Since I was old enough to understand a map, I have always wanted to go to Spain.
Its Mediterranean climate was part of its initial attraction as a kid growing up in a state with brutal winters. But as I grew older and studied Spanish, I knew that the country’s rich history, culture and cuisine were also reasons to visit.
This year, I finally got my wish. After a too-quick visit to Madrid in the spring, I couldn’t wait to return to explore more of this beautiful country with a group of Pioneer Press readers.
And the country, the people, the food? All were as wonderful as I had hoped, and made all the better by visiting with a new group of readers who are now friends.
We visited seven cities in 12 days, giving us a great sample of the southern region of the country. Here’s the rundown on what we saw, ate and experienced.
Days one and two: Madrid
After an uneventful overnight flight, we arrived in Spain’s capital, which is also its most populous city. Our room in the fabulous Riu Plaza Espana wasn’t quite ready yet, so my husband and I decided to wander around.
Because of the hotel’s central location, it was an easy stroll to Plaza Mayor, the city’s historic central square, where I had spent time people-watching and drinking cortados (the official coffee drink of Spain — espresso with a splash of hot milk) on my last visit.
It was as beautiful as I remembered, and we were glad to sit in the abundant sunshine and share our first of many jamon (ham) sandwiches, or bocadillos.
That evening, it was an early — by Spanish standards, they generally don’t eat until 9 or 10 p.m. — welcome dinner at Harry and Sally’s (yes, it’s named for the movie), just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel.
We filled the postage-stamp-sized restaurant, where they served us wine and a seemingly never-ending stream of tapas: Fresh, juicy pink tomatoes, kissed with sea salt and cumin, out-of-this-world house-made pastrami spiked with fresh anchovies, wild mushrooms topped with a poached egg, tender, braised calamari and a rich beef cheek for each of us. We ended with the best rice pudding I’ve ever tasted and the house vermut, which is vermouth, yes, but so much better than the Martini and Rossi versions you’ve used to make martinis or Manhattans. These fortified wines are everywhere in Spain, and they’re complex and usually dark in color — though this, which might have been my favorite of the trip, was white.
Though we really needed sleep, we decided to head up to the rooftop bar/restaurant of our hotel, which we had heard has one of the best views of Madrid. That rumor was true. We found a spot on a couch, sipped some wine and beer and peered at the city lights splayed out before us. Then it was time for bed, as our tour was set to start in earnest the next morning, for one of my favorite parts of the Madrid tour.
Day three: Madrid
I didn’t get a chance to visit what is probably Spain’s most famous art museum — The Prado — during my spring trip, so I was thrilled that it was on this tour’s itinerary.
One of the things I love best about Collette tours is that you don’t just get let loose in a huge museum. You get a guide who shows you a selection of pieces and interprets them for you.
Our local guide, whose complicated Spanish name loosely translates to Snow, was an absolute wealth of colorful knowledge who showed us most of the must-see paintings by Velazquez, Goya and Greco, including the utterly fascinating and fabulous black paintings from Goya, to which an entire room is dedicated. But the first painting we saw, Tintoretto’s “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet,” absolutely blew our minds. Tintoretto painted the work in such a way that depending on where you are standing, the perspective completely changes. People and objects that seem flat or in the background jump to the fore when you take a few steps and look again. I could have stared at that work all day.
After that, we were on our own for lunch and made our way to El Cisne Azul, a little neighborhood restaurant that my traveling companions had heard about that specializes in wild mushrooms.
There are just a few tables, but we were the first to arrive (Americans also eat lunch far earlier than Spaniards) so scoring one wasn’t an issue.
I couldn’t tell you the names of all the mushrooms we consumed, but I can tell you that they were properly prepared — sauteed until they got that perfect little caramelization and crisp that makes mushrooms irresistible to those of us who love them. We got a plate of mixed mushrooms topped with a soft egg, a full plate of meaty boletus mushrooms, which our fabulous tour guide David Sanchez said were in season at the moment, a plate of scallops, served in their shells, and a properly seasoned and seared rosy, beefy ribeye to share. The walk back to the hotel was a welcome thing, especially because we had a big dinner coming up.
After a quick siesta, a Spanish tradition I can definitely get behind, we met many of our fellow travelers for a walk through Madrid and a group dinner at Los Galayos, a traditional Spanish restaurant just a few steps from Plaza Mayor.
I was skeptical that the suckling pig could beat the one I tried in the spring at Botin, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world, which happens to be a few blocks away, but honestly, the shatteringly crisp skin and meltingly tender meat were a half-step up, in my opinion. As we noshed on an endless train of tapas, delivered before that pig (or lamb or salmon, depending on what diners chose), a tuna, or band of traditional Spanish street musicians, entertained us.
