Spain and Portugal, located on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe, are both well known for their beautiful beaches, flamenco dancing, and unique culture. Some of the top rated beaches are Costa Blanca (Valencia), Cádiz (Andalucía), and Algarve (Portugal), and it’s opportune to visit them spring, summer, and fall. And with more than 100 castles in each country, there’s no excuse for inactivity.
You can save a little money in both these countries by buying food in open-air markets, mercadillos, and grocery stores instead of restaurants, staying in hostels or B&Bs, planning ahead and researching the days when museums offer free-entrance to students, and walking as much as possible. To exchange money you can do so in any major bank of Spain, but they will ask to see identification (e.g. passport). Or there are money exchange stations in major cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona. If you have a credit card not associated with VISA or MasterCard, then check with your bank before trusting its competency in Spain.
While travelling, don’t forget the safety measures you should take to keep yourself and your belongings safe. In any city or country you visit, you should always put your belongings in a locker when not in use, have money and documentation hidden and out of reach at all times, and make sure to not give personal information to strangers. Always make sure the hostel provides lockers before making reservations, and take a lock because not all hostels provide them.
Every year the school takes ESDES students to Valencia on a day trip. They visit the City of Arts and Sciences, Cathedral and Miguelete bell tower, la Lonja, Mercado Central, Torres de Serranos, and Plaza Redonda. Laurie Farreau, from 2012-2013 school year, comments on the city tours: “Take advantage of all the school trips. Enjoy abroad and BRING A CAMERA (I only had an Ipod and that wasn’t a wonderful idea)”
Apart from the school trips, you will most likely have time to discover Valencia for yourself, and when you do, I suggest you explore River Turia (landscaped park with walking paths), Plaza de Ayuntamiento, and Calle Colon. Actually, a popular place students like to eat and hang out at is LemonGrass restaurant. They serve Asian noodle dishes at an affordable price, and one plate can usually last two meals. To view the menu, go to the following website: http://www.lemongrass.es/. Another hidden treasure of Valenica is in Alboraya, where the freshest and best horchata is made. You can take the metro line 3 to Alboraya – Palmaret and you’ll see the horchatería across the street on your right when you leave the metro station.
In March, the best time to be in Spain, Valencia hosts Las Fallas. This “one of the top ten festivals in Spain” is celebrated yearly and includes fireworks, music, festive bonfires, parades, and enormous papier mâché statues that they burn on the last night. Everyday at 1:00pm performers appear in the streets to entertain while the audience waits for the grand Mascletá in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento. People start arriving at 10:00 am to assure a good spot, so get there early! Even though the festivities last a week, the more important events occur the last two days: the free firework show called Castillo and the burning of las fallas. It’s possible to arrive in Valencia by train from Sagunto, and the train schedule is expanded during Las Fallas festival, but you also have the option of taking the school bus with other students the last two days of the event; ask the dean or ESDES secretary for more information.
Some of the most impressive fallas are the illuminated ones best seen at night. In 2012, the festival coordinators planned and performed a lightshow in-sync to a few well-known songs that got the whole crowd dancing and moving.
There are many ways to enter the city, but the most-used form of transportation is RENFE. You can search for buy tickets and search for online discounts at http://www.renfe.com/. If you buy your ticket online a few days in advance for long-distance trips, you have a better chance of finding a better deal or a lower-price. The main train station in Madrid is Estación Atocha, located at the end of Avenida del Arte. Another option is to travel by bus: Estación Sur de Autobuses is located on Méndez Álvaro street (there is a metro stop under the bus station, so just go up the stairs once you arrive). ALSA bus company includes national and international destinations: http://www.alsa.es/. But the only bus company that goes between Valencia and Madrid is Avanzabus: http://www.avanzabus.com.
Being the country’s capital, it’s very easy to find lodging in Madrid. Hostels are scattered all throughout the city along with hotels and small apartments. It’s possible to make hotel reservations the day you arrive, but you always need to do your research and confirm that your travel dates don’t land on a major festival or celebration. But, if you’re a planner, you can use the following website to shop for hostels: http://hostelworld.com/. It’s always a good idea to look at the ratings and directions before reserving, to avoid any complications on arrival.
