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Erin L. McCoy

Antoni Gaudí: The Brilliant, Tragic Life of Spain’s Most Famous Architect

Sagrada Familia Antoni Gaudí
No visitor to Barcelona will have missed the stunning steeples of the Sagrada Familia, towering over any view of the city. Its vaulted ceilings — inspired by natural forms, held up by columns modeled after tree trunks — will steal your breath away.

Meanwhile, the stunning detail on the exterior remains partially hidden by the scaffolding: this basilica, designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, has been under construction for more than a century.

"My client is not in a hurry," Gaudí remarked when asked about the extremely long time frame for the construction of his master work.

Who was the man who dedicated the last years of his life to the construction of a cathedral he would never see through to completion? The story of Gaudí is as fascinating as the story behind one of Spain's most iconic landmarks.

The Early Life of Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudí, Spain architect
Antoni Gaudí is pictured in 1878.
Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was born in 1852 in the province of Tarragona, part of the Catalonia region in northeast Spain. His exact birthplace is unknown, but the deep artistic inspiration he found in the Catalonian and Mediterranean landscape began at a young age.

"We own the image. Fantasy comes from the ghosts. Fantasy is what people in the North own," he said of the Catalonian region and its people.

As a young man, he would spend his days exploring the countryside and walking extensively — an activity he would continue until the last day of his life. Even so, the young Gaudí suffered health problems and followed a strict vegetarian regimen. As a deeply religious man, he would also undertake long fasts.

Gaudí graduated from the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture in 1878 after earning just average grades and even failing a few classes.

"We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show," said Elies Rogent, the school's director, as he handed Gaudí his degree.

Park Güell and a Growing Career

Park Güell in Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí
Park Güell in Barcelona was designed by Antoni Gaudí.

Despite Rogent's discouraging words, Gaudí's career as an architect took off that very same year. At the Paris World's Fair of 1878, a showcase put together by Gaudí showed his flair for modernist design. It also caught the attention of Eusebi Güell, an industrialist who commissioned Gaudí for a series of projects. 

Many of the designs produced through Gaudí's sponsorship by Güell would become his most iconic works, still visited by millions of travelers in Barcelona every year. The Palau Güell, in the El Raval neighborhood, features intricate ironwork inspired by horsewhip and seaweed — an early testament to how much inspiration Gaudí would draw from the natural world for the entirety of his career. 

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If you're visiting the Cantabria region on Spain's north coast, stop by the little village of Comillas, where you can visit El Capricho, a private residence designed around the movements of the sun. The rooms most likely to be occupied during certain times of day receive the most natural lights during those times — the breakfast room, for instance, receives bright morning sun. 

Most famous of all, though, is Park Güell, a designed community with incredible vistas of the city. Gaudí was tasked with designing new types of house all around ideals of what the ideal future community should be. The project, though, never got off the ground. Millions of visitors every year flock to Park Güell to visit the marvelous veranda and two model homes that remain of the endeavor.

The Sagrada Familia

Just a few years later, in 1883, Antoni Gaudí was charged with the task of building a new church in Barcelona called the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, or Sagrada Familia). This project would occupy the remainder of his career. 

In fact, beginning in 1915 until his death in 1926, Gaudí would dedicate all his efforts as an architect to the construction of this cathedral.

My greatest friends are dead, I have no family, nor clients, nor fortune, not anything — so I can dedicate myself completely to the temple.

—Antoni Gaudí, 1852–1926

Model Sagrada Familia Antoni Gaudí
The Sagrada Familia was designed in part as an inversion of this web of weighted sacks. Don't miss the museum below the basilica to learn more.

Still, early in his career, he was receiving a large number of commissions, so he had to rely on a team of architects to help him. Many of these individuals, including Josep Maria Jujol and Cèsar Martinell, would themselves become esteemed in their field later on.

Gaudí completely redesigned the Sagrada Familia from the moment he was charged with the project. The structure features elements of Spanish Late Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Catalan modernism. Gaudí was particularly known for his pioneering of the latter style. Its four façades, though, boast strikingly different styles owing to the different architects tasted with designing them. 

Construction of the church was declared 70 percent complete in 2015. 

Antoni Gaudí and Modernism

Meanwhile, the 1888 World Fair in Barcelona featured key modernist works, including a showcase of a building by Gaudí.

However, during the first decade of the twentieth century, a shift in Gaudí's style became evident. His designs drew even more inspiration from nature, and between 1904 and 1910, the iconic Casa Milà and Casa Batlló were constructed. These remain popular — and very worthwhile — destinations for travelers to Barcelona.  

Gaudí also designed the furniture in many of his buildings, and these are on prominent display at the Casa Batlló. The house, like the furniture designed for it, contains not a single right angle, and forms from nature can be recognized throughout. 

Difficult Last Years

Antoni Gaudí never married, and is known to have been truly interested in only one woman, Josefa Moreu, in 1884, but this interest was not returned. 

He dedicated himself instead to his Catholic faith, and was seen sometimes as gruff or unpleasant, though his closest friends insisted he was friendly and pleasant. 

The decade beginning in 1910 was particularly difficult for Gaudí. His primary collaborator, Francesc Berenguer, as well as his niece, Rosa, died during this time. Two other close friends and collaborators, including Eusebi Güell, would also pass away. Meanwhile, economic troubles temporarily slowed work on the Sagrada Familia.

In his later years, Gaudí neglected his appearance and lived frugally to such a degree that many mistook him for a beggar. In fact, on June 7, 1926, Gaudí was on his daily walk to church when he was struck by a tram and knocked unconscious. Those around him believed he was a beggar, so did not help him right away. 

Gaudí died three days later at the age of 73. He was buried in a crypt under the Sagrada Familia. His gravestone reads: 

Antoni Gaudí Cornet. From Reus. At the age of 74, a man of exemplary life, and an extraordinary craftsman, the author of this marvelous work, the church, died piously in Barcelona on the tenth day of June 1926; henceforward the ashes of so great a man await the resurrection of the dead. May he rest in peace.

Antoni Gaudí remains one of Catalonia's most famous and distinctive architects. His buildings are one of a kind and well worth the long lines —though with a little pre-planning, you can buy tickets online and skip those lines. (Get Casa Batlló fast-track entry tickets here.)

Gaudí's influence has been profound and far-reaching, and has made a lasting and visible impact on the streets of Barcelona.

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The Alhambra: Unlocking Granada’s Royal History

Alhambra Granada Spain history
Among the most iconic images of Spain is that of the Alhambra: a seemingly impenetrable fortress with red-twinged fortifications, mounted on a hill at the heart of Granada. It's one of the places you simply must visit on a trip to Spain: it lives up to every expectation and even exceeds it.

But no visit to the Alhambra is complete without some background on the history of this fascinating structure.

The Muslim Conquest of Spain

In the year 711 CE, commander Tariq ibn Ziyad led a force that invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa. So began nearly 800 years of Muslim rule throughout much of the peninsula. Only a few bastions of Christian or non-Muslim rule survived in the north. These groups would lead what came to be known as the "Reconquista," or Reconquering, of Spain. Over a period of several centuries, Christian forces would push back slowly southward, reclaiming territory as they went.

Meanwhile, the Umayyad Caliphate — for which Tariq ibn Ziyad had fought — established a kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next 800 years, power would shift between several different dynasties. The influence of Arabic-speaking Muslims can still be heard in Spanish today, and their style of art is widespread especially in the region of Andalusia — and quite visible in the Alhambra.

The Origins Of The Alhambra

Granada became home to the royal residence of the Nasrid Dynasty in the mid-13th century, and it was King Mohammed ibn Yusuf Ben Nasr, also known as Alhamar, who ordered the construction of the first palace on the site. Construction continued through the 15th century as defensive towers and high walls were built.

Granada Alhambra Spain

The Alhambra consists of two sections: one dedicated to military matters, including a barrack, and the royal palace. While it looks plain on the outside, the interior of the palace include elaborate decoration and tile work. Both plebeians and nobles lived within this area of the complex. 

Just a short walk away, one hill over, is the Generalife, a house built for the recreation of the caliphs who lived in the Alhambra. While its interior is more simply designed, the 13th-century palace is characterized by lush orchards and gardens. 

Generalife Alhambra Granada Spain
The Generalife, a palace that forms part of the Alhambra complex. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Reconquista Reaches Granada

By the late 15th century, the Reconquista had retaken most territory on the Iberian Peninsula, and Granada — seat to a once–relatively unimportant caliphate — remained the last holdout of Muslim power. 

Beginning in 1482, the Catholic Monarchs — Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon — undertook a series of military campaigns against Granada. Meanwhile, infighting among the Granadan royals weakened their military strength. On January 2, 1492, King Boabdil surrendered the city — along with the Alhambra palace — to the Christian Monarchs, heralding the end of 800 years of Muslim rule in Spain. 

Charles V (1516–1556) undertook a project to rebuild parts of the Alhambra in Renaissance style, though much of his work would be left incomplete. Still, you can see his seal in some of the tilework during your visit.

Further modifications took place over the ensuing centuries, but eventually the elegant palace fell into disuse and disrepair. When American writer Washington Irving moved into the Alhambra in 1829, he would find a structure much reduced from its former glory. (Irving would author a fascinating book, Tales of the Alhambra, about his time there.)

Court of Lions Granada Alhambra Spain
The Court of the Lions is perhaps the most iconic part of the Alhambra. Surrounded by filagree walls and a marble collonade is an alabaster fountain with 12 lions. Each hour of the day, one lion would shoot water from its mouth to mark the time. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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The Alhambra Today & How to Visit

Restoration efforts at the Alhambra began with Rafael Contreras, who started work on the Nasrid palace in 1847. He also worked to revive historical techniques of working with plaster as he built an industry selling Nasrid-inspired art to tourists who were beginning to come visit the Alhambra. 

Reconstruction has continued and today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by as many as two million people a year. 

It is highly recommended that you book your tickets ahead of time — at least a month in advance during the summer months — since it is almost impossible to buy a same-day ticket. 

Tours also come highly recommended. I've done two tours at the Alhambra and would highly recommend this option, as it helps you steer around the crowds and gain a lot of historical context as you go. Check out the Viator tours linked below (I really recommend their guides — they're always incredibly knowledgeable) or book a ticket here

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22 Authentic Spanish Foods You Need to Try

Spain has become known the world over as a top destination for foodies. San Sebastian, famous for its elaborately styled, pint-sized bites called pintxos, is home to one of the most elite gastronomy universities in Europe. In Andalusia, you'll get a free tapa with every drink (though you can also find tapas in Barcelona and throughout Spain). And perhaps most famous of all Spanish foods is jamón, exquisitely cured ham that's like nothing you've ever eaten. 

But I have to admit something. The first time I went to Spain, I thought the food was pretty disappointing. The problem was, I didn't know how or what to order. I didn't know, for instance, that in places like San Sebastian, every bar (the name for a casual restaurant) has its own specialty, so you need to know what to ask for. I didn't know about the menú del día, where you'll get two courses, a drink, and a dessert—usually at lunch time—for a single price.

This list is designed to solve that very problem for you. I've taken many more trips to Spain since, and have fallen in love with the food. There's truly nowhere in the world that can match the freshness, flavor, and creativity of food in Spain. Here's what you absolutely must eat during your trip. 

Jamón (Ham)

I've never liked ham—not the pasty lunchmeat variety, not the big roasted and honey hams people buy for holidays in the United States. But this isn't ham. This is jamón.

Anywhere in Spain, you're likely to see patas de jamón (ham legs) hanging from the ceilings of restaurants. Jamón is cured for months or even years before it reaches your plate. It's less greasy (and so much better) than prosciutto, and there's a stunning variety of types and flavors—far more than I can go into here. Just as with wine, becoming a connoisseur of jamón takes time, but here are a few pointers to get you started.

The most common terms you'll see are jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. The former comes from a type of hybrid pig, distinct from the Iberian pig. Jamón serrano will be cheaper, but it won't have the same complex flavor as jamón ibérico.  

Pata negra, or black-hoofed, jamón is considered to offer the best flavor. And for the highest quality, look for jamón ibérico de bellota. It's fed exclusively on acorns and the flavor is next to none. 

Paella

Spanish paella pan Spain
Spanish paella is traditionally cooked in huge, specialized pans. This helping serves 300 people. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

When you see this classic dish at a celebration or festival, it might be served from pans as wide as a small car. Paella is a rice dish seasoned with saffron and rosemary, and usually served with beans and a variety of seafood, including shrimp, calamari, and mussels. Valencian paella has chicken rather than seafood. It's well worth your while to try both. 

Migas

Migas translates to crumbs, and that's exactly what this dish is. Traditionally served for breakfast, migas consists of day-old bread soaked in water, paprika, garlic, and olive oil (also a Spanish staple). 

The ingredients mixed in with your migas vary regionally. In Extremadura, they might add pork ribs and spinach, while in Aragon they might mix in bacon and chorizo. While there's no word for "comfort food" in Spanish, this is comfort food at its best. 

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Croquetas

Croqueta croquette Spain snack food
The croqueta is one of Spain's most delicious traditional snacks. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

As with migas, croquetas started out as a practical way to make use of food scraps and leftovers. Traditionally filled with béchamel and jamón, this deep-fried delight can be found all over Spain—and with a huge variety of fillings. 

Chains like Croqueta y Presumida offer vegetarian options like mushroom or goat cheese and raisins, as well as gastronomic delights such as chipirón en su tinta (squid in its own ink). You can even get them in the grocery store and take them home to fry them yourself (though, speaking from experience, this is harder than you think).  

Pintxos & Tapas

Tapas may be the most famous Spanish dish you'll hear about on your travels. Traditionally some small snack served on a piece of bread, they're called "tapas" ("tops") because they were used to cover the mouths of glasses to keep flies and bugs from getting in. Appropriately, then, in most of Andalusia, you'll get a free tapa with every drink. It's a great way to get a free dinner while you barhop.

Pintxos are in many ways similar to tapas. They're small, bite-sized snacks eaten as you move from bar to bar, especially at dinner time. However, this northern take on the tapa tends to be much more elaborate. Chefs take pride in the delicious and frankly beautiful concoctions they can come up with. Pintxos are not to be missed, wherever you can find them. 

The 10 Best Pintxos in San Sebastian

Everything you need to know about pintxos and where to find them. 

