Part 3 – Southern Spain….Granada, Córdoba and Toledo

My final Spain blog consists of the third part of our 17 day road trip this summer.  This was new territory for all of us and considerably hotter than the north of Spain.

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Part 3: Barcelona south to Granada and Cordoba , then north to Toledo

Leaving Barcelona, we embarked on our longest travel day so far – about 550 miles/900 km to Granada, estimated by the internet at about 8 hours.  Well, it took us more like 11 hours, but we had the obligatory two hour lunch stop and stroll through the old town in Elche/Elx along the way.  We arrived in Granada about 8 pm and met our Airbnb host outside of town, as driving in the city is heavily regulated and parking is difficult to find.  She took us to our apartment in the Albayzín neighborhood, which is on a hill and practically car-free and still has a bit of a Medieval Moorish feel to it.  Our first evening, we tried Salmorejo, and I will never look at cold soup the same again.  This stuff is pureed bread and tomatoes, topped with bits of ham.  Thick and creamy, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.  And for the rest of the trip I had it everyday.  My parents even made it from scratch with their tomatoes when they got home.

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View from our toasty terrace, if you turned around and strained your neck a bit you could see the Alhambra in the other direction.
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Alhambra at night
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Touristy street right near our apartment
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Waiting to go into the Alhambra

So the main attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex full of incredible designs and architecture.  We booked ahead and got early morning tickets (for the best light as you should know – and the heat).  We also got tickets to the Nasrid palace for the first available slot, which allowed us to tour the palace when it was less crowded.  The complex dates as far back as the 9th century, but many of the structures were completed in and after the 13th century.  Muslim art bans the use of people in their pieces, so there is a lot of geometry and calligraphy in the ornate plasterwork and ceramics.  It is an incredible place to visit, with beautiful and intricate buildings, lush green gardens and amazing views of the city.

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After a long lunch and the obligatory siesta, we wandered around Granada some more before heading up to the top of the Albayzín to watch the sunset over the city and get some night shots of the Alhambra.  And then Riki got his seafood fix with giant bowls of snails and a huge plate of octopus in a small plaza nearby.  I almost wish we were those people who take pictures of food, because this was an epic meal.

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Our last overnight stop before heading back to Madrid was in Cordoba, a mere 2 hours from Granada.  The trip was filled with rolling hills covered in olive trees as far as you could see.

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For some reason we thought we could forgo the obligatory siesta when we arrived in Córdoba in the afternoon.  So we wandered around the old quarter for a bit before the heat took its toll and we had to return to our apartment for a late afternoon siesta.

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Riki broke out the tripod for some night pics of the Mezquita

Córdoba was conquered by Muslim armies in the 8th century and eventually became the capital of al-Andalus or Islamic Spain.  It was very multi-cultural, with Muslims, Jews and Christians integrated.  This is highly visible in the main attraction – the Mezquita, which began as a small mosque and later a Catholic cathedral and is an incredible example of Moorish architecture.

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The Mosque part

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The Cathedral in the middle
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Mezquita interior

We toured the Alcazar here as well, but there was very little information provided, though it was pretty and the gardens were well kept.

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Wall in the Alcazar

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On our final full day in Spain we drove a few hours north to Toledo, which is just outside Madrid.  Toledo is set on a hill, with limited access for cars, but a great set of escalators that allows you to easily navigate right up to the heart of the old town.  Toledo is a UNESCO site and also has Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage.  The Romans were here and it was once a Visigoth capital.  Because of its proximity to Madrid, it is full of daytrippers and that is heavily reflected in the number of tourist shops around town, way more than I remember from my first trip over ten years ago.  But it is obvious why it is so popular.

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We ended our 17 day trip back in Madrid, with just one night in town before headed our respective ways.  This whole thing was really an amazing experience and my writing doesn’t do it justice.  But hopefully the pictures do.  I have never done so much research ahead of time, but in the end it made the whole thing go much smoother and was less stressful than our normal “just wing it” mentality.

We have to thank my Spaniards for getting married and being the catalyst for this adventure.  But we have to thank our drivers, my parents, even more for giving us a reason to make such a long trip out of it.

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Part 2 – Northeast Spain….Infiesto to Barcelona

A continuation of our 3 week road trip this summer in Spain.  Be forewarned – this is a long one, but the pictures from Barcelona at the end are worth it. Promise.

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Part 2 – North – Infiesto to Barcelona

The morning after the Spaniards’ wedding, which was the catalyst for this whole trip, we got back in our rental car and headed east toward Bilbao.  Luckily, we consulted with our hostess before we left and she recommended an excellent stop along the way, Santillana, which was about midway between Infiesto and Bilbao.  The views along the way were incredible and when we reached Santillana, we discovered a historic town, where we had an excellent lunch and stretched our legs along the cobble-stone streets before getting back on the road.

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I have no idea where I found out about the Vizcaya Bridge, but I’m quite glad I stumbled upon it in my research before our trip.  Just north of Bilbao, the bridge spans the Nervion River.  It is a UNESCO site in the Industrial Heritage category, the only one in Spain. Designed by Alberto Palacio, one of Eiffel’s disciples it is essentially a gondola over the water that carries 6 cars and something like 200 people.  The gondola trip takes 90 seconds and costs 35 cents for pedestrians.  However, if you want to take an elevator to the top and walk across, it costs 7 Euro and can take almost an hour, in my experience.

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I wasn’t sure how my main photographer would do with the elevation, but it seems the desire for a good view prevailed over his fear of heights, as always.

