Craving for Old Europe? Here are Top 7 Cities to Visit !!!

It’s not just the European food or people or cultures that attracts millions of people to visit the continent each year. Yes, those are appealing, but for the most part, it’s the unique medieval charms of Europe that people can’t get enough of when they are getting lost in the narrow alleys of small towns in Europe, looking at centuries old cathedrals or  ruins of ancient fortresses,  or walking on cobbled stoned squares from the middle ages.

Every time I’ve visited the big or tiny towns in Europe, I was taken back in time. I could feel and see the life that existed hundreds of years ago. It was like an open museum that has surprises in every corner of it. From big cities like Rome to one of the smallest ones, like Cyprus have medieval elements scattered though the cities.

After visiting more than 130 cities in Europe (it’s not enough for any continent, let alone for Europe), I had hard time hand-picking cities that will give the tourists most medieval experience of Europe. Oh yes, there are plenty of these towns where you can go and feel like you traveled to the past thru a time machine in this continent. But here are 7 not-so-common places that you should visit to experience some enticing old European charms. They are not in any particular order…enjoy

  1. Toledo (Spain): Once the capital of Spain, Toledo, is a must-see city when you are in Madrid. The history of this town dates back to 192 B.C. which became a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich cultural and historical monuments. Some spots to hit in Toledo are Cathedral of Toledo, Monuments of Greco, Old city wall, the synagogue, San Martin Bridge, and finally the magnificent Alcazar.
An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

2. Volterra (Italy): This is a perfect day-trip if you are in Florence or Sienna in Italy. Volterra is one of many walled cities of Toscana and it attracts thousands of tourists every month. Other than its sweeping beauty of its countryside and other small hill-towns, it has those cozy piazzas, like Piazza dei Priori, a roman theater, couple good museums like Alabaster Museum and Pinacoteca Museum, and finally an old baptistery…Santa Maria Assunta Church. To finish off the day, have some gelato from a local store.

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

3. Plovdiv (Bulgaria): Dating back to more than 4000 B.C, Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in whole Europe. The town is very well-preserved and many old buildings, paved streets, fortifications, walls, water-supply, and sewerage survived from its early period. Visit the Virgin Mary Church, St. Dimitar Church, Roman Theater, ancient Stadium of Philippopolis, and Djoumaya Mosque from the 14th century. Plovdiv would make a perfect trip if you are in Sophia and have an extra day to taste the old Bulgaria.

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

4. San Marino (San Marino): This is one of the littlest countries in Europe yet it claims to be the world’s oldest republic. San Marino not only  offers impressive views of the surrounding hills, countryside, Adriatic Sea, and Italy, but it also has spectacular historic landmarks for its visitors. If you are in the Tuscany region in Italy, San Marino would be a perfect day-trip from there. Visit the Old Town, 1st Tower – Guaita, Basilica di San Marino, Piazza Publica, and enjoy its great Italian cuisine in any restaurants.

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

5. Luxembourg City (Luxembourg): This is probably one of my most favorite capitals to visit in Europe. The history and the beauty of Luxembourg City will truly make your trip a memorable one. Here are some places to see here: Gella Fra Monument, Notre Dame Cathedral, Grand Ducal Palace, Bock Casamates, and finally the whole town. This should be on your top list if you are visiting Belgium…too good to miss.

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

6. Valletta (Malta): This is a unique place where rich history, good Mediterranean food, scenic beauty, and colorful atmosphere come together in harmony. Malta’s capital, Valletta, was one of the earliest sites that got listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old world splendor and magnificent Baroque architectures. While in Valletta, make sure to take a boat ride to the unforgettable Islands of Gozo and Comino. But in the city, roam around its old part and enjoy places like, St. John’s Cathedral (and many other old churches), Upper Barracca Garden, National Library of Malta, St. Fort Elmo, and Great Siege Square.

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

7. Dinant (Belgium): Situated by River Meuse, Dinant is a French-speaking (Wallonia) part of Belgium. This is the hometown of Adolphe Sax…the inventor of saxophone that dates back to 800 B.C. Visit the Dinant Citadel (and enjoy stunning view from there), Collegiate Cathedral of Dinant, Saxophone Bridge and River Meuse, and get lost in the old alleys that are packed with local goods and cafes. Another sweet trip if you are ever in Brussels.

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

 

 

Four Awesome Things To Do in Barcelona This Easter

Easter is a big deal in most Spanish speaking countries. Why not spend it in Barcelona this year? Barcelona is a beautiful city. Traditional yet cosmopolitan, historical and beautiful. It makes for a perfect short break. And the nightlife is vibrant and lively. What more could you want?

Language skills a bit rusty? Why not take a few Spanish classes before you go! It’s good to know even a little of the local lingo before you go. Holidays are much easier when you can recognise basic words, and locals appreciate the effort. Even if they do tend to reply in excellent English! It can also avoid menu mishaps. At the very least, take a guidebook, but do try and learn at least a few basic words and phrases before you go. And don’t forget your camera!

Where are the best places to visit in Barcelona? Here’s our top 4!

The Font Magica Fountain

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Picture Sean Murray

Stunning, thrilling and much loved, The Font Magica Fountain is one of the most popular attractions in Barcelona. It re-opens at the beginning of March in time for the celebrations of Easter. A dazzling display of water, music and light, it is not to be missed. It is an essential stop on any tour of Barcelona. Built in 1929, the Font Magica delights and thrills locals and tourist alike right up to the present day. Shows until the end of April are 7-9pm Friday and Saturday only, and admission is free!

