Once upon a time a long, beautiful Spanish coastline was washed by the Mediterranean. Great mountains pierced the bluest of skies. Moorish palaces, whitewashed chapels, tiny villages and ancient towns sat peacefully in the sun. The people were known for their warmth. Fiestas filled the summer evenings. It was a charming and welcoming place and loved by all.
If you don’t recognise the description it’s probably because you – like most people – think of the Costa del Sol post 1960’s package-holiday-plague. And its famous names like Torremolinos, Fuengirola and Marbella are bywords for tacky – whether tack’s cheap beer and chip shops or monster yachts. Continue reading
We always think World Heritage Spain is open to speculation. Yes there are the 44 designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but we’ve never visited the country without asking ‘But what about……?’ Because so much of Spain still upholds ancient traditions and historic art and architecture are often intrinsic to the contemporary landscape it can’t be easy to draw a World Heritage line and decide what gets protected and what doesn’t. And in a way this is good news, the 44 sites that are official in Spain are truly World Heritage. They’re the cathedrals and monasteries that made the others look measly (and that’s going some in Spain). The national parks and islands and mountain ranges stood out in a country not short of contenders. And the historic cities that made the World Heritage top 44 must just have whiskered past the losers.
So for every awe inspiring monument, cathedral, park, rock painting or amphitheatre we’ve missed in our top 5, we’re not going to feel too bad because in our opinion UNESCO have ignored quite a few too – and they had a lot more wriggle room.
TOWER OF HERCULES, CORUNA, GALICIA
As if it wasn’t enough for Galicia to have one of the most extraordinary coastlines in Spain, the region bagged a fair share of the country’s fantastic seafood too, selfishly took Santiago de Compostela and to top it all walked off with the world’s oldest working lighthouse, The Tower of Hercules.
At 57 metres, The Tower of Hercules is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain and was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2009. The original Roman tower dates from the 2nd Century, there are Medieval modifications and in 1788 it was completely restored to its present form. Strategically positioned on a rocky peninsula the Tower of Hercules overlooks the Costa de Morte or Coast of Death, a stretch of the Atlantic known for its disastrous shipwrecks.
Galicia is one of the most mysterious and intriguing regions of Spain and its least touristy coast. The Spanish holiday here for the beautiful beaches, pretty harbour towns and to get first dibs on that famous Galician seafood before it ends up on the world’s Michelin starred menus.
SIEGA VERDE, SALAMANCA
We’re completely behind UNESCO’s conservation efforts when it comes to prehistoric art. Yes, we’d like to have seen Lascaux and Altamira in the flesh, although we’re happy to settle for the excellent reproductions and our imagination. But we have to admit that if the opportunity to get up close and personal with some Paleolithic art presents itself we’re not going to miss out.
Siega Verde in Spain’s Salamanca Region on the border of Portugal was designated a World Heritage Site in 2010. Officially Siega Verde is an extension of Portugal’s incredible Côa Valley Archaeological Park. But with 94 Rock Art sites covering an area of 16km² and depicting over 500 prehistoric animals, Spain’s addition to the world’s Paleolithic art collection more than holds its own. And the best bit is – you actually get to see the real thing. Understandably, visits to the Rock Art sites are guided and most involve trekking across some magnificently rugged landscape but these are definitely hikes worth taking.
EL ESCORIAL, MADRID
credit: Jose Luis Rodríguez
Tired of all that art and architecture in Spain’s capital? Then do as the Madrileño do and head 45km out of the city to El Escorial in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama. This vast World Heritage Site was commissioned by Philip II of Spain in the mid-16th century to atone for various bits and pieces of bad behaviour, think: sacking churches, loose interpretation of marriage vows and the purloining of quite a sizeable amount of New World Gold. For all his shenanigans when he was briefly King of ‘other places’ (including England briefly), Philip II of Spain went on to be famously devout as King of Spain and El Escorial is his monument to grace and wisdom as well as a grand location to inter future Spanish monarchs.
