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VIVA ESPANA

These must-sees of Spain will make your visit an unforgettable experience

Spain is hot and it's just not just because of the great weather. This sprawling Mediterranean Europe country seemingly has it all: sunshine; beaches; mountains; cultural cities; centuries of history; and a bucolic countryside filled with olive groves, vineyards, and friendly people.

Just one of three countries with both Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean coastlines (France and Morocco are the other two), Spain is the second largest country in the European Union, just behind France. That means Euros are used for the country's tasty paella and other purchases.

The Spanish word for Spain, 'Espana,' was likely derived from the Roman name of 'Hispania.' The peninsula was under Roman rule for centuries, but Spanish history is tied to many other cultures, including Iberians, Basques, Christians, Moors, and more. Ironically, the final Moorish kingdom would lose control in 1492 in the Fall of Granada, the same year Columbus reached the Americas for the first time.

Today, Spain is quite modern, but rooted in the past when it comes to culture, cuisine, and other parts of daily life for both locals and visitors alike. Thanks to so many draws, tourism is big business in Spain, and it typically ranks in the top five of most visited countries in the world for good reason.

Here are ten top reasons to plan a visit to Spain right now, plus the best of the rest for those with even more time to explore.

Madrid

Right in the center of Spain and the country's capital since 1561 (yes, 1561) Madrid is one of Europe's most cultural cities. The Prado Museum is enough to put Madrid on any Spain itinerary, thanks to its vast collection of El Sid, Goya, Velazquez, and other major Spanish and European artists. Other Madrid highlights have to include: tapas and terrace cafes in El Retiro park; the restored Mercado de San Miguel; hot chocolate and churros in Chocolateria San Gines; a flamenco show in classic Casa Patas; and Spain's historic Royal Palace, including more Goyas and an incredible collection of tapestries.

Toledo

Those visiting Madrid will also want to head to medieval Toledo, just 45 miles to the south. There are many European and Middle Eastern influences, resulting in labyrinth streets and alleys, the Alcazar, an old Jewish quarter, the city's cathedral, and many other houses of worship and museums, including several places to see the work of El Greco, who came to Toledo in 1577, and died in 1614. The city will have many events centered on the 400th anniversary of his death this year.

Bilbao

Located 240 miles north of Madrid, the main reason to head to bustling Bilbao in Basque country is the stunning Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1997 to rave reviews. Situated on the Bilbao River and featuring a unique fish- and boat-like look, the museum's permanent collection includes works from Braque, Miro, Picasso, and many more. The old town of Las Siete Calles is great for wandering on foot, while the Artxanda Funicular leads to a pretty view of both the museum and the city. Pamplona and its famed "Running of the Bulls (July 7-14) is about 100 miles southeast of Bilbao.

Barcelona

Located about 400 miles northeast of Madrid, Catalonia's Barcelona is a must-see in Spain. A visit to the port city of Barcelona is a lot like Spain's famed tapas-one needs to choose what looks best and enjoy as many small bites as time and desire allow. And, whether it's at a Barcelona restaurant, architectural wonder, cathedral, museum, sprawling beach, or many other possibilities, a visitor's bites of Barcelona are sure to be fulfilling.

Barcelona bites include: the architecture of Antoni Gaudi [see "Gaudi's Barcelona" Web Extra at AAAJourneys.com/WedExtras], including his still-unfinished La Sagrada Familia church; pedestrian-only La Rambla, including the bustling Boqueria Market; cooking classes, tapas tours, and Boqueria Market outings with Barcelona Cooking, located right on La Rambla; the historic Barri Gotic neighborhood; and fresh seafood and more at a variety of restaurants.

Valencia

Spain's third largest city behind Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia is situated 225 miles east of the capital on the Mediterranean coastline. The city boasts many museums, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences, boasting visitation exceeded only by the Prado), Europe's largest aquarium, L'Oceanografic, and its Submarino restaurant, and a huge annual street festival (March 12-19) called Las Fallas.

Granada

Andalucia's Granada is just 260 miles south of Madrid, but it's in another Islamic Spanish world. Walking-friendly Granada features the Alhambra red fortress palace, El Albayzin, the old Muslim neighborhood, the city's Gothic-Renaissance cathedral, the Royal Chapel, and several monasteries open to the public. The Andalucía region is Spain's traditional home of bullfighting and flamenco.