Picasso Museum

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Picture Cea+

Lovers of art will not want to miss a visit to the Pablo Picasso Museum. The legendary artist was born in Malaga but spent nearly a decade living in Barcelona around the in the late 19th/ early 20th century. The Picasso museum is without a shadow of a doubt the most famous museum in the Spanish city. It houses many of his early works. They are a perfect example of the massive influence Barcelona had on his work. It is a real privilege to see all of these famous works of art before your very eyes.

Las Ramblas Street

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Picture Jacinta lluch Valero

Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s most well-known street. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the street but is very much the throbbing heart of the city. Visiting Barcelona without taking a stroll down Las Ramblas is inconceivable. It would be like visiting Paris and never even looking at the Eiffel tower! Grab a coffee and people watch from the prime viewing spot on the pavement. You’ll see every walk of life in the middle of this vibrant city.

FC Barcelona Camp Nou Stadium and Barça museum

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Picture Oh-Barcelona.com

The majesty of this huge stadium has to be seen to be believed. Of course, if you love the Beautiful Game then you’ll appreciate it even more. But you don’t have to be a football fan to appreciate the Camp Nou stadium and the Barça museum. Full of history and remarkable sporting legend, the stadium is magnificent.

 

An Overseas U.K. Territory – Gibraltar

GIBRALTAR: Gibraltar is truly a unique place for those curious travelers. It’s an overseas U.K. territory by the breathtaking Mediterranean Sea. The land is bordered with Spain in one side and therefore the Gibraltarians are fluent in both English and Spanish. Speaking of language, we came to know that interestingly, may be the word “Gibberish” came from Gibraltar where they sometimes speak a mixed dialect with English and Spanish that sounds a bit like…Gibberish.

The name “Gibraltar” arrived from the man who came to this rock from Africa many centuries ago. His name was Tariq. So the place came to be known as “Jabal-Al-Tariq” which means “Mountain of Tariq” in Arabic. In 1704, it became a British territory. Currently, around 30,000 people live in Gibraltar and it gets as many as 7 to 8 million tourists every year.

Near Gibraltar Airport

Near Gibraltar Airport

Gibraltar is surrounded by water from three sides with both Atlantic and Mediterranean and Spain on one side. Africa is only 14 miles away from here. You get stunning views from most of the corners of Upper Rock of Spain, Africa, Atlantic, and Mediterranean…it can’t get any better.

Enjoying the view from Upper Rock of Gibraltar

Enjoying the view from Upper Rock of Gibraltar

Gibraltar doesn’t have any sales tax on any items. Therefore, lots of tourists come here to do major shopping. While local pound is the official currency, they also accept British pounds issued by Bank of England (not the ones from Bank of Scotland and Northern Ireland). Most of the places accept Euros too but your changes will may very well be in pounds.

Driving in Gibraltar may not be that easy for new-comers, especially when going to top of the rock. Good part is that, they drive like the rest of Europeans and not like U.K. on the right-hand side. We left our car on the other side of the border in Spain and crossed border-control on foot. This was a better idea since there were couple big car garages on the Spanish sides and we didn’t have to worry about parking our car in Gibraltar. Another disadvantage of bring the car to the English side is that on our way back the queue to cross border check-point to Spanish side was huge, I mean…humongous. But those of us who were walking, the police didn’t even check our passports.

TIME of TRAVEL: Gibraltar was the last destination of our Andalusian trip in Spain that we took in February of 2014. We checked out from our hotel in Seville on the 2nd morning and drove about 2 hours on scenic highway to get to Gibraltar. When I say scenic, yes…it was a very beautiful drive by the mountains and meadows and countryside. Weather in Gibraltar was mild, not too cold or too hot. But may get a bit windy when you are on top of The Rock of Gibraltar.

OUR HOTEL: We didn’t stay overnight in Gibraltar. We spent the last two nights in Hotel Petit Palace Santa Cruz in Seville. From Gibraltar, we drove back to Malaga where we started our journey from to a catch an early morning flight back to Brussels. Last night in Spain, we stayed in Holiday Inn Express which was very close to Malaga Airport. I think it took us more than an hour to find this hotel, not sure if our GPS is to blame or the fact that you can’t really see the name of this hotel from the road.

EATING and SHOPPING: By the time we reached Gibraltar from Seville, Spain it was already lunch time. We grabbed something quick from McDonald (there was also a Burger King) before crossing the border. In Gibraltar, the main city center has lines of many restaurants and shops. We picked up some finger-foods from an Indian places while walking back towards the border. City center is also a good place to pick up souvenirs and do shopping, as I mentioned above, there is no sales tax in Gibraltar.

Some souvenirs for kids from Gibraltar

Some souvenirs for kids from Gibraltar

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We hired a taxi from the first bus station right after crossing the border. It was for about 2 ½ hours guided tour for 80 euros for the whole mini-van which seats 6. We had it for four of us. But you can share a ride like this and share the cost. This was a quick and easy way to explore this place. Of course there were time limits with taxi but we did get to visit all the main spots and their highlights. You can walk up to the rock or take a cable car but with the kids, taxi was much smoother. Walking can be fun if you are fit to climb hilly road and the weather is good. Some people take the cable car up and walk down slowly and take time visiting all the attractions.

