Our Spanish vacation kicked off in Madrid. It's a big city. And like most big cities, it offers some amazing sites, scattered among a sprawl of people, buildings, and daily activity. This was going to be three days of running around and seeing as much of Spain's capital as possible, while taking time to enjoy the food and people.
There's only one place to stay in Madrid - the Westin Palace, Dittman's Hotel of the Year in 2014
. The service was exceptional, from the lavish breakfast under a stained-glass dome, to complimentary coffee service each afternoon. And its location, close to the Prado museum, made it easy to get around the major sites.
I'll admit, I didn't really fall in love with Madrid. I guess big cities take longer to get under your skin. But I will say that the major attractions are well worth it. From El Greco and Goya in the Prado, to the beautifully laid out apartments in the Royal Palace, the history and glamour of Madrid was well presented. A tour of Las Ventas Bullring gave us an insight into the pageantry and meaning of a traditional bullfight. I chuckled to myself as others on my tour began with an open distaste for the "cruelty" of bullfighting....and an hour later were asking the guide where they could go to eat bull's tail!
The highlight of Madrid came in the evenings, during the "Paseo", as locals and tourists alike stroll through the streets, stopping at tapas bars and outdoor restaurants, enjoying the night air. Among the wonderful food, we most enjoyed a "tapas crawl" along Calle de Jesus, stopping at a few of the local watering holes. At each bar, we ordered a small beer, which came along with a free "tapa" (some olives, a few slices of ham), then chose a couple of small plates that were the specialty of the house. At one, it was shrimp on toast; another it was octopus salad, or ham; and so on. Once the drink was done, we moved to the next bar....each one with tastier tapa than the last!
Day four took us to Toledo for an overnight stay. The charming the hill-top city has winding streets, and a magnificent cathedral. The self-guided cathedral tour took us two hours - there was so much to see - and we were fortunate to experience an impromptu concert from an Australian choir that happened to be touring at the same time. As a kid, growing up in England, Marzipan was a special treat at Christmas, so I was thrilled to discover that the sweet dough originates from Toledo..and it was on sale everywhere! Apparently, it's traditionally made in convents throughout the city, and sure enough, we tiptoed into San Antonio's to buy some directly from the nuns.
Getting around southern Spain is made easy by the excellent high-speed rail service - it's a convenient way to get from A to B, and see something of the countryside in between. The stations themselves in Madrid and Toledo are architectural wonders, and worthy of a photo or two as well.
We finished our spanish adventure in Sevilla - home to passionate Flamenco dancing, a fascinating old town, and birthplace of the fiercest bulls and bravest toreadors (or so we were told). Sevilla is a great walking town, with plenty of pedestrian-only areas, and winding streets to explore. We started with a tour of the Alcazar, a beautiful moorish-style palace, like no other royal palace I've seen. It feels as though you've crossed over to North Africa, with intricate latticework and mosaics in every direction.
Sevilla also boasts the third largest Cathedral in Europe (bettered only by Rome and London), housing the tomb of Christopher Columbus, and with the imposing Giralda bell tower. But we really fell in love with the narrow alleys of the Santa Cruz district. Wandering these streets, we discovered small plazas with fountains and statues, and intricate tile work around every corner. Taking a long lunch in the Plaza del Dona Elvira was a wonderful way to relax and enjoy the atmosphere of Sevilla.
Just as in Madrid, the evenings were special. The Sevillanos dress up for the evening walk around town - and the buildings themselves look magnificent, lit from every angle. One night, we went to Casa del Flamenco to sample the local dancing, but really just walking the streets was entertainment enough. And with plenty of outside tables in Santa Cruz, tapas was again the food of choice for dinner.
It was tough to leave Sevilla, but we promised ourselves - as we always do - that we'll be back. Spain was a warm and welcoming destination - great food, friendly people, and easy to get around. What more could you ask for?