Seville

Like Barcelona, Andalucia's Seville is simply a Spain must-see. The city straddles the Guadalquivir River and includes stand-alone destinations like the cathedral (including the supposed remains of Christopher Columbus), the towering Giralda, a one-time mosque minaret, the fort-palace Alcazar, and various palaces and famed Seville patios.

Costa del Sol, Malaga, & Cordoba

Made famous in "The Drifters" by James Michener, the Coast of the Sun stretches from around Malaga to Gibraltar and features one-time fishing villages that are now coastal beach destinations with all of the amenities. Malaga proper is well worth a visit for the Picasso house-museum, the Alcazaba, and the historic bullfighting ring. Old Cordoba just 120 miles to the north, with its mosque, museums, and more, is also popular with visitors.

Paella, Tapas, Flamenco and More

Perhaps no two words say Spain more than paella and tapas. Saffron scented and flavored paella is a rice dish that features varying combinations of vegetables, meat, chicken, and seafood. It's easy to find throughout Spain now, but it was supposedly created in the tiny town of La Albufera, just outside Valencia.

Spain's ubiquitous tapas are basically small "bites" of varying foods, ranging from a handful of olives to slices of toast slathered with tomato, olive oil, and garlic and a bit of the country's varied cured meats. Other staples found in Spanish restaurants include potato and onion omelettes, gazpacho, and lots of fish dishes, like dried and salted cod. It's typically washed down with a local beer or glass of Spanish wine.

Flamenco One can't go to Spain without attending at least one flamenco show. With a combination of music, singing, and dancing, the art of flamenco is very much alive and well in Spain. It's easy to find a show in Andalucia, Barcelona, and Madrid, as well as at many festivals.

There's so much more to see in Spain, including: medieval Santiago de Compostela, which is the traditional finishing point for the Camino del Santiago walk; the Pyrenees Mountains, with ski resorts and renowned hiking; the Costa Brava town of Cadaques, with many Salvador Dali influences and Spain's Balearic Islands in the middle of the Mediterranean, like popular Mallorca and Ibizia. Plus, Portugal is situated conveniently to the west, including Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve and more.

Did You Know?

*Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil.

*At more than 750 miles, Spain's border with neighboring Portugal is the longest uninterrupted border in the entire European Union.

Gaudi's Barcelona

To be in Barcelona is to be in Gaudi's Barcelona. This Spanish port city and the famed architect are as linked as a good Rioja red and a chunk of Manchego cheese. Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region of Spain, and the Catalan translation of Gaudi is enjoyment. It's certainly easy to enjoy the mark that Gaudi left on Barcelona.

Born in 1852 in Reus, just an hour outside Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi eventually moved to the city to study architecture at the College of Sciences of Barcelona. He received his first major commission in 1878, when he was hired by wealthy Barcelona families to design various buildings and factories. Little did these families know then that Gaudi would make his mark on their city like no single architect has ever done for a city anywhere else in the world.

Many have called his style Gaudi-ism, but his work was really a unique combination of Modernism, Gothicism, Surrealism, Moorish and more. After almost 40 years of constant commissions - a majority in or near Barcelona - Gaudi was accidentally killed by a passing Barcelona streetcar in 1926. Dressed in rags, taxi drivers refused to take the vagabond to the hospital. He was buried in the crypt of his beloved Sagrada Familia.

To see Barcelona through the eyes, and mind, of Gaudi is actually quite simple today, thanks to the ease of visiting many of his works located throughout the bustling city. Many tours start with Park Guell which provides a great introduction to Gaudi's work in a peaceful garden-like setting. Now a 40-acre city park, the former real estate development is situated on the southern slope of Carmel Hill.

Gaudi often worked with a wealthy Barcelona businessman named Eusebi Guell, who owned a number of textile factories in the area and gave Gaudi free reign in a number of designs. This was the pair's largest project and it was designed to become an upscale neighborhood of residences and gardens.

From about 1900 to 1914, Gaudi created roads, pedestrian walkways and a hilltop square that was to be used as a social area and marketplace. Though there were very few cars in use in Barcelona at the time, Gaudi had the forethought to make the streets wide enough for auto traffic. In many ways, this was the world's first contemporary planned community.

After the infrastructure was in place, Gaudi and Guell split the land into 60 plots, with plans to sell detached homes with gardens. However, Barcelonians were long accustomed to living in the city, with apartments and shared living spaces. They also didn't want to live so far from downtown Barcelona (the city has since expanded well beyond Park Guell). In retrospect, of course, Gaudi was a pioneer of urban and suburban planning.

