history and culture, but paella is one of the most important (to us). After searching several options for paella in Valencia, we settled on the place that has been operating for over 120 years and happened to be the favorite of a guy named Ernest Hemingway; you may have heard of him. The paella was excellent, the house wine pretty good, and the dessert delicious (whiskey ice cream). The restaurant is nothing fancy, but man, the food is excellent. They clearly know what they are doing and have the routine down; it is well worth your time. 

Whatever your opinion is of Hemingway, he was correct about this place, it’s fantastic!

A storm was blowing in, so the ocean was frothy and violent, and rain started as we finished our meal. We didn’t bother walking around the beach before getting a taxi back to the hotel and retiring for the night. 

Barcelona!

It was time to move on from Valencia, but not after another fantastic breakfast at Central Market. We gathered our luggage and checked out of the hotel to drive to our next stop; Barcelona!

We navigated to the Barcelona airport, where we planned to park and take a train into the city. Our hotel is located in a low-emissions restricted zone inside the city, meaning, on paper, that we were not allowed to drive our diesel car there. The parking rate at the hotel was also just this side of outrageous. In reality, we saw all manner of vehicles around our hotel, so who knows.

We hit one incredible stretch of winding road that followed the coastline with a frightening drop into the water on the right and a mountain wall on the left. The road was busy, so we couldn’t drive very fast, but that wasn’t necessary to enjoy the road. 

After arriving at the airport, we parked the car in long-term parking and made our way to the terminal. This parking plan was much cheaper than the hotel garage, but it wasn’t cheap and certainly wasn’t convenient. After finally finding the metro/train terminal, we struggled to find a way to the city. Barcelona groups their trains, trams, and subway into the same tunnels, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it can be a bit confusing, and no signs are in English. We gave up and asked a ticket booth attendant for the best way to get downtown, she pointed us to the train that had just pulled into the station. About ten euros and 30 minutes later, we were in downtown Barcelona a block from our hotel. 

We stayed at the Hotel Majestic on Passeig de Gracia, which is quite an expensive avenue. Flanking the hotel are Burberry, Tiffany, Rolex, Massimi Dutti etc, very, very lux. We stayed here because of our use of credit cards with generous point systems, particularly American Express Platinum. I booked the hotel through their travel system and used points we earned to cut the bill way down. Then, because this hotel is part of AMEX’s “Fine Hotels Program,” they credited another $200 off the bill, gave us free breakfast every day (worth more than $50 per day), automatic late check-out of 4 pm, an $85 credit at the hotel for food, and a room upgrade if possible. With all that, we paid about $700 for a week in a five-star hotel with breakfast, which was not bad. 

That evening we walked down the avenue one block over from our hotel, which was pedestrian-only and lined with cafes. It was a nice little stroll as people were making their way out for the typical late dinners enjoyed in Spain. On our way back, we realized our hotel was a block away from the famous Gaudi creation, Cassa Batlló. We stopped to admire the facade in the glorious post-sunset light before calling it a night. 

Casa Batllo just after sunset.

La Sagrada Familia

Our daily breakfast at the hotel was, in a word, spectacular. The buffet items were top-notch, with a selection of everything you could want, from the best and freshest pastries, croissants, and loaves of bread, to fresh fruit, yogurt, Iberico ham, cheeses, and quiches. Then there were chefs at the ready to make whatever you wanted for eggs, French toast, pancakes, etc. And of course, because it’s Europe, there was Nutella. If you haven’t been to Europe, you have not witnessed the seemingly continent-wide obsession with the hazelnut spread. I don’t know if it’s the same in every country, but my visits to Belgium, Austria, Germany, France, and Spain verify they are Nutella crazy. The best analogy for Americans is to replace peanut butter everywhere you see or use it with Nutella. 

The day’s first stop was a guided tour of the Sagrada Familia; what a zoo. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions we’ve visited, and it was crazy busy, even at 9:30 am. 

La Sagrada Familia in all its unfinished glory.

The church’s exterior is such a hodge-podge of design that it’s a bit overwhelming and messy for my taste. The interior of the building is an entirely different story. It is unique and visionary in its design, as you would expect from Gaudi, but it is also orderly, highly detailed, and beautiful. I loved the interior as much as I was unimpressed with the exterior. After our guided tour, once again booked through getyourguide.com, finished, we got to tour one of the towers. We rode a lift to the top to experience spectacular city views, then walked down the 400 stairs to the bottom. 

Next was a stroll down the famous, or infamous, depending on your view or experience, Las Ramblas. Las Ramblas is a street full of vendors, markets, crowds, and pickpockets. It used to be the city wall that held people outside of Barcelona; now, it is a major attraction and will guide you from the “new” city to the port. Thankfully, we only saw the vendors and tourists, no pickpockets. At the harbor, we hopped on a one-hour cruise to see the city from the Mediterranean. It was fun and offered excellent views. 

The highlight of our evening was a Devour food tour of gourmet tapas and wine; it was awesome. Erik, an American who has lived in Barcelona for the past 13 years, took us through the Born and Gothic neighborhoods, where we tasted vermouth, tapas, Cava, Jamon, red wine, and other treats. We met some great people, including two brothers from Hendersonville, TN who now live on the east coast in Philly and New York. It was great to talk about Nashville with people who grew up there. The Jamon restaurant was called Pork, and they are a proper farm-to-table operation. They paired our food with a fantastic Cava of the Brut Natural kind that is very clean and has no sulfites. Brut Natural will now be on my shopping list when I hit the wine store as it was the best Cava I’ve had. While the food and company were excellent, Erik also did a fantastic job educating us on the vast history of the old city, including the original Roman city, of which some of the walls remain and are incorporated into other buildings. 

