Every year sees trends materialize suddenly and fade just as fast, often leaving no more sign that they had existed than does a candlewick. Other trends, though, build slowly over time, gradually rising in the consciousness until they explode suddenly in popularity, and a tuned in public responds with a shrug: Of course this is an ‘it’ thing.

Such is the case with Spain. Spain has been a ubiquitous European presence since Christopher Columbus. In recent years, though, aspects of Spain have exploded onto the scene of U.S. consumer awareness. The wines of Spain, long suppressed by the popularity of French, Italian and even German wines, have become a hot item for oenophiles and budget-focused new aficionados. More recently, the cuisine in Spain has been recognized and celebrated in food magazines and media, and by noted chefs. Today, Spain is as much front and center in the minds of Americans as any of its Eurozone neighbors.

Traveling Spain, enjoying and learning about the vibrant country is no easy task. It’s a large country that enjoys tremendous regionalism in terms of culture, cuisine and history. Basque Country is notably different than the Arab-influenced south, and cuisine in Madrid is more intricate and influenced by different factors than the fresh, sea-oriented flavors of the Spanish coast. As is the case with many older nations, exploring all that Spain has to offer could easily be a lifelong study for a foreigner.

However, cutting a swathe and enjoying a sampling – a cross-section – of Spain can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time. You won’t walk away with a comprehensive understanding of Spain. But with a little planning, you will walk away with a deep and abiding appreciation for the country, maybe a new perspective on your own daily life, and probably with a desire to return again when possible.

Modern Madrid

If you visited Spain a decade ago, you will likely notice quickly how things have changed at Madrid-Barajas Airport. Although 85 years old, parts of the airport underwent transformation over the past few years that resulted in it being named Conde Nast readers’ “Best Airport” in 2008. Terminal 4 is the best example. Designed by Antonio Lamela, Richard Rogers and TPS Engineers, the super-modern terminal’s use of glass, metal and natural light is envisioned as a relaxing introduction to the country. That it is. But it also highlights the way much of Spain embraces today and the future to accentuate the sophistication and beauty of a classic European culture. That’s one of the recurring themes of a trip to modern Spain.

You will see this theme and Spain’s other – a relaxed, appreciative lifestyle – on display throughout your stay in the nation’s capital. It’s advisable to stay near the heart of things for your time in Madrid. Hotel Ritz Madrid is an excellent choice. The classic, century-old hotel retains the charm and romance of its era while offering updated rooms and services. It is conveniently located near some of the must-see sites of Madrid – the beautiful Retiro Park, the elegant Teatro de la Zarzuela, and Madrid’s most important museums: the Prado, the Thyssen Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Moderno Reina Sofia. The Ritz’s restaurants (particularly Goya Restaurant), bars and patio are regular meeting places for Madrid’s high society and are particularly popular following a walk in beautiful Retiro Park, with its Palacio de Cristal. Nearby, shopping mecca Calle de Serrano is a dreamy boulevard of high-end retail.

Madrid has a wide range of other accommodations, ranging from hostels to resorts, but it’s advisable with a limited time frame to stay close to those sites you wish to see. Many common attractions are located in Old Town Madrid, with many others immediately east in Bourbon Madrid. Other must-sees in the area include the magnificent Palacio Real, the monastery-palace El Escorial, the bustling Plaza de Espana and the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, where artists such as Dali and Picasso studied. In addition to the aforementioned trio of great art museums, Bourbon Madrid is also home to the National Archaeological Museum and Teatro Espanol at Plaza Santa Ana, one of the oldest and most beautiful theaters in the nation.

