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Frommer's EasyGuide to Madrid and Barcelona 2014

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Selling for a lower price than any similar guidebook, and deliberately limited to a short 256 pages, this EasyGuide is an exercise in creating easily-absorbed travel information. It emphasizes the authentic experiences in each destination:the most important attractions, the classic method of approaching a particular destination; the best choices for accommodations and meals; the best ways to maximize the enjoyment of your stay. Because it is "quick to read, light to carry", it is called an "EasyGuide", and reflects Arthur Frommer's lifetime of experience in presenting clear and concise travel advice.

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1. THE BEST OF MADRID & BARCELONA

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THE BEST OF MADRID & BARCELONA

Madrid and Barcelona are the yin and yang of Iberian identity. Madrid sits on an arid high plateau in the center of the peninsula, while Barcelona clings to the Mediterranean shore. The two metropolises are great rivals in politics, sports, culture, and even language. This book brings them together to highlight two different—and equally fascinating—faces of Spain. For a trip that you will never forget, plan on seeing them both.

Although Madrid is paradoxically one of the youngest cities in Spain, it represents the culmination of the sweep of Spanish history. Felipe II moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid in 1561 just as the Spanish empire came into its own. Even today, Madrid remains the imperial heart of Spain, with the monumental architecture, royal palace, and regal art collection to prove it.

Barcelona, by contrast, is an ancient city with a mythic past. Founded by Romans, it has been a crossroads of Mediterranean cultures for 2,000 years. It rose to grandeur in the Middle Ages under the banner of the great warrior king Jaume I and became the capital of a far-flung Mediterranean empire. Nearly 8 centuries later, Barcelona’s pride in its independent Catalan heritage and language remains undiminished.

 

2. SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

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SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

This chapter is a guide to scheduling your stay in Madrid and Barcelona. In each city, we start with 1-, 2-, and 3-day itineraries to help you prioritize your time and set your pace. Even if you’re normally a go-go person, you will enjoy Spain more if you find a rhythm that lets you pause on a hot afternoon at a shady cafe for a lemon granizado or a glass of cava or duck into a taberna to escape the winter chill with a glass of vermut or a quick demitasse of dark coffee. These itineraries are flexible enough to let you do that—or pop into a shop if something in the window strikes your fancy.

In addition to daily routes that emphasize must-see attractions, we have also suggested itineraries for families and others that reveal unique aspects of the cities. So that you won’t miss anything, we have also included highlights from suggested side trips into the surrounding regions.

You can follow these itineraries to the letter, or you can use them as a point of departure for assembling your own personalized—even idiosyncratic—trip to Madrid and Barcelona. Think of the itineraries as modular building blocks that you can mix and match to suit your interests and the length of your trip. For example, you might want to follow up the 1-day tour of Madrid’s artistic treasures with a day devoted to Madrid for fashionistas. In Barcelona, after you have spent a day enjoying the visual delights of the Modernisme masterpieces in L’Eixample, you can satisfy your taste buds with a tour of gourmet highlights. And, of course, the itineraries can be combined to create your own approach to appreciating both cities.

 

3. MADRID & BARCELONA IN CONTEXT

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MADRID & BARCELONA IN CONTEXT

Different as they are, Madrid and Barcelona are both products of a land that the rest of Europe once considered beyond the pale. One of the few things that the French and English used to agree on was that “Europe ends at the Pyrenees.” In a sense, they were right, for the mountains kept Spain in splendid isolation, where it developed on its own path. It developed customs, art, architecture, and even cuisine that owed as much to Arabic North Africa as to its onetime sister provinces of the Roman Empire. Consequently, Spain does not look like, sound like, or even taste like the rest of Europe. Nowhere else is quite as rich, or quite as demanding. When you go to Spain, you must surrender to Spain.

You must accept the rhythms of daily life—so unlike the rest of Europe—and think nothing of going to dinner after 10pm and then closing down the flamenco bar after the 3am final set. You must spend the evening in a seafront promenade, walking and talking and nodding at the other walkers and talkers. You must not be bashful about elbowing your way to the bar, pointing at the tapas to order, and having your fill. For that matter, you must resolve to eat something new every day that you would otherwise spurn: blood sausage, roast suckling pig, squid in their own ink. In many places, shops and museums close in the heat of the afternoon, and you must be patient and while away the hours with lunch in a cool, shady courtyard. Do all that, and you will be ready for everything Spain will throw at you.

 

4. MADRID

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MADRID

You’ll never forget your first sight of Plaza Mayor. As you emerge from a shady stone portico into a vast sun-struck plaza, you are greeted by a very large and very royal equestrian statue of Felipe III. Surrounded by three-story buildings, Plaza Mayor seems the grandest imaginable stage set, where more than 200 balconies become regal box seats on the scene below. The perimeter is marked with the umbrellas of cafe tables that lure people to while away the afternoon over cold beers or strong coffees. Children race back and forth across the paving stones, flushing pigeons into flight. Travelers with backpacks lean against the plinth of the equestrian monument, eating ice cream. Plaza Mayor may be important—just look at its name, the Major Square—but more than that, it is alive.

