There’s something infinitely romantic about facing an open road. It’s the symbolic mark of beginning a new journey and venturing off into the wild unknown (and the wildly well- known, for us neurotic planners).
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next to find ourselves,” novelist Pico Iyer once beautifully said. “We travel to open our hearts and eyes. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
In Spain, you get lost, you find yourself, and you fall in love – with the perfect rhythm of flamenco, the dangerous dance routine of the matador, the taste of tapas, every sip of Cava, and every tale from its history, and its people. From the rolling hillsides, cathedrals and basilicas, sparkling sandy beaches, street art and museums, to the Moorish and Gothic architecture, this road trip through Spain is a slow-burning adventure that will open your heart and eyes.
The heart and capital of the country. Madrid.
The boulevards are wide, the historic buildings are tall and their 18th century imperial facades make standing in the street feel like you’re standing in one of the greatest outdoor architectural museums in the world. Ernest Hemingway, who considered Spain his second home at a time in his life, was often out and about in Madrid, whether at a bar having a drink with other journalists covering the Spanish Civil War, or at a bull ring watching a fight.
The Gran Via is Madrid’s main thoroughfare and it’s lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes. Zara is a big deal retail brand based in Spain which means, while many North Americans are familiar with its main brand, all over Spain you will familiarize yourself with its sister brands that you’ll quickly obsess over if you’re a fan of Zara – starting with Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius, Bershka, and Pull and Bear. With all the shopping and sightseeing, remember to stop and enjoy a tinto de verano – a summer red wine served cold.
The museums are worth setting aside a day or two for, the Museo del Prado and the Museo Reina Sofia. In the Reina Sofia, the massive gallery space leads you through hallways to its fascinating Dali collection, heartbreaking Picassos, and some of the most intricate beautiful artworks by Juan Gris and Joaquin Torres Garcia.
The Gran Via comes alive at night and is a convenient spot to head out for a drink before starting your grand road trip.
Next stop: Seville.
Madrid to Seville, 538 km, 4h53m
The tapas capital of Spain. Seville.
It’s a maze of streets that will convince you to ditch your map, get lost and enjoy every turn.
Trees bearing the fruit of its famous oranges punctuate these colourful streets that lead to some of its most famous sites, like the Alcazar, one of the few functioning palaces that still exist, lively flamenco bars, and El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in Spain.
Seville is known to heat up in the summer. July and August are the hottest months of the year, averaging about 36°C, which is why the city built a massive mushroom cloud-like structure called Metropol Parasol for people to hide out under and stay cool. It measures 150 metres long, 70 metres wide, and about 30 metres high.
Underneath the urban project are uncovered Roman ruins that, that instead of the city paving over and creating a parking lot out of, decided to preserve instead. You can hang out under the mushrooms, take in the view of the city’s skyline from on top, or go underneath and explore the Antiquarium, the fascinating remains of a Roman village that dates back to 30 A.D.
Next stop: Tarifa.
Seville to Tarifa, 197 km, 2h12m
A photo posted by Crissandra Ayroso (@crissandraayroso) on
The southern-most point of Spain. Tarifa.
The pace slows down during each wind on the scenic drive on the Costa de la Luz (the Coast of Light) while the sun hits an endless sparkling soft blue sea that ascends into the horizon. Powdery soft white sand beaches and perfect kite surfing conditions welcome you to this small coastal town.
One of the best parts of Tarifa is its small town charm and hospitality. Service in the bars and restaurants are warm and welcoming, the seafood is fresh, the cocktails are delicious, and the prices are right.
Across the way, only 14 kilometres and a short ferry ride, is Morocco, which you can see on a clear day from the beach. Not too far from this site is the Strait of Gibraltar – the point where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet.
Next stop: Ronda.
Tarifa to Ronda, 138 km, 1h57m
The birthplace of bullfighting in Spain. Ronda.
The whitewashed villages, countryside feel, and limestone mountainscape backdrop of this mountain-top rolling hillside town grace Ronda with an unrequited forgiving beauty.
