The Spanish Inquisition: Travel Recommendations

Our program directors asked us to write recommendations for future students. Since I’ve gotten around so much (har, har), I ended up writing 9 pages. Here they are. You can skim through them or put them in your pocket in case you ever plan a trip to Spain…or Rome, Paris, or London.

Due to various factors, including our trade and budget deficits, the dollar has been falling against the euro for five years now. So, everything in Europe is more expensive than it was in America. It would behoove you to remind your parents about this sometimes.

Real Madrid Tickets
La Liga plays on Saturdays and Sundays. The Champions League plays on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Finding schedules for both should be easy enough.

In America, buying a ticket on the Internet is cheaper and more convenient than buying one at the box office. The opposite is true for Spanish soccer games. Internet rates are positively criminal, and they run out quickly. Instead, go to the box office, which opens 2 days before each game. Your seat should cost you 30-40E. Lateral, or sideline, seats are superior to fondo, which are behind the goals. Don’t worry about which anfitrión (deck) you have because every seat is good in the Bernabeu.

I’ve been to many cities, and the one with the best metro system is Madrid. It will be your friend. You can get anywhere inside the city within 30 minutes and to the airport within 45. You lose an average of 5 minutes for each line change, so try to make as few as possible.

Regardless, if you’re planning to go out at night, learn the bus routes to your house. The metro closes at 2 AM and re-opens at 6, which is a couple hours too early and a couple hours too late, respectively. The buses run all night. Walking home is easier than finding a taxi in Madrid on a Friday night.

By the time you arrive, Line 8 may extend to Airport Terminal 4. If not, the bus (204) between T4 and Avenida de America closes at 12 AM. Line 201 between T4 and Barajas is a little faster than the shuttle between the main terminal and T4, but take whatever’s available.

For Madrid suburbs like Alcalá de Henares, Ávila, and Aranjuez, you can use Madrid Cercanías, a train system which also runs out of Atocha Renfe.

Trains run out of Atocha Renfe. The only area to which you should consider taking one is Andalucía, as the Ave cuts 3 hours off your journey through the mountains. For other locations, the buses are cheaper, more flexible, and almost as fast. Here are the lines I know:

Auto-Res – Metro: Conde de Casal – Cáceres, Salamanca, Trujillo, Valencia
Alsa Bus – Metro: Avenida de América – Barcelona, Lisboa, Zaragoza, and between San Sebastián and Bilbao
Cevesa – Metro: Mendez Álvaro – Ávila, Cabezuela del Valle, Plasencia
Continental Auto Bus – Avenida de América – Navarra, País Vasco

Buses play movies, but they don’t give you headphones, so you’ll have to bring your own. Auto-Res plays old films. Continental plays new films. Alsa plays bad films.

You can change your bus tickets for free and cancel them for an 80% rebate up to 3 hours before departure.

I highly recommend striking up conversations with the people sitting next to you on planes, trains, and automobiles. Besides interaction with your host family, it’s the best way to practice your Spanish because you’re stuck together for a couple hours at a time. Also, the majority of the strangers whom I’ve had the courage to meet have been very friendly. I’ve shared contact information with many of them, and from these chats alone, I now have friends from Madrid, Cádiz, Extremadura, France, Mexico, Chile, Australia, and Bangladesh.

To rent a car, you must be 21. I’ve heard the going rate for a weekend is 100E. I recommend this option if you’re traveling with a group to Lisboa.

The airplane lines we used the most were Vueling, EasyJet, and RyanAir. RyanAir’s MO is running very cheap flights out of remote locations, so before you make a reservation, make sure you know exactly where they’re taking you and how to get out of it.

To get around, you need a map. You can get one in a government tourist outpost (look for the i), but they’re always based in the center of the city, the very place you need a map to find. The easiest way to avoid this vicious circle is to get directions directly to your hostel and pick up a map there instead. I’m a bigger fan of using my intuition, though.

Alcalá de Henares: We passed the first two days of the summer trip here, and the city, so steeped in the culture of the 1500s, gave us a charming introduction to Spain. I have great memories of my first night, the same night Barcelona won the Champions League. Drunken young Spaniards were jumping through the street, some of them driving cars around in circles and honking and honking, in honor of their fellow countrymen’s achievement. After just 16 hours here, I already know the “Oé, oé, campeones” chant. Since the Cercanías and eventually the Metro go there, it makes for a relaxing day trip. Don’t feel guilty if you never make it out here, though, because in terms of ambience and culture, Alcalá is similar to Salamanca.

