Happy New Year! 2011

Grapes for New Year's EveHappy New Year!

Why are grapes the chosen photo for this post? Well, I have spent a few New Year’s Eve nights in Spain and the traditions involve the usual dinner with family and parties with fancy dresses and champagne. But, the unique portion of the evening comes at the stroke of midnight when everyone has to try to eat twelve grapes with each stroke of the clock, and if you succeed, you will have a good year! It is not terribly easy to swallow 12 grapes and usually you end up laughing at everyone around you trying to stuff grapes in their mouths in hopes of beating everyone else and to obtaining the right to a wonderful new year!

What is your New Year’s Eve tradition?

* Update to this post! – This was written New Year’s Eve, before the big Spanish tradition… And I am proud to report that I was successful in eating all 12 grapes! So this year should prove to be a lucky one!

Travel blog series on Spain.

Spain blog travel series

Travel blog series on Spain.

In case this is your first visit to my blog… this is a list of over twenty cities in Spain to see and each name links to the blog post with travel tips, suggestions of where to eat, what to see and more.

The intention of the series on Spain is to provide insider travel tips and showcase main cities as well as locations that might not be on everyone’s “to see list” but that should be.

Enjoy! and please remember to visit The Monica Store for photo prints of Spain that are available as canvas prints and framed photos  for decorating your home or office!

Alcala de Henares



Avila’s Medieval Festival

Barcelona – Part One –Park Guell, Cathedral…

Barcelona – Part Two – Casa Mila, Casta Batllo, Sagrada Familia



El Escorial

Extremadura Part One

Extremadura Part Two

Castle of Manzanares


La Granja

Madrid Part One

Madrid Part Two



Santiago de Compostela





Travel Tips for Siguenza, Spain

Siguenza, Spain castle

What to see in Siguenza, Spain

Siguenza is a small city in Spain that is probably not on everyones’ list of what to see while in Spain but it is a lovely city that can be seen on a day trip.

The city has an interesting history as its fortress was used during civil wars as far back as the 13th and 14th centuries and during the Spanish Civil War.


The Cathedral of Siguenza has the presence of a fortress as it is rather a massive block. Another main site is a castle that is now a Parador (a state-run hotel). You can see the lobby and the main courtyard of the hotel but, as with other Paradors, I also recommend that you eat lunch there. There is nothing like having lunch in a castle in Spain – put that on a postcard to send back home!

I also recommend that you walk outside of the city and along the hill to the back of the castle as it is an impressive fortress to see from all angles.

The city itself is rather quiet but it does have a few nice Spanish pottery shops. Overall it is a pleasant day trip!

For more information about the history of Siguenza click here.

Travel Tips for Toledo, Spain

Toledo, Spain

What to see and do in Toledo, Spain

Toledo, Spain another great day trip city and another UNESCO World Heritage Site! Spain is full of them!

Toledo is another city that can be seen in a day and is an easy day trip from Madrid. Before you had to take the bus from Madrid to Toledo but now there is a train that takes just 30 minutes!


Toledo is known for its production of iron and swords so you could buy an exquisitely made sword, although how you would ever get it home through airport security and customs I have no idea. But there are signs assuring that you can.

If you are fan of marzipan, Toledo is the place for you as it is considered to have some of the finest marzipan. Personally I do not think, as a product, it is made for digestion, but I do enjoy seeing the marvelous creations that are made with marzipan and pastry shop windows in Toledo have entire cities, churches, and castles made in miniature with marzipan. You should see it during the holiday season!


As for what to see in Toledo, Spain:

1 – Cross the Puente de Alcantara – You have to cross over the Tagus River and enter the city of Toledo through one of the old city gates – always fun to be able to do!

2 – The Museum of Santa Cruz – A pleasant museum with some beautiful artifacts and pottery and it also has a nice courtyard.

3 – Cathedral of Toledo – A Gothic cathedral of monumental proportions, the Cathedral of Toledo is stunning. There is a lot to see inside the Cathedral and I especially like the cloister built in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It takes a while to absorb all of the artwork and details in the Cathedral so allow time to see everything.

4 – Iglesia y Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes – This is one of my favorite locations in Toledo because of the courtyard in the monastery which has interesting gargoyles. The Monastery and Church of San Juan de los Reyes is a 15th century structure.

5 – Museo de El Greco – El Greco lived and worked in Toledo until his death and the museum is a recreation of his house and a museum of some of his most important paintings.