Well known for its rugged history of crooks, bandits, and bullfighting, Ronda upholds its tradition of bullfighting and commemorates its ongoing history in a museum connected to an iconic bullfighting ring called the Plaza de Toros. The Plaza de Toros dates back to 1785, making it the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain. Madonna fans may recognize the ring from her “Take a Bow” video. Bullfights still take place here; however the tradition comes under fire as a controversial one – bullfighting was banned altogether in Catalonia in 2010, the autonomous northeastern region of Spain that includes Barcelona.
The impressive Puente Nuevo (the New Bridge), also dates back to the 18th century, took 42 years to build, separates Old Town and New Town, and towers about 400 feet over the river below.
There’s a really kooky museum that is even more amusing given its enchanting and cowboy-era setting, called the Museo Lara, filled with some of the most normal collections: sewing machines, cameras, telephones – a direct contrast to the witchcraft room and torture chamber (artifacts) rooms which might warrant a few double-takes.
Next stop: Granada.
Ronda to Granada, 180 km, 2h9m
Home to the Alhambra Palace. Granada.
At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountainscape, Moorish architecture lines the streets, locals navigate effortlessly through the labyrinthian-like cobblestone market stalls that sell leather goods, silks, and other wares, and the sun sets in different radiating shades of gold over the sprawling Alhambra Palace mountaintop.
The Alhambra is a Moorish citadel and palace that once served as a fortress under the Muslim rule of Spain, dating back to the 14th century. Moorish kings and sultans would summer in the attached estate, the Generalife. The inside of the palace is filled with high ceilings and big, airy chambers tiled with hand painted mosaics and balconies that look out in to the valley.
And sure while this next thing isn’t the most glamourous feature of this palace – the irrigation system, a set of narrow channels and streams that run parallel with the walls and gardens to keep the palace cool, it’s really interesting and worth seeing up close. It’s an innovative process adopted from the ancient Egyptians. Just try to not accidentally walk in to one.
The opulent Baroque 18th century Basilica San Juan de Dios glitters in gold – almost wall to wall, in fact. The interior is blinding with gilded, solid, and embellished gold, the ceilings are painted masterpieces, and the walls are encased with golden altars, artifacts, and gold-framed portraits. Even the pulpit is gold. Upstairs the remains of San Juan de Dios (St. John of God) can be found, un-decomposed – surrounded with, you know it – gold.
Next stop: Valencia.
Granada to Valencia, 498 km, 5h
Where Paella came to be. Valencia.
Vibrant street art stirs commentary, fragrant saffron perfumes the air, and Gaudi-inspired architecture adds new heights and shapes to the city’s skyline.
Spain’s third largest city gave the world one of the greatest dishes ever created – paella, a rice dish traditionally made with seafood in a specially made paella pan. Cooking class by day and restaurant by night, in the heart of Valencia, La Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana teaches hungry foodies how to make this local dish with professionals at your side. They even take you along to Mercado Central (main market), one of the biggest in Europe, to help curate the ingredients you’ll be working with.
Next stop: Barcelona.
Valencia to Barcelona, 350 km, 3h28m
Gaudi’s city. Barcelona.
The beaches glitter deep shades of blue, the streets are busy with shoppers, hungry patrons duck in and out of rows of shops, bars, and restaurants; tired husbands, children, and moms are slumped over in benches, and Gaudi’s architecture, like beacons, lead the eye to admire every delightful line, shape, and tiled mosaic across the city.
While there are more than a dozen, Casa Batllo (House of Bones) on major street Passeig de Gracia, is one of the last love letters Gaudi wrote to his city before he passed away in 1926. Through his inspiration and spiritual connection to nature, Gaudi expresses that everything has a meaning and a purpose. Stained glass fractures sunlight and projects splashes of blue and turquoise across the walls and across the doorframes that resemble eddies of water, bone-shaped columns that have flowers growing out of them, and all the way to the door handles that were designed using hands cast in clay.
La Sagrada Familia is one of the greatest masterpieces and artworks of all time that began construction in 1882 and will continue Gaudi’s vision until its projected completion date – 2026. From the Gothic facades and spires, to the stories of stained glass and columns that resemble tree canopies, to the surreal art nouveau crucifix suspended in the air. Walk under the carving of the Alpha and Omega and enter La Sagrada Familia – an ongoing work of love and state of grace.
“Think of love as a state of grace; not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera