Hola Espana!

Just over four weeks in Budapest. Who knew? We didn’t expect to stay this long however we decided it would be nice to just chill and see what it was like to ‘live’ in a different city for an extended period of time. Having never done this before, we were keen to find out what it would be like. More about Budapest in my final post next week before we head home. We postponed Israel a couple of months ago due to what was going on (regret it now however I know we will be back in the next couple of years) and had plans to maybe visit Croatia however our home in the centre of one of the loveliest cities in Europe beckoned us to stay. So we did.

Spain. We arrived from London excited to explore four cities in just under two weeks and we were under it’s extraordinary spell the minute we touched down in Madrid (thanks Air Europa! Another top low cost carrier). A few highlights from each city will follow here as I would be writing for hours if I mentioned everything we experienced.

Madrid –
Our base in Madrid was the very regal ‘The Westin Palace Madrid’ http://www.westinpalacemadrid.com, a Starwood property, the hotel (467 rooms and suites) is located at the heart of Madrid’s cultural, historic, artistic and retail centre. Four of the city’s most prestigious art institutions – the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Reina Sofia Museum and the Caixa Forum exhibition space – are all within easy walking distance making this hotel the perfect base for art lovers. Just a few minutes walk from the hotel is the chic neighbourhood known as the Barrio de las Letras, the streets of which are lined with designer boutiques, fascinating art galleries and great restaurants (sort of like Madrid’s Soho) all waiting to be explored. Built by order of King Alfonso XIII in 1912, The Westin Palace was recently restored and it’s looking absolutely beautiful. The magnificent building, highlighted by an enormous stained glass dome, has been a centre of spanish society for almost 100 years. You really can feel how important this property is to the local community. Lots of atmosphere and fantastic staff. I recommend this hotel for anyone looking for a 5 star hotel as a base while visiting Madrid. I stumbled across a lovely 4 star property called the Vincci Soho near our hotel which is part of the http://www.vinccihoteles.com group which have quite a few lovely properties in Spain (Spanish rustic). Worth checking out. During the first couple of days after arriving in Madrid I was busting to have some seafood paella and was recommended a restaurant called La Barraca to whet my appetite by the very helpful concierge team at our hotel. I wasn’t disappointed http://www.labarraca.es. Located just off the ‘Gran Via’ (big shopping strip), we were able to eat and then walk it off while checking out all the interesting shops and galleries and soak up the lifestyle of Madrid (with a churros in hand of course).

We loved walking through the beautiful ‘Parque del Retiro’ during our stay. Such a stunning park full of families enjoying the lovely weather, couples strolling hand in hand and weird looking Disney characters scattered about (there was a bloke dressed up in a Mickey Mouse costume in 35 degrees heat offering pictures for a price of course). No thanks Mickey. There is a lake in the middle of the park which has an impressive monument to Spain’s King Alfonso XII where we were able to hire a boat and row around with the kids. We had a few near misses with fellow lake rowers however a great activity to do with kids. As mentioned above, the impressive Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza museum http://www.museothyssen.org was near our hotel and was hosting a great ‘Pop Art Myths’ exhibition which we all loved.I have always loved this type of art and was keen to explore and learn more more about it. I loved finding out that Pop Art conceals a fascinating paradox: On the one hand, it was an innovative movement that broke new ground in the path towards postmodernity; but at the same time it was clearly oriented also towards the past. My favourite part of the exhibition was the ‘Art about Art’ era that started in the early 1970s. The aim of this was artists like Andy Warhol posing questions about the ‘evolution of our gaze’ directed at the old master classic paintings.For example, Warhol created new versions of Botticelli using silkscreened photographs. I immediately saw the humour in it and loved having a giggle with the kids while looking at a few of the humorous interpretations. I hope this exhibition comes to Sydney one day and if it does, go see it!

OK, so back to food. If you have been following this blog over the past few months this obsession about writing about our food experiences should not be a surprise. I truly believe that searching out for good food is a great way to explore a city when travelling and can really make a holiday so much better. Maybe I should have called this blog #foodmakesmehappy? After visiting the above mentioned exhibition, we were pretty hungry and decided that a visit to the Mercardo San Miguel for a ‘light’ tapas lunch would be our next stop. Are you kidding me? There was nothing light about it. This place made me so happy and the food on offer by the many vendors was so delicious. The dangerous part about eating tapas for me is that I kind of forget how much I am actually eating and ended up feeling slightly nauseous from eating so much food. We spent just over an hour getting acquainted with all types of lovely Spanish delicacies and then headed over to La Posada del Peine, a lovely street of the city near Plaza Mayor Madrid where we fell in love with the architecture and general mood. We returned to the same spot the next day to have a recommended ‘Bacadillo de Calamares’ (Calamari in a bread roll) at the lovely yet simple ‘Taberna Costas Quince’ and a successful purchase of colourful espadrilles for Nat and Sash at a shop nearby.There is also a great Portugese chain of cafe’s in Madrid that sell the best custard tarts. Make sure to grab a few next time you are in town at ‘Nata’ http://www.natalisboa.com. I could write so much more however will refrain as I know it’s getting a bit long winded and I still need to pick a few highlights in the three other cities we visited and try and will try to keep to a couple of paragraphs per city.

