These recommendations are taken from our Andalucia  guidebook, which is full of inspirational ideas & detailed coverage for foodies, walkers & culture lovers. 1. Alhambra — Imagine yourself in Islamic-era splendour The sheer red walls of the Alhambra rise from woods of cypress and elm. Inside is one of the more splendid sights of Europe, a network of lavishly decorated palaces and irrigated gardens. The Alhambra takes its name from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle). The first palace on the site was built by Samuel Ha-Nagid, the Jewish grand vizier of one of Granada’s 11th-century Zirid sultans. After the Christian reconquest, the Alhambra’s mosque was replaced with a church. What you see today has been heavily but respectfully restored. 2. Seville‘s Cathedral & Giralda —The home of God: built by the hands of lunatics Seville’s immense cathedral, officially the biggest in the world, is awe-inspiring in its scale and sheer majesty. It stands on the site of the great 12th-century Almohad mosque, with the mosque’s minaret (the Giralda) still towering beside it. After Seville fell to the Christians in 1248 the mosque was used as a church until 1401. Then, in view of its decaying state, the church authorities decided to knock … Continue reading Architectural sights of Andalucía

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Location: El Real de la Feria, Seville, Spain Dates: Two weeks after Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) Level of participation: 3 – you won’t be able to get into most casetas, but there are enough public tents to compensate A jolly postscript to sombre Semana Santa, the Feria de Abril is the biggest and most colourful of all Andalucía’s ferias (festivals). If the name suggests pie bake-offs and apple bobbing, it’s misleading, for the Feria de Abril promises a week of full-blown partying. Southwest of the city centre, the open area of El Real de la Feria morphs into a temporary tent city containing around 1000 casetas (brightly striped tents), and such is the demand for tents, there’s talk of moving the fair to a larger space at the Expo ’92 site. Most casetas are private affairs erected by clubs, associations, families and groups of friends. It can feel a bit Secret Squirrel to an outsider, but these private parties are the essence of the Feria de Abril. Never fear, however, for there are also around 15 free public casetas where much the same fun goes on. One of the more popular of these is Er … Continue reading Feria de Abril: a guide to Seville’s glorious festival

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Barcelona is a great city for bar-hopping. Should you feel like sipping a beer in an enchanted forest surrounded by wood-nymphs; if mid-week karaoke watched over by images of the Virgin Mary appeals, or if pink cava and sausage butties are your idea of the breakfast of champions, we bring you glad tidings. In Barcelona you will find all of these things, along with all the more conventional options you would expect to find in a city of this size.  A few things to bear in mind: if you head out much before 9.30pm, you’ll be drinking alone, and forget the notion of rounds – in all but tourist joints (where you pay as you go), you’ll pay up at the end. A Spanish peculiarity is the system in pintxo (tapas on a slice of bread, held in place with a toothpick) bars, whereby you help yourself, but keep the toothpicks on your place and they are tallied up at the end. In most bars it’s perfectly fine to throw your screwed up napkins (which are more like cigarette papers, anyway, and about as absorbent) on the floor, along with your olive pits. Tapas tours Though Catalunya doesn’t really have a … Continue reading The Barcelona bar-hop: the city’s best places to drink

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Location: Barcelona, Spain Dates: four days around 24 September. 20-24 Sept 2013. Level of participation: 2 – join the Catalan party as Barcelona is overrun with giants, devils and human pyramids The Catalan capital’s festa major, a final burst of pre-winter madness for the Mediterranean city, is dedicated to its co-patron saint, the Virgin of Mercy. Nostra Senyora de la Mercè, whose image lies in the church of the same name on Plaça de la Mercè, was named co-patron after she single-handedly beat off a plague of locusts in 1637! Then in 1714, as Barcelona faced defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession, the obviously desperate town elders appointed her commander in chief of the city’s defences. Some 600 events take place, most of them in the city centre. There’s a swimming race across the harbour, a fun run and a series of free concerts. Adding to the local colour are the essential ingredients of all self-respecting Catalan festivals: sardana (folk dancing from northern Catalonia) and parades of gegants (giants), dancing in synch with the costumed groups carrying them. Brave combatants known as castellers compete to form the highest human pyramid; the towers rise up to eight storeys high. The … Continue reading Festes de la Mercè (Festival of the Virgin of Mercy) – world’s best festivals

