Highlights of Spain
Europe's highest capital city, Madrid has cold winters and very hot summers. The city boasts three fabled art museums: the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which gives Madrid world class status in the art world. The lavish Palacio Real has been the uninterrupted seat of the head of state since the mid 18th century. In easy distance of Madrid are Toledo, city of El Greco and crucible of the three cultures, El Escorial, part palace part enormous monastery, and Segovia, with its amazing Roman aqueduct and fairytale castle set on a rocky spur.
Set on the Mediterranean coast, Barcelona is one of the most exciting cities in Europe and an architectural delight. Its wonders range from the Picasso Museum in the unspoiled medieval Gothic Quarter to stunning Modernist structures including Antoni Gaudí's still unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica and the undulating Casa Milá. The Rambla Boulevard seethes with street life and elegant shops abound. The Dali Museum at Figueres makes a good day excursion, as does the Monastery of Montserrat.
Northern Spain, where lush, green hills meet the Atlantic coast, defies most people's idea of Spain. The region encompasses lush, green Galicia, the Basque country, the Navarra kingdom, the popular Rioja vineyards and the dramatic Pyrenees. Its noted cities include the once industrial Bilbao, now reborn under the impetus of Frank Gehry's spectacular titanium Guggenheim Museum. Nearby lies San Sebastián, an elegant resort town with a fascinating old town. Here tapas bars and restaurants line characterful alleyways whilst the fish market exemplifies the town's key industry.
Andalucia reinforces all of the traditional images of Spain, with bullrings, white villages, flamenco dancing and beaches. The city of Carmen, Seville is the vibrant heart of Andalucia. Its key sights include the huge cathedral and "Giralda" tower, the Moorish style Alcázar palace, and the labyrinth of orange blossom perfumed streets and squares in the Barrio Santa Cruz. For 800 years, Granada was the bastion of Moorish Spain. The exquisite plasterwork, tiles, carvings and gardens of Granada's Alhambra are one of the most perfect examples of Islamic art and culture in the whole world. Nearby, visitors flock to Cordoba to visit the impressive Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a stunning 14th century palace fortress set in the old Jewish quarter.
The historic centre of Portugal's capital city lies between the Moorish Alfama and the Bairro Alto at the mouth of the Tagus River. Attractions include the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, the National Museum of Decorative Tiles and St George's Castle. To the west of the city lies Belém, from where the great discoverers set sail. The National Coach Museum, the Monument to the Discoverers and the Jeronimos Monastery are situated in Belém. A World Heritage Site, nearby Sintra is the site of the Palácio Nacional de Sintra –a summer retreat for Portuguese kings –and the Palacio da Pena with its eclectic architecture.
Oporto is Portugal's vibrant second city. Visitors enjoy the lively Ribeira quayside district while the fashionable shops are to be found in the upper town. Sights includes the Cathedral and the Palacio da Bolsa (stock exchange), noted for its impressive Arabian Room. Most visitors to Oporto will wish to visit the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia and private visits may be arranged here. Extended stays of the region could include the outstandingly beautiful wine area of the Douro River valley with boat cruising being the best way to see the valley.
Between Oporto and Lisbon, Coimbra is home to Portugal's oldest university, founded in 1290, whose library is one of the most beautiful in Europe. The old town with its shops and two cathedrals is enchanting and best explored on foot, though it is set on a steep hill. Afternoon tea at the extraordinary Buçaco Palace Hotel, once a royal residence in the Buçaco National Forest, is also highly enjoyable.
Two of Portugal's great religious foundations lie on the road to Lisbon. The Dominican Abbey of Santa Maria da Vitoria in Batalha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a magnificent example of Gothic Portuguese architecture, while the Cistercian monastery of Alcobaça is the largest in Portugal.