It is Madrid in a nutshell. Spain’s capital is at once real (“ray-AL,” as the Spanish say “royal”) and real (as English speakers put it). Families row on the lake in Parque del Retiro where kings once staged mock naval battles. When football club Real Madrid wins a cup or league title, the players wrap their team scarves around the elegant Cibeles fountain. People recline in the grass on the green center strips of the paseos, the boulevards built to the king’s order. Dog-walkers with packs of canines strut past some of the greatest museums in the world. Tapas-hoppers make the rounds of bars beneath the sculpted visages of Spain’s great playwrights. And, yes, Felipe III continues to ignore the backpackers eating ice cream beneath him.

 

5. SIDE TRIPS FROM MADRID

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SIDE TRIPS FROM MADRID

Madrid is surrounded by legendary cities whose names echo down the ages in story and song. These were the frontier fortresses in the prolonged battle between the cross and the crescent for the body and soul of Iberia. As you approach these central Spanish cities, imagine that you are leading an invading army. After a long march across a flat plain with no place to hide, you finally reach the outskirts of Toledo, Cuenca, Segovia, Ávila, or Zamora. (Unfortified Salamanca is another story.) You crane your neck to look up at the walled fortress city high on the hill. Its defenders have been watching your approach for days, and their swords are ready. . . . It is the tale of central Spain written over and over—only the names of the invaders and defenders changed.

Whoever seized the plains of La Mancha or the hilltop cities always acted audaciously. Roman engineers channeled water from distant mountains to make Segovia bloom. Centuries later, a string of rulers named Alfonso and Sancho and Fernando plotted power in the name of a Christian god and fortified every high spot, giving the region its enduring name, Castilla, or land of castles. They carried the battle of the Reconquista from castle to castle across the searing center of the Iberian peninsula, mustering the military might, religious fervor, and brilliant scholarship that made them the most powerful rulers in this corner of Europe—and ultimately kings of Spain.

 

6. BARCELONA

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BARCELONA

The Catalan language has a verb that must have been invented for Barcelona. “Badar” translates (more or less) as to walk around with your mouth wide open in astonishment. You’ll be doing a lot of that in Barcelona. The city’s artists have always had a fantastical vision—from the gargoyles along the roofline of the cathedral, to Antoni Gaudí’s armored warrior chimneys on La Pedrera, to the surreal amoeboid sculptures of Joan Miró. (They’re on a roof, too.)

Barcelona really is an original, with its own unique history, language, gastronomy, and overall sense of style. When Madrid was still a dusty fortress village on the Río Manzanares, Barcelona was already a force to be reckoned with on the Mediterranean. It has been at the intersection of cultures—Iberian, Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, French, and Aragonese—for 2,000 years. Today it is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalunya, forever chafing to leave the federal fold of Spain but enjoying near-country status within the European Union.

 

7. SIDE TRIPS FROM BARCELONA

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SIDE TRIPS FROM BARCELONA

Barcelona may be the center of Catalunya’s galaxy, but three bright stars shine nearby, each reflecting and supplying a deeply Catalan experience. Tarragona to the south was the Roman capital of eastern Iberia, and its ruins have been respectfully assimilated into the modern city, creating a sense of timelessness that, in its own provincial way, rivals eternal Rome. Sitges, also to the south, is a beach resort that has grown up into a genuine city that offers art and culture to round out your stay when you’ve had enough sea, sand, and sun. Girona is perhaps the most intriguing of all—a Roman, Moorish, and medieval Catalan city of multi-layered cultural complexity accompanied by good hotels and a few great restaurants. Each is just a short train ride from Barcelona, but don’t be tempted to relegate them to day trips. Each of these cities is compelling enough to seduce you into overnight stays, and you might find any one of them so simpatico that you will want to stretch your visit longer.

 

8. PLANNING YOUR TRIP

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PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO SPAIN

Getting to Spain is relatively easy, especially for those who live in western Europe or in eastern North America. If all your documents are in order, you should clear Customs and Immigration smoothly. The staffs of entry ports into Spain often speak English, and they’ll usually speed you on your way.

GETTING THERE

By Plane

FROM THE U.S.    See “Essentials” in Madrid and Barcelona chapters.

FROM CANADA    Air Canada (www.aircanada.com; 888/247-2262) flies from Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to gateway cities in Europe, where code-share connections with Lufthansa continue to Madrid and Barcelona.

FROM THE U.K.    British Airways (www.britishairways.com; 0844-493-0787) and Iberia (www.iberia.com; 0870-609-0500 in London) are the two major carriers flying between London and Spain. The Midlands is served by flights from Manchester and Birmingham. British newspapers are filled with classified advertisements touting “slashed” fares to Spain. A travel agent can advise you on the best values at the intended time of your departure.

 

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