For Renaissance Spain, El Escorial is remarkably austere, although its sheer size is quite daunting. Today the complex houses one of Europe’s finest art collections including work by Titian and Tintoretto, its vaulted library is world famous for rare manuscripts and the restrained elegance of the formal gardens and water features is justifiably admired and much copied.
LA LONJA DE LA SEDA, VALENCIA
credit: palm z
Spain’s third largest city and one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean, Valencia would be worth visiting even if it didn’t have a World Heritage Site to its name. But unsurprisingly Valencia wears its centuries of wealth and prosperity fairly flamboyantly and it’s not short of an architectural masterpiece or twenty.
La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) is one of the few secular World Heritage Sites in Spain and the country’s finest example of late Gothic architecture. With its beautifully weathered gargoyles, soaring columns, huge arched windows and almost overwhelming use of marble, La Lonja is a stunning testimony to the power and influence of 15th century Valencia. La Lonja is still used commercially today although not for anything as romantic and exotic as silk trading. And if you need to antidote the great and grand don’t forget Valencia is also home to La Tomatina, the annual festival of getting good and rowdy and drenched in tomatoes.
Possibly Spain’s best known World Heritage Site, the Alhambra in Granada is certainly one of the loveliest in the world. The Alhambra was originally built as a fortress in the 9th century, added to by centuries of rulers and invaders and even the Duke of Wellington (forest of elm), allowed to fall into disrepair and finally restored with a few glitches along the way to become Europe’s finest example of Islamic, Christian and secular architecture.
We highly recommend taking one of the excellent guided tours of the Alhambra to get your bearings. Then explore the endless intricate details for yourself, keeping in mind that the general theme is ‘A Paradise on Earth’ – regardless of the era or architectural signature.
And that’s our top 5 Spanish World Heritage Sites. Our selection is unashamedly personal, obviously not comprehensive and we’re sorry we couldn’t include more of Spain’s wonderful natural heritage. But there are another 39 sites to see, so when you make up your top 5 we look forward to comparing notes.
Featured image by N i c o_
English speaking visitors to France, cherchez-ing a perfectly grilled steak haché or a nicely browned frite, could do worse than head for French restaurant chain Courtepaille. If your grasp of the language is limited to an embarrassed ‘merci’, it’s probably Bon Appetit all round and none the wiser. But for those with a slightly wider vocabulary, confusion reigns. Because Courtepaille directly translates as ‘Short Straw’, not the first name choice for a successful restaurant you’d think, right? Wrong. In France, if you draw the short straw you’re the lucky winner.
Black cats are another source of confusion when it comes to good luck/bad luck. Apparently The Pilgrim Fathers (who really should have had more to worry them) believed black cats were agents of Satan. But, for centuries, canny Scots have thought the melanin rich felines brought prosperity. Gamblers fear black cats and pirates love them – handy to know if you’re in Vegas or sailing the high seas.
Some superstitions are widely held: smash the bottom of an empty boiled egg shell so a witch can’t make a boat out of it: bird droppings are good luck: a single magpie is a bad omen: don’t put new shoes on a table: spilled salt isn’t good (counteract with a pinch over your left shoulder and into the devil’s eye): and a tall, dark stranger as your first visitor of the New Year heralds excellent fortune (yes, we used the word ‘herald’).
But we think it’s probably fair to say that the best superstitions/omens/etc are based on indigenous lore and legend. They’re certainly some of the strangest (only in Iceland would they give citizens’ rights to elves), most eccentric and, occasionally, plain creepy – Mexico you know who you are! So before we douse ourselves in bird droppings and catch us a couple of magpies in preparation for another Friday the 13th, here’s our good guide to some superstitions of the world – wise travellers, heed our words!
credit: Sergio Rozas
Friday 13th in Spain is just a day like any other. Because, although the Spanish are uncommonly superstitious, it’s Tuesday 13th that’s the unluckiest day in their calendar. And we’re not just talking, watch out for ladders and spilled salt: Tuesday 13th in Spain is a day of mortal dread. As they say – Martes 13, ni te cases, ni te embarques (Tuesday 13th, don’t get married or set sail).
