Category Archives: Outside Madrid

Monasterio de El Escorial: Renaissance Monastery of Spain

imageMust be that everyone I know gushes about how the Monasterio de El Escorial is no ordinary monastery, and friends who’d been there were egging me to no end to make that day trip and see it myself.

Indeed, not a bit about it is ordinary, but instead, everything is simply fascinating when last week I finally visited the place.

It took 21 long years to complete this 16th-century edifice, sprawling on a vast expanse of land within the San Lorenzo de Escorial Town. I’m guessing it covers an area equivalent to a few city blocks.

Without a doubt, El Escorial is such a magnificent monument, both inside and out. Not only is it a monastery, but a palace as well, and one fit for the King of Spain no less.

El Escorial is a prime example of how grand the Spanish Renaissance era was. Pomp and lavishness are apparent in its interior, which is expected since it was a royal residence. It is complete with the friars’ garden, museum, hundreds of regal rooms, a spacious courtyard, reliquaries, and even a school. I thought its biblioteca real (library) is really impressive – the interior seems to glow because of its golden ceiling.

Suffice it to say, San Lorenzo de El Escorial is the perfect day trip destination, not only because of its incredible monastery but also because the town is just 45 kilometers from the capital city of Madrid. If only for its proximity, you must consider it for your next exciting Spanish adventure.

1. Mount Abantos, the town, and the Monastery

The location of the monastery is calming, like the town itself, and the whole setting is like a quiet and rustic countryside. The mountains are towering heaps of nature, particularly Abantos of the Sierra de Guadarrama. Abantos seems to look beyond the town and into the monastery. The town, the mountains nearby, and the many places of interest, including the monastery itself, make San Lorenzo de El Escorial an ideal place of retreat.
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2. Monastery, West Portion

The western facade of the monastery of El Escorial. Going through this side will immediately bring you to the Courtyard of the Judah Kings and the Basilica Real.
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3. Royal Basilica and the Courtyard of the Kings

I peer through the arch column to marvel at the basilica and the Patio de los Reyes, must-see sections of the monastery. The church is decorated with a number of sculptures of saints, biblical figures, and kings, and other valuable religious items, all of which are creations of Spanish and European Renaissance artists.
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4. Old Testament Kings

Looking down the patio are the six sculptures representing the Kings of Judah or Old Testament Rulers, standing on the upper middle portion of the basilica’s facade.
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5. Royal Basilica, Interior

Many of the church’s sculptures, paintings, and other works of art are created by renowned artists from Spain and other European countries.
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6. The Pantheon

This part of the palace houses the sepulchers that contain the remains of the Spanish Royalties, such as the kings from the Bourbon dynasties.
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7. The Magnificent Palace Gardens

Philip II instructed the creation of a vast garden, which served as a place to soothe the mind. Not only did he care for the gardens, but everything inside the monastery as well.  He was a patron of the Renaissance and so he commissioned the palace decorator to fill the place with thousands of impressive works of art.
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8. The Monastery’s Garden Pond

Beside the Palace Garden is the pond, the sight of which is breathtaking. Needless to say, all the features of the monastery contributed to making it as the most important monument in the San Lorenzo de El Escorial Town. A major creation of the Renaissance era, it was declared by UNESCO in 1984 as a World Heritage Site.

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9. Casas de Oficios

Near the grounds of the monastery are a series of buildings, called the Casas de Officios or the House of Trades, with narrow streest in between., The town’s tourism office is housed in one of the casas, along Calle Grimaldi, and is across the main entrance of the monastery.
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10. Royal Coliseum of Charles III

El Real Coliseo de Carlos III, at Calle Floridablanca 20, is one of the town’s major centers of arts and performances. Currently, it is a venue for theater acts and concerts. Named after the former Spanish ruler Charles III, it used to be called the Lope de Vega Cinema.
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11. Ayuntamiento de El Escorial

San Lorenzo de El Escorial’s town hall might be small, but it is nonetheless charming. It is located at the Plaza de la Constitucion, where also found are a number of touristy cafes and restaurantes.
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12. Casa de Cultura

The primero Casa de Officio houses the Casa de Cultura of El Escorial. The latter is popular with town residents and tourists who love to participate in an afternoon of cultural activity. Crafts, arts, and cultural events are regularly held here.
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13. Casita del Infante

The Infant´s Little House, also known as the Casita de Arriba, was originally intended as the infant child Gabriel de Bourbon, Carlos III´s brother. It also acted as a music building and was built with a concert room designed in a way that any performance bould be heard both within and outside the building.

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14. Casita del Principe

The facade of La Casita del Principe. Of neoclassical design, it was a recreational building of then Asturias Prince Carlos IV. It later on served as a residence of the king and his royal family in El Escorial during the 19th Century.
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15. Santuario Parroquial de Nuestra Senora de Gracia

The doors of Santuario Parroquial de Nuestra Senora de Gracia were wide open when I got there, which allowed me to have a glimpse of its interior and say my prayers. Resembling a chapel due to its small size, Santuario Parroquial de Nuestra Sra de Gracia is one of the few town churches of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

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How to Go

Go to Moncloa where you can buy tickets on the bus. Take 661 if you want to reach the town via Galapagar; and 664 if you want to pass via Guadarrama. Both 661 and 664 bus tickets to El Escorial costs 4.20 euros. [I intend to take the 664 bus next time since it stops by the gates of The Valley of the Fallen. However, from the gates, be ready to walk some 3 miles to the site, which is more or less an hour].

Entrance

Basic Fee: 10 euros

Visiting days: Everyday except Mondays

Monastery opens at 10AM

Advice: Keep your ticket on hand. Staff at every section of the monastery may require visitors to present their tickets before they are let in. Don’t bring large bags or backpacks if possible; otherwise you will have to keep them in a locker at the cloakroom while touring.

Taking photos is not allowed in El Escorial´s interior areas. Attempting to shoot is a frustrating exercise as staff members are relentless in preventing any stolen shots. As for the above pictures of the cathedral altar and the Pantheon, I borrowed them from my gutsier tour mate.

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Outside Madrid: Toledo Spain [What to See]

imageThe majestic Alcazar (fortress) lording over the whole town of Toledo

You need not travel for hours just to escape the frenzied Madrid crowd and enjoy the quiet of the countryside. For instance, if you want to go to Toledo Spain and wish to experience what the country’s former capital has to offer, you need only less than a hour, or roughly 45 minutes to reach this magnificent hilltop town.

A popular day trip destination, Toledo is a veritable cultural melting pot of sorts if only because it was formed from the influence of three different religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Such influences molded the place into the unique and historically rich town that it is now, as seen thru its Moorish walls and towers, plazas, cathedrals, museums, bridges, and Christian Roman ruins. Consequently, its overflowing uniqueness led UNESCO to declare it as a World heritage site.

imageToledo Cathedral

Toledo is the heart and soul of Spain, being the country’s former premier city, long before Madrid became the current one. This “pueblo” within the Castille La Mancha community sets itself apart from the rest of the region because it drips in so much grandeur and history.

A major Spain attraction like Cordoba and Compostela de Santiago, what makes Toledo a preferred destination is that it requires less travel hours to reach, which means much more time to explore the place.

A marked edge of Toledo is that going there is cheaper especially if you’re from Madrid. Traveling via bus will cost you less than 10 euros if you purchase round trip tickets. Likewise, sites and attractions are near each other. You’d get to walk through the town´s cobbled streets, which can be narrow and confusing – much like a labyrinth — but exciting, nonetheless.

Visit Toledo now, see it, and in no time at all, you will fall in love with this Spanish gem. Explore the town to the fullest, and be ready to add Toledo to your list of favorite Spanish towns.

