This road trip is an inspiring adventure across the Iberian Peninsula, a region which holds centuries of architectural treasures from pre-Roman ruins to the splendors of Moorish sultans. You will be surprised about diversity of the landscapes, the food, the art and vibrant culture here. It is a melting pot of ideas and a birthplace of creative culture. Over the centuries, poets, writers, philosophers, and theologians have tried to describe this unique region. This tour is one of my favorite road trips. It was taken a couple of months before the COVID pandemic closed a lot of international tourism.
All European cities are jammed during the peak summer season, though we have no first-hand knowledge of how the crowds have been affected by COVID. Our road trips have been in autumn which has been our favorite time to travel.
Our trip began in Madrid, a vivacious city with a legendary night life. The art here is phenomenal. Such great Spanish artists as Goya, Velazquez, Picasso, Dali and Miro are all on display here in galleries or in the Museo del Prado, Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid’s museums also boast paintings by El Greco (the Greek), but a lot of his work is in Toledo Spain, where he spent a large portion of his adult life.
Madrid is also a sprawling metropolis. Plaza Mayor (main square) is more intimate district and a good place to experience the historical heart of the city. Plaza Mayor was once the setting for bullfights and the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Most of the significant sights here are within a 20-minute walk.
The Palace Real (royal palace) is “the Spanish Versailles,” built by Phillip V, grandson of Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa. It is a monumental building full of priceless treasures and art. (Retiro Park (park of the pleasant retreat) covers 300 acres of opulent greenery filled with stately gardens, lakes, cafes and much more.
Bullfighting is celebrated here. “Bull bars” are dedicated to the sport and its matadors. Pictures of both bulls and matadors, as well as heads of famous bulls, line the walls above the bars. One of the most intriguing of the Bull Bars is La Torre del Oro. The interior is a bit of graphic and macabre, and the bar is a fascinating place to have a glass of wine or a beer.
A late night stroll to the numerous tapas bars will please the late night crowd. A tapa is a small dish, hot or cold, usually served with drinks. Spaniards, like many Europeans, tend to dine later than Americans. Dinner is not served until 9 or 10 at night. A “tapas walk” is a good way to sample a lot of different aspects of the cuisine. My personal favorite dish is not tapas but seafood paella, which is served in most restaurants. Jamon (ham) is another popular dish. As you stroll between restaurants, you can see ham legs hanging near the kitchens and in stores everywhere. (Those with more adventurous palates may prefer pig’s ears or pig’s cheeks! The blending of the cultures north African and Spanish traditions provides a tempting choice of food.
Toledo is a captivating daytrip out of Madrid or alternative choice to stop for a couple of nights if you prefer small historic towns rather than large cities. It is an ancient walled hill-top town, seated above a gorge overlooking Rio Tajo. It is known for its Jewish, Christian and Islamic cultures which have existed peacefully side by side here since in the Middle Ages. The multi-cultural spiritual monuments are floodlit and striking at night. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hop on/hop-off bus tour—more so than a similar tour in Madrid—offers some beautiful photo opportunities. The Mosques, Synagogues, the Alcazar (Moorish castle) and a magnificent Gothic cathedral are among the finest monuments in Spain. The famous painter El Greco born in Crete, settled here in the 1570s. He produced some of his best and most hauntingly dramatic expressionist style paintings while living in Toledo.
Salamanca has a long and varied cultural history. The earliest known inhabitants were Celtic-influenced tribes which arrived around 500 BC. Salamanca’s historic landmarks include elements dating to the Roman Empire. Islamic Moors and Christians warred for centuries in this area, and both left their influences. Much of the architecture is of Plateresque (a blend of Gothic and Renaissance), Spanish Renaissance and Spanish Baroque design.
The scenic Plaza Mayor is the best place to stay in this town (see A Room with a View for my review of where we stayed). The view of the architecture and vibrant activity of the square makes it a perfect place to experience its grandeur. As the sun sets, Salamanca becomes an architectural wonderland of golden sandstone, which changes with the light. After dark, the floodlit square is unforgettable.
Salamanca is a university town whose many international students add to its vitality and vibe. The outdoor cafes and restaurants, where you watch all of the bustling activity of fun, music and socializing, are excellent.
Among the architectural highlights of Salamanca are:
Porto (or Oporto)
From Salamanca we crossed the border to Portugal. Many toll roads in Portugal, and some tolls can be paid only an electronic sensor on our car. At the border, you can pull over and get a sensor. We were not aware of the toll requirement, missed the sign, and innocently drove through a couple of tolls. We won’t be trying that again, and recommend that you don’t either.