People crossing runway of Gibraltar Airport in front of The Rock (big hill in the back) in Gibraltar

People crossing runway of Gibraltar Airport in front of The Rock (big hill in the back) in Gibraltar

If you have spare time, may be two other significant places here to visit would be the Moorish Castle and Europa Point. We couldn’t go to any of them because of time. Moorish Castle, from the 1300s, currently, is nothing but in total ruins. You can see the skeleton of it and the tower almost from anywhere. Europa Point is a military base which offers a fantastic view of the bay and continent of Africa on the other side. I don’t think tourists can go all the way to the tip of the Europa Point, but some people do go there as far as the officials allow. Other than these two, there are tons of tunnels in Gibraltar that enthusiastic tourists may find them interesting to discover. Casemates Square is a lively that we passed before walking back to the border control…a great place to hang out and watch world go by.

1) PILLARS of HERCULES or JEWS GATE: This is where our taxi took us first. This is a view-point from where you can see Gibraltar Strait where Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea come together. Europa Point and Jewish cemetery are also visible from this spot. The best part of it is that you get to see Morocco on the other side in the coast of Africa.

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2) ST. MICHAEL’S CAVE: We drove up little more towards the tip of the rock and St. Michael’s Cave was our next stop. This is a gorgeous natural cave and definitely worth a visit. Just to give you an idea of the size of this cave, the visitors’ area is much smaller than Luray Cavern in Virginia, USA.

The entrance and main hall of St. Micheal's Cave in Gibraltar

The entrance and main hall of St. Micheal’s Cave in Gibraltar

The impressive natural grotto of St. Michael’s Cave was long believed to be a bottomless cave. It winds downward some 700 feet into The Rock. The Upper Hall, fitted out as an auxiliary hospital in during WWII in 1942, but was never used, now it is used for concerts. It took us about 20 minutes to visit the cave.

St. Micheal's Cave in Gibraltar, the color is not natural, it's created from the inside lighting system

St. Micheal’s Cave in Gibraltar, the color is not natural, it’s created from the inside lighting system

By the way, the cafeteria here is the last one to grab some food in the nature reserve of Upper Rock. It’s better to finish your food before hitting the road again, monkeys here can be notorious and may attack or take away your food if they can smell it.

3) A MONKEY FEEDING STATION in UPPER ROCK: Drive from St. Michael’s Cave up to here was very scenic, after all, Gibraltar is surrounded by water on three sides. There are few of these monkey feeding stations all around the Upper Rock. These monkeys, Barbary Macaque, were brought here from Africa many centuries ago. They are used to seeing people all the time, but be careful…they are wild animals on loose. If you are driving your own car, it’s better to roll your windows up when you start climbing the rock.

A monkey in a feeding station in Upper Rock of Gibraltar

A monkey in a feeding station in Upper Rock of Gibraltar

People of Gibraltar love their monkeys and the government actually takes care of them and feeds them at these stations. My girls took few pictures with these cute apes.

4) GREAT SIEGE TUNNEL: This was our last stop with the taxi and on The Rock. You get a fantastic view of Gibraltar, Spain, and all the other surrounding as you stand at the entrance of this tunnel. By the way, there is total of 33 miles of tunnels all around Gibraltar. Interestingly, British army hand dug this one, a 600 meter tunnel, from solid limestone.

 

The Great Siege Tunnel - a 600 meter long tunnel in Gibraltar

The Great Siege Tunnel – a 600 meter long tunnel in Gibraltar

The tunnel was built in the 1700s to defend Gibraltar from the Spanish and French troops during the Great Siege. When the Great Siege ended in February of 1783, the original gallery was 370 feet long. After the end of Napoleonic War in 1815, the risk of war still remained in Europe. So British continued to improve the fortifications of the Rock by including an additional 7 miles (12km) of tunnels. Overall, this is a long snaky tunnel to discover with detailed information about events during the Great Siege and the usage of the tunnel during WWII.

View from one of the small windows of Siege Tunnels in Gibraltar

View from one of the small windows of Siege Tunnels in Gibraltar

We stayed here about little less than half an hour. After the first part, you may need extra 30 to 45 minutes to go further deep into the tunnel where the gradient becomes steeper and some visitors may find the climb back quite tiring (don’t worry, there is a clear sign in the tunnel with this message). We came back from this point to catch the taxi…the girls were a bit scared too to go further.

5) CITY CENTER: We were dropped off here by our taxi after our short tour of Gibraltar. This is more like a shopping alley with many fancy stores and local boutiques. There isn’t much to do here other than doing some tax-free shopping or having a good meal. There were some point of interests we saw in the information board, like a cemetery, museum, and other landmarks. We didn’t go to any of those place, just took a leisure stroll to both sides and started walking towards the border.

6) GIBRALTAR AIRPORT: Gibraltar Airport has a live runway, meaning it sits on a local street and general public can actually cross this stretch of road on foot or by car. The airport is only few steps from the border on Winston-Churchill Avenue. Fun part of crossing this street was, we were told by the airport securities to hurry up and cross the road quickly because a plane was about to take off and they are clearing all the people from the runway. So we hurried to the other side as a bar came down to stop all the pedestrians and traffic lights turned red to stop all the vehicles. In about couple minutes, we got to see a British Airways making its way to the runway and took off from that runway as all the audiences were going “wow”. We were lucky to see this site, not many people crossing this runway actually get to see an airplane taking off few feet away from them.

 

A British Airways taking off in front of our eyes in Gibraltar Airport

A British Airways taking off in front of our eyes in Gibraltar Airport

A day in Seville, Spain

SEVILLE, SPAIN: While Cordoba was the capital of old Andalusia, Seville is the current capital of this region. It is a famous Andalusian destination among the travelers for being a historic city that shaped Spanish culture and heritage. In the 16th century, Seville was the harbor chosen by Queen Isabel as it offered security against pirate attacks. She turned the city into the Port and Door to America. It was the European main commercial city during that time.