Merluza (Hake)

Merluza hake fish Spanish cuisine
Merluza in pumpkin cream topped with beet foam from the Restaurante Carmela in Granada, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Let's get one thing out of the way first: just about every corner of Spain guarantees some of the best seafood you'll ever eat. From mussels to monkfish, octopus to 3+ kinds of squid, you'll find the freshest catches straight from the sea even as far inland as Granada or Madrid

But merluza, by golly, is the best. When I first looked it up in my Spanish-English dictionary it translated to "hake"—something I had never heard of. It's a type of fish whose various species can be found all over the world, though are less common along the coasts of North America. 

This white fish is fresh, light, flaky, and some of the juiciest fish I've ever had.  I get it wherever and whenever I can when I'm in Spain. And somehow, just about every restaurant I've been to prepares it well. This is either a testament to the incredible cooking talents of the Spanish, or to the fish itself.

Ponche segoviano

This scrumptious dessert is typical of Segovia and not to be missed whenever you're nearby. This dense cake is made with flour, eggs, and sugar and covered with a layer of marzapan, an almond-based sweet typical of Spain, especially of Toledo. The treat was popularized by Frutos García Martín in the 1920s.  

Segovia: A Fairytale City

Segovia is home to the castle that inspired Cinderella's palace and a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct. Here's everything you need to know for your visit. 

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Salmorejo and Gazpacho

Spain is known for serving up not one, but two cold soups—and it stands to reason why. In the scorching summers of Andalusia, gazpacho and salmorejo offer up the perfect relief from the heat. Families will even bring them along in thermoses on beach days.

Gazpacho is the more famous of the two, and contains a blend of olive oil (Spanish-grown and -made, of course), vinegar, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, garlic, and onion. Salmorejo, though, is just as delicious (if not better) and offers up a less acidic alternative. 

Chorizo, Txistorra, and Other Local Sausages

Local sausages are a specialty throughout Spain, especially in the north. Try as many varieties as you can while you're visiting, including the delicately spiced chorizo and txistorra (alternatively spelled "chistorra").

You can grab one of the latter wrapped in a talo (we'll get to what those are in a minute) during Semana Grande, San Sebastian's biggest festival of the year. If you can, find a plate with txistorra marinated in sidra (cider), which is typical of Basque Country, the same region from which the sausage originates. It's an incredibly flavorful combination, and can be found in bars throughout the northeast.

Other options include longaniza (similar to a hot dog in some cases) and arbiello, typical of Aragón.

Talos txistorra Semana Grande Basque
Talos with txistorra (a local sausage) are the most delicious treat of Semana Grande. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Talos are not unlike the traditional corn tortillas found in Mexico, but they're in fact a food typical to Basque Country that comes out a little thicker and more sturdy than a Mexican tortilla. They're cooked on warm metal burners and eaten with a variety of toppings, from savory regional sausages to chocolate. 

At Semana Grande, the biggest annual festival in the jewel of Basque Country, San Sebastian, there's a stand selling talos every year. You can even see people making them by hand.

Morcilla 

When I recommend morcilla to people, I usually suggest they try a bite before I tell them what it is. Since I don't have that luxury here, I'll simply insist that morcilla (a type of blood sausage—there, I said it) is the first thing I order on any menu. It's spiced, savory, and complex.

The variety of morcilla from Burgos comes packed with onions, rice, and lots of deliciousness. Types of morcilla that you find in more southern areas such as Extremadura or La Mancha are more creamy, with onions rather than rice, and perhaps more similar to the UK's black pudding. Some types even include pine nuts and almonds. With all that variety to explore, no wonder I order it wherever I go. 

Bacalao

More than almost any other Spanish foods, bacalao (salted cod) tells a story. As one of the first fishes to be salted for preservation, it was also one of the first types of seafood that people who lived in inland Europe had access to, greatly improving nutrition and health throughout Spain and broader Europe.

The fish was tracked far and wide by Basque sailors, who are believed by some to have reached the Americas (especially what is now Canada) around 500 years before Columbus.

Today, bacalao is a delicacy of Basque and Spanish chefs, who seek to bring out its unique, fresh, and subtle flavor through a variety of fascinating techniques.

If you'd like to learn more about how bacalao, in fact, has changed world history in more ways than one, I highly recommend reading The Basque History of the World or Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World—both incredible and fascinating books by Mark Kurlansky.

Escalivada

Escalivada is a traditional Catalan salad of grilled vegetables. It's shown above with romescu sauce, a Catalan concoction similar to aioli, at Jai Ca restaurant in the Barceloneta neighborhood of Barcelona.

This neighborhood is also famous for being the home of round, deep-fried, croqueta-like snacks known as "bombas." Make sure to pick up both of these local treats while you're there. 

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Churros

Churros can be found throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world, and there are a million varieties — just as there are a million opinions about which style is best. Americans may be most familiar with churros rolled in cinnamon and sugar. You won't find the cinnamon here but you may just find the sugar coating. Make sure to order dipping chocolate, which is an essential component but usually won't come with your churros automatically. 

If you're in Madrid, churros at the Chocolatería San Gines is a must. It's a century old and has even been featured in some iconic Spanish literature, such as the play Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights) by esteemed early–20th-century novelist, poet, and dramaturg Ramón del Valle-Inclán. 

Cochinillo

Cochinillo Segovia Spain roast pork
Cochinillo is a traditional dish of Segovia, Spain. | Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/blogestudio

It may not be pretty, but it sure is delicious. Cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig, is typical of Castille and especially of Segovia, where many restaurants feature it proudly on their menu.

To learn where to eat the most authentic cochinillo, check out our city guide to Segovia. If you dare to try to cook it yourself, check out this cochinillo recipe from Epicurus

Pulpo (Octopus)

Octopus Sirimiri San Sebastian
Pulpo con mojo verde y frambuesa (octopus with garlic sauce and raspberry) at Sirimiri. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

If you've had octopus before and found it rubbery and bland, I get that. But if you haven't had it in Spain, try it again. 

For some miraculous reason, you can find beautifully cooked octopus, or pulpo, everywhere in Spain. Perhaps because so much of the food here is as fresh as possible, perhaps because it's so often lightly dusted with local paprika and sauteed in local olive oil, the pulpo in Spain is a good addition to every dish from a pintxo to a paella. 

Caldos & Guisos (Broths & Stews)

Found especially in the north, stews and broths filled with hearty alubias beans and other local legumes alongside sausages, meats, and vegetables make for a hearty and comforting food. If you're in the south, you might be sweating too much to eat one of these, unless it's wintertime. But take the opportunity to eat one if you can. Just make sure to come hungry—you'll leave ready for a very long nap next to the fire.

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carcamusa

Carcamusa is a stew-like dish typical of Toledo. It's a tomato-based sauce filled with pork and vegetables, and it's another perfect comfort food for chillier days. Toledans are particularly proud of this dish and it's a must-have during your visit. Luckily, Toledo has enough hills that you should be able to walk off the post-carcamusa sleepiness pretty quickly.

While you're in Toledo, don't miss the marzipan, either. This sweet almond confectionary is a local specialty, and there are shops everywhere. The almonds, of course, are grown in Spain.

Spanish Cheese

It would be an absolute shame to visit Spain without stopping by at least one market. (Particularly enchanting are the small-town affairs with all-local producers.) And it would be a shame to visit a Spanish market without sampling—and subsequently buying huge blocks of—one of the most delicious of all Spanish foods: local cheese.

Asturias and Basque Country are particularly known for their varieties of blue cheese, which can range from mild to incredibly pungent (for the bold). Cow's, sheep's, and goat's cheese are all on wide display throughout the country, and if you're lucky, the market vendor will actually be able to point out the nearby mountain where he makes it. 

The most famous of Spanish foods: the Tortilla

If you love Mexican food (and who doesn't), you may think you have an idea of what a tortilla is. Throw that out the window when you visit Spain. The typical tortilla here is an inch-thick concoction of eggs and potatoes. It's a simple dish and a fundamental part of Spanish cuisine. You'll find it at almost every bar, and you can even find it served on a sandwich.

The tortilla is a great option for vegetarians visiting Spain. If you're looking for something even simpler, try the tortilla francesa, which lacks the potatoes. Why is it called the "French tortilla," as the translation reads? The story goes that during the siege of Cadiz and San Fernando by Spain in 1810, people suffered hunger and weren't able to acquire potatoes—so had to make their tortillas in a different way.

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No trip to Spain is complete without enjoying the incredible breadth of Spanish cuisine. The food is locally sourced, fabulously fresh, and made with pride. There's no better place to travel for foodies. 

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Spain May Close Public Spaces That Celebrate Spanish Dictator

Valle de los Caídos Franco
Spanish vice president Carmen Calvo announced on Monday that she will impose sanctions that could lead to the closure of spaces, now open to the public, where the memory of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is celebrated, El País reports.

The sanctions could impact such controversial destinations as the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive monument near Madrid where the remains of 40,000 people who died in the Spanish Civil War lie alongside Franco's remains.

Calvo's announcement comes after a campaign by Franco's family to inter Franco's remains in the Almudena Cathedral, the primary church of the Diocese of Madrid, which is located right next to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace).

"The objective of the government is that [Franco's] remains are in a place that is respectful and private, in the responsibility of the family, not the state," Calvo said.

Francisco Franco, Spanish Dictator

Francisco Franco, Spanish dictator
Francisco Franco
Francisco Franco ruled over Spain for 35 years as a ruthless and repressive dictator. He took power during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, ousting a democratic government.

Upon taking control of Spain, Franco instituted laws that reflected his Catholic ideology, severely curbing the rights of women and limiting free speech. Thousands of those who had opposed him during the Spanish Civil War remained in prison for their political beliefs after the war was over. Meanwhile, the 1940s plunged Spain into a period of want and famine as Franco's isolationist policies slowed the country's recovery.

Franco's political ideology has been called Catholic nationalism, and was based on the belief in a superior Spanish race. As a nationalist, Franco aimed for a homogenous, Catholic society populated by this single race of people. To this end, he prohibited the minority languages of Spain — Catalán, Gallego (Galician), and Basque—from being spoken in daily life or used in official documents.

Women were at first unable to work outside the home, and part of the vast propaganda machine under Franco was dedicated to creating women's magazines teaching them how to be good housewives. Later, some of these restrictions were loosened, and women were permitted to work with their husbands' permission. When Franco died in 1975 Spain transitioned to a democracy and began to reckon with a difficult past.

Almudena Cathedral in Madrid

Almudena Cathedral Madrid
The Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

When the family of Franco suggested that he be interred in Almudena Cathedral, the seat of the Madrid diocese, the Spanish government originally stated that it could do nothing to stop the move, according to El País.

But now, the government is now looking into a way to modify legislation, called the Law of Historic Memory, that is now under consideration in congress, in order to ensure that Franco's remains cannot be placed there. A change to the law has already been drafted. 

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Sagrada Familia Will Pay Millions After 136 Years Without a Permit

The Sagrada Familia | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
More than 130 years after construction began on Barcelona's most iconic church, it turns out that the Sagrada Familia never had a building permit. Now, the basilica has agreed to pay the city back-fees for all those years of nonpayment. The Sagrada Familia will pay millions—$41 million, to be exact—to the city of Barcelona in a space of just 10 years.

The basilica was designed by famed Catalán architect Antoni Gaudí. Construction began in 1882, and is expected to reach completion in 2026. By 2022, it will be Barcelona's tallest building, according to Spanish newspaper El País.

The funds that the church is slated to pay back will cover improvements in public services and transport, TIME reports. Barcelona mayor Ada Colau called the culmination of the agreement a "historic day" for the city.

The Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws 20 million visitors a year—4.5 million of whom pay to step inside the awe-inspiring structure. It can be expected, then, that the church will not find it too difficult to muster up the funds necessary to pay back the city of Barcelona.

Construction plans around creating an access road, tunnel, and staircase to help visitors reach the Sagrada Familia have also generated controversy, as some have proposed removing as many as 150 homes in the area to achieve these aims. Neighbors of the temple demonstrated on Oct. 18 calling for a resolution to this question.

Your Visit to Barcelona

The most essential sights, experiences, and dining recommendations for your next trip to Barcelona, all in one place.

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299 Hours, 1 Guitar: This Video Shows How a Flamenco Guitar Is Made

The sound of the flamenco guitar has an incomparable way of communicating pathos, sorrow, and celebration. It is at the heart of most contemporary flamenco performances — but its unique sound is not so easy to come by. In fact, in the video above, you'll learn that it takes 299 hours to build just one flamenco guitar.

As we explain in our article on the story of flamenco, flamenco is an art form combining singing, dance, and guitar. It dates to at least the 18th century, and has origins in Romani (colloquially called "gypsy") culture.

A hand-made flamenco guitar is crafted with incredible care. Every piece of wood is hand-carved and -sanded. Every measurement must be precise. Heat is applied to delicately curve the sides of the guitar. The lacquer is hand-melted. This is the height of the guitar-making craft.

This video, which shows the process step-by-step, was produced by the Deep Green Sea filmmaking team. The filmmakers spent three full days in the studio of one of the best flamenco–guitar-makers (properly called "luthiers") in the world. Surprisingly enough, Vasillis Lazarides is Greek, and his lab is in Athens.

The video is punctuated by the stunning guitar-playing of Edsart Udo De Haes. It's well worth a watch, and a powerful introduction to the long tradition of flamenco.
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Flamenco is one of the most recognizable art forms that has ever come out of Spain. Performers such as Paco de Lucía have incorporated international musical elements to reinvigorate it and bring it to a larger public. During your visit to Spain, seeing a flamenco show is simply a must. 

It's important to learn to appreciate the Spanish guitar and the many sides of this complicated musical form before you go to a show. Flamenco is rooted in a history of struggle and tragedy: the Romani people have faced discrimination throughout Europe for centuries, and this continues to today. 

If you'd like to learn more about flamenco guitar, consider attending one of the many guitar festivals throughout Spain, especially in Andalusia.

The Story of Flamenco

The history of flamenco begins with its Romani roots. Learn how to identify and appreciate the many facets of Spain's most recognizable art form.

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The Story of Flamenco: Origins of an Andalusian-Romani Art Form

Carmen Madrid flamenco performance dancer

Night is falling in Sacromonte, and yellow lamps are lighting up along the slope, illuminating the painted white houses. Outside the Zambra María la Canastera, two flamenco guitarists play a few licks back and forth while a dancer—polka-dotted scarf around her neck, red flower in her hair—waits for the show to start. 