Porto, Portugal’s second city, stretches out along the Douro River and is located two miles from river’s end at the Atlantic Ocean. It is a walkable city full of historic cobblestone pathways and terraces ornamented with pots of colorful flowers. Ribeira, the riverside historic district, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This area is loaded with 18th and 19th century buildings. Many are trimmed with azulejos, the exquisite blue and white tiles for which Portugal is famous. Azulejos decorate walls, buildings and even bus stops. The century old Sao Bento railroad station is famous for its bold azulejos.
The cutting-edge metal bridge, Ponte de Dom Luís I, designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame), stretches from Ribeira over the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia, the center of the Port wine industry (port wine derives its name from Porto). Ribeira is full of cafes and restaurants. Pestiscos—bite sized portions of food, a bit like the Spanish tapas—allow you to sample a range of the Portuguese snacks , as well as the local wines. There are plenty of cafes in this historic area serving pestiscos as well as other delicious food and drinks
A walk over the bridge offers stunning views downriver and of the cliffs and buildings that line the river. You can take a scenic sailing tour of the Douro through MarDouro Tours. Another great site is Porto Cathedral, of dazzling Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic design. The fortress-like church is one of Porto’s oldest monuments, originally built in the 12th century. The cathedral has been modified through the centuries, and thus is a fusion of architectural styles. It stands on one of the high points of the city, and presents magnificent views of the city’s terracotta colored rooftops and the river. We found an amazing apartment in the historic district steps away from the riverfront area which overlooks the rooftops and has fine views of the bridge and the river (see A Room with a View). You might also like to take a day trip to sample wine in the Douro Valley. Viator.com offers some good choices. Our next stop is Lisbon. On the way we stopped for lunch in Batalha to see the monastery, a UNESCO world heritage site which has exquisite filigree stonework and reveals the beginnings of the Manueline architectural style. It is a easy town to get in and out of and you can eat in a café directly in the shadow of this historically significant monument. Another lunch choice could be Coimbra which has a beautiful medieval old town located riverfront on the Mondego river.
Lisbon is larger city and is probably best known for its Manueline (late gothic, influenced by maritime elements) architecture- its spectacular hillsides overlooking the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) – and its tradition of Fado (fate) music, a form of Portuguese song which is often sad and expressive- and centuries ago, it was a departure port where world explorers set off on legendary quests. We stayed a classically stylish apartment in a quiet residential area with views of the town and vistas out to the Tagus River (see a Room with a view).
The terrain of this large, coastal metropolis is very hilly, and getting lost in Lisbon in a car or on foot can happen. Make the effort to master public transportation (we usually ask at a restaurant, and always learn enough to get us started). Tram 28 (is a charming old world streetcar which gives you a diverse view of the city’s cafes, grocers and shops. It is popular with tourists so it can get crowded. Also, choose your seat wisely—in our tram the exhaust at the rear of the car was formidable, which may be why we had no trouble getting seats there.
Because we had limited time we took a private day tour through Viator tours. Our driver and tour guide took us directly to the sites so we were able to see all of these in a single afternoon. Some of them are:
Hilltop landscapes in Alfama, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city with a beguiling labyrinth of alleys, narrow cobblestone streets, and ancients houses. Some of Lisbon’s most famous historic buildings are included in this district.
St. George’s Castle where you will enjoy the most sumptuous views of the city. It is perched on top of the highest hill in the Alfama district. It was a fortification for the Romans, Visigoths and later the Moors who turned it into a royal palace.
Se Cathedral, a 12th century complex steeped in history and a mix of different architectural styles, predominately Romanesque with Gothic and Baroque elements which were included over time. It is the oldest church in Lisbon.
Jeronimos Monastery, is one of the most significant buildings in Portugal today,It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, where renowned explorer Vasco da Gama is entombed. Numerous architects and sculptors stove during the 16th century to blend a unique vision, a building which is the most exceptional example of Late Gothic Manueline style. This style includes coils of rope, sea motifs and other seafaring themes carved into its interior to promote the age of exploration and discovery.
Belem Tower the 16th century fortification that was the point of departure and arrival for Portuguese seafaring world explorers among them Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan Located in the historic and scenic waterfront district of Belem. Don’t forget a stop at Pasteis de Belem for one of their celebrated egg tart pastries.
