spain

What It’s Really Like to Walk the Camino Frances

Everything you need to know about the Camino de Santiago, from the difficult first day to the frustrating ending — with all the serenity in between.

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

Walking for 35 days. A 500-mile trek through northern Spain. It’s not everyone’s idea of a vacation. So what got our friend Susan to decide to take on the Camino de Santiago?

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Blame Oprah. At least in part. You see, Susan saw Winfrey’s special about spiritual belief, and was intrigued by the camino. She was going through a transition in her life and wanted to do something epic.

There are at least eight different routes to choose from, and Susan decided upon the Camino Francés, the most popular option.

Here’s what this intense pilgrimage entails.

 

Why did you decide to do the Camino de Santiago?

I had heard about the Camino de Santiago back in 2011 when I was living abroad in Ireland. I always had it in the back of my head that it sounded really cool. I was burnt out as a lawyer and wanted to do something that was completely out of my element. I decided to quit my job and go back to school. I had about five weeks from my last day of work before my master’s program started, and the camino seemed perfect because you can do it by yourself and it’s safe. You can walk alone, but there are also lots of opportunities to meet other people from all over the world. When I told everyone I was going to go to Spain to walk 500 miles, they all said it sounded crazy — but also really cool.

The first day was uphill through the Pyrénées. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!”

I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

When did you go?

There’s a ton of people in June, July and August, but not in May, when I was there. There are stretches where you don’t see anyone.

 

How long was the hike?

About five weeks. It took me a few days to get to the starting point. I flew into Biarritz, France. The walk starts in a town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The overall route took me 32 days to walk 560 miles.

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

What’s it like when you start the Camino de Santiago?

Scary. I didn’t prepare much. When I met people along the way, they had done so much research. I ordered hiking shoes and a backpack, and booked my flight. I got into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. The first day I got there, it was pouring rain. I got up at 7 a.m., put my backpack on…and just started walking.

 

How was the French leg of the journey?

You only spend about a day and a half in France. Unlike in Spain, where everything’s well marked, there are no signs in France. Within the first 500 feet, I took a wrong turn, which I’m gonna blame on this girl from Hungary. I followed her, and after a while, we were like, this doesn’t look right. So we had taken an hour-long detour.

The second half of the day was uphill through the Pyrénées, so it was very difficult. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!” I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the whole thing. And apparently, this was the easy route! We had heard horror stories from people who had done the harder route.

Things got so much easier after that. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about the huge incline ’cause I would have been really anxious about it.

 

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Was it easy to get lost on the camino?

There’s an app for the Camino de Santiago — which I didn’t realize until the third day. The app tells you all the different places you can stay, if it’s flat, if you have inclines or declines.

It’s called Buen Camino, which is what everyone says to you when you pass them. It means “good way.” You see yourself as a little yellow dot, so you can see if you’re straying off the path.

And once you get to Spain, it’s fabulous. The paths are marked with the shell that’s the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Every so often you’ll see a cement pillar with a shell on it. And when you’re in towns, there are yellow arrows.

 

What’s the terrain like?

At first it was a path through the mountains, but most of the camino is gravel. There are other days when you’re in the forest or have to walk on the street. It’s beautiful. At some points, you’re walking through vineyards. I liked the smaller towns more than the cities. It was so peaceful and nice. I tried to bond with nature and take in my surroundings.

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

Who else was on the camino?

I didn’t meet a lot of Americans — mostly Europeans, Australians and Koreans. You have all ages, women, men. Most people were by themselves, though you did have some couples. Some people did it for religious reasons, but most were doing it as a spiritual experience, trying to take a break from their lives. Some people were really fit; some people didn’t last the whole time.

People formed little groups. Most of them stayed in the albergues, the hostels.

 

How difficult was the hike?

About seven days in is a town called Logroño, and there’s a big hospital there. And that’s where they say a lot of people’s bodies break down. They have shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee injuries.

The declines are actually the worst. You’ve got a heavy backpack on, it’s gravel, and you have to support yourself and not fall forward.

Some people ended up taking shortcuts because they physically weren’t up for it. I didn’t take any shortcuts!

I was surprised I held up as well as I did. But I live in Chicago and don’t have a car. I walk a lot. I had some blisters, but that was doable — I just put some band-aids on those.

The training plans are pretty intense. They say you should walk an hour a day and then six hours a day on the weekend with your backpack. I didn’t do that.

I’m not a hiker, but I would say it’s a moderate trek. I’d say a third of it is more difficult: up or down, rocky terrain.

 

What kind of shoes did you get?

I didn’t have any light hiking shoes, so I ordered some cute pink ones. I did a lot of reading on discussion boards, and I knew I didn’t want anything too heavy. People thought they looked like running sneakers. I ordered them a month before, and wore them every time I’d go out to walk the dog to break them in.

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What was in your backpack?

They say to bring only two outfits — I brought three.

 

That would be the hardest part for us. We would’ve brought like 10 outfits.

There are services where you could have your backpack transported. I didn’t have a hiking backpack, so I bought one that was 34 liters. I brought tank tops, three pairs of stretchy yoga pants, small toiletries, a small sleeping bag — which I ended up ditching. You only need it if you’re staying at hostels. The second day I ditched a lot of stuff in my pack ’cause you just want to get it as light as possible. Bring a portable charger, just in case you’re in the middle of nowhere and your cell phone dies. I had a hat and an extra pair of shoes, one pair of pajamas, a rain jacket and a fleece, which I wore to bed a lot since I got cold. I had some pairs of thin hiking socks but ended up buying thicker ones when I got there that gave more support.

I ended up cutting two pairs of my pants and made shorts, ha ha. No shame! It’s one of those things you’d normally never do.

A lot of people that go in the summer get up early to hike before sunrise to avoid the heat. They bring headlamps to see in the dark, but I couldn’t imagine doing that on some of the terrain.

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Take us through a typical day on the camino.

