No visit to Spain would be complete without experiencing bucolic life in its most remote regions, a cultural tour of its great galleries and museums and a trip to one of its many food markets. These are some of the unmissable experience of Spain
Extremadura, a region bordering Portugal and comprising the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz, is often described as Spain’s best-kept secret. Although off the international tourist trail, the region, which is home to the wildlife-rich Monfragüe and Cornalvo natural parks, is an unmissable experience – and best enjoyed on foot. The Valle del Jerte in northern Extremadura is famous for its cherry blossom in spring, when more than two million trees colour the valley white. The area’s unique micro-climate has encouraged a centuries-long family custom in which cherries are grown in the traditional way on terraces carved out of the high mountainsides; in May, the area is busy with industrious hands packing the sweet fruit. But it’s beautiful at any time of year: in the summer heat, or in autumn, when the leaves colour the mountains an ochre shade and the Otoñada cultural and gastronomic festival takes place.
Aside from stunning vistas and an abundance of natural wonders, visitors to the Valle del Jerte should explore its quaint towns and settlements, including Baños de Montemayor, which is known for its Roman-built baths and mild climate, thanks to its location backing on to the Ambroz Valley. Nearby is beautiful Hervás, famous for its Jewish quarter, with its narrow, undulating streets and small houses made with adobe and chestnut-wood frameworks.
The region is particularly rich for towns with paradores – essentially luxury hotels, usually located in a converted historic building such as a monastery or castle. In Plasencia, for example, is a Gothic hotel in the former convent of Saint Domingo, founded by the Zúñiga family in the mid 15th century. In Trujillo is a stunning hotel in the former convent of Santa Clara; while in Guadalupe (pictured main), a hotel is situated in what was once the 16th-century palace of the Marquis de la Romana. It is connected to the former San Juan Bautista Hospital, a 15th-century structure which today serves as the parador’s courtyards.
One of the region’s best-known trails is Ruta de Carlos V, the final stage of a much longer route stretching from Laredo in Cantabria to Jarandilla de la Vera. The name is literal: it follows the path taken by Charles V on his final journey through Spain following his abdication in 1556, taking in Monasterio de Yuste, where he retired. There’s also the (considerably easier) route from Jerte to the Garganta de los Infiernos (called the Ruta de los Pilones), which is a 6km round trip. Some skip the hard work altogether and bathe in the natural pools in summer. Game of Thrones fans may recognise parts of Extremadura from season seven, with Los Barruecos Natural Monument serving as the site for the Battle of the Dragon.
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Spain, the birthplace of Flamenco music and Pablo Picasso, is rich with cultural delights. For museums and art galleries, Bilbao, the largest city in the province of Biscay and in the northern Basque Country as a whole, is a good place to start. It is home to the Guggenheim, a modern and contemporary art museum designed by the legendary Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and shares a name and collection with the original Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue, New York. Opened in 1997, the museum houses famous artworks including Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1952-3), Jeff Koons’ wildly idiosyncratic Puppy (1992) and Anselm Kiefer’s majestic The Land of the Two Rivers (1995). The city’s grand old institution, however, is the Museum of Fine Arts, founded in 1908; it contains a number of masterpieces by the likes of José de Ribera, Francisco de Goya and Paul Gauguin. To get a greater understanding of the region’s history, head to the Basque Museum (or Euskal Museo), which turns 100 years old in 2021. In that time, it has accumulated a collection of more than 20,000 objects, which it says illustrates and reflects the different aspects that shaped the life and daily work of the Basque people.
In Madrid, there is an abundance of options. On the Boulevard of the Arts, or the Art Walk, are three big-hitters: the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Reina Sofía Art Centre and the Prado Museum. The latter is main Spanish national art museum, established in 1819, and it houses one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 20th century, including masterpieces from the likes of José de Ribera, Francisco Goya, El Greco, Diego Velazquez, Murillo and Rubens. The Reina Sofía Art Centre, meanwhile, is Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art. As well as pieces by Dalî, Buñuel and the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, it is also contains Guernica, arguably Picasso’s greatest work. The third museum on the strip is the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, which fills the historical gaps in its neighbouring museum’s collections, and houses works by impressionists and post-impressionists such as Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. Elsewhere, there is the Sorolla Museum, which has retained the original interiors of the home and studio of the celebrated Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. It situated in the Chamberi neighbourhood, just off the busy La Castellana avenue; the grounds are as remarkable as the artworks. For opera lovers, the Teatro Real – often simply called El Real – is one of the finest in Europe.
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No visit to Spain would be complete without a visit to at least one of its many mercados de abastos – food markets that have existed in Spain for 200 years and offer one of the most authentic culinary experiences you can enjoy. Here are a few of our favourites.
The market of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia, is the second most visited place in the city after its cathedral. The market has been supplying the city’s residents and travellers with mostly local produce since 1873: today, in the bustling market, you’ll find seafood, meat and vegetables from the surrounding region, and plenty of bars and restaurants.
In Cádiz, on the southwestern tip of Spain, you will find a historic food market in the Plaza de la Libertad. Inaugurated in 1838, it is better known as Mercado de las Flores, and now boasts more than 150 stalls, many of which are small tapas bars serving local food, finos (sherry), table wines and local brew beers. The best time to visit is midday for tapas aperitivo time.
The reputation of Mercado de La Boquería in Barcelona precedes it. Found in the middle of Las Ramblas, the city’s most famous street, the market is alive with different colours, smells and flavours, making it a favourite of locals and tourists. Although its structures didn’t exist until the mid 19th century, the first mention of the Boquería dates from 1217, making it one of the most storied markets in the world.
Mercado Central in Valencia is work of Valencian Art Nouveau – one of the most spectacular markets you’re ever likely to see. Covering more than 8,000 square metres, it houses about 300 stalls of fresh products, with an emphasis on fish, fruit and vegetables. Get tapas or an aperitif in mid-morning, grab a coffee, or try one of the fresh fruit juices. Live like a local and enjoy a horchata de chufa juice with fartons, a confectionery sweet from the town of Alboray.
The Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid was inaugurated in 1916 next to the Plaza Mayor. Housing more than 30 shops, with each stall now a renowned brand that in turn means the market is a Mecca for food lovers. In Bilbao, the Mercado de La Ribera is one of the largest covered markets in Europe, covering 10,000 square metres; its Art Deco design and large stained-glass windows also make it one of the most impressive. There are 180 stalls and several bars inside, making it the perfect place to start your aperitivo y pintxos at 1pm.
Mercado Parque de la Victoria in Córdoba was the first Andalusian gastronomic market, and is housed in a repurposed structure that dates from the 19th century. It has about 30 stalls, which serve fresh produce and hot food from the surrounding region. Try a salmorejo, a purée consisting of tomato and bread, originating from the city.