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There are few places on earth as festive-feeling as Barcelona’s chocolate-box medieval heart over the Christmas period (which here runs until Epiphany, or Twelfth Night). Even the narrowest of alleyways are bathed in the glow of coloured lights, and entire families step out together to soak up the atmosphere, gaze at the huge nativity scene in Plaça Sant Jaume, and snack on cones of fragrant chestnuts roasted on braziers set up in the streets. The ice-rink in Plaça Catalunya is the big draw for children, and has a tiny practice rink for learners. Shopping The main shopping streets – Passeig de Gràcia and the Rambla de Catalunya in the Eixample, Portal de l’Angel in the Barri Gòtic – are especially lively, and sumptuously adorned, at this time of year, but for real atmosphere, head to the Fira de Santa Llúcia, the Christmas market that sprawls around the Gothic cathedral. Look out for the caganer (the ‘crapper’), whose tiny squatting presence in every nativity scene ensures good luck in the year to come. You’ll also see the caga tió (‘crapping log’ – are you seeing a pattern yet?), a stout branch leaning on two legs, one end painted with a smiley … Continue reading A local’s guide to Christmas and New Year in Barcelona

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The wassailing of Christmas and New Year is over, but in Spain the best is yet to come, with the advent (or – more precisely – Epiphany) of the Three Kings on January 5th and all the associated festivities.  After that the city winds right down and you’ll find quiet, tourist-free streets, empty stools at your favourite bar, museums to yourself, and, best of all, the bluest skies of the entire year. Swan Lake Forty ballerinas from the Russian National Ballet, along with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, come together to perform the magical Swan Lake in the plush environs of the Gran Teatre del Liceu for three days only. Tickets are selling out fast, so book as early as you can, and don’t forget to dress the part. When: 1st, 4th & 5th January Where: Gran Teatre del Liceu More info: liceubarcelona.cat Palo Alto A new monthly venture from Barcelona’s ever-growing band of youthful and hip ethical gourmands. Expect food stalls from Slow Foodies, craft beer breweries, single-origin coffee aficionados and the best ethnic eateries around the city, as well as kooky fashion and plenty of vinyl. Set in the rather lovely gardens of the Palo Alto industrial complex. When: … Continue reading Top 10 things to do in Barcelona this January

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You could spend weeks in Barcelona and never run out of places to see, things to do, food to try and bars to hop. But for a taste of Catalan life beyond the metropolis – or simply for a change of pace – you can choose between mountains, beaches and pretty little towns, all just a short ride away. Girona Girona’s old town is a tight huddle of ancient arcaded houses, grand churches and sloped cobbled streets, with the grand cathedral looming over it. Until the virtual expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Girona was home to a huge Jewish community and the Museu d’Història dels Jueus de Girona tells their story. For a different slice of history, the 12th-centuryBanys Àrabs  (‘Arab Baths’) are also worth a visit, as is the pretty, Romanesque Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants. Stroll along the River Onyar to look at the colourfully painted houses that flank it, or to reach the newer part of town, where you’ll find some excellent tapas bars. If your pockets are deep enough, Girona also has one of the world’s best restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca. Figueres Figueres  has some handsome Modernista architecture, a sprawling 18th-century castle (Castell de Sant … Continue reading Top 10 day trips out of Barcelona

