I'm so tempted to start this travelogue with a clickbait-y opener like "I went to Spain for 17 days and it changed my life".
The editor-in-me scoffs at the idea and hopes the writer-in-me can pull together sufficient inspiration from said life-changing trip to churn out a decent introduction. The writer-in-me (a forever lazy one at that) is still stuck in Spain, basking in the winter sun under an orange tree, mesmerised by the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is a conundrum of epic proportions.
The first question people asked me when I told them I'm travelling to Spain is whether I was inspired by Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. I would be lying if I said I wasn't (the film had a deep impact on me — not for any other reason but because it made me want to be rich AF to travel on whim). But more than wanderlust, it was celebration I was interested in. My husband and I were both turning 30 in a
spain span of 12 days, and we wanted to commemorate our official dive into adulthood.
And so we charted a plan to cover four cities: Madrid, Malaga, Seville and Barcelona.
At the onset I knew I was not interested in the Tomatina festival, or diving in Costa Brava, or running with bulls. I had no interest to take a pill in Ibiza or recreate Vicky Christina Barcelona in my head (would never turn down the opportunity to chill with Jarvier Bardem though, just saying).
I chose to travel to Spain to visit a culturally, artistically rich country in its off-season, to be lost in a sea of people who speak a language I don't know, to be surrounded by more World UNESCO Heritage sites that I could imagine, and eat all the paella and seafood I could stomach. I wanted to take long siestas, and walk in and around museums all day, hoping to soak in some creative inspiration for myself.
I intended to have the time of my life in Spain (read: party like it's 1999, as the Americans would say) and I'm happy to report I did.
Madrid is a city of pride; it's a city of hustlers. Madrid is also where Picasso's masterpiece Guernica has a house — in the prestigious Reina Sofia museum. The turbulent history of Spain can be felt and smelt in every corner of the city if you try hard enough, but for the most part, Madrid is also filled with selfie-obsessed tourists — somehow all concentrated in the famous Puerto Del Sol public square. Translated as Gate of the Sun, the Puerto Del Sol is the busiest part of Madrid, and also houses the famous bell tower where on New Year's eve, hordes of people follow the grape-eating tradition.
Of the three days we were in Madrid, every evening was spent sitting at Puerto Del Sol watching street musicians play the violin or guitar, and young locals b-boying. It's where the whole city seemed to gather for a sense of community chilling. Just a tiny walk ahead is the Plaza Mayor, the heart of Madrid. Cars and other vehicles aren't allowed in the area, so we willfully explored quaint cafes and unwinding lanes on foot. (Pro tip: if you miss spicy food, give the tapas bar a miss, and head to Walk to Wok: an Asian fast food joint where the bowls of schewuan sauce on display will give you butterflies).
Madrid's trump card, though, is Retiro Park. This is a widely debatable claim I've made, I know, but it is in the serene congregation of all things green, floral and beautiful that I found inner peace like no other. And I wasn't alone. Retiro Park was the one place that had minimal tourists: it was filled with locals looking for an afternoon breather. Apart from a huge lake in the middle of the park, a crystal palace and an ornate exhibition hall that boasted of artwork by a German artist, the park had many other tiny water bodies with ducks and turtles swimming around, and cherry-red/neon-yellow trees under which you can have your own picnic and feel like you're part of a Wes Anderson film.
Chocolatería San Ginés near Puerto Del Sol for authentic churros (it's been around since 1894). The long queue is worth it. If you pick one museum to visit, let it be the Reina Sofia (save the Prado museum for another time), so you can see Picasso's Guernica.
What you can skip:
Calle Gran Via (one of Madrid's busiest streets that'll make you feel right at home if you're from Mumbai) and Madrid's Royal Palace. Both are grand and lovely to walk around, but if you're pressed for time, easily avoidable. The postcards are prettier.
Let me tell you at the onset, if you ever visit Malaga, you're going to find it darn hard to leave. This beautiful coastal town — and also Antonio Banderas' birthplace as I would come to learn — is known for its Picasso tourism (he was born in Malaga too), but in my opinion, the city has so much prettiness in different pockets and fields, that you could spend weeks here and still be mesmerised.
Malaga had the perfect confluence of its Moorish past and a modern European vibe. Our airbnb host Nacho was kind enough to give us a personalised guide of where to go and what to do to extract the most from one of the oldest cities in Spain. And right on top of our list was the Alcazaba. A palatial fort in the centre of the city, that overlooks the port area and the (very) blue sea, the Alcazaba transports you back to the 1400s, when it was first constructed. At the foot of the fort is a Roman theatre that dates back to 1 BC.
One of the many stories we heard about this legendary amphitheatre is that it's where Banderas would perform when he was a young, struggling actor. Once he became famous, he wanted to buy property around the area so it would remind him of his roots. So he invested in a penthouse that overlooks the Alcazaba and the theatre (along with a charming restaurant right around the corner called El Pimpi).
If you want to peak into his home, there's a lovely terrace bar called Batik where you can stalk away while still staying classy, sipping on a gin-based cocktail. We spent most mornings chatting with Nacho, swapping stories about the politics of Spain and India respectively (he's a fellow journalist so our views matched). Among other lovely anecdotes and recommendations, he told us about how Malaga celebrates the Holy Week — one of the main cultural and religious events in the city. It falls in the week immediately before Easter, and is a commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
During the celebratory week, 42 "brotherhoods" (a Christian confraternity similar to the mandals in India that arrange Ganpati pandals and other religious functions) take out processions across the city, carrying huge sculptures weighing tonnes of kilos, portraying scenes from the Passion of Christ, or images of Virgin Mary. Nacho is part of one such brotherhood, and we also got a glimpse of the meeting place of Antonio Banderas' brotherhood Semanta Santa.
