A journey to two of the most interesting and significant cities on the Iberian Peninsula really is an exercise in what not to see. There’s so much to explore — with layers of intrigue, history and adventure.
Unless you’re ready to move in and stay awhile, it’s better to zero in and pick a few of the highlights. Even so, your journey is likely to serve up some exciting twists and turns — it’s all part of the experience.
A visit to Seville, in the southwestern part of Spain, included some of the usual highlights: the cathedral and the palace, or Alcazar. Established monuments in the city offered audio guides with admission. But for an overview of the central historic district, fellow travelers recommended one of the free tours available through operators like Guru Walk. The guide collects tips at the end of the tour.
Like other capitals in southern Spain, the major structures were constructed on the sites of older Muslim mosques or fortresses. Seville’s cathedral is uniquely impressive, particularly because of the giant bell tower. The tower originally was constructed as a minaret to enable the call to prayer in the 8th century A.D. The city was retaken by the armies of Ferdinand III in 1248 and the mosque was re-purposed as a church. Work on the bell tower on top of the old minaret and on the cathedral stretched over many centuries, completed in 1506.
But around the time of Columbus’ first journey to the Americas in 1492, Seville became the trading center for goods from the New World. Gold, silver and tobacco all added to the wealth and prestige of the city. This wealth is reflected in part both in the cathedral and in the construction of the nearby Alcazar.
There’s actually another tower that rises as an iconic monument in Seville: the Torre del Oro or Golden Tower. The tower is not as high as the cathedral’s bell tower, but it stands tall on the shores of the Guadalquivir River as a beacon for sailors arriving from overseas — and a lookout for soldiers guarding the city.
Seville, along with Lisbon, Portugal, benefitted enormously from goods brought from the New World, spearheaded by explorers like Columbus and Magellan. The riches jump-started the Spanish Empire which included much of South America, Mexico and colonial outposts in the Pacific as far away as the Philippines.
The largest structure in the Seville Cathedral (aside from the massive altars throughout the building) is the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
Although the glory of the Spanish Empire and the preeminence of Seville has dimmed over the centuries, the city continues as a shining light of culture and entertainment.
Locals are quite proud of the giant world’s fair that Seville hosted in 1929, called the Iibero-American Exposition. Over 19 years, the city prepared for the exhibition with new buildings and wider boulevards. The giant “Plaza de España” is the landmark structure, which remains a favorite gathering place among giant fountains, pavilions, canals (with boats for rent) and extravagant gardens. After the world’s fair, many of the new buildings became embassies.”
Our feet were sore after tramping through the city with our guide, Miguel Angel. So he recommended his favorite theaters to watch a flamenco dance presentation. His favorite restaurants were on San Jacinto Street — just for pedestrians.
The population of Seville is around 700,000 people, but the central historic district is very walkable. On weekends — or when they’re lighting the Christmas lights, it gets crowded — but everyone’s in a good mood. Many locals reinforced that the fall and winter seasons are prime time for visits, since the summer can be unbearably hot.
Madrid is huge. There are more than 6.5 million residents. Even so, it’s easy to get around using public transit — a combination of buses, subway and taxis.
Getting to the city from Seville was easy on the high-speed trains: just a little under three hours to cover 242 miles.
Our No. 1 objective was to visit the Prado Museum, the main Spanish national art museum.
Camila, a guide with Trip Tours Madrid took us to see the highlights of the museum. Trip Tours is another free tour company, whose guides work just for tips.
Camila was very efficient, showing us the iconic works of the museum’s most famous displays, including works by Goya, Bosch, Rubens, Titian and Velazquez.
The Prado Museum is 200 years old and represents primarily the collection of the Spanish royal families. The kings weren’t too concerned with developing a balanced collection — they simply collected the works they loved the best.
The Prado is one of the greatest art museums in the world. There were several collections that we skipped. But when we return to Madrid, the Prado will be at the top of the list once again. No photos are permitted inside the museum.
Our hotel, Hotel Principal, is set on a busy corner in the city center. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels group, I was able to cash in some Chase credit card points for a comfy stay. I transferred points to my Hyatt Hotels account. That way, we received a free breakfast each morning, early check-in, late check-out and a room upgrade. The restaurant, Atico, has a delicious breakfast buffet.
There was no nearby cafe society as was the case in smaller cities across the region. There’s plenty of traffic and at this time of year, incredible Christmas lights on every street. Just walking around, we discovered a couple of the Christmas markets set up at squares around the city — there are at least 20 seasonal markets.
But you don’t have to look far to find the food and wine lovers in Madrid. Andre Jarabo loves to take visitors on his own curated selection of taverns and restaurants in the Latin Quarter of Madrid. Since restaurants and bars open or close or change hands frequently, Jarabo is always on the lookout for the best representation of classical Spanish food, wine and ambiance.
Many of Jarabo’s top picks are along the Calle Cava Baja near the Plaza Mayor. Jarabo’s tour is part history lesson, part wine tasting and part tasting menu. Some of the selections were not on my radar at all: vermouth and sherry for example. Add in some baby squid and thin-sliced mushrooms. But there also are delicious selections of fried cod and prime Iberian pork that you’ll dream about!
Spaniards get their vermouth on tap at local taverns. For most of us on Jarabo’s tour, the vermouth was a completely new selection. But it was the first beverage, to get us in the mood. It goes very well with some sort of fried pork that looks like extra-thick chunks of bacon. By the end of the evening, Jarabo shared wine from several different regions in Spain, including the famous Rioja wine region in northern Spain. Tour participants walk away with a better understanding of Madrid’s favorite foods — and a solid idea of where to return another night for dinner.
Left off the list this time was a visit to Portugal, a hike on the Camino de Santiago, a swim in the Mediterranean and a host of other fun options. We’ll save those for our next trip.