close

Regions

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
Booking.com

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

read more

Segovia

Traveling through the walled city of old-town Segovia, you will find yourself transported back in time to a perfectly preserved, fairytale-like town just a stone’s throw away from Spain’s metropolitan capital of Madrid.

Segovia Basics:

Stay: Day trip from Madrid or 1 night

Region: Community of Castile and Leon, or Castilla y León

Fast Fact: The Old Town of Segovia and its aqueduct are UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Nearby: Madrid, Toledo, Salamanca, Valladolid, Ávila

Located just a quick day trip from Madrid, Segovia is a popular spot for tourists and native Spaniards alike. With more than 2,000 years of history and culture to explore, there is something for everyone here.

Segovia Aqueduct Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct still stands today, nearly 2,000 years after it was built.

Very little is known about the original Celtic possession of the region of Segovia, other than that the population was generally made up of farmers and shepherds. Segovia was placed on the map, so to speak, with the arrival of the Roman Empire, which took possession of the territory between 200 and 100 BCE. In the first century CE, the Romans built the famous aqueducts that supplied the city with water until the mid-19th century. The area thrived during the empire’s presence, but the Romans eventually abandoned Segovia during the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

The area reemerged as a prominent location in Spanish history when Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile conquered the region of Toledo. This allowed for Christians from the north to resettle the area.

The bastion, or castle, became a favorite residence of many royals, as well as a place for them to take refuge amidst battles and claims to the throne. Most notably, during a dispute over who should inherit the crown after the death of King Henry IV, Isabella I was made queen in Segovia’s cathedral in the year 1474. (The cathedral at this time was near the castle, but was later destroyed in military clashes.) This coronation guaranteed Isabella I’s claim to the crown. As he was not present in Segovia at the time, Isabella’s husband, Ferdinand, ascended the throne soon after, and together they would become famous for their support of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas.

Ferdinand and Isabel wedding
Isabella I and Ferdinand's wedding portrait, ca. 1469.

Segovia later underwent economic rises and declines tied to the local textile industry, but now experiences economic stability with the aid of steady tourism.

Segovia today boasts three noteworthy attractions for its visitors. The Alcazar, rumored to be the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle in Disney theme parks, is valued for its historical importance and its architectural grandeur. The last Gothic cathedral built in Spain is located in the city center of Segovia. The stunning Roman aqueduct still stands tall and sturdy at the city’s edge thousands of years after its original construction.

Thirty-minute trains from Madrid to and from Segovia are frequent, so if you’d like to make it a day trip, you can find yourself back in Madrid in time for a quick nap, freshen up, and then be out the door again for some tapas and cocktails—all in the same day!

Getting There

If you’re not renting a car while in Spain, Segovia is still easy enough to get to by public transportation. The fastest way to get from Madrid to Segovia is to book a high-speed train (book a train ticket here) from Madrid to Segovia’s central train station.

The train ride averages 30 minutes long and costs between €12 and €25 each way. Prices vary based on whether you are traveling during peak commuting hours: early mornings and late afternoons. This applies on the weekends as well. There are some promotional discounts offered for paying for your departure and return in one purchase. Book these tickets in advance, especially during peak holiday seasons.

From the station, you can take a short taxi ride to the city center. On your way back to the station, you can find a taxi stand at the aqueducts.

Once you’re in the historical heart of Segovia, the town is easily navigable by foot.

728*90

Top Things to Do

The Alcazar of Segovia

Segovia’s Alcazar is as rich in history as were the royals who once lived inside. Here, the Roman Empire laid the foundations for a fort. This later became the grounds for a Muslim fort during the 800 years of Islamic rule in Spain, and then a royal palace.

This last iteration can be traced to the year 1120, when we find the first historical reference to the Alcazar. At this point, the city was being repopulated by Christians as a consequence of the Reconquista, or “reconquering” of Spain by Catholics.