I’d wake up — I’d have all my stuff laid out and I’d take a shower the night before. So I’d grab my backpack and go, around 7 or 8 a.m. The night before, I’d look at the app and all the towns and figure out how far I was gonna walk. I’d always book beforehand online. A lot of people just walked until they got tired and would find a place. I liked to have the security of knowing I had a room — a lot of these places were in the middle of nowhere.

I never ate breakfast, so I’d head out. Around 10 a.m., I’d find a place to stop and get a café con leche and a croissant. There wasn’t a lot of great food — these are tiny towns that cater to the pilgrims, as they call us. And none of the pilgrims are looking for good food; they’re looking for cheap stuff. The menu was the same at every place.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. and go right to bed. And then do the same thing the next morning.

It was kind of like “Groundhog Day” — but I loved every minute of it.

Every time you come up to someone — I’m a fast walker and would pass everybody — you would say hello, “buen camino.” If they seem like they wanted to chat, I’d walk with them for a bit. You’d see people you’d seen before, so it was very social. But I did spend a lot of the time by myself.

I would usually get to where I was going between 1 to 3 p.m. So I didn’t eat until I got there. A lot of people who stopped to eat breakfast and lunch got there much later. I liked to get there and relax — not that there was a lot to do there most of the time. But I’d walk around, and if I saw people I knew, I’d hang out with them.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. or so, and go right to bed because I was exhausted. And then do the same thing the next morning. It was kind of like Groundhog Day — but I loved every minute of it.

caminovineyards.JPG

Where’d you stay?

You can pay 8 euros for a bed at a hostel, and dinner was €10. You can do this super cheap — for about €30 a day. For me, getting a private room, I’d pay about €20. In a bigger city, like Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago, I’d stay at a hotel and pay up to €75 euros.

The smaller villages were very downtrodden and economically depressed. I wanted to tell these people, “You should raise your prices!”

 

How about pee breaks?

I didn’t take a lot. There’s not a lot of places to go to the bathroom. Maybe every 15 kilometers, there’ll be a small coffeeshop you could go in. I’m not a person who can pee outside. So this is going to sound weird, but I didn’t drink a lot of water during the day. I’m sure a lot of people would say that’s really bad. When I got to where I was going, I’d drink a ton of water.

 

Most people do pee outside, though?

Yes! I saw a lot of people peeing outside. It’s acceptable to do so. I saw people’s asses. I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

 

Were there differences between the French and the Spanish?

I don’t want to offend anybody. The French just weren’t as welcoming, though I was only in France for a day and a half. They don’t want to speak English to you. I don’t want to be an ignorant American saying they should speak English, ’cause I don’t think that. I felt like they were, why are you in my country? But maybe that’s not representative of everyone one else’s experience.

In Spain, everyone tried to speak English. They know what you want: You get your passport in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and you have to get it stamped at the hostels and cafés. And that’s what they inspect when you get to Santiago de Compostela to prove you did the whole thing, and then they give you a certificate called the compostela. I waited in line for two hours to get this. You have to walk at least 100 kilometers to get one — and what annoyed me is that it’s the same certificate, whether you’ve walked 100 kilometers or the entire 800 like I did.

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

Was it a spiritual journey?

It’s funny — you’re walking 15 to 20 miles a day and are in your own head. But it’s not like I had all these deep thoughts and came to these epiphanies, which I thought I might! I was hoping to find myself, ha ha. A lot of your mind is taken up with thinking about the next town you’re getting to, following the trail, talking to people. I thought I’d have a lot of time to figure things out, but I didn’t contemplate life as much as I should have, maybe. You think you’re going to work out all the things in your life and come back perfect.

 

What’s it like when you finally get to Santiago?

It’s anticlimactic. You walk into Santiago and you think there’s going to be trumpets or a parade — you just walked 500 miles! It’s so crowded; it’s so commercialized. It’s very stressful. It wasn’t a good experience. Everyone ends up going to the Pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral, where they say your name. But I didn’t end up going because I was in line to get my certificate.

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

What then?

I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere else after Santiago. But I ended up doing it in less time than I had planned. You can keep going another 60 miles to the coast, an extra three days. And it was absolutely beautiful, a place called Finisterre. It’s right on the ocean and they call it the End of the World. That’s where the 0 Kilometer pillar is, so that’s cool. There wasn’t a lot of people there, and there’s a lighthouse and a guy playing bagpipes. There’s a beach with seashells. It’s very peaceful. It’s a great place to reflect and feel rewarded, rather than Santiago, which was so dispiriting. I got a room at a hotel that had a beautiful view of the ocean that wasn’t that expensive. It was such a fabulous way to end the trip.

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

A lot of people, if they’re not going to walk, they’ll take a bus. I took the bus back to Santiago since I was flying out of there. I ran into the Hungarian girl I met on the first day and other people, so I went out with them.

 

What surprised you about the Camino de Santiago the most?

I’m not a huge athlete or anything, so I was surprised by how effortlessly I was able to do it — apart from that first day.

I had always heard about the culture of Spain, but I was surprised by how poor a lot of the towns were. They’re all centered around the pilgrims. The places I stayed were acceptable, but I heard a lot of stories about people staying in albergues that weren’t. But when you’re paying €8 a night…

There was a lot of dirt and stray animals — it was a lot less glamorous than I expected. I didn’t realize how economically downtrodden this part of Spain was. But at the same time, the people were very generous and welcoming.

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

Siestas were crazy, too. Everything in town closes from 2 to 5 p.m. Hotels and restaurants tended to be open, but no grocery or clothing stores. I’d go to the store when it opened and get snacks for the next day.

Sometimes restaurants would be open, but the kitchen would be closed from 6 to 9 p.m. You could get drinks, but there wasn’t any food.

Religion was everywhere. Whenever you’d come into a town, the biggest building there would be the church — the first thing you’d see is that cross. So church bells were ever-present during my trek, which I really enjoyed. People would be there, trying to get you to go into the church.

 

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

What was the laundry situation?

I did a lot of sink-washing. But a lot of the places have washing machines, but not dryers. People would hang their stuff outside. But you’d have to get there first. Most of the time, I’d wash my stuff in the bathtub with shower gel.

