Welcome to part two of our two-month Twenty-twenty adventure in Spain.
In Part I, I talked about how we spent our days, the visitors we had, a quick stop in Amsterdam en route, and detailed the highlights from our four weeks in the beautiful Mediterranean city of Valencia.
Here, we’ll cover the remaining month that our family of four spent in spain, dividing our time between Barcelona and Madrid, the two largest cities in all of Spain.
We were extremely fortunate in our timing for this trip; we arrived in early January and left, as planned, in the first week of March, just as the COVID-19 epidemic was beginning to spread and before it was recognized as a true pandemic. I’m grateful that we were able to have a good four to five months of travel, which included two months in Mexico late 2019, before this period of uncertainty took hold.
Transportation in Spain
When we initially arrived at the airport in Valencia, we purchased a €10 TuiN Metro pass that could be used on subways and buses for multiple people. Kids under 10 rode free, and we had a nine-year old, so any time we used the public transportation system (which wasn’t all that often), it cost us three rides for the four of us. A ride within the city cost 72 Euro cents, and multi-zone (i.e. airport) rides cost a bit more because it was a longer distance across multiple zones.
When it was time to leave Valencia, we had our first long-distance Spanish train experience. Trains are booked in person at the train station or online at Renfe.com. I learned that most routes aren’t available online until a few weeks out; if you try to book well ahead of time, you won’t find many options.
There are regular speed (fast) trains that make somewhat frequent stops, and this is the train we took with our kids and my parents as we traveled from Valencia to Barcelona in 3 to 4 hours. There are also faster (ludicrous speed) AVE trains that rarely stop and hit top speeds approaching 300 km/hr. We took these from Barcelona to Madrid and from Madrid back to Valencia to catch our flight home.
In hindsight, it would have made more sense to do an “open jaw” flight and return home from a different airport if the cost was similar. That would have saved us a train ride, but the cost of these was very reasonable. The tickets we purchased for the three legs of the triangular route we took ranged from €22 to €44 apiece.
Both Barcelona and Madrid had easily navigable subway (metro) systems. Barcelona actually had two different train systems that traversed the city, so that’s a bit confusing, but we stuck with the Metro variety marked with a capital M.
Most of the time, when our destination was no more than a mile or two away, we walked. There were, however, instances where time was of the essence. There was the time I had to get home after running a half marathon with a stress fracture that made itself very apparent as soon as the race was over and my endogenous endorphins stopped working their magic. When we had company staying with us, we were also more likely to use the various metros and buses.
We took one side trip by bus to the historic city of Toledo, which is about an hour’s drive south of Madrid. The round-trip on an ALSA bus was just over €10 per person, and it was well worth it for a scenic day trip.
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Eating in Spain
We quickly learned that our typical meal schedule did not jive well with the Spanish custom of eating dinner 4 to 6 hours past what we consider to be a normal dinnertime.
Normally, we’re fairly early risers. Our kids have a light breakfast, and my wife and I break our fast with lunch around 11 a.m. Dinner’s usually served at 5:00 or 5:30 and we may have a snack before winding down our evening.
The restaurants in Spain operate on a different schedule. Lunch places might be open from 12:30 pm or 1:00 pm until about 4:00. Dinner places typically don’t open until 8:00 p.m. and often serve until midnight. If they happen to serve both lunch and dinner, they still shut down for 3 to 4 hours in between.
So we got to know the grocery stores really well!
That’s not to say we didn’t eat out at all — we did at least a couple of times a week, but we had to be a little creative. Sometimes it would be a late lunch or very early dinner out. Other times, we would feed our boys at home and my wife and I would have a dinner out after they went to bed.
One of our very last days in Madrid, I took my wife on a lunch date to Restaurante Botín, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world. They’ve been serving up fancy dishes like Hemingway’s favorite suckling pig since 1725. Supposedly, we were seated at the Hemingway table as it was described in his novel The Sun Also Rises in 1926.
Most of the time, we were picking up goods at one of several amazing supermarket chains and preparing meals at home. The groceries at places like Consum, Mercadona, Aldi, and Lidl were high quality and almost uniformly less expensive than what we’re used to paying in the states.
Produce, in particular, was much more affordable, and in addition to the supermarkets, there were also many small stores and stands selling only produce at very fair prices. Their red peppers were twice the size and half the price; apples were about the same price per kilogram as I’m used to paying per pound.