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Barcelona rarely pauses for breath. Year round the city rushes from one party to the next, from international music festivals to traditional street parties. Whether live music, fireworks, parades or alfresco dancing is your bag, its worth checking the calendar before booking your flights. Dia dels Reis/Kings’ Day (January) The big event of the festive season is Epiphany, known here as Kings’ Day, in which a lengthy cavalcade of floats drifts around the city, spreading bonhomie and boiled sweets in equal measure. Children hand in their wishlists to the elves and, if all goes well, wake up to a stack of presents on January 6, a public holiday. Setmana Santa (Holy Week – March/April) On Palm Sunday you can see people lining up to have their palm branches blessed outside the cathedral, while on Good Friday you can follow the floats and hooded penitents in processions from the Església de Sant Agustí, reminiscent of southern Spain’s festivities. Primavera Sound (May) The city’s indie festival par excellence, with four days of big-name acts that in 2015 include Patti Smith, OMD, The Strokes, Ride, Alt-J, The Black Keys and dozens more. There are also associated concerts around the city, some of them … Continue reading The year in Barcelona fiestas

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One of the great things about Barcelona is the local habit of including children in many seemingly adult activities. Going out to eat or sipping a beer at a terrazza (terrace) needn’t mean leaving children behind. Barcelonins take their kids out all the time and don’t worry too much about keeping them up late. The spectacle of La Rambla fascinates kids as much as adults. By day and night, multitudes stream along this tree-lined pedestrian boulevard (flanked by two clogged traffic lanes), a stage for street performers (from flamenco dancers to fire-eaters and more human statues than you could knock over in one go), pickpockets, three-cups-and-a-ball tricksters and more. Fun for all the family! Bird’s-eye Barcelona Assuming your kids aren’t scared of heights, head to the top of theMonument a Colom for dazzling views of the harbour; or catch theTransbordador Aeri cable car across the harbour from La Barceloneta to Montjuïc, another irresistible attraction. Water world The L’Aquàrium‘s 80m-long shark tunnel, 11,000 fish and special children’s activities are a guaranteed hit with the nippers. Outside there is an old-fashioned carousel and a replica of the prototype submarine the Ictineo, which was designed by a Catalan. Take a harbour tour from Port … Continue reading Barcelona with children

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It’s said that nothing is impossible. This is wrong. It’s impossible to lay eyes on San Sebastián(Donostia in Basque) and not fall madly in love. This stunning city is everything that grimy Bilbaois not: cool, svelte and flirtatious by night, charming and well mannered by day. Best of all is the summer fun on the beach. For its setting, form and attitude, Playa de la Concha is the equal of any city beach in Europe. Then there’s Playa de Gros, with its surfers and sultry beach-goers. As the sun falls on another sweltering summer’s day, you’ll sit back with a drink and an artistic pintxo (snack) and realise that yes, you too are in love with sexy San Sebastián. You can walk to the top of Monte Urgull, at the tip of town, surrounded by low castle walls that circle a grand statue of Christ, where the views are breathtaking. To the west, Monte Igueldo dominates the skyline and the views from the summit will make you feel like a circling hawk staring over the vast panorama of the crescent-shaped Bahía de la Concha and the surrounding coastline and mountains. The best way to get there is via the old-world … Continue reading Summer lovin’ in San Sebastián

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The story of two thousand years is etched into its Roman remains, Gothic churches and Modernista mansions (especially the dreamlike landmark buildings of Antoni Gaudí). The assault on the senses intensifies in Barcelona’s restaurants, boisterous bars and clubs. In summer, beaches in and outside the city are a magnet for sun-worshippers. Get a base in the old city centre at such budget options as Pensió 2000 or Chic & Basic. For greater elegance and a touch of luxury, tryHotel Neri in the Barri Gòtic or Hotel 1898 on La Rambla. Morning Start the day early with a cafè amb llet (coffee and milk) and pastry on Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol, a charming old town square in the heart of the Barri Gòtic. Suitably energised, it is time to explore the labyrinth of twisting lanes around about. You could spend hours simply losing yourself in streets lined by an endless variety of shops, eateries and little bars. Although much regenerated in recent decades, the ‘Gothic Quarter’ still exudes a lived-in atmosphere that makes it anything but an outdoor museum. Museums there are, however, and the most intriguing is the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum), in which you are led underground and … Continue reading Barcelona day trips

