The last time the three of us had gone on a trip was the summer of 1994 after our senior year in engineering school. P was getting married and going to complete her Master’s degree in Canada, S had been accepted into an MBA program in Illinois, and little did I know at the time but I was embarking on a long journey into the bowels of academia in Wisconsin.
It was a heady time – our exams were over, we had 2 months before we would be in a different continent, so we took the train to Goa where my parents lived and spent many magical days sleeping, going to the beach, drinking beer, and eating our body weight in shrimp and fried fish. We had been joined at the hip for the last 4 years in college and this last idyllic carefree summer watching the sunset over the Arabian Sea on beautiful Bogmalo beach, was a wonderful way to end one chapter of our lives and begin a new one.
The next 20 years we collectively got 4 degrees, dated, broke up, got married, had 6 children, had health scares, changed jobs, changed careers, bought houses, sold houses, moved to different cities, moved to different countries, and made new friends. But we kept in touch online and every time I went back to India for holidays, we would get together to wallow in nostalgia. And make elaborate plans to go on vacation without kids and spouses – so, really a fantasy vacation – but nothing ever worked out and the timing was never right – until this year!
For two months we planned each detail – let’s go somewhere we haven’t been – bought tickets, booked hotels and apartments, rented a car, and read every website and guide book we could lay our hands on for……[Drum roll please]………ESPAÑA!! And the choices of places to visit within Spain were endless – Barcelona, Toledo, Valencia, had to be reluctantly nixed and we narrowed it down to the following:
Madrid: S and I meet at Madrid airport on the last day of April. She has flown in from India and when I see her sitting at baggage claim I have to pinch myself because I can’t believe we are finally doing this! After much hugging and kissing, we take the bus into downtown Madrid.
Our hotel is in a bustling square in the city center called Puerta del Sol. It is cheap and clean and we dump our bags and head out into the bright sunshine. We walk down the Calle Arenal, stopping for some sangria, before heading to the absolutely enormous Royal Palace. We wander around the Plaza de Oriente in front with it’s lovely gardens and obligatory marble statues. We walk past the Cathedral with its gleaming pale blue stone construction set against the azure Spanish sky.
We turn left and walk to the Plaza Mayor. Around the plaza are shops and a market where we sample some of the best sangria of our whole trip – it’s made with champagne instead of wine and is absolutely divine. Our next stop is a short walk away – the Prado Museum – with the most amazing collection by the Spanish painter Goya, along with Rubens and El Grecos and Rembrandts. After an hour it’s time to head back to the bus stop to pick up P.
We have an early train the next day but that evening we drink too much wine and stay up too late chatting – the very thought of the next 7 days is headier than the wine we’ve imbibed! The next morning, after eating what would be the most expensive breakfast of our trip – seriously, 45 Euros, ridiculous – we head to the Atocha station and our train to…
Cordoba: We arrive in the late morning and drop off our bags at a nearby shop that rents out lockers. Our cab drops us off in the old Jewish quarter and we walk through narrow streets flanked by houses with bright whitewashed walls with colorful flowers.
We arrive at the Mezquita, the turducken sandwich of places of worship. There is an old 6th century Visgothic Christian church under the medieval mosque and in the middle of the mosque is a 13th century church. All these are so seamlessly integrated that you really can’t tell where the mosque ends and the church begins. It’s quiet and peaceful inside the Mezquita with the light filtering in softly through the lattice windows as we walk through the beautiful arches. We wander into the chapel and it’s as if you are transported from an ancient Islamic golden age into a renaissance Venetian cathedral. It’s unexpected but not jarring.
We leave the Mezquita and walk across the Roman bridge on the Guadalquiver river, and then it’s time for tapas and wine! Cordoba is magnificent but we have a train to catch so it’s back to the station and on to…..
Sevilla: Inma, our Airbnb hostess, picks us up at the station. Her apartment is a 10 minute walk from the Cathedral and Alcazar…….unfortunately a fact we learn only on the last night!! The first evening we walk around Barrio Santa Cruz. The dinner crowd starts at 10 pm so the Barrio is hopping late into the night. Sevilla reminds me a little of Venice with it’s tiny fractal like streets and confusing lay out. The next morning we take a guided walking tour of the city. Our guide tells us about the history of the Jews in Sevilla, the Inquisition, the Crusades – it’s absolutely fascinating. We head to the pink facaded Church of the Savior where we see some truly remarkable Baroque architecture. And we finish the day with cold beer, sangria, tapas, and wine – this is becoming a bit of a theme!
The next day is time for the big two – the Cathedral and climb up the bell tower, and the Alcazar. The altar in the Cathedral is breathtaking – pictures don’t do it justice – with intricate wood carvings showing scenes from Jesus’ life, it is a massive 65 feet tall. Also in the cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus! Same guy who didn’t stop to ask for directions and so named the first land he found – India! Typical man! The climb to the bell tower is surprisingly easy with a broad ramp that used to accommodate people on horseback and the view is so worth it.
Next, it’s on to the Alcazar – it is the oldest working palace in Europe. There are three main buildings and beautiful gardens with a musical water fountain. The guide shows us the room where Columbus met Queen Isabel after discovering the New World. And all along the room are the flags of famous explorers – Columbus, Magellan, Vespucci – it’s fascinating to think that all these explorers set out from the port of Sevilla, and for all they knew they could have been sailing off the edge of the world! Then it’s on to King Pedro’s palace, beautifully decorated with Moorish design. It’s unique that this very Christian king hired Muslim architects to build him a palace in the Islamic style, with a central courtyard and beautiful ceramic tiles – a reminder of a time long ago when these cultures existed in relative harmony – relative. We then visit the Hall of Tapestries and the lush gardens.
