Spain

Andalucía Parte Dos: The Sizzling City of Sevilla

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No trip to Southern Spain is complete without visiting Andalucía's capital city of Sevilla. It is the perfect blend of city life with laid back country charm and "real Spanish culture." To give you an idea of "culture" this is where flamenco originates and perhaps where you'll find the best tapas culture. While Barcelona gets the popular vote, Sevilla gets the cool vote. A trip to Sevilla might even have you contemplating a move to Spain! Regardless, I recommend spending a few days here, 3 or 4, but it's easy to stay longer. The best way to get around is on foot although there is a metro system if you need it. Stay in a central neighborhood and you definitely won't have to worry about taking public transportation. Sevilla is also well-connected by train and plane making this place a no-brainer. Here is what you cannot miss in this fantastic city!

Plaza de San Francisco

Plaza de San Francisco

WHAT TO SEE & DO:

Real Alcázar - If you only see one thing in Sevilla, let this royal Muslim palace be it. The Moorish architecture is spectacular so be sure to take your time wandering through all the different rooms, patios, etc. End your visit with a stroll through the expansive gardens.

Cathedral & Giralda - Perhaps the largest Christian church in the world, this one is not to miss, even if churches aren't your thing. Be sure to climb to the top of the Giralda (bell tower) for a view of the cathedral below and take a stroll through the Patio de los Naranjos (orange trees). Do not attempt this in the same day as the Alcázar, too much sensory overload!

Plaza de San Francisco & Plaza Nueva - I always recommend visiting a city's main square. In Sevilla this is it. Come here to find your bearings (and crowds).  

Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza - Another highlight of this delightful city is the famous bull ring where it all began. Despite the sad fate of the bull, the culture and history behind this tradition is fascinating. I recommend taking a brief tour which is super informative and makes you appreciate the art and the talent of the matador. Bullfighting season takes place March/April to late September incase you want to brave it. 

Plaza de España & Parque de Maria Luisa - If you're looking to escape the crowds head to this square and the tranquil park surrounding it. You can walk, bike, snooze, take a rowboat through some canals, tour the building or do it all. Perfect for siesta time.

Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria - This emotional style of music and dance is best appreciated at a performance in an intimate setting where you can feel the stomp of the dancer's feet. This cultural center is a great place to do just that. Reserve tickets in advance.

Shopping - Lastly, if you're looking to do a little shopping (antique fans, Flamenco dresses or a sombrero make excellent souvenirs) take a stroll down Calle Sierpes. For shopping of the food variety, visit Mercado de la Encarnación. This modern, mushroom-shaped structure with multiple food stalls is hard to miss. 

Adorable buildings...white with yellow trim everywhere!

Adorable buildings...white with yellow trim everywhere!

Main courtyard of the Alcázar

Main courtyard of the Alcázar

Outside the bull ring

Outside the bull ring

Flamenco show at Casa de la Memoria

Flamenco show at Casa de la Memoria

WHERE TO EAT:

El Rinconcillo - Your typical old-school tapas bar and the oldest in the city. Come here for a snack before dinner and be prepared to elbow your way to the bar. But it's so worth it. (Calle Gerona, 40)

Bodega Santa Cruz - Another great traditional spot for tapas, especially for montaditos (mini sammies). Located near the Cathedral and a popular spot for lunch. Again, be prepared to use those elbows to get to the bar. (Calle Rodrigo Caro, 1A)

Casa Morales - Yet another delicious traditional tapas near the Cathedral. They have some larger plates as well (also good to share) that are very worth trying like pig knuckle and beef cheek with rice. Surprisingly super yummy. (Calle García de Vinuesa, 11)

La Brunilda - Delicious, creative tapas in a more modern setting. Located near the bull ring, it's perfect for lunch after your tour. (Calle Galera, 5)

NOTE: Tapas are great for just a snack or an entire meal. If you're looking to fill up, do as the locals do and hop from tapas bar to tapas bar trying various delights. Wash them down with some sherry, vino or a caña of beer and you've got yourself a perfect meal (pretty inexpensive too but not all all cheap on culture).

Such a fun tapas bar!

Such a fun tapas bar!

WHERE TO SLEEP: 

Hotel Alfonso XIII (Calle San Fernando, 2) or Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza (Plaza Jesús de la Redención, 2) if you're looking to splurge. The former is as grand and luxurious as they come, located in a historic building worth visiting even if you aren't staying there and the latter is your traditional whitewashed townhouse with a stylish rooftop terrace & pool and a quaint cobblestone courtyard that's tough to pass up. 