Seville –
We arrived to Seville by train and it was hot. Really hot. Our base for three days was the extraordinary Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville http://www.hotel-alfonsoxiii-seville.com, a Luxury Collection property with Starwood and also a Virtuoso property.This hotel was a highlight for me (and the family) during our travels.The Alfonso XIII in Seville was built in time for the Ibero-America Exposition & Fair of 1929, together with so many other beautiful buildings in Seville that are now homes to government offices, museums, studios, and embassies.The Alfonso is built in a beautiful setting, gated with gardens and sculpture paths in front and to the sides. It’s built like an 18th century palace, with a courtyard in the middle and the rooms either looking into the courtyard or outside. It’s located right beside the important monuments of Seville – especially the al-important Alcazares and the cathedral with the Giralda tower. The style is neo-classical exterior with a ‘neo-mudejar’ feel inside. The exquisite tilework in the lobby is breathtaking – so are the Moorish arches separating the various lobby sections. The beautiful bedrooms (151 in total and renovated in 2012) also exude the classy moorish ambience and Nat and I really couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces, we were in Moroccan heaven and loved every second of our stay. An added bonus of course was the swimming pool which was really appreciated when needing to escape the soaring heat in the middle of the day. A morning activity, a lovely lunch, back for a swim followed by a siesta and then a night out (once it cooled down) was generally how our ‘Andalucia’ days played out in Southern Spain.

We visited all the main sights including the Plaza de Espana, Jardines del Alcazar and Plaza del Museo and made sure we went for a fun dusk ride on one of the many horse drawn carriages around the city. We actually did this two nights in a row as it was such a lovely way to appreciate one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. Seville comes alive at night and we enjoyed our time in the old Jewish Quarter of Seville (Barrio de Santa Cruz) which wasn’t far from our hotel. We came across an exhibition which educated us about the Jews who inhabited this area in the Middle Ages and the Sephardi Jews who still live within it today. The history is heart wrenching to hear however the fact that our culture has remained through habits, customs, songs and tales is testament to the strong Spanish Sephardi Jewish community. We walked around the many tapas bars and restaurants in this area and were once again well fed each night thanks to the abundance of food on offer. One of my favourite tapas bars was ‘Bodeguita la Parihuela’ in Barrio de Santa Cruz. Look up the reviews on Trip Advisor as I am sure you have read probably enough about our food experiences in Europe! Also make sure to check out ‘La Mucca’ when in Seville if you are looking for a great bar which serves different types of meat and cheese http://www.lamucca.es.

Lastly, we wanted to experience the traditional Flamenco experience and after a bit of internet searching, booked the Tablao El Arenal via Travelcall’s Viator site! Great value for money (we booked the drink and show option) and we had such an exciting evening http://www.tablaoelarenal.com. There are a few dud shows in town and we were glad that this one had great reviews. The show went for 90 minutes and we all (yes the kids were hooked) loved it. I was told that UNESCO have declared the art of Flamenco dance as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. There really is something about it that digs deep into the soul when you are watching it performed by the true artists of Tablao El Arenal. It’s passionate, moving, exciting, entertaining and soulful. The voices, the palms of the hands, the guitar and the tapping of the feet (and that was just us getting ready at the hotel before the show). No, not really. Perhaps Mrs G and I should investigate taking some lessons in Sydney on our return? That would be fun. Maybe not.

Hotel find!
There is a lovely hotel also in the Old Jewish Quarter area which I inspected and loved (traditional Spanish style) called Hotel Casa 1800 http://www.hotelcasa1800.com. They also have a sister property in Granada http://www.hotelcasa1800granada.com.
Granada –
Out of all the cities in Spain, I was really excited to visit Granada as for years I have been hearing all about The Alhambra and it’s breath taking beauty. A couple of hours train from Seville to Granada and we arrived at our base right next door to the UNESCO listed spot at the Hotel Alhambra Palace http://www.h-alhambrapalace.es. It’s a perfect location if you’re in Granada mainly to see Alhambra. It’s 10 minutes walk from the hotel. The hotel (100 years old and same style as Alhambra) has a great view towards the city. From the balcony of their restaurant you get the best view of the city which is amazing and pretty romantic. Staff are very helpful and assisted us confirming tickets to see the Alhambra. Tip – make sure to always pre-book prior to departure as only limited numbers allowed in each day and tickets can be scarce (especially in peak season).