In a few minutes, they'll follow the gathering crowd—myself among them—inside, where a long, narrow cave carved out of the soft rock of the hillside is hung festively with bright brass pots and pans. This is a cueva, or cave, an underground home characteristic of Sacromonte, the traditionally Romani (commonly known as "gypsy") neighborhood of Granada, Spain. 

Earlier today, I've walked along these steep streets and footpaths, many too narrow for cars, and as the sun beat down, the houses were shut and hushed. Now, a few have opened their doors for evening performances. The Alhambra, lit up with spotlights, is just a stone's toss away.

Cuevas such as this one are common dwelling-places all over the Andalusian region. They offer respite from the unforgiving summer heat, but have generally been home to southern Spain's poorer and marginalized classes, Romani among them. The gypsy, or Romani, people are originally from India. They arrived in Spain in the 15th century, and have been among the country's most persecuted peoples ever since. Yet at the same time, one of Spain's most famous art forms—flamenco—originated among the Romani of Andalusia, influenced also by other occupants of the region. To tell the story of flamenco, then, you must tell the story of the Romani and of Andalusia.

Flamenco guitarists dancer Granada gypsy
Flamenco guitarists and a dancer wait for the show to start outside a traditional cave-house in Granada. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Art of Flamenco

The Zambra María la Canastera and other venues like it in Sacromonte are among the most authentic settings in Spain to see a flamenco performance. A tablao is a stage or performance space where you can see flamenco performed, but a zambra is a party or, these days, a performance in one of these traditional cuevas, especially in Sacromonte. It was in caves such as these that the Romani people developed and performed flamenco among themselves, before the flood of tourists, before the demand for performances in more formal settings. 

I feel like an intruder. This is a private space. It was once a home—perhaps it still is. The zambra was a safe space for the Roma people for centuries, where they could express themselves and develop this complex art form without the intrusion of the outside world—a world that racially profiled them, that barred them from economic opportunities and segregated them, that spread disparaging stereotypes about them throughout Europe. A world that still commits all of these crimes. 

The performance begins with music, two guitarists accompanied by the claps, stomps, and calls of the dancers: "¡Olé! ¡Hala!" They are calls of encouragement, but they are also a fundamental part of the music. Flamenco is first and foremost an art form rooted in the human body: the voice, the feet, the torso and arms. It can exist without the accompaniment of the guitar. The guitar, however, cannot traditionally deliver the heart and soul of flamenco on its own—it needs the singer, the dancer.  

The singer, a woman with long, dark hair blotted with flowers, opens her mouth and begins. Her voice wavers in a husky alto. It does not try to deliver clear or operatic tones. Instead it wavers on a real life lived, a life of struggle, twinged at times with pain. 

Flamenco dancer singer Sacromonte Spain
A flamenco singer joins two dancers in a performance in a traditional Romani cave, or cueva, in the neighborhood of Sacromonte in Granada, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

"In flamenco, we value age and experience, the traces—the sediment—that life leaves in your voice over time," explains flamenco singer Rosalía. Born in 1993, she is relatively young for the art form. She says one of the greatest complements she has received has been from guitarist Pepe Habichuela, who told her: "You sing like an old woman." 

Finally, the first dancer comes forward. Her feet tap and stomp to the rhythm at lightning speeds as she drifts forward along the length of the cueva. Her arms raise above her head, a model of control, as her hands twist at the wrist, fingers poised as though they were the petals of two more flowers, turning to find the sun. 

The next dancer embodies the duende that must be present in every great flamenco artist's performance. "Duende" is a difficult word to translate. The Real Academia Española (RAE), the definitive resource on the Spanish language, defines it as a "mysterious and ineffable charm." But the word also connotes an expression of suffering, that inevitable pain that accompanies living. That she is channeling her own experience into her dance is evident in her face. The audience is enrapt. I feel like I'm holding my breath for her entire performance. 

Gypsy cave flamenco dancer Spain
A flamenco dancer performs in a traditional Romani cueva, or cave, in the Sacromonte neighborhood of Granada, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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The Romani in Europe and Spain

The Romani people are an ethnic group colloquially known as gypsies or Roma. Spanish Roma are often referred to as calé. The Romani originally came from modern-day Pakistan and northern India, but arrived in Europe around a thousand years ago and have lived throughout the continent ever since. Today, large populations also live in the Americas, primarily in the United States and Brazil. 

Many Romani are traditionally nomadic traders, traveling in wagons or groups of wagons. Their societal traditions are often related to Hindu purity laws, which dictate which parts of the body are considered clean and unclean and define both birth and burial practices. Many have adopted the religion of the country where they live. 

From the moment the Romani arrived in Europe, they have faced persecution. They have been repeatedly expelled from different regions. In the 1500s, any Romani in Switzerland were put to death by official orders, and similar rules existed in England and Denmark. Portugal would deport Romani to its colonies. 

In the late 1600s, they were integrated as forced labor into the French and Dutch armies. By the 1700s, they were being attacked and killed with impunity all over Holland in an attempt to eradicate them as a part of heidenjachten, which translates as "heathen hunt." 

The Romani are believed to have arrived in Spain around the 15th century. In 1695, a royal edict restricted them to living in particular towns. Another ruling 20 years later placed even tighter restrictions, and was designed to ensure they weren't concentrated in any single place. In 1749, many were arrested and imprisoned during the Great Gypsy Round-Up. 

Discrimination against the Romani has continued into the 20th century. They faced genocide at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. In Czechoslovakia, the state forcibly sterilized Romani women in an attempt to reduce their population. And today, in 2018, one definition of the word "gitano" (gypsy) in the dictionary of the RAE is "trapacero"—crook. The dictionary notes that this is an offensive usage. 

Many Romani consider the English word "gypsy" a racial slur. The verb "to gyp" is based on racist stereotypes of the Romani people. 

Carmen Madrid flamenco performance dancer
A flamenco-style rendition of the opera "Carmen" is performed on a Madrid stage. "Carmen" tells the story of a gypsy in Seville around the 1820s. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Origins of Flamenco Music and Dance

The earliest mention of flamenco in a historical source dates to 1774. While this musical and dance style was influenced by the Romani, it is unique to the region of Andalusia in southern Spain. For this reason, it also draws upon influences from all the ethnic groups that have historically occupied the area, especially from Muslims and Jews. Moriscos—Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity after the Reconquista—are said to have had a particular influence on flamenco, whose singing style indeed evokes the Muslim call to prayer. Seeds of flamenco, then, probably existed in Andalusia long before 1774. 

With the rise of a sense of Spanish pride after the War of Spanish Independence (1808–1812) against the French, the Romani emerged as models of this individualism and national pride. European Romantics likewise grew fascinated with Andalusian culture and style. Los cafés cantantes, singing cafés, emerged in the mid-1800s as places where flamenco was performed.  

Flamenco performers historical Seville Spain
A café cantante, or singing café, of flamenco performers is photographed ca. 1888 in Seville, Spain. | Photo by Emilio Beauchy

The popularization of flamenco in public and the professionalization of its performers changed the musical form considerably from what it had been. It nonetheless retains some of the popular character that makes it a music of the people, rather than a high-brow genre, inaccessible to most. 

Flamenco in Modern-Day Spain

Even as flamenco emerged as a uniquely Spanish style, it continued to face resistance. Many artists of the Generación del 98 (Generation of 1898) looked down upon it, among them the writer Eugenio Noel, who considered flamenco and bullfighting to be the sources of everything bad about Spain. 

Still other artists embraced the art form, including the renowned poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Born in the Granada region of Andalusia, Lorca celebrated traditional art forms such as flamenco and the Romancero, a traditional ballad form that had been passed down orally for centuries. 

Granada Sacromonte Romani neighborhood
The Sacromonte neighborhood in Granada, Spain, is a traditionally Romani area. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

After the Spanish Civil War and the installation of a brutal dictatorship under Francisco Franco, flamenco was at first looked upon with suspicion. Franco advocated a purely Spanish "race" based on a tradition of Catholicism and the Castilian Spanish language.

The regime would eventually allow flamenco to flourish, adopting it as a model Spanish art form. However, starting in the mid-1960s until the death of Franco in 1975, many flamencos (flamenco artists), especially cantaores (singers), emerged who would oppose the regime through their lyrics. Flamenco became, in many corners, a space for political activism.

During Spain's transition to democracy in the 1970s, flamenco underwent a transition, too. It became internationally known and celebrated. It also, in some cases, underwent a fusion with other art forms, for example with the emergence of Andalusian rock group Smash. Famous guitarist Paco de Lucía incorporated such influences as jazz and Arabic and Brazilian music, and introduced the Peruvian cajón, or box drum. 

Other notable flamenco stars in the last fifty years have been Camarón de la Isla, Lola Flores, Juan Peña El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente, Tomatito, and Rocío Jurado. 

In 2010, UNESCO declared flamenco an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World.

Flamenco dance museum Seville Spain
A dance is performed in the Flamenco Museum in Seville, Spain. | Photo by Schnobby, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Schnobby

Types of Flamenco

palo is a type of traditional flamenco singing. Palos are categorized based on their tempo, their geographic origin, or their style—be it festive or serious. A number of other factors can also determine the type of flamenco you're hearing. 

There are dozens of styles of flamenco and it could take a lifetime to learn the history and characteristics of each one. Here are just a few of the most popular types you might encounter. 

Alegrías: A festive style in octosyllabic verses, used to incite dancing; origins in Cádiz

Bulerías: Festive and fast-paced, often accompanied by palmas (stylized clapping) 

Fandangos: A fundamental palo dating from the 19th century

Malagueñas: With origins in fandangos malagueños, this is a traditional style from Malaga with its own dance and a particular style of dress

Tangos: Among the most basic flamenco styles 

Flamenco dancer footwork Sacromonte Granada
Male flamenco dancers focus more predominantly on footwork. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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Your Visit to Andalusia

During any visit to Spain, and especially to Andalusia, a flamenco show is certain to be a highlight of the trip. Flamenco is stunning, guttural, moving, unforgettable.

Flamenco Lorca Granada Alhambra SpainKeep in mind the history of this art form and its many manifestations as you decide what type of show to see. A zambra will have a fundamentally different character than a show on a big stage in Madrid or Granada. Both types of performance are well worth seeing. 

If you're in Granada, try to see both a zambra and a tablao in the Jardines del Generalife, in full view of the Alhambra as it's lit up at night. Recent flamenco shows have been inspired by the poetry and plays of Lorca, and locals who have likely seen their fair share of flamenco have told me that these are simply spectacular. 

After the show, I walk out into the hiss of crickets and yellow lights that engulf Sacromonte at nighttime. The Alhambra, aglow on a nearby hillside, is also a part of the show I've just seen: the Muslim caliphs who built it contributed their own long musical and artistic traditions to the region. All of these are still omnipresent in Andalusian culture. 

Sacromonte was once considered a slum, a place where the poorest Granadans lived. Now, though it is still a residential neighborhood, it has also become a tourist destination. Flamenco—its irresistible draw, its profound capacity for expressing human suffering, and its spirit of celebration and empowerment—has transformed Sacromonte on a fundamental level.

As responsible visitors, our role must be to know the history that has effected this transition. It helps us tap into all that flamenco means and communicates and feels and emotes. As I walk along the lowest wall on the Sacromonte hilltop, descending back into the most bustling tourist quarter, I wonder if I have been able to connect with these performers a little better for having known this history, even though I can never know their experience. Acknowledging it and listening, I hope, can be enough. 

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Semana Grande: Your Ultimate Guide to San Sebastian’s Biggest Festival

Semana Grande is San Sebastian’s biggest annual festival, and not to be missed for any traveler who finds themselves in Spain in August. From giant marionettes to flaming bulls, world-class bands to stone-lifting competitions, fair rides to paella dishes for 300, Semana Grande offers up a unique window into Basque culture.

Semana Grande takes place every year on the week of Aug. 15, from Saturday to Saturday. That means that, in 2018, it takes place Aug. 11–18. During this time there are fireworks every night (it is, in fact, an international fireworks competition) and special events all day, every day. View a complete program of 2018 events here.

Still, if you’re looking at the events calendar, some events might seem like head-scratchers. Here’s your guide to some of the festival’s most exciting events. Put down your pintxo and check them out.

El Cañonazo: Kickoff to Semana Grande

Gigantes San Sebastian Spain Basque Country
Gigantes (giants) march down one of San Sebastian's main streets after the firing of the cañonazo, or cannon shot, to kick off festivities. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

A cañonazo, or cannon shot, kicks off Semana Grande festivities before a milling crowd of local families and tourists alike. Gigantes ("giants") and cabezudos ("big heads")—more on these characters later—march through the streets to help launch the festivities. 

Viewing the cañonazo is a great way to get into the Semana Grande spirit. Join in the fun in the Jardines de Alderdi Eder at 7 p.m. the first Saturday of Semana Grande. 

International Fireworks Competition

There are fireworks every night of Semana Grande as part of an international fireworks competition involving professionals from all over the world. Try to view them from a different vantage point every time—from the Plaza de la Constitución, then the Playa de la Concha, then Miramar. You can even board a boat and view them from the harbor. Warning: dance parties tend to break out.

Gigantes and Cabezudos

Some of the most iconic figures of Semana Grande are also perhaps the most difficult to explain. That's why it might be easy to watch our video about gigantes and cabezudos first:

Gigantes (which translates as "giants") and cabezudos ("big heads") are, roughly speaking, marionettes or mascots that march through the streets throughout the week. Look for them on the schedule, but they can be difficult to miss for two reasons: one, the gigantes are nearly 15 feet tall; and two, the cabezudos go around hitting people with dried animal bladders. 

Told you it was hard to explain. 

Gigantes are found in many parts of Spain and date to at least the 1600s. The eight gigantes of San Sebastian were premiered in 1982. They are divided into four pairs, each of which represents a different region of Basque Country: Álava, Navarra, Guipúzcoa, and Vizaya. They can be seen dancing to traditional music and marching alongside local bands. 

The 14 cabezudos are the more mischievous bunch. They represent the different festivals of the city, and generally manifest as trades or types: a cook, a barmaid, a drummer, and so on. They are known for swinging around dried animal bladders (usually a sheep's or pig's) and occasionally slapping passersby with said bladders. (And if you're wondering—yes, it hurts.) Children, among their most common victims, have a love-hate relationship and can be seen running along behind them down the street. In short, if you dare pose for a picture with a cabezudo, do so at your own risk. 