We continued inland and reached Bilbao late in the afternoon.  We checked out the old quarter, or Casco Viejo that evening and meandered along the waterfront.  With the Guggenheim being the only main attraction we wished to see, we only scheduled one night in Bilbao.

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Bilbao riverfront

The next morning we walked to the Guggenheim, enjoying the riverfront along the way.

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Just down the street from the Guggenheim, quite a contrast in architecture.

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On our way back to pick up the car, we saw an unfortunate bike accident where a lady went head first into the pavement and wasn’t moving.  My first thought was to call 911, but then of course realized that wouldn’t work in Spain and made a mental note to look up the proper number (112 in case you were wondering).  Luckily, there were many other better equipped people who rushed to her aid.

We continued south east and stopped for lunch in Puente de la Reina, where they have a medieval bridge.  This was a spontaneous stop, something we would not have seen had we been stuck on a bus, or plane or train.  The town is just south of Pamplona, which is famous for the Running of the Bulls, which was only two days away.  We decided to skip Pamplona to avoid the crazy crowds and spend more time in Barcelona.  Though we did see a fair amount of people headed there or returning from the festival.

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I spent an incredible amount of time planning this trip, having 3 companions and a set amount of time, it was quite different than what I am used to.  When I asked my parents where they wanted to go, mostly I got vague answers that centered around museums and art.  But when I asked Riki, he said the desert.  And I thought he’d gone mad, until he showed me the pictures.  Even then I didn’t really believe a desert could be located so close to the French border.  But it is, and that is how we ended up in Olite.

Olite is a tiny town with an incredible palace.  The palace is almost entirely reconstructed since a fire in the 1800s, but it is still an amazing site to see and in typical fashion, my photographer was the last one out at closing time.

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That evening, as we sat on the main plaza right in front of our hotel, we were inundated with rain and privy to an amazing lightning storm (so much water that our room’s windows started leaking).

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Back to dry the next day however

“The light will be better” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to.  And a phrase that has changed many a plan around.  This was no exception.  Our overnight in Olite allowed us to get up early and head to Bardenas Reales, the desert Riki wanted to see, “when the light would be best.” And come to think of it, so would the temperature.  The landscape is incredible and the abrupt entry into a desert environment is daunting.  The unfortunate thing is that this vast expanse of arid land was man made by deforestation.  A unique habitat was created however, and is now protected.  Evidence of the massive rain storm was scarcely visible when we arrived and even less so by the time we left a few hours later.

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The bridesmaid bouquet made its final appearance in the desert.

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We stopped briefly in Tudela for a supermarket lunch, as it was not yet 1:00, so none of the restaurants had food yet.  Then we high-tailed it straight to Barcelona, where we promptly ditched the car for three days in favor of walking and public transit to avoid the maze of one way and forbidden streets.

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Crossing the Prime Meridian

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This being my third trip to Barcelona, it would seem I would be an expert.  But, no.  Barcelona is changing rapidly and I’m not sure it’s for the best.  They simply have too many tourists.  The city stopped issuing licenses for new tourist accommodations last year, but that just drove the prices up.  The tourists are still coming, and it’s obvious why.  Barcelona is a cool place, set right on the water, with an expansive beach, it offers unique architecture, delicious food and loads of culture.  A perfect combination that they are worried will turn them into a Spanish Venice, so dependent on tourism that the locals and their businesses are driven out.

La Sagrada Familia is changing as well, but let’s be honest, it’s about time.  They plan to be finished in 10 more years (144 years after construction began).  The ticket process has  changed since my last visit (which was only two years ago).  I had assumed we would go there early in the morning, wait in the long line and get our tickets for later in the morning.  So when no line awaited us as we approached the entrance I was a bit confused.  And when the sign said the next entry wasn’t for 5 hours, I was annoyed that I didn’t check before.  It seems they have gone digital and almost everyone buys their tickets online ahead of time.  We got incredibly lucky though, a group of 4 had canceled and we were able to enter 45 minutes later, which gave us time to grab breakfast before our scheduled entrance.

  This was my third visit (my first being almost 10 years ago) and it’s incredible to see the difference.  On my first visit, the nave was completely covered in plastic sheets and we could only walk in a single file line around the edge.  The facades were not nearly as complete and the towers not as tall.  Now we were able to wander the nave with our audio guides with 1000 other people gawking at the columns, glass and structure.

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La Sagrada Familia Facade
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Stained glass in the nave
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More stained glass
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La Sagrada Familia
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And more
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Construction up above
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Lord’s Prayer in many languages
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Statue
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La Sagrada Familia Nave
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More stained glass
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Incredible colors

One of the most interesting parts of La Sagrada Familia is going to the museum in the basement to see all the models and how Gaudi designed the building.  It is too bad he won’t get to see the completion, but he would have had to live to 174 years old.

We followed up our visit to La Sagrada Familia with another Gaudi creation, Parc Guell.  However, things have changed there as well and all the tickets for that time were sold out already and we couldn’t get in for another 5 hours.  So we walked around the outside, toured the Gaudi house museum and went home for a quick siesta before hitting the streets again to wander.

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Gaudi house museum with Barcelona beyond
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Barcelona street

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Barceloneta – by the water

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My parents spent their last day in Barcelona at more Gaudi buildings, where Riki and I had already been on our last trip.  We spent the day wandering, taking pictures (him), shopping (me) and laying on the beach because the water was too chilly to swim (for both of us).

Coming soon: Part 3 – South – Granada, Cordoba and up to Toledo