By 1918, when the development's failure was obvious, Guell sold the land to Barcelona, which allowed him to cut his losses and also avoid the huge taxes owed to the city. In 1922, Barcelona declared the land a city park. In 1984, Park Guell was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From the moment you enter this Gaudi park playground, it's obvious that his goal was to have architecture become an extension of the natural setting. Highlights of Gaudi touches throughout Park Guell include: 55 round concrete stones to signify 55 rosary beads; parabolic arches (the colors and shapes are from nature); park benches made from broken tiles and ceramics (Gaudi was a legendary recycler and re-used whatever whenever possible); a town square supported by 86 Doric columns; a staircase anchored by a salamander; and two small and typically whimsical Gaudi-designed buildings (one was to be the real estate sales office and one the home of the watchman).

The genius of Gaudi's design can be found at every turn. For instance, the wave-like park benches were curved to promote conversation among residents. Plus, underneath the aforementioned town square is a shady site designed to be a town market. Today's arts and crafts sellers enjoy the great view Gaudi built for the vendors in his planned market - a ceiling filled with multi-hued ceramic tiles. Park Guell surely served as a colorful introduction to Gaudi's work.

Next, Casa Batllo is portrayed as Gaudi's residential masterpiece - at least the one that's open to the public. Gaudi was hired to remodel the building, originally constructed in 1877, and divide it into apartments, which he dramatically accomplished from 1904 to 1906. The patron, Josep Batllo, lived on the lower two floors and rented out the upper stories as apartments.

Gaudi added a new (and wavy) Modernist facade to the stone building, with enlarged windows, bone-like columns, skull-like balconies, ceramic circles, and lots of trademark colored-glass fragments. He also completely reworked the interior - which has to be toured to be believed - and even added a fifth floor replete with attic spaces and whimsical chimneys.

The interior of Casa Batllo is a cornucopia of colors and architectural details that are hard to fathom in one visit. Most of the walls are curved, with hallways and rooms making surprising appearances.

The attics and chimneys on the roof terrace added by Gaudi were re-opened on the anniversary of his renovation and remain a popular destination for many of the building's visitors - including us. Gaudi used images of the four elements of nature (air, fire, water and earth) to create several attic spaces (including the old laundry room), as well as colorful chimneys, a light well, and vaults that look like an enormous rib cage. Many have called this undulating roof reminiscent of a dragon's back.

Nearby is Gaudi's Casa Mila and the apartment building is well worth visiting, if only to see the eerily shaped wrought iron balconies. Gaudi aficionados can seek out several other works by the architect located throughout the city that aren’t typically part of an organized tour.

The seemingly endless construction site - and sight - of Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church) is Barcelona's most famous tourism attraction and, along with the Prado and the Alhambra, one of the most-visited places in Spain. It is a fitting end to an exploration of Gaudi's Barcelona.

The church was originally planned by another architect, and Gaudi took over in 1883. At the time, Sagrada Familia stood more than a mile from urban Barcelona; it's now in the middle of the city's bustling heart. Gaudi worked on the building for more than 40 years, devoting most of his last 15 years to its construction. He even lived in his Sagrada Familia studio the last year of his life.

The church wasn't even close to complete when Gaudi died in 1926 and it's still just more than 50 percent finished. The current estimated completion date is about 2026, on the centennial of Gaudi's death; but this is totally dependent on funding, which is mostly donations. When (and if) completed, it will be a Roman Catholic church, not a cathedral; Barcelona already has one.

Gaudi started work on the church when he was in his early 30s, so he brought lots of his new ideas to the drawing board. Today's construction is still based on his original drawings, notes and other information. Any overall picture of Sagrada Familia is bound to include cranes and scaffolding.

The dramatic exterior's visual highlights include: the main entrance dedicated to the life (Glory) of Christ; the eastern side door facade dedicated to Christ's birth (Nativity) and the western side door to his death (Passion); dramatic entranceways decorated with words from the Bible in various languages (including Catalan); and so much more that it's difficult for human eyes to take it all in during one visit. Each entrance will ultimately have four towers, commemorating Christ's 12 disciples (the entries are about two-thirds complete). The towers rise more than 300 feet and are topped with colorful pinnacles featuring, of course, multihued mosaics.