With a metro area of around six million people, the Catalan capital of Barcelona is bustling with activity.
We met our Airbnb host in our 2nd floor apartment, which is really a 4th floor apartment because there was a ground floor, mezzanine floor, and then the first floor. She spoke a lot of Spanish, and we mostly nodded along, picking up a few words here and there. Fortunately, there were instructions in English, although the rules are pretty straightforward. We’re not smokers, not loud, and we can usually figure out how to work the appliances well enough.
For our two weeks in Barcelona, we had a really lengthy 4-bedroom, 1.5 bath apartment overlooking the street on one end and the courtyard on the other. We were in the heart of the Eixample neighborhood, four or five blocks west of the architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, an art nouveau apartment building on the high-end shopping street Passeig de Gràcia.
Over the course of two weeks, we toured all over the city, first with my parents and again with my wife’s aunt, so we got to know Barcelona rather well. My wife and I also ran 13.11 miles through the streets with 23,000 other half-marathoners. I’ll share some of the highlights from our perspective.
There are some incredible buildings scattered throughout the city of Barcelona. The Dr. Suess-like works of Gaudi get the most attention, and deservedly so, but there’s a lot more to see. I particularly enjoyed the campus of the decommissioned Sant Pau Hospital with a mixture of above and below ground wards and clinics built in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Gaudi’s buildings dominate the must-see architectural sites, and La Sagrada Familia, the 500+ foot tall cathedral which has been under construction since 1882 and is slated to be completed by 2026, is at the top at that list. We scheduled our visit for late afternoon to take advantage of the sun striking the thousands of multi-colored stained glass windows. It is a truly majestic place.
Another ticketed Gaudi site was intended to be a community on the hill, but it never really gained traction, so there are only a handful of buildings and gathering places at Park Güell. The homes, staircases, and park-like setting are quite fanciful and colorful with tile mosaics galore. Another popular building, also on Passeig de Gràcia is Casa Battló with its wild columns, curvy doorways and balconies, and intricate tilework adorning the face of the building.
Overlooking the city and port atop a bluff on the south side of town, the 17th century fortress turned military museum is worth the trip for the views alone, and it’s a great stop for any history buff.
Montjuïc Castle was captured by the British in the early 18th century and by the French in the Napoleanic Wars in the early 19th century. In the 20th century, it played a key role in the Spanish Civil War, and it was the site of the execution of Catalan President Lluís Companys in 1940.
There is a gondola that can take you there from far below near the harbor, but it was not up and running during our stay. We chose to bus it up and walk it down. It would be a lot more work to do it the opposite way!
The aforementioned glitzy Passeig de Gràcia ends at the national plaza, Plaça de Catalunya, and a new street, La Rambla, begins one block over and continues for nearly one mile south to the sea.
La Rambla is a 100-feet wide street with an uninterrupted median for pedestrians that is full of life. There are all sorts of vendors, street performers, and a huge indoor / outdoor market named after Saint Joseph (Sant Josep).
We happened to be there during what we call Mardi Gras and they call Carnival, and La Rambla was where we caught a small parade and street party that culminated in a very odd but colorfully lit show involving puppets in different windows and people dressed as foods. There were fireworks, too.
The Gothic Quarter and El Born
Just to the East of La Rambla are two adjacent neighborhoods known as the Gothic Quarter and El Born.
Here, you’ll find some of the oldest buildings in Barcelona, and more than enough winding alleyways to get lost several times over. Around each corner, you’ll find quirky shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, and the small streets occasionally give way to large, open plazas.
We took in the Picasso Museum and walked around several historic churches in the area. Our boys completed portions of their Mission Barcelona book here and all around town to earn ever-so-precious points, which they redeemed with us for little gifts my wife’s cousin sent along with us.
Our location in Eixample turned out to be an excellent choice for the craft beer lover in the family.
Just two blocks away from our apartment, the Danish brewery Mikeller, known worldwide for pushing the envelope with unique styles and high-quality beers, had a little Barcelona outpost. My wife sampled a few brews and recreated some of their label art that hung on the wall above our table.
Two blocks further south was Garage Beer Company, a brewery recommended to me by Mr. & Mrs. WoW. I can honestly say I had the best India Pale Ales I’ve found outside of the United States. And yes, I know the style originated in Burton, U.K. but we’ve come a long way since they used extra hops and higher alcohol content to keep their beers from spoiling on the long voyage to India.