6 – Santa Maria la Blanca – This is one of the oldest synagogues in Europe, built in 1180. Santa Maria la Blanca is really beautiful as the entire room has white columns and arches, tiled floors, and delicate detailed carving on the walls.

As always there is more to see but I think these are the main highlights of Toledo and at least the places I see on every visit. And as a side note, the winters are bitterly cold in Toledo so if you visit the city then be prepared for your hands and feet to be numb. Otherwise, enjoy Toledo and don’t forget to have café con churros.

** For photo prints of Toledo, Spain click here for The Monica Store.


Helpful Info for traveling to Toledo, Spain:

1 – For train information visit Rail Europe for schedules and fares.

2 – For more information about the Cathedral of Toledo click here.

3 – For more information and history of Toledo, Spain click here.

Travel Tips for Sevilla, Spain

Sevilla, Spain

What to see and do in Sevilla, Spain

 Sevilla, or Seville, is most likely on your list of places to see in Spain. Sevilla is simply an incredible city that is more than 2,000 years old and consequently a mix of so many cultures. It’s no surprise that the historic city center is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Travel to Sevilla by train – Spain’s train system is incredibly easy and affordable (sounds like the Spanish tourism office paid me to write that but it really is true!).

I have only been to Sevilla once, although I have every intention of going a few more times as there is a lot to see. On my trip I was pleasantly surprised to find the historic part of the city to be exactly as I pictured it with white buildings, decorative tiles everywhere, and fantastic little courtyards. There is a lot to see though so on to that list….


What to see in Sevilla, Spain:

1 – Cathedral of Sevilla – built between 1401 and 1519. The Cathedral was built on the former site of the city’s mosque and the current bell tower was originally a minaret, named the Giralda. You can climb to the top of the bell tower for a view of the city. And actually you don’t have to climb stairs to get to the top of the tower; you walk up ramps – originally put in for worshipers to ride to the top on horseback! If you are one for classical music, there are often concerts held in the Cathedral at night.

2 – Alcazar of Sevilla or the Reales Alcazares – Originally a Moorish fort, the Alcazar of Sevilla is a royal palace. It must be seen on your visit to Sevilla and allow for a whole day as it is very extensive. Most of the palace can be seen by tourists but the upper levels are still used by the Spanish royal family as their Sevilla residence (not to shabby huh?). The most gorgeous section is the Patio de las Doncellas or the Courtyard of the Maidens which is similar to some of the rooms in the Alhambra. The gardens are also impressive, I especially like the wall that you can walk along which runs the entire length of the gardens.

3 – Plaza de Espana – This is also a must see location and it will not disappoint for it is honestly breathtaking! The Plaza de Espana was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair and designed by Anibal Gonzalez. The plaza is an enormous half circle with a building running along the outer edge and bridges in the center crossing a small moat. It is a fantastical scene with beautiful decorative tiles and the building has alcoves with tiled illustrations of different provinces of Spain. To see more photographs of the Plaza de Espana and for detailed photos of the tiles click here to visit The Monica Store.


There is more to see but these are the main sights that shouldn’t be missed. Of course I recommend my usual dose of wandering through the streets and seeing the local sites as well. And all year long there are events and festivals in the city, one of which is the famous Holy Week processions, which I am determined to see one day! But enjoy Sevilla and just make sure to see these top three places while their on your trip!


Helpful Info for traveling to Sevilla, Spain:

1 – For train information visit Rail Europe for schedules and fares.

2- For more information about Sevilla, Spain click here.

3 – For more information about the Alcazar of Sevilla, Spain click here.

Travel Tips for Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain - Alcazar

What to see and do in Segovia, Spain

If you want to see a fairytale castle and not travel to Disney World go to Segovia, Spain!

Segovia, Spain is another easy day trip city that you can get to from Madrid. I have always taken a bus but now you can take the train and be there in 30 minutes!


There is a lot to see in Segovia and you start out right away by walking down a main street right towards the Roman Aqueduct, so you obviously will not miss this site. The aqueduct is an impressive site as it spans from one hill to the other.

Follow the pedestrian street along the aqueduct and up into the city where you will pass interesting buildings and churches including the 11th century church of San Martin – note the adorable details on the exterior column capitals.