Our last night in Sevilla, we finally go to a Flameco show – the dancers are energetic and passionate….and just slightly intimidating! I mean – you’re in Spain for god’s sake!! What do you have to be so angry about?! The next morning we pick up our car – and they upgrade us to a BMW!! Holy shitballs! We are off through Andalucia’s White Hill Towns (Rueta de los Pueblos Blancos) to visit….
Zahara and Ronda: We have only budgeted a day for this drive so we pick these two towns to visit since Rick Steves (he of the amazing guidebook who cannot be thanked enough!) recommends them. We drive out from Sevilla and soon we are off the highway and deep into the gorgeous Andalusian countryside. With rolling hills and and blue lakes and soon we start seeing little white towns dotting the countryside like pearls. Our first stop is Zahara – it sits on a hill along a large lake and above it towers an enormous Moorish castle. We spend a couple of hours just walking around the town with its cobbled streets and magnificent views, and after lunch we set out for Ronda. The road along the lake is spectacular and the car is a dream to drive. Ronda straddles a gorge with an impressive bridge that connects the two parts. Ronda is also famous for it’s bullring – but I morally object to the idea of killing an animal for sport so we pass it by in favor for some oxtail tapas – yes I’m a hypocrite because beef just tastes good!
We leave Ronda reluctantly and make our way east to the bustling city of….
Granada: Our apartment is at the foot of the Albayzin, a short walk from the center of town, Plaze Nueva. That evening we venture out into the heart of the Moorish quarter to the San Nicolas viewpoint to see the magnificent Alhambra in the sunset. And it does not disappoint. With snowcapped mountains as the backdrop, the Alhambra is a reminder of the deep Moorish roots in Southern Spain. And when the lights go on the crowds watching with us collectively sigh to see this sumptuous feast for the eyes. We head back through the Alcaiceria, Moorish silk market, to dinner. The Albayzin is definitely a place to wander around in, but at night is not as friendly as Sevilla – crowds don’t linger too much and some parts get slightly hairy so be on the lookout.
The next day we head out to the Alhambra where we wander the gardens and check out Charles the V Palace. We have no tickets to see the Royal Palace, undoubtedly the most beautiful part of the Alhambra, because someone (me) did not read the guidebook in advance :-(! But we can wander the grounds and they are magnificent too. We head back into town and after lunch we visit the Cathedral and Royal Chapel. The chapel has the tombs of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, the most famous Spanish monarchs. Also it has the tomb of Phillip the Fair and Juna the Mad – what an awesome name for a queen – that alone is worth the cost of a ticket! Right next door to the Chapel is the Cathedral with the most beautiful ornate organ and main altar.
Our last night in Granada we return to the apartment and proceed to go through two bottles of wine, and then make our way to the bar across the street for more wine and tapas! S and P are sick of cathedrals and monuments and architecture and threaten me with a world of hurt so the next morning we leave early and head south to…..
Nerja: On the very busy Southern coast of Spain, amidst the more touristy towns of Gibraltar and Malaga, Nerja is a relatively quiet town. The drive from Granada takes you along the ocean for 45 minutes with views of the Mediterranean that will make you weep. We walk to the Balcony of Europe, a pedestrian bluff that extends over the sea. P and I venture into the ocean which is really cold but mad tourists are still bathing! I am graciously allowed to spend 10 min in the Church of San Salvador and then it’s on to tapas and beer at El Pulguilla – a fun bar with glorious sea food.
After strolling around the lovely little town and having some of the best ice cream known to man it’s time to leave Nerja and drive the 6 hours back to Madrid.
The last few hours of our trip fly by. We spend a night in a nondescript airport hotel and the next day, one by one, each of us leaves. S to join her family in Barcelona. P back to London, and me back to Switzerland. It has been a magical week and parting is sweet sorrow.
In 38 hours my sabbatical will be coming to an end and the last day in Winterthur drags so hard. I can’t wait to be home where I don’t have to start each conversation with “I’m sorry, I can’t speak [insert language here] – do you speak English?” I can now say that in German, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian! A completely useless life skill if you ask me! Next sabbatical – Canada!!
Thanks for sticking it out to the end of this disgracefully long post!! I do apologize!! If you’ve managed to get this far, you are all real troopers and deserve a little something more…..so here’s some more to read!
-You get one free tapas plate with each drink you order – something we realized towards the end of the trip! And the tapas are listed in order of their popularity in the bar – so go for the first few because those are the ones that bar is famous for.
-Do start your day with freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast – it’s divine and the juicer looks really nifty too!
-If you’d like to see the Royal Palace inside the Alhambra you need to book your tickets at least 2 months in advance! I didn’t and consequently never got to see it – but I drowned my sorrows in Sangria and Cava so all was not lost!
-Stay in Ronda one night if you can – I wish we had done that because it has a lot of really nice hiking paths along the gorge that you can explore.
-I have never seen a sky the color of blue as I did in Spain – it’s such an intense saturated blue. And when you are on the shores of the Mediterranean you see so many shades of blue it’s as if the frequency resolution of your retinas has dropped to be able to distinguish light separated by nanometers of wavelength! Sorry, sometimes geek is the only language I can speak.
-I cannot recommend a vacation with your girl friends highly enough! We spoke about kids and husbands, but we also spoke about life and music and books and hobbies and politics and religion and fashion and shoes and our struggles and our triumphs – in short, stuff that had nothing to do with our relationships or the fruit of our loins! Because real women are really good at real conversations!
-Here’s the soundtrack from our road trip. We didn’t have a blue convertible but we were upgraded to a BMW that I got to drive around. Spain is heartbreakingly beautiful and – in case you’re wondering – I’m Farhan Akhtar – he’s the short dude with the hat!!