We also made a daytrip to the monument-laden Sintra, located 20 miles northwest of Lisbon. It is a fantasy land of pastel colored 19th century palaces ,castles and gardens, well worth a drive out of town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also while in Sintra explore the winding paths of Quinta da Regaleir, the Initiation Well. It is a architectural dream with gardens and grottos. Another illuminating day trip is to Tomar which is about ninety miles out of Lisbon. It is a fascinating village full of historic monuments primarily religious in nature and it is the former seat of the Order of the Knights Templar but best of all it is not crowded with tourists. If you are not driving – viator.com or getyourguide.com can get you there and will take you to the most important sites.
After Lisbon, we drove back to Spain, but stopped for an early lunch in Faro, the center of Portugal’s Algarve region. We ate at Vila Adentro a restaurant in the historic part of town.It had great food and the interior was beautiful with azulejo tiles. The Algarve is an amazingly scenic part of the country. We wanted to spend a night or two amidst the area’s rocky seascapes and beaches but we had time constraints and had to move on.
Our next stop was Seville, located in Andalucia, a fascinating region of Spain. It is a spirited land which celebrates the classic Spanish cultural arts of flamenco dancing and bull fights. It is where Christian and Moorish battles have been fought for centuries for the control of villages and cities, where Spanish cuisine is deliciously steeped and fused with North African cooking with spicy herbs and accents. There are miles of olive groves here and they are the very best tasting olives in the world. Andalucia is for me is the very essence of Spain.
Several years before we had visited Seville and stayed at the EME Cathedral Hotel, adjacent to the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See (Catedral de Santa María de la Sede), and had a balcony with a fabulous direct view of this monument. If you enjoy staying in hotels this is a pleasant, well-located establishment.
On this particular trip we chose a well-equipped apartment near the historic district and the bullring. (see A Room with a View). Seville’s historic center is dominated by the immense Gothic cathedral, sitting beside an Alcazar palace complex. A walk through the district uncovers a mix of Moorish styled residences, elaborate baroque churches, tapas and bull bars, a maze of medieval alleyways and pathways rumbling with Flamenco clubs. By the time we reached Seville, we had been on the road three weeks. My husband had intentionally let his hair grow long so as to get a haircut from—you guessed it—the Barber of Seville. And a fine haircut it was!
Aside from the fabled barber, Seville great sites include:
Alcazar Real a Renaissance vision of a palace in Mudejar style which is a blend of Moorish and Christian design and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of its salons and parts of the gardens were locations for the HBO series “Game of Thrones” For me it is the most exquisite monument in Seville.
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, another UNESCO World Heritage site, allegedly the site of Christopher Columbus’s burial and remains, and is perhaps the largest Gothic church in the world. Make sure to see the views from the Giralda bell tower. Formerly a minaret for the Great Mosque of Seville- a Renaissance style top was later added by the Catholics after the Reconquista.
Barrio Santa Cruz, one of the most unique neighborhoods in the historic district full of tapas bars, flamenco clubs and great handicraft shops. It is the old city center and Jewish quarter of Seville. It is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys.
Plaza de Espana, a lavish building designed in the Neo-Moorish style built for the Ibero-American Expo at the 1929 World’s Fair (held in Seville),
Basilica de la Macarena, home to a 17th century wooden image of the Virgin Mary, a statue with a hauntingly pious face, known as the Virgin of Hope of Macarena. La Macarena is thought historically to be the patroness of bullfighters and Spanish gypsies.
Seville’s hop-on/hop-off bus takes you around to all these important stops and more. The historic old town is very walkable and will give you a real taste of Seville. There are several daytrips out of Seville including Cordoba and Granada.
Over 300 mosques, palaces and public buildings were created during the reign of the Moors. Cordoba is a maze of meandering stone pathways and wrought iron balconies. The remarkable Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (officially, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) is an architectural fantasy fusion of Eastern and Western elements, one of the world’s greatest examples of Islamic design, one of the largest Moorish Renaissance Mosques in the world. The Cathedral had a huge impact on Spanish architecture. Don’t miss the view from the Roman bridge leading into Cordoba at sunset-it is extraordinary. Be careful with your navigation devices going into town as they may accidently take you on a wild ride through the narrow winding streets of the historic center loaded with walking tourists which is forbidden for cars! Game of Thrones fans may recognize some of this remarkable scenery as it one of the many sites in Spain chosen for filming.
The drive from Seville to Granada is nearly 3 hours. We stopped for lunch in Antequera,which was slightly off our direct route to Granada, and well worth a visit. Antequera has two Bronze Age burial mounds located at the northern entrance. One of the highlights is the Alcazaba, a 14th century Moorish fortress erected over Roman ruins. It occupies a hilltop and is enclosed by the walls of the old Islamic quarter.
