When my friend and fellow travel writer Patricia Harris’ new book hit the bookstores this month, it served as a testament to her passion for Spain and its vibrant history and culture.
“100 Places in Spain Every Woman Should Go” is a culmination of three decades spent covering all of the country’s diverse regions, and while it is one of the Travelers’ Tales series of books geared to the feminine sex, men will benefit just as much from her expertise in all things Spanish.
I once asked Pat why she loved Spain so much, and her answer delighted me. She said it was because she likes the person she becomes there — the one who stays out late at flamenco clubs, walks windswept beaches, dances the sardana in front of Barcelona’s cathedral, and eats a thousand delicacies she probably wouldn’t try at home (Cambridge, Mass.).
While I certainly can’t claim Pat’s knowledge of Spain, reading the book made me think of the places I’ve visited on my five trips there. I asked her if she would share her reasons for loving these places, and they are followed by my own less expert, but equally heartfelt, feelings.
Madrid’s Plaza Mayor
Pat says: My very first day ever in Spain, I went straight to the Plaza Mayor. I instantly fell in love with the way that Spaniards live their lives outdoors. It is so seductive to while away the afternoon at a café table with bowls of potato chips, glasses of beer and the company of friends.
Patti says: I also gravitated to the Plaza Mayor on my first visit to Madrid, and while I didn’t know anyone to eat potato chips and drink beer with, I found the cobblestone square the very heartbeat of Old Madrid.
I took a fascinating tour of its history — which included everything from public burnings during the Inquisition to bullfights and carnivals in less troubled times. I was also enchanted by the tunas, university students dressed as minstrels who wander the square and sing to anyone willing to listen.
I loved Casa Botin, allegedly Spain’s oldest continuously operating restaurant (1725), located not far from one of the nine arched exits leading from the square. Usually filled with tourists, it’s also a favorite of locals who dine on typical Castilian dishes.
Madrid’s Parque del Buen Retiro
Pat says: The park (commonly referred to as Retiro Park) used to be a royal preserve, but now it’s one of the most democratic spaces in Madrid. I love it most on Sundays, when families from all over the city throng its wide paths. Little children sit rapt before puppet theaters; old-fashioned bands play marches and waltzes, and courting couples row around the little lake where the royals once staged mock naval battles.
Patti says: I first discovered Retiro Park following a visit to the Prado Museum (located next to it). It was a beautiful place full of fountains and statues and towering trees which offered a quiet sanctuary even though I could hear the sound of happy revelers nearby.
In the rose garden, I stumbled upon the bronze sculpture Fountain of the Fallen Angel (Lucifer) inspired by John Milton’s epic “Paradise Lost.” I agree with Pat that Sunday is the best day to get a true sense of this 350-acre playground once reserved for the royal family and their privileged guests.
Pat says: I think Cadiz is one of the most beautiful of seaside cities. It sits on a thin finger of a peninsula, so it’s surrounded on three sides by the sea and illuminated by the brilliance of the Andalucian sun. Whether I’m walking along the waterfront promenade past the buildings all faded to pastels or exploring the streets of the medieval quarter, the air always seems filled with light.
Patti says: I also was besotted with the seafront promenade, with its charming little pocket parks, filled with exotic plants — some thought to have been brought by Columbus from the New World. I must have taken the stroll three times, and when I wasn’t inhaling the salty tang of the sea, I was sniffing the fragrance of the orange blossoms.
A note of interest: Cadiz, founded by Phoenicians in 1100 B.C., is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain and one of the oldest in Western Europe.
Malaga’s Picasso Museum
Pat says: Picasso never returned to Malaga, his birthplace, after age 19, but I like to imagine young Pablo absorbing the images and gestures of the city — whether it’s the doves that flutter in the squares or the macho strut of the bullfighters. The Picasso Museum was founded through donations by his daughter-in-law and grandson, so there’s a real personal sense of the artist in these family works.
Patti says: Malaga may be my favorite city in Spain. While I loved the Picasso Museum, housed in a Renaissance-style palace, I was equally enchanted by other aspects of the city, from the Gibralfaro, the 11th century Moorish Palace which sprawls across a hillside, to the jewel of a café I discovered after getting lost on one of Malaga’s maze-like back streets.
Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia
Pat says: I started visiting Barcelona in the 1980s, and every time I return, I can’t wait to see how the work has progressed at La Sagrada Familia. When I first saw it, much of the church was still open to the sky. Now it’s all but finished.
I can’t decide if the soaring interior is more like looking up in a forest of tall trees or being magically underground beneath their roots. I feel like I’ve watched a masterpiece being born in slow motion over the years.
Patti says: I’ve only spent one day and night in Barcelona before setting sail on a cruise of the Spanish and Portuguese coasts, so I’m pretty much of a novice in the city.
However, I did make a pilgrimage to La Sagrada Familia, and was literally transfixed by its blend of majesty and fantasy (images of saints juxtaposed with those of pineapples). And even though I’m scared of heights, I forced myself to climb the winding interior stairway and edge along the outside parapets which provided a stunning view of the city once I was able to pry my eyes open.
A note of interest: The eccentric architect behind the cathedral, Antoni Gaudi, was struck and killed by a tram in 1926 before his masterpiece could be finished, and a debate has raged ever since about whether or not it should be.
Pat says: Palma dances from its heights down to the sea like a wonderful piece of music. The old city begins up on the hill where the narrow alleys are like the high notes played way up on the neck of a guitar. And then it plunges down to the broad plaza at the cathedral before sweeping down to the sea like a run of notes that concludes in one sweet, full chord.
Patti says: What can I say after that poetic description? I would love to go back to this charming island and spend more time in Palma. On my one visit, I was mainly in the mountain village of Deia, although I did journey to Valldemossa, known for the abandoned Carthusian monastery, where for one memorable winter (December, 1838 to February, 1839), writer George Sand and composer Frederic Chopin set up a love nest.
It seems I liked Mallorca more than Sand did (her book “Winter in Mallorca” cast it in a less than flattering light, and another work resulting from her stay was a horror novel “Spiridion”).
Chopin, on the other hand, produced some of his better known works while there — most notably “Raindrop” (Prelude in D-flat Major) and “Polonaise No. 4 in C-minor.”
I can see where Chopin found his inspiration, for this lovely Spanish island, with its marriage of mountains and sea, is nothing less than a symphony.
Just reading “100 Places in Spain Every Woman Should Go” (Travelers’ Tales, $19.95, available at Amazon.com and booksellers) made me re-live my own adventures in Spain and realize how much more I have yet to see in this fascinating country.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.