It was simple. You don’t have creature comforts, but you have everything you need. Normally when I go on a trip, I bring big suitcases and all this shit. It was so nice to put everything into one backpack and that was it. I survived. Now I’m just gonna bring a backpack everywhere I go.

 

Really?

We’ll see.

 

Any final advice do you have for people who want to walk the Camino de Santiago?

Don’t plan too much. Take it as it comes — don’t overcomplicate things, because it’s all going to work out totally fine. –Wally

It’s acceptable to pee outside. I saw people’s asses.

I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

The Seussian Whimsy of Gaudi’s Park Güell

If this colorful city park overlooking Barcelona is what failure looks like, sign us up!

The colorful curves of Park Güell are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book

The colorful curves of Park Güell are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book

When industrialist Count Eusebi Güell needed help transforming Montaña Pelada, Bald Mountain, into a one-of-a-kind residential enclave, he called upon his friend Antoni Gaudí. The two shared similar ideological beliefs: Gaudí was a spiritual man whose distinctive style was influenced by his great appreciation of nature as God’s creation. His structural forms mimicked the natural world and imbued life into his architectural masterpieces.

That collaboration led to Park Güell, which was not originally designed to be a municipal park. It was conceived as a luxury residential development with 60 plots just to the north of Barcelona’s city limits by Güell, who made his fortune from the textile industry.

Güell, whom the park is named after, was inspired by the garden city movement popularized in 20th century England, which is why the English word Park was used, rather than the Catalan equivalent, Parc.

He commissioned Gaudí, the Catalan architect responsible for some of the Barcelona’s most iconic landmarks, to create the parklike neighborhood. Gaudí made the most of the site’s uneven terrain, using organic shapes paired with symbolic references to Christianity and Catalan nationalism shared by his patron, Güell. Immediately noticeable when you enter the park is the administrator’s building, with its towering blue and white chimney topped with a gothic cross flower.

The administrative building and caretaker’s lodge are two gingerbread-like houses on the park grounds

The administrative building and caretaker’s lodge are two gingerbread-like houses on the park grounds

Making an Entrance

Wally and I arrived at the park early in the morning and were easily able to purchase tickets, which are limited to 400 people every half hour, to avoid overcrowding. A full price ticket costs 8 euros (or 7.50€ if you purchase them in advance here).

The park is limited to 400 people every half hour

The park is limited to 400 people every half hour

Just inside the entrance are a pair of whimsical lodges that look like lifesize gingerbread houses from the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” These structures, known as the caretaker’s lodge and administration building were designed to attract potential investors. The caretaker’s lodge includes an imaginatively embellished cupola, decorated with upside-down white ceramic coffee cups and supposedly was Gaudí’s way of telling the world he had giving up drinking coffee.

We paused to take a photo with a man dressed as the park’s mascot and symbol of Barcelona, the multi-colored mosaic gecko, known as El Drac, the Dragon (for a small fee, of course).

Wally and Duke pose with El Drac, the park’s reptilian mascot

Wally and Duke pose with El Drac, the park’s reptilian mascot

Immediately before us was the magnificent grand staircase. A riot of color, its balustrade and steps are covered with shards of ceramic tiles using a technique known as trencadísis, popular with the Modernisme movement. These fragments were discarded at a nearby factory and selected with great care. The predominant blue, yellow and green tiles symbolize faith, hope and charity, and each fragment is no more than 8 to 10 inches in size.

A mosaic sculpture of El Drac, Gaudí’s gecko — now a symbol of Barcelona

A mosaic sculpture of El Drac, Gaudí’s gecko — now a symbol of Barcelona

Perched at the base of the steps is a depiction of the beloved El Drac, created with frequent Gaudí collaborator Josep Maria Jujol. It’s plausible that Gaudí’s obsessive use of this mythological creature in his designs was influenced by his devout Catholic faith — in particular, the legend of St. George and the Dragon, symbolizing the struggle between good and evil. The likeness of the iconic El Drac is a popular souvenir choice from Barcelona, and you can purchase a variety of items inspired by Gaudí’s gecko throughout the city.

The square above the columned grotto gets crowded with all sorts of interesting people

The square above the columned grotto gets crowded with all sorts of interesting people

The Hall of 100 Columns

After climbing the first flight of steps, Wally and I entered the Sala Hipóstila, Hall of 100 Columns, referred to by Gaudí as the Greek Theater. The pavilion is a forest of 86 columns in the Greek Doric style, mimicking trees, made of mortar and rubble simulating marble. Each of the columns leans slightly and supports the upper plaza terrace above. Rainwater is filtered through the layer of stone and sand from the terrace square and runs through drainage pipes ingeniously concealed within the columns to be collected in a cistern below.

Amorous couples, tourists, kids playing ball and street performers all gather in Park Güell’s piazza

Amorous couples, tourists, kids playing ball and street performers all gather in Park Güell’s piazza

The entire ceiling consists of domes covered with white trencadís as well as brightly colored mosaic circles representing the four seasons and the lunar cycles.
Although this room was originally designed to hold the community’s market, today it is often used as a concert hall, due its impressive acoustics.

An African man in traditional garb and his new friend test out the aucustics of the Hall of 100 Columns

An African man in traditional garb and his new friend test out the aucustics of the Hall of 100 Columns

The public square, an open earthen terrace, located above the hall is framed by the Banc de Trencadís, a mosaic-tiled bench curving sinuously around its perimeter.

The undulating Banc de Trencadís is a great place to look out over the city

The undulating Banc de Trencadís is a great place to look out over the city

Wally and I stopped at the kiosk and purchased a couple beers. We found a shady spot to sit and take in the spectacular view of Barcelona before us, with the amazing La Sagrada Familia church, still under construction, in the background.

Wally couldn’t believe they sold beer at the park

Wally couldn’t believe they sold beer at the park

Duke says, “Salud to España and Gaudí’s fun aesthetic!’

Duke says, “Salud to España and Gaudí’s fun aesthetic!’

Incidentally, it’s also a great place to people-watch, and we dubbed one of the visitors Catalan Mema, as she was petite and quirky and had a shock of short white blonde hair like my mother. She was also having her hand kissed by an invisible man. Only at Park Güell!

