Art, food and flamenco, Barry Stone discovers passion, exuberance and splendour on a handcrafted journey through Spain, and saves the best till last.
A wondrous variety of gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture
It was on my last day of an eight-day Abercrombie & Kent journey through Spain when the oddest thing occurred to me. You know the phrase “saving the best till last”? For me growing up, it meant Dad devouring the steak on his dinner plate only when everything else was gone. “Saving the best till last”, he’d say. He wasn’t a huge traveller and never made it to Spain, and now that I was here I imagine he’d have had a tough time figuring out what to leave till last. Me? Well, I had no such problem. Here in the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, in the late afternoon of Day #8, I couldn’t think of a place in the world I’d rather be.
The past eight days had been heady ones for this architecture tragic which began in Barcelona, then north to the Basque country and the cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao, and finished here, in the capital Madrid that included a day trip to Toledo above the plains of La Mancha. If I’d spent a week crafting the itinerary myself, I doubt I could have done it any better. And this last afternoon in Madrid? Well, I’m getting to that...
We began in Barcelona, the city of that great Catalan-born architect Antoni Gaudí and home to so much of his work including the one-time residence Casa Batllo (1904), the wave-like apartments of Casa Milà (1906-1912), and the world’s most photographed church, his crowning glory the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s homage to everything Gothic and the ultimate expression of his own indomitable faith. No wonder he had the nickname ‘God’s Architect’.
Barcelona is all of this and more, including a wondrous variety of gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture and its angled corner buildings that give its broad intersections a rare feeling of urban openness. An hour west of the city, the Penedès wine country is gaining a worldwide reputation for the production of fine ‘new’ wines grown from imported vines. The Codorníu Winery, family-owned since 1551 and the nation’s oldest family run business, has a mindboggling 30 kilometres of tunnels beneath its rolling estate housing over 90 million bottles of cava, sparkling wines once known as Spanish champagne. The tunnels are a declared Monument of National Historical Artistic Merit.
Arriving in the Basque region of northern Spain we made for the culinary hotspot of San Sebastián on the Bay of Biscay. A city that has long punched above its gastronomic weight, it boasts a variety of Michelinstarred restaurants including Mugaritz, still holding its place in the world’s Top Ten restaurants after more than a decade, and the superb 3-starred Arzak, thought by many to be the nation’s finest restaurant specialising in New Basque Cuisine. Arzak has been owned by the same family for four generations, built in 1897 as a wine shop and tavern.
San Sebastián is known across Spain and the culinary world as the beating heart of the pintxos bar. Pintxos, from the verb ‘to pierce’, is the art of skewering an endless variety of food – from anchovies and diced garlic to cod, stuffed peppers and croquettes – onto bread. Virtually anything can be affixed to a pintxo, and a night spent roaming from one pintxos bar to another is a night well spent.
A night spent roaming from one pintxos bar to another is a night well spent
No visit to the Basque country is complete without seeing Bilbao, the region’s largest city and home to one of the world’s architectural marvels, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Now more famous than the contemporary works it houses, the museum was described by the architect Philip Johnson as “the greatest building of our time” and has single-handedly breathed new life into what was once a decaying port district full of long-since abandoned factories. The transformation the museum has wrought upon its immediate neighbourhood and the almost exponential increase in tourist numbers Bilbao has experienced since the museum’s opening in 1997 has been so profound that town planners the world over have even given it a name. They call it “The Bilbao Effect”.
The Spanish capital Madrid was our last stop and our first night included a spine-tingling visit to Casa Patas, a flamenco venue in Madrid’s ethnically diverse Lavapies district. Established in 1985 it was filled to overflowing with a mostly local audience who had an intimate knowledge and appreciation of the cante (singing), palmas (hand clapping), toque (guitar playing) and zapataedo (the feet of the dancers) that are the four essential ingredients of this mesmerising dance. The night was almost revelatory to me, a display of Spanish pride and passion that should not be missed, experienced in the sort of tucked away place that our A&K guide seemed so adept at finding.
A display of Spanish pride and passion that should not be missed
The next day when the guide, whose knowledge on everything Spanish bordered on the encyclopaedic, asked me what I would most like to see on our last day, I could reply with only one word, my definition of “saving the best till last”. “I’d like to see Guernica”, I replied.
Pablo Picasso painted Guernica, his stinging rebuke to Germany’s bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, in 1937. Criticised in its day for being too abstract, it’s now considered by many to be the finest painting of the 20th century. Secure in a room all its own inside the Reina Sofía Museum, formerly a 17th century hospital now home to one of the world’s premier collections of avant-garde art including multiple works by Dalí, Miró and Kandinsky, Guernica’s grey/white/black palette of inspired abstraction remains to this day one of the world’s most potent anti-war images.
Beyond ‘Guernica’ there is, of course, much to see here. Madrid has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites within a day’s drive than any other city in the world, and the city itself has the Royal Palace, the Prado Museum, the Basilica of St Francis the Great, and of course its wonderful boulevard, the Gran Via.
And there’s also the splendour that is nearby Toledo, once inhabited by Romans and Visigoths, which spreads itself over a hillside above the looping Tagus River. Few cities in Spain better tell that uniquely Spanish story of La Convivencia, ‘The Coexistence’ better than Toledo, a synthesis of art, culture and religious pluralism for hundreds of years, and so is a microcosm of everything that is Spanish: diversity, tolerance, exuberance, and a philosophy of living that makes it - and Spain - a beacon of hope in an increasingly troubled world.