MOORISH ATTRACTIONS

1. Alcazar de Toledo

This is Toledo´s famous fortress, standing at the highest point of the town. So-called because it was controlled by the town’s ancient conquerors, the Moors. It still maintains a vast military importance to the town.

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2. Puerta de Visagra

Also called Puerta Nueva de Visagra, this imposing monument serves as the gateway to the walled city of Toledo, Castilla La Mancha.

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3. Antiguas Murallas y Torres

The ancient towers and walls that surround Toledo are clear evidences of the Moorish influence on the town.

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4. Puente de San Martin y Rio Tajo

One of the popular town attractions is the San Martin Bridge with its 5 arches, spanning over the historic Tagus River (Tajo Rio). San Martin was a Roman bridge, but was rebuilt by the Moors in 1212.

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5. Iglesia de El Salvador

I’ll include the Church of El Salvador under the Moorish group since it was originally built as a mosque, at the time when the Muslims dominated the town.

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JEWISH INFLUENCE

1. Museo de Separdi

The Sephardic Museum boasts of a rich display of the history of the Jewish people in Toledo through its valuable Judaic artifacts. Where located: Calle Samuel Levi.

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2. The Menorrah Tiles

The white Menorrah or the Jewish candle holder over a blue-background tile. Many of these tiles are embedded in the streets of Toledo, indicating a once thriving Jewish presence.

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3. Transito Synagogue

The synagogue of the Transito is unique because while it is a bonafide Jewish place of worship, the edifice evokes a Moorish design. It is built by Samuel Ha-Levi (full name: Samuel Ben Meir Ha Levi Abulafia), a Jewish advisor to the 14th century King of Castile, Pedro I.

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4. Sta Maria la Blanca

Santa Maria la Blanca, now a small Christian church and museo, was built as a synagogue, functioning as one until the latter part of the 14th century. Ownership was eventually transferred to the Catholic Church. Christian worship and cultural events are said to be held at the site.

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ROMAN CATHOLIC LEGACY

1. Catedral de Santa Maria de Toledo

A popular Roman Catholic church patterned after the Bourges Cathedral of France, it is known by many names such as the Toledo Cathedral and Cathedral of Spain. It is considered one of the finest structures that utilized Gothic architecture. Entrance ticket price: 8 euros

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2. Iglesia de San Ildefonso

The church of San Ildefonso is dedicated to the town’s patron saint, St Ildefonsus. Run by the Jesuits, the church is primarily baroque in design. It is simple and charming church that’s popular among tourists who wander within the Calle de Mejico area.

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3. Convento de San Antonio, Dulces Artisanos

The Convent of San Antonio de Padua can be found in Santo Tome, one of the Town´s central streets. It sells pastries and sweets like yemas at affordable prices, to the delight of tourists and locals alike.

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OTHER TOLEDO SPAIN ATTRACTIONS

1. Plaza Zocodover

The town´s main square, a tourist attraction, is bustling like most other main squares in Spain. People rush about in the plaza throughout the day, mainly because of the surrounding restaurants, souvenir shops, and the fancy, red-colored tourist train that brings riders to the spot where panoramic photos of the town from afar can be taken.

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2. Museo de Santa Cruz

Its location is where an ancient hospital used to stand. Now, the Santa Cruz Museum features everything that represents the magnificent era of the country — the Spanish Renaissance. It presents works of Luis Trista and El Greco, among many other renowned artists. Direccion: Miguel de Cervantes

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3. Museo del Greco

Located along Paseo del Transito, the museum is dedicated to Domenikos Theotokopoulos — or simply El Greco. As his name implies, he was from Greece but settled in Toledo Spain where he led a prolific life as an artist and architect. Here, he produced most of his beautiful painting-masterpieces.

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4. Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Another popular town Square, where the Ayuntamiento, the body in charge of the town government, and the Cathedral de Sta Maria are found.

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5. Hostal San Tome

Hotels in Toledo Spain abound, and so finding a nice accommodation is easy to be had if you want to stay in town overnight or for a few days. Hostal San Tome belongs to the list of fine Toledo hotels — for one thing, its location is right in the middle of the action. Booking a room here is the perfect thing to do. Here is its website.

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How to reach Toledo:

Bus: An ALSA bus is bound for Toledo every 20 to 30 minutes. Go to the ALSA station at Plaza Eliptica and buy tickets for 5.39 euros apiece. You pay less, 9.70 euros, if you purchase ida y vuelta tickets. Duration of travel: approximately 45 minutes.

Train: Take the Renfe AVE service at Atocha station, the price is around 25 euros (round trip). The train option is much faster; time of travel via Renfe is approximately 30 minutes.

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Outside Madrid: The University Town of Alcala de Henares

imageAlcala de Henares is famous for two things: first, it is the birth place of premier Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, and second, it is recognized as the earliest planned university town in the world.

But I believe many flock to Alcala because it is conveniently close to Madrid. Imagine a beautiful town just 30 kilometers away from the city, such a proximity makes Alcala Spain a perfect day-trip destination. It is very near the capital many thought it is a mere suburb of Madrid when it is actually a legitimate Spanish town.

And so the fact that Alcala de Henares is just 50 or so minutes away and could be reached easily by train or bus, not to mention it owns a few impressive bragging rights and titles – all this makes it a popular and favourite destination for tourists.

Despite being home to top schools and tourist attractions, Alcala appears to me as a quiet and quaint town, the opposite of the noisy and tourist-drenched Madrid. I love that many of its sites and attractions are clumped close together; allowing tourists to explore them without having to make long walks in between.

Here are some of the Alcala de Henares attractions that are certainly worth seeing:

1. Cervantes Square

The plaza is dedicated to one who´s widely regarded as the greatest writer of Spain — Miguel de Cervantes. His statue stands in the middle of the plaza, while in its far end is the 19th-centuray built Kiosk of Music. You can also see in the background the Church of Santa Maria Tower (what´s actually seen in the photo is the remains of the ancient edifice).
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2. Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso

Also called the Old University and the University of Alcale de Henares, San Ildefonso College is famous for its Plateresque facade (currently being renovated). It is the best known creation of Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon, a Spanish architect from the Renaissance era.

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3. Capilla del Oidor

This baroque-style chapel is where Miguel de Cervantes was baptized. Capilla del Oidor is actually the existing remains of the Santa Maria Cathedral and one of the important edifices on the south end of the Cervantes Square.

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4. Museum of Miguel Cervantes

Cervantes’ birthplace is transformed into a museum in his honor. Here, I’m seated between the bronze likeness of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the main characters from the Spanish writer’s most famous novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Museo de Cervantes is located at the historic Calle Mayor.

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5. Corral de Comedias

Below is the Courtyard of Comedies, situated at the right side of the Cervantes Square if you face the statue. It is claimed as the oldest comedy courtyard since it dates back to the beginning of the 17th Century. It now functions as a theatre, and permits guided tours.

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6. Catedral de los Santos Niños Justo

The early 16th century Gothic Church is built in dedication to Saint Mary Magdalene. It is situated in the middle of the town, an imposing presence at the Plaza de los Santos Ninos.