Since then, the Alcazar has been repurposed several times from a royal palace to a state prison, a Royal School of Artillery, a military college, and a meeting place for parliament. It is currently an active museum and military archive for the general of Segovia.

Its most recent reconstruction and restoration took place in the late 1880s after fire damage incurred more than a decade earlier.

To tour the palace, you can buy a complete entry, which includes a visit to both the palace and the museum, for €8. For one extra euro, you can join a group tour that starts every half-hour. This tour is given in Spanish only.

If your Spanish isn’t quite good enough to join this tour, there are other options. For €3, you can rent an audioguide available in 12 languages. But the most exciting option for history buffs is booking a private guided tour with the keepers of the castle, offered in Spanish, French, or English. You can do so for €40 for one group of up to 40 people, not including the price of entrance per person. To sign up, fill out this form before your trip. Those seeking an in-depth look at royal Spanish drama or interested in finding out whether this castle did indeed host a fairytale romance are sure to enjoy this tour.

As you pass through the rooms of the castle, take your time: the chambers and historical artifacts they house come to life as you learn more about the long history of the Alcazar. Be sure to look up at the elegant ceilings and stop to peer out the windows. Who walked these halls? What would they have seen? What would they think of you here now?

Certainly, most of the royals or elite guests who visited the Alcazar would not have had to climb the palace’s guard tower, the Tower of John II of Castile. But for €2.50 and 152 steps each way, you can climb your way to spectacular views of Segovia.

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

Admission: €8 for a ticket that includes the Torre de Juan II; €5.50 for the palace and museum only

Booking.com

The Segovia Cathedral

At the city’s center you will find Plaza Mayor. You might have realized by now that most Spanish towns and cities have a Plaza Mayor—and that makes sense, since it translates to “Main Square.”

In Segovia, the Plaza Mayor boasts an enormous cathedral, built entirely in a late-Gothic style with the exception of its dome, which was added later. After its completion in the 16th century, its original spire made it the tallest building in Spain at the time.

The cathedral—whose full name is La Santa Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción y de San Frutos—is certainly worth the €3 visit inside, especially to enter the museums housing exquisite tapestries, liturgical garments, and ornamentation. You can see works of art by popular artists such as Pedro Berruguete, Sanchez Coello, and Van Orley.

The cathedral’s interior is vast and cavernous. Because of this, each stained-glass window and private chapel within the main cathedral stands out all the more.

Hours: 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

Admission: €3 

The Roman Aqueduct

Segovia Aqueduct Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct still stands today, nearly 2,000 years after it was built. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Segovia is best known for its 638-meter long aqueduct. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Segovia each year, and you can find them all taking pictures in front of these ancient arches at some point during their visit.

Dusk is especially lovely in Azoguejo Square as the tones of the sky at sunset meet the neutrals of the aqueduct’s bricks and the yellow-hued streetlights, all blending into a portrait of perfection.

Though we do not know the exact dates the aqueduct was completed, we can place its construction within the first century or early second century CE. The structure was built with granite blocks formed into bricks and, astoundingly, without mortar.

Comprised of 167 arches, the aqueduct was reconstructed and restored throughout its history and must be meticulously cared for today. Still, it managed to provide water to the city of Segovia from its construction through the 19th century—an impressive feat.

Segovia Aqueduct Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct still stands today, nearly 2,000 years after it was built. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
Booking.com

Exploring Segovia on Foot

Segovia Jewish Quarter Spain
Segovia's Jewish Quarter. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

If you find yourself with extra time in the day, you might enjoy walking through the old city at your leisure. You can explore the Jewish Quarter or the many churches, or even opt for a free visit to Segovia’s mint, where you can learn how it functioned 400 years ago.

Once you’re inside the old city’s walls, Segovia is small enough to walk through on your own. It’s best to make a plan of action that will allow you to go from one side to the other, such as starting at the palace, moving to the cathedral, having lunch, and then taking a stroll to find yourself at the aqueduct at the edge of the city.

