They may be neighbors, but Spain and Portugal offer a range of cities & experiences that are as different as hola & olá.
By the age of 20, thanks to my parents’ generosity and push to expand my understanding of the world, I had traveled to the top four European hotspots visited by most Americans. I lived in England for six months, studied in France for a summer and Eurailed for nearly a month through Italy and Germany. I hit Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden as well. But Spain eluded me, as it would for another 10 years. I had wanted to go — the temptation of sunny shores, nightlife that extended to dawn, and iconic art and architecture certainly beckoned — but time ran out, bankrolled world exploration stopped, and my true adult life started.
Nevertheless, Spain and Portugal, remained at the top of my travel list. The promise of two colorful cultures rich in dancing, architecture, wine and cuisine; and afternoon naps sounded like the next ticket to book. Though the two countries remain distinct, their shared border and nearly 900 years of intermingled history have set them up to be experienced in a single vacation. Insight Vacations pairs the two on nine-day (Amazing Spain & Portugal) up to 18-day (Grand Spain & Portugal) itineraries. No matter the time you have, the cities and towns that follow, and the experiences tied to them, are the ones you should be sure to visit. I haven’t personally explored them all yet, but I’ve begun stamping my passport along the Iberian Peninsula.
Exploring Spain and Portugal
Seville: The Heart of Flamenco
Arriving in this vibrant, kinetic city in mid-summer, I was struck by its color — fuchsia bougainvillea climbing over walls, blue and yellow tiles curving across archways, and red dresses swirling among the legs of flamenco dancers. The roots of flamenco originated here, in southern Spain, and after a day of sightseeing, a dinner show proves a welcome conclusion. The dancers clap and stomp their way onto the stage, but flamenco is more than a dance; it’s the artistic fusion of song, music and dance. Each passionate set expresses emotion: joy, sadness, anger or desire. Flamenco has made UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and sitting in the audience, rapt by the expression of the guitar, the richness of a baritone and the impossible speed of the dancers’ feet, it’s easy to understand why.
Granada: The Mark of the Moors
A three-hour drive east from Seville brings travelers to Granada and to one of the Andalusian region’s highlights: the Alhambra palace. From a distance, this grand fortress looks like a fairytale castle with its crenellated walls and battlements. But inside, a different architecture story unfolds. The 14th-century palace complex’s tiled accents and lacy stonework reveal its Moorish origins. Many a visitor has whiled away a day appreciating the incredible craftsmanship that went into building the home and defense for the last Muslims to rule in Spain. Taken as a whole, it’s one of the world’s finest examples of Islamic art.
Gibraltar: Just Monkeying Around
Technically part of Britain, but easily accessed from the tip of Andalusia near the Strait of Gibraltar, Gibraltar is hard to pass up…so I went. For me, it was all about the Barbary Macaques. At the top of the famous rock, gorgeous views extend down the Spanish coast and to the mountains of Morocco. Immediately below, blue waves lap at one side; development and an air strip dominate the other. The apes, wild, yet tolerant of humans, act like a kind of welcoming committee. Although the days of feeding them have passed, like Pavlov’s dogs, they remember. Unafraid, a few will come close, hoping for a treat. On the day I visited, one could not get enough of my curly, reddish hair. It sat near my shoulder fingering my locks, as if it played with them gently enough I would produce a piece of fruit. I just giggled (and savored that unforgettable moment).
Lisbon: A Sweet City
The journey into Portugal cuts through oak forests where black Iberian pigs are bred for jamón Ibérico (Spanish ham that you definitely want to try) and across the Alentejo plateau before reaching Lisbon. Like southern Spain, the Moorish influence is visible here but so are the Baroque touches of the 18th century. A walk along the avenues of the Lower Town and the cobblestone streets of the hilltop Bairro Alto to Terreiro do Paco puts 2,000 years of history into visual perspective. With the 500-year old Jeronimos Monastery, nearby 16th-century Belem Tower and St. George’s Castle available to tour, travelers find plenty of attractions to keep them busy. The one experience not to miss, however, is one for the tastebuds: pastéis de nata, aka pastéis de Belém. These sweet egg custards have been around for roughly 200 years and pair deliciously with meia de leite, coffee with milk.
Fatima: A Necessary Pilgrimage
Portugal’s Catholic ties are strong, in part because they are bound to this town found in the hills north of Lisbon. In a field in Fatima outside of Aljustrel just over 100 years ago, three children claim the Virgin Mary first appeared to them. She would appear multiple more times, at one point requesting a chapel to be built in her honor. Today, the Sanctuary of Fatima commemorates the Blessed Mother and honors her appearance and message. It draws pilgrims particularly in May and October, the first and last months of the visions, but the shrine welcomes visitors year-round. Even atheists or visitors of different faiths can appreciate the grandeur and symbolism of the shrine, which consists of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, recognized by its tower, and the Chapel of Apparitions, built exactly where the children were told to do so.
Barcelona: A Hub of Art
The capital of Catalonia and Spain’s second-largest city (behind Madrid) feels very different than the rest of the country. It buzzes with a contemporary, European vibe, which comes from locals looking beyond Spain’s shores for inspiration and longing to be their own country. That streak of independence has nurtured Spanish artists, many who landed in Barcelona and created some of their most notable works. Witness Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, likely the most recognizable landmark in the city. It’s expected to be completed by 2028. Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro also landed here; browsing their museums can easily fill a day. If while walking around you notice murals featuring colorful fish with big grins, you’re admiring the work of street artist El Pez. And don’t worry if you feel like you’re lingering too long while admiring the art. You won’t be late for dinner. Barcelona is known for its nightlife, which begins with dinner at 8 p.m. (still considered a bit early) followed by drinks and dancing until the clubs start jumping about midnight.
Check Spain and Portugal off your travel list this year! Call 800-750-5386 or visit your local AAA Travel office today!
(Traveler Winter 2019)