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Toros de Fuego

Toro de fuego (fire bull) Semana Grande
Toros de fuego (fire bulls) during Semana Grande in San Sebastian. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

No, they don't set actual bulls on fire. These model bulls are outfitted with fireworks, strapped on someone's back, and run down the street as onlookers flee and children chase them. It's not as dangerous as a running of real bulls, but it's not the safest-looking thing either. A can't-miss, hilarious good time. 

Talos

Keep an eye on the Plaza de San Juan in the Parte Vieja (old town) of San Sebastian for a pop-up stand making talos, a traditional Basque corn patty. It's similar to a Mexican tortilla, served up with either txistorra, a seasoned local sausage (delicious, BTW), or chocolate. You can even see them being made by hand. 

Talos txistorra Semana Grande Basque
Talos with txistorra (a local sausage) are the most delicious treat of Semana Grande. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Herri-Kirolak (Traditional Basque Sports)

Rural sports from stone-lifting to trunk-cutting are on display at these events. Stones range between 220 and more than 700 pounds. It's overall an impressive display, and an incredible opportunity to gain a little more insight into a culture that is dramatically different—with a very different history—from what you can find anywhere else in Spain, or the world for that matter.  

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Traditional Music and Dance

Traditional Basque music dance San Sebastian
Traditional music and dance being performed in the Plaza de la Constitución of San Sebastian. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Plaza de la Constitución, at the heart of the Parte Vieja, hosts performances that include traditional music and dance. These are complete with costumes, as well. It's a fabulous chance to learn just how diverse Basque culture really is, as there are different dances and styles of music for each region and even subregion of this community.

You can also catch local bands marching through the streets of the Parte Vieja or the Antiguo neighborhood, showing off traditional musical styles. Particularly wonderful are the drum bands. 

More contemporary iterations—including carts with amps hooked up to electric guitars—will be wandering the streets, too. While many musical groups will show up on the official schedule, a great many won't. The lesson is, just be outside in the street a lot during Semana Grande—and when you hear music, follow it until you find it.

San Sebastian Semana Grande comparsas
A group walks through the streets of San Sebastian's Parte Vieja, playing music from amplifiers strapped to a cart. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Free Live Music

Oreja de Van Gogh Semana Grande
La Oreja de Van Gogh, one of Spain's most popular bands, plays an open-air stage near Zurriola Beach during San Sebastian's Semana Grande. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Semana Grande not only draws a host of artists and artisans from all over Spain—it also attracts some of Europe's most popular bands. So keep a close eye on the schedule, as you might catch an act like La Oreja de Van Gogh (Van Gogh's Ear), one of Spain's most beloved pop bands, which played an open-air stage near Zurriola Beach in 2017. A free show, I might add. 

All Ashore! Homemade Boat Race

Self-styled "pirates" build their own homemade boats. ("Rafts" might be a better term.) Then they attempt to row these rafts from the harbor to La Concha Beach. For such a short distance, it takes longer than you might think. This may be the week's most hilarious event. 

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Covadonga: A Natural Sanctuary

Lago la Ercina
The village and parish of Covadonga in Asturias, a region on the north coast of Spain, offers up one of the most gorgeous hikes in the country. What's more, it's an essential destination for anyone interested in the history of the Reconquista and for those faithful Christians who have heard the legends about King Pelayo, the first warrior of the Reconquista (more on him later).

Stop in the sanctuary first for a 20-minute visit before ascending by bus to a lake hike that will knock your socks off without wearing you out. The hike is an easy loop with mild slopes and several big payoffs. It is absolutely not to be missed.

Here's everything you can see in and around Covadonga, which is an easy day trip from coastal towns such as Llanes.

The Sanctuary of Covadonga

The Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga
The Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.
One of the most beautiful hikes in Asturias begins, first, with a visit to one of the region's most sacred sites. Covadonga is nestled in the mountain range known as the Picos de Europa, and some believe that, on the site of these lakes, a miracle occurred 1,300 years ago.

King Pelayo (or Pelagius, as he's known by English-speakers) founded the Kingdom of Asturias in 718 CE and ruled it until he died. In 722, the Battle of Covadonga marked the first victory by Christian forces fighting back against the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This battle carries important symbolism in that it is considered the first victory of the Reconquista, or the "reconquering" of Spain from Islamic forces. It would take nearly 800 more years to expel the last of the Islamic caliphates from the peninsula.

Take a bus or drive to the Santa Cueva in Covadonga to start your journey. Here, you'll find the grave of King Pelayo and the patron saint of Asturias, the Virgin of Covadonga, who rose out of one of the lakes to guide Pelayo in his journey. You'll also get stunning views of the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.
The Santa Cueva (sacred cave) in Cavadonga.
The Santa Cueva (sacred cave) in Cavadonga.

No one lives in this town but monks, so there's little else to see after a brief, gorgeous visit to the Santa Cueva. When you're ready to ascend to the lakes, grab a coffee and make your way to the bus stop.

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Getting to the Lake Hike

You can only ascend to the lakes by buying a ticket on an Alsa bus for 9€ per seat. It's easy to see why they don't let just any car ascend: the fog can be thick, and cows and goats scatter intermittently across the road. If you're lucky, you'll also see local bison (a smaller version than those in North American) or quebrantahuesos, a type of vulture which translates literally as "bone-breakers" because of their affinity for dropping bones from high up to split them open and eat the marrow.

Abandoned Iron Mines

Start your hike by exploring the remains of a once-thriving iron mine, surrounded by the empty houses that once lodged a few thousand miners, their families, a local doctor, and even a school. The last mines here shut down in 1972.

Asturias is a region defined by mining. During miners' strikes shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the regional economy shut down completely, since essentially 100 percent of the Asturian population worked in mines.

You'll get to walk through an actual mine shaft and come out the other side.

Llanes Asturias Spain Mine
Walk through a mine shaft on your hike toward the three alpine lakes at Covadonga. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Lago la Ercina

If the fog is still heavy, you might not notice at first that, across a broad, green expanse, you're approaching the first lake, Lago la Ercina. It's an idyllic scene, with belled cows wandered around a broad expanse of green. If the fog is too heavy to see the peaks, often still snow-covered in summer, grab a coffee and bocadillo (sandwich) at the bar a little way up the slope and wait. When the sun comes out, there may be no more beautiful place on Earth.

Next, ascend a hill to get an even better view of la Ercina from the Mirador Entrelagos. You'll see fog shifting across the peaks.

There is a third lake in this area but it's usually empty unless it's time for the spring snow melt. In any case, you'll be more than happy with la Ercina, and the next big payoff.
Lago la Ercina
Lago la Ercina is at 1,100 meters of altitude. Eat at the affordable, hearty bar overlooking the lake while you wait for the fog to clear.
Mist moves quickly through these mountains, which are speckled with cows.

Lago el Enol

It's only a short walk from la Ercina to Lago el Enol, where fast-moving mists shift across the bright blue water. Listen for cowbells ringing in the distance and the bleat of goats. This is a gorgeous spot for a picnic.

From here, it's also just a short walk back to where the Alsa bus will pick you back up again. If you're staying on the coast, head back through the Sunday market in Cangas de Onís before 2 p.m. to buy some delicious local fare.
Lago (Lake) el Enol Covadonga
Lago (Lake) el Enol
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Madrid Hosts Europe’s Biggest Pride Festival

Chueca, Madrid, Pride Festival
Madrid is host to some of the biggest festivals in Spain, and the Orgullo Gay de Madrid is no exception. It's Europe's largest pride festival, and one of the largest such events in the world. If you're in town in early July, you simply can't miss it. Here's what you need to know.

A History of Pride in Spain

"Orgullo" means "pride" in Spanish (as you may well have guessed), and Spain has a lot to be proud of when it comes to supporting its LGBTQ community. Certainly, such communities still face a great number of challenges around the world, including in Spain—but there's also much to celebrate here.

In 2005, Spain became one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. According to the law, “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes.”

The story begins much earlier, of course. The first open demonstration in support of gay rights in Spain took place in Barcelona in 1977, two years after the conservative dictator Francisco Franco died. Four thousand people turned out in support.

The next year, a demonstration was authorized to take place in Madrid. It has taken place there every year ever since (excluding 1980).

Much of the LGBTQ-rights movement in Spain was born in the Chueca neighborhood in Madrid. The Colectivo de Lesbianas, Gays, Transexuales y Bisexuales de Madrid (COGAM) was formed here. Chueca is still known as Madrid's gay neighborhood.

In 2007, Madrid was the European capital of Pride, and every year on Pride Week, about two million people spill into the streets or travel to Madrid to celebrate.

European Pride parade (Europride) of 2007
The European Pride parade (Europride) of 2007 in Madrid. | Courtesy Oscar San Jose

When & Where

Orgullo Gay de Madrid (MADO) is hosted in the Chueca neighborhood, but signs of Pride are visible everywhere. Hotels light up in rainbow colors. Rainbow flags, balloons, posters, and more are displayed in just about every storefront. And several of the city's plazas, including the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza de España, host stages with live music and entertainment.

The main events, including a parade, take place on the weekend after June 28, which is the International Day of LGBT Pride.

Roughly 300,000 people travel from international destinations to be in Madrid for the big event, and you can hear just about every language as you walk down many of the closed-off streets. People wear flags, flowers, or other rainbow insignia to show their support. The streets overflow with people decked out especially for the occasion. It's a warm and welcoming atmosphere, if a little chaotic.

The annual parade starts around 5:30 p.m. and travels from Atocha station to the Plaza de Colón.
Pride Parade map Madrid
The annual Pride parade in Madrid marches from Atocha station to the Plaza de Colón.

Can't-Miss Events

Here are some of the most essential events in Madrid's annual Pride celebration.

Mr. Gay Pride Competition

This event, generally hosted in the Puerta del Sol, offers contestants the chance to win the title of Mr. Gay Pride España. The year 2018 saw the 11th annual competition, and featured a performance from Eleni Foureira.

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LGBTQ Film Screenings

Hosted in 2018 by Muestra•T, an annual film fest features LGBTQ-themed films. It's an opportunity to engage with some incredibly compelling pieces. What's more, you can see them in equally fascinating venues, including the Matadero (a slaughterhouse-turned-cultural-center) and the Museo Reina Sofia.

The Parade

This event marks the finale of the Pride celebration in Madrid. It kicks off around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and travels from Atocha station to the Plaza de Colón. Grab a picnic lunch in the Parque de El Retiro during the day, take a spin in the small boats on the lake, and then take a leisurely walk to the parade path to secure a good view.

WE Pride Festival

Over the course of about five days, WE Pride heads up several parties throughout Madrid. If you want to truly celebrate and experience Madrid Pride, you simply have to attend one (that is, at least one) of these events.
Gay Pride Plaza Mayor Madrid
Flags and other signs of support for Pride are displayed throughout Madrid, including outside the tourism office in the Playa Mayor. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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Essential Spanish for Every Traveler

Learn the Spanish language while in Spain.

There is no better way to get to know a new place than getting to know a bit about the language. Not only does it offer a window into local culture, it also opens a door to more meaningful, memorable interactions with locals. So even if you're wandering through a big city like Madrid or Barcelona, it pays to know a little bit of Spanish.

Luckily, in Spain, people will encourage even the most elementary Spanish every step of the way. Learn just a handful of these phrases, and you'll have to prepare yourself for a generous reception and effusive compliments over the high quality of your castellano (Castilian Spanish, from the Castile region—what English-speakers just call "Spanish"). It's just one of the many reasons that there is no better place to be a traveler.

Essential Resources

If you want to improve your Spanish, here are a couple of essential resources and apps to take along on your journey.

WordMagic Unabridged English-Spanish Dictionary: If you’re traveling without phone data, this app is essential. Other dictionaries require Internet access to look up a word, but this dictionary downloads entirely to your phone or tablet, and is complete with phrases and recorded pronunciations. You can even change the region to get a sense of the local accent. You can even add new words to your favorites and make instant flashcards. I don’t know how I ever survived without this one.

Vox Compact Spanish-English Dictionary:Vox Spanish language dictionary This is my favorite brand of Spanish-English Dictionary because of the way it's formatted. It is particularly easy to find useful idioms and phrases under relevant words. I highly recommend this dictionary for anyone looking to dive deeper into the Spanish language. Here's a travel-sized version.

WordReference: Among online dictionaries for non-native speakers, this is the standout best. It offers recorded pronunciations and tons of useful phrases, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for in the dictionary, the very active forum will usually have an answer for you.

501 Spanish Verbs: Conjugating verbs is next-level language learning ... but it's also essential if you want to communicate on a more complex level. This book isn't just a great guide for how to conjugate individual verbs—it also offers easy-to-understand, in-depth instructions on each tense and when to use it. It's a must for any Spanish-language learner. 

Real Academia Española: The governing body when it comes to the Spanish language, the RAE publishes a free online dictionary and app that provides a deeper level of variation and explanation of different words’ definitions for the more advanced Spanish learner (i.e., everything here, from definitions to grammatical terms, is going to be in Spanish). Their “Dictionary of Doubts” also provides insights on particularly problematic points of grammar and spelling. This site, though, is for more advanced speakers, as it doesn't provide English translations.

Greetings and Goodbyes

When you enter a shop or other establishment, make sure to greet the proprietor. In Spain, it's just considered polite.

Hello, Good morning  Hola; Buenos días

Good afternoon  Buenas tardes  (to be used after 1 or 2 p.m., depending on the region)

Good evening  Buenas noches

Goodbye  Adiós; Hasta luego (see you later); Hasta pronto (see you soon); Hasta ahora (see you in a minute); Ciao (yes, you definitely can get away with this)

Kindnesses and Politesse

You'll run into even more useful phrases to achieve basic politeness in the next section, "Getting Around."

Gracias  Thank you

Muchas gracias  Thank you very much

De nada  You're welcome

¿Cómo está? / ¿Qué tal?  How are you?

— Bien, ¿y usted?  I'm well, and you?

Vale  OK; all right.

¿Habla usted inglés?  Do you speak English?

No hablo español.  I don't speak Spanish.

Getting Around in Spain

When you begin to ask someone a question, it's best to begin with a "hello" (¡Hola!) then an "excuse me" ...