Traversing Madrid, there are countless tapas bars, cafes, bakeries and specialty shops that beckon. Tapas is the essential ingredient of Spanish casual cuisine and exploring the variations and original creations from location to location is a delight. More formal dining is easy to find as well, and can be hit-and-miss despite Madrid being the culinary center of the country. One lauded fine dining experience is at Villa Godio, one of the older restaurants in the city and where the paella is legendary. It’s a wise idea to make reservations well in advance, and it is well worth the effort. For a more casual tasting of Spain’s best and as an ultimate foodie site, stop by the Museo del Jamon across the street from the Prado. You’ll know it’s the right place because of the 600 or so hams proudly displayed, but there are locations elsewhere in Madrid. Here they will serve you the very best in ham, pork and sausage (and cheeses too) – including Jamon Serrano, Spain’s most famous pork product, a heavenly, smoky, dried ham.

Madrid’s fine museums, architecture and theaters aren’t the only aspects of Spanish culture to explore in Madrid. One of Spain’s most popular exports – flamenco – is also on display at sites citywide. Close to Old Madrid, Corral de la Moreira is one of the most famed flamenco houses in Spain and also serves excellent dinner. It’s a must-see to appreciate Spanish arts.

With its long history, sizable cultural and shopping components, prepared travelers should easily be able to coordinate visiting other sites of particular appeal.

Spanish Coastal Living

A decidedly different Spain beckons from the southern coast, where influences lean toward the Arabic and North African. The quintessential coastal resort city of Spain is Marbella, and it is remarkably easy to reach via Spain’s RENFE rail system. Departing from the lush Atocha train station in Madrid – which houses an impressive botanical garden of sorts – it is an easy, high-speed route to Malaga in the south. From there, it is easy to take a bus or cab to Marbella. As you travel south and then west, you will notice the change in culture. Signs begin to appear in Arabic along Spain’s renowned Costa del Sol and bustling city and open country are replaced with resorts and beaches.

Marbella is one of Europe’s most exclusive resort areas, frequented by royalty and celebrities. There are 24 beaches there, and yachts dominate the scenery in places such as ritzy Puerto Banus. Yes, there is culture here even in the midst of excess – the Museo del Grabado Espanol Contemporaneo, for example, displays some of Picasso’s least known works.

But it is still the beach and attractions catering to well-heeled visitors that best characterize Marbella. San Pedro de Alcantara is a quiet resort, the Marbella Club Hotel is ultra-luxurious and La Villa Marbella is charming boutique hotel option. A slightly less scene-driven option is actually outside of Marbella at the Don Carlos Hotel. This grand waterfront property has an Old World charm, modern décor and plenty of pools and patio space. It can be bustling in-season or rather sedate out-of-season.

Exploring Marbella, you will quickly understand why it can honestly be considered The Hamptons of Spain. Around ostentatious Puerto Banus, exquisite shops abound – Missoni, Tom Ford and others. Dining is exquisite as well, with meals almost uniformly accompanied by unctuous sangria. Rancho Del Puerto is notable for its carnivore delights and for its terrific homemade desserts, such as the delicious pudding, ocino de cielo (literally “bacon from heaven”).

Marbella is arguably one of the best places in Spain to fully appreciate those things that will remain indelible experiences for you. Here the Spanish sense of enjoying each day, enjoying creature comforts of fine food and drink and of relaxation seems most obvious. And most alluring. It isn’t easy to leave a place like Spain’s Costa del Sol, and many a visitor has fallen under its spell and dreamed of never returning to the more mundane, less sun-drenched world.

Also appealing from the southern Spanish coast is a slight detour from your visit to Spain. As you head west along the coast toward Gibraltar and beyond, across the water, exotic and romantic North Africa beckons. (see sidebar)

But there is more of Spain yet to see.

Barcelona Bound

It’s a not-unpleasant train trip of six-plus hours from Malaga or Algeciras to Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city and one of the most important Mediterranean port cities. Make no mistake about it – although Barcelona is the nation’s “second city,” locals and many Europeans see it as a quintessential grand city in and of its own. It certainly has its own deep and storied history. But Barcelona is best known for the numerous buildings left by the massive explosion of Modernisme around the beginning of the 20th century and best exemplified by the work of Antoni Gaudi i Cornet. Art, culture and the creative blend together to this day to define Barcelona, one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful cities.