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Barcelona has enough to keep the most voracious of culture vultures and self-indulgent of gourmands happy for weeks, but all those entry fees and tapas bills can mount up. Fortunately, help is at hand with a variety of ways to make your holiday budget stretch a little further. In addition to the free activities and sights below, you can also save on transport by investing in a T10 travel card, which allows you 10 journeys within the city on any form of public transport. 1. Free museums on Sundays Some city-run museums (including the Museu Picasso, MUHBA) are free on Sunday afternoons, from 3pm to 8pm. Others are also free on one given day of the month, often the first Wednesday or Sunday – check individual websites for details. 2. Time your visit for a festival If you’re here late September don’t miss the five-day Festes de la Mercè, which brings the city to life with free concerts, dancing, fireworks, acrobatic feats and lively correfocs (colourful parades of drums, devils and firecrackers). Or try the summer extravaganza Festa Major de Gràcia, best known for its competition of decorated streets, but with a packed programme of free outdoor concerts. 3. Saunter up La Rambla It’s … Continue reading 18 free things to do in Barcelona

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Girona may play second-fiddle to its better known Catalan counterpart, Barcelona, but this walkable city makes a perfect weekend destination in its own right. Its narrow medieval streets hold historical treasures from every era, along with a lively selection of quirky bars and superb restaurants. Locals have long known Girona as the  ‘City of 1,000 Sieges’, but no one could quite have predicted the latest siege, the headspinning influx of international journalists, gourmands and TV aficionados as HBO announced that parts of the sixth season of Game of Thrones would be shot in the city. Shortly afterwards, triple-Michelin-starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca was once again crowned World’s Best Restaurant in the prestigious San Pellegrino awards. We’ve rounded up our favourite cafes and quaint corners of this charming city together in a compact itinerary perfect for a weekend. Day 1 Morning Start the day with breakfast at La Fábrica (lafabrica.cc), a self-styled ‘coffee works and cycle cafe’ in a high-ceilinged space of stone, brick and wood. La Fábrica sits at the edge of the ‘Call’, Girona’s Jewish quarter, which was home to 1,000 Jews prior to their expulsion in 1492. Stroll down to the narrow, cobbled Calle Força, which bisects this area and was … Continue reading 48 hours in Girona

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The bar counter groans with a smorgasbord of finger-friendly food art; the room is thick with chatter from the hungry patrons; the txakolí (local white wine) is being poured artfully from a height into squat Basque tumblers in a manner only Basque waiters can master; and the custard-coloured beach calls for a spot of post-lunch napping. This is San Sebastián, a petite city that is the provincial capital of Spain’s Gipuzkoa region, and a culinary capital to rival any on the planet.   Anybody who needs to eat (in other words everybody), needs to visit this city at least once. Gastronomy, from the most basic pintxos (Basque tapas) to home cooking and Michelin-starred fine dining, courses through San Sebastián’s veins. Many locals belong to a gastronomic society, the Basque equivalent of a Masonic lodge, but with social cooking rather than strange handshakes as their raison d’être. And so it is that a love of food comes naturally to the charismatic Basque who are lucky enough to call this northern Spanish coastal town home. With such credentials it’s little wonder that the city and its surrounding villages currently boast 17 Michelin stars. In 2016 San Sebastián also takes on the mantle of European Capital … Continue reading 24 food-filled hours in San Sebastián