After dinner, the smart thing to do would have been to go back to the hotel and get some sleep, but a merry band of us were not quite ready to do so. I had been introduced to the wonders of Spanish sherry on my last visit to Madrid and was eager to find a place that specialized in it.
Sanchez and Google both recommended La Venencia, a sherry-only spot that offered sample sizes, so we set off.
The long, narrow space was full of young people (yup, sherry is hip in Spain) enjoying little glasses of the carefully oxidized wine. No photos are allowed, so I only have a shot of the outside, but we eventually scored a table and sampled a manzanilla, or white, sherry, an amontillado and a darker sherry, the name of which escapes me. In any case, most of us enjoyed the nutty, rich amontillado the best, and it was fun to taste and see the different types of sherry, many of which are hard, if not impossible, to find in the United States.
Day Four: Madrid and Toledo
First thing in the morning, we hopped on our clean, comfy coach and headed to Toledo.
This gorgeously preserved city was the capital of medieval Spain until 1560, and still maintains the craft of creating swords and other metal work, including beautiful medallions made of gold and silver inlaid into Damascus steel. Our first stop was at a factory that produces both, and after watching masters pound out blades and inlay medallions, I had to get a medallion for myself and one for my daughter.
Inside the city limits, we toured the Cathedral of St. Mary, a magnificent gothic building with an interior full of impressive carvings, paintings and an enormous, gilded backdrop to the altar that contains scenes from the Bible brought to life in 3-D sculpture and set in gold inlay frames. It is at once garish and beautiful and the sort of thing I could stare at for days.
That night, we returned to Madrid and wandered over to the San Miguel Market, a former food market turned food hall in a gorgeous, glass and cast-iron building, where we battled the crowds and sampled a variety of fun sangrias, some killer empanadas and a bunch of fresh seafood dishes, including little crostinis topped with roasted peppers and anchovies, which was hands-down our favorite tapas of the night.
After, we wandered to nearby Plaza Mayor for a nightcap and a plate of excellent fried eggplant, drizzled with honey, before a relatively early bedtime, because the next day it was time to hit the road again.
Day Five: Cordoba and Seville
About half of the group opted to upgrade to the extremely slick high-speed train, which meant we arrived in Cordoba a few hours before the rest of the group, who traveled by bus.
We were given a quick orientation, then set free to explore this former Roman settlement, which was occupied by Muslims from 711 A.D. until 1236, when Ferdinand III and his Catholic Castille-based empire raided the city and took over the government, and the mosque — more on that later.
We chose to walk across the stunning Roman bridge that crosses the Guadalquivir River, to get a better view of the town and peep some Roman ruins along the river.
We had lunch at El Churrasco, a restaurant recommended by our local guide. We had to sample the local version of gazpacho, which is infused with bread, blended until smooth and topped with chopped bacon and hard-boiled eggs. Our server insisted that we use the gazpacho as a topping for yet another round of fried eggplant — I seriously could not get enough of it in Spain — and it was delicious. We also noshed on fresh clams and prawns, all washed down with a local white wine.
Then it was time to meet up with the rest of the tour and see the inside of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, which is a fascinating, gorgeous piece of history.
First, when the mosque was built in the 700s, the Muslims building it repurposed a gaggle of Roman columns, adding their own signature red-brick-and-white-stucco arches to the top of them. When the Catholics took over, instead of tearing down the mosque as was done in so many places in Spain, they instead converted the building into a cathedral.
Over the years, a massive altar, choir stalls, chapels and more were added to the structure, but much of the stunning original architecture remains. It’s quirky and beautiful, and worth getting a local guide to explain to you as you tour. Each little nook and cranny tells a different historical tale.
After, we got a walking tour of the city’s well-preserved Jewish quarter, also filled with fascinating religious history. It was especially fun to watch all the tourists touch the feet, book and beard of a bronze statue of Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, which many of us also did after our guide told us it was for good luck.
That night, we settled into our hotel in Seville before heading to a local restaurant for another delicious array of tapas, including house-made chorizo and the best pan con tomate of the trip — the addition of an aged cheese put it over the top for me.
A small group of us decided to take a detour on the way home, through the center of town, where we had a drink at one of the bars beneath The Mushrooms of Seville, a funky, modern wooden statue that looks like — you guessed it! — mushrooms. It claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world, and is lit up with colored lights at night, making for some pretty great photos.