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7. Calle Mayor

A highly historical street in the country, the Calle Mayor is one of the best proof that urbanism and commercialism already existed and flourished in medieval-era Spain.
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8. Archbishop’s Palace

What was once a fortress castle, as evidenced by the presence of the murallas nearby, is now the the residence of the Alcala de Henares Diocese. The palace is a proud World Heritage site monument.  Direccion: Plaza de Palacio

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9. Convento de las Clarisas de San Diego y Alonso Carrillo

Standing in front of the Convento de las Clarisas de San Diego is the statue of Archbishop Alonso Carrillo. The convent is of the Franciscan order. Direccion: Calle Beatas (near the Colegio de San Ildefonso)

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10. Puerta de Madrid

A historical structure from way back 1788, it primarily served as the point of entry from the ancient town of Alcala to Madrid, and vice versa. Direccion: Calle Andres Saborit

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11. Alcala de Henares Walls

Known as the Murallas de Henares, a significant portion of these 12th century walls are seen near the Palacio de Arsobispo. It served as the town´s protection, and was a effective means of taxing products entering the city.

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12. Laredo Palace

An edifice built in the 19th century by Spanish architect Manuel de Laredo, it features no distinct style but rather displays a strong evidence of varied architectural influences from Moors, Renaissance, and Goth. It currently functions as a Museo de Cisneros.
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How to Go

Cercanias (train): Ida y vuelta tickets are available at 7.60 euros, with the vuelta ticket valid until the morning of the next day. I bought my tickets at Nuevos Ministerios, albeit I presume tickets can also be had at Chamartin, Recoletos, and Atocha since the trains also pass thru these stations.

A little advice: For first timers to Cercania service, be attentive of the periodic voice announcements informing passengers of the train stops. The train is fully-packed at certain points of the trip and so the noise from the crowd can render the announcement weak and hard to hear. This might cause one to miss his stop altogether.

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Valencia Spain – Charming Spanish City of New and Old


imageBefore our trip to Valencia Spain, I decided to check out the city on a few vlogs on Youtube and travel sites as well. It looks pretty amazing. And everyone who’s written about the place only has raves about it. When I was finally there, I didn’t realize that it was THAT amazing. My advise to people is — get ready to be immersed in modern art and culture and explore the dizzying yet charming Old Town.

You’ll enjoy your Valencian vacation to no end – this I assure — if only because the place boasts of a plethora of wonderful Valencia Spain attractions, all of which are certainly worth seeing.

The third-largest Spanish city, Valencia is not only awesome and breathtaking, but mesmerizing as well. I reserve the last description for the City of Arts and Sciences complex. I was practically spellbound as I stepped into it, with its many lights still lit when the morning is just about to break. If you’re coming from Madrid, the complex must be the first site you will see as you enter the city. It is only 3 to 4 hours from Madrid, (depending on your chosen mode of transportation)  but once you’re there, you feel that you are a world away, especially if you are in the science complex.

imageValencia is recognized as the heart of the autonomous region this part of the country, not only in a historical sense, but in terms of economy as well. And even if it’s divided into the modern complex and Old Town, the two totally compliment each other, and in fact, forms a fusion that makes the city stand out from the rest of Spain.

Breathtaking — that’s what it is after emerging from the centuries of occupation of three major groups – Romans, Moors, and Catholics. Such are strong influences that contributed to what the city has become today – a modern metropolis that embraces its glorious past.

Suffice it to say that the city is all about dream holidays, rich Spanish culture and tradition, avant-garde art, modernism, warm beaches, and of course, paella, the delicious sticky rice-dish. Only a select Spanish city can promise immense vacation pleasure and enjoyment – and one of them is Valencia.

What to see in Valencia Spain

I. City of Arts and Sciences

imageModern design, symmetry and strength are the obvious qualities that the edifices and structures at the arts and science complex want to convey

1. Prince Philip Science Museum

It looks odd, like a giant exoskeleton of some prehistoric animal. Yet inside, the Museu de les Ciencies Principe Felipe amazes, as it is home to a number of permanent expositions and events that delve in modern science and technology.
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2. Hemispheric Planetarium

This ultra-modern science facility assures visitors the surreal experience of what’s it like to be in outer space. The planetarium  employs equipment and gadgets like laser and IMAX that enhance the lights, sounds, and images of shows and displays. In effect, it affords every visitor a fantastic, out-of-this-world sensation.

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3. The Agora

One can see how the edifice of the Agora takes on the shape of an upright purple-colored mullusk shell. A creation of Santiago Calatrava, it is located near the Oceanographic and asserts a stunning presence at the Sciences complex.
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4. Assut de l’Or Bridge

Puente de l’Assut de l’or, the Dam of the Gold, is an impressive cable bridge by engineer Santiago Calatrava.  Affectionately called the Serreria Bridge by its builder, locals on the other hand love to call it El Jamonero, the ham cutter.
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5. Oceanographic Park

A gargantuan aquarium complex that features thousands of water species, the water park is also where dolphin shows are enjoyed by visitors. Design is done by famous architect Felix Candela.

II. Old Town

imageMuseo de la Almoina

This section of the city is aptly named, as evidenced by the archaeological remains at the museum at the Plaza de la Almoina. There is also the Serranos tower, was once part of a wall that surrounded Valencia. For me, the Old Town is  charming, with its narrow, rather convoluted roads that lead to precious sites such as the town’s famous markets, crowded squares, centuries-old cathedrals, and inviting cafes. The Old Town is the perfect next destination to cool the excitement down after that exhilarating tour of the City of arts and sciences.

1. Plaza de Toros de Valencia

The bullring is a staple feature in Valencia postcards, as the famous stadium is one of the city’s iconic symbols. Built in the mid-19th century, it stands right in the midst of the city, near the city hall and the North Station. Bullfighting events are still being held there, especially during the Fallas fiesta. The latter is a traditional festival that occurs in March, where there is a grand parade of puppets or gigantes. The festivity ends with the burning of the gigantes except the one chosen as the best of the lot.

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2. Les Torres dels Serrans

My fear of heights didn’t stop me from climbing up the Les Torres dels Serrans, or Los Torres of Serrano. It is one of the 12 gates that guard the city during the late 14th century. Legend has it that the name was derived from a famous family the lived near the place.image

3. Catedral de Santa Maria de Valencia

My visit includes attending the midday Sunday mass at Catedral de Sta Maria de Valencia, a spectacular Roman Catholic church — inside and out. It was built in the 13th century as a replacement to an ancient temple. The religious edifice speaks of Roman and Gothic elements in its design. image

4. Turia Fountain

Wandering to the Plaza de la Virgin near the Cathedral, you will certainly not miss the Fuente del Turia, which displays a huge statue that represents the god Neptuno. The flowing water is supposed to depict the Turia River
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5. Lonja

Another Goth-inspired edifice masterpiece from the 15th century is the Lonja, one of the city’s important landmarks. Another popular Valencian monument-landmark, the Central Merkat, is just across the street.
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6. La Playa

The urban beaches are but some of the reasons why tourists troop to the city during summertime. Here I took fancy of the dolphin statues on display at the Las Arenas Beach (Playa de las Arenas de Valencia).

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7. Estacion de Nord train station

The North Station, or Estacion del Norte in Spanish, was constructed way back in 1917 by the Railways of the North of Spain, a top train station maker in the city during those times. The North Station boasts of a premier train railway system, seeing a steady traffic of commuters day in and day out.

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Tasting Valencia’s Paella

It was a busy day — the exploration of the Sciences complex , the midday mass at the Catedral de Sta Maria de Valencia, and stroll along the Old town got me really starving. Come 2PM, we finally decided to try one of those Old town restaurants that serves the Spanish dish that the region boasts about – the paella. We found one right within La Plaza Mercado (Plaça Merkat) — Restaurante La Cava. imageThis Mediterranean restaurant along Calle San Fernando is just one of the many at Market plaza, and I thought we made the right choice as the food joint serves really delicious paella.

imageGazpacho con croutons – cold soup to start the meal

imageEnjoying a taste of Valencia food means having a plateful of sumptuous paella for lunch 

imageThe lamb dish (cordero) perfectly complements my Valenciana

imageI realized that a flan is a flan, whether you’re in Madrid, Barcelona, Manila or Valencia. It’s the perfect postre to have – para siempre!