Excuse me  Perdón

Excuse me (could you let me through?)  Disculpa

¿Dónde está ...? Where is ...? (looking for a place)

• ¿Dónde está el baño / el servicio?  Where is the bathroom?

• ¿Dónde está el Prado?  Where is the Prado?

• ¿Dónde está el hotel [name]?  Where is the hotel [name]?

• ¿Dónde está el metro?  Where is the subway?

¿Qué hora es?  What time is it?

¿A qué hora abre?  What time does it open?

¿A qué hora cierra?  What time does it close?

When you're getting directions, you may hear the following words or phrases.

doblar  to turn (as in, around a corner)se habla español Spain

la esquina  the corner of a street

a la derecha  to the right

a la izquierda  to the left

derecho  straight

enfrente de  in front of

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Bars, Stores, and Restaurants

Ultramarinos restaurant on La Rambla, Barcelona
Ultramarinos restaurant, Barcelona.

Whether you're in Valencia or Segovia, San Sebastian or Madrid, you'll probably be visiting one of these places during your visit.

bar  bar

carnicería  butcher's shop

farmacia  pharmacy

frutería  fruit store

hospital  hospital

hotel  hotel  (the "h" is silent)

mercado  market

museo  museum

panadería  bakery

parque  park

pescadería  fishmonger's

playa  beach

restaurante  restaurant

A typical train line map in the Barcelona Metro.
A map in the Barcelona Metro.

Modes of Transportation

autobús  bus

bicicleta  bicycle

coche  car

metro  subway

tren  train

Getting to Know You

To have a more meaningful conversation with locals, start with some of these phrases. We'll offer them up in the informal "tú" (see "A Note on Formality" below), since you should be able to get away with this in Spain without offending anyone.

¿Cómo te llamas?  What is your name?

Me llamo ...  My name is ...

¿De dónde eres?  Where are you from?

— Soy de ...  I am from ...

¿Qué te gusta hacer?  What do you like to do?

¿Qué recomiendas?  What do you recommend?

¿Qué tipo de comida recomiendas?  What type of food do you recommend?

Booking.com

A Note on Formality in Spanish

Unlike English, Spanish has different words for “you” depending on the nature of your relationship with the person to whom you’re speaking. Luckily, Latin Americans generally take this a little more seriously than Spaniards do. You’ll probably be fine sticking to “tú,” the informal way of speaking. Usually reserved for friends and family, Spaniards use this term quite liberally, even with strangers, leaving the formal “usted” in the dust.

Spain is so darned informal, in fact, that it even has an informal plural form. Here's what you need to know about that. 

Hey, Y'all

Here’s another funny thing about the Spanish in Spain: they have two special words (and corresponding verb conjugations) for talking in the second-person plural. This is the grammatical form that we English speakers usually work around rather uncertainly and even guiltily, sneaking in a “you all,” “y’all,” or if you’re one of those Pennsylvanians, “you’uns.” There’s just no great way to say it in English, but Spanish has this problem rectified beautifully: Spaniards use “vosotros” for the second-person informal plural (the companion of “tú”) and “ustedes” for the formal version. “Vosotros” isn’t used in Latin America, unless you’re writing flowery poetry.

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Spain and Morocco in Talks to Build Underwater Tunnel

Tangiers Morocco ferry Spain

A Spanish government committee has confirmed that a proposed project to build an underwater tunnel connecting Spain and Morocco is a viable project. 

The largest tunnel-construction company in the world, Herrenknecht, teamed up with the University of Zurich to conduct a feasibility analysis, The Local reports. Despite worries over construction challenges, they concluded that the 18.6-mile-long tunnel between Europe and Africa can reasonably be constructed.

The total price tag is estimated at €8 billion. The first step would be to construct a custom-made boring machine at a cost of €32 million.

The tunnel would be used to transport high-speed trains, and also to transmit solar energy generated in the Sahara desert to Europe. Nearly 17 miles of the tunnel would be submerged below water, reaching depths of 1,558 feet below sea level.

Those wishing to travel between Spain and Morocco generally travel either by plane or by ferry. Ferries launch from Gibraltar and Tarifa in Spain and land in Tangier or Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city on the northern coast of Africa that is just 7.1 square miles. 

Booking.com
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Barcelona’s Sant Antoni Market Reopens to Fanfare after a Major Facelift

Mercat de St. Antoni

The Mercado de Sant Antoni is in many ways the beating heart of one of Barcelona's most vibrant neighborhoods. Now, locals are celebrating its new lease on life, as the market reopens after a nine-year renovation. 

A Quintessential Barcelona Market

The market has been hosted in a temporary structure while €80 million was being invested in turning the area into a "super block." There is now a pedestrian-friendly area with more greenery and play sets for children surrounding the market.

The Guardian explains how this massive market is structured:

Sant Antoni actually consists of three markets. As well as a food area with 52 stalls, there are 95 stalls in the Encants (enchantments), the lightly ironic Catalan term for a flea market. In this case it mainly sells cheap clothes. On Sundays, Sant Antoni also hosts one of Europe’s largest open-air book markets, with 78 stalls selling new and secondhand books, comics, stamps and other collectables.

Opening for the first time in 1882, the market was designed by Ildefons Cerdà, famed for designing Barcelona's Eixample neighborhood. By 2009, though, the steel-framed building had some steep maintenance costs and was in desperate need of updates. 

Hub of the Sant Antoni Community

Locals celebrated the reopening in May 2018 with poetry readings, dances, and music. The renovation had suffered delays, in part as a result of the discovery of part of a Roman road and an old city wall. As a hub of this working-class—but quickly gentrifying community—residents were more than eager to see its return: 

“The market generates business, it’s a point of attraction but it’s also a social nexus,” explains Agustí Colom, head of commerce on the city council and the man charged with implementing Barcelona’s costly citywide market renovation plan. “People don’t just shop, they talk and they feel part of a community. We run programs in markets for elderly people who feel isolated. Because they’re regular customers, there are people there who know them and to whom they can talk about their problems.”

Still, locals aren't keen on having the market turn into another tourist hub like the Boquería market off La Rambla. In order to ensure that this doesn't happen, they've reduced the number of bars and are discouraging stalls that are designed for tourists. 

Visitors should be respectful, and instead of snapping Instagram stories, should put away their phones, talk to the vendors, and make some purchases. It's a surefire way to glimpse what daily life in Barcelona is really like. 

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Mallorca’s Beaches Named Among the World’s Best

beaches in Palma, Mallorca, in Spain's Balearic Islands
After an analysis of thousands of different data points, MONEY magazine has identified the 14 best beaches in the world. It narrowed down a list of more than 250 popular destinations. The beaches of the island of Mallorca, Spain, came out to be among the world's very best, according to MONEY's analysis.

Mallorca: A Holiday Destination

Mallorca, also spelled Mallorca, is the largest of Spain's Balearic Islands, a destination for anyone who loves clear, blue water and golden sand. In 2016, more than 26 million visitors flew into and out of Palma de Mallorca Airport. Other islands in the area are Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera, all of them about 200 kilometers off the coast of Valencia. There are 24 ferry crossings every day from the mainland of the Iberian Peninsula leaving from Barcelona, Valencia, and Dénia in Alicante. This makes Mallorca a magnificent getaway for anyone visiting Spain. Best of all, though, is that Mallorca offers not just beautiful beaches but fabulous cuisine and a long, rich cultural history. And while this is a highly popular destination, don't let the crowds deter you. According to TIME:
Famed largely for its beach clubs and nightlife, this Spanish island also offers sheltered beach coves and peaceful hill towns. “Even among the tourist swarms of mid-August you can find pockets of silence,” says Tom Stainer, a Lonely Planet destination editor.

Beaches for Rest and Relaxation

Bahía de Alcudia: This is the longest beach in Mallorca and is perfect for families because of the variety of available activities. The nearby town of Alcúdia offers up shopping and great eateries, and is considered by many to be the island's most beautiful village. Cala Mondragó: This environmentally protected area features a bright green double bay and white sand. Shelter from the waves makes the area safe for children and families, who will also have easy access to beachside snacks. Formentor: This beach is located near Cap de Formentor at the northern end of the island's Serra de Tramuntana mountain range. The Serra de Tamuntana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Formentor beach is lined with pine trees and features clear blue waters on a quiet peninsula. Stay at the Barceló Hotel Formentor. You can reach this area by boat. Playa de Palma: Located in the capital of Palma de Mallorca, this beach is ideal for those who'd prefer not to rent a car but are looking for a bright, sloping beach to relax and take a dip.

Beaches for Water Sports and Activities

Cala Estellencs: This beach is ideal for those who like diving and snorkelling. It's a rocky spot flanked by caves, and offers up a great sunset. Cala Llamp: There's no sand here but there's a wealth of snorkeling. Relax at the seaside bar after a dip. Cala Mesquida: This is one of the only beaches that's optimal for surfing on the island. It's also ideal for long walks and a relaxing picnic. Booking.com

Historical and Cultural Sites

The entrance to the Ses Païsses talaiotic settlement on Mallorca island in Spain. The first settlements on Mallorca date from as early as 6000–4000 BCE. The Talaiotic Culture thrived here during prehistoric times and ruins can still be seen in Puig de sa Morisca, an archaeological park. Tumuli structures, built for funerary purposes, date from the second millennium BCE while talaiots date from the first millennium BCE. There are at least 274 talaiots on the island, but their purpose is not yet clearly understood. Some argue they were defensive in nature, and perhaps served as lookout points. Various tombs also date from this period.
The entrance to the Ses Païsses talaiotic settlement on Mallorca island in Spain.
The entrance to the Ses Païsses talaiotic settlement on Mallorca island in Spain.
Perhaps one of the best-known archaeological sites on Mallorca is the Taula, a table-shaped arrangement of stones. Visit the Taula of Talatí de Dalt near the town of Mahón. The Phoenicians arrived around the eighth century BCE (when they were also active in the area around modern-day Cádiz). Carthage had control over the island for a time before the Romans took hold. Alcúdia, considered the oldest town on the island, was founded during the Roman period. Roman remains are still visible in this charming town in the northern region. In more recent history, the Polish composer Frederic Chopin loved to visit the island with French writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known by the pseudonym George Sand. Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío was so inspired by his visit that he wrote several poems and began a novel called El oro de Mallorca. Artist Joan Miró settled in Mallorca in 1954, and you can see a collection of his work at the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Palma. For fans of Agatha Christie, stay at the Hotel Illa d'Or in Puerto Pollensa, a small fishing village in Mallorca's fertile northern region. The site was a favorite of Christie's and inspired her novel, Problems at Pollensa Bay—which, incidentally, makes for fabulous beach reading. There are at least 2,400 restaurants on the island, including Michelin-starred Marc Fosh. Even a three-course meal here shouldn't cost more than about $40.
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The Castell Tradition: Why Catalans Build Human Towers, & Where to See One

Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
May is festival season all over Spain, and there's truly no better time to travel there. You can not only plan your travel to hop from festival to festival, but you can come upon surprise celebrations. This is what happened to me in Catalonia one May when I came upon the Festa Catalana in Barcelona's Plaça Nova, in front of the city's iconic Gothic cathedral.

Suddenly, people dressed in a variety of team colors were gathering in huge groups, climbing on each other's shoulders, and reaching heights that seemed to rival even the cathedral's towers. If you've been lucky enough to witness one of these incredible displays of camaraderie and teamwork—or if you're hoping to see it while you're in Catalonia—it's essential to understand the history behind the rich tradition of building castells (castles).

Catalonia's Tradition of Castells

The tradition of building castells began in the city of Valls, El País reports, probably during the eighteenth century. Valls is today a city of about 24,500 people and is located about 57 miles (92 kilometers) from Barcelona.

However, a similar, even older tradition can be traced to the region of Valencia. The muixeranga is an ancient form of human pyramid-building and street dancing. This tradition has a religious background, whereas the tradition of castells does not. Muixeranga pyramids or towers traditionally seek to create a symbolic scene.

You can still see examples of this in La Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival (the feast of Our Lady of Health) in the village of Algemesí on September 7–8 of every year. The town is just 19 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Valencia. Records of the tradition survive from the eighteenth century, but muixeranga may date from as far back as the thirteenth century.

By the 1700s the tradition of castells was beginning to spread to other cities in Catalonia, including Tarragona and Vilafranca del Penedès. However, the tradition only spread throughout Catalonia in the last 50 years, according to El País. Women became involved for the first time in the 1980s, and have been credited with making the castells both lighter and stronger. Catalunya Radio reports that this ushered in the "golden age" of castells, when heights of nine or 10 levels were first achieved.

Parts of a Castell

Human towers Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival in Algemesí, Valencia
Human towers are built in celebration of la Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival in Algemesí, Valencia. | Photo courtesy Llapissera
Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
Building human towers, called castells, is a Catalan tradition.
One of the most stunning aspects of a castell is just how many people are involved in making one. You may see a dozen or so people comprising the tower itself, but step in closer and you'll find that many spokes of at least half a dozen people each are working to support the castell. This base is called the pinya. It's an incredibly moving display of companionship and mutual support.

All the members of a team are called castellers. They work together to determine if the base is powerful enough to proceed, then the music—the Toc de Castells—begins. Those tasked with building the tronc, or the body of the castell, move quickly so as to minimize the work for the pinya and the others below them. 
The anxeta, or the tower's pinnacle, is usually a small child safely wearing a helmet, and may only stay at the top for a few seconds before beginning her descent. Disassembling the castell can often be the most dangerous part of the whole process.

Castellers generally wear a recognizable outfit comprised of a mocador (bandana), white pants, and a faixa (black sash). The latter, which is wrapped around the stomach, is particularly important, as it not only supports the lower back but also serves as a tool for climbers, who can place their hands or feet on this sash to aid in ascent or descent.

Towers can vary greatly in terms of structure and width, varying from just one person per level to five and reaching as many as 10 people high.
Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
The anxeta, or topmost person, in a castell climbs toward the top, using the faixa (black sash) of a team member as a foothold. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

UNESCO Recognition for Catalonia

In 2010, the castells tradition was awarded the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation by UNESCO.

Miquel Botella is president of the Coordinadora de Colles Castelleres, an organization of teams of castelleres. In speaking with El País, he attributed the recognition to the sport's "spectacularity," but also to its emphasis on self-improvement.

"To feel like a winner, you can't lose anybody," Botella explained. With the tradition of castells, there are no hierarchies and the good of the team takes precedent over individual concerns. At the time, there were 70,000 castellers comprising more than 60 teams.