You can guess what their specialty is.

More Walking Tours

A new day, a new scheduled walking tour. This one focused on Barcelona’s many ancient markets. We met our tour guide, Alberto, in Las Ramblas at the entrance to the La Boqueria. This is one of the oldest markets in the city and has a rich history dating back to walled medieval city days. It is pretty touristy and a little pricey now, but there are still some fantastic vendors, and the seafood is the freshest of any market we’ve seen on the trip. The rock lobsters, crabs, and prawns were still crawling and fighting with each other; it’s that fresh. Even though it is more expensive than other city markets, chefs from some of the city’s best restaurants still shop here for the quality and freshness of the seafood and some other hard-to-find items. 

Our tour then led into the Gothic neighborhoods and eventually to the Born area we saw the night before. Alberto did a great job providing more history; he covered some of the things we learned the night prior but also added amplifying info that gave us a great picture of the life and history of the city. 

After our walking tour, we made our way to Cassa Batlló to tour the building before returning to our hotel for a bit of rest. The audio guide that walks you through the house is fantastic. Casa Batlló is amazing. Gaudi’s use of lighting and ventilation was ahead of his time and made for a home that truly feels alive. I loved this place! Photos can’t do it justice as the lighting changes with every turn, and the walls and windows have incredible detail and structure that it’s difficult to capture without setting up a photo shoot. Visiting this house made me appreciate what Gaudi did more than the Sagrada Familia. 

Before heading out for another walking tour, a little time at the hotel to take a siesta was much needed. This time we were getting a gothic neighborhood tour with a little snack and drink at the end through Amigo tours. The group was at least 20 people, so it was a struggle at times to hear the guide, but overall, it was a good tour. We continued to build upon the knowledge we’ve gained over the past day and a half, and we had a great time. We ended the tour in a little craft beer bar for pintxos and a pint. We stayed for another round and a few tapas since we hadn’t had anything but an ice cream cone since breakfast. After another day of touring and walking, I continued to enjoy Barcelona, but my feet were getting tired. 

Park Güell

Park Güell is far enough away and all uphill that we decided to use the Metro to take a chunk out of the journey. The Metro was super easy, and while it didn’t take us directly to the area we needed, we only had a 15 or so minute walk to get there. Since our first tour didn’t begin until noon, we slept in a little and enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast at the hotel. 

Park Güell is an impressive display of architecture, but there were so many damn people there that it was difficult to enjoy. Thankfully, our tour was just the first part, as we were allowed to walk around the park itself as long as we wanted when the tour concluded. The significant features, the dragon benches, the stairs, the salamander, etc., were so crowded that it was difficult to enjoy, but we did the best we could. We walked around a bit to see a few key sights, and thankfully the crowd thinned, and we could enjoy things a little more. 

The design of Park Güell was for it to be an entire neighborhood, but only three residences were built. Naturally, the houses were commissioned by wealthy families and are fabulous. One is still a private residence, and I can’t imagine living inside a tourist attraction of this magnitude. 

We were eager for a quiet evening after so many tours, so we grabbed tapas at a place around the corner from the hotel. The restaurant was an older place, and we ate in what was the basement. The tapas were decent, the olives rocked, and it was what we needed after a tiring day. 

Montserrat

An early start negated another fabulous breakfast, but it was necessary to make the bus for our half-day trip to the Montserrat Monastery. Overall, I’d give the excursion a B; it was a beautiful little place tucked high up on a mountain, but it wasn’t that great for what we could do. There’s a hotel that would be an excellent place for a night to see sunset and sunrise over the area. The village is also teeming with hiking trails that bring in many people. Like many popular areas in small mountain spots, good luck finding parking if you’re not there very early in the morning. 

Visually stunning.

After getting back to Barcelona, we walked around the “central park” of the city, where we saw the very cool dragon-themed sculpture and fountain called the Cascada del Parc de la Cuitadella. Lots of gold, statues, and moss are growing on the dragons and the actual waterfalls themselves, which is very odd. 

Yes, the water was really that green.

We meandered into the old Gothic neighborhoods until we found a little pizza place for a snack. Then it was time to walk back to the hotel to do some photo editing, watch the Formula 1 race and take a nap. We relaxed at the hotel, did some planning for the next day’s drive, and grabbed a bite and a glass of wine at the hotel bar. It was a simple end to a fast-paced visit. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Barcelona after visiting five other cities in different regions. I found a city with a vibe and character utterly different from other places. It is a city with many different personalities. Sitting between mountains and the sea, it has a lot to offer. Its rich and proud Catalonian heritage provides strength and pride I didn’t feel in other regions. Barcelona is a city you could visit many times and peel back a different layer with each trip. I wouldn’t hesitate to come here again and again. 

One final fantastic breakfast at the hotel began the day in the right way. We gathered our things and walked a block to the train station where the day’s adventure would begin. The process of getting our tickets from the machine was surprisingly simple this time, and the platform for our train was well marked. Waiting on the platform was a bit strange as each train arrived was a different line and type and therefore different lengths. They each stopped in different areas of the platform, so you never knew if you would be standing in the right spot for when your train arrived. We had about 20 minutes before our train was scheduled to pull into the station, which allowed us plenty of time to orient ourselves to the train schedule and system, so we felt comfortable knowing our train when it arrived. It was a few minutes late but clearly marked, and we had no issues boarding and were soon on our way to the airport to retrieve our rental car. 

I expected an issue with our card trying to pay for parking, but everything worked flawlessly, and we were soon on the road to our following country, France!  

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