Hotel Casa 1800 if you're looking to save a bit but not give up on style. Decor in this boutique hotel is rustic & more traditional with a splash of luxury. Like its other location in Granada, this place won't disappoint and gets excellent reviews. (Calle Rodrigo Caro, 6)

NOTE: In addition to the traditional hotel stay, an Airbnb rental is also a wonderful option. Look for a place in barrio (neighborhood) Santa Cruz or El Centro, preferably with a balcony and you will actually enjoy times spent in the apartment!

P.S. One more thing worth mentioning. Don't forget a day or half-day trip to Ronda to visit the famous bridge, Puente Nuevo. The teeny tiny town is also filled with cute places for lunch but beware of the siesta hours...this place follows them strictly and you'll find that not much will be open during those hours! But if it's good enough for the former first lady and her daughter then it's good enough for you and me :) Buen Viaje!

Puente Nuevo bridge in Ronda

Puente Nuevo bridge in Ronda

Entrance to the Alcázar

Entrance to the Alcázar

Another beautiful courtyard in the Alcázar

Another beautiful courtyard in the Alcázar

Charming interior of the Alcázar

Charming interior of the Alcázar

Hallways inside the Alcázar

Hallways inside the Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

The Alcázar

Intricate detail inside the Alcázar

Intricate detail inside the Alcázar

The gardens of the Alcázar

The gardens of the Alcázar

Andalucía Parte Uno: The Captivating Towns of Córdoba & Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

Blossoming orange trees. Sizzling flamenco. Breathtaking Moorish architecture. Narrow streets adorned with colorful flowers. Warm sunshine. Tapas, tapas and more tapas. I could go on all day about the wonders of this beautiful region in Southern Spain that is not to be missed. While a stop in Sevilla, the capital city of Andalucía, is a given be sure not to overlook some of the smaller towns like Córdoba and Granada which are known for their interesting Islamic history. A night or two in each is all you'll need (save most of your visit for Sevilla since it is a larger city). Fortunately, the high-speed train easily connects Madrid to Sevilla and even Córdoba. To reach Granada, it's a short drive or bus ride through the pleasant countryside. 

The town of Córdoba is rather small and very relaxed. I don't mean this in a bad way but there isn't a whole lot to do here so one night should be sufficient provided you arrive early enough to have the full day to explore. Just two hours away by car or bus and nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is the scenic town of Granada. Relatively speaking, it is similar in size to Córdoba, maybe a little bigger, but has a more hippy vibe thanks to the many gypsies that reside in the hills. There is a bit more to do here so I recommend two nights so you can spend one day touring the spectacular Alhambra and one day wandering town soaking in the culture or hiking the mountains. 

Here's my list of what not to miss in these towns:

CÓRDOBA

  • The great beauty of the Mezquita. This structure was once a mosque from the days this region was under Muslim rule. It has since been converted to a Roman Catholic church and although the minarets became bell towers, the Islamic architecture remains.
  • The picturesque streets of La Judería. Also known as the Jewish Quarter, this area is filled with heaps of instagram-worthy shots of narrow, quaint paths, and windows decorated with blooming flower boxes. Be prepared to get lost, in a good way.  
  • A caña or two at Bar Correo. When you need a break from roaming the streets of the Jewish quarter, stop at this tiny spot for a beer or two. You know you're at the right place when you see loads of locals congregating outdoors enjoying their midday siesta.
Orange trees outside the Mezquita in Córdoba

Orange trees outside the Mezquita in Córdoba

GRANADA

  • A breathtaking visit to the Alhambra. The Moorish architecture of this old Islamic fortress composed of royal palaces, courtyards, gardens, military buildings, and a fortified wall is simply spectacular. This place is huge (you can easily spend an entire day wandering the grounds) so it's best to have a plan of what you want to see. Don't miss the Palacios Nazaríes, which is a timed entry but the highlight of the entire complex. Tickets can be purchased online but they book up months in advance so be sure to plan ahead.
  • An authentic hammam experience at Al Andalus*. Enter the dimly/candle-lit rooms adorned with beautiful tiles and intricate mosaics, sip on some herbal tea or fruit-infused water and soak in the Arabian baths of varying temperature (first warm, then hot, then cold...it's wonderful for the detox pathways). Even the locker rooms are relaxing and luxurious with heated tile floors. Upgrade to the package with a massage, you won't regret it. Reservations a must, but can be easily arranged through their website.
  • Bocadillos and boquerones at Bodega La Mancha. This place is conveniently on the way up to the Alhambra, so you can take your sandwiches to go and snack on the way.
  • Aperitivo and tapas at La Tana. The wine list is long and the snacks tasty. This cozy tavern is tiny and fills up quick, so arrive early to grab a seat at the bar.
  • Modern tapas and larger plates at La Botillería. Pretty casual, comfy atmosphere and some of the best food in town. Don't miss out on the oxtail and ham knuckle, which are phenomenal. Conveniently located around the corner from La Tana.