Hotels in Valencia Spain

One of the modern medium rise Valencia Spain hotels, it is just a few-minute walk from the City of Arts and Sciences — we even passed by it as we proceeded to the Valencia beach. It is a little over a kilometer away from station Ayora and around 3.7 kilometers from the Central Market. All available rooms are furnished to the delight of guests, and feature vital amenities like Wi-Fi and satellite TV. The luxurious suites boast of a private balcony or terrace for some spectacular views.

Where located: Av. de França 33 València

imageFor guests who want to be booked at a convenient hotel Valencia room that’s a stone throw away from the City of Arts and Sciences complex, the best option is the Tryp, considered by many as one of the finest Valencia Spain hotels. Common feedback are  its large, spacious, and clean rooms and suites as well as quick and efficient services. Guests choose this hotel if only because it offers rooms with spectacular views of the city.

Its location is at Carrer del Pintor Maella 35

Traveling to Valencia Spain?

imageHow to reach by bus:

Auto buses are perhaps the cheapest means of going to Valencia or any other Spanish city and town, for that matter.  The first departure of buses from Madrid is as early as 8:00 in the morning. On the average, it will take you 4 1/2 hours to as long as 7 hours to complete your journey to Valencia via bus. ALSA bus company offers regular bus services to the city – just click on the its link here and enter the necessary information. You may also purchase bus tickets at the ALSA Plaza Eliptica station.

How to reach by train:

If you take the high-speed train by AVE at Atocha Renfe station, you now have a direct connection between Madrid and Valencia. Travel time is much less compared to bus — around 1.5 hours. There are a sufficient number of train trips daily, from 1 to 3 scheduled trips to Valencia every hour — the maximum frequency is usually during the day’s peak hours (late afternoons).

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Visiting Santiago de Compostela [And My Must-Do’s for a More Meaningful Revisit (Hopefully)]

Just when I thought that Andalucia would be my last outside-Madrid trip and I would simply wait for the cooler months to arrive before I ever join any group tour again, here comes another irresistible invitation – a single-day visit of Santiago de Compostela. The trip was made to coincide with Feast day of the beloved saint – St. James.
imageTo be honest, it’s just now that I learned about the place and so I was wary about going. But after having been told that the spectacular sight of the cathedral alone is worth the long and arduous travel (and the summer heat woes), I was pretty much convinced eventually. I got curious, and so I checked it online. What I saw were all magestic images.

It did remind me of another great cathedral, or basilica — La Sagrada Familia, and strongly believed that both belong to the same league. Likewise, my interest in Santiago got piqued by the stories about the brave and amorous adventures of the peregrinos (pilgrims) and their quest to conquer the El Camino trail.

Off to the Feast of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela

Some 500 or so miles from the city of Madrid, in the Northwestern portion of the Iberian peninsula, is the third most popular and spiritual Christian site in the world (after Jerusalem and Rome) – Galicia’s Santiago de compostela.

To the determined pilgrim and serious devotee to the saint, the most revered cathedral in all of Galicia is the ultimate destination. To finally stand before it and appreciate its utter grandeur is the sweetest reward for any pilgrim’s immeasurable effort; a laborious trek of numerous roads, highway sides, and trails, all of which comprise the St. James Way, a seemingly endless journey that spans several hundreds of miles.

Such a journey is the supreme religious sacrifice known as the Camino de Santiago.

Let’s get it straight. While named after him, St. James didn’t do the camino himself. After his death, his body was transported to Spain and the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral became his remain’s resting place.

It took us more or less eight hours of bus travel (plus two stops along the way) to reach the site. After surrendering our bags at a designated warehouse for safekeeping, we immediately headed for the Praza Obradoiro. It is the main square, and the most popular in the area, being the location of the cathedral. It is presumably the center of the Old Town.

The following comprised my Santiago adventure:

Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

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I joined this trip mainly for one thing – Galicia’s pride which is the Cathedral. So you can imagine my surprise when I laid my eyes on the holy edifice, and discovered much to my dismay that a significant portion of its facade is blocked by heavy scaffolding and boards.  I was so disappointed that I didn’t bother to inquire about how to gain entry to the roof top, where they say scenic images of the town can be shot.

The rest of our activities:

Witness the ceremonies at the Praza Obradoiro

imageA musical band marches towards the direction of Praza Obradoiro, as part of the feast day celebration

imageA glass enclosure with the statue of Saint James inside is carried by procession participants
imageA priest, obviously of high ranking because of the cap that he wears, carries a cane. I take this as a symbolism of the church recognizing the Compostela Pilgrimage as a highly-valued Christian tradition

imagePeople gather on both sides of the path that connects the church to the Palacio de Raxoi to watch the Feast Day ceremonies

Explore the main squares, edifices, and the surrounding streets

The portion within the perimeter of the main Santiago church is where most of the cultural, religious and scenic spots are found. We didn’t do much walking since most sites are in close proximity to each other. Although we had to walk the cobbled or stone-paved streets like Roa Nova and Roa Vilar when we finally had to look for a place to have our lunch. Many of the museums and lesser churches are free, while others you need to pay in order to enter. A few hours is enough to tour this part of the Town
imageThe building on tbe background is the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario, located at Praza de Inmaculada
imageBars Charra and O’Barazal, and Restaurante San Jaime are just three of the many options of would-be diners along Calle Raina
imageFronting the Praza das Praterias is the Torre da Berenguela, which dwarfs everyone below. People wait in line to enter the cathedral and attend the 12:30PM mass
imageRua Nova is one of the Old Town’s major streets. Connected to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, its length hosts a number of popular Galician cafes and restaurantes
imageConvento de San Francisco del Valle de Dios is a 13th century stone monastery built under the supervision and ownership of the Franciscans friars. It is declared as one of Santiago’s major historical monuments
imagePraza das Praterias, literally means Plaza of the Silversmiths, and is one of the major squares around the cathedral of Santiago

Attend the mass

imageGigantes walk in a single file. Their entry to the Cathedral is part of the ceremony that signals the start of the midday mass honoring Galicia’s Patron Saint

Savor Galician Food

1. Empanada Gallega – one of the typical foods this part of Spain. Also known as the Galician pie, I had this at Paradiso Cafeteria, Rua do Vilar, 29. Upon tasting, I knew my empanada had atun (tuna meat flakes) as the main filling.
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2. Torta de  Santiago (Tarta de Santiago in Spanish) - Galicia’s staple postre (dessert), it literally means cake of Saint James. It is a soft, spongy cake made of almonds the recipe of which originated way back in the Middle Ages. I had my delicious plate at Cafe Bar Pico Sacro, along Rua de San Francisco.

image3. Caldo Gallego – the popular hot and tasty broth soup of Galicia. It contains simple ingredients like cabbage, leafy greens, potatoes, and beans. I enjoyed it also at Paradiso Gallega, together with my empanada.

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4. Lasena Gallega - Santiago’s meatier version of the Italian lasagna. I had this for lunch at Cafe O Paris, Rua dos Bautizados.

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5. Polbo a Feira (Pulpo a la Gallega) - The octopus dish must be the most Galician of them all. I’d trade all the dishes above, except for this one. It’s quite a simple food fare, with the meat cooked by boiling just right. The pulpo, along with unpeeled boiled or roasted potatoes, is drenched in oil, and sprinkled with sea salt and paprika before it is served in a wooden plate. This dish at O Paris restaurant afforded me the most delectable Gallega lunch.  
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Must-do’s for a more meaningful Santiago de Compostela tour:

Don’t get me wrong. Sheer joy and exhilaration is what I found after my visit to Santiago de Compostela. But I admit to being less contented with the tour, after witnessing the current state of the cathedral and not having seen the place enough.