The main road will lead you to the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral. The Cathedral of Segovia was built between 1525 and 1577 in the late Gothic style so it is very dramatic and has an imposing and grand presence. The cloister is beautiful as well.


The Castle in Segovia

Then there is the main attraction, the fairytale castle or the Alcazar of Segovia. This is truly a picturesque castle with towers, stone walls, and is built on top of a rocky hill. The Alcazar was originally built as an Arab fort, later used as a royal palace, military academy, and state prison (perhaps not the worst place to be incarcerated).

You can see most of the rooms in the castle, many of which are elaborately decorated. One room has elegant stained-glass windows that look out onto the valley below and it is quite a sight. There is also the Hall of the Kings with a frieze representing all the Spanish Kings and Queens! And don’t forget to climb the Tower of John II of Castile from which you get views of the whole city and the surrounding land.

To get a great view of the Alcazar (the one you see in most photographs of it), you have to walk down the hill to the green pasture right below the castle. There are various routes, none of which are clearly marked with any sort of sign saying “this way to the panoramic view of the Alcazar.” Each time I have done this I have walked down differently so really you just have to look for a path heading down (helpful I know). While down there – go to the grassy pasture, cross the river and get your photographs of the Alcazar while admiring its strategic location. (This is also where you can see that it is shaped like the bow of a ship).


If you make the effort to find your way down to the bottom of the hill you must stop to see the Vera Cruz Church. It is not always open, and I have only actually been able to see in the inside once, but the Vera Cruz Church is a darling 11th century church that deserves a visit.

There are other interesting buildings to see in Segovia but these are the main sites. I have been to Segovia in all weather conditions but I can say it is quite chilly at any time of year.


A note on food options… the delicacy of the area happens to be suckling pig which comes with no disguises, so be prepared for that!

Otherwise enjoy your trip to Segovia and see below for some helpful links!


Helpful Info for traveling to Segovia, Spain:

1 – For train information visit Rail Europe for schedules and fares.

2 – For the official tourism site for Segovia, Spain click here.

3 – For more information on the Alcazar of Segovia click here.

Travel Tips on Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Travel tips for Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is a city that draws over 100,000 pilgrims each year to the 1,000 year old shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. But you do not have to be a devout Catholic to visit this city and appreciate the architecture and the Cathedral. The old town is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I went to Santiago in the winter when morning and evening fog settles on the city and creates an eerie atmosphere. The winters are very cold and damp so if you visit Santiago in the winter bundle up!


So of course the main thing to see is the Cathedral which is an impressive structure of stone and towers over the old city and creates the unique skyline of Santiago de Compostela. The history of the Cathedral is interesting – find a reader’s digest version at the end of this post. So make sure to see the Cathedral from right in front, inside too (and of course you must see the burial place of Saint James) and afterwards make the trek over to the park Caballeira de Santa Susana just before sunset to see the Cathedral and the old city skyline!

The University of Santiago de Compostela is another impressive site and you can see main campus buildings within the old city – one building in particular that is nice to visit is the Fonseca College building.


After seeing these main sites I suggest wandering around the streets and seeing more of the city – I think one should always wander in a city to see unplanned sites! You might even see a pilgrim who has trekked the entire camino de Santiago! I did and the man I saw looked as if he spent his entire life getting there.

Oh and as a side note, try eating at the Parador in Santiago for an amazing meal served in a dining room that looks like a set for the Tudors or if nothing else at least go into the lobby and you will feel like you entered into medieval times. The Parador is on the same plaza as the Cathedral. Can’t be missed.


Short History of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral:

The legend goes that the Apostle James’ body was carried on a stone ship from Jerusalem and brought to Spain to be buried in Galicia. When the tomb was discovered and reported to King Alfonso II around 814AD he ordered the construction of a chapel. The original church was destroyed and the construction of the present Cathedral began in 1075 and finished in 1122 (additions were made in the 16th and 18th centuries). The Cathedral is based on the Basilica of Saint Sernin in Toulouse, France.

The Cathedral is 97 meters long (about 318 feet) and 22 meters high (about 72 feet) and is the largest Romanesque church in Spain and one of the largest in Europe (the façade is not Romanesque and was added later).

The Cathedral draws thousands of pilgrims every year. The pilgrims travel along the “Way of St. James” or the “Camino de Santiago” which stretches as far as France, Switzerland, Italy and England! The scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrimage for many reasons, one of which says that the grooves on the shell come together at a point as do all the routes of the pilgrim.


