An Ambassador’s wife helps you navigate the walled cities, ancient ruins, vineyards, sandy beaches, and beyond...
When your homebase is the U.S. Embassy, as it was for my husband and me while he served as Ambassador to Spain under President Obama, exploring every region of Spain was part of our official duties. As we traveled throughout Spain’s provinces, we learned firsthand about the history of the regions and cities. We connected with locals and enjoyed delicious cuisine. In this way, we came to know Spain in all her gorgeous depth.
Having now traveled to 16 of Spain’s 17 provinces, it is my pleasure to share some of my favorite flavors and hidden gems from this majestic country. There is a rich life beyond the fiestas, tapas and wine, and each Spanish city has its own unique pace of life, unique traditions and festivities.
Here are just a few field notes from off the Spanish beaten path where you will be sure to encounter the authentic and the surprising:
Museums and great works of art
Surely you know Dali; you will find his work in his Museum of Theater in Figueres. And you can visit Picasso’s home in Malaga. But are you acquainted with the serene impressionistic landscapes and portraits of 20th century artist, Joaquin Sorolla? Museo Sorolla in Madrid is Sorolla’s former house, filled with his works and other artifacts. Also, consider a trip to the city of Bilbao, a stunning city whose Museo des Bellas Artes is home to the greatest collection of Basque art in the world.
Walled Cities and Roman Ruins
The small towns of Trujillo and Cáceres in Extremedura, the province west of Madrid is filled with Roman ruins and beautiful walled cities. Segovia is home to Spain’s best-preserved Roman aqueduct, and in Girona, you’ll find remnants of ancient Jewish sites.
In Pedraza, you will behold medieval buildings and a castle filled with the incandescent works of Basque painter Zuloaga. In fact, it is his family who still owns the castle. In Sigüenza, tour the centuries old Gothic cathedral - an art museum in itself-- or wander around the alcazar, a fortress overlooking a lovely courtyard.
Vineyards, Olive Groves and Holy Celebrations
Spain’s landscape is speckled with olive groves almost the whole country over, with the biggest concentration in the region of Andalusia. It is no surprise that Spain is the third largest wine producer in the world and has over a million acres dedicated to vineyards. One gem not to miss: Rioja, with its Marques de Riscal Hotel designed by Frank Gehry; the town of La Rioja boasts a great wine museum.
Also in Andalusia is Málaga, located on the Mediterranean’s Costa del Sol. I cannot guarantee that stars will align, literally and figuratively, as they did for my husband and me, but upon meeting friends in the town square during the annual Semana Santa (Holy Week) parade, we also met a native son of Malaga: Antonio Banderas. Banderas returns to his hometown each year during Semana Santa and participates in the town’s celebration. We stood with Banderas in the front row during the formal procession, as the soldiers carried a replica of Jesus on the cross through the city streets, and the crowd sang songs in unison. Banderas chanted each prayer and sang all the songs by heart. At one point, he pointed to a train trestle ten blocks away from where we stood. “When I was a boy,” he told me, “I used to sit there and watch this procession, never thinking that one day I would be in the front row or be asked to help carry the cross.”
To be sure, living for a time all over Spain was no cross to bear, and I continue to remember the sights, sounds, and tastes of this country who reveals herself to you in enchanting ways that perhaps you could never have dreamed.