Many of the corner markets around us had craft beer shelves with unique selections and label art. The can of double dry hopped double IPA from Rec Brew & La Signatena featuring the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea in love was particularly lovely.
The final two weeks of our two-month adventure in Spain took us to Madrid, the nation’s capital.
Unlike Valencia and Barcelona, both of which are port cities on the Mediterranean Sea, Madrid is further inland and at a slightly higher elevation. That made for weather in March resembling that of Valencia in January; it was still pleasant with highs in the upper 50s and plenty of sunshine.
The city also has a more varied topography than the relatively flat port cities, although both Barcelona and Valencia were surrounded by hills and small mountains. Madrid is no San Francisco, but it does have its share of hills.
As our time there wrapped up, we ventured out a bit less and were quite cautious when we did. If we were going to catch this strange new virus, we would have preferred to do so on our own soil. To date, fortunately, we have not.
Still, we did see quite a lot, realizing that it could be a long time before we were able to travel internationally again. The highlights:
The Royal Palace (Palacio Real)
This modest abode with over 3,400 rooms remains the official residence of the Spanish Monarchy, although the royals no longer actually live on site. For centuries, however, the 1.4 Million square foot Royal Palace served as the home to numerous kings and queens.
Most of it is roped off to the public, but visitors are allowed to tour some incredibly ornate bedrooms, changing rooms, and dining rooms that were once inhabited by the royal families of Spain.
I was most impressed by the Royal Armoury, a portion of the palace that serves as a museum with weapons and intricate armor for both humans and horses dating back to the 15th century. It’s amazing to consider how advanced they were in Europe at the time compared to other continents that, for the most part, had not yet been exposed to “the outside world.”
Grand (and Free!) Museums
I’ll freely admit that I’m not a big art guy, but I can appreciate the skill of painters and sculptors and their devotion to their crafts. I also believe it’s worthwhile to expose our kids to the art world, even if they don’t yet appreciate it, and Madrid is one of best places in the world to experience fine art at its finest.
We barely scratched the surface of what’s available in town, but we did make it to the Museo del Prado and the Reina Sofia, both at times where admission was complimentary. We saw hundreds of works, some by people even I’ve heard of, like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
We also gained free admission to the Museo Casa de la Moneda, a.k.a the Money Museum. We all enjoyed eyeing up coins, bills, and other objects used as currency over the centuries from civilizations spanning the globe. The museum also housed massive machines used to mint money back in the day. It was an interesting change of pace from the walls of paintings in most of the other museums we toured.
A Day Trip to Toledo
No, we did not squeeze in a trip to Ohio during our two months in Spain. It turns out that that Toledo is not the first Toledo, and the one south of Madrid at a bend of the Tagus River, has been a key city occupied at various times by Christian, Muslim, and Jewish peoples.
Toledo, Spain is a picturesque city on a hill with stone buildings, bumpy narrow roads, and for those that don’t like to climb stairs, a set of indoor / outdoor escalators to bring you from near the bus station to the city center.
We spent the day hiking from one historic site to the next with a pass we purchased that covered admission at each of them. Our boys could use a press to make a relief stamp at each site on the map that doubled as a scorecard to keep track of where we’d been.
Tourism is definitely the top industry in Toledo these days, but they’re also known for their metalwork, so if you’re in need of a longsword the next time you’re in Spain, Toledo is the place to be.
We Miss Spain!
Two months was not enough time in Spain, but we’re lucky we left when we did.
Since returning home, we’ve been advancing our Spanish language studies with Duolingo, and I know we’ll return someday. Madrid and Barcelona were beautiful cities, but Valencia remains our favorite of the three largest cities (and only cities we’ve spent much time in thus far).
We loved Valencia for its green spaces, easy walkability, funky and historic downtown, and gorgeous beach. The fact that it was the city that introduced us to Spain also plays a role in it being our favorite. There wasn’t as much “newness” in Barcelona and Madrid after spending a month in Valencia.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start exploring what it would take to obtain a Golden Visa for Spain. I may have recently browsed realty listings on Idealista.
I do know that we will return to Spain, but I can’t say when or in what capacity. First, we need this pandemic to end, and there’s a lot more world (and a lot more of Spain) waiting to be explored!
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Have you traveled to Spain? What are some of your favorite places or attractions?