The park is full of colorful characters, including a woman who resembles Duke’s madre — and her invisible man suitor

The park is full of colorful characters, including a woman who resembles Duke’s madre — and her invisible man suitor

The back of the terrace is formed by a row of stone viaducts, remnants of the project’s original design, intended to provide residents access to their individual plots of land.

By 1914, the project was deemed a commercial failure: Not enough people wanted high-class housing so far from the city center.

Barcelona — including la Sagrada Familia Church — stretches out below the park

Barcelona — including la Sagrada Familia Church — stretches out below the park

All that remained were the buildings described, as well as an irrigation system and meandering paths created by Gaudí in his inimitable manner. Guëll convinced Gaudí to purchase the park’s model home, designed by Gaudí’s assistant and friend Francesc Berenguer.

Despite its failings as a housing complex, the city purchased the estate in 1922 for use as a public park. But it wasn't until Gaudí’s death in 1926, that Park Guëll officially opened. If you’re visiting Barcelona and looking for an enchanting place to spend an afternoon in this remarkable city, look no further than this surreal architectural landmark. –Duke

Dan Brown’s “Origin” Tour of Spain

Follow Robert Langdon’s itinerary, from Bilbao to Barcelona, with stopovers in Madrid and Seville.

The whimsical Park Guëll in Barcelona is just one stop on an  Origin -inspired itinerary of Spanish sights

The whimsical Park Guëll in Barcelona is just one stop on an Origin-inspired itinerary of Spanish sights

You can always count on Dan Brown to serve up a whirlwind tour of a European country in his edge-of-your-seat thrillers. He’s got a formula: Robert Langdon, symbologist stud, and some attractive female companion follow a frenzied trail of clues, narrowly escaping death at every stop. What I like best about a Brown novel is that you’ll learn about religious history, conspiracy theories, art, architecture and technology along the way.

While The Da Vinci Code had Langdon darting from one Parisian landmark to another, Brown’s latest work, Origin, offers a tour of Spain, from Bilbao to Barcelona.

It wouldn’t be a Dan Brown novel without learning about a surprising but real-life controversial religious order.

Here are the main sites Langdon visits in his frenzied night trying to discover nothing less than the origin of our species — and what’s next in our evolution.

 

Bilbao

guggenheimmuseum.jpg

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The story kicks off at this famous museum, designed by Frank Gehry in his signature style, consisting of massive, curving metallic strips. The Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997 and has helped draw tourists to what was a fading industrial port city.

Brown mentions a few of the museum’s more interesting artworks, including:

guggenheimbilbao.jpg

La Salve Bridge, constructed in the early 1970s, now leads right to the Guggenheim. For the museum’s 10th anniversary, the bridge got an additional adornment, l’Arc Rouge (the Red Arch) by French artist Daniel Buren.

mamanguggenheim.jpg

Maman, a creepy metal spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that’s about 30 feet tall. The name means Mom, and the piece, built in 1999, is a (questionable) tribute to Bourgeois’ mother, who was a weaver.

matteroftimeguggenheim.jpg

The Matter of Time, a massive spiraling, interactive sculpture that takes up an entire corridor at the Guggenheim. The immersive artwork by Richard Serra was created between 1994-2005.

yveskleinguggenheim.jpg

Yves Klein Exhibition, a tribute to yet another French artist. The enormous rectangle painted on the floor resembles an intense cobalt blue swimming pool. The artist patented the color, International Klein Blue, stating that it represents the cosmic energy that floats in the air.

 

Etxanobe2.jpg
EtxanobeFood.jpg

Etxanobe

While you’re in Bilbao, enjoy a dinner at this Michelin-starred restaurant. The glass dining room has tufted light fixtures and a fabric-covered ceiling, hidden away in the Palacio Euskalduna. The food at Etxanobe is the star of the show, prepared by Fernando Canales, a local hotshot chef. It looks as if it’s one of those modern restaurants where you get served large plates that hold small, gloopy food prepared with the most recent gastronomic techniques and decorated with artistic splashes. Most people seem to recommend the chef’s tasting menu.

 

Madrid

royalpalacemadrid.jpg

Royal Palace

Much of the intrigue in Origin takes place in the Palacio Real de Madrid. Once the site of a fortress built to protect the Muslim rulers from invading Christians, the palace that stands today was begun in 1738 and took 17 years to complete. That’s no surprise, given that there are more than 3,000 rooms inside, including the Royal Armoury and the Painting Gallery, in which Salome With the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio hangs.

 

almudenacathedral.jpg

Almudena Cathedral

Adjacent to the Royal Palace, this religious institution is dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena, a medieval icon that serves as the patroness of Madrid. Like many European cathedrals, construction of the Santa Iglesia Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena (phew!) came in fits and starts. While it began in 1879, it wasn’t fully completed until 1993!

 

MuseoReinaSofiaMadrid.jpg

Reina Sofía Museum of Modern Art

The building that houses the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which opened in 1986, first served as the San Carlos Hospital.

Here are some of the famous works Brown calls out:

guernica.jpg

Guernica by Picasso is, undoubtedly, the star of the museum. A 1937 Cubist masterpiece in shades of gray, the mural was a reaction to the Nazis’ bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

laverbena.jpg

La Verbena, or The Fair, by Maruja Mallo, painted in 1927, is a riot of color and activity. There’s almost a movement to the painting, with sailors, a test-your-strength game, a cyclops in a headdress, a deformed beggar and what might be a magician about to cut a woman in half, all tucked into various nooks.

 

elescorial.jpg

El Escorial

Built from 1563-1584, the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is said to be the most important architectural monument of the Spanish Renaissance. King Philip II wanted the building to be a place to bury his father, Charles V, as well as a monastery and palace. The complex is 28 miles northwest of Madrid. Be sure to visit the Pantheon of the Kings, where 28 kings and queens of Spain are entombed.

