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Spain: Madrid, Alicante, Denia, Ibiza, Barcelona

Hello,

The Rick Steves community was a big part of my research prior to our 10th anniversary trip to Spain, so I wanted to give back a little bit by posting a summary of our trip. (I did a more complete write-up with photos on a personal blog, but I know the forum policy prohibits external links.) I hope you enjoy the following, potentially made a little bit more unique by its excursion into some areas that R.S. doesn't typically cover.

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Thursday, 9/20: Madrid!

Metro tourist passes. Of all the passes to purchase, we found these to be the most invaluable. Unlike Barcelona, we planned on using the Metro a lot in Madrid, so these were well-worth the value. We stayed near Alonso Martinez. This great, low-key plaza just north of downtown would be our launching point for our Madrid adventures.

While it's outside the usual R.S. circle-of-downtown-coverage, I chose a hotel just off this plaza for a couple of reasons: 1) it's two Metro lines from the airport; 2) it's just outside the busy touristy downtown; 3) it's still a clean, professional neighborhood with plenty of destinations (including downtown) within walking distance; and 4) multiple Metro lines for launching into different areas of downtown; 5) reasonably-priced business-class lodging with a solid rating, good price, and consistent service.

This would stand in stark contrast to the "downtown" area (Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Gran Via, and immediately-surrounding areas), which were overwhelmingly-busy and very touristy. One particularly great find was La Chocita Succa, a low-key, younger-crowd bar near Alonso Martinez that turns into a fantastic and energetic dance floor at night.

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Friday, 9/21: More Madrid!

Explored the area around Plaza Espana, including a tasty brunch at Cafe Federal. Toured the royal palace (worth every penny, though the mid-afternoon line can be a little long). It's fascinating to compare this to the White House (which really is just a house in comparison) in the back of my head. Stopped by the infamous Chocolatería San Ginés while walking our way back to the Metro station at Opera; enjoyed it, but found it to be a little Disneyland-ish in the over-the-top appeal to quaint touristy expectations.

That night, we tried the highly-recommended tapas walk down Calle de Jesus; it didn't disappoint, the highlight being an amazing seafood-wrapped-in-pigs-ears dish at Taberna Maceiras. We ended the night at a fun salsa nightclub, Discoteca Azucar, near the intersection of Calle Atocha and Calle San Pedro, in the same neighborhood. (That night we discovered the Metro stops running at 1:30 AM! This was a surprise in a city known for staying up until 5 or 6 AM.)

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Saturday, 9/22: Even More Madrid!

Today's main target was the Prado. I've been soaking myself in art history lately specifically with this stop in mind. We started off with a very tasty brunch at Mama Framboise, a tart-focused bakery that provides the best possible combination of French and Spanish pastries. (If you ever get a chance to try a jamon-and-brie crepe, just do it.) From there, we walked down Paseo de Recoletos to the Prado, stopping to enjoy the frequent public art sculpture here and there.

DO NOT MISS THE PRADO. (And make sure one of your tickets includes the tome-of-a-guidebook, which comes in practically every language and is a fantastic momento of your trip.) This is one of the most astonishing museums I've ever been to. We spend half a day there, and barely scratched the surface. You need a strategic plan to survive: In our case, we chose a specific subset of artists to focus on and tried to take our time walking between them.

In addition to the more famous fixtures like Las Meninas, there are a few pieces in particular that knocked my socks off in real-life in a way I'd never expect from seeing them digitally or in a textbook. 1) Queen Joanna the Mad, by Padilla (her expression up close is nothing short of haunting); 2) The Explusion of the Jews from Spain, by Sala (tragic in its intersection of meaning and historical events); The Washing of the Feet, by Tintoretto (see if you can figure out who is who); The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Herod’s Banquet, by Strobel (astonishing in its complexity).