I felt there was so much to do that could have made the trip more meaningful. As a reaction, I drew out a list of things that I want to do next time  I visit Santiago again (God-permitting). As a pilgrim? Well, nothing is impossible — this saying I always believe in.

1. Return to the site with the cathedral devoid of scaffolding

Perhaps, in a few years’ time, they will have brought down the obstructions, which I thought should not be there in the first place. By then, with nary a hint of scaffolding, it will have been restored to its original state, and dripping in immense beauty and grandeur like what’s shown in the succeeding photo. Source of Image below: Carlos Miguel Solis Seco

(2007) (059)

2. Attend the pre-midday mass (10:30AM)

We attended the mass that was scheduled at past noon, which was much like any ordinary mass I hear in Madrid, except for several mention of the patron saint. I realized that I should have attended the much earlier mass since it was the one being wholly dedicated to the way of St. James. That mass, which lasted for almost two hours, was also dedicated to the peregrinos (pilgrims) who completed the Camino de Santiago. Ideally, my next visit will be on a Holy Year, the year when the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. This allows for rare rituals to be performed – like when the Botafumeiro (thurible) is swung while giving off an aromatic smoke. The 10:30AM mass is the best time to embrace the urn that contains St. James’ ashes image

3. Have my own pilgrim’s cane, scallop shell, and meja (witch) doll as souvenirs

Mejas are benevolent witches. They bring good luck when brought along during one’s pilgrimage. The bordon or cane is considered as a third leg of the pilgrim, and is supposed to provide safe guidance along the way. Scallop shells are worn on the chest to identity the wearer as a pilgrim; this gives him access to lodgings. Large shells are also used to hold food or water for drinking.  These three items are said to influence a pilgrim’s camino, turning it into a safe and successful one. image

4. Book a room at Parador de Santiago

Located within Praza Obradoiro is the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos (or Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos), rated as one of Europe’s most beautiful hotels. It is popularly known as the Parador de Santiago. Book here and you have the bragging right of having stayed at the world’s oldest operating hotel. If you’re a pilgrim, consider yourself lucky if you are picked to enjoy a free accommodation at the hotel — the hostal offers this privilege to a limited number of Way of Saint James peregrinos. It was once a refuge for pilgrims of ancient times, but today, it normally charges no less than 100euros for a single room. I thought it’s quite prohibitive considering I’m a self-confessed budget traveler. But I’d say I’ll go for it if I have the money — there’s no shame in aiming high. image

5. Own a pilgrim’s passport (complete with stamps) and certificate

The pilgrim’s passport, the certificate that you completed the camino, and the religious renewal that goes with the experience are good enough reasons to add the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in my bucket list. Still, much of me is hesitant knowing the difficulty of this goal. To think about 500 or so miles of camino de santiago trail that you must accomplish is exasperating already, to begin with. Although I read somewhere that walking a minimum of 100 miles is enough to merit the certificate. You must, however, make sure that your passport has the necessary number of stamps, which is at least three, to be issued the certificate. The pilgrim’s ultimate destination? The Old Town, specifically its main cathedral, where the bones of St. James are buried.  Hopefully, it too will serve as my final destination, even if I have to choose the easiest and shortest of the Camino de Santiago routes, once I decide to be a peregrino. Our pilgrim shell, passport and certificateImage source: Courtesy of Student Christian Movement

Bound for Madrid

image Going home. We left at 4PM, and arrived at Moncloa Metro area in Centro Madrid at 12 Midnight)

Do I really have plans of pursuing a second visit? Shall I find myself walking the camino as a pilgrim this time? To be frank, revisiting Santiago is extremely difficult due to the distance, time and financial constraints. But then, if given the chance, I’d be there in a heart beat. I would love to go back – whether as a peregrino or as an ordinary tourist. For now, I’ll cherish this visit of Santiago de Compostela. It’s definitely an experience that’s not only exhilarating but  spiritual as well.

Map:

My Great Andalucian Adventure: Cordoba

Many believe that Spain is all about Madrid – that the city is the best place to be if you’re in the country. The fact is that there must be hundreds more regions, cities, pueblos, and barrios to see and explore in this Iberian peninsula other than its capital – and one of them is Andalucia.

Where is Andalucia?

The region, which because of its exotic qualities has made it a favorite setting of popular movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and many more, is found in Spain’s southern point. It is undeniably world-class as a tourist destination, where every area must reek in countless amazing sites and attractions.

The region also boasts of the ideal climate all throughout the year – hot in summer and mildly cold in winter – perfect for those once-in-a-lifetime vacation adventures.

In other words, you need not be stuck with Madrid as Spain affords you at least another option. If you’re someone who rares to experience the most unique Spanish culture and tradition, Andalucia is the perfect choice.

andalucia maps
The 8 provinces of Andalucia are clumped together down the southern tip of Spain (Map courtesy of www.theodora.com/maps used with permission.)

Andalucia has eight provinces – these are Cadiz, Cordoba, Almeria, Jaen, Granada, Huelva, Malaga and Seville. Each one is beautiful and breathtaking – ready for any tourist to explore and appreciate.

My next two blog posts (including this) will be about Cordoba
Spain
and Granada, the first two Andalucian provinces that I had the pleasure to see and experience.

Off to my Andalucian Adventure

A city that was declared a World Heritage site, specifically the Historical Center of Cordoba, it was first ruled by the Romans until the Moors took over in the 8th Century. It was said to be the start of the blossoming of a city, the greatness of which easily rivaled other Moslem territories, like ancient Damascus and Constantinople.

And as Cordoba experienced being immersed in both Roman and Moorish cultures, what resulted is a place that exudes the strong characteristics of these two as evidenced by the massive edifice of worship that accommodates at least two religions; the Moorish-inspired whitewashed towns complete with Catholic cathedrals, basilicas, and parroquias; and the lively fiestas and celebrations that honor both Christian and Islamic traditions, among others.

First Stop: Cordoba Spain

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Thru the initiative of an adventurous bunch of Filipinos (their common denominator is that they attend masses at Iglesia de Nuestra Sra. del Espino, along C/ Conde de Serrallo near Plaza del Castilla), a Saturday trip to Andalucia’s Cordoba and Granada was organized.

Leaving the church premises at 1AM, the bus arrived at Cordoba before 6AM, stopping near the foot of the Puente Romano and the Gate of the Bridge. It was still early in the dawn, but a number of people are already around and checking the place. We just came in, yet it was easy to to tell that the place reeks of magnificent attractions — and the following are just some of them.

Cordoba Spain Attractions

1. La Mezquita

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Try to start a discussion about Cordoba, and surely, La Mezquita will be mentioned. It is to be expected as the edifice is of utmost importance to the Cordobans, it being a highly-revered Arab-Andalucian treasure.

Mesquita means Mosque, and its complete name is Mezquita Catedral de Cordoba. It is called as such because it was originally a mosque, but now serves as a Catholic place of worship. Mesquita is unique in that the Moslems also want to have it for their own, proving its immense significance to the Islam religion. In fact, it is recognized as the most important Islamic structure within the Western world.

One look at the façade and you see how it reflects Moslem and Baroque designs. It is a huge mosque, and touted as the third largest in the world. Judging from our walk around its perimeter, the building must cover an area equivalent to a few city blocks.  No doubt, it is one of the most fascinating landmarks that you can see in Cordoba.

