Traveling the Iberian Peninsula
By Serena Brown
Initially we’d planned to go to Italy. I’d visited the country twice before, but my sister is studying abroad in Florence until mid-December and visiting her seemed like the perfect excuse to jet off to Europe at the end of the year. As the months went on however, I felt pulled in a different direction and decided to travel to places unknown rather than familiar. My boyfriend Jeremy has never been to Europe, but Spain has been at the top of his travel bucket list for years. Together we decided to do 11 days in Portugal and Spain, embracing the warm weather, vivid culture, and delicious food the Iberian Peninsula has to offer.
On September 15th we touched down in Lisbon—exhausted, excited, and on my part, moderately queasy thanks to a questionable airplane meal. Portugal was surprisingly easy to navigate due to the legality of Uber and the fact that most people we encountered spoke English. Our AirBnB was positioned up in the hills of Alfama, one of the city’s oldest districts, home to twisting cobbled streets and hidden artisan shops. Just up the hill from our apartment was a beautiful Mirador, or lookout point. Our driver made a point to take us there first to “understand the beauty of the city you have just arrived in.”
Lisbon is sometimes referred to as the ‘San Francisco of Europe’ though perhaps it should be the opposite due to their dates of conception. Regardless, I quickly noticed the similarities. Both cities are built on various hills, have a famous red bridge, and Lisbon’s Tram 28 is strikingly similar to San Francisco’s cable car. We learned later that Lisbon’s iconic red bridge was not built by the same architect as our own Golden Gate, but rather by the same firm that built the neighboring Bay Bridge.
The next few days were spent exploring the city; getting lost down its small streets, and eating amazingly delicious Portuguese food, paired with wine of course. On our second day we took a day trip to the nearby city of Sintra, known for its abundant palaces and gorgeous hilltop views. We were able to visit three landmarks during our day trip: The National Palace, Moorish Castle, and Pena Palace. The latter two were the most impressive, boasting well preserved walls and turrets, breathtaking views, and in the case of Pena Palace, more colors and tiles than I’m used to seeing in estates back home. Since all the palaces are positioned up in the hills above the old town, there’s a handy tourist bus for getting around. That’s not to say we didn’t walk our fair share of stairs and hills before heading back to Lisbon for dinner.
As Flamenco is to Seville, Fado is to Lisbon. Restaurants with performances of the traditional Portuguese melancholy ballads can be found throughout the old town. Jeremy and I had made reservations at Senor Vino’s and were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed the show. The restaurant’s intimate setting paired with a fabulous meal and hauntingly beautiful music made for a wonderful night. The following day was our last full day in Lisbon so we took advantage of the numerous free walking tours and learned some history. Free walking tours can be found throughout most major cities in Europe, with the guides requesting tips as compensation at the end. Our tour lasted about 3hrs and took us all over the neighborhoods of Alfama and the lesser known Mouraria, with our guide giving us an extensive but enjoyable lesson on the city’s history. A highlight of the tour was trying the city’s famous Ginja, a cherry liquor, at a local laundromat.
Leaving Lisbon we flew to Spain, landing in Seville where we spent about four hours visiting the Cathedral and Giralda Tower before hopping on a train to Granada. Our time in Granada was largely spent walking and eating. The first day we visited the famous Alhambra, getting happily lost in its expansive gardens and beautiful palaces. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get tickets to the Nasrid Palaces for the same day, but instead found an evening tour for the following one. If anyone is planning to visit Granada anytime soon, I recommend buying all tickets in advance! That evening we instead sought out a tapas bar recommend by a few girls in our hostel. The wait was long but the food was worth it. Plus, we made a detour for takeaway churros on our way back home.
Day two found us seeking out graffiti in the district of Realejo. There we saw many murals by the famous local spray-paint artist Raul Ruiz, also known as ‘El Niño’. At around 5pm we found ourselves on yet another walking tour which took us up into the hills behind the city to the old town of Sacramonte. This neighborhood used to be home to the Gypsys and still holds reminders of its past. Vagabonds, drifters, and artists still live in some of the old cave dwellings in the hills, having outfitted them with solar panels, water tanks, and occasionally walls and floors as well. We were lucky enough to visit one such cave due to the owner’s relationship with our tour guide. It was definitely a trek to make it to his home, high in the hills above Granada’s city center. Afterwards, our group was able to catch the sunset from the steps of a nearby church, watching the last rays of the day hit the roofs of the city and walls of the Alhambra before drifting down behind the mountains.
As I’d mentioned before, we had secured a night tour of the Nasrid Palaces for that evening, so we essentially had to book it down the ‘mountain’ (I’m reluctant to say hill because it felt so high), across the city, and up once more to the Alhambra, all in about an hour. We made it, but our legs paid the price the following day. I’m happy though, that we made the effort, because the palaces were as absolutely breathtaking as everyone had claimed. The detailing of the walls, tiles, and floors were so exquisitely made. The ceilings looked as if they were carved out of soap, rather than stone, and the colors shone even more vividly in the surrounding darkness. Even through our exhaustion we were able to appreciate the immense care and devotion that went into creating the beautiful space and I would have loved to visit once more to see it in the daytime as well.
The next day we left Granada and headed back to Seville. Our limited schedule meant that we really only had one day to see the sights in the city, so we fought through the heat and our tiredness to visit Real Alcazar. Even after seeing the beauty of the Nasrid Palaces in Granada, I was still blown away by the craftsmanship of this palace. I was especially excited to walk around the gardens since they were a filming location for the Water Gardens of Dorne in Game of Thrones. Of course that evening we had to see a Flamenco show, being in Seville, and partake in some local dishes before getting a good night’s rest for the next long day ahead.
For our final full day in Spain, we took a day trip to the small village Sentenil de las bodegas and the town of Ronda. One of the eight Pueblos Blancos (white villages) of the northern part of the provinces of Cádiz and Málaga in southern Spain, Sentenil de las bodegas is worth a trip all its own. Named after its once flourishing wineries (bodegas) the village is uniquely built into the rock faces that surround it, having been hollowed out by the river years and years ago. Many of the small shops are carved into the hillside, creating streets of cave-like structures. The two main roads, Cave of Sun and Cave of Shadows, are lined with tapas bars, bakeries, and bars. This specific town has been on my travel bucket list for some time now, and I was happy to finally see it in person.
After leaving the Pueblos Blancos, we drove to the mountaintop city of Ronda, famous for its placement above a deep gorge. The gorge splits the city between its old town and new town, with the two connected by a large stone bridge called Puente Nuevo. The first thing we did upon arrival was hike down into the gorge, just far enough to get a view of the bridge from below. We also saw people rappelling down the waterfall beneath it—notes for next time! Walking around the city led us to many gorgeous viewpoints overlooking the impressive gorge and surrounding valleys. Since we’d stopped here for lunch we popped into a local tapas bar to sample some of the fare. I wish we’d had more time to explore the city, as well as more energy, since before we knew it, it was time to head back to Seville.
The final days of our trip were spent flying back to Lisbon and onward to San Francisco. The trip felt both exceedingly short and quite long, as we’d packed many cities and activities into just over a week. Generally when I travel I try to see as much as I can and this trip was no different. It was a welcome respite from the day-to-day routine of work and play, but I definitely felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation upon returning home. If anyone is interested in seeing further photos from my trip, I invite you to visit my VSCO page for my chosen favorites. As always, leaving the country always gives me the travel bug so my next trip is already on the books—I’ll be trekking to Machu Pichu with my mother and sister next June! Stay tuned!