Map Segovia Spain walking route

On Thursday mornings, there is an open market in the Plaza Mayor. You can find everything from leather goods and real fur coats to vests and accessories, and even some candies or canned goodies.

Visit Madrid

Learn what to see, where to eat, and where to stay in Spain's capital city with our definitive guide. 

Eat

With so much to take in, you’re bound to work up an appetite. And what better place to find yourself hungry than in the old city of Segovia? If you are an explorer, you can wind your way through the narrow streets and find a few little patios or squares that will offer a relaxing atmosphere for a long lunch, in true Spanish fashion. But if you’re looking for a great meal and authentic local fare, we can offer up a strong recommendation.

El Bernardino

El Bernadino restaurant in Segovia, Spain.
El Bernadino restaurant in Segovia, Spain, offers lovely views and delicious local fare. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Specialties: Suckling pig, lamb, duck confit

Address: Calle Cervantes, 2

Price Point: $$$$

Wherever you end up, you may find a gazpacho as a starter in the summer, or a hearty soup as a starter in winter. But one thing you will always see is roast suckling pig.

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

For a prime example of this local specialty, called “cochinillo,” try El Bernardino, a restaurant established in 1939. El Bernardino offers a day menu, or menú del día, which includes cochinillo along with another course, a beverage, and dessert.

Admittedly, this dish might not be for picky eaters, but an adventurous palate will certainly enjoy this delicacy. At El Bernardino, you and your party will be able to see the whole roasted piglet before it is carved into generous portions.

If pork isn’t your thing, give Segovia’s lamb dishes a try. Afterwards, you can sit back with a coffee and dessert and take in the views from El Bernardino’s lovely viewpoint.

Limón y Menta

Limón y Menta Segovia pastries
Limón y Menta offers up delicious pastries, breakfast, and ice cream right off Segovia's Plaza Mayor, just steps from the cathedral. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Specialties: Pastries, pastel segoviano

Pastel segoviano Segovia Spain pastry
Pastel segoviano is an almond-flavored local pastry in Segovia, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Address: Calle Isabel la Católica, 2

Price Point: $$$$  

This little bakery is located right beside Segovia's Plaza Mayor, and offers everything from delicious hot breakfast fare to local specialties. You can even order some ice cream from a walk-up window on those extra-hot days that Spain is famous for.

The pastel segoviano (Segovian pastry) is a local almond-flavored specialty that Limón y Menta makes especially well. You can even get an individually-sized one to go. This is a must-try for any visit to Segovia—it is in fact ridiculously delicious.

La Almuzara

Specialties: Italian food, vegetarian options 

Address: Calle Marqués del Arco, 3

Price Point: $$$$

If you're looking for something completely different, La Almuzara is a cozy little restaurant with hand-painted wall decor and a personal touch. It's located right next to the Segovia Cathedral offering up a variety of Italian fare. Vegetarians will love the veggie lasagna, soups, and wealth of other meat-free options. You can even catch a view of the sun going down, casting golden light on the cathedral, through some of the shuttered windows.

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Hotel Real Segovia 

Address: Juan Bravo, 30

Price point: $$$$

If you’d like to extend your stay beyond a day trip, the Hotel Real Segovia comes highly recommended. Located in the heart of the old town, this boutique hotel combines old-world charm with modern comfort and amenities, amounting to a unique and elegant destination you’ll be glad to call home for a few nights.

With chandeliers, marble staircases, and plush beds, every detail is attended to at Hotel Real Segovia. Each room is equipped with heat and air conditioning, and all guests can connect to free Wi-Fi. You can include a breakfast buffet in the price of your booking, and for an additional charge, you can also arrange for a pick-up from the airport in Madrid, or even for childcare.