Smart travelers with limited time should seek out accommodations near those sites most important to them. There is plenty of history in Old Town, while the notable architectural sites that best characterize the city are in the Eixample district. The magnificent Hotel Arts Barcelona is a terrific choice, situated next to the Olympic Port and not far from many of the attractions most seek out while in the city. In the Gracia district, the luxurious new Mandarin Oriental is another smart choice, particularly for those people most interested in the architectural works of Gaudi which are nearby. An elegant mid-century building has been recreated with a stylized modern look by Spanish born designer Patricia Urquiola to craft a distinctive hotel setting.

One good way to learn the lay of the land in Barcelona is a bus tour. They are easy to access from almost anywhere in the city and locals advise that choosing the Blue or Red route will be most rewarding. Renting a bicycle is also a good way to get around neighborhoods, although it should be noted that the city rises from the shore as you head inland, creating an ample incline.

Architecture buffs won’t want to miss the treasures of Modernisme in the Eixample. Palau Guell was Gaudi’s first building in the center of the city and established his international reputation. But street by street in Eixample there are delights to be found. The most famous and spectacular is Gaudi’s church of the Sagrada Familia – a site that even those not generally interested in architecture must see.

While touring Barcelona, you’ll find a mix of eateries, shops and purveyors of specialty products, and treasures can be found around any corner. Dining here is widely respected in Europe and, of course, tapas dominate the general discussion. While there might be a tapas bar every half-block in many parts of the city, some consider Taller De Tapas the very best. Ordering can be a challenge around much of the city, but Taller De Tapas’s menu includes English descriptions of some of the most famous – and tasty – of Spanish tapas. Dedicated foodies will seek out Inopia in Old Town, while Old Town’s Agua is a classy waterfront restaurant that takes full advantage of its location.

Old Town Barcelona is traversed by the city’s most famous avenue, Las Ramblas, and around it is one of the most extensive medieval city centers in all of Europe. Culture abounds here in terms of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the must-see Picasso Museum, the Museum of History and its world-best extensive subterranean Roman ruins, the Barcelona Cathedral, Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house, Museu de Cera waxworks museum and others. Carrer Montcada is the most authentic medieval street in the city and is lined by gargoyles and gothic palaces. It’s also well worth it to visit the city’s Gracia district for the Gaudi House-Museum. Montjuic is Barcelona’s biggest recreation area, with the beautiful Parc De Montjuic, the archaeological museum and the Palau Nacional, home of the city’s historic art collection.

Barcelona is a seductive mistress, and a stay here will fan the flames of passion one develops spending time exploring Spain. It is a city – and a nation – to which it is hard to bid farewell. Instead one might merely bid Spain a hearty hasta luego, and wait in anticipation for your glorious return.

Man v. Bull

Bullfighting is intrinsic to Spain, and one of the things for which the nation is most recognized in the U.S. More than just spectacle, bullfighting is a sacrificial ritual pitting men (and some women) against an animal bred for the fight. It is steeped in tradition and ritual and everything from the dress of the matador to the bullring itself is significant to the occasion.

A growing number of Spaniards oppose bullfighting on the basis of cruelty. Many, however, see this as the encroachment of political correctness into a tradition at the very heart of Spain. Supporters also point out that bulls bred for fighting enjoy a very good life up until their competition. Furthermore, it is not always a fatal experience. A bull may go free if it shows courage and spectators signal by waving white handkerchiefs. Still, the sport has been banned in some Spanish cities.

Madrid, Seville, Valencia, Bilbao and Zaragoza have the very best bullfights, with tickets available on site prior to the early evening starts – around 5 p.m.

Tech Tips

Advancements in telecommunications have made it easier to stay in touch with those back home or at the office when traveling abroad – but finding the most reliable and, most importantly, affordable way can be a challenge.