 

elescorial.jpg

Valley of the Fallen

Near El Escorial is el Valle de los Caídosa, a controversial memorial commissioned by General Francisco Franco, the dictator of an authoritarian regime that lasted for 36 years. A massive cross sits atop a basilica and crypt that have been carved into the mountainside. The site honors those who died in the Spanish Civil War and contains the tomb of Franco himself.
 

Seville

Cathedralelpalmar.jpg

Palmarian Catholic Church

It wouldn’t be a Brown novel without learning about a surprising but real-life controversial religious order. The Christian Palmarian Church of the Carmelites of the Holy Face (Iglesia Católica Palmariana) in El Palmar de Troya, 28 miles south of Seville, is so crazy, you’d think Brown made it up. But this far-right cult actually has declared its own pope dedicated to undermining the reforms of Pope Francis and worshippers pray to a host of new saints, including, shudder, Adolf Hitler.

 

Barcelona

parkguell.jpg

Park Güell

Barcelona is one of my favorite cities — in a large part because of Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical genius. His colorful aesthetic is on display in Park Güell, a large public space at the north end of the city. Mosaics decorate this park, including the winding benches on a large terrace overlook, where it’s as fun to admire the view of Barcelona spreading out before you as it is to people-watch.

lasagradafamilia.jpg
lasagradainterior.jpg

La Sagrada Família

I can say with confidence that you’ve never seen a church like this before. The façade evokes a towering sandcastle, while the interior features sprawling treelike columns dappled in rainbow hues as sunlight hits the stained glass windows. La Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is so otherworldly, I felt as if I were inside a spaceship. Oh, and it’s still being built.

 

casamila.jpg

Casa Milà

It’s hard to miss Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera, or the Stone Quarry: Its undulating pale façade is what gave the building its nickname. The apartment complex, designed by Guadí, was built between 1906-1912 and now houses a museum highlighting the architect’s work on its top floor. Be sure to visit the rooftop, dotted with giant chimneys shaped like the helmets of soldiers.

 

barcelonasupercomputing.jpg

Barcelona Supercomputing Center

Leave it to Brown to weave quirky sites like this into his stories. The Centro Nacional de Supercomputación is indeed a research facility housed in the former Chapel Torre Girona. Its star supercomputer, MareNostrum, consists of neat rows of metallic towers encased in a glass box that fills the interior of the sanctuary.

 

As you work your way through this itinerary, following in Langdon’s footsteps, here’s hoping there’s not a murderous former naval admiral on your heels. –Wally

Patatas Bravas Recipe

In the mood for tapas? Don’t forget this tasty comfort food side dish.

Move over, french fries. Patatas bravas is the new perfect side dish

Every now and then, Wally will ask if I’m planning on making tapas. Like the cashew curry chicken, this recipe transports us back to one of our most memorable destinations. I have a couple tried-and-true recipes for tapas, one of them being patatas bravas. There's something comforting and magical that happens when hot crispy golden potato wedges are topped with a smoky tomato sauce.

A tapas mainstay in Spain, patatas bravas, or “fierce potatoes,” are one of our favorites.

There’s something comforting and magical that happens when hot crispy golden potato wedges are topped with a smoky tomato sauce.

I recently started baking these in the oven and like the texture the potatoes get. It’s lower in fat than frying them, and there’s no oil splatter to clean up, which is a win in my book.

This recipe yields about four servings and makes a lot of sauce, which you can use on eggs the next morning. I use a 14.5-ounce can of Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes, as I like the texture and flavor.


Ingredients

For the patatas:

  • 2 pounds red-skin potatoes, quartered into bite-size pieces
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • sea salt
  • garlic powder

For the sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • pinch of sea salt
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon pimentón or smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 14.5-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes

 

Preparation

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Add water to a large pot and bring to a boil.

Add potatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Do not overcook.

Pour potatoes into a colander, rinse with cold water to stop cooking, and let dry.

Toss potatoes with 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt and garlic powder. Scatter on a sheet pan.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown.  

While the potatoes are baking, prepare the sauce. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-low heat.

Once hot, add the onion and sauté for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally until onions are translucent.

Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds, then add spice mixture of smoked paprika, cayenne and garlic powder. Cook for 2-3 minutes more and let cool.

Purée fire-roasted diced tomatoes, sautéed onion, garlic and spice mixture in a food processor until slightly coarse in texture. (If you prefer a smoother sauce, use a 6-ounce can of tomato paste.)

Remove potatoes from oven and sprinkle with a bit more salt to taste. Drizzle with tomato sauce.


Enjoy your tapa! –Duke

Santa Semana Bar Crawl

Holy Week is a big deal in Málaga, Spain. Learn all about the bizarre celebrations featuring humpbacked and hooded figures in secret brotherhoods.

La Dolorosa (Our Lady of the Sorrows). Resin teardrops, glass eyes and actual clothes add to the realism of the pained expression of the Virgin Mary, featured at Puerta Oscura in Málaga

Tucked away in the narrow Calle Mosquera and situated near the historic Málaga Centro, Taberna Cofrade las Merchanas is a local bar with an unassuming exterior that belies what awaits you inside.

Here, the interior is a quirky tribute to the Santa Semana celebration (Holy Week, which starts on Palm Sunday and concludes on Easter). The bar is filled with holy relics, photos and memorabilia associated with the traditions of Santa Semana. The establishment belongs to the cofradia (brotherhood) and although it was opened in 2011, it has the feel of having existed for decades.

Local belief holds that the bigger the hump, the more pious the man.

Relics pertaining to Santa Semana fill the walls at a bar in Málaga, Spain, owned by one of the Holy Week brotherhoods

Semana Santa traditions in Spain are a serious affair — and Málaga is no exception. They include processions in which an elaborate ceremonial trono paso, literally a throne step or float, is carried by costaleros, or “sack men,” so named for the padded headdresses they wear to support the float. Because they’re hidden beneath a cloth, the trono paso looks like it’s floating through the air.

The platform of the trono paso holds life-size effigies made of wood, wax and wire depicting scenes from the gospels related to the Passion of Christ. There are up to 40 costaleros underneath each trono paso. These men bear the weight of the float on their necks and shoulders. Many are left with a humpback for several days after. Local belief holds that the bigger the hump, the more pious the man, our friend Jo informed us.