The staff is always professional and is able to communicate in both Spanish and English. Enjoy the sun deck and terrace; take in the views of the countryside and the town alike; or enjoy some tapas and wine in the bar and restaurant downstairs. Book a stay at Hotel Real Segovia

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

Booking.com
read more

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.
Booking.com

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.

read more

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
Booking.com

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
Booking.com

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. 

read more

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. 

Booking.com

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.  

Booking.com

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. 

read more

The 10 Best Pintxo Spots in San Sebastian

Imagine a world where plates upon plates of gastronomic beauty line the bars of every local joint you walk into, where bread and toothpicks are tools of artistry, and rare international delicacies are available in the most casual of settings. Now, welcome to a place where this is not only a reality, but the norm: San Sebastian, Spain, the global capital of pintxos.

Known as the city with the most Michelin stars per capita in Europe, this culinary wonderland is the perfect destination for foodies. It’s home to the pintxo—a small plate of food usually served hors d'oeuvre-style on a toothpick.

The way that locals eat pintxos—and the method that we’d highly recommend—is to visit each bar only to eat its specialty. Have just one or two pintxos at any one establishment before moving on. It’s a great way to see the town—pintxo by pintxo, cider by cider—while sampling only the best.

Take a look at just 10 of our favorite pintxo bars.

Atari Gastroteka

Atari San Sebastian Pintxos
Pintxos line the counter at Atari Gastroteka in San Sebastian. | Photo by Anna Spivak
Specialities: Carrillera (beef cheek), pintxos

Address: Calle Mayor, 18, 20013 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain

Price Point: $$

Atari is located on the Parte Vieja’s bustling Calle Mayor. This wrap-around corner joint takes elevated bar food to a whole new level. The carrillera, or beef cheek, is a specialty at Atari. It is tender, flavorful, and served with creamy mashed potatoes. Did I mention this was bar food?

A Fuego Negro

Specialities: Sliders, fried chicken

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 31

Price Point: $$$$

Around the corner from Atari, A Fuego Negro is another pintxo bar serving up some seriously swoon-worthy cuisine. The fried chicken comes in a KFC-style bucket and is every bit as crispy and satisfying as fried chicken can be. The buey (ox) slider is a juicy, flavor-packed bite, as well.

Sirimiri Gastroleku

Specialities: Txipirones (baby squid), croquetas, lamb

Address: Calle Mayor, 18

Price Point: $$$$

I promise to move away from Calle Mayor after Sirimiri … although you can probably see how difficult it is not to fall in love with every bar or restaurant in the Parte Vieja.

Sirimiri’s intoxicating atmosphere is the perfect pair to its mouthwatering food and drink. The baby-squid croquetas, a specialty I didn’t know I needed in my life, are filled with squid cooked in its own ink. Now, stick with me here: the inside is black, but I promise it’s worth it. Just don’t skimp on the napkins.

Make sure you also try the croquetas de seta e idiazabal (croquettes with mushrooms and idiazabal cheese, a local speciality), the cordero (lamb—absolutely stunning), and pulpo con mojo verde y frambuesa (octopus with garlic sauce and, yes, raspberry).

Ganbara

Mushrooms at Ganbara San Sebastian
Fresh, seasonal mushrooms at Ganbara. | Photo by Anna Spivak

Specialities: Seasonal mushrooms with egg yolk, white asparagus

Address: San Jeronimo Kalea, 19

Price Point: $$$$

The bliss that is an afternoon lunch at Ganbara is hardly comparable to any other casual-dining experience. With a broad entrance featuring a view out onto the street, you can people-watch as you enjoy your perfectly sautéed, savory selection of mushrooms (traditionally served with an egg yolk that you mix in yourself) and a huge piece of white asparagus, baked to perfection.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

Specialties: Foie gras, mushroom risotto

Address: Santa Korda Kalea, 4

Price Point: $$$$

Tucked away in a little alley called Santa Korda, la Cuchara de San Telmo is thronged with locals and tourists from open to close. Their extensive pintxo and entree menu is impressive to say the least. Their foie gras and mushroom risotto, however, are the breakout stars. If you’re lucky enough to snag a seat towards the back of the bar, you can even peek into their open kitchen.