2. The bell tower of Mezquita

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This is the present bell tower and is open to the public if you’re touring the Mesquita-Catedral. During the days of the Moor occupation, the tower was originally a minaret or a place where the call to prayer is made.

Built by Abderraman III, the leaders of the cathedral decided to convert it into a bell tower, with the last of the series of reconstruction happening in 1664. If you want great views of Cordoba and the grounds of the Mezquita-Cathedral itself, it is a must that you climb up the bell tower.

3. Puente Romano

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In English, it means the Roman Bridge – an impressive structure that crosses the equally great Rio Guadalquivir. This is known to be the sole bridge of the Ancient Cordoba region for a long time. A colossal work of architecture by the Romans way back in the 1st century A.D., the Spanish government reconstruct it into its original state to preserve its historical importance.

Watch the above video of the Puente Romano de Cordoba as it was featured in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Notice its appearance markedly altered thru the use of computer-generated effects. (Video is courtesy of Cordoba Film Office).

4. Torre de Calahorra

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After the Moslem took reigns of Cordoba, they added a tower to the Roman Bridge in order to protect it and the city itself from invaders coming from the south side of the banks. Inside you will find a museum that displays artifacts from the three great religions – Christian, Jewish, and Moslem. It is open to the public, starting at 10AM. Price of regular admission: 4.50 euros

5. Plaza de la Corredera

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This is one of the city’s famous squares, built right within its midst. The plaza presents a strong Castilian style and is said to be modeled after Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. The square is rich in ancient Roman history, evidenced by the pieces of mosaics found in the site at the time of its construction.

Today, especially now that is summer, the terrace becomes a place where great drinks are enjoyed such as a chilled Fino. On one side of the plaza is found the entrance to a popular Cordoba mercado – El Mercado de la Corredera.

6. Puerta del Puenta

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In English, it means Gate to the Bridge. Puerta del Puenta was constructed in 1570 with Hernan Ruiz II at the helm. Its imposing presence was meant to greet King Felipe II during his Royal visit of the city.

Located at the end of the Puente de Romano, the arch also served as the entrance to Cordoba; hence, the name. The one that stands today was a replacement to the Moslem Gate, which then also replaced the original gate created by the Romans of Julius Ceaser’s time.

7. Roman Water Wheel

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Walk to the right of that part of the bridge near the Gate, and you will see the giant (wooden?) water wheel constructed during the ancient Roman times. It was initially intended as a mill wheel, but the Moors later used it as a way of bringing water to the palace. It is said that the one standing today is a replica. The original wheel was dismantled as the noise it created was deemed a nuisance by Queen Isabella.

8. Triunfo de San Rafael

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This is an old Monument with a locked gate found near the Mezquita-Catedral. It is built to honor the protector of the city, Archangel San Rafael. It is near the Gates to the Roman bridge, a strategic position which I assume as a way for San Rafael to oversee and protect the city.

9. Cruz del Rastro

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Cruz del Rastro, or the Flea market Cross, is a reminder of that part of history when the Christians and Jews were pitted against each other. The end of the conflict between the two groups and in honor of Alonzo de Aguilar is remembered with the construction and installation of the cross in the Middle of the flea market.

10. Statue of San Rafael

imageAn addition to the Roman Bridge, way back in the 1600’s, is still another magnificent statue of San Rafael. Created by Bernabe Gomez del Rio, it stands right in the middle of the bridge. In front is a candle stand on which visitors and tourists may light a candle in honor of the Patron Saint of Cordova

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Cordoba is, needless to say, an Iberian city that’s unique because of the harmonious blend of Roman and Moorish cultures. Apart from the Roman and Moslem built structures, towns, and bridges, the place is above all proudly Spanish; it exhibits strong Iberian tradition that was handed down through numerous generations, like the famous flamenco dances and the celebration of Spanish fiestas.

Particularly awaited by many during the month of May is Cordoba’s Patio festival. It’s a major event in which the town residents open their patios or yards wide to entertain tourists and guests.

There’s always the next time, I can only say. If ever I get the chance to return, I must do it outside the hot summer months – as the less punishing weather will allow me to see more sites and really enjoy endless trekking with friends, hopping from one whitewashed Andalusian town to another. Here’s hoping to see more of Cordoba once again.

How to Go From Madrid to Cordoba:

imageThe blackness of predawn and the silhouette of the palm trees add to the somber depiction of the Torre de Calahorra

Bus: Mendez Alvaro is where public bus services to different cities and regions, including Cordova, are available. Basic bus tickets are worth 15 euros; however, be prepared for a long travel, which is approximately 5 hours. If you don’t mind the long journey, then go and book a bus seat now at Madrid’s premier bus station at the Intercambiador, where its own metro train stop, the Metro Mendez Alvaro, is also found.

Train: Want to reach Cordova faster? Take the fast train service of AVE, and you will arrive at your destination in under two hours. Tickets, of course, are much more expensive at 70 euros.

Join Informal Group Tours: I paid 40 euros for the whole trip, and this amount even includes the entrance fee to the Nazaries Palace of the Alhambra complex. And so, one clear advantage is that you are saved the trouble of getting the entrance tickets – the organizers do it for you. Information about these types of tours are usually posted at message boards of local churches.

The only downside of these tours is that time is very limited; we were allotted only 3 hours in Cordoba as we were also scheduled to go to Alhambra of Granada. Hence, we didn’t visit many other important sites like the Juderia and Medina Azahara. We weren’t even able to witness the magnificent interiors of Mezquita since it opens at 10AM and we had to leave at 9.30AM. (The entrance fee is 8 euros.)

Therefore, to make the most of your travel, my advice is to take the bus at Mendez Alvaro, and go online to buy a professional guided tour package that covers much of Cordoba Spain attractions.

My next post: Alhambra of Granada

Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Biutiful, and Barcelona

Who here has not been bitten by the travel bug? Everyone must love to see the world. I myself have my own travel goals, drawing them out while in complete disregard of my financial capacity. My wanderlust has become strong as of late that what I wish for now is to see tons of different places for the rest of my life.

Dreaming of Barcelona

In a bucket list that I created a long time ago (and has seen revisions ever since) I included a trove of cities I’d like to see – Berlin, Colombo, Vaduz, and Milan, to name a few – places that I thought I must visit before I bite the big one. Among them is Barcelona, a fascinating city which I had been yearning for a long time. Even if I just realize Barcelona from this list of places, I’d be happy and would gladly have the travel goal in my bucket list crossed out as fulfilled.

Much of my life, however, I’ve been living halfway around the world. And so I always believed that seeing Barcelona in the future, whether near or distant, is quite a challenging, next-to-impossible task. I’m almost resigned to the fact that pursuing Barça will remain as it is – a dream. (Barça is an alternative name popular among non-locals, but the Catalans themselves actually refer to the city as Barna.)

Until it was two years ago when fate decided to intervene in such a way that would abruptly change my life. Everything went fast, and the next thing I knew, I was in Madrid, Spain.

imageSuddenly, I found myself living a new life in a European city – Madrid

I love this Spanish capital! Madrid is the city of promise, and of love and romanticism. It has now become my safe harbor, my source of comfort, my refuge. Madrid is also a city of excesses (but in a good way), a place where plazas, museums, and churches abound. It is the land of countless cafes, bars and restaurants, where people live to eat, and not the other way around (Spaniards do enjoy life – and their Jamon – to the fullest!). Madrid is a city so beautiful that every other place in it is a worthy background for photos and selfies.