Amsterdam: Amsterdam has an excellent Van Gogh museum and beautiful architecture which passed through the World Wars unscathed. I think those are the two big reasons that so many young people love to go there.

Aranjuez: This was another nice, easily accessible day trip. Furthermore, I now have a better understanding of what the Concierto de Aranjuez is all about. Aranjuez is a tranquil suburb of Madrid in all manners but one: the Royal Palace and its gardens. The former is beautiful but rather similar to the palace at La Granja; the latter are spacious and wonderful for walking. This would be a nice place to take your girlfriend for a day to get away from the madding crowd.

Ávila: This hometown of saints Teresa de Jesús (Teresa of Avila to us Americans, but that would’ve been a little redundant to type) and John of the Cross makes for another good day trip close to Madrid. The town is like a breath of fresh air. Its most fun feature is its tall medieval wall, which we climbed and cavorted upon for at least an hour. Those of you who are Catholics, and especially fans of the Mystics, could get a lot out of coming here to pray.

Barcelona: It goes without saying that you’re doing the extra day here. It’s probably the hippest city in Europe, and it’s so fun that the five days I’ve spent here weren’t enough. It seems like no one ever makes it to the outlying Catalan towns because they’re enjoying themselves so much in the city proper, but if you’re already a Barça vet and you’d like to try it, I recommend researching routes on the Internet beforehand because everything happens so fast once you arrive. If you’re in Spain for the summer, come here or to Valencia for the Noche de San Juan during the June summer solstice. And if you’re here in the summer, remember, Barça also has a beach.

Bilbao: País Vasco is the most industrially developed region of Spain, and you can tell when you get to Bilbao. The surrounding area is packed with suburbs, factories, and rest stops, something I hadn’t experienced since America. The city itself is the Pittsburgh of Spain. My hostel was in the near outskirts, and across the train tracks was a family living in a makeshift shed a hundred meters from a steel factory amidst pieces of burning steel.

I’m sorry; I’ve already made Bilbao sound like hell because my hostel was in the ghetto. It doesn’t deserve that. The center of the city is clean and safe and a fine place to visit. The Casco Antiguo is charming; the Gran Vía is beautiful, and The Guggenheim is a marvelous building which you must see at least once. (The collection inside is hit or miss.) I’ve heard good things about the Museo de Bellas Artes, as well, though it was closed when I arrived late Saturday afternoon. The city is walkable though it has a nice public transportation system. If you don’t already have friends and relatives here, though, you can finish it within a single day. Ironically, hostels are harder to find here than they are in San Sebastián.

Dicen que Caí es la luz
La luz que la vio nacer
Y dicen que de una concha
Quiso Dios dar una rosa
Que con la fuerza del viento
Cada vez fue más hermosa

José Carlos Gómez

Cádiz has never had the political power of Madrid, Sevilla, or the other great Spanish cities, and for this reason its cultural importance is underestimated. This is the Deep South of Spain, as flamenco as you’re going to get; the weekend I arrived, I bumped into a weekend-long contest for local cantantes. Even after lo these many years (3000), Cádiz is as beautiful as ever by day and by night. It didn’t even seem to have tourists, which is positively shocking in this era. Also, you can catch a ferry to the fishing villages on the other side of the bay if you wish.

Córdoba: Though it costs some money and/or time to arrive here from Madrid, Córdoba makes for a great one-day trip. The city’s jewel, the Mezquita-Catedral, lives up to its billing as one of Spain’s finest buildings. I’ll never forget hiking through this forest of pillars, and the juxtaposition of the Renaissance cathedral in the center with the Muslim trappery around it is most interesting. The Alcázar de los Reyes Católicos and the Sinagogo are also worth trips. The Casa Andalusí justifies its 2,5E cost if you happen to bump into it. Córdoba isn’t Sevilla, but it’s still an essential visit in Andalucía.

