I can’t leave out my homie Portugal, especially after this stellar weekend, so I’ve elected to write about the five best places I’ve visited on the Iberian Peninsula (rather than just Spain) on this trip.
If we’re working in chronological order, and if I so happen to be writing from the midst of Castilla y Leon’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plunge from summer into winter, then it makes sense for Mallorca, in all its green and blue sun-swathed glory, to come first.
Mallorca is one of Spain’s Balearic Islands, floating merrily between Ibiza and Menorca in the sea to the south of Barcelona. I arrived in Mallorca, like so many of these cities, in the dark, and so I passed a bizarre but not unenjoyable evening in one of Mallorca’s heavily German neighborhoods celebrating Oktoberfest and wondering where exactly that Air Europa flight had plopped me.
The next day, though, we rented a car to explore the interior of the island. Limitless green mountains, lush wineries, clear beaches in mountain-fringed bays: we twisted all the way up to the opposite coast of the island, tasted wine and lolled in the shallow waters, and then wandered back to pass Palma, Mallorca’s capital city, at sunset.
Sunday, I rented a bike and rode ten miles along the coast to Palma. Tourists and locals sprawled on the rocks along the way, relishing the strong autumn sun. How do I convey Palma? It was cloud-high palm trees, shaded streets, Es Baluard, a surrealist art museum with wicker lounges on the roof for gazing out at the Gothic Cathedral, and narrow little restaurants with fresh cheese from the mountains and pork that had been simmering since the dawn of time. It was also the first beach city I’ve ever been to in which it didn’t feel as though much of its essence had been sacrificed in the name of tourism. I’m coming to appreciate that more and more, as I rove around.
Have I been blabbering? Yes. Salivating? Yeah, that, too.
Technically, I came to know and love Salamanca before Mallorca. But I can’t be held accountable for errors made ten minutes pre or post Netflix binge (sometimes a girl just needs an hour of English every now and again!), and so I hope you’ll forgive me.
Salamanca, my home base: its churches and towers are crafted of Villamayor sandstone, a tawny-colored stone that’s positively resplendent at sunset. Salamanca’s skyline is medieval, but wedged within its streets are restaurants and bars lively with conversation and congeniality. Because it’s home to one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities, Salamanca is so much more than just a small, pretty city. I love that it’s my jumping off point for travel – I get to snatch up a beer at Plaza Mayor here, a sunset in the garden there – even though I want so much more!
- La Alberca
This is the one that most of you won’t recognize on sight. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a decent majority of Spaniards aren’t familiar with La Alberca, either.
Twenty minutes west of my pueblo, you can fit this medieval town in your palm. And let me spell out medieval for you: homes fortified with wooden beams, centuries-old cobblestone streets, and a church constructed with pre-Roman materials.
Outside of its modest plaza, where one can sit and drink a lazy glass of wine, or poke into dark shops where artists hand-paint tiles and sculpt leather boots, the streets of La Alberca are nearly silent. I remembering thinking, roaming them alone one weekday afternoon – how many inhabited places have I ever known to be so quiet?
It’s a place where you feel as though the past is easy to touch.
- San Sebastian
Have you ever wanted to learn to surf in a moon-shaped bay, guarded by green, cloud-cloaked hills? Have you ever wanted to meander in and out of bars nibbling at pintxos - wedges of bread heaped with cheese or sumptuous sausage, dishes of fresh, ripe-to-bursting mussels and shrimp – and drinking a glass of beer here, a glass of wine or cider there? Perhaps you’ve always wanted a real scare on the eve of Halloween. Might riding an ancient funicular up a mountain to a half-abandoned amusement park deep in fog fit the bill? Perhaps riding its roller coaster around the peak of said mountain, screaming into the night?
San Sebastian has a vibe. It has a young, art-centric, communal, surfer vibe.
Alright, should I just say “hipster” and get it over with?
San Sebastian is extra special because it was one of three places on my must-see-in-Spain list prior to embarking on this journey. I find that oftentimes, it’s the things for which we set high prior expectations that disappoint. Hence the short list.
And madre mia, San Sebastian most certainly did not.
- Porto, Portugal
Without further ado…the reason I entitled this list “Iberian Peninsula” instead of “Spain!” The reason I have the most life-altering sweater in my closet right now which I may or may not have just worn for four days straight! The reason I stayed up until well past midnight last night dog-earring a book on azulejo tiles!
Lonely Planet describes Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, as “humble-yet-opulent,” and I can’t help but feel as though this descriptor is beyond perfect. Ensconced in azulejos, hand-painted tiles of the richest and most intricate design, and strewn with street art and crepe banners, Porto manages, miraculously, not to feel as though it’s packaged for neat, aesthetic consumption. It feels humble, homey, worn-in a little. The best bars and restaurants are holes in the wall with chandeliers made from old trumpets, hand-written menus. Portuguese (which sounds nothing like Spanish – don’t listen to the lies!) is the predominant language here, and it’s refreshing (albeit frustrating, at times) to hear, “No, no hablo ingles. Y no hablo espanol.” In today’s day and age, that’s pure magic! Wizardry, perhaps!
And so, there you have it, folks. My top five, entirely unbiased by the presence of high-quality travel pals, my predisposition towards the arts, or a deep zest for local food. Like, if you put these five places into a blender and tossed in some garlic and oil, you totally wouldn’t make a Jenna smoothie.
But that’s besides the point. It’s time for me to go – this chicas got a few more trips to book!