Beti Jai Berria

Specialties: Croquetas, but everything is great

Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 22

Price Point: $$$$

Beti Jai’s massive, cube-shaped croquetas may be, quite simply, the planet’s best. Try the classic jamón (containing a mixture of ham and bechamel) but don’t be afraid to sample some of their other fillings, which vary daily.

The place is immaculate, and every pintxo you see will be tantalizing, so it may be hard to choose. We recommend taking the opportunity to try morcilla, a Spanish blood sausage. You’ll probably find the Burgos-style morcilla here, which contains rice, perhaps topped with a roasted red pepper or a quail’s egg.

Drinka

Specialties: Calamari, patatas bravas

Address: Matia Kalea, 50

Price Point: $$$$

While the Parte Vieja has the highest concentration of pintxo bars in close proximity, there are tons of incredible bars and restaurants scattered all over San Sebastian. On the other side of Playa de la Concha, just past Miramar Palace, is a street called Matia Kalea. This residential area, called Antiguo, is swimming with incredible cuisine and local charm. The city even closes Matia Kalea to cars on most weekends so pedestrians have free range.

Drinka is a relatively new eatery serving up classically Basque pintxos and dishes with a modern twist. Their calamari is crispy, tender, and delicious, and their patatas bravas (with different dipping sauces) are not to be missed.

Booking.com

Garai Taberna

Specialties: Burgers, lentils

Address: Juan de Garai Kalea, 2

Price Point: $$$$

Just off of Matia Kalea is a little gem called Garai Taberna. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this little basement dive bar serves up incredible home cooking for a very reasonable price.

Their lunch special (which usually changes daily) consists of two choices for a starter, entree, and dessert. Their burger was seasoned to perfection and the heaping bowl of lentils we had was enough to feed an entire household—which is probably the extremely friendly staff’s goal, as they treat their customers like family.

Bordaberri

Specialties: Cheese risotto

Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12

Price Point: $$$

One of the specialties this quiet corner is famous for is its risotto. In this dish, idiazabal, a cheese typical of the Basque and Navarra regions, is the star of the show. It’s the ultimate comfort food. And FYI, if you ever run into an idiazabal croqueta, eat it immediately.

Bordaberri idiazabal risotto San Sebastian
Bordaberri's famous idiazabal risotto. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Casa Gandarias

Specialties: Solomillo, goat cheese and jam pintxos

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23

Price Point: $$$$

The specialty here is the solomillo, or sirloin, pintxo. This may sound simple enough—a small, perfectly cooked cut of steak with a sprinkling of sea salt and a roasted green pepper perched on top. But you will find yourself coming here again, and again, and again. This is not a pintxo you’ll find on the bar, so it comes straight from the kitchen, hot and freshly made. It may prove one of the best cuts of steak you’ve ever eaten. I know, I know, we’ve already used a lot of superlatives—but when it comes to gastronomy, San Sebastian is simply a superlative place.

 

Erin L. McCoy contributed to this article.

read more

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.

Booking.com

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
read more

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).

read more

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. 

read more

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
Booking.com
read more

What This Andalusian Art Form Tells Us About Spain Today

The image of two flamenco dancers locked in desperate embrace, the trill of a guitar behind them, has become most travelers' go-to image of Spain.

But how much do you really know about the Romani origins of this haunting and beautiful art form? And what does your association of this Andalusian art form with Spain as a whole have to do with Francisco Franco, Spain's most notorious dictator? A recent BBC documentary tells all.