Day Six: Seville
There were two choices for us this day, but Sanchez strongly recommended a walking tour of the city over a boat ride around the city, suggesting that we would see much more on foot.
We wandered through the winding, medieval Santa Cruz Quarter, which is lousy with fragrant orange trees and pretty white houses, all with charming indoor courtyards that you can sometimes see from the street. It also features the street Calle de los Besos, so named because the street is narrow enough that people on opposing balconies could kiss.
We also visited the impressive, sprawling Plaza De Espana, built in 1929 for the Ibero-American exhibition of 1929, and the pretty Parque de Maria Louisa adjacent to it. The park is full of beautiful water features, and therefore absolutely crawling with birds, including swans, red-masked muscovy ducks and the green parrots that chatter loudly throughout much of the southern part of Spain.
And of course, we had to visit the enormous Seville Cathedral, which is the largest Gothic church in the world. It also happens to be the location of Christopher Columbus’ grave. A wee bit of his remains — which our guide explained had been moved many times over the years — are contained within a giant monument of four men, representing the four kingdoms of Spain during the explorer’s life, holding his tomb aloft. My personal feelings about the genocidal historical figure aside, the tomb is impressive in its size and intricate detail.
After an included tapas lunch, which featured some unforgettably delicious beef cheeks, we stopped back at the hotel to freshen up before being treated to a fabulous flamenco show — if you’re in Spain, you have to see one, right? Then a group of us wandered through the city center again, stopping off for snacks and drinks along the way. Eight of us had a round of drinks at one local watering hole for less than $15! I still can’t get over how inexpensive it is to eat and drink in Seville.
Day Seven: Granada
On our way to the former Moorish capital, we stopped at Alhambra, a stone fortress overlooking the city that is one of the most visited places in the country.
The fortress, which is enormous, is a mixture of Spanish Renaissance and Islamic architecture. We had a fascinating guided tour of the grounds, which include the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, where Christopher Columbus signed his expedition contract.
Intricate carvings adorn nearly every wall and ceiling, and soaring pillars and ornate courtyards with running water features abound. It’s truly spectacular, and worth battling crowds for. A word of warning: You must buy tickets to the Alhambra well in advance, and they take your passport number when you do so — all in order to avoid scalpers reselling the tickets for more than face value.
After settling into our hotel, the entire group took a walking tour of the lively city on our way to a few tapas places, where we sampled more fried eggplant — drizzled with what Spaniards call cane sugar and I think is molasses — croquettes, and the best cracked green olives I’ve ever tasted. I called it a night early, though my husband and a few friends went out and met some locals, staying up late and drinking sherry. Suffice it to say, Granada is a fun place that I’m eager to visit again — this part of the tour was too short.
Days Eight and Nine: Valencia
We had a long drive — six hours on the bus — to Valencia, so upon arrival, we wandered around a bit before settling into the hotel for a siesta before freshening up.
For dinner, we knew we would be getting paella made in a fisherman’s hut the next day, but Sanchez had warned us that it would be chicken-based, not seafood.
So Sanchez recommended a place called Flor de Valencia near the hotel for dinner and made reservations for us so that we could try some seafood paella.
The space was lovely and modern, and a giant pan of paella, studded with mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp, was on the table in short order. We scooped rice and scraped the bottom of the pan to get at the coveted soccarat, or caramelized, crispy bits of rice, that were abundant in this preparation.
The next day, we got a bus and walking tour of the city, which is the third-largest in Spain, and is on the country’s eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea. A catastrophic flood of the Turia River in 1957 caused the city to re-route the river outside of the city center, leaving its bed behind. The city wisely filled it with a massive park and the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava. The buildings contained within the park are a stark and dazzling contrast to the historic architecture in the old city.
We also visited the historic silk exchange market and a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a gorgeous example of Gothic architecture, and wandered through the current central market, a full-block-sized enclosure with stalls selling everything from produce to fish to rice, vinegar, spices, nuts, jamon and other Spanish foodstuffs. I was suffering from a little cold, and couldn’t get enough of the sweet, neon orange fresh-squeezed orange juice in Valencia. I stopped and got yet another in the market, but a few in our group instead chose to sample the local alcoholic beverage of choice, Agua de Valencia, which is that fresh-squeezed juice, spiked with gin, vodka and cava sparkling wine.
In the afternoon, one of the most anticipated parts of the tour — going to a fisherman’s hut, known as a barraca, for a paella lunch, did not disappoint.
Our bus passed miles of rice fields, where local bomba rice, used in paella, is grown, before stopping in Albufera, which is where the dish originated.