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Sunday, 9/23: Train to Alicante

Today, we boarded high-speed rail from Atocha station headed for Alicante, a small city on the Costa Blanca. It was a very relaxing trip, though we had accidentally booked tickets for the "quiet car". This fact was brought to our attension somewhat forcefully by an elder Spanish lady, but once the initial confrontation subsided we greatly enjoyed the ride.

Alicante itself, while not covered in most R.S. material, is a delightful city and a refreshing coastal break from the urban hubbub of Madrid. R.S. has an obvious dislike for Costa del Sol and its crowds, but we found Costa Blanca in contrast to be much more enjoyable and were sad he hasn't covered it as much.

Alicante in particular, while sizable and with its own fair share of apartment high-rises, has a delightful promenade leading down to a bustling marina and beach, featuring a number of charming public art fixtures. We enjoyed a great meal at the pizzeria Sale e Pepe (don't underestimate the Italian influence in this area, or the mutual distain in which they hold the local Spaniards), with one of the most friendly and affable staff we've ever encountered.

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Monday, 9/24: Tram to Denia

Sadly, we were only spending a single night in Alicante before taking the tram north to Denia. I was very much looking forward to this trip, which promised a relaxing rail ride up the coast and past a wide variety of scenic beaches. It didn't disappoint, and even though the final segment is still under electrification work, I'd highly recommend it. Something marvelous happens when you crest the final mountains and descend into Denia: a near-instantaneous transition from dry, Mediterranean coastal desert into cane-borded orange fields and lush farmland.

The microclimate in Denia is worth the trip in-and-of itself, but Denia also features a wide variety of high-quality gastronomical delights. I would say Denia is the place to sample different variations of paella, for example, and if the seafood in Spain is fresh, in Denia it's literally come straight off the boat that morning. Our hotel, the charming La Posada del Mar, was everything I had hoped for and then some, from the 13th-century archway over the main staircase to the scenic view of the marina from our third-story, four-post bed.
Of all the places R.S. covers in Spain, it's a shame Denia is excluded--it reminds me a lot of Salema in Portugal's Algarve, only with considerably less build-up of high-rise apartment buildings and many more options for quality dining.

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Tuesday, 9/25: Denia! (and rain.)

I had grand plans for our full day in Denia, including kayak trips out to the sea caves on the point and some relaxing time on the beach, but it rained nearly the whole day! Ah, the downside of shoulder season. Nonetheless, we had a fun and laugh-filled day getting drenched while running from cover to cover and exploring our neighborhood. When the rain finally subsided, we enjoyed some tasty Spanish BBQ and strolled around the castle. Our final stop included a sandy night-time beach before getting a nightcap at the hotel bar.

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Wednesday, 9/26: Boat to Ibiza

Today we were aiming to catch the ferry out to Ibiza, but it didn't leave until 5 PM so we weren't in a hurry. After a late checkout, we enjoyed mussels three ways at a restaurant on the marina pier before boarding the boat. A mid-sized cataran, this ferry ride was a little rough pushing through some of the waves from the previous day's storm.

Nonetheless it was a quick ride and the view as we turned into port at Ibiza, with the sun breaking through the storm clouds over the evening Mediterranean, was breathtaking. That night, we got our nightclub on at the infamous Pasha (not something I expect R.S. to cover anytime soon, though the thought certaintly brings a smile to my face!).

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Thursday, 9/27: Ibiza!

This was Mediterranean Island Beach Day. While Ibiza is mainly known for its nightclub scene, it's a very enjoyable island in its own right, including a variety of beautiful beaches. We grabbed some sandwiches and soaked up some sun for hours on end, at a stretch of sand within walking distance of our hotel, before returning to freshen up at our hotel's rooftop pool-and-bar.

That evening, we strolled downtown for dinner. This was another delightful surprise--quality and quantity in gastronomical adventures, right under the castle wall, on Passeig de Vara de Rey and the adjoining Plaza del Parque. You could walk around the entire evening and still return the next day for a completely fresh and tasty selection of unsampled eateries.