Where You Can See a Castell

Among the best places to witness human towers are during festivals in Catalonia. Here are a few that feature castells

  • Festa Catalana
    • When: Every Saturday between May and September
    • Where: Avinguida de la Catedral at the Barcelona Cathedral
  • Festes de Gràcia
    • When: Eight days in August
    • Where: In the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona
  • La Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival
    • When: September 7–8
    • Where: Algemesí, Valencia
  • La Mercè Festival
    • When: 5 days in late September
    • Where: Barcelona 

To see teams compete, check out:

  • Concurs de Castells, Torredembarra
    • When: Late September
    • Where: La Plaça del Castell, Torredembarra, Catalonia
  • Concurs de Castells, Tarragona
    • When: Early October
    • Where: La Tarraco Arena Plaça, Tarragona, Catalonia
    • Buy tickets

The city of Valls is building a human tower museum, called the Museu Casteller de Catalunya (watch this site for updates).

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Barcelona

Barcelona is the architecture enthusiast’s paradise, but it’s also a spectacular city for everything from music festivals and cultural celebrations to history lessons. Here's your comprehensive guide to the best sights, neighborhoods, eateries, and hotels in this dynamic city.

Barcelona Basics:

Stay: 4–5 days

Region: Catalonia

Fast Fact: Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city 

Nearby Destinations: Costa Brava beaches, Girona, Figueres, Sitges, Tarragona

Barcelona is also, in many ways, Spain's most cosmopolitan city. As one of the world's top travel destinations, it attracts an estimated 32 million tourists per year—20 times its actual population of 1.6 million.

It's not far from the French border, and a number of languages can be overheard on any given street in this bustling city. Catalán, one of the region's official languages, will sound like a mixture of French and Spanish to the trained ear, but it is no dialect.

In fact, the Catalonia region has passed a number of laws to ensure the preservation and propagation of this language, which like Spain's other minority languages was suppressed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975. Catalán, for instance, is the primary language of instruction in public schools in the region. Today, some 9 million people (17 percent of the country's population) speak Catalán.

The earliest dwellings in the Barcelona area date to before 5000 BCE. At least according to legend, the city was either founded by the Roman demigod Hercules or by Hamilcar Barca, the father of Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal. It is because of the latter that the city was reportedly named Barcino in the third century BCE.

Roman Walls Gothic Quarter Barcelona Spain
Roman walls in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The historical record on Barcelona begins around 15 BCE, when the Romans built a military encampment here. Some remnants of the Roman period remain in the city: the Barri Gótic (Gothic Quarter) is partly enclosed by ancient Roman walls, and the same area retains some of the layout of that older city. The Museu d’Historia de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum) beneath the Plaça del Rei offers a look at a 4,000-square-meter subterranean archaeological site. A visit here is highly recommended for anyone looking to dive deeper into the history of this city.

In the first millennium of the common area Barcelona was conquered again and again by warring groups. Shifting alliances among the rulers of different regions of the Iberian Peninsula had left Barcelona and Catalonia at a disadvantage by the 1400s.

The Catalán separatist movement dates to at least as early at the 1600s, and continues to this day as a series of votes regarding Catalonia’s independence have rocked the country and spurred violence. Calls for independence were renewed after the brutal suppression of the Catalán language and culture under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975.

In more recent history, Barcelona boasts one of the proudest and most successful professional football (soccer) teams on the planet. It hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics and has since become an essential city to visit for any traveler, known for its architecture, city planning, gorgeous beaches, and vivid cultural life.

When traveling in Barcelona, you should remain distinctly aware that you are in the region of Catalonia. For any traveler in Spain, perhaps the most essential thing to learn is that there is no single “Spanish culture.” Regions such as Catalonia have markedly distinct languages and cultural practices from what a first-time traveler might expect when they visit Spain. 

Getting Around

On any given day in Barcelona, millions of locals and tourists alike are trying to get around, and it can feel pretty hectic. Walking around the Gothic Quarter, the Born neighborhood, La Rambla, and the downtown waterfront is highly recommended—one of the joys of Barcelona is just how much you can discover around the next narrow twist of street. But if you’re staying in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) and headed to the fortress of Montjuïc, to the Sagrada Familia, to the Park Güell, or to neighborhoods that are a little further out such as Gràcia and Eixample, walking for most travelers is just not going to cut it. Here are a few ways to get around while you’re in this stunning city.

Barcelona Metro

Metro Map of Barcelona, Spain
Metro Map of Barcelona, Spain
The Metro is a quick and convenient way to get around. There are pay stations that take credit and debit cards, and if you’re staying inside the city, all you’ll need to buy is a Zone 1 ticket. A single ticket, good for one trip, is 2.20€. However, if you’re staying more than two days or traveling with other people, I’d highly recommend a T10 card, which includes 10 trips. You can pass it over the turnstile to your companion once you’ve used it, so it’s easy to share. Even for people who love to walk, it’s easy to rack up 10 trips on the Barcelona Metro.

The Metro is also great for getting into the city from the airport. The trip is just 4.50€ either way.

Barcelona Bus Turístic

If you’re looking for a way to get to all the must-see destinations in Barcelona with minimum hassle, the Barcelona Bus Turístic is a great choice. It’s the city’s only official tourist bus operator. One ticket gains you access to three separate routes, and you can hop on or hop off as much as you want.

The open-top buses stop every 5 minutes at peak times and reach 45 different stops, including Montjuïc, which is on top of a small mountain that in the Spanish heat you probably don’t want to climb. Included in the price, you get free wifi, a mobile app, a city map, audioguides in 16 languages, and a bunch of discount for museums, restaurants, and other attractions around the city. All the while, you stand to save money on Metro fares. Buses are outfitted for people with mobility and hearing difficulties.

Tickets are 30€ for an adult for one day and 40€ for two days. However, you get a 10 percent discount on your ticket when you buy online. I’d recommend the bus for your first day to get the lay of the land and gain a little foundational knowledge with the help of the audioguide.

Barcelona Card

The Barcelona Card is an all-in-one ticket to everything you need to see and do in Barcelona. The Card offers free admission and discounts to more than 70 attractions, as well as free rides on the Metro and city buses. You’ll also get a guide in six different languages, a Metro map, and a shopping card with discounts at more than 80 shops. You can even skip the line at a lot of different sites.

Free admission and skip the line at such sites as:
  • Picasso Museum (book first)
  • Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (National Art Museum of Catalonia)
  • Fundació Joan Miró
  • Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum)
  • Museu del Modernisme Català (Catalan Modernism Museum)
Discounted admission at such sites as:
  • Casa Batlló (Gaudí-designed house)
  • La Pedrera (Gaudí-designed multiresidency building)
  • Museu d’Història de Catalunya (Catalonia History Museum)
  • Palau Güell
  • Full List

A 72-hour Card is 45€ for adults and 21€ for children; passes that work for longer periods are available. Buy the card online for a 5 percent discount.

Top Things to Do

Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter)

The Gothic Quarter is at the heart of the Ciutat Vella (Old City) of Barcelona. You could spend hours or even days wandering these narrow, streets—which are generally pedestrian-only—and still discover some new turn, strange little shop, or odd corner. The funny thing about the Gothic Quarter is that it feels like a maze that circles back in on itself. You end up taking the same routes over and over and thinking it's actually much smaller than it is. So take your time. 

Among the most essential sites is the Barcelona Cathedral (located near the tourist office), and behind it, the Plaça del Rey, where Christopher Columbus was reportedly received upon his return from the Americas. Below the Plaça is the Barcelona History Museum, where you can explore 4,000 square meters of archaeological ruins dating from the Roman era.

You'll find it hard to miss the Joan Rubió-constructed bridge, built in Flamboyant style, that crosses over Carrer (Street) Bisbe. It's just one of the many architectural marvels that this part of the city has to offer, including segments of ancient Roman wall and temple. The Church of Santa Maria del Pi is a gorgeous little spot next to a delicious gelatería. 

Every tourist is probably obligated to visit La Rambla, the broad street with a promenade down the middle that cuts through the Gothic Quarter and the heart of Barcelona. It’s bustling and tumultuous, packed with street vendors and (so we hear) pickpockets. It’s absolutely worth it to visit La Boquería Market, which is almost hidden directly off La Rambla. Just don’t stay on the street too long—there are lower prices and better food elsewhere.

It’s highly recommended to keep walking north along La Rambla until it turns into the Passeig de Gràcia. Along this stretch you’ll find some of the best that Barcelona architecture has to offer, including Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, both designed by Antoni Gaudí. You’ll eventually arrive at the charming Gràcia neighborhood, which is an experience all its own.

For some culture while you're in the neighborhood, check out the celebrated Museu Picasso (Picasso Museum), which boasts one of the most extensive collections of Picasso's work anywhere at more than 4,000 pieces. You can also catch a show at the Opera Liceu in a gorgeous, ornate hall outfitted in red velvet and gilded balconies. 

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El Born

The Gothic Quarter can feel at times overwhelmingly swamped with tourists and difficult to escape. But if you can find your way to a different part of the Old City, to the area called El Born (perhaps with a little help from a map), you’ll be glad you did. 

Born is packed with trendy shops and scrumptious eateries, all tucked in along narrow, windy streets. If you want to stay in a central location, I’d highly recommend staying here over anywhere in the Gothic Quarter or near La Rambla. 

And take your time—you’re guaranteed to discover something new. The church of Santa María del Mar is worth a visit, and if you’re looking for a place to relax with some wifi, stop at the Bar del Convent, located in—you guessed it—an old convent.

La Sagrada Familia

The Sagrada Familia | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
The Sagrada Familia in Spring | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is a Roman Catholic church the architectural triumph of famed modernist architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, who lived much of his life in Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, and Gaudí took over as chief architect the next year. Gaudí died in 1926 with the church far from complete, and in fact it is still under construction today. The structure of the church is projected for completion in 2026, with decorative elements complete around 2030.

Whether you’re religious or not, visiting the Sagrada Familia is a transcendent experience. In my opinion (and I think I share this with many others), it may be the single most marvelous and moving building on Earth. Like so much of Gaudí’s work, it finds inspiration in the natural world, so that the columns are modeled after tree trunks and rise into a web of boughs 150 feet (45 meters) above your head. These gilded boughs collide to form star-shaped bursts reminiscent of the Cubist and Art Nouveau schools.

Outside, three façades feature elaborate sculpture work in dramatically distinct styles. The ascent of Christ winds up the Passion Façade, designed by Josep María Subirachs. This is where you enter. The sculpturework is spare and modern, the bone-like columns at a precarious tilt. The highly ornate Nativity Façade is overflowing with small details, from the tortoises at the feet of the columns to the lizards climbing down the walls. The Glory Façade was only begun in 2002.

If you could only visit one place in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia should be resolutely it. However, I strongly recommend purchasing skip-the-line tickets ahead of time, or else you may be waiting in the hot sun for an hour or more. Remember, you have to book a visit to the towers separately. Try a visit with a professional guide. Or if you’re interested in visiting another Gaudí architectural site (which I highly recommend), consider the Gaudí Pass, which also offers fast-track admission plus audioguide to La Pedrera and includes a one-day Barcelona Bus Turístic ticket and a wine tasting on top of the Columbus Monument.

Arrive early in the morning, too, to avoid some of the crowds. I’d also recommend paying a little extra for an audioguide, as the level of detail throughout can be downright overwhelming, and it’s nice to be able to look at what you’re learning about rather than stopping to read every informational sign.

Hours: 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (November to February); 9 a.m.–7 p.m. (March and October); 9 a.m.–8 p.m. (April to September); 9 a.m.–2 p.m. (December 25, 26, January 1 and 6). Ticket sales stop 30 minutes before closing time.

Admission: €15 or €22 with an audioguide. Pay €29 for a ticket that includes a visit, audioguide, and a trip to the towers. You can’t buy tower tickets inside. Discounts for students, seniors, and children.

Casa Batlló

The rooftop of Casa Batlló
The rooftop of Casa Batlló

Textile industrialist Josep Batlló y Casanovas gave architect Antoni Gaudí free reign when he tasked him with completely remodeling this building between 1904 and 1906.

Gaudí drew inspiration from nature to completely remodel the façade, roof, and interior without a single corner or right angle in sight. The balconies resemble pelvises while in the interior, everything from the exquisitely sculpted ceilings to the windows and doors evoke sea and plant life. The roof offers incredible views of the city amid undulating, tiled roofs.

This is like no building you’ve ever stepped inside of, and well worth a visit. The house is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Definitely buy tickets online to skip the long lines and save money off the box office price. Buy online from the Barcelona Tourism office to save €5.

Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 365 days a year

Admission: €29.50 online, €33.50 at the ticket office. Pay €24.50 (a €5 savings), skip the line, and get an audioguide by buying from the Barcelona Tourism website.

Parc Güell

Park Güell
Park Güell was designed by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí and offers stunning views of the city.

Parc Güell may be a failed social experiment, but today it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a marvelous way to spend your morning.

In 1900, the goal was to design an entirely new type of community, a place closely allied to and designed around the natural world that engulfed it. Two model homes with undulating, tiled turrets still stand inside what is now a park (since not enough people expressed interest in buying lots to make the dream of a housing development come to life).

The park offers marvelous views of the Sagrada Familia—not to mention the entire cityscape—all the way to the ocean, and that means it’s also a climb. Luckily, there are escalators, but be prepared for a little bit of uphill work anyway if you’re arriving by Metro.

Don’t miss the Gaudí House Museum, a charming structure (not, in fact, designed by Gaudí) where the architect lived for many years. From this vantage point, he was able to look down on the progress of construction at the Sagrada Familia. It’s a wonderful place to learn more about this brilliant architect’s life, inspiration, and work.

Arrive in the morning to ensure you can get in; often, tickets will sell out by the afternoon, as only a limited number of people are allowed inside at once.

Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 365 days a year

Admission: €7.50 online. Purchase a private tour.

Gràcia

Gràcia is a quirky neighborhood of narrow streets and bright artwork north of the Old City. Once an independent city, it was annexed into Barcelona in 1897. Today, more than 120,000 people—a mix of young artists and professionals with older people—live here, most of them local. It’s Barcelona’s smallest and second-most-densely populated neighborhood.

Narrow streets and Mediterranean architecture open into sudden, brightly lit squares with vintage clothing shops and cafés. Look for live music on the weekends.