Still a world away from the Catalan Capital

But what truly excites me now that I’m in Spain is that it puts me in a situation where I have better chances of seeing Barcelona. I live in the midst of Madrid. Just between this city and Barcelona are a few other Spanish cities and regions. Both are found within the same land boundary. In other words, it’s clear as day that I have moved closer to realizing this particular goal – or so I thought.

As I started to settle in Madrid, what actually became clear was that going to Barcelona will be no easy feat. After being told of the long hours of travel time, it made me realize that I am still a world away from the city. To be specific, travel time is more or less six hours by car, around seven by bus. Time by plane might be less, but with the expensive tickets, it’s out of the question. And so, while the possibility of seeing the Catalan city is greater – doing it is not a walk in the park. That trip isn’t going to happen, not in the near future at least.

Watching movies set in Barcelona

If I can’t go there now, what’s the next best thing to do? See it on films is what I do. Anyway, I love movies, and besides, watching Spanish films about Barcelona, or ones that are set in it, will familiarize me more to the place, a boon once I finally visit it.

Recently, I watched two — these are Pedro Almodovar‘s Todo Sobre Mi Madre and Biutiful by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Two movies that tell totally different stories, yet both are poignant enough to touch my heart. Needless to say, they are cinematic masterpieces of filmmakers respected by their peers. What made them more interesting to watch is the participation of two of Spain’s finest thespian-performers – Penelope Cruz (for Todo Sobre Mi Madre) and Javier Bardem (Oscar nominated for Biutiful). Incidentally, Cruz and Bardem are married, and a couple still to this day.

The City becomes a Film Character

Of course, a big draw to these films for me is the setting. Barcelona wasn’t used as a mere location, and its famous tourist spots didn’t just serve as pretty backdrops that would have otherwise turned the films into well-crafted travelogues. Both directors were careful not to commit such a mistake. In these films, Barcelona proved to be an indispensable character around which the rest revolved.

Toda Sobre Mi Madre

Barcelona’s portrayals in the films were quite contrasting. In Toda Sobre Mi Madre, Almodovar was able to inject, albeit subtly, some of the city’s important sites. In a way, it was like the director giving the city its due recognition, but it was palpable that the focus of the film was on the story. Many categorize Todo Sobre as a melodrama, but there’s no doubt that it’s tame compared to Inarritu’s work.

Biutiful

A brutal tale of woes and crimes, Biutiful has as its protagonist Bardem’s Uxbal, a sick man who accepted every burden throw at him up to the story’s end. He was dying, to his chagrin as it meant leaving his children behind. He calmly comes to terms with his imminent death, realizing that doing so will help him focus more on making plans for his kids. Bardem’s acting was superb and his performance razor sharp that his character – crooked yet innocuous – earned my sympathy. I actually wished that he would survive his ordeal still living, with heart and soul intact.

Along with the tear-inducing story is a raw depiction of Barcelona’s dark side. The movie dares to expose it as a city of old and decrepit, and reeking in poverty.

What places were featured in the films?

Todo Sobre Mi Madre tells about the story of Manuela, a woman in search of her ex-husband, a transsexual, in Barcelona to let him know about his son’s death. Some of the most popular attractions of the city were featured in the movie, like the La Sagrada Familia, Columbus Monument, Palau de la Musica, and Plaça del Duc de Medinaceli.

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This photo and the next one are screen shots I grabbed as I watched the movies online. Above, Manuela’s taxi, the yellow-and-black cab that the city is famous for, passes through the roundabout at the Monument a Colom. Also, you can see the base of the monument and the silhouette of one of the lion statues

In the case of Biutiful, it is a dark movie, so naturally, even if the director wanted to, it didn’t feature the fun, touristy places that make the Catalunya capital a top destination of millions. A lot of scenes were dark and filthy, like those at the sweatshop where the Chinese worked and the apartments of the characters. The alleys where the cops and Uxbal met were sordid. It didn’t help that the character of Javier is able to communicate with the dead.

The city’s familiar streets and squares were used in some of the important scenes such as La Rambla, Playa de la Barceloneta, and Plaça de Catalunya.

imageIn the photo is just one of the many cadavers of Chinese workers that got washed ashore at the Playa de la Barceloneta, a popular beach in the city. Let’s try not to get caught up with the dead in the picture, but focus on Barceloneta being one of the popular Catalan beaches. In fact, it was awarded the title of the Best Beach in the World in 1992

Unexpected Invitation

After watching the films, the more that my desire to see Barcelona intensified. It’s like the city itself beckons aloud. It reinforced my resolve to see it, albeit when and how, I have no idea. Little did I know that these films were actually sorts of a harbinger of a good thing to come.

Not everyone gets invited to go to Barcelona, and so I was elated when friends had some business to do in the city and they asked me to come along to keep them company. We would stay around for just a few hours, but they assured it was good enough to see much of the city . The thought of the long hours of travel crossed my mind, but it was fleeting.

“The heck,” I muttered.

Finally, the opportunity I’ve been waiting for is here, I mustn’t let it pass.

Barça – here I come

At 5AM, everyone gathered at the corner of Capitan Haya near Melia Hotel. Paseo de la Castellana is just a block away. It’s an area where many spectators from the nearby Bernabeu Stadium would pass via Rosario Pino every time it´s a game night, and the corners of which the ladies of the night would hang around from late in the evening till the early hours of dawn.

Thirty minutes later, the vehicle arrived. Immediately, we sped off to what would be a great day of adventure.

We expected to be at the city at around 1.30. Travel time could have been cut down by 1 to 1 ½ hours if the car hadn’t stopped for gas, snack, and trips to the Aseos. But doing away with all these activities was quite impossible, wasn’t it?
imageFinally, by 1PM we entered the ctiy. I found myself gawking at unfamiliar sights, and reading street signs written in a language quite unknown. We passed through Passeig de Gràcia and excitedly had a glimpse of Gaudi’s buildings. I perked up, got awaken by the fact that I’m already in the midst of what must be the coolest place in all of Spain. The fatigue that had built up in me from the seven long hours of travel began to fade. I felt my exhilaration turning to a major adrenaline rush – I found myself both inordinately excited and worried over what to do with the few hours of stay there.As it is, the pressure to make the most of the scant time was immense.

We got a parking space near La Rambla, just a few blocks away from Plaça Reial, where you can find the Philippine Consulate. And so, our first activity at the city was walking through one of its most famous (or notorious, if because of pickpockets) streets in the city.

I looked around and noticed a marked difference between Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid is, shall I say, orderly, tame, and conventional. On the other hand, Barcelona is fast-faced, loud, dizzying, and even flamboyant.

And just when you think Madrid is the most beautiful city this part of Europe, you see another place in Spain that bursts with so much art and culture. Barcelona is surreal more than normal, in my opinion.

It’s clear that this city thrives in a culture that’s rich in color, uniqueness, and vibrancy. Thanks to its most revered artist-sons – Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali, Barcelona is distinctly its own, a world apart from Spain itself.

The Barcelona that I saw

1. La Sagrada Familia

imageThe works of Gaudi that I saw were limited to his world-famous basilica, the Sagrada Familia de Gaudi along Carrer de Mallorca; and the Casa Mila (La Predera) and Casa Battló, both found at Passeig de Gràcia. In as much as I wanted to see the interior of the Sagrada, I had to content myself in taking shots of the façade to save time and be able to check out other attractions. It’s the same case with the Casa Mila – I decided against going up the rooftop to have a closer look at its chimneys and sculptures,

The lines of would-be visitors at Sagrada Familia are notoriously long. Entrance fees are expensive, 15 and 29 euros; the amount you pay depends on how much of the basilica you want to tour. Unfortunately, I only had a few hours and so, I didn’t want to waste it getting stuck in a queue under the hot summer sun. To be able to enjoy the sight of this amazing Gaudi creation from afar is enough for now.