El Escorial: My semester, 46 of the 49 students in the program chose not to visit El Valle de Los Caídos. Sure, it was pouring rain at the time, but it was still criminal. This is one of the most original sites in all of Spain. If you’re tired of Gothic cathedrals and art museums, this is the place to go. Franco and Primo de Rivera are buried inside the mountain here with 20,000 fallen soldiers, fascists and socialists alike, who fell during a single battle in the Civil War. (It would have been impossible to tell them apart.) At the peak are massive, imposing stone sculptures (I’m guessing they’re 40 feet tall) and a gigantic cross. With the rain and fog included, they were positively ghoulish. The cathedral at the base features a brand of Catholicism I’d never seen before, a super-masculine breed featuring avenging angels, monks with hoods over their faces, and crosses with spikes on their arms. For my imagination, the place was gold. I hope you go, and I hope it rains on you, too.

Extremadura: This is the closest you’ll get to the “Castilla triste y noble” of Antonio Machado. Extremadura is the poorest region in Spain, but its people are hospitable, its towns peaceful, and its plains breathtaking, more similar to the Serengeti than anything European. It’s not a place I can brag about visiting, since only Spaniards know of its existence, but I feel pride inside me for being there.

I think you can do the whole region in 2 days, though 3 would be more relaxing. Here’s how: morning bus from Madrid to Cabezuela del Valle in the Valle del Jerte, a huge forest/mountains area that looks precioso in the photographs. After a day of hiking there, take the bus to Plasencia, walk around there about an hour, and then catch a train or bus from there to Cáceres. Spend the night in Cáceres and visit Trujillo and then Mérida by bus the next day. (A rental car would also be a fine option here.) In Trujillo, you can receive a ridiculous amount of food for 10E at the Mesón La Troya. Ask Nuria for more about this region.

Florencia: I didn’t get a chance to visit, but Florence was the focal point of the Renaissance for at least a hundred years, so the art there must be unbelievable. Also, it’s a great chance to catch up with the Duke in Florence kids. Trains run regularly from here to Rome.

Galicia: What a delight. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the color green until I arrived here. I’ve never been to Ireland, but this is what I always imagined the place to be like. Our visit to the Torre de Hercules was one of the happiest moments of my life. I know that sounds a little crazy, but the wind is so strong here, the air so fresh, the sky so blue, the rocks and the ocean so beautiful, that I felt totally alive. I was running and jumping all over the rocks.

For the free weekend, some of us went hiking in Finisterre, and they had a fine time and ate some great seafood. Others visited a small fishing village called Muros, and I didn’t hear them complaining, either. Still more relaxed in Santiago de Compostela, another charming town. I spent the weekend inside the cathedral. Our one-hour visit, while perfect for the students, especially non-Christians, wasn’t enough for me since the place is one of the most famous shrines in the world. So I spent the weekend inside, looking over every statue, praying Rosary after Rosary in the place where Catholic pilgrims have journeyed for one thousand years. Whether the bones of Santiago are there or not, the place is holy because of all the sacrifices people made to get there.

Gibraltar: I never got here, sadly. Arriving directly is too expensive. Instead, take the bus from Almería. Visit this city, and more specifically the Rock, en route to Morocco, as a ferry crosses the strait here. Unfortunately, the ferry can delay 4 or 6 hours at a time according to my BU roommate, so you’ll have to be flexible.

Granada: I’m going to crib a public service announcement from Blanca Muro. La Alhambra is one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason: it’s a beautiful place. When you come here, though, please don’t be loud and touristy. Stop and listen and try to imagine the place as it was to the Moors who stayed here in the 1300s and 1400s as their country was crumbling around them. Look for the subtle beauty that so captivated Washington Irving when he stayed here. Listen for the sound of running water. (A no-talking policy, though draconian, would suit the Alhambra well.) Some of my friends thought this was a boring place, but that’s because they weren’t looking or listening or imagining like so. It’s their loss. Granada is the last city of the Moors, and for this reason it’s extremely romantic.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I also recommend standing downwind from the Street of Spices for some olfactory awesomeness.

La Granja: A visit to a 18th-century crystal factory is a little random for a programmed trip, but I enjoyed learning about the process, and the modern crystal sculptures exhibited upstairs are intriguing. When I arrived in Versailles, I was surprised about how similar it really is to the palace here.

Guernica: It’s inside País Vasco. If you rent a car for this trip, you could reach it easily in passing.

Lisboa: I won’t visit this city until later, but everyone who’s visited has recommended it, and I’ve heard special praise from multiple sources for the city of Cintron (or is it Cintra?) nearby. It’s also cheaper than Madrid, which is most excellent.