Visiting Russia and tempted to make Blinis? Before you start slathering on the sour cream and caviare, beware. Don’t ever eat the first pancake out of the pan, it belongs to a witch and if she doesn’t get it she’ll get you. Most seasoned pancake makers don’t care, the first pancake’s never that great anyway.
It’s probably not surprising that the birthplace of the magnificent Brothers Grimm should have a healthy stock of very unhealthy superstitions – mostly about death and dying. Our particular gory favourite is the belief that the wounds of a murdered corpse will start to bleed afresh if the body is touched again by the murderer.
credit: Janek Kloss
Forget the poetry, stout and fantastic oysters, if you visit Ireland it’s the fairies you have to watch out for. This may not be of interest to the average traveller, but if you’re renting a holiday house you might want to make sure it wasn’t built on a Fairy Path. According to Irish legend, fairies travel all over the country and if you build a house on one of their routes you’ll never know peace as long as you live. To make sure you don’t fall foul of a fairy: choose your site, stick a post in each of the four corners and if they’re still there in the morning it’s a fairy-free-zone.
The highly intelligent Magpie recognises its mirror image, hence its liking for shiny stuff and glass reflections. But if you’re Scottish you don’t believe any of that old scientific nonsense: a single Magpie on your window sill means death is coming to your home.
Want to ward off evil in Italy? Well, if you’re an Italian man, just grab the front of your trousers (think Michael Jackson Thriller). Yes, that gesture which has most of womankind rolling their eyes in disgust, is actually designed to ensure the bad thing you’re talking about doesn’t happen to you.
If you’re wandering around Yorkshire and you chance to come upon a hairy caterpillar, pick it up and hurl it over your shoulder for good luck – it’s one of those ‘not such good luck for the hairy caterpillar’ things, we know!
credit: K. G. Hawes
Lighting a votive candle in a Catholic church is something almost everyone does, whatever their beliefs. But in France, never light a candle from another candle because only the prayer of the original will be answered.
Wear a turquoise bead when you’re visiting Greece to ward off the evil eye. But watch it closely, if the colour starts to fade, danger is coming your way.
Come any Friday in Brazil (13th or otherwise) wear white clothes and you’ll have good luck. And, to make sure you always have plenty of cash, get yourself an elephant statue for the house and place it with its back to the door – Brazilian Feng Shui.
Finnish folk love a sauna and with every sauna comes a ‘Tonttu’. The Tonttu is a Sauna Elf, and if you forget to throw water on the stove for the Tonttu, he’ll curse your next sauna visit.
When visitors come knocking at the door in Holland the superstitious Dutch rush to answer because it’s said that if the door blows open on its own you’ve invited the Devil into your home.
Famous foragers that they are, no outdoorsy Swede with any sense ever picks heather and brings it home as ancient lore dictates they won’t live to tell the tale.
And finally, for this Friday and any other Friday – watch out for flying swans: if you see them overhead in the morning it’s good luck, but in the evening they’re a very bad sign.
credit: Ben Brewer
If, like us, you’re rather partial to an amazing view – maybe you should visit a town built on the side of a cliff for your next break. From Italy to Corsica, Mexico to Yemen, all around the world you can find quaint, idyllic villages and towns with the most exciting views, enough to leave your jaw dropped more than an MDC ballot at a Zimbabwean election.
Here are a few of our favourite cliff-side retreats. We wish you a weekend with at least two medium-sized adventures, and no pitfalls to speak of.
Bonifacio, in the south of Corsica
Acapulco, along Mexico’s Pacific coast
Ronda, in the Spanish province of Málaga
Positano, on the Amalfi Coast in Italy
Santorini, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea
Cinque Terre, five villages clumped along the Italian Riviera
Cuenca, a city in central Spain
Continuing on from yesterday’s blog post, this week’s Flickr Friday is aimed at the dazzling sun blazing down for glorious Spanish summer.
Please enjoy this collection of ways to enjoy the Spanish heat, and have a toasty (or not cold at least) weekend.
The running of the bulls in Pamplona isn’t just for grown ups. Image © Viajar24h.com
Cover image © jenny downing