Historic city center of Seville, Spain
Historic city center of Seville, Spain
           

Old town of Seville is very beautiful and well-preserved. It offers sites and activities for all ages and tastes.

TIME of TRAVEL: After visiting Malaga, Granada, and Cordoba in February 2014, we came to Seville. It was about an hour and half drive from Cordoba to Seville. Driving in Andalusia was a fantastic experience since we got to see some clean highways, Sierra Nevada Mountains, countryside, vast fields of olive trees…overall a very scenic drive. Weather is mild during February… pleasant during day and a bit chilly at night.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel in Seville was Hotel Petit Palace Santa Cruz, about 10 minutes of walk from the cathedral or Alcazar. We didn’t have breakfast included with the price but both the days we were there, we had breakfast in the hotel for 8 euros per adult, I think…and kids were free. Hotel has free Wi-Fi service. It’s an ultra-modern hotel with nice people and very clean rooms.

EATING and SHOPPING: After trying out loads of Spanish food, like paella and tapas in the other Andalusian cities in this trip, we were ready for some other types of cuisine. First night we walked about 20 minutes from our hotel just to get to a local Chinese restaurant. Next lunch was in the old town at an Italian pasta/pizza place. This Italian place was actually very nice with outdoor sitting and good food. And for the night we just picked up a box of pizza from the street on our way to the hotel.

Seville or may be just whole Andalusia is a great place to buy Spanish tiles or ceramic items. These artifacts are beautiful and usually hand-made by local artists. Flamenco dresses for little girls are very popular here. I also loved vibrant colors of Spanish potteries and ceramics.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We stayed two nights in Seville but had only a day to explore the main city; went to Gibraltar on the 2nd day. There are many historic churches and museums to visit here. If you go in the right season (April and May), may be you can catch a bullfight in Seville Bullring arena. It may not be for soft-hearted people, because they eventually kill the bull at the end. Another popular show for tourists is the famous Spanish Flamenco performance.  If you have spare time, try visiting Cordoba or other beautiful Andalusian cities. Also, Gibraltar (a U.K. territory) could be another unique place to visit from Seville…the drive is about 2 hours one way but worth a visit.

1) SEVILLE CATHEDRAL: First thing we saw on the first day of Seville was this cathedral. This is a grand and impressive edifice in the heart of Seville. Like Cordoba Cathedral, this was also once a mosque. Built in 1198 AD, this was Seville’s main mosque. Both the mosque and the minaret were built using bricks. Original Orange Tree Courtyard of the mosque was conserved and so was its minaret which today forms the lower two-thirds of the Giralda bell tower. Seville Cathedral is arguably the largest church in the world when compared using the measurement of volume.

In 1248, the mosque was turned into a cathedral, but it wasn’t until mid-15th century when the construction work began on this Gothic architecture. Unlike Cordoba’s Mezquita, it was completely changed to a Christian church without leaving any sign of being a mosque at one point. Later, Renaissance and Baroque styles were added in the next couple centuries. Despite the fact that Seville Cathedral contains all sorts of architecture styles from different era, this edifice is known to be the most extensive Gothic cathedral all over the world.

There is a small museum and courtyard before entering the actual cathedral. Once you enter inside, there are more than twenty chapels and countless oversized paintings. One of the highlights of this cathedral is that it is the final resting place of famous explorer Christopher Columbus’ remains along with his son Hernando Columbus’ tomb on the other side of this place. Walk around and on one side of Columbus’ tomb is the historic chapel of Santa Maria de la Antigua where another well-known explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his men prayed in an act of thanks after returning from the expedition of 1519. The voyage was formed with five ships and a crew of 234 men, but only 18 survivors returned in 1522.

Tomb of famous Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus inside Seville, Spain
Tomb of famous Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus inside Seville, Spain
            

La Giralda is the original minaret tower of Seville Mosque here. Now it is the bell tower of this cathedral that can be seen from almost any point of old town. Visitors can climb the tower for a panoramic view of the city. Enjoy and relax in the orange courtyard which has a fountain in the middle surrounded by many orange trees.

Orange Courtyard of Seville Cathedral
Orange Courtyard of Seville Cathedral
           

The square in front of the cathedral is very big and a nice place to hang out. You can hire horse carriage to tour the main sites from here. Have a drink in one of the cafes or buy souvenirs from the stores.

The cathedral recommends that you spend at least 90 minutes inside it to get the most of it. Ticket is 8 euros per adult.

2) PLAZA del TRIUNFO: Plaza del Triunfo is a lovely square in between Seville Cathedral and Real Alcazar. You can see many old buildings, beautiful statues, and plenty of open space in this square. Above all it was nice to walk under the sun and the crowd here.

Plaza del Triunfo in Seville, Spain
Plaza del Triunfo in Seville, Spain
               

3) REAL ALCAZAR: Not too far from the cathedral, Real Alcazar stands on the oldest archeological remains of Seville. It was built in the 10th century over the remains of an Islamic quarter. Since then, between its ancient walls many highlights of the Spanish history have taken place. Built mainly in Moorish style, you can see almost all the architectural styles of Europe in this palace including Taifa, Gothic, Mudejar, Renaissance, Baroque, Mannerist, and Neo-classical. The Royal Alcazar is a harmonious combinations of art, history, and culture. Gothic Palace of Royal Alcazar is a palace that was built in 1284 representing the triumph of Christian ideology against the Muslim past.