Useful Links and information about Santiago de Compostela:

1. For more history about the Cathedral of Sanitago de Compostela click here.

2. For more information and a history about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago click here.

3 –For information about the Paradores in Spain click here.

Travel Tips for Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, SpainTravel to The Golden City of Salamanca, Spain.

Salamanca is my favorite city in Spain! I have been there so many times and in all weather conditions and it is still top on my list.

Salamanca is said to have the most beautiful plaza is Spain, or even Europe – and I do believe it is one of the most beautiful. Most of the buildings in the city are made with sandstone that comes from the village of Villamayor. These stones have given Salamanca the nickname “The Golden City” or “La Ciudad Dorada.”


As with most of the other cities I have covered in Spain, I got there by train from Madrid. Salamanca is a three hour train ride from Madrid and I have often done Salamanca in a day – so early train there and late train back to Madrid. So if you are short on time, it can be seen in a day.

Before I list what to see… why do I like Salamanca so much? Well it is a wonderful city in any weather which says a lot since weather can really affect you impression of a place. It does rain a lot in Salamanca but rain there still makes the city look amazing, perhaps it is the Villamayor stones. But aside from the beauty of the city there are the churches and the university which are interesting in a never ending sort of way.

Each time I go I visit the same sights and never tire of them. Plus there are gargoyles all over the place which are always intriguing. And one of the best features is that you can walk on the Cathedral roof! (You can also do this in Milan, Italy and I am sure in other places…. But this is about Spain so…). And how often do you get to walk on a roof, let alone a cathedral roof? And the old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so!


So… What to see in Salamanca, Spain:

1 – Plaza Mayor – As already stated this is one of the most beautiful in Europe. The Plaza was originally used for bull fights but now you can have a cup of coffee or dinner on the plaza and in the summer you can attend a concert here!

2 – Casa de las Conchas – This building was 15th century and was originally a palace but now it is a public library. There are over 300 shells on the facade, sea shells that are the symbol of the Order of Santiago. (There are often art exhibitions in the courtyard. And make sure to note the gargoyles!)

3 – The University of Salamanca is the oldest University in Spain, it was founded in 1218.  You can tour parts of the university and this is a must!

4 – Catedral Nueva – This is the Cathedral with the roof you can walk on. The Cathedral was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a marvel inside as well as outside. The views from the roof of the old city are stupendous! Oh! And you will see many storks up close from the roof as well.

5 – Convento e Iglesia de San Esteban – One of my favorite locations because of the convent and courtyard with all of the gargoyles and creatures carved into the columns. (See a photograph of one of the column capitals by clicking here). The whole complex was built in the 16th and 17th century.

6 – Convento de las Duenas – Another magnificent building with a courtyard lined with incredible gargoyles (these gargoyles are much different then the ones in the San Esteban convent as they have a more dramatic and eerie feel to them – click here to see a photo).

7 – Colegio del Arzobispo Fonseca – This is another attractive building with another splendid courtyard. The college was founded by the archbishop of Toledo, Alonso de Fonseca, and the building was constructed in the early 16th century.

These are the main highlights and the sites I see on every trip I take to Salamanca. I did stay two nights in the city once, instead of my usual one day trip and it is more leisurely, plus you get to see the city at sunset (for a photo of Salamanca at sunset click here).

So hopefully you find time to see Salamanca as it truly is one of the most beautiful cities to see!


Helpful Info for traveling to Ronda, Spain:

1 – For train information visit Rail Europe for schedules and fares.

2 – For the Official Tourism Site for Salamanca click here.

Travel tips for Ronda, Spain

On to South of Spain to the city of Ronda!

Ronda is a great city to visit and as always there is a lot to see. I took the train from Madrid to Ronda, which took almost four hours but the train is worth it because you see the countryside change as you go south.

From the train station in Ronda I took a cab to my hotel. The cab driver asked if I had ever been to Ronda and when I said no he proudly acted as a tour guide and pointed out important buildings, historical cites, and gave little historical fact as we drove through the city. Local charm and city pride is strong and it was refreshing!

Below I will highlight the sights to see in Ronda but first just a little overview…the city of Ronda sits on a canyon and a deep gorge divides the city, the El Tajo canyon. There are three bridges; Puente Nuevo is the tallest of three bridges in Ronda, towering 120 metres (390 ft) above the canyon floor and the bridge from which you get the most spectacular views.