You can find a variety of international cuisines here, without the international chains and gift shops that abound in the center of the city. Stop by the Antoni Gaudí–designed Casa Vicens, or take a graffiti tour. The neighborhood has some of the most stunning and impressive graffiti in the city.

If you’re here in August, check out the Festes de Gràcia, a neighborhood celebration for which whole streets are decked out. You might even witness a castell—a human tower that is a Catalan tradition dating from the eighteenth century.

Gràcia is a great neighborhood to stay in for those seeking to avoid the chaos of La Rambla while staying within a reasonable walking distance of Born and the Gothic Quarter. It’s also just a few Metro stops from the Sagrada Familia. While you’re here, make sure to pick up a jam-filled donut or other tasty delight from Boldú.

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Eixample

The Eixample district of Barcelona
The Eixample district of Barcelona, seen from the air. | Photo courtesy Alhzeiia, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ilak/3187655762

Pioneering urban planner Ildefons Cerdà laid out Barcelona’s Eixample district in octagonal blocks to facilitate the flow of traffic and transport. The result are broad, airy boulevards and massive, modern structures.

Constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the blocks featured chamfered (beveled) corners and wide sidewalks.

The Eixample is divided into five smaller neighborhoods, one of which hosts the Sagrada Familia. You’ll also spot the iconic Torre Glòries, a rounded and highly contemporary skyscraper designed by Jean Nouvel and opened in 2005.

As you head back toward the old city from this area, take the scenic route past the Arc de Triomf and the broad promenade leading to the Parc de la Ciutadella and the city zoo.

Parc de Monjuïc

The Funicular de Montjuïc
The Funicular de Montjuïc | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
The Parc de Monjuïc offers magnificent views of the city and the water. On a hill at the heart of a lush park, find the Fundació Miró, the the Museu Etnològic, the Museu d'Arqueologia, and the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The Castle of Montjuïc, a fortress overgrown with ivy, housed political prisoners during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. However, it also served as a symbol of resistance.

The best part of the park may be how you get there. Ride up or down (or both) on the Funicular de Montjuïc, which directly transfers to and from the Paral·lel Metro station and uses the same fares. The glass gondolas offer a stunning view of the city as you descend, and well worth the €2.15 fare.

Beaches

Barcelona's beaches are broad and gorgeous and the water is just fine, so take your pick. The Platja del Bogatell is near the Old City and close to the Vila Olímpica, the coastal area that was revitalized for the 1992 Olympics and now features some chic hotels and sculptures. Be prepared for crowds and some powerful sun at the height of summer; luckily, vendors pass around regularly with cold water and €5 mojitos. 

El Raval and Sant Antoni

Mercat de St. Antoni | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

These two neighborhoods west of La Rambla are still partially in the Old City but are much less explored by tourists.

El Raval in particular features tightly winding streets and a high density of quirky shops minus the gift-shop tchotchkes that overrun parts of the Gothic Quarter. Check out the Rambla del Raval for restaurants featuring international cuisine and to view a massive sculpture of a plump cat by Fernando Botero.

In Sant Antoni, do some practical shopping where the locals go in the massive Mercat de Sant Antoni

Eat

La Boquería Market

Specialties: A broad variety of fresh foods and gastronomic specialties

Address: La Rambla, 91

Price Point: $$$$ 

La Boquería market right off La Rambla is just about the most delicious and most affordable place to sample food in the heart of Barcelona. Dating from 1836, the market features more than 200 vendors selling everything from fresh produce to the best gastronomic concoctions. You could easily pop in and out all day: fresh fruit smoothie for breakfast, croquetas and tapas for lunch, and plenty of treats in between. If you're staying in Barcelona a bit longer and doing some of your own cooking, stop by to pick up fresh seafood and specialty meats.

If nothing else, visiting la Boquería is a truly educational experience for those who aren't aware just how many types of fish and seafood are actually edible—and delicious at that. The joy of cuisine in Spain is a profound knowledge of the variety of foods that the natural world has to offer, and a respect for freshness and seasonality. La Boquería is a must-see.

Hours: 8 a.m.–8 p.m. (Monday to Saturday)

El Nacional

Specialties: A broad sampling of Catalan and Spanish cuisine

Address: Passeig de Gràcia, 24 Bis

Price Point: $$$$ 

This devastatingly stylish emporium on the Passeig de Gràcia is housed in a former factory and garage constructed 1889. This 2,600-square-meter establishment offers several dining and tasting options inside, and can house up to 700 guests.

It’s the ideal place to go to sample a broad variety of Catalan and Spanish cuisine, including an impressive spread of pintxos, an oyster bar, a cured meats bar, a cocktail bar, and some incredible pastries and desserts at La Parada. It’s also the perfect escape from the heat, and ideal for a three-hour-long midday graze.

Bar del Convent

Specialties: Café fare, pastries, and wifi 

Address: Plaça Academia 0, Barcelona, Spain

Price Point: $$$$

Hours: 10 a.m.–10 p.m.

For those who are working on the go, this is the perfect place to access quality wifi in a quiet environment. It’s also a real pleasure to work here: it’s located in the Gothic cloister of the Convent de Sant Agustí, which hosts cultural events year-round, and is also home to the Museum of Chocolate (to which you can get a free ticket when you buy a Barcelona Card). You can sit outside on a shady, vaulted veranda or indoors to cool off from the hot Spain summer.

Convent de Sant Agusti
The entrance to the Convent de Sant Agusti, where the Bar del Convent and the Museum of Chocolate are located.

Boldú

Specialties: Fresh, homemade donuts and other pastries and treats 

Address: Carrer Gran de Gràcia, 132 

For a list of other locations in Barcelona click here.

Price Point: $$$$

Boldú is a family-owned bakery founded in 1939 whose specialty is people-shaped donuts. It’s not just a gimmick—these donuts are incredible, even for people (like me) who don’t generally like donuts.

Try anything raspberry-jam-filled, or pick up some of their savory items, as well. It’s an essential stop while you’re in Gràcia.

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Generator Hostel

Generator Hostel, Barcelona
Generator Hostel, Barcelona | Photo courtesy Booking.com

Address: Carrer de Córsega, 377, Gràcia

Price Point: $$$$

Generator Hostel lives at the intersection of stylish, clean, and affordable. It's located in the Gràcia neighborhood, which offers a ton of eateries and shops without the same tourist crowds as the Old City. It's also near the Eixample neighborhood and just a 16-minute walk from the Sagrada Familia and a 17-minute walk from Casa Batlló.

In short, for those who are up for a little exercise, it's a great hub for seeing just about everything in Barcelona, and for those who have worn through their sandals, it's a quick Metro stop or two from just about everything, too.

It's also hands-down the cleanest hostel I've ever stayed in, with locked drawers and lockers to keep your stuff safe. There's a fun bar right downstairs and plenty of comfortable, brightly lit public spaces. Book a room now.

Looking for more great spots? Check out these last-minute deals:

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Ronda Hosts International Guitar Festival Every June

flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía

The city of Ronda is known as the "Eagle's Nest" for its precarious-looking perch above the El Tajo canyon in the mountains of Andalusia. Now, it's becoming known for an annual festival celebrating all things guitar. 

The International Guitar Festival

In 2015, Andalusian musician Paco Seco founded the International Guitar Festival alongside his wife, Lucy Stewart. The festival aims to be "a world ambassador of Spanish music," according to its home page

It features concerts every evening across a broad variety of musical styles, from flamenco and classical to jazz and contemporary. The day is punctuated by speakers and guitarists, along with an exhibition from master guitar makers. 

All events take place at the Santo Domingo Cultural Center in the heart of Ronda's old-town area. An all-festival pass is €60 while a day pass runs €15. Children get discounted tickets. Buy tickets to the International Guitar Festival here.

“The festival strives to highlight the versatility of styles that the guitar embraces: classical, romantic, flamenco, jazz and contemporary. Appealing to the musical tastes of a wide audience," Stewart told The Olive Press in 2018.

In 2018, the festival begins June 5 and lasts for five days. It is expected to attract guitarists from all over the world, including Italy, Holland, and Bulgaria. Guitars made by 10 master luthiers from as far as Canada and the United Kingdom will also be on display.

A Visit to Ronda

A visit to the International Guitar Festival offers the perfect opportunity to get to know one of Andalusia's most charming and historic small towns. Before you go, check out our definitive list of essential Spanish words and phrases. It will empower you to engage in a more meaningful way with locals—who will, by the way, be just plain delighted at your passion for Spanish guitar.

Once you get to Ronda, it's time to explore. You can start right out the door of the Santo Domingo Conference Center, where the Mirador de Aldehuela promises a stunning view of the Tajo canyon and the surrounding mountains. 

Ponte Nuevo extends over the Tajo gorge in Ronda, Spain.
The Ponte Nuevo extends over the Tajo gorge in Ronda, Spain. | Courtesy Christopher Down

While you're in Ronda, you can't miss the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge). The 34-year-long construction of this landmark began in 1759. A prison suspended over the central arch was used as a torture chamber during the Spanish Civil War, during which prisoners were tossed from the windows into the Tajo gorge extending 390 feet (120 meters) down. Such a scene was described in Ernest Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Also check out the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) and Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), both of which span the canyon as well.

Some baños árabes (Arab baths) from the Al-Andalus period remain, and don't miss the chance to see the oldest bullfighting ring in all of Spain. If you're interested in Renaissance art, check out the Palacio of the Marqués de Salvatierra, but be warned that its hours can be irregular. 

You can get to Ronda by train from Córdoba or Algeciras. 

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Madrid

Palacio de Cristal, Madrid, Spain

As the capital city of Spain, Madrid is home to some of the nation's best artwork—including sizable collections from Velázquez and Goya at the Prado Museum—and stunning architecture and green spaces.

Madrid Basics:

Stay: 3-4 days

Region: Community of Madrid

Fast Fact: Madrid is the capital and the largest city in Spain.

Nearby Destinations: Toledo, Valladolid, Cuenca, Salamanca

It's hard not to pass through Madrid if you're visiting Spain, but some visitors don't spend enough time here to get a full sense of all it has to offer. While many travelers will prefer the more cosmopolitan and architecturally experimental Barcelona, many argue that Madrid is in essence a much more "Spanish" city.

The perfect time of year to stop by is in May, during the annual Feria de San Isidro, the largest festival in a country known for its festivals. You'll see dancers in traditional dress representing every Spanish region on outdoor stages, brass bands marching through the Puerta del Sol, and—if you're up for it—Spain's most renowned bullfighters. You might even catch an extravagantly dressed bachelor party living it up on a mechanical bull ride at a carnival (true story), or pay a few euro to get a panoramic view of the city from the top of a Ferris wheel.

Around the seventh century CE, the area near what is now Madrid was a Visigoth outpost, which may have been called Matríce, a name with Latin origins. In the ninth century, with the arrival of Muslims to the area, it is believed that the name was changed to Mayrit or Magrit. This happened in the early years of Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, during which various caliphates would control parts of the Iberian Peninsula until 1492. Muhammad I, emir of Córdoba, ordered the construction of a small castle on the site where the Palacio Real (royal palace) is today. The ruins of walls built during this time period are still visible in Madrid.

Madrid became the de facto capital of Spain in 1561, when Philip II moved his court there. During the Siglo de Oro (Golden Century) in the seventeenth century, a period of great artistic production that produced Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote and the poetry of Luis de Góngora, the city grew quickly. It played host to these and other notable artists of the era. The Palacio Real was built in the eighteenth century.

If you're looking for a few great day trips from Madrid, check out Toledo or Segovia. Read our full guide to Segovia here

Top Things to Do

Plaza Mayor of Madrid

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain
The painted façade of the Casa de la Panadería is in the Plaza Mayor, at the heart of Madrid.
Just a few blocks away from the Puerta del Sol, the Plaza Mayor is a more enclosed plaza at the heart of Madrid. The broad, rectangular promenade at its center is 423 feet (129 meters) long and 308 feet (94 meters) wide. It can be accessed by 10 tall arches. The most famous of these is the Arco de Cuchilleros on the southwest corner, named for the fact that it once opened onto a street that was home to the knife-makers' guild.

The Plaza Mayor has, under many different names, undergone quite a few renovations over the centuries. Its present iteration was designed by architect Juan de Villanueva—most famous for designing the Prado Museum—in the late eighteenth century. The plaza had been severely damaged by fire.

Don't miss the Casa de la Panadería, the first building constructed in a major renovation of the plaza beginning in 1590. In 1988, the city of Madrid launched a contest to decide who would earn the right to decorate the façade of the building. Painter Carlos Franco won the contest for his design involving such mythological figures as Bacchus, Proserpina, and Cupid. The mural was completed in 1992.

Puerta del Sol

The Puerta del Sol is a must-see in Madrid, not just because this massive, rounded plaza is located at the heart of the city, but because it's home to an iconic statue. The 22-ton, stone-and-bronze statue of the Bear and the Strawberry tree was sculpted by Antonio Navarro Santafé and erected in 1967. It replicates Madrid's coat of arms, which has incorporated similar imagery since the thirteenth century.

The area of Madrid, in fact, may have been once known as Ursaria, referring to the bears that populated the region. Big-game hunting, including the hunting of bears, was common in medieval Spain. Hunters—often royal personages—accompanied by large entourages of aides, dogs, trainers, and even women interested in watching the hunt, could pursue a bear over the course of several days. There are very few Eurasian brown bears left in Spain.

The former House of the Post Office, which stands on the plaza, is now the sea of the president of Madrid—the head of the regional government. A plaque in the Puerta del Sol, just north of the post office building, is referred to as kilómetro cero (zero kilometer), and is considered the symbolic center of Spain.

Staying near the Puerta del Sol is a good option, because it's within walking distance of just about all of the main sights, and a metro stop away from just about everything else. Be warned that the plaza is known for a little pickpocketing, so just stay aware of your surroundings.
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Palacio Real (Royal Palace) de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid
Palacio Real de Madrid
The construction of Madrid's royal palace began in 1738 or 1739 under the reign of Philip V and was completed seventeen years later by Charles III, who became known for modernizing the city of Madrid as a whole. Architect Juan Bautista Sachetti was inspired by Bernini's sketches for the Louvre in Paris.