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Friday, 9/28: Boat to Barcelona

Another boat today, this time on a larger ferry for the 8-hour trip to Barcelona. This was a much more relaxing ride than the boat from Denia, partially because the boat was bigger but also because the weather was much more relaxing and scenic. Coming into Barcelona in the evening sun was a once-in-a-lifetime experience--very scenic, many pictures taken.

We checked into our hotel on Via Laietana, strategically chosen for its proximity to La Ribera and and Barri Gotic, and because I was deliberately trying to avoid La Rambla like the plague. It's crazy busy and touristy, and it's reputation as the pickpocketing capital of the world is well-deserved--I've had multiple friends and family members run into problems despite taking precautions. Fortunately, there's so much to do in Barcelona that crossing everything on La Rambla off the list barely makes a dent in one's potential itinerary.

We had an excellent dinner that night at the R.S.-recommended Senyor Parellada. We had originally considered staying at the adjoining, also-recommended Hotel Banys Orientals, but they've definitely noticed that they're on the R.S. guidebook list and have doubled-to-tripeled their rates since our 2016 Spain book was published.

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Saturday, 9/29: Barcelona (well, mainly Figueres)

As much as there is to do in Barcelona, we decided to take a day trip to Figueres for the Dali museum. It was a delightful ride on the regional train, and despite some rainy weather (you're definitely close to France, let me tell you!) the Dali museum was worth every penny and all the hype, with a considerable quantity left over for good measure.

Do it. Just do it. It's one of the best museums in the world--maybe THE best--and if you pass through Catalunya without checking it out you will be kicking yourself for the rest of your life. Every little jovial contradiction of your intuition cements Dali's status as one of history's greatest and most though-provoking artists (though you might want to tone-down some of the explanations for the kids... =p).

Upon returning to Barcelona, we walked from the train station back down Via Laietana and enjoyed considerable shopping opportunities for leather goods and other local values, while enjoying Barcelona's considerable charms.

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Sunday, 9/30: Barcelona

Our last full day in Barcelona involved seeing a lot of different neighborhoods by foot, as we explored our way up to Sagrada Familia. Even though they were out of daily tour tickets by the time we got there (hot tip! purchase yours ahead for this attraction, the only time in Spain we ran into issues with ticket shortages), it's still worth walking around the block and admiring the building from every possible angle.

We took the Metro back to our hotel, from which we did an in-depth exploration of La Ribera by foot, including the astonishing Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, quirky cocktail bar Dr. Stravinsky, fantastic leather goods, and amazing Basque pintxos at Euskal Etxea.

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Monday, 10/1: Adeu

Made a mistake while booking this trip. October 1st, 2018 was the one-year anniversary of the Catalonian indepdence referendum. Between the anticipated chaos of anti-federal demonstrations and our mid-day flight, we needed to get out of downtown--fast! Fortunately, we were just up the street from Estacio de Franca, which--after a short stopover--could take us straight to the airport.

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Lessons Learned

  • Madrid is a city with lots of interesting things to see (museums, the palace), but the people aren’t as friendly, outgoing, or hospitable as you’ll find elsewhere. We spent two full days in Madrid, and were able to cover quite a bit. While there’s other museums I’d like to see there, I’m not sure I’d schedule much more time.

  • Denia and Barcelona were the two stops that I’d highly recommend to fellow readers. Barcelona is worth its reputation and then some. Denia, on the other hand, doesn’t have a huge reputation but really should. I never would have heard of it if we didn’t have to take the ferry to get to Ibiza. It’s such a great blend of casual culture and relaxing coastal town; it’s easily on my list of top Europe destinations.

  • Don't underestimate the degree to which Spain is not all "spanish". Basque and Catalan regions are highly unique and very proud of their independence, which extends to different languages and cuisines. They’re both worth checking out.