*A note about the baths: they are public but don't worry-- there are rules in place that everyone actually follows so guests can have a pleasant experience (i.e. everyone must wear a swimsuit, whisper quietly, no phones/cameras, etc). It is so worth venturing a little outside of your comfort zone though for the unique experience.

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

WHERE TO STAY

In Córdoba, the boutique hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío, a restored old mansion with a beautiful courtyard, swimming pool & spa, is a lovely choice. Each guest receives a complimentary session relaxing in the Roman baths so don't forget your swimsuit!

The lush courtyard of the hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío in Córdoba

The lush courtyard of the hotel Hospes Palacio del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

Hospes del Bailío in Córdoba

And in Granada, you can either splurge on the stylish lux hotel Hospes Palacio de los Patos which, similar to its sister hotel in Córdoba, is located in an old palace OR you can save some euro (more for tapas!) and go with the Hotel Casa 1800, a tasteful boutique hotel centrally-located in a 17th century building. The complimentary soft drinks, snacks and afternoon tea was a nice touch. Upgrade to the suite if you can and you'll be blown away by all the space.

The courtyard/tea room at Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

The courtyard/tea room at Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Hotel Casa 1800 in Granada

Enjoy the rest of the photos and stay tuned for Parte Dos, which will be all about the city of Sevilla!

Buen viaje :)


Buildings in Córdoba

Buildings in Córdoba

The Mezquita in Córdoba

The Mezquita in Córdoba

Entrance to the Mezquita in Córdoba

Entrance to the Mezquita in Córdoba

Narrow streets of La Judería in Córdoba

Narrow streets of La Judería in Córdoba

Plaza de las Tendillas in Córdoba

Plaza de las Tendillas in Córdoba

Buildings in Córdoba

Buildings in Córdoba

A fun spot for a beer in Córdoba

A fun spot for a beer in Córdoba

The Cathedral of Granada

The Cathedral of Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Gypsy caves in Granada

Part of the Alhambra in Granada

Part of the Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

One of the many courtyards in the Alhambra in Granada

One of the many courtyards in the Alhambra in Granada

Incredible detail in the Alhambra in Granada

Incredible detail in the Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada

Views of the Sierra Nevadas from the Alhambra in Granada

Views of the Sierra Nevadas from the Alhambra in Granada

Views of Granada from the Alhambra

Views of Granada from the Alhambra

A Quick Stopover in Madrid

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Those taking un viaje to España, listen up: the capital city is not one to skip. Yeah, yeah, I know you have other places to be but trust me on this one, you will not regret a night or two in Madrid. Actually, it's more likely you'll be wishing you stayed longer! Madrid is a perfect blend of bustling metropolis with cool, vibrant culture that gives Spain its flair. If you fly Spain's national carrier, Iberia, it's an easy, direct flight and then you'll have an opportunity to relax on the Renfe Ave (aka the high-speed train)* to get to your next destination. While there are muchos activities to keep you ocupado for days in this ciudad, here's a list of 5 things you can do if you're only there a short time but want to experience some of the local culture:

  1. Soak in the grand surroundings in Plaza Mayor. This expansive space is a busy and often touristy area but no better way to get the taste of a city by visiting its most central square. Not to mention it also helps you get your bearings. 
  2. Hang with the locals at an authentic tapas bar. There's nothing more typical of Spain than its small plates culture. Bodega de la Ardosa is a popular traditional spot packed full of locals and visitors alike all socializing, imbibing and filling their bellies. (Calle de Colón, 13)
  3. Indulge in some churros con chocolate. Centrally-located Chocolatería San Ginés has been serving these delights forever and it's always a solid choice to end your evening. (Pasadizo San Ginés, 5)
  4. Skip the sangria and opt for some local craft beer instead. Spain actually drinks a lot more beer than you'd expect and chill places like Fábrica Maravillas are doing a great job with their craft brews. (Calle de Valverde, 29)
  5. Take a siesta in Parque del Retiro. What's the point of a vacay in Spain without embracing the midday rest? With dinner not starting until 9p or even later, you're gonna need it and this beautiful park is a wonderful place to relax.