Parts of the freshwater lagoon have been designated as a wildlife reserve, and the former fishing huts here are now tourist attractions, offering freshly made, traditional paella to guests. We watched as the owner added rice and stock to a giant pan in a hut along the river, then settled into the site’s dining room to await our feast. The paella was unforgettably delicious, and after I told the staff that I was interested in the soccarat, they brought a plate of the crispy bits for us to pass around the table.
After lunch, we got a ride on the small wooden boats that putter around the lagoon, peeping the abundant tall grasses, birds and sea-green water. It was a relaxing end to a fantastic morning and afternoon.
That evening, we took a sunset stroll along the Valencia beach and sampled some of that delicious Agua de Valencia before stopping at an adorable tapas bar near our hotel for a cheese plate, some roasted vegetables and a crisp Verdejo.
Days 10 and 11: Barcelona
The next morning, it was back on the bus to travel about four hours to Barcelona, the final stop on this magical tour.
Upon arrival, we were set loose to wander around the city, and we chose to check out the narrow, historic streets of the Gothic Quarter, which was not far from our centrally located hotel.
We had a fabulous tapas lunch — including some local cava, which is the thing to drink in Barcelona — at a little spot on the edge of the quarter, and across the street from the whimsical Palau de la Musica, a famed concert hall built in the early 1900s.
Then we strolled about a half hour to the water, where we took in the sights of the harbor and crossed the bridge to the beach. It was sort of late in the day, so the beachgoers were packing up. We took our shoes off and walked to the water, just to put our feet in the Mediterranean Sea.
Four of us had dinner reservations at Cal Pep, a renowned tapas restaurant in the heart of the city. By far my favorite meal of the trip, we noshed on rich, nutty jamon iberico, sliced paper thin, tuna tartare, clams cooked with more ham, a mixed seafood platter, a slightly soft, incredibly flavorful Spanish tortilla, fried artichokes and foie gras sausage and white beans. We asked for a digestif after that giant meal, and were served the herbaceous orujo, which was strong and tasty and settled our full stomachs somewhat. We welcomed the walk back to our hotel. On the way, we ran into a few people from the tour, who were finishing up dinner. The waitstaff invited us to an opulent, underground speakeasy where we had some (very American-priced) craft cocktails before heading to bed.
In the morning, we had more free time to explore, so my husband and I set out for the food market in town, where we marveled at the pretty stalls, tried a Spanish burrito (weird) and purchased sherry vinegar, saffron and olive oil to bring home.
We also toured Palau Guell, a mansion designed by Barcelona’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudi. The interior of the house had a lot of fun details, but the rooftop, which is covered in whimsical, tree-like statues, is the real treat.
That afternoon, we toured Gaudi’s most famous work, La Sagrada Familia, a basilica that remains unfinished, nearly 100 years after the architect’s death. Work continues on the outside of the towering, whimsical structure, but the inside is fully finished and breathtaking. I could barely hold back tears as we entered the soaring interior, filled with stone columns and arches that meet an ornate, gilded ceiling. Enormous stained glass windows paint the structure with rainbow-colored light, which changes depending on the time of day. I still can’t stop thinking about this magnificent building. If you are lucky enough to get the chance, go.
A panoramic bus tour followed, and after driving past a lot of Barcelona’s most famous attractions, we were taken to the Palau Nacional, the national art museum on a hill on the edge of town. We marveled at the cityscape, including La Sagrada Familia, still impressive from afar, and took lots of pictures.
Our farewell dinner, at a restaurant a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, featured, yup, tapas, including patatas bravas, croquettes, gyoza and entrees of our choice, the best of which was a rosy, beefy steak, sprinkled with crystally salt and served with fries, possibly the first I had seen in Spain.
It was a lovely meal with a lovely group of people, all of whom got to know each other a little better while surrounded with great food and drinks and a lot of magnificent history.
Interested in traveling with Jess?
Our next tour, to Southern Italy and Sicily in the spring, is sold out, so don’t delay in signing up for our fall 2023 trip to the French Riviera!
Join me for nine days in this sun-soaked region of France, where we will stay in beautiful Nice while visiting Monaco, Cannes, St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and more. We’ll embark on tasting tours, visit a perfume workshop, a wine tasting and much more. And of course, I’ll write a story about it when the tour is over, giving you a unique memento.
This tour is great for those who like to set up a home base while traveling, because we stay in the same hotel the entire time.
Join us for a Zoom presentation on the trip, at 4 p.m. Feb. 9, or wait until April 3, when we will do it again, in person, time and place TBA.