  • One of my favorite parts of our trip was how much we were able to mix up travel modes (plane, train, boat). It’s fun to see more of the countryside when you take slower trains, too. And if you’re on the Mediterranean, traveling between islands, but not taking the boat, what are you really doing?

  • I did end up feeling a little rushed. We scheduled three nights in Madrid, and three nights in Barcelona. We had two nights in Denia and Ibiza, and only one night in Alicante. If I had to do it over again, I’d pay a little extra for flights with shorter layovers (as much as I love you, Canada) and spend the extra day or two in Denia and Barcelona.

  • Ibiza is actually a really neat island even if you aren’t hopping from nightclub and nightclub. Boats and beaches a-plenty!

  • Specific to R.S.: Don't be afraid, when in Madrid, to venture beyond the super-touristy downtown area. La Latina and Alonso Martinez were some of the most pleasant neighborhoods of our trip.

  • Also specific-to-R.S.: Don't be afraid of Costa Blanca, especially during shoulder season, despite the degree to which R.S. belittles Costa del Sol. Denia alone is worth the trip.

  • Denia, Denia, Denia... Just go there.

The Downsides

  • R.S. isn't the best source for finding nightclubs. Our best finds came from asking late-night bartenders at tapas joints where they'd head after work.

  • R.S. tends to be a little biased towards popular, touristy neighborhoods. If you're looking for more low-key, young/professional areas, try just-off-downtown neighborhoods well-connected by Metro lines.

  • R.S. doesn't mention just how much Spain (outside of Catalonia and Basque country) can be Seriously Racist. It's funny how some former empires adapt so well to multi-cultural effects like interracial couples (we're a black/white American couple in our mid-thirties), while others (like Spain) can't seem to acknowledge the persistent chip on their shoulders while clinging to strict social hierarchies several hundred years out of date.

  • The above point is exacerbated by the persistent machismo culture present in much of inland Spain. Contrary to popular rumor, it's alive and well. My wife was sh'd and literally had hands put in her face when she tried to ask questions with me present, even though she's by far the better Spanish speaker.

  • On that note, interracial marriages will get some interesting reactions. "Why would you choose a black person? You're a white person at the top of our social hierarchy." is the consistent reaction everywhere but places heavily influenced by Italian and French cultures, which have a much better tolerance for these things.

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"...obvious dislike for Costa del Sol and (understandably) the British ex-pats and pensioners that seem to make up such a high percentage of the crowds"

I'm sorry you find us so "understandably" dislikeable, but you'll find there are plenty of us on Costa Blanca as well as Costa del Sol. Even a few of us on Costa Cálida! It's not which coast you choose but where on that coast you go. Del Sol may have its Torremolinos, but Blanca has its Benidorm.

I agree with you about Alacant and Dénia - both worth visiting. Glad you had a nice holiday.

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...R.S. has an obvious dislike for Costa del Sol and (understandably) the British ex-pats and pensioners that seem to make up such a high percentage of the crowds..."

So what is understandable about RS's apparently obvious dislike of British ex-pats and pensioners?

Irony and hypocrisy spring to mind.

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19526 posts

I don't know exactly what quote from RS is the source for this comment, but my assumption would be that the negativity was directed at the destination rather than the people. I don't go to Spain to find German wurst stands or British pubs any more than I go there to be surrounded by other Americans. It's a matter of seeking a somewhat more Spanish experience than one often encounters in the towns swamped by cheap holiday apartments.

Many of those places don't have a lot of sights that are especially attractive from the perspective of a US tourist to begin with; few Americans need to go to Europe to find golf courses and beaches, though I know that some choose to do that. To me, it's one thing to deal with the tourist mobs in Venice or Prague and a completely different matter to put up with them in package resorts on the Mediterranean coast. I'm more than willing to play dodge 'em for part of my time in a place like Venice of Prague; I see absolutely no need to do so in an overrun beach resort when there are wonderful alternative destinations available.

