Joins the locals, who wake up late and stay up even later.
The sun never seems to set in Spain. Even when it gets dark, the Spanish eat, drink and live. ‘‘Wake up late, stay out late’’, seems to be their mantra. The days are endless and blend into one long week of wine, platters and people. The country houses everything good Europe has to offer – from its culture to its coastline, it’s a traveller’s dream. My week began in Barcelona, the iconic and colourful city on the west coast of the Mediterranean, and ended in mighty Madrid.
Through tired eyes, Barcelona shone. Walking down La Rambla – the pedestrian precinct – the stonewashed buildings and trees look like pastel paintings. Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces stand out against the other buildings, helped by the group of tourists typically swarming underneath them.
The jewel in Barcelona’s crown is Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Roman Catholic basilica which embodies all Gaudi was. It towers above the city like a jagged honeycomb. Inside, you stand in a kaleidoscope of colour.
The immense height of the building mixed with the light shining through the stained-glass windows creates a rainbow wash throughout the church. Like most things in Europe, if you are wanting to go alone then it’s vital to pre-book your tickets. There are countless cathedrals in Spain, but Sagrada Familia is the Eiffel Tower of them all. It’s a must-visit, even if it is just to look at the exterior.
When it comes to food, the local markets peppered around the city are ideal for tasting homegrown produce. The quality of food varies depending on where you go. I would follow the locals, not the visitors, when it comes to picking your market. There are more cheeses to turn a vegan, and beautiful dried meats which would tempt the strongest vegetarian.
The culinary scene morphs between regions, and sometimes between streets. In Northern Spain pinchos are the go-to dish. Little bite-sized meals, they are packed with flavour and history. A cloudy glass of white or wheat beer is always good company to wash back the morsel.
In Logrono, four hours inland from Barcelona, we darted between pinchos bars, trying the different food the locals had on offer. Each bend in the street led to another jam-packed bar of punters wanting their potato bravos, pork sausage or the next pint.
When it comes to wine, the Spanish know their stuff. Having your first drink of red with breakfast isn’t abnormal. But if you think the whole country is half-cut by lunchtime, you’re wrong. They savour their wine, maybe having two glasses max with their food. As one Australian expat put it, ‘‘People drink, but people don’t do drunk. It is seen as very disrespectful.’
Red wine is Spain’s strength – it is never-ending, cheap, and tasty. Not being a wine connoisseur, I went with what looked good. A wine maker in Laguardia gave some good advice: ‘‘It doesn’t matter about the wine, what matters is the company.’’
In Spain, if the company is bad, the view usually makes up for it. Laguardia is a great place to taste wine in northern Spain. The ancient walled town sits atop a hill near Logrono, but it’s what is underneath which is fascinating. Wine cellars are scattered throughout the whole town, with some of the original wine-making families still selling vino tinto out of them.
About three hours away in the Bay of Biscay lies San Sebastian, a must-visit for anyone in the north of Spain. At sunset, the city is drenched in a yellow glow. The views above the city are stunning, but so is the view from the bars along the seaside.
The Spanish seem to be able to improve everything – including gin and tonics. They serve them in halfa-litre glasses with huge ice cubes and a hunk of lemon. Sunset is improved with one of these in your hand.
Spain, like any destination is better enjoyed without days of jet lag. Within 23 hours of leaving Auckland, I had touched down on European soil. I flew Cathay Pacific – the airline flies five times a week to Madrid and three times a week to Barcelona. Its new Airbus A350 is its best carrier, and often covers the journey to Europe. With a connecting flight from Hong Kong, there was time to shower, eat and refresh before embarking on the second leg to Spain.
Getting around the country may prove tricky. I was on an Intrepid Travel tour, which made everything a breeze. The company organises food, transport, and experiences. They avoid the ‘‘touristy’’ attractions, and try to give an authentic taste of what Spain is like. Having a local guide with you the whole time is also invaluable. The less time trying to order your meal in bad Spanish, the better.
While some come to Spain to do the famous pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela, others make their way to Madrid. Santiago Bernabeu, the home stadium of Real Madrid, is the holy ground for millions of football fans, but there is more to the city than stadiums.
An Urban Adventures Walking Tour is a great investment. The guides uncover some of the cooler things the city has to offer – such as the Corpus Christi Convent. The convent still sells traditional sweets made by the secretive nuns inside. The nuns never leave the convent, but bake treats they