Travel Edition 2019: Spain and Portugal
When you get just one taste of something so delicious that you can’t shake it for 11 years, you know you need to go back for another bite. I had traveled throughout much of Europe, but Spain and Portugal had never been that high on my “must-see” list. Then I got a taste of Barcelona. What an appetizer! You could make a sensory banquet of this vibrant city that reminds me a little of Paris, with its wide boulevards and grand architecture. The energy I felt, and the rich textures of Spanish and Catalan culture made me hungry for more of what the Iberian Peninsula had on its menu of lifetime experiences.
The Monumental Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is one of the most accomplished monuments of Moorish architecture and is located in the Andalusia region of Spain. Courtesy of Sally Jacobs
Wherever I travel, I seek out the authentic. Thankfully, in Spain and Portugal you can still find it with relative ease, and one place it’s on vivid display is Toledo. It was May, and I was strolling the narrow and atmospheric alleys of “The City of Three Cultures,” so called for its mosaic of Christian, Jewish and Muslim heritage. Every year, as it has since the 15th century, Toledo was preparing for the feast of Corpus Christi, one of the most important religious festivals in all of Spain, celebrated 60 days after Easter. I wouldn’t be there for the festival itself, but in a way, I was already experiencing it. More than a month before the festival’s culminating street procession, the route comes alive with some of its sights, and even its smells. Pennants, banners and flags from the 16th and 17th centuries decorate walls and balconies, and the air is filled with the scent of herbs. It was like strolling through an al fresco museum of art, architecture and history that didn’t cost me a single Euro.
Don’t skip Portugal
AAA Colorado Travel Agent Sally Jacobs, poses by the Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls) in Porto, Portugal. Courtesy of Sally Jacobs
With so much to experience in Spain, some travelers skip Portugal, and that’s a shame. I wouldn’t say Portugal’s towns are sleepy, but many of them have a quieter atmosphere that can be quite welcome. Americans only now seem to be discovering that Portugal can be a special destination, something Europeans have known for some time. I believe that Portugal is every bit as beautiful as Spain. From its northern mountains to the rolling plains in the south, Portugal’s interior features an often-overlooked heartland of picturesque farms and vineyards that some refer to as the new Tuscany. It is well worth exploring.
Despite having both a west and a south coast like Spain, Portugal’s seafront is outside the Strait of Gibraltar, so it does not front the Mediterranean. That doesn’t mean its south coast doesn’t have some of Europe’s best beaches. The region known as the Algarve is stunning, and it has every amenity a visitor could want, but even with the development here, it’s not that hard to slip away and find historic villages and castle towns that seem to defy the march of time.
Prices in Portugal are typically lower than you’ll find in many other travel destinations in Europe, and Portugal’s cities can be a delightful surprise. Oporto (Porto to locals) on the Douro River not only gave Portugal the basis for its name, it gave the world one of Portugal’s most famous exports: port wine. The capital city of Lisbon, like Rome, spreads out across seven hills that provide postcard panoramas from a series of overlooking terraces perched at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
A dinner for the ages
The traditional Spanish seafood dish, paella, consists of saffron rice, peas, shrimp, mussels, squid, lemon, and meat. © Dreamstime.com
For some people, history is something you read in a book. In Spain and Portugal, it’s served on a plate. The cuisine of the Iberian Peninsula is as elaborate as that of France. Layers of food, culture and history overlap, and you can often tell how a region or city evolved just by what you’re eating. In Central Spain, around Madrid and Salamanca, meat is king. Around Barcelona, French and Italian influences are absorbed into Catalonia’s unique cuisine. One of my all-time favorite experiences in Spain was in Valencia, home of paella, the rice-based casserole traditionally cooked over an open fire of pine branches. Paella is so important to Valencia’s identity that an accomplished chef can make a career out of just one dish. I joined some fellow travelers at one of Valencia’s most renowned paella restaurants for an unforgettable evening that demonstrated the art of paella created from scratch. The chef took us through the entire process, ending with our choice of rabbit, seafood or vegetarian paella. It was a dinner for the ages.
Beat the heat, and the crowds
It can be a challenge to give specific tips on how best to experience Spain and Portugal. The countries are so diverse geographically, linguistically and culturally that the experience will differ depending on location, time of year, the interests of travelers and how much time they have available. Shoulder seasons may not provide ideal weather, but if you go then you beat the high season in summer when so many Europeans are on holiday.
There is one tip that always applies: Immerse yourself with the local people. If you are on a tour, take some time away from it and walk around on your own. Better tours provide free time in the best locations for you to do some individual exploring, and this is often when you make the accidental discoveries that become trip highlights. Wander into a shop and talk to the clerk, even if you’re not really looking to buy anything. Buy an ice cream cone and make some conversation with the person behind the counter. Don’t be shy, even if you don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. I speak neither, but the little Italian I know helps somewhat, and I’ve found that people in both Spain and Portugal are eager to have a cultural exchange and will do all they can to try to meet you halfway. Sometimes, the fun is in the attempt. The point is to try to make that person-to-person connection that enriches the travel experience beyond measure.