Alive with Energy, Iberian Passions Continue

Hilton Smith in Madrid, Spain

Summer in Europe offers many possibilities. The Iberian Peninsula, consisting of Spain and Portugal, can be a wise choice.  In some ways similar, in other ways different, these two countries offer history, culture, architecture, distinctive food and wines and a vibrant late nightlife. This is in context with a breezy, vibrant and welcoming attitude. 

The more affordable conditions now with the decline in the Euro relative to the US dollar are magnified by generally lower costs in the region. From accommodations to food, wine and sightseeing, your travel dollars will go further in this area without much of an effort on your part. A beer can cost about 3 Euros, a bottle of good local wine in a comfortable restaurant is probably less than 20 Euros, and a full dinner with that wine maybe 80 Euros or less. 

I started my trip in vibrant Barcelona, which still exhibits a spirit of independence from the rest of Spain indicated by with the Catalan flags around town.  Full of activity, Barcelona is a hard core nightlife center. Yes, do sightseeing during the day, but don't consider dinner until around 10:30 p.m. with optional time after at a bar.  The Gothic Quarter, The Ramblas, The Harbor area and the Example all have energy and so much history.  The famous church La Familia, under construction long before any of us were born, is essential to see and now completed.  To do so you must buy tickets in advance to avoid waiting hours in the sun to get in. 

One day I did the 1/2 day tour to neighboring Montserrat, with its famous monastery which was well worth it.  Years ago it took three hours to get up the mountain on which the monastery sits. Then it took one hour, and now it takes about 15 minutes by a surprisingly sleek electric train.  It is a tough climb now done with ease.  It is spectacular up there and well worth the half day out of the city.

Then it was on to surprising Seville, only 5 1/2 hours away on the new AVE high speed rail line. This is much more convenient than flying and the Preferente Class offers First Class comfort.  Make sure to arrive at least 40 minutes in advance of departure, with airport-style security now in place for high speed Spanish trains. 

I consider Seville is to Spain what Florence is to Italy.  It is very walkable and approachable and the narrow streets and alleys beg you to get lost within them. One of five places to claim Christopher Columbus's burial, true or not, it is worth a few days to explore with a culture and history distinguished from Barcelona's.  You can walk everywhere.  I stayed at the very modern and comfortable Gran Melia Colon in the center of it all. Even if you don't stay there, the distinguished Alfonso XIII Hotel is worth a visit.  It and many of the architectural works were commissioned for the 1929 Seville World Exposition.  The city was wise to keep many of the more impressive buildings.

Then it was on to the capital, Madrid, again via High Speed AVE Train, but this time in the elevated Club Class. Here you have the same physical features of Preferente Class but with selected beverages, newspapers and a basic but filling meal served at your seat. 

Madrid is more composed with stately and wide avenues and the impressive buildings along the Gran Via. Yes there are some more intimate neighborhoods, but the city looks and feels like a capital. The famous Prado Museum, along with others and the Botanical Gardens highlight the scene.  A must-see is the Royal Palace, to be seen on the inside for sure. Smaller than Versailles, what is there is more impressive to me.  The rooms are more lavishly furnished and the designs more intricate.

In Madrid the happening ME Madrid was my home, with a roof terrace that required 20 Euros per person to visit if one is not a hotel guest.  The drinks were probably the most expensive in town, but that did not stop the young locals and visitors to socialize here and enjoy the breeze and view.

Throughout Spain, the entire population seemed to be out, particularly at night. Every outdoor plaza and square was filled with dining tables and waiters bustling back and forth to the kitchens and bars.  The distinctiveness, the affordability and the energy all add up to a winning formula for exploration and tourism. 

But I was not done yet. 

My new venture on this trip was Lisbon, Portugal with little to no expectations. The discovery was entirely enjoyable and satisfying. It was just about 1 1/2 hours flight from Madrid and well worth it.

I have been to all the major cities in Western Europe and many Central European ones as well. Lisbon is by far the most intriguing, with designs and layout like no other place I have seen.  There are officially hills in the city which was designed not conquer them to evolve them into the fabric of everyday life. A very steep streetcar is one way that the hills are overcome.  Another is a massive elevator, once operated by steam and designed by Eiffel Design firm of Paris. In operation since 1902, it still works today for a fee of 5 Euros to get you up and on your way.

I stayed at the Leading Hotel Barrio Alto, an intimate accommodation of less than 100 rooms in a vibrant part of the city.  The 6th Floor roof terrace was popular each evening for water views and quenching beverages as well as light snacks.       

My excellent private city guide, Pablo, gave me a four-hour look into this one-of-a-kind Lisbon.  Some parts of the city look like a Greek Island with narrow and steep steps, some look like a throw back to the 1930's with wooden street cars, some parts have the wide streets that reflect a capital city.  The area around the impressive Ritz Four Seasons Hotel offers all the requisite high end stores, but the Barrio Alto area will get you immediately into the local night life spirits. 

As in Spain, prices are very reasonable and the locals friendly.  There is so much more to Portugal than Lisbon, but my time was over and it will be a good reason to go back and see more of Portugal like Porto.  That is another trip.

Let us be your guide to the best of Iberia.  There is a lot to see and we can show you the way.

Hilton Smith