Most of the town is clad in an opulent Spanish-baroque style. There are more than 30 churches, many with brilliantly ornate baroque interiors. It is also home to the Netflix series Warrior Nun. If we were spending the night in this city we would have gone onto Ronda from here, it is the largest of Andalucía’s whitewashed hill towns. It is a little over an hour drive from Antequera. Because of time constraints we pushed on instead to Granada to stay a few nights and made Ronda a daytrip out of Granada. Looking back on it I would stay a couple nights in Ronda to have easier access to some of the other whitewashed hill towns.
Granada is a gritty, glorious and gripping paradox, where majestic Islamic Palaces go hand-in-hand with a lively Arab-Spanish street and night life. Where monumental cathedrals and basilicas stand beside contemporary graffiti art and Flamenco clubs. This unique dichotomy is an exhilarating part of its appeal.
The Alhambra rises above this vibrant city and is framed by the striking Sierra Nevada Mountains (see Spiritual Spaces for the Allure of the Alhambra). It is the most spectacular complex of Moorish Art, architecture and gardens in Europe)The sight of it at twilight is bewitching .In the shadow of the Alhambra is the Albayzin, the historic arab quarter it has a zesty Moroccan/ Spanish atmosphere. The scent of lively tapas bars, strong coffee and spicy restaurants saturates the senses. This is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and features winding stone paths and colorful terraces from its Medieval Moorish past.
Another interesting neighborhood is the Sacromonte Hillside district. Its cave houses have been home to Romanis (once called “gypsies”) and bohemians for centuries. It is an attractive whitewashed neighborhood( and is the best place to catch a flamenco show. From the hillside are splendid views of the Alhambra.
Other unforgettable sites in Granada:
Cartuja Monastery is a Spanish Baroque gem built over three centuries. This Carthusian monastery has a rather modest exterior, but its interior is a masterwork in the ornate and dramatic Churrigueresque (lavish, late Spanish baroque) style.
We took a daytrip out of Granada to Ronda, where I wished we had spent a night or two. It was the legendary passion of both writer Ernest Hemmingway and director/actor Orson Welles. Welles’ ashes are buried in a well on the outskirts of town, on an estate once owned by a famous matador. Hemmingway thought it the most romantic backdrop for a story and the best place to catch a bullfight. It is another small town loaded with layers of history and magic, and is not crowded with tourists.
All along the drive into town we saw pastures full of bulls, many being raised for the fight. Ronda is home to Spain’s second oldest bullring which is still used to stage bullfights and they have a bullfight museum there on the site.
Ronda is dramatically perched above the El Tajo gorge. The Puente Nuevo (new bridge) joins the old Moorish town with the newer part of the city It is one of Ronda’s famous landmarks. The most dramatic views of it are from down below the bridge. On our next visit we will stay in Ronda to explore the Andalusian hill towns of Zahara, Grazalema and Arcos de la Frontera. The drive from Zahara to Grazalema is a memorable road trip through Grazalema National Park.
We leave Andalucia here. It is unquestionably the soul of Spain and it truly is another world.
Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a town perched in the mountains of east-central Spain. Established by the Moors it is a remarkable walled hill town with steep cobblestone lanes, picturesque back alleys and fabulous views at every turn. It is dramatically balanced between two deep river gorges and is well known for its hanging houses, cantilevered above the Huecar gorge. The houses appear suspended from the rock. Their balconies jut out over sheer cliffs. A number of these houses have established themselves as abstract modern art galleries.
Twelfth century Cuenca Cathedral (Catedral de Santa María y San Julián) stands on the main square. It’s façade was rebuilt in Neo-Gothic style in 1902.
If you are driving there are several geological formations of interest nearby. Ciudad Encantada, nestled in a canyon within the Serrania de Cuenca Nature Reserve, is home to a collection of rock formations that have been molded by nature into unique figures and shapes. Los Callejones de Las Majadas or “Alleys of Stone” are unique natural alleys of rock. Both sites are well worth a look.There is also a scenic day trip to Albarracin an enchanting medieval town and Teruel which is close by both villages can be seen in a day.
Our next stop was back to the big city to fly out of Madrid. This trip was an amazing odyssey. We loved the food, the sites, the people -all that Iberian cultures could offer. We will be back to pick up where we left off as soon as we can. Hopefully international travel will be safe and more open this fall. And, my husband needs a haircut!