IT’S the peak of summer now, and we’re on the coast and by the pools. But one day it will be cool again, so start dreaming about an autumn trip. Inland Spain is a treasure trove of historic towns, mountain trails, wineries, destination restaurants and retreats, as well as city shopping districts to explore – and thanks to multiple discount train fare schemes, and the network of low cost flights criss-crossing the country, they’re easy to reach. Meanwhile, here’s a dozen ideas to inspire you:
EXPERIENCE PEAK THRILLS
SPAIN is Europe’s second-most mountainous country, filled with peaks, glacial lakes, pine forests and gorges. Most of them are clustered around a flat rock in the enormous biosphere reserve of Picos de Europa, which stretches across parts of Cantabria, Asturias and León. Canyoning and hang-gliding are available for extremists, while well-marked trails through Spain’s many Unesco-designated biosphere reserves bring unparalleled peace and joy.
GO ADORE THE PARADORS
WHAT to do with so many historic forts, monasteries and palaces? Convert them into a countrywide network of state-run upmarket hotels with restaurants celebrating the local gastronomy, of course. Of the more than 90 options, most paradores are cinematically atmospheric with stone walls, medieval armour, turrets, tapestries and resident ghosts; a few are glassy new-builds erected in prime locations. Santo Estevo, Siguenza and Santiago de Compostela rank among the best-loved.
VISIT EVERY 3-STAR RESTAURANT IN SPAIN
SAN SEBASTIAN, epicentre of New Basque cuisine, is a good place to start. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s home to three of Spain’s 16 three-star Michelin restaurants: Arzak, Akelarre and Martín Berasategui. ‘New’ Basque isn’t so new anymore, so take a journey through the dining salons of the next generation of chefs – many trained by the masters, including Galerna Jan Edan and Rekondo. You can’t go wrong.
SOMETHING FOR THE SOUL
THERE are the magnificent churches: Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Zaragoza’s Our Lady of the Pillar and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia among them; and then there are the candlelit baroque, rococo, medieval riches of small village churches that never disappoint. They have the added benefit of being shady, cool and full of places to sit. Respectful visitors making small donations are welcome.
THE Tour of Spain (the Vuelta) is pretty inspiring. Obviously, if you go a bit slower, you’ll enjoy more of the scenic countryside. You don’t need to cycle into the wilds: Half-day guided and self-guided sightseeing tours are available in every city. The wineries of Rioja, the olive groves of Jaen, the Moorish castles of Andalucía and the vertiginous cliffs of the costas can all be explored on two wheels. And for a good – flat – option, the Vías Verdes, more than 90 routes along disused railway lines across the country, are perfect.
EAT LOCAL: ALL DAY SUNDAY LUNCHES
SUNDAY lunchtimes across Spain are events in their own right, but they take on a new flavour in Andalucía. The ventas, the family-run roadside bar/restaurants, feature home cooking, local wine, framed photos from the 1970s and usually TV tuned to sports. You’ll usually also have the chance to stock up hand-stitched saddles and wine in plastic bottles, galvanised buckets and bags of oranges in the store at the side. Prime time is 2pm when everyone packs in for a four-hour lunch. Get the three-course menu del día and expect to pay around €20 a head.
SHOP TIL YOU DROP
BARCELONA’S Passeig de Gràcia has Spain’s densest concentration of tear-jerkingly expensive designer clothing, but Carrer Verdi and the surrounding streets that make up the super-cool boho Gràcia neighbourhood is where you’ll find local designers and unique boutiques (Boo, Madam Pum Pum, Malahierba – all on Carrer Bonavista), jewellers and emporiums of desirable things (Doctor Paper), as well as cava and cake in a shady plaza at the end of the day.
RASTROS are a paseo plus shopping. What could be better! Madrid hosts the largest of the country’s flea markets, with 3,500 or so stalls erected along Ribera de Curtidores and surrounding side streets. It’s tawdry at the top, but the lower end is where to find ‘gasolina’ cassettes, books and vinyl, religious artefacts, cool Madrileños, hipster bars, quality art, junk shops piled with plastic toys, civil war memorabilia and beautiful retro furniture. No visit is complete without toast with olive oil, mashed tomato, and your choice of anything from octopus to chorizo served at speed at Capricho Extremeño on Calle de Carlos Arniches.
ENTER AN ISLAMIC KINGDOM
WE all know that Southern Spain was once part of a great Islamic kingdom, and those of us that live in Andalucía’s white villages benefit from views of the towers, crag-top castles, and spectacular and exotic monuments they left behind. But it’s easy to forget to actually visit the grandest. As peak tourism season ebbs away, head to he Alhambra in Granada, the Alcazaba in Almería, the Córdoba mosque and Giralda of Sevilla.
GET COOL AND CONTEMPORARY
IT’S a big year for Picasso, Sorolla and Velasquéz, but bold, abstract modern art takes pride of place in banks, offices and, increasingly, at the seaside. Valencia was first to build a destination gallery dedicated to contemporary art, and Gehry’s Guggenheim spectacularly resurrected the fortunes of Bilbao. Malaga followed with 36 museums and galleries including the pop-up Pompidou, branches of the Picasso Museum, Carmen Thyssen Museum, State Russian Museum, and a Centre for Contemporary Art championing national talent. It even has its very own hip and arty Soho district.
BE PART OF THE SCENE
FANS of Netflix’s Cocaine Coast should head to Rias Baixas in Galicia. Suitably magical locations all over Spain figure large in Game of Thrones, especially series six. The castles of Zafra in Guadalajara and Santa Florentina in Barcelona become, respectively, The Tower of Joy and Horn Hill. Almería’s enormous Alcazaba represents Sunspear; the walled city of Peñiscola stands in for Meereen and various points around Girona for Braavos. The Dothraki Sea is actually two deserts: Bardenas in Navarra and Tabernas in Almería. Visit Taberna, and you could find yourself in a cowboy shootout at Fort Bravo, as this is also, famously, the home of spaghetti westerns.
SIP A LITTLE WINE
WITH the wine harvest being celebrated around the country, it’s time to join in by drinking it. Trekking round the cathedral-like bodegas of the sherry triangle (Jerez-Sanlúcar-El Puerto) will teach you to know your oloroso from your fino. Head up into the mountains above Malaga to sample the historic Malaga wines. Take tours through La Rioja – and a visit to the Bierzo wineries in Castilla y León, which will remind you that this old grape-pressing country still has a few surprises up its sleeve.