Prices for the bus, night train, and plane are comparable about 80E. Your best bet is to rent a car for the weekend (around 100E) and split the cost and driving responsibilities 4 ways. Someone in your group must be 21.

Lóndres: I doubt I have to convince you to visit London. It’s the bridge between Europe and America, and since I’ve heard about it and the Glorious Empire for so long, coming here was like fulfilling a childhood dream. As long as you’re coming, though, plan ahead. Try to score a ticket to one of the musicals, be it Phantom, Les Miserables, or a new hit show. Unless you live near New York City, it’ll be a while before you get another chance to see theatre of this quality. Possible day trips are to Bath (with the majestic Stonehenge an hour away) and Windsor Castle (I think Stratford-upon-Avon is close). I did the first, and I’m glad I did; Bath is Olde English in a way cosmopolitan London no longer can be. Besides the obvious sites (Westminster, Parliament, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace), the London Eye is nice. It’s like a massive Ferris wheel which you can ride to see the whole city at once, like belltowers in Spanish cities. (Speaking of obvious places to visit, Platform 9¾ is inside King’s Cross Station.)

For flying (there’s no other practical way to get here), EasyJet is probably your best bet. It’s cheaper than Iberia/British Airways, and it doesn’t drop you in the middle of nowhere like RyanAir does. Considering the ridiculous prices for transit (and everything else) in London, that makes a big difference. It’s like London exists in a different economic universe. Everything there is at least twice as expensive as it is in the states. It costs 18E just to get from Gatwick Airport to the city proper. So, come with a full wallet.

Oporto: I’ve heard RyanAir runs a 10E round trip here.

Pamplona: Ernest Hemingway has a statue outside the Plaza de Toros because he gave the city and its summer festivals so much publicity in his novels.

I did Pamplona and País Vasco in the same weekend, Friday through Sunday, and it turned out to be very efficient. A fine and efficient 4-day weekend would be this northern circle: Madrid-Zaragoza-Pamplona-San Sebastián-Bilbao-Madrid.

Paris: Come on, it’s Paris! Great men once lived here, as the excellent Classical architecture, the art museums, the churches, and the Eiffel Tower attest. (The Rose Window and the Tower are as good as advertised, if not better.) You need at least 3 days here. Speaking of art museums, if you’re a layman like me, you think the Louvre holds everything, but the epochs of its selections are quite similar to the Prado. For Impressionism, go to Musee d’Orsay. The modern art museums are in Montmarte. I’m also happy I visited the Musee Rodin, which gave me a comprehensive introduction to a brilliant sculptor.

Distances are a little deceptive in the City of Lights. Yes, almost everything’s on the Seine, but that doesn’t mean it’s all close together. Walking from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame Cathedral takes at least an hour. So, get comfortable with the metro and plan your days so you can hit everything in a given area at once. The standard schedule for monuments, museums, and such is 9-6, but the Louvre stays open late on Fridays.

Roma: The parents of the West are the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, so in my view, Rome is our most important city. Knowing this city is essential for understanding Spain.

The Sistine Chapel is inside the Vatican, at the very end of the visit. Don’t rush through this museum just to reach the end because there are too many priceless works on the way. The Vatican, St. Peter’s, and the Roman ruins function as Rome’s museums of note. You’ll be surprised by how many famous works are collected inside them.

This is a great walking city. If you’re in a hurry to reach a certain spot, or if you want to see St. Paul Outside the Walls, take the metro. Otherwise, use your feet. The 4 Great Cathedrals of Rome, by the by, are St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside The Walls. Michelangelo’s Moses is inside St. Peter in Chains. Nor should you forget the Pantheon, which despite its Church trappings is an exciting, lusty pagan temple at heart. My favorite plaza was Piazza Navona. Another famous one is Piazza d’Espagna.

Churches and museums are typically open from 7-19, the notable exception being the Sistine Chapel. The Pope has weekly audiences in St. Peter’s Square, and you can pick up a free ticket in the American Pontifical University’s office on Via dell’Umilta 30, phone number (39) 06-690-011.

Salamanca: This is the perfect university town: cultured and cozy. Its 800-year old university is still one of Spain’s most popular. It features both a Romanic and a Gothic cathedral, and now that I’ve seen them, Duke’s 80-year-old “Gothic” cathedral seems like a poser in comparison. The fachadas of the university and of the monastery of St. Esteban are brilliant. The Plaza Mayor at night is a beauty. The city seemed perfectly suited for fall. Altogether, Salamanca is my favorite town in Castilla.