Most cell carriers offer international plans with several tiers offering varying number of texts, MBs of data transfer, etc. If you choose this option, make sure to reset the usage settings on you smart phone to ‘0’ so you can carefully monitor your activity. This is very important because rates become extremely expensive once your purchased allotment is depleted. Also remember that data sent and received both count against your data plan. Once you return from your trip, you will want to call your carrier and disable the plan so your fees are pro-rated for only the amount of time you actually used it.

A more affordable option is to acquire an unlocked phone and install a data card specific to the country or region to which you’re traveling. These cards work essentially like an international telephone card, with prepaid usage limits and the ease of being able to purchase additional time at shops and vendors throughout the destination nation.

You can buy these widely-available data cards once you land at your destination, install and activate, and you are good to go. A better idea is to purchase the desired data card, install and activate it, before leaving home from purveyors such as Telestial (Skype also has services worth exploring). Although the least expensive option, the one down side to this approach is that you won’t have access to data and settings on your regular phone.

While overseas, the least expensive way to handle email and web applications is via WiFi. Make sure to change your settings for WiFi, and you will find it in most hotels, many restaurants and of course cyber cafes. In all of these cases, take all possible security measures to avoid your information being pirated.

Technology has made the world smaller in communication terms – and it doesn’t have to cost and arm and a leg with a little advance planning.

At a Glance

Getting There: Madrid-Barajas Airport is Spain’s busiest airport and served by numerous international airlines. Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Malaga have the next largest airports. Spain’s national carrier is Iberia.   

Population: Approx. 50 million          

Climate: Most of Spain falls under the category of a Mediterranean climate, characterized by dry and warm summers. Winters range from relatively mild on the southern coast to cold in the north and in high altitudes.

Main Attractions: Historic and cultural sites and venues, including a number of Europe’s best regarded museums, multiple types of representative architecture, beach and resort attractions in Costa Del Sol, culinary and natural splendor.

Side Trip: Morocco

As you travel the southern Spanish coast, the powerful lure of North Africa might be too much to overcome. And, with a little preparation, there is no reason to fight the urge. Daily ferry service is available to the Spanish territories in North Africa: from Malaga and Almeria to Melilla, and from Algeciras to Ceuta, as well as from Algeciras and Tarifa to Tangier.

It’s easy enough to take a bus from Marbella to Tarifa and then cross to Tangier. Although Morocco is statistically fairly safe to visit, some rules of thumb should be carefully observed. Check with your travel agent about current travel advisories and about documentation and immunization requirements and suggestions. It is also highly advisable to arrange for a guide once arriving in Tangier. Moroccan people are friendly and welcoming, but perils abound for those unfamiliar with the city, as everywhere. There are also local cultural norms and mores that guides can help make sure you observe. Respectful visitors are those that enjoy the best experiences.

Tangier is very easy to navigate around; the two main roads are Boulevard Mohamed V, which runs from near the Medina through the ville nouvelle, and Boulevard Mohamed VI, which runs along from the beachfront. The beachfront is dominated by hotels, eateries, bars and clubs. Mohamed V has a wide range of shops, pharmacies and accommodations such as Hotel Flandria, Hotel Rembrandt. The souk in the medina is the best place for exotic shopping with a degree of confidence; while the infamous “casa barata” (the house of cheap things) is as likely to have good bargains as it is to have forgeries and stolen goods. Again, it’s advisable to rely on the advice of a legitimate guide.

Other sites to see include the Kasbah Museum, Mnar Park and Hercules Cave. Morrocan food with European influences is found at many upscale hotels, fresh seafood at low prices is common around the port, and street food can offer a fascinating array of flavors.

Whether for a few hours or a few days, Tangier offers an entirely different experience than Spain. But it is an experience with enough intrinsic romantic and exotic components to be truly unforgettable. www.tangiertourism.org

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