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The Camino de Santiago might be Spain’s most revered long-distance footpath, luring romantics, masochists and lost souls in search of spiritual enlightenment; but, with over a quarter of a million walkers now tackling the trek annually, it’s hardly off the beaten track. For a more tranquil experience, decamp instead to the GR7, southern Spain’s less-trodden camino, where you can roam alone above wispy clouds before descending for quiet nights in pilgrim-free villages. The gran recorridos of Spain The first of Spain’s gran recorridos (great tours) to be officially marked out in 1974, the GR7 runs 1900km from Tarifa on Spain’s southern tip to the Pyrenees on the border with France, whereupon it continues as the E4 footpath all the way to Greece. Of its many bite-sized sections doable in a week, few are as wondrous or user-friendly as the passage across the southern flank of Andalucia’s Sierra Nevada and through the canyons and white villages of Las Alpujarras. The magnetism of Las Alpujarras – aside from the monolithic mountain scenery – lies in the region’s unusual Islamic heritage. This was the last refuge of the Moors in Spain. Long after Boabdil, Granada’s final Nasrid sultan, capitulated to the Catholic monarchs in … Continue reading Hiking the Alpujarras, southern Spain’s less-travelled path

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Seville’s identity is congenitally linked to Triana, a soulful neighbourhood on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River whose past is littered with stories of sailors, ceramicists, matadors, flamenco singers, Roma rebels and religious zealots. Crammed onto a virtual island between two branches of the Guadalquivir River, Triana has long been Seville’s ‘outsider’ enclave, its strong working-class affiliations shaped by a tumultuous history. Until the 1850s, the district was linked to the rest of the city by a single floating bridge and labelled extramuros (outside the walls) by Seville’s authorities, a place where ‘undesirables’ were sent to live. But modern-day visitors can experience the tenacious soul of Triana, one of Seville’s most fascinating neighbourhoods. The infamy of the Spanish Inquisition Triana’s infamy grew in 1481 when the seat of the Inquisition Court was set up by the Catholic Monarchs in the Castillo de San Jorge on the banks of the Guadalquivir. For over 300 years the castle acted as a court and prison for religious ‘deviants’ accused of heresy. Unscrupulous punishments were meted out inside. When the Inquisition was finally extinguished in the early 1800s, the castle was demolished and a market built over its foundations. But the ghosts of the … Continue reading Soulful Triana: history, flamenco and festivals in Seville’s quintessential neighbourhood

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One of the world’s most visited cities, Barcelona is likely on your bucket list to visit or re-visit. But all that attention has a cost. As this Catalonian capital (population 1.6 million) hosts a steady influx of tourists (up to 27 million annually), it also ushers in myriad environmental problems. Luckily, there are ways you can make your trip an ecofriendly one. Increased city council investment in ecofriendly transport, combined with a focus on sustainability in restaurants and accommodation, is good news for responsible travellers. Here’s how to feel even better about indulging in tapas and Tempranillo, Gaudí and Gothic architecture, while respecting Barcelona’s status as the first city in the world to gain Biosphere certification (2011), recognition of its commitment to be a sustainable tourism destination. Sustainable eating Tourists flock to Barcelona for its tapas scene, but if you’d prefer to rub shoulders with the person who grew the succulent tomatoes you’re eating, or if you want to know how and why your produce came to be at the table, there is an increasing number of places with a healthy ethos. Look out for ‘slow food’ restaurants that buy directly from local providers (within a radius of 100km) and use … Continue reading An ecofriendly weekend in Barcelona