The siesta hits Salamanca hard. Everything is closed between 1-4 PM except the Cathedral Tower, so plan accordingly. The Universidad Pontífica is more interesting than the Universidad proper. I stayed here two days, but if you’re in a hurry, a day and a night should be enough to see everything.

San Sebastián: When I think about all the beautiful things I’ve seen this fall, the first image that jumps to mind is San Sebastián. When you can see long, undulating beaches, wooded mountainous islands, and a beautiful blue ocean all at the same time, it’s hard to forget it. How about deciduous trees shedding their leaves a mere kilometer from the ocean? For fans of long walks and the beach, there’s one that seems to go more than a mile. There’s something for everyone here, be it hiking, swimming, sunbathing, boating, or visiting Baroque cathedrals. Even better, everything’s in walking distance. Hostels are cheap. The city’s seafood is renowned for Spain. Such pride has it in the País Vasco that there are two or three museums for that people here. This is another beach city you won’t regret visiting.

Buy your ticket out before you arrive. The “bus station” is really a parking lot. I still don’t know where the ticket counter is.

Segovia: The aqueduct looks superb, especially on clear and sunny days. My favorite part of the trip is the hike down the Way of the Fox to get from the Alcázar to the templar church. Also, I was quite disappointed we didn’t climb to the top of the Alcázar this fall because being up there in the rain last summer was exhilarating.

Sevilla: There are so many small and winding streets that using a map is a real chore here. Instead, orient yourself to the two major landmarks: the Cathedral and the river. If you always know where they are and how to get back to your hostel from there, you’ll be fine. May you arrive when the oranges are in bloom. I visited this city twice, in June and September, and when I came back here the second time it was like reuniting with an old friend. I felt comfortable here immediately.

Toledo: The city hasn’t changed in five hundred years, really, so it’s easy to get lost. All the streets are narrow and winding, so the cathedral often disappears behind the buildings to your left and right sides. Cuídate.

Valencia: What a clean and beautiful city. It’s perfect for a weekend visit, especially because hostel prices are dirt cheap. It has history, including its Casco Antiguo and an 800-year old cathedral. It has football, as its club is one of Spain’s best. It has science, as its Aquarium is worth the price of admission. It’s great for relaxing and partying, given that it’s a beach city. Furthermore, Valencia is the most humble of the big Spanish cities. Sure, they have their own language, but they’re not uptight about it like the Catalans are.

The metro doesn’t take you inside the Casco Antiguo, but it does run to the beach. To get to the Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias, you may want to rent a bicycle. If you’re reading this in the fall, get out here ASAP while the weather’s still warm. If you’re reading this in the spring, start planning to visit Valencia at the March Equinox for the feast of San José, when they launch their world-famous fallas.

Zaragoza: This city provides a great parallel with Córdoba. Córdoba is the ancient southern capital, but Sevilla now overshadows it. It has a priceless mosque and an interesting Christian castle. It can be a day trip from Madrid if you stretch your wallet but would fit more naturally into a journey through the whole south. Zaragoza is the ancient eastern capital, but Barcelona now overshadows it. It has a priceless cathedral and an interesting Muslim castle. It can be a day trip from Madrid if you stretch your hours but would fit more naturally into a journey through the whole east.

The priceless cathedral is that of the Virgen del Pilar. According to legend, she appeared to Santiago when he was evangelizing Spain and gave him a marble pillar to lift his spirits. The pillar and the cathedral which houses it are still venerated today, so much so that John Paul II visited the church three times to pray. The cathedral is massive; it’s always packed, and it’s beautiful inside and out. The architecture here, as in the rest of the city, has borrowed from the Moorish traditions and improved upon them. If you can spend at least a night here during the week of the feast day of the Virgen del Pilar (October 12), by all means do so, as it’s another one of Spain’s famous fiestas. Zaragoza itself is aging and in need of urban renewal. Hopefully its exhibition on alternative energy in 2008 will provide new fuel not just for electric cars but for the city itself.

Visit the Alfarería before the Catedral del Pilar. The former claims a 19:30 closing time, but it’s more like 18:00. Pilar is open through at least 20:00 each night.

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