Gorgeous interior of Real Alcazar in Seville, Spain
Gorgeous interior of Real Alcazar in Seville, Spain
             

Make sure to visit the historic Admiral’s Hall where Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and El Cano planned their first travel around the world and Juan de al Cosa made the first world map in history. The hall is decorated with historical theme paintings from the 19th and early 20th century. Today it is used as a conference room. As you come out from this hall and in the courtyard, take the majestic staircase to upstairs. Small museum with collections of old Spanish tiles from 16th century, Baroque and Renaissance ceramics, traditional hand-fans, Upper Palace of Alcazar today is the official residence of Their Majesties of Kings of Spain in this city.

A majestic staircase of Real Alcazar of Seville, Spain
A majestic staircase of Real Alcazar of Seville, Spain
               

Main and magnificent attraction of Alcazar is the Moorish palace. It is the most fascinating place to visit in Seville with extravagant architecture, arched doors, lavishly decorated walls with calligraphy and Spanish tiles, handsomely carved ceilings, courtyards with lush gardens, and small ponds. Walk and appreciate many small but elegantly finished rooms. Visit Hall of Ambassadors which was the main hall of the palace and was used as a throne room. The central courtyard with a rectangular water fountain is the most appealing spot here. You get a glimpse of how Muslim royals and Christian emperors lived here many centuries ago.

The most beautiful courtyard with pool of Real Alcazar in Seville, Spain
The most beautiful courtyard with pool of Real Alcazar in Seville, Spain
            

Since its creation, Royal Alcazar has always been the official residence of the Spanish Heads of State and today it is the oldest Royal Palace of Europe still in use. Now it is part of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Enjoyed its gardens, patios, fountains, old gates, and walls.

Beautiful arched doors of Real Alcazar in Seville, Spain
Beautiful arched doors of Real Alcazar in Seville, Spain
                

Royal Alcazar is open from 9:30am – 5pm in winter and 9:30am – 7pm in summer. It is 8:50 euros per adult and kids below 17 years of age are free. You can get an audio-guide for 5 euros extra.

4) PLAZA de TOROS DE SEVILLA (SEVILLE BULLRING): This is one of the most visited monuments of Seville. We walked quite a long way from the city center to come here. This white and yellow building is an eye-catching rare beauty of Seville. Built in 1761 AD, the style is late Baroque with neo-Classical touch. Over the years, this bullring has transformed into one of the models of Bullfighting art evolution. In 1983, it was declared as a Historical Art Monument.

Seville Bullring - one of the famous bullrings of Spain from 1761 AD.
Seville Bullring – one of the famous bullrings of Spain from 1761 AD.
                

We started our tour with the stadium first. The arena can hold about 12,000 people. You get to see Prince’s Balcony which is only used by the Royal Family. Tickets for bullfight are sold somewhere from 25 euros to 150 euro depending on the location of the seats.

Seville Bullring in Spain
Seville Bullring in Spain
            

After visiting the stadium or the ring (visitors can’t really go to the field) we were taken downstairs to the Bullfighting Museum. This is an excellent place to know the history and evolution of Bullfighting in Spain over the ages. The museum features many bullfighting arts and paintings, 20th century bullfighting which is known as the “Golden Age of Bullfighting” and two most outstanding figures of bullfighting. The last section of the museum has images of games and matadors, bull fighters clothing, utensils, posters, capes, bronze sculpture, and lots more. In each show there are 6 bulls and 3 matadors. Whole show lasts for 2 ½ hours. Each matador faces 2 bulls. Now a days, the winner could make 350,000 euros per show!! High season to watch one of these games would be in April and May.

A painting in Seville Bullring Museum, Spain
A painting in Seville Bullring Museum, Spain
            

After that the tour continued with the Art Gallery, Bullfighter’s Chapel, and the Horses Courtyard. The Art Gallery has a collection of oil paintings from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. All these paintings are work of Spanish artists. You can learn about the culture of bullfighting in Spain from this guided tour. The lady explained us how the game is played, rules, history, famous matadors, and etc…overall, we got to hear some fascinating facts on this sport. But I must say, after visiting this museum, I thought this was a serious cruelty towards those innocent animals and I don’t think I would ever pay my money to see such shows no matter how traditional it is in Spain.

Seville Bullring Museum, the front statue shows how mules pulls away bull after it is killed in a bullfight
Seville Bullring Museum, the front statue shows how mules pulls away bull after it is killed in a bullfight
               

Seville Bullring is accessed only by guide tours which are given in Spanish and English (French and Italian are available upon reservation). The duration of this tour is about 40 minutes. Tours run every 20 minutes but they run out of seats very quickly. Ticket for this tour is 7 euros per adult and 4 euros for 7 – 11 years old children.

5) TORRE de ORO: This is very close to the bullring and near the river. We took a leisure stroll by the river towards this tower after visiting Seville Bullring. This is a 13th century tower that now houses maritime museum. We didn’t go inside the museum but the area is very lovely to relax and to enjoy the atmosphere.

Torre de Oro, a 13th century tower in Seville, Spain
Torre de Oro, a 13th century tower in Seville, Spain
   

Cordoba, Spain – the capital of old Andalusia

CORDOBA, SPAIN: Cordoba, the unique Andalusian monumental city, has been part of UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It offers one of the more extensive and well-conserved historical quarters of Europe to its visitors. Cordoba’s environment is full of charm that coexists peacefully with its attractive monuments, cultures, landscapes, and legacy, as Roman capital, court of Caliphs, and cradle of three cultures: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish. It contains a mind-blowing mixture of diverse cultures. Situated in the center of Andalusia, this is a matchless city for its monuments, history, natural environment, variety of leisure activities, and gastronomy.