What to see in Ronda, Spain:

1 – Puente Nuevo – the tallest bridge.

2 – Plaza de Toros which is the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain, built in 1784. You pay a small fee and you get to see the entire ring, the bull pens, and a small but interesting museum about the history of bullfighting in the area.

3 – The Arab Baths or the Banos arabes – these baths were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. You can visit the baths which are located below the city (a bit hard to find but it is noted on the tourist map so not impossible). And I highly recommend watching the video about the history of the baths –most interesting is how they got water into the baths to create steam which involved a large wheel pulled by a donkey!

4 – The Palace of the Arabian King or Casa del Rey Moro – While you cannot see the house you can visit the gardens which are lovely and provide great views of the city and the canyon.

5 – Palace of Mondragon or the Museo Municipal – This house has a small museum and again, wonderful gardens and patios!

6 – Arch of Philip V or Puerta de Felipe V – A gate built in 1742 that serves as one of the three entrances to the city. Make sure to walk all the way down to the gate to get the entire view of it.

These are the main sights but I would also suggest walking through the old town which has wide cobbled streets and charming buildings. Also do not miss seeing the sunset which tends to be quite spectacular here!


And a few other tidbits about Ronda:

When to go to Ronda: well all I can advise is that if you go in the summer it is very hot and that the Spanish siesta is a must in order to survive the midday heat.

What to eat in Ronda…all Spanish food is very good but if you happen to be a vegetarian it can be a bit trying since Spaniards do love their meat dishes. Luckily I like tomatoes because this is what I ate for three days while in Ronda. In the summer in Spain you can get tomato salads and gazpacho which is nutritious and filling. Although I do think if I had gone another three days on that diet I would have turned the color red.

Try eating at one of the restaurants with balconies that hang right over the canyon, unless of course you are afraid of heights in which case you would probably loose your appetite and therefore ruin the whole concept of rooftop dining.

Overall Ronda is another interesting city to visit in Spain!


Helpful Info for traveling to Ronda, Spain:

1 – For train information visit Rail Europe for schedules and fares.

2 – For more information about what to see in Ronda click here for the Ronda information and tourism site.

What to see in Madrid, Spain – Part Two

Sorolla Museum Gardens in Madrid, Spain

Travel tips for Madrid, Spain – part two

The blog post before this was about the main sites to see in Madrid. This post will cover two other interesting places to see that are off the beaten path.

My favorite location in Madrid is the Sorolla Museum and Gardens. If you are an art lover or a garden lover this is a must see!


In case you are unfamiliar with Sorolla and his work…

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida was a Spanish painter known mainly for painting landscapes and portraits. Sorolla was born in Valencia and studied painting on his own until going to Rome, Italy after serving in the Spanish army and studying painting at the Spanish Academy. Sorolla went on to have exhibitions, portrait commissions, and received awards for his work.

Sorolla’s paintings are full of light and warm colors. His portraits are graceful and inviting, portraits of well known individuals from Spanish Royalty to friends and family. He also painted many beach scenes, countless paintings of his family and his wife, and landscapes.


The Sorolla Museum in Madrid was his house and studio. The building is lovely with creaky wooden floors, high ceilings, and plenty of natural light. Paintings cover every inch the walls and the rooms have the original family furniture.

The largest room was Sorolla’s studio and in one corner there is an easel set up and a side table with old paint brushes and paint pallets – it feels as though Sorolla just stepped out of room. At the far right of the room there are small sketches framed and hanging on the wall that I always enjoy studying.

There is also a second floor with more portraits, some of them studies for larger murals. And then there is the dining room which is another favorite room of mine because of the painted border which Sorolla did himself. The dining room border consists of a garland with bunches of fruit being held by Sorolla’s wife and children.

Aside from the house and the studio there is the garden. The gardens at the Sorolla Museum are so tranquil and beautiful at any time of day and any time of year!


Another interesting site is the Royal Tapestry Museum and Factory. The Royal Tapestry factory was established in the 18th century and is still functioning today and also restores old tapestries. You can tour the factory and see the craftsmen at work; the tour requires a guide.

I think any trip to Madrid should include these two places!


More Information:
1 – Click here for more information about Sorolla.

2 – For a link to the official Sorolla Museum, Museo Sorolla, website click here.

3 – For hours and admission prices for the Royal Tapestry Museum click here.