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One of the great football powerhouses of today, FC Barcelona has always been ‘més que un club’ (‘more than a club’). This motto, coined back in 1968, does a fine job evoking the deeper sense of Catalan identity that so many Barcelonins feel when the blaugranes (blue and scarlet) take the field. Seeing a game is the quintessential highlight, but there are many other ways to experience Barcelona as a fan – whether celebrating at a city landmark after a big win, or exploring an infamous sight where history was made. Seeing a Game A pilgrimage site for football fans from around the world, Camp Nou is hallowed grounds. The size is staggering – with a near 100,000-seat capacity, this is one of the largest football stadiums on earth – and during matches, the roar of the crowd, is awe-inspiring. These days, Catalan pride runs high, with fans waving banderas independentistas(independence flags) and giving added resonance to the lines of the club anthem: ‘mai ningú no ens podrá tòrcer!’ (‘we can never be defeated!’). You can purchase tickets at the stadium online (checkwww.fcbarcelona.com/info-tickets/things-to-do-in-barcelona) and at key locations around the city, including tourist offices. Tickets can cost anywhere from €39 to … Continue reading Tackle Barcelona like a true Barça fan

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Basque Country, in case you haven’t heard, isn’t like the rest of Spain. Proudly perched on the northern Atlantic coast, near the border of France, the fabled region – locally known as Euskadi or País Vasco – has its own language, its own culinary traditions, and a distinctive geographic and cultural landscape. From fairy tale-like villages and modern architectural landmarks to world-class food and wine, here are ten reasons you should add Euskadi to your travel to-do list. Capital of Culture You shouldn’t need extra motivation to visit San Sebastián – the impossibly lovely seaside metropolis is widely considered one of the best places to eat in the world – but this year, the city was awarded the coveted title of European Capital of Culture (along with Wroclaw, Poland). This designation brings with it a packed calendar of events and activities set to enliven the city throughout the year, from concerts and film festivals to art exhibitions, live performances of opera and theatre, creative workshops and courses, and children’s programming. Explore the city and its cultural offerings on two wheels: the bicycle is the festival’s official mode of transportation. Wining and dining Food & Wine magazine reported a fascinating statistic: … Continue reading 10 reasons to visit Basque Country

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Often overlooked and underrated Extremadura is, in fact, one of Spain’s most fascinating regions, a mix of world-changing history and contemporary culinary delights. This Portuguese-border-hugging homeland of many a conquistador is a place where the past lingers. Venture here and you’ll uncover time-warped old towns, rickety castles, serene monasteries, beautiful countryside and mouthwatering regional cuisine. Our seven-day itinerary assumes you’ll be setting off for Extremadurafrom Madrid, from which it’s three hours’ (300km) drive southwest to Cáceres. You could also start from Seville and travel north, or fromSalamanca, and head south. The best months for exploring are April, May and September. Though it’s possible to access most of these destinations by bus or train, travelling by car gives you significantly more freedom and flexibility. Day 1: magical Cáceres Whether it’s the Plaza Mayor’s urban buzz or the mellow strum of a guitar along the twisting streets of the evocative World Heritage-listed Ciudad Monumental (Monumental City), Cáceres has its own magical atmosphere. Plunge into the old town through the 18th-century Arco de la Estrellaand breakfast at artsy Los Siete Jardines. Wander past the intricate stone-cut exteriors of grand Renaissance mansions and palaces and explore the Plazas de Santa María, San Jorge and San Mateo. The excellent … Continue reading Unexplored Spain: roadtripping around Extremadura

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Extremadura has always been one of the least-known regions in one of Europe’s best-known countries. But things are stirring out here in the west, and Extremadura is appearing on the radar of discerning travellers eager to explore Spain without the stereotypes.   Extremadura’s many attractions have an ageless quality. Spain’s best Roman ruins dominate the city of Mérida; medieval jewels like Trujillo andCáceres resemble Tuscan hill towns without the crowds; while the Parque Nacional de Monfragüe is a dramatic natural gorge with abundant birdlife. Extremadura also produces some of Spain’s most celebrated cheeses andjamón. Building on this extraordinary foundation, Extremadura’s restored old palaces and formidable castles are re-opening to the public; a spell as Spain’s official gastronomic capital in 2015 bequeathed to Cáceres numerous new restaurants and tapas bars; and the regional government’s plans to subsidise flights into Badajoz promise to make Extremadura that much more accessible.

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