The pasos are followed by nazarenos, or penitents, dressed in colorful tunics and conical hoods and masks called capriotes to render the individual unidentifiable — they’re all equal in the eyes of God. Americans might be alarmed at first, confusing the hoods for those of the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, who also adopted the medieval attire, though in white.

A shelf filled with nazareno figurines at Taberna Cofrade las Merchanas in Málaga. The different colored robes indicate which hermandad (brotherhood) the individual belongs to.

The sound of slow, rhythmic drum beats traditionally heard during the procession provide the soundtrack in the bar, which is a stop on the pilgrimage circuit during Holy Week — and serves up good tapas year-round.

 

RELATED: In Seville, the jubilant Feria de Abril begins two weeks after Semana Santa, while in Málaga, it’s typically held in August.

 

Taberna Cofrade las Merchanas

Calle Mosquera, 5


 

The Devil’s in the Details

After visiting the Soho district, a street art mecca, our friends Jo and José led us to the café/bar Puerta Oscura, or the Dark Door.

Upon entering, the dimly lit interior resembles a Baroque-period salon: pale powder blue walls, ornamental plaster embellishments and cut crystal chandeliers accompanied by furnishings upholstered in a burgundy and gold stripe.

The main room of the café serves as an exhibition space for museum-quality polychromed devotional sculptures, and at the time of our visit last spring was featuring the work of Ramón Cuenca Santos.

The intricate process to create the sculptures includes clay and polychromed cedar.

Jesús Cautivo (Bound Jesus), a life-size (and amazingly lifelike) seated Christ with wrists wrapped in real gold-colored rope.

It was fascinating to see the prototype sculpture first conceived in clay and subsequently polychromed cedar. These expertly handcarved and painted sculptures appear as if they might just move when you’re not looking.  

We ordered coffee and perched on stools while classical music played, and Wally and I took photos of the sculptures.

The process of creating these lifelike sculptures is truly amazing:

Puerta Oscura

Calle Molina Lario, 5

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2016

What subjects appealed most to our readers? Qatar, a love den in Delhi, jinns, wellness, tapas, guacamole, a Peruvian vampire, a Fès restaurant and Trump. Lots of Trump.

It must be love.

As we reviewed our best-performing posts of our inaugural year, we noticed that you share our same diverse interests. You appreciate our quirky sensibilities (like our post on a garden filled with amorous couples finding release in a repressed society).

But you’re interested in politics, too — from what it’s like to live in a Middle Eastern country to the global effects of our controversial new president.

You also appreciate good food, whether it’s a recipe you’re looking for or restaurant suggestions on your travels.

Finally, you’re interested in folklore, be it the jinns of Islam or a fat-sucking vampire you sure don’t want to run into along the Inca Trail.

1. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

2. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

4. TOP 6 WELLNESS TOURISM TRIPS

Yoga on the Mexican beach, hikes to Machu Picchu, Pilates in Morocco — the best health tourism adventures.

5. LA TRANCA: KICK OFF A DAY OF MALAGA TAPAS AT THIS LOCAL HANGOUT

Famous for its empanadas and other tapas treats, this neighborhood bar has many a story to tell.

6. WHAT THE WORLD THINKS OF A PRESIDENT TRUMP

Spoiler alert: From Europe to Asia to Latin America, the outlook isn’t very optimistic.

7. BEST GUACAMOLE RECIPE EVER

Es la verdad. Wally’s famous guacamole never fails to please. Just make sure you get a molcajete.

8. MORE TAKES ON WHAT THE WORLD THINKS ABOUT A TRUMP PRESIDENCY

Is there any country that’s pleased with the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election? (Besides Russia, that is.)

9. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

10. THE RUINED GARDEN: A FAIRY TALE FEZ RESTAURANT

A magical, secret spot with great Moroccan food, friendly servers, quirky décor and kitty companions.

Where to See DFace, Obey (aka Shepard Fairey), Boa Mistura and Other Street Art in Málaga

Soho Malaga has become a mural and graffiti hotspot.

One of the many colorful murals you’ll find roaming around Soho, as part of the MAUS initiative

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the storied Heredia District, Málaga’s former 19th century bourgeois enclave, has emerged reborn.

It’s no secret that Wally and I both love graffiti and murals, so when our friends Jo and José proposed a visit to the Barrio de las Artes, the epicenter of Málaga’s street art scene, we both said yes.

Street artists from around the world have been invited to contribute and transform the district into an open-air gallery.

Wally and Jo pose in front of street art

Duke takes his turn as well. Photo ops galore in Soho

Mighty MAUS

Located south of the main Alameda thoroughfare, the triangular-shaped quarter has rebranded itself as the Soho district. This was made possible through a public arts initiative that goes by the acronym MAUS (Málaga Arte Urbano Soho), turning the surrounding streets and buildings into canvases.

If you see vermin tumbling from the sky, you’re in the right place. It’s a street mural by Roa, who paints animals native to the local environment — like, um, rats

The first large-scale work we encountered was an expressive black and white mural created by Belgian street artist Roa depicting wiry haired rats tumbling down the curving façade of a multistory building at the eastern end of Calle Casa de Campo.

Devote an hour or so to explore (and photograph) the street art scene in Málaga

Since we had recently indulged in a big lunch, José proposed that the four of us check out the rooftop terrace bar of the Hotel Soho Bahía. When we arrived, we found that it was closed. Perhaps an extension of the previous Labor Day holiday, perhaps not — who can say, as businesses seem to run on a different timetable in Spain.

The bold multistory mural on the exterior of the Hotel Soho Bahía, La Danse de Venus et du Marin by Remed and Okuda, is a combination of vibrant colors and shapes

Street artists from around the world have been invited by Fernando Francés, the director of the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (CAC) to contribute and transform the district into an open-air gallery. Admission to the museum is free, and it’s located next to the Guadalmedina River near the city center in a building that was previously a warehouse used for Málaga’s wholesale markets.