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5105 posts

I believe that Rick's criticism of Spain's Costa del Sol is not of the people who choose to live there, it's more about the experience of being there from the standpoint of someone who goes expecting to "experience Spain."

I think it's a fair point to highlight that this is not a good place to really experience Spanish culture or Spanish life, and that most tourists visiting there would find their experience to be an odd feeling of being in the UK, surrounded by English-speakers, English culture, English Food, English media, all the shop signs in English, etc., and all that appears to have been transplanted to the shores of Spain. There's nothing inherently "wrong" with it, it's just not what most foreign visitors would seek out in Spain. It's understandable that makes for a pleasant experience for those from the UK who enjoy their familiar pubs, breakfast, etc.

Tastes vary, but personally, I generally don't get a favorable impression of foreign enclaves wherever they are, whether that's Brits in Spain, Americans in Mexico, French in Morocco, Aussies in Bali, or wherever. But I can certainly understand the appeal of those places for those who want to be in a warm overseas location but still have the comforts and familiar amenities from home.

I don't think it's a knock against anyone, so I wouldn't take it personally.

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BTW, thanks to Kirk, the OP, for the nice trip report. Thanks for the tips on Denia and Alicante.

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4454 posts

"An understandable dislike for the British ex-pats and pensioners" is not the same as disliking an area popular with expats because it doesn't offer much for tourists looking for more than beaches and golf courses.

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1729 posts

Huzzahs and foot-stamps from the back benches to acraven and David for your replies to the fragile-ego'd Brits abroad -- why is it funny when the Pythons poke at that balloon (see Watneys Red Barrel by Michael Palin) but overdone when an American brings it up?

That said, I agree with the OP that RS is a little too quick to write these regions off and leave them to the English and German package holidaymaker -- we've said before that Malaga has a lot going for it once you get clear of the international shopfronts.

As many delight in pointing out, one traveler's treasure is another traveler's trash -- I don't need to sit on a plane for hours to get to fun in the sun or beautiful vistas or natural wonders, so when I go to southern Europe those things are icing, not the cake itself. What I can't find locally are high culture from any time before the late 19th century, so that's why I pay to sit on a plane.

Kirk, I'm particularly interested in local liqueurs and foods: did you discover any of the Ibiza herbal drinks or some port-equivalents in Denia?

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4454 posts

Huzzahs and foot-stamps from the back benches to acraven and David for your replies to the fragile-ego'd Brits abroad -- why is it funny when the Pythons poke at that balloon (see Watneys Red Barrel by Michael Palin) but overdone when an American brings it up?

Fragile ego? I really couldn't give two hoots about what someone thinks about British ex-pats in Spain but when someone writes about the negative aspects of perceived racism and misogyny yet in the same breath denigrates an entire group of people demonstrates absolute hypocrisy, that's what I take issue with.

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1729 posts

I hear you, JC -- it's not just good form to practice 'when they go low, we go high', it's a requirement.

Here in my neck of the woods we have this notion of 'punching down vs. punching up' -- not sure if that notion travels well outside of US liberal circles -- which means that it is not ok for the party on the top side of a power differential to poke but it is ok for the landless to razz the gentry. This ideas has problems, not least that in some moments and places who is on top switches.

To keep with the topic of the thread, though, I'm certain that some British expats have the inside track when it comes to finding the best spots and eats in southern and eastern Spain, since access is easier than it is for us another ocean and continent away. Just as you might expect me to have a better handle on the back doors of southern CA (even though I'm not from there) since I'm a shorter hop away from it. So I don't want to sound as though I'm dismissive out of hand of British doings in Spain. Mine is more carefully considered.

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You are correct. My characterization was overly-generalized from a series of bad experiences isolated to the Algarve and Costa del Sol on previous trips. I've never run into the same level of friction (or any level, for that matter) on the east, west, or north Iberian coasts--or in a multitude of trips to the U.K. itself. I jumped to a conclusion that detracted from what I hoped would be a useful resource. My apologies.