To learn more about the history of the Romani people in Andalusia, and all the cultural influences that made flamenco possible, read our article on the story of flamenco.
read more

Valencia

El Pont de l'Assut de l'Or, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

The streets of Valencia pulse with color, whether you're passing a row of rainbow-painted houses or one of the many graffiti masterpieces that checker the city. The historic city center of Spain's third-largest metropolitan area is deceptively expansive, so while you may find yourself wandering past the Central Market or crossing the Plaza de la Reina for the umpteenth time, after three days you'll still be discovering new places to eat and visit.

Valencia Basics:

Stay: 3-4 days

Region: Valencian Community

Fast Fact: Valencia is the third-largest city in Spain. Its official name is València.

Nearby Destinations: Barcelona, Zaragoza, Murcia, Ibiza, Palma de Mallorca

On the map, Valencia looks like a beach town, but when you’re submerged in the historic city center, you can forget about the sand and sea almost entirely, except for the fact that in the summer months, the cheerful sun never ceases. Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138 BC, making it one of Spain's oldest cities. It was also a popular retirement destination for the Romans. At the time, the Turia river surrounded the city, so that it was basically an island and therefore easy to defend. Valencia has a long history as a trade center, hence its only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lonja de la Seda (Silk Market).

Today, Valencia and its surrounding area is known as the home of paella, though not the kind you may be used to seeing on those mass-produced cardboard menus visible in any given Spanish plaza. Traditional Valencian paella has chicken or meat, not seafood. (For paella that’s hands-down fantastic along with an innovative menu del dia, don’t miss Namua.) There’s also no shortage of ways to party in Valencia, especially if you stay at Home Youth Hostel or hook up with Tour Me Out’s many offerings.

Top Things to Do

Valencia's Ciutat Vella (Old City)

The sunny streets of Valencia’s old town feel a little less, well, old than other historic city centers in Spain. The slick tile that covers many of the streets feel more modern, and it’s hard to tell whether they’re more or less safe for those walking in slick soles. Get lost, wander, and admire the city’s wealth of graffiti, and don’t miss the central market (learn more about the market below).

City Of Arts And Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia, Reina Sofia Palace of Arts
City of Arts and Sciences, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, girl in a bubble
L'Àgora, City of Arts and Sciences, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
City of Arts and Sciences, paddle boarding, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, City of Arts and Sciences
L'Oceanogràfic, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia, aquarium
L'Hemisfèric, Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, City of Arts and Sciences
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, City of Arts and Sciences
previous arrow
next arrow
Slider

Valencia is probably most famous for its City of Arts and Sciences, a district of slick, white buildings — not a right angle among them — that feel transported straight out of the Jetsons. The complex is a must-see, at least from the outside; for those of us who’ll never live on the Mars Colony, this is the closest we’ll probably get. Although there are no trees, there’s tons of shade, and even on the hottest of days a breeze cooled by the glittering blue pools that surround the art and science museums, the IMAX theater, and the aquarium will provide relief. Make sure to stop by at night, when the water becomes a stunning reflective pool.

Mercat Central (Central Market)

Valencia boasts Europe’s second-largest central market, and this 8,000-square-foot building truly has something for everyone. Buy seasonal fruit for a bargain, pick up some seafood and get it cooked right across the street for 4 Euro, grab an empanada for breakfast at Pai i Dolc Elenita, or pick up a 2-Euro sandwich with pata negra (the highest-quality type of jamón) at Supergourmet. It's a great place to grab a snack that will tide you over for a trip to Albufera Natural Park or a day at the beach. 

Jardines Del Turia

The city’s best-kept secret are the Jardines del Turia (Turia Gardens), a nine-kilometer-long park that occupies the now-dry Turia riverbed and stretches all the way from the west to the east, right across the city.

This has got to be one of the world’s greatest city parks. In any case, it's certainly one of the largest urban parks in Spain at about 300 acres. And they're not only long, but wide: so wide, in fact, that in any one place there could be six different paths — some for bikers, others for runners — when there aren't sports facilities, stellar playgrounds, and even a small fair, complete with a Ferris wheel. Pet owners let their dogs run off-leash without bothering the Tai Chi group in the grove of bulbous silk floss tress, or the guy practicing bagpipe. 