El poder de la imaginacton: The Soho district shows the power of the imagination in action

We didn’t have time to stop inside but had fun posing with the letters (choose one that corresponds to your initials) by a mural by Boa Mistura that reads, “El poder de la imaginacion nos hace infinitos” (The power of the imagination makes us infinite).

D is for Duke

O boy, it’s Wally!

Two of the most high-profile works loom larger than life on the façade of the Colegio García Lorca directly behind the museum — seven stories high to be exact.

Vibrant murals by D*Face and Obey loom above the art museum

To the right is Paz y Libertad (Peace and Liberty) by Shepard Fairey aka Obey. For those of you who may not be familiar with Fairey, he’s the artist responsible for creating the iconic “Hope” image depicting then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Opposite Fairey’s piece is a mural by Dean Stockton aka D*Face: a tongue-in-cheek pop art-inspired piece that declares, “I’ll put an end to those flying D*Dogs if it’s the last thing I ever do!!!” I love that the fighter pilot has one red eye and one blue.

The art-focused transformation of Málaga’s Soho district elevates the medium and was a highlight of our visit. The key is to remember to look up. –Duke

And if your street art hunt gets to be too much, just take a nap along the Guadalmedina River like Jo

Mercado de la Merced: Our Favorite Stalls

Eat your way through Malaga’s refined and friendly food hall, which includes 22 fast-casual concepts under one roof.

Dining options galore (and farmers’ market shopping during the day) at the Mercado de la Merced in Málaga, Spain

The Mercado de la Merced is a short stroll from the famous Plaza de la Merced, where a monument erected in honor of General José María de Torrijos and 48 of his men stands. Torrijos was executed by a firing squad on the beach of San Andres by the order of King Ferdinand VII in 1831 after a failed attempt to overthrow the regime. Incidentally, the square also contains Pablo Picasso’s birth home, which is now a museum.


Market Days

A destination within itself, the Mercado de la Merced boasts a variety of eateries preparing and selling delicious regional cuisine in a casual setting. It also has stalls that sell adult beverages, and Jo, Wally and I shared a bottle of El Nomada Rioja from Taninos Vinocateca.

Suffice to say, we returned a second time and probably would have returned a third had time allowed.

Salud to great friends and great food

We sat on colorful bent steel and wood barstools, designed by the innovative studio Design Club. The three of us shared empanadas, wine and mini ebelskiver pancakes.

Suffice to say, we returned a second time and probably would have returned a third had time allowed.
 

Here are a few of our favorites stalls at the mercado:

Nice gams: The oh-so-delicious Ibérico ham can be aged for over three years!

1. Beher Iberian Ham

This prized artisanal ham from the family-run business Beher is cured for at least 30 to 42 months and is made from black-skinned pure-bred pata negra (black-hoofed) Ibérico pigs so named for the hoof that accompanies each ham.

What makes this distinctive, silky textured meat unique is that the pigs roam freely in dehesas (ancient oak groves), grazing on grass for 18 to 24 months. When the oak trees drop their acorns in early fall, the piggies gorge solely on an acorn-rich diet until they reach their kill weight of 360 pounds.

I always look forward to the luxury of enjoying Iberian ham when we visit Spain, and it's incredible to watch it being expertly hand-carved.

 

2. Carnes & Cía Grill

One word: empanadas. Carnes & Cía brings the flavors of Argentina to Málaga. The empanadas are filled with meats that have been grilled Argentinian-style over coals, yielding tender morsels of smoky and succulent meat. Did I mention that they are  accompanied with homemade chimichurri sauce?

 

Mini ebelskiver pancake puffs, a Dutch dessert, from the Pof stall

3. Pof

There’s no denying that I have a sweet tooth and will always say yes to dessert. One of Pof’s specialties is delicious homemade mini ebelskiver pancake puffs, a treat originating from Denmark. Six warm, pillowy puffs are made to order and topped with a dulce de leche sauce, a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced strawberries if you’d like — what’s not to like?

While we were waiting for ours, Jo remarked about the young woman working there who was wearing a floppy white chef hat.

Whipping up another batch of mini pancakes at Pof in the Mercado de la Merced

“How can she wear that on her head and still look cute?” Jo wanted to know.

The young woman reminded me a bit of Anna Paquin. We watched as she whipped up the mini pancakes. There were a few burnt ones sitting in the center of the multi-row concave pan the batter is put into.

“Well, that certainly isn't selling, it,” said the ever-candid Jo.

 

Who’s in the mood for octopus?

We never made it to the mercado during the day but saw an entire section of stalls that act as a farmers’ market during the day, where you can shop for fresh seafood, fruit, vegetables, meat and more. Wally and I, of course, were delighted with the whimsical designs on the closed stalls — it was fun to guess what lay within.

¡Buen provecho! –Duke

 

Caganer: A Crappy Spanish Christmas Tradition Explained

No Catalan Christmas is complete without Caga Tio’s crazy counterpart, the Christmas Shitter.

As hard as it might be to believe, this figurine of a man squatting and taking a poop, known as the Caganer, is actually placed in nativity scenes

On the sick and demented show South Park, which never fails to serve up brilliant zeitgeist zingers, there’s an unlikely Yuletide character: Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo. He’s literally a merry little piece of shit. Part of what makes him so funny — besides the fact that he flies out of the toilet and leaves brown schmears everywhere he goes — is how absurd it is to connect what was once the holiest of holidays with, well, fecal matter.

Turns out the Catalans had already been doing just that for a couple of centuries.

The Caganer has his pants pulled down to expose his ample bottom — and there’s a spiral of shit at his feet.

You can find dozens of defecating delights at Barcelona’s Christmas fair, the Fira de Santa Llúcia

Who exactly is the Caganer?

He’s a cheerful little guy dressed in a traditional Catalan outfit: white shirt, red cap and belt, black pants. Innocuous from the front, there’s a surprise around back. The Caganer has his pants pulled down to expose his ample bottom — and there’s a spiral of shit at his feet.

 

How do you pronounce Caganer? 