Picturesque Cordoba
Picturesque Cordoba
               

Cordoba was the capital of Al-Andalus during Muslim rulers, a territory that extended as far as the Duero River. A portion of Guadalquivir River runs thru the city and can be enjoyed within walking distance from the old town.

This is the city I loved the most in this great country of Spain. It has the appeal that I look for when visiting European cities which big cities like Barcelona or Madrid lack. Cordoba’s old town is beyond beautiful with Moorish influence and welcoming environment all over. If you can spare time, try visiting Granada or Seville for more Andalusian treats…each town is unique in its own way. Cordoba is a busy town with lots of tourists and locals, especially many school-going kids who come here in groups for field-trips. But this part of the city gets really quiet right after dark, if you are looking for some awesome night-life, may be you have to get out of this area and go to the newer neighborhoods.

Medieval old town of Cordoba in Spain
Medieval old town of Cordoba in Spain
             

TIME of TRAVEL: We went back to Spain in February 2014 for the second time to check out Andalusia region of this country. We visited Malaga and Granada before coming to Cordoba. The drive was about 2 hours from Granada to Cordoba. By the way that drive was very scenic, you can see the mountains, lush green fields, and countless olive trees for miles after miles. Weather was excellent, not too cold not too hot. But my little daughter somehow caught ear infection in this journey and had to take her to the hospital nearby where we got free treatment and free medication…yes, Spain is a great country when it comes to health care too.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Las Casas de la Juderia in the Jewish quarter of old town. As usual, my husband’s choice was excellent for this place. This was the best hotel among all the places we stayed in Andalusia. It looked more like a “Riad” in Morocco with cute little courtyards and fountains in the front. Cordoba Mezquita and Roman Bridge were only 10 minutes of walk from the hotel. Breakfast wasn’t included here but had Wi-Fi in the room. We were also very surprised on our first evening here when they brought us some snacks (fruit kebabs on sticks and cakes) to our room…all free of charge, something we never experienced before. This was an excellent hotel and one of the best from all the hotels we ever stayed in so far.

A lovely courtyard of our hotel in Cordoba, Spain
A lovely courtyard of our hotel in Cordoba, Spain
              

EATING and SHOPPING: Our first lunch in Cordoba was in our hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia. It was by far one of the best places here to eat. Although not typical Spanish dish, we loved every single dish we ordered from fish soup to creamy rice with Cuttlefish, to can’t remember all the other dishes. Next lunch was at a Subway near the Mezquita and dinner was a quick Indian/Middle-Eastern restaurant in the old town. As I mentioned, the town gets really quiet around 8 or 9pm. Some of the restaurants close early but we were lucky to find that Indian restaurant at 10pm when most of the places were closed.

Cordoba’s old town is packed with many shops and boutiques. You will find generic souvenirs to elegant designer stores here. Some souvenirs to buy from here can be Spanish potteries, t-shirts with calligraphy, and Islamic arts. We bought two Flamenco dresses for our girls for about 10 euros each…they loved it for its vibrant colors and unique design.

Flamenco dresses for Barbie in Cordoba, Spain - how cute is that?
Flamenco dresses for Barbie in Cordoba, Spain – how cute is that?
          

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had a day and half in Cordoba. Walking is the best way to get around. Old district of Cordoba is a beautiful place to roam around and get lost in small alleys. Most of the interesting places are located here and can be covered on foot. The Mosque Cathedral is the center point of this quarter and the old city surrounds this prominent establishment.  We couldn’t visit the synagogue, it was very close to our hotel in the old town but when we walked there, it was already closed by then. The synagogue is from the early 14th century and one of only three remaining in Spain. May be another interesting place we could have visited was Museum of Al-Andalus Life. All of the following places we visited in Cordoba were in the old town. Best part of being here was that on the 2nd day, we walked some small alleys and different neighborhoods in the old district without a map. It was fantastic passing by beautiful shops, restaurants, and old buildings. You don’t see too many tourists here, may be some…but saw mostly locals. Here are all the places we could cover in a day and half.

Looks like a statue of a Caliphate (?) in Jewish quarter of Cordoba, Spain
Looks like a statue of a Caliphate (?) in Jewish quarter of Cordoba, Spain
               

1) SAN RAFAEL’S TRIUMPH: After checking-in at our hotel and having a fantastic lunch, it was late afternoon by then. We started walking towards Mezquita, the center point of Cordoba. Passed Mezquita and walked a bit further to reach the Roman Bridge. San Rafael’s Triumph is a pretty nice and tall sculpture in a small square at one end of Roman Bridge (on the Mezquita side) in Plaza del Triumfo. Some old buildings and the cathedral surround the square. We eventually came back here again and sat down for an hour on the next day just enjoying the bridge, river, and people…loved it.

San Rafael's Triumph at one end of Roman Bridge in Cordoba, Spain
San Rafael’s Triumph at one end of Roman Bridge in Cordoba, Spain
              

2) ROMAN BRIDGE (Puente Romano): This is one of the best spots of Cordoba to enjoy some nature. It is truly beautiful having shallow River Guadalquivir running underneath and looking at historic Mezquita. It is a pedestrian bridge from the Roman time in Cordoba, think from 1st or 2nd century. This has to be perfect place to take some sunrise/sunset photos.