It's a lot of walking, though, and you'll need to stay fueled and hydrated, so check out this map of eleven great eateries in the Turia Gardens, courtesy of Jill's Urban Food Crawls:

Lonja De La Seda (Silk Market)

Construction on this UNESCO World Heritage Site began in 1483. For your entry fee of 2 Euros (1 Euro for students) you’ll see a few architecturally stunning rooms surrounding an orange grove.

This cluster of buildings is a true masterpiece of late Gothic architecture, and from the inside, perhaps one of the most architecturally memorable structures you'll see in Spain. UNESCO chose to protect this set of buildings because it "dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities." A short informative video welcomes you to the space and offers a short history of the site. The Sala de Contratación — called the Columnario after its gorgeously spiraling columns — is a can't-miss. The same is true for the intricately painted ceilings in another part of the compound.

A trip here won't take long, so take a moment to relax and enjoy the orange grove — maybe with a snack from the Central Market, which is only a few blocks away. On your way out, look closely around the outside of the building for those gargoyles and carvings engaged in particularly sinful activities.
728*90

Torre del Micalet

Torre del Micalet Valencia Spain
Torre del Micalet
Also known as el Miguelete, this Gothic-style bell tower provides a stunning, 360-degree panorama of the city, from mountains to (almost) sea. The City of Arts and Sciences is clearly visible from the top, as is its sister tower, the Torre de Santa Catalina. Construction on the Torre del Micalet (its name in Valencian) began in 1381 and ended in 1429.

A few precautions: the tower is 166 feet (50.85 meters) tall, and the spiraling stair is unsettlingly narrow near the top, and worn smooth to the point of slippery, so tennis shoes are recommended. Also, you might want to avoid being at the top when the bell (itself called El Miguelete) is likely to ring: it's extremely loud. Entry is 2 Euros.

Eat

Namúa Gastronomic

Specialties: Stellar Valencian paella and innovative cuisine
Namua Valencia
Namúa
Address: Plaça de Vicent Iborra, 9

Price Point: $$$$  

This cozy little restaurant features modern décor, prompt service, and a staff that is truly passionate about what they're doing. And it's easy to see why: the food they create here is a blend of experimental and traditional, and happens to live in both worlds swimmingly. Namúa serves up the best paella I've ever eaten (though I must admit, I particularly partial to Valencian paella, which has chicken rather than the seafood that's found in other paellas around Spain).

But it will also surprise you: as the opener in a four-course menú del día (a great deal for the food and the quality at less than 20 Euros at lunchtime; I'd do it again in a second) I was served a salad ice cream. Yes, that's what I said. And it was so much better than you can even imagine. Long story short, don't leave Valencia without eating at Namúa. (Oh, and don't plan on eating or even moving for a few hours after that four-course lunch.)

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Home Youth Hostel

Valencia Old Town, parte vieja
Valencia's historic town center.
Address: Carrer de la Llotja, 4

Price Point: $$$

In Valencia, all roads lead to Home Youth Hostel — or at least it sure feels that way. You couldn’t stay in a better location: the door is only a few steps away from the Lonja de la Seda, Valencia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a small city block from the Mercat Central, so you can have breakfast there every morning (and you’ll want to). Finally, this is the only hostel I’ve ever seen that offers free — yes, I said free — dinner to all its guests. This is a great way to meet people and, predictably, leads to lots of partying. But if you're looking for tours and things to do, this place is also sure to hook you up with Tour Me Out's free city walking tours, beach pub crawls, street art walking tours, and day trips, making this the ideal place to stay for solo (or simply social!) travelers. Book a stay at Home Youth Hostel

Looking for more great spots? Check out these last-minute deals from Let's Travel Spain's recommended site for Spain hotel bookings: Booking.com
read more