The Marriot hotel in Malaga has the best sunset view (along with an aerial view of the city).
Malaga also loves its gin and tonic, which they serve in a huge wine glass. Visit Gin-Tonic for the best cocktails in the city, and end your night with a seafood paella at El Pimpi.
Do a cycling tour of the city with Malaga Bikes Tours & Rentals with Kay and Farell (easily the best 3 hours of my time there).
What you can skip:
Skip the touristy Malagueta beach for a quieter coastal experience just a few km down the coast of Malaga (which is shaped like a 'U').
Seville has the sort of beauty that you won't be able to capture on your phone or on a camera. Everywhere you turn, you'll have an Instagram-ready frame waiting to overwhelm you. Seville smells of orange trees, marmalade and fresh croissants — if you're near the famous Alcazar and Cathedral area — and of spices and herbs (of all kinds, ahem) — if you're in the historically volatile Jewish quarter Santa Cruz. Each labyrinthine street has a different colour to boast of, and some of the traditional homes in Seville project Christian, Jewish and Arabic influences in its architechture (in tandem with their past).
You don't need me to tell you how grand and gorgeous the Real Alcázar de Sevilla is — a royal palace built by Castillian Christians where a Muslim fortress used to be many centuries ago. There are several walking tours (some of which are free) that will explain the traumatic history that the city has witnessed. Seville has small streets, but big stories. Most tourists seemed blissfully lost and in no hurry to find their way. If you were hoping to find a gypsy family dancing on the streets on Seville, you've been influenced by American media coverage of the city. The gypsy community is spread out across multiple quarters in an adjoining Triana neighborhood, also where you should go to catch an authentic Flamenco show.
Speaking of Flamenco, there's a raging debate on whether Seville is the birthplace of Flamenco. The other contenders are Granada, Cadiz and Codroba — all on the Andalusian coast. Origins notwithstanding, the easiest way to watch Flamenco without booking a show is to take a walk around some of the city's more touristy city squares, and watch young artists perform on the streets with passionate vehemence. I spent many hours just watching them tap away to glory while eating scoops of Gelato.
Climb the Giralda tower (approximately 34 stories high) for a spectacular view of the city.
Spend an afternoon sitting in the gardens of the Plaza de Espana, soaking in the sun.
What you can skip:
Honestly, I really struggled with this one. Every corner in this city is pretty as a picture. But stay away from marketeers who lure you into "authentic Flamenco shows". Flamenco is traditionally supposed to be an intimate affair and an authentic venue will not ask people to visit since there is place for only 30-40 in the audience. Do some research and decide where you want to go instead. My recommendation: La Casa del Flamenco.
Barcelona is Spain's answer to New York city — not my words, it was something I overheard two Americans say to each other as we were strolling around Passeig De Gracia. The long, winding road, replete with luxury brands and the most Mcdonalds' I've seen congregated anywhere in the country (when you've got to be touristy, you've got to be touristy), could be Spain's own version of the Champs-Élysées. It also had two lovely Gaudi landmarks: Casa Batllo, Casa Milà — underrated gems of architecture that people usually miss out on in a bid to visit the Sagrada Familia and the La Rambla, which are arguably the two most popular areas in Barcelona.
The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's work-in-progress Roman Catholic church (that's touted to finally be ready by 2026 to mark his 100th death anniversary), is Barcelona's glory, and towers over you from every corner of the city like the Eiffel would in Paris. The tourists love it (we spent hours just watching the ornate artwork on the building, and depending on which direction you at it from, you can see different colours and motifs), but the locals hate the hype around it, and absolutely detest selfie sticks (I see where they're coming from). Once the afternoon rush settles down and everyone head to their daily watering hole at night, you can hear locals walk by the Sagrada mocking tourists in what seems to be an inside joke.
It's so humbling to take early morning or late night strolls around the city and see so many faces belonging to different parts of the world. We bought croissants in the morning from Argentinian lady and her hole-in-the-wall bakery, the local grocery story close to our airbnb belonged to a Bollywood-loving Pakistani family. I had one of the best pepperoni pizzas of my life in a hidden cafe (you know the kind where the pepperoni becomes a crunchy, circular pocket of olive oil?), and finally learnt how to eat a whole tiger prawn without breaking shells all over my lap at a quaint Portugese restaurant, both near the Sagrada Familia main road. Barcelona was foodie heaven.
Sagrada Familia. It's worth the hype. Also, take a walk around the Gothic quarter in the old part of the city, and you'll be transported to a different century altogether.
What you can skip:
Ditch a day long excursion to Montserrat (a mountain range and adjoining hill town), which will involve taking a cable car to a higher altitude. The views (we hear) are breathtaking, but after so many days of soaking in culture, and religious context, all we wanted to do was (quietly) watch Barcelona go by. There is such a thing as too much tourism.
Myths and realities
Spaniards love their siestas. You probably won't get any work done during lunch hour — which isn't really an hour, more like a block in the afternoon when time stands still. Embrace it; get some gelato.
Do not walk around with a €100 note and beg for change. You will be scoffed at.
What they say is true: learning some basic Spanish will take you a long way.
Google maps is your best friend. If you're travelling from India like we did, and have a Vodafone connection, opt for an international pack. It costs Rs 5,000 for 30 days, but it is totally worth it, because the connectivity is amazing and incoming-outgoing calls, along with SMSes and unlimited data, is free.
Pick red meat over white in Spain (especially Barcelona). Iberiam ham is lip-smacking. Seafood is always an option, and will earn you brownie points from your server. Do not order a sangria, it's as potent as grape juice. Always pick cocktails. Live a little.