The 3,000-room palace is laid out in a large square and flanked by a parade ground, which you can enter without paying. Inside, the Royal Armory might be a favorite among visitors; it houses a huge collection of weapons and armor that members of the Spanish royal family have worn dating back to the 1200s. The Painting Gallery houses artwork from some of Spain's most notable gainers, and the Throne Hall, Gasparini Room, and main staircase are each breathtaking in their own rights. There's a changing of the guard on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but don't expect to see the king—it may be his official residence, but he doesn't live here anymore.

Viator Hours: 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (October to March); 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (April to September)

Admission: €11

Free admission: Monday–Friday, 4–6 p.m. (October to March) and 6–8 p.m. (April to September). Free for EU citizens and Hispanic Americans with proof of nationality; the same holds true for those with residency or work permits.

Museo del Prado (Prado Museum) 

Museo del Prado Madrid Spain
The Museo del Prado is the primary national art museum in all of Spain.
Housing collections that date from the twelfth century through the early twentieth, the Prado Museum in central Madrid is a must-see. You can see work from such monumental artists as Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco, but most unforgettable is the work from Spain's most prominent artists. Diego Velázquez's monumental Golden Age painting Las Meninas (1656) hangs here, along with Francisco de Goya's El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid (The Third of May 1808 in Madrid), a commemoration of Spanish resistance against Napoleon's armies. The piece epitomizes a central concern of Goya's work: the ugliness and the horrors of war and violence, themes that emerge in his prints, a prominent collection of which can be seen in the Goya Museum in Zaragoza.

Most incredible of all are Goya's Black Paintings, works in oil that were painted on the walls of his house, la Quinta del Sordo ("House of the Deaf Man"), on the outskirts of Madrid. Executed later in his life, the distorted, grotesque figures in these pieces represent Goya's tormented and despairing relationship with his society and time. Spend a while in this room, standing before Aquelarre (Witches' Sabbath) and Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son). It is a life-changing experience.

An expansion that will make the Prado a full 16 percent larger opens in 2019.

Hours: Monday–Saturday 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sundays and holidays 10 a.m.–7 p.m.

Admission: 15 € with some reduced-ticket options. Buy Prado Tickets.

Free admission Monday–Saturday 6–8 p.m.; Sundays and holidays 5–7 p.m.
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Barrio de La Latina (Latina Neighborhood) 

This bustling neighborhood is packed with colorful murals and shopfronts, open-air dining, and narrow, brick-paved streets. Beautiful churches are nestled between packed bars and modest shops, some of which feel like they're from another era. This is the quintessential place to go out for a beer (cerveza) and some tapas, but be prepared for crowds on the weekends.

While you're in the neighborhood, stop by the Mercado de la Cebada. This two-story, 6,000-square-meter market offers not just food but everything you could ever want, from flowers to upholstery. There's nothing like a Spanish market, and there are fewer places that offer more affordable options for a quick bite. Take the time to wander around and try a new food.

Parque del Buen Retiro (Retiro Park) 

Formerly a hunting ground for the king, Retiro Park is a massive green space at the heart of Madrid. You could easily spend a whole afternoon—or longer—wandering through the park. There aren't a lot of places to eat (or hit the restroom) in this sprawling park, so consider bringing a picnic lunch.

Make sure to stop by the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace), an airy glass-and-metal structure built on the edge of a quiet, green lake brimming with turtles. At the end of the nineteenth century, at the height of the colonial era for many European countries, it was common to host exhibitions for which natives of a particular colony would be brought to create crafts and showcase their lifestyle in reconstructed buildings. For Spain, the end of the eighteenth century would in fact usher in the loss of its last colonies, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. (This would, in turn, launch a literary and philosophical response from the so-called Generation of '98.) The Palacio de Cristal was built in 1887 for the Exposition of the Philippines. The pavilion was filled with plants native to the Philippines, and small cane houses stood nearby.

Especially on a hot day, the Palacio de Velázquez makes a wonderful stop. Built for an 1880s showcase on mining and similar industries, this structure overlaid in brick and tile houses temporary modern-art exhibitions of work from the Reina Sofía museum.

Nearby, rent a boat or relax near a large lake flanked by a promenade and massive statues.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Reina Sofía Museum) 

Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, Spain
The Reina Sofía Museum houses some of Spain's most notable twentieth-century artwork.
This twentieth-century art museum is almost as essential as the Prado. See work from Salvador Dalí, master surrealist of the Generation of 1927 (also known for its writers, including Federico García Lorca). Pablo Picasso's depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, also hangs here. The piece is a cubist depiction of the 1937 bombing of the Basque village of Guernica (pronounced Gare-ni-ka), orchestrated by the Nazis and by fascist Italy with the collaboration of the Nationalists headed by Francisco Franco. Franco would soon establish a military dictatorship in Spain, ruling for more than 35 years. The painting is perhaps Picasso's most political work.

While these are perhaps the best-known artists to non-Spanish audiences displayed at the Reina Sofía, a visit here offers fascinating insights into some of the most influential artistic movements in twentieth-century Spain—and in the twentieth century in general. View works by Joan Miró, José Gutiérrez Solana, Francis Picabia, Eduardo Chillida, Juan Gris, Pablo Serrano—and even some of Lorca's drawings. The Reina Sofía is a must-see.

Hours: Monday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Tuesday closed; Wednesday–Saturday 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sunday and holiday openings vary

Admission: 10 € at the box office, 8 € online

Free admission for various groups, including students younger than 25 with an ISIC card and everyone younger than 18 or older than 25

Plaza de Cibeles

Plaza de Cibeles Madrid Spain
The Plaza de Cibeles is one of Madrid's most beautiful squares. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
At the heart of one of Madrid's best-known squares is the Cibeles Fountain, dedicated to the Anatolian goddess and protector of the city. So beloved is this symbol of Madrid that fans of the Real Madrid football team gather here after big victories.

The Palacio de Cibeles (Cibeles Palace) is not only Madrid's City Hall, but the home of CentroCentro, a cultural center featuring artistic exhibitions and activities. The gorgeous building also offers a welcome respite from Madrid's summer heat.

Day Trip! Your Guide to Segovia

The enchanting town of Segovia offers a perfect escape from busy Madrid. Learn about its fairytale castle, Roman aqueducts, and more.

Eat

Mercado San Miguel (San Miguel Market)

Madrid, Spain
Madrid is the capital city of Spain.
Specialties: Gastronomic delights and snacks, both Spanish and non-Spanish

Address: La Plaza de San Miguel

Price Point: $$$$

For an unforgettable gastronomic experience right next to the Plaza Mayor, check out the Mercado San Miguel. This stylish, glass-enclosed market offers a range of snacks and baked goods, as well as opportunities to try Spanish sherry (jerez) and vermouth (vermut). There's a crab bar, an oyster bar, a fish cart—heck, there's even the Caviar Cart.

For something truly Spanish, check out Paella y Olé or the croquetas cart. Croquetas, deep-fried nuggets of goodness traditionally filled with ham and cheese, are an increasingly sophisticated culinary item. Mix and match squid-ink croquetas with more traditional choices.

El Sobrino de Botín

Specialties: Traditional Spanish food

Address: Calle Cuchilleros, 17

Price Point: $$$ 

El Sobrino de Botín has the distinction of being the actual, official oldest restaurant in the world. Since 1725, this restaurant has been serving up fabulous roasts—try the cochinillo (suckling pig)—and other traditional fare of Madrid. The almejas (clams) and cordero (lamb) are also recommended. Book a reservation here.

El Viajero

Specialties: Pasta, BBQ, and Mediterranean 

Address: Plaza de la Cebada, 11

Price Point: $$$$ 

If you're looking for an escape from strictly Spanish food (and we can't imagine why you would be) check out this restaurant in the heart of the Latina neighborhood. This three-story eatery features a rooftop terrace, a bar, and a retro look and feed. The pastas come highly recommended, but barbecued options and Mediterranean fare are also an option. Meats are hormone-free and sourced from Argentina.

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Hotel Vincci the Mint

Address: Calle Gran Vía, 10

Price Point: $$$$

Located just a short distance from Retiro Park and Puerta del Sol, this incredibly stylish hotel in a historic building will make you a cocktail while you're checking in. This aptly named hotel is decorated in lush greens and steampunk style. A stylish rooftop terrace serves up snacks and drinks out of a makeshift food truck. Twenty-four-hour reception, air conditioning, free wifi, and gourmet breakfasts all day long combine to make this four-star hotel an experience truly like no other. Book a room at Hotel Vincci the Mint.
Looking for more places to stay? Check out the hotel-booking site Let's Travel Spain most recommends for traveling in Spain:

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You Can Now Travel from Ireland to Spain by Ferry

There’s now one more way to travel to Spain. On May 5, 2018, the first ferry traveling from Cork, Ireland, successfully arrived in the city of Santander on Spain’s north coast. As The Evening Echo reports, the new ferry route will leave Cork on Wednesdays and Fridays and leave Santander on Thursdays and Sundays, for a total of two sailings each week.

Cork to Santander by Boat

For those on a trip including other sites in Europe, this promises not only a more relaxing way to move around, but also a more unusual way to travel. The route promises a probably drizzly, but dramatic voyage across the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay, once swelling with whales and still one of the best places to spot cetaceans in European waters. Seabirds such as gannets are also common in the area. The trip takes 26 hours but, especially for those traveling by car, will make for a journey that’s 746 miles (1,200 kilometers) shorter than the journey through the United Kingdom and France, which has been the only option until now, The Irish Times reports. The 300–400 car passengers on the crossing have access to sleeping cabins. The vessel can carry up to 100 cars. The service is operated by Brittany Ferries; purchase tickets here. It seems the ferry is already a success, according to The Evening Echo:
“We’re delighted to see the customer demand for our new service, with our first sailing fully booked,” Hugh Bruton, General Manager, Brittany Ferries Ireland, said. “We are looking forward to welcoming passengers on board as we bring them to a very different kind of Spanish destination: a relaxing ferry journey from Ireland.”
The inaugural voyage looked like a lovely trip, based on one observer’s Twitter post:

Visiting Santander, Spain

Santander is part of the Spanish region of Cantabria. The area has been inhabited for more than a thousand years and is the site of some great architectural sites, including the Palacio de la Magdalena and the Cathedral of Santander, which dates to around 1200 CE. It was reportedly built on the site of older Roman structures. If you’re up for a beach day, check out El Sardinero beach, which has gorgeous temperatures during the summer of 75 °F (24 °C) on average. The beach’s golden sands stretch 260 feet (80 meters) inland and a long promenade along its entire length features restaurants, hotels, and the Grand Casino del Sardinero, which dates from 1916.
El Sardinero beach, Spain
El Sardinero beach in Santander, Spain, is named after the practice of fishing for sardines on the northern coast of Spain. Sardines are a specialty of the region. | Photo by Pedro Lopez
For unique places to stay, check out the Gran Hotel Sardinero. This gorgeous beachfront property opens up right onto the promenade, and you’ll be on the beach in less than one minute. White-painted terraces and elegant suites feature ocean views, and the hotel is right next door to the casino. In all, a stay here would make for one of the most elegant beach holidays Spain has to offer.
Gran Hotel Santander, Spain
The Gran Hotel Santander offers stunning views of El Sardinero beach and is steps away from the Sardinero Gran Casino. | Courtesy Booking.com
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It’s Official: Spain Has the World’s Best Beaches

Calella de Palafrugell, Costa Brava
Spain has the best beaches in the world—and that’s official, according to the Association for Environmental Education and the Consumer (ADEAC). The ADEAC awards “Blue Flags” to beaches that meet high-level standards for sanitary conditions, safety (including the presence of lifeguards) and accessibility. In 2018, a grand total of 590 Spanish beaches were awarded blue flags—11 more than in 2017.

Environmental Stewardship

Even though there are more than 70 sustainable-tourism initiatives in the world, the Blue Flag is the only one with the backing of both the United Nations’ environmental and tourism arms, according to Dirk Glaesser, director of the UN’s Sustainable Development of Tourism organization. The president of the ADEAC also cites free and open access, environmental education and protection for sensitive zones, and accessibility for people with special needs as high priorities for the organization. In particular, the ADEAC adheres to standards set by the Foundation for Environmental Education. Thanks to all of these factors, you know that when you’re supporting Spain’s beach-tourism economy, you’re also supporting sustainable environmental practices. And not only are beaches in mainland Spain ranked highly—beaches in the Canary Islands and in a Spanish territory on the northern coast of Africa have also been recognized as fabulous places to relax and recharge.
Highly rated Spanish beaches
Spain has the most high-quality beaches in the world in 2018, according to standards set by the Association for Environmental Education and the Consumer (ADEAC).
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Visit Some of These Gorgeous Beaches

Obviously, there are gorgeous beaches throughout Spain. The most famous sites are along Catalonia‘s coastal region, called the Costa Brava, and in the Balearic Islands, including Palma de Mallorca. The Valencia province has the most beautiful beaches of all—but there are some surprises among the rankings, The Local reports: 
The region of Valencia on the east coast of Spain boasts the most number of quality beaches in Spain with 132 winning the rating, (three more than 2017) while Galicia in Spain’s northwestern corner has 109, the Catalonia (northeastern Spain), 101 and Andalusia in the south, 97.
Visitors to Galicia may not be aware of just how gorgeous the coastline there is. Certainly, the northern Spanish coast is known for moodier weather. It’s wetter and rainier, and every day won’t promise beach water. But walkers along certain tracks of the Camino de Santiago—a centuries-old pilgrimage leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela—will encounter pristine beach after pristine beach, the most famous of which is Playa de las Catedrales. That means that if you’re the type of traveler who prefers historical sites to days at the beach, in Spain, you don’t have to choose.

Characterized by dramatically slanted walls of slate and schist, sea arches, and caves, the Playa de las Catedrales (Beach of the Cathedrals) in Galicia may be the most gorgeous beach in the world. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ #galicia #galiciamagica #galiciarural #beaches #beachday @earthportrayal @earthpix @globaltravelgram @beautifuldestinations @spainiswonderful @spain #spain #visitspain #vacation #earthshoot #earthpix #geology #playadelascatedrales #cathedrals #photography #nofilter #instapicture #bestoftheday #beach #clouds #travel #instatravel #travelgram #tourism #photography #travelphotography #lifeofspain @ericdamier @gracefuldestination #Nature @unlimitedspain @unlimitedtravellers @coolnaturetravelpics @naturetravelcool #unlimitedspain #awesomeearth #thediscoverer

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