Walking on the Roman Bridge of Cordoba, Spain and looking at Mezquita
Walking on the Roman Bridge of Cordoba, Spain and looking at Mezquita
                

At one end, on the cathedral side, is the triumphal arch Bridge Gateway, located few steps away from San Rafael Triumph. From the bridge you can see the old Albolafia’s Waterwheel, looked like an old water pump or something. On the other side of the bridge is Calahora Tower which houses a museum. The snapshot is gorgeous from this side of the bridge. You can lay your eyes over the whole old town, can see the bridge and its arches, and the flowing river. It is a picturesque sight that shouldn’t be missed. We walked along the river (keeping it on the right side) and came back to city center via the next bridge, called San Rafael Bridge. It was a long walk, but was worth every step. We leisurely went back to our hotel stopping at some points to take in the beautiful atmosphere…enjoyed it much.

Roman Bridge as we were walking along River Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain
Roman Bridge as we were walking along River Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain
        

3) FORTRESS of the KINGS (ALCAZAR de los REYES CRISTIANOS): Next morning, we started our day with a visit to Fortress of the Kings, which we could see from our hotel windows.

Alcazar de los Reye Cristianos in Cordoba, Spain.
Alcazar de los Reye Cristianos in Cordoba, Spain
             

Originally the fortress was built in the 8th century as a caliphate residence. Later it was used as residence and fortress of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It was expanded by the order of King Alfonso XI in 1328 and was the residence of the Christian Kings when they stayed in Cordoba. The main façade of it is original along with couple towers. Some important undertakings have been planned inside this building such as the discovery of America or the reconquest of Granada. Interesting Gothic tower vaults, patios, and baths were built under the reign of King Alfonso XI. During the Modern Ages, it was the seat of the Inquisition. The Baroque chapel was built in the 17th century which was used as a prison building in the 19th century. In the 20th century when the chapel was bought by the Town Council, it then provided with gardens and decorated with Roman mosaics and other historical items.

The main attraction of the Alcazar is the prettiest fountains and lush gardens with many orange trees all around. We spent more than an hour just in the garden walking and enjoying every corner of it. You can see the Moorish influence here too, especially with the fountains and little courtyards. The weather helped too, otherwise it wouldn’t have been fun walking outside.

Gardens and fountains of Alcazar de los Reye Cristianos in Cordoba, Spain
Gardens and fountains of Alcazar de los Reye Cristianos in Cordoba, Spain
                 

Make sure to climb the towers for a great views and walk along the old walls. There are some small museums and displays here and there where you can see Roman mosaics, sculptures, and some old findings from this place.

From one of the towers of Alcazar de los Reye Cristianos in Cordoba, Spain
From one of the towers of Alcazar de los Reye Cristianos in Cordoba, Spain
              

It is 4:50 euros per adult to enter the fortress. You need at least 2 hours to see it fully…don’t rush, otherwise you’ll regret later.

4) THE ROYAL STABLE and EQUASTRIAN/FLAMENCO SHOW: Royal Stable is the next building beside the Alcazar and that’s where we headed for our next stop. It is free to enter. You can see some pure breed of Spanish horses in the current stable. In the old stable many elegant and decorative carriages are in display that the royals once used many centuries ago.

An old carriage inside the Royal Stable of Cordoba, in Spain
An old carriage inside the Royal Stable of Cordoba, in Spain
                 

The Royal Stable also hosts daily Equestrian show with Flamenco performance. We were thinking of attending a Flamenco show but this sounded even better. We bought the ticket right away and came back at night for the show. Various types of tricks and plays by different horses are shown here. Two ladies performed Flamenco with the horses. Our daughters loved the show and were very excited about it. They had beautiful arrangements with lights and Flamenco music, a great experience for all of us.

Equestrian show on our 2nd night in Cordoba, Spain
Equestrian show on our 2nd night in Cordoba, Spain
            

It was 15 euros per adult and 10 euros for kids 3-12 years old. The show started at 8pm and was for an hour. It’s better to buy the tickets ahead of time, may be that morning…because it was quite packed in the auditorium.

And some Flamenco performance
And some Flamenco performance
           

5) BATHS of CALIPHATE in ALCAZAR (Banos del Alcazar Califal): As we were walking towards the old town leaving Royal Stable behind, we saw the sign for Baths of Caliphate on our right…sounded interesting and off we went to explore.

Located opposite of Alcazar and the Royal Stable, these Arabic baths most likely belonged to the now disappeared Umayyad dynasty. The oldest elements and decorative designs are from the times of Caliphate of Cordoba in 10th century. It is inside Umayyad Alcazar, the residence of Amirs and Caliphs and the seat of governors until the conquest of Cordoba by the Catholic monarchs. These baths were discovered in 1903 and finally in 2002, after a long restoration period, the modern building was designed where they are now housed. These consist of several rooms with stone walls. Four of them have vaults with star-shaped skylights supported by horseshoe arches on marble columns.

The baths of the Caliphate Alcazar are a good illustration of the immense archeological heritage dating back to the Umayyad period. It’s a fine example of palace architecture in the service of the Amirs and Caliphs and a model that was to be followed in Spanish-Muslim art for centuries to come. The Andalusian baths, the descendants of the thermal baths of classical times, were for the purification of the body as well as for hygiene and cosmetic treatment. They were also a place for enjoyment and social relations. There were royal, public, and private baths. Royal baths received more attention on the decoration which could be architectural or using luxurious materials. And public baths were designed to cater for more users. These royal baths were to serve the Caliph, who could use them for himself, his family or as a political meeting place. In the baths, there took place a whole ritual for the cosmetic, physical, and therapeutic care of the Caliphs.