Need a place to rest your head? Do it in style at the perfectly-located, beautiful Principal Hotel. Rooms are elegant and comfy and best of all you are welcomed with a glass of cava to enjoy on the rooftop terrace that looks down on the bustling Gran Vía. (Calle Marqués de Valdeiglesias, 1)

*NOTE (from experience, unfortunately): Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to go through security at the train station and get to your platform which closes its doors 5min prior to departure. You'll also want some time to watch the turtles frolic in the indoor tropical sanctuary. You're welcome. Adiós!

5 Tips on Traveling by Train in Europe

Okay so I thought it might be helpful if I took a break from writing about all the glorious destinations I've visited to provide you with a little info on train travel in Europe. It's the easiest way to travel within Europe and an essential part of getting around so you're likely to be taking one on your next trip and trips thereafter. Here are 5 tips I put together, from experience, that should make your planning process go a little smoother. AND will help you save some money. Knowledge is power, right?

  1. Do not use sites like Rail Europe or The Train Line. Please. They are 3rd party sites that sell you valid tickets, yes, but they often mark up the prices to make a profit. While they take care of the legwork for you and are easier to navigate, it's not that difficult to do it on your own through the National train company directly and you'll save some money. All you need is do a little research (which luckily I've done for you), have some patience and you're guaranteed to get the cheapest fare. I put together a list of train companies in Europe and which countries they are based in (see below). Once you arrive on the site, just look for a little British flag or "EN" in the top right corner to switch the language to English if it is not already the default language. NOTE: You will most likely have to pay in local currency, but even after the exchange rate you're still saving money.
  2. Rail passes (Eurail, Interrail) really only make sense if you plan on backpacking through Europe and moving around A LOT. Even so they aren't necessarily the best option. Personally, I've never found the need for a rail pass and they've always been more expensive than buying individual tickets. If you've had experience saving money on a rail pass, please comment below and let me know!
  3. High-speed trains, which bring you between major cities, should be booked as far in advance as possible. These trains have a tendency to sell out especially during peak season. Advance purchase will ensure you're getting the train/time you want for the best price. Tickets usually go on sale 3-6 months in advance, depending on the train. If the site says something along the lines of "no trains found for this date" it is likely because it is too early to book and they have not released the schedules yet. Just keep checking back and you'll get it.
  4. Commuter or local trains cannot be booked in advance. Most, if not all, go on sale the day of. These are the trains that usually bring you from major cities to smaller towns and do not have assigned seats. They are similar to what the Commuter Rail is to Bostonians, the LIRR is to New Yorkers, etc. If you try to book a ticket in advance for a train that utilizes the commuter train system, you will likely not be able to go through with the transaction. NOTE: Even if only part of your journey includes a commuter train, you will probably not be able to purchase the ticket in advance. In this case, you should purchase the high-speed leg only and then on the day of travel you can purchase the commuter leg.
  5. With several budget airlines operating in Europe sometimes you can find cheaper airfare than train fare, but before you jump on that plane think about a few things. While the flight is likely shorter in duration than your train journey, you should factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, check in, drop bags, go through security, etc. as well as what it costs to get to/from the airport on both ends. Also, airports tend to be quite a ways outside the city while train stations will bring you directly to the city center where you can connect to other modes of transportation if needed. Not to mention, trains are often times a nicer, more comfortable experience and you get to see some pretty scenery out your window. The only case flying would make more sense is if you're looking to cover a decent chunk of mileage or if you would need to hop on/off a bunch of trains to reach your destination (i.e. Naples, Italy to Nice, France).

LIST OF NATIONAL TRAIN COMPANIES

NOTE: these companies are based in the countries mentioned but some connect you to other countries. That should not affect your search or pricing. Also, when the site lists all the train options for your route, make sure to check the number of connections and duration, which are always stated, to make sure you're getting as direct and quick a route as possible. If you don't see your country listed, please let me know.

Renfe - Spain (the high speed train is referred to as the AVE)

SNCF - France (the high speed train is referred to as the TGV)

Trenitalia - Italy (the high speed train is referred to as Le Frecce)

CP - Portugal

SNCB - Belgium

CFL - Luxembourg

Thalys - The Netherlands

Eurostar - England to/from Paris and Brussels only

National Rail - within the UK

Irish Rail - Ireland

DB Bahn - Germany (the high speed train is referred to as the ICE)

OBB - Austria

SBB - Switzerland

CD - Czech Republic

MAV - Hungary

HZPP - Croatia

DSB - Denmark

SJ - Sweden

So there you have it and you should be good to go. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to comment below. Lastly, don't forget to validate/stamp your ticket in the machines on the train platform. High speed tickets purchased online in advance don't need it, but any ticket purchased the day of at the station or from a machine needs a stamp or you can face some harsh fines onboard. Happy traveling :)