My friend Albert, who lives in Barcelona, sent voice recordings so I could hear how you properly pronounce Caganer. To me, it sounded like “ka-ga-nay,” but said very quickly. I suggested that pronunciation guide to Albert, and he wasn’t quite sold.

Morale of the story: End the word with an “ay” sound rather than “er” — and you should get an A for effort.

 

RELATED: ¿Como se dice “shit” en español? Learn Spanish swear words here!

 

Holy crap! The defecating figurine is actually placed in the nativity scene.

It sounds sacrilegious to include someone dropping a deuce near Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men and the rest of the nativity bunch. But that’s exactly what Catalan families do — though the Caganer is placed far away from the manger.

“The Caganer is never in the front of the nativity scene. That would be a lack of respect. He’s always hidden in a corner, under a bridge or behind a tree, and every morning the children play a game, hunting for the Caganer,” Joan Lliteras, a self-proclaimed “Caganer connoisseur,” told the BBC.

 

How the heck did this tradition start?

As strange as it sounds, the Caganer is seen as a symbol of fertility and good fortune.

“There was the legend that if a countryside man did not put a Caganer in the nativity scene, he would have a very bad year collecting vegetables,” Lliteras explained.

“Others say that the irreverent figure is meant to humble establishment figures or that it demonstrates that no one can be prepared for when Jesus will appear,” Smithsonian.com reported.

There’s another theory: Not everyone could give the Son of God expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh like the Magi.

“It was the only thing the little shepherd boy had to give the Baby Jesus,” Nancy Duneuve told the BBC. “So it’s not at all disrespectful — it’s a great gift.”

Manure, after all, makes good fertilizer.

Political, pop culture and sports figures all get the Caganer treatment

Was that the Queen of England I saw taking a dump?

Why, yes, yes, it was. The Caganer tradition has entered the modern era. While you can still find the original Caganer, the Christmas markets of Barcelona and the nearby area are filled with Star Wars characters, political figures (yes, Trump has become popular this year), football stars, the Pope, Spider-Man and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Vendors insist it’s not an insult but rather a great honor to be depicted as a Christmas crapper.

 

Believe it or not, this isn’t the only Scatological Catalan Christmas tradition!

Our friend Albert’s nieces sit atop a giant Caga Tío, a log you feed and beat until it poops out treats

Our friend Albert’s nieces sit atop a giant Caga Tío, a log you feed and beat until it poops out treats

There’s also the Caga Tío, the Pooping Log. This is a piece of wood with a cartoonish face (googly eyes, big smile). It wears a traditional red Catalan cap like the Caganer and is covered with a blanket. Kids feed it their leftovers, beat it with sticks, sing a song — and hope it poops out yummy treats. I guess you could say they literally beat the shit out of it.

 

Visit Caganer.com — and start your own collection. Catalan Christmases truly are the shit. –Wally

 

ANOTHER BIZARRE XMAS TRADITION: Krampus, the Christmas Devil

The Gibralfaro: The Most Spectacular Views in Malaga

This ancient fortress is one of the best things to do in Málaga, Spain — and it beats out the Alcazaba.

Be sure to walk the ramparts of the Gibralfaro, the Moorish fortress that looms above Málaga, Spain

Somehow our friends had never experienced it — and it turned out to be one of our favorite parts of Málaga (aside from the delicious food and over-the-top religious iconography, of course).

Jo and José had been to the Alcazaba before, but hadn’t gotten around to exploring the Gibralfaro yet. After joining us there on an afternoon hike, it has become one of the places they’ll now take everyone who visits them in Málaga.

You can walk the entire perimeter of the fortress — affording the best views in the entire city.

The Málaga Cathedral stands proud as the buildings of the city center encroach upon it

The defensive wall of the Gibralfaro

When was the Gibralfaro built?

The castillo was built in 929 CE, commissioned by Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba, reports andalucia.com.

The structure was enlarged by Yusef I, Sultan of Granada, at the beginning of the 14th century, after realizing that Málaga’s other Moorish castle, the Alcazaba, was too vulnerable to cannonfire, according to visit-andalucia.com. The sultan also added the wall that connects the two fortresses.

How'd the Gibralfaro get its name?

Because it was built on the site of a former Phoenician enclosure and lighthouse, it was given a name that's derived from an Arabic and a Greek word: Gebel-Faro: Rock of the Lighthouse.

Wally jumps for joy during a visit to the Gibralfaro

How was the Gibralfaro designed?

It was considered the most impregnable fortress on the Iberian Peninsula for a time, according to the Ayuntamiento de Málaga. It has two lines of zigzagging walls and eight towers.

The coolest part is that you can walk the entire perimeter of the fortress — affording the best views in the entire city. You can look down upon the Plaza de la Merced, where Picasso was born, the cathedral, the coast and the bullring.

You can look down upon the Plaza de la Merced, famous for being the birthplace of Pablo Picasso

When I was researching our trip, I kept coming across pictures of the bullring taken from above. (Of course at the time, I was sure it was a remarkably well-preserved Roman colosseum. That turned out to be bull, ha ha.) I wanted to be sure to capture the same dramatic view. Well, I needn’t have worried. You, too, can capture this glorious scene from the ramparts of the Gibralfaro fortress.

The fortress affords fantastic views, including the iconic bullring of Málaga

Was the Gibralfaro part of any famous battles?

Not a battle per se, but a siege conducted by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, which ended only when hunger forced the Malagueños to surrender.

Afterwards Ferdinand occupied the site, while his queen took up residence in the town.

Interesting historic fact: This was the first conflict in which gunpowder was used by both sides.

You can even see down to the harborfront. That colorful glass box is the entrance to the Centre Pompidou Málaga

Any advice for exploring the Gibralfaro?

If you only have time for one of these historic sites, hit the Gibralfaro. The views are worth it.

And wear sensible shoes. As the Young Adventress points out, it’s a bit of a hike to the top, and then you’ll be walking around the periphery walls without any real shelter from the sun.

But! The good news is that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — or at least a nice tinto de verano or cold beer at Terrazita, the small outdoor bar. –Wally