In these baths, tourists can see the changing rooms, cold rooms, warm rooms, and hot rooms. The heart of the baths was in the service area, with the furnace and boiler. Here, the heat, water, and steam supply to the inside of the baths were maintained.

Where the furnace used to be inside the Baths of Caliphates in Cordoba, Spain
Where the furnace used to be inside the Baths of Caliphates in Cordoba, Spain
              

Couple tragic historic events took place in one of the baths here in the early 11th century. The Caliph of Moroccan origin, Ali Ibn Hammud, was slayed by three of his slaves in one of the halls here. Another event, took place few year later, was the capture and execution of the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Rahman V by the people of Córdoba, in the same hall.

Some tragic events took place at this very hall during Umayyad dynasty in Cordoba, Spain
Some tragic events took place at this very hall during Umayyad dynasty in Cordoba, Spain
           

Although in ruins now, visitors can see the original furnace, hot rooms, cold rooms, original walls from the 10th century, a small museum displaying findings from this site, and few rooms from the 12th and 13th century.

Ticket is 2:50 euros per adult, kids are free. Don’t miss the videos that give brief history on this historical site.

6) OLD CITY WALL and PUERTA de ALMODOVAR: Almodovar Gate was one of the original gates to enter the old town. After our visit to the baths, we started walking along the old city wall and came in front of this old gate of Almodovar. You enter the historic city center upon entering this gate. Cordoba has one of the most beautiful and well-preserved old parts in Spain. We started walking on the cobble-stoned alleys towards the cathedral without any map. Getting lost is half the fun, you get to see old houses, narrow alleys, beautiful stores, and cafes.

Old city wall and Almodovar Gate in the old town of Cordoba, Spain
Old city wall and Almodovar Gate in the old town of Cordoba, Spain
       

7) CORDOBA CATHEDRAL or MEZQUITA: Also known as the Mosque Cathedral, it is the biggest attraction of Cordoba and a massive building that deserves major attention. It is the live witness of Cordoba’s past days.  It was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1984. This building has been a hallowed ground throughout the history of the city.

An old gate and exterior wall of Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain
An old gate and exterior wall of Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain
              

Historically, Basilica of St. Vincent stood in this very spot around early 4th century AD (Visigoth Period). The floor plan with its heavy columns and the Greco-Roman order of the whole monument date from the Hellenistic tradition of the Mediterranean world. When Andalusia came under Muslim rules, Amir Abd Al-Rahman I built the primitive mosque in 786 AD that would come to be considered the most important sanctuary of Islam in the Western world. This impressive creation was the site of not only religious but also social, cultural, and political manifestations. Later the mosque was successively extended and adorned by Muslim governors over the few centuries until 976 AD. When the city was reconquered by Christians in 1236, it was converted to the Cathedral of the Blessed Mary. In 1523, they tried to change the interior design of this place giving an ingenious integration of the Moorish structures with the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque creation. But despite being a cathedral now, most of the original mosque structure remained remarkably well-preserved.

The highlight of this place is its countless columns that cover the whole interior with signature red and white striped arches designed in Islamic style. These columns are standing for centuries rows after rows almost as far as you can see.

Red and white stripped arches of Mezquita - an original Moorish design from the 8th century
Red and white stripped arches of Mezquita – an original Moorish design from the 8th century
            

The original “Mihrab” of the mosque is intact ‘til today with its beautiful mosaics and the well-preserved vaulted skylights. It was the focus of the mosque which faces the direction of “Ka’ba” in Mecca and at which every Muslim face at the time of prayers.

The original Mihrab of Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain
The original Mihrab of Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain
             

The main chapel and choir are from the early 17th century. The Royal Chapel hold the remains of King Ferdinand IV and Alfonso XI. The main altar in the middle of this building is an extremely gorgeous focus point.

Gorgeous main altar of Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain
Gorgeous main altar of Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain
               

Minaret in the courtyard that is now embedded in the tower of the cathedral, dates back to the reign of Abd-Ar-Rahman III. Looking over the old town, the top of belfry (from the 16th century) is presently crowned by a sculpture of San Rafael, the archangel guardian of the city. Below the tower is Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness), the main entrance to the precincts. The Muslim courtyard was remodeled with the construction of the cloisters. In the 15th century, palm trees were replaced with orange trees and gave its name as “The Orange Tree Courtyard” or “Patio de los Naranjos”. A grove of orange trees are planted in nicely organized rows in this courtyard. This part of the complex is free to enter and anyone can enjoy it without going inside the cathedral.

Bell Tower of Mosque Cathedral or Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain
Bell Tower of Mosque Cathedral or Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain
             

The cathedral’s mission was not the destroy the magnificent interior of the previous mosque, rather it ensured  that the cathedral, old Western Caliphate Mosque, and World Heritage Site are not in a pile of ruins. The authorities tried to safeguard and inspire culture and art. That’s why you can still see lots of Islamic calligraphy and artworks inside the cathedral. This is one of the most magnificent religious building I’ve seen so far.

Entrance fee is 8 euros per adult and kids are free.

8) FLOWER STREET (Calleja de las Flores): The last thing on our itinerary was this cute little street. The name tells your how beautiful this street can be. It’s a cozy passageway in the old town decorated with fresh flowers in colorful pots hanging from both sides of the wall. At the end there is a tiny square/courtyard from where you can see the bell tower of the cathedral. There were few shops selling souvenirs and local trinkets. We were there in February, think in summer this street looks even prettier with more fresh blooms.

Flower Street or Calleja de las Flores in Cordoba, Spain
Flower Street or Calleja de las Flores in Cordoba, Spain
           

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