Once you arrive in the city, it’s always advisable that you find the tourist information office and get a map of the landmarks and must-see sights. The top sights in Madrid are Plaza Mayor, Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, Palacio Real, Gran Vía and Avenida del Arte, which includes Museo del Prado. It’s easy to see everything in two or three days, but if you’re not in a rush, the best places to enjoy the afternoon are in Parque del Buen Retiro and Ciudad Universitaria in the Argüelles and Moncloa neighborhood. It’s also fun to search for Madrid’s emblem, a bear and tree, in the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol while passing through.
One of the most talked-about cities in Spain for its Gaudi architecture and distinct culture, Barcelona offers a more modern look at life in Spain. If you don’t get a chance to go there with the school or if you decide to explore it on your own, La Rambla, La Sagrada Familia, Mont Jüic, and Parc Güell are all must-sees. One great feature of Barcelona is the free performance of the traditional Catalan folk dance, Sardana, in front of the Cathedral once a week. See a Tourism Office for a current schedule, or check online.
Also, there are a few hidden corners of Barcelona that offer a great selection of eateries and clothing stores. I recommend Santa Gula restaurant in Plaça de Narcís Oller, 3 (http://www.santagula.es/) and Kilostore that sells vintage clothes by the kilo and is located at c/ Riera Baixa, 11 (http://barcelona.lecool.com/place/kilostore/). Barcelona shows the two extremes in shopping: You have the high fashion options, such as Lous Vuitton, on Avinguda Diagonal and you also have the city’s main flea market Els Encants Vells in the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes (www.encantsbcn.com).
Unfortunately, though, Barcelona is not all pleasantries; it has the biggest reputation for crime and theft in Spain. Guard your belongings, and be especially careful around popular tourist stops, such as la Sagrada Familia, and in the metro. The Old City (Ciutat Vella) and La Rambla are the pickpockets’ prime locations. Please, we want to keep all sob stories at a minimum.
The southern provinces of Andalucía provide a rich Spanish culture with notable influences from the Arab cultures in architecture, accent, and nature. Southern Spain is the ideal place to see Flamenco dancing, and there are even free shows during La Feria de Abril de Sevilla in mid-April.
There is a small airport in Seville, but the most common form of transportation is RENFE train, which arrives at the Estación de Santa Justa about 1.5km from the city center. Córdoba’s train station is located on Avenida de América and offers transportation within the country at various prices.
Below is a suggested route for travelling through the Andalucía region: Granada, Cádiz, Seville, and Córdoba.
The number one attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, an Arabic fortress from the 9th century. The Alhambra settles on top of the La Sabika hill away from the main center of town, but you can either take a public bus or hire a taxi to reach it. If you don’t want to stand in line at 7 in the morning, I highly advise that you buy your tickets in advance online at www.alhambra-tickets.es. Even in winter, tickets are sold quickly. Another unforgettable experience I would recommend to anyone would be to hire a taxi to see the Mirador de San Nicolas above the city. From this high point you can see the incredible views of Granada, the Alhambra, and Sierra Nevada, while enjoying the music and atmosphere of local gypsies and flamenco guitarists.
Cádiz’s beauty lies in the stunning white houses and clear blue water of the Atlantic, thus why most visitors come here to relax. The beaches stretch for miles and the narrow streets are always filled with frying fish and fries. One activity a few ESDES students have done in the past is take surf lessons or join a surf camp for a week. You can find more information on http://www.surf-cadiz.com/es/.
Seville, known as Sevilla in Spanish, is best to visit in Spring when the ladies roam the fair streets in their flamenco dresses, decorative horse-drawn carriages fill the city center, and delicious fair food is sold in front of giant Ferris wheels. But you can anytime of year and still enjoy the Cathedral, Torre del Oro, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, and the spectacular Plaza de España. The best place for tapas is in the neighborhood of Barrio de Santa Cruz where the narrow streets guide you past beautifully painted houses and into local pleasures. As far as transportation within the city, there are plenty of public buses and taxis available for short-distance trips. Taxi pick-up stops are located around the city and are marked with blue square signs. See this website for exact street names (where they wait in line for people): http://www.sevitaxi.es/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=32&Itemid=49.
Another note to consider: Taxi drivers and restaurant waiters do not expect to be tipped, but always appreciate it when you do.
Córdoba attracts thousands of tourists because of it’s Mesquite that portrays the Arabic influence during the 9th and 10th centuries. The main entrance is the Puerta del Perdón, which is where you can buy your tickets. Opening hours for most sights in Córdoba change frequently, so make sure to check with a tourist office or online before making any plans. Another fun idea is to look on www.teatrocordoba.com for concerts, theater, and dance performances that present a taste of the culture.