Similar to most cities in Spain, the city of Granada came alive at night and we loved walking to the Albayzin area to soak up the nightlife and Moroccan influenced cafes and shops. Once again, this area was the Old Jewish Quarter and it dawned on me how fascinating that it’s always the Jewish areas that are usually the most popular in many of the European cities we have visited during this trip in terms of food, culture and fashion. We didn’t plan to always visit these areas as soon as we got to a new city however we sort of instinctively searched them out and ended up spending so much time enjoying what was on offer. We have done the same in Budapest as well, hanging out in the old Jewish Quarter as it’s one of the liveliest areas in town however more about that when I write the final post in a couple of days! OK, so back to Granada and the magnificent Alhambra. While the city is beautiful, the Alhambra was really the reason we visited Granada. The palace of the Moorish sultans, it is historically significant and impressive. Hard to believe that after 1600 it became deserted and inhabited by gypsies and squatters. It was not until the 1820s when the American author Washington Irving spent 6 months here and writing his Tales of the Alhambra that anyone took any interest in the place. Restored and well kept up, this is one of Spain’s and Europe’s major attractions. What a beautiful setting – the views, the fountains, the detail – it was all breathtaking. Our 3 hour tour was perfect and the kids loved running around the gardens and resting under the shade of the trees when it got a bit hot.

My two favourite areas in The Alhambra were the ‘Throne Room’ and the ‘Generalife’ gardens. The Throne Room (Hall of the Ambassadors) took my breath away. Every inch of this huge room is covered with tile work and plaster work with geometric designs representing Islamic heaven. This room was designed to impress, and it does. After the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, took over Granada, they used the Alhambra. Fact : It was in the Throne Room that Columbus asked for funds to explore the new world, and Isabel said yes.The Generalife is where the sultans went to relax. Water is everywhere here – running down stairway banisters, bubbling out of fountains, running down walls, reflecting the flowers in garden pools. Don’t miss the water stairway, where the kids splashed their hands in the little bubbling fountains on the ground. In the lower gardens, we ran around and in and out of the doorways in the cypress hedges,almost like a maze. We lost Jamie for a while but like a homing pigeon, he found his way back and we continued on our way. We loved it.
Tips:
Feel like a Hammam experience? Visit http://granada.hammamalandalus.com/en
Best ice cream I have EVER had (sorry Messina). Visit Los Italianos http://www.granadainfo.com/elvirag/italianos/index.htm
Shopping for Moroccan homewares (Yep we did)? Visit Baraka Art in the Albayzin c/Caldereria Nueva, 3.

Barcelona –
Our last stop in Spain and we were ready to get our Gaudi on. We arrived at our base at the very well located, clean and comfortable ‘Majestic Residences’ http://www.majesticresidence.es/en/ right on Passeig de Gràcia (main shopping street of Barcelona). We could not have asked for a better location.We stayed in a two bedroom Apartment and it was huge. It had two bedrooms with two separate bathrooms, a huge fully equipped kitchen with washing machine dryer, dishwasher etc. The living room had a balcony where we could soak up the lovely sounds of Barcelona. Our apartment was on fifth floor and had an awesome view. The service was excellent and any requests we had were handled brilliantly by its ‘big sister’ hotel across the road, the Majestic Hotel. Highly recommended for families.

I was keen for the kids to do another kids tour and Nat found a wonderful company called Runner Bean Tours
http://www.runnerbeantours.com and we booked a Gothic Quarter kid friendly walking tour immediately. We weren’t disappointed. Amazing value and Anne-Marie was exactly what we needed to keep the kids (and us) entertained for a few hours during our first day in Barcelona. Ann-Marie shared stories of Barcelona’s history with hand-drawn pictures, engaged the kids in colouring exercises, sweetened them with locally-made sweets, visited several historic sites, and took us into the back room of a 175 year old toy store. Keeping the kids engaged for 3 hours isn’t easy (and we were walking pretty much the whole time), however Ann-Marie did it with no fuss. We also ended up booking a Gaudi walking tour with her company the next day which was sensational and highly recommended as well when you visit Barcelona in the future. This Gaudi walking tour (2.5 hours) was actually FREE (what?) and you donate what you feel it was worth. Interesting concept. Catherine (from Ireland originally) was our guide and she was brilliant.The guides on these free tours by Runner Bean make their living through tips only, so they are likely to be more invested in the tour and provide an excellent experience. Catherine studied arts and arts history at uni so she’s armed with lots of fun facts. Highly recommended. Was Gaudi a madman or genius? I think genius! My favourite stop on the tour was The Sagrada Familia, Antonio Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. Construction on this church will continue for at least another 10-15 years however it is clearly already become Barcelona’s most important landmark.

Tips:
Extraordinary Tapas restaurant near Passeig de Gracia (turn up early as its pumping) – Catalana Cerveseria (Mallorca 236)
Great toy/circus shop for kids – El Ingenio http://www.el-ingenio.com (Gothic area)
Best nougat shop – Vicens http://www.vicensonline.com/en/
Best snack bar if looking for a quick feed (dreamt about the hot sambos for days afterwards) – Conesa http://www.conesaentrepans.com

Thanks if you have read this far!
So much more I could write however I need to get back to the family and enjoy the last few days of Budapest! Happy Bday to my beautiful Nerts and wishing all well over the fast.
Home soon..adios!

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