2. La Rambla

imageThe streets and plazas of Barcelona are as fascinating as its beautiful edifices and structures. Finally, I got to experience walking thru La Rambla, a street that’s extremely busy, noisy, and almost chaotic from one end to the other. A road stretch of more than one kilometer, La Rambla is perhaps the most popular promenade in the city. I’d say it was a dizzying trek, with people – tourists and locals – filling with its entire length. Kiosks that sell souvenirs of all sorts occupy strategic parts of the street, along with terrace cafes, and food kiosks. On both sides are historic landmarks such as Reial Academia de Ciencies I Artes and La Boqueria. La Rambla starts at Plaça Catalunya and ends at Monument a Colom and Port Vell. I was advised to be extra attentive of my wallets and belongings — this beautiful, people-filled and fully pedestrianized street is riddled with pickpockets.

3. Passeig de Gràcia

imageEdificio Generali at Passeig de Gràcia 63 Barcelona

You must pass through Passeig de Gràcia if you want to visit Gaudi’s popular edifice-masterpieces, such as the Casa Mila and Casa Batlló. A wide and accessible street, de Gràcia is also famous for its upscale shops and boutiques, like Apple, Rolex, and Gucci, among many others.

4.Plaça Catalunya

imageSituated at the end portion of Passeig de Gràcia is the Plaça Catalunya, which must be the largest and most inviting Spanish plaza I had been to so far

More Barcelona photos

imageLa Sagrada Familia is perhaps the most visited masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi. Tourists go to Barcelona just to see it. This Roman Catholic Church in the midst of the Catalan capital is in a perpetual construction. It is set to be finished in 2026. Direccion: Carrer de Mallorca, 401
imageLong queues of visitors wait for their turn to tour the interior of the La Sagrada Familia basilica. A common sight in the area, especially during the summer season. Basic ticket is worth 15 euros. Tour of the basilica, including entrance to one of the towers, costs 29 euros imageWalk through Carrer de Ferran (the street in the above photo) from La Rambla until you reach Placa Reial by turning right to Passatje Madoz. The Philippine Consulate is found within this area. At the end of Carrer de Ferran is another plaza, Plaça Saint Jaume

imagePlaça Reial, a square at Barri Goti and near La Rambla, is a frequented landmark in the area. Here, tourists love to congregate during nighttime because of the many restaurants and shops found within. It is a major venue for important Catalan events. The Philippine Consulate in Barcelona is also found within the square

imageA performer mimics the look and moves of the legendary actress Marilyn Monroe, throwing kisses to the crowd from the window of the Erotic Museum of Barcelona. Pay 9 euros for entrance, and you will be treated to the fascinating history of man’s sexuality and eroticism. Find the museum at La Rambla, in front of La Mercat de la Boqueria

imageThe main entrance to the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (Mercado de San Jose), is popularly referred to as La Boqueria. The public market is one of the most sought-after landmarks in Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella District. Direccion: La Rambla 703 to 707, 08002

imageFont de Canaletes (Fuente de Canaletas), the popular drinking fountain at the upper end of La Rambla, and near Plaça Catalunya. Tradition dictates that visitors must drink from the Canaletes fountain to be assured of a safe return to Barcelona Direccion: La Rambla de Canaletes, s/n 08002

imageAntoni Gaudi, the one-of-a-kind Catalan architect and recognized as the Father of Modernism in Catalunya, created the surreal yet beautiful Casa Batlló. This Modernistic building stands at Passeig de Gràcia, and is one of the area´s major tourist attractions
imageCasa Mila or La Pedrera is hailed as one of the best artistic works of architectural genius Antoni Gaudi. Experts describe it as one of the most beautiful edifices built during the modernist times

image This is a creation by renowned sculptor Josep M. Subirachs called the Monument to Francesc Macia (See the name written on the sculpture). Presented to the public on Christmas day 1991, it is located right in the middle of the city – at Plaza Catalunya
imageThe Columbus Monument, or Monument a Colom in Catalan, stands in honor of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. It is located at the lower end of the city’s La Rambla Street. Its construction was finished in time for the 1889 exposition at Barcelona

image La Reial Academia de Ciencies I Artes building was the headquarters for the city’s literary society, way back in 1764. In 1887, the edifice was dedicated to a Catalan group involved in the study of science. Shortly after, it was renamed the Royal Academy of Sciences & Arts of Barcelona, Catalonia. Direccion: La Rambla, 115

imageIf you walk the length of La Rambla up to its southern tip, you will reach the location of some of the city’s impressive structures such as Mirador de Colom and the Aduana building

imagePeople mill around the huge statues of the Lions found at the Monument a Colom (Colombus Monument). In the background is the Port Authority’s building

imageAn significant landmark in the area, the Govern military (Gobierno Militar) is found at the end portion of Passeig de Colom’s. A red Barcelona City Tour double decker passes by the edifice as it encircles the Monument a Colom

imageBehind me is the Port Authority building, where ply many of the city’s distinct yellow and black taxi cabs

image A couple sits by the Port Vell, Barcelona. At left is the Maremagnum, the mall at the port with its front wall made of reflective glass. Rising on the edge of the boardwalk in its front are thin columns providing support to narrow and elongated panels, convoluted in a way that they resemble waves. It is connected to La Rambla via Rambla del Mar Direccion: Calle Moll d’ Espanya, 5

The Barcelona I’ll see next time

I’m aware the city boasts of many sites and attractions, but I didn’t realize them to be of an immeasurable number. Barely did I scratch the surface, I must say. There are just tons of Barcelona sites that I missed. The famous Cascada Fountain, a Fontsere masterpiece situated within the equally beautiful Park de la Ciutadella; the Olympic Village and the following are but a few:

1. More Antoni Gaudi works of art

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Above is a 3-euro framed picture of Gaudi’s Guell Park hanging on my wall. The Guell park and the Palau Guell are important Gaudi works that I must visit next time.

2. Picasso Museum

A must-see. Considered a son of Barcelona, Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga. He stayed there during his early years, and then transferred to Barcelona as a teenager. Many of his works are on display at the Picasso Museum at Carrer Moncada. Unfortunately, a number of his important masterpieces now belong to private art collectors.

3. The Cathedrals
imageThe Church of Bethlehem, built in 1680 and located along Las Ramblas, was one of the only two churches (the other being La Familia Sagrada) I saw in Barcelona

I’m disheartened that I wasn’t able to visit the city’s other important cathedrals. I had wanted to see La Catedral de Barcelona of the Gothic Quarters and Sant Pau del Camp, located in the Bohemian area of El Raval. You can tour the monastery of Sant Pau, the capital’s oldest church, for 3 euros. The cathedral, on the other hand, offers a stunning panorama of the city when viewed from its rooftop, also for an entrance fee of 3 euros.

Hasta luego, Barcelona!

imageI feel frustrated — I went to Barcelona, but hardly saw Barcelona. Truth to tell, it was a big let down for seeing only so much. I was hoping for the Parc Guell at least, a depiction of which in a form of cheap poster I am proud to have hanging on my bedroom wall. It would have been nice if I was able to see it in person.

Obviously, the few hours I spent in Barcelona were not enough to see everything there is to see. This only means a second visit is in order. Still, despite lacking in a significant immersion, I experienced a deep connection to the place. I fell in love with Barcelona all the more because of my own discovery – that it is historic, moving, and in many ways, other-worldly. In all honesty, Barcelona is one place I really couldn’t make of. If ever, I would say it is charming, awe-inspiring, and owns an unfathomable appeal, without trying to be.