Pradip and Soumil were my wingies at IITB during our undergraduate program. Pradip is now pursuing PhD in Astronomy at University of Maryland in USA. Soumil recently started his PhD in Applied Mathematics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. And I am currently at RWTH Aachen, Germany for my master’s thesis in robotics. We decided to get together in Europe during this Christmas Vacation. Iceland, the land of Ice and Fire, was on the top of our list to spend this New Year’s Eve. Unexpectedly, we stumbled across a very cheap WOW airlines flight to Reykjavik (Capital of Iceland) from Barcelona. We immediately jumped at the opportunity of doing a road trip in Spain before departing for Iceland. (Does it sound familiar: 3 college friends getting together on a road-trip in Spain from different parts of the world? Right..That’s ‘ZNMD’! ) . Soumil was the only one amongst us who could drive, so he drove throughout the whole journey (>1500km in Spain and >1700km in Iceland)!
Paris was not a part of our road trip plan. But the flight to Madrid was way cheaper from Paris than the flight from Frankfurt. So I and Pradip decided to meet in Paris, spend a day there and then board the flight to Madrid in the evening. ‘Don’t buy anything from the beautiful girls at the metro station and beware of the pickpockets’ this was the advice given to me by my friends who had visited Paris a week before and were mugged by a ‘beautiful girl’. I took a bus to Paris from Aachen and Pradip arrived from India (He was visiting his hometown during holidays). On the Gallieni metro station near Eurolines' bus stop, we were approached by a young French girl who offered to book our travel day-passes. But knowing that it’s a trap, we steered clear of her, figured out the routes on our own and boarded the underground metro towards city centre. The first look of Paris at dawn was enough to drive us into the ‘Trip mode’.
We started our tour with the epicentre of Paris: Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous Gothic cathedral located on the banks of Seine River. When we reached the cathedral, the reverberating sound of bells announced the beginning of the Sunday Mass. The architecture of the Cathedral was truly astonishing. We went inside and were taken aback by the beautiful Christmas decorations.
After spending around half an hour inside the Cathedral, we started walking along the Seine River. The amazing sight of Eiffel Tower on the background of Pont Neuf (the oldest standing bridge in Paris) was perfectly captured by Pradip in his camera.
Along the way, we saw some green boxes lined up on the footpaths. Initially we thought that they are the garbage containers. But when a person came and started to open the boxes, we were surprised to find that these were actually the street shops, now opening for the day’s business.
Our next destination was ‘Louvre Museum’: another landmark of Paris and the world’s largest museum. On the way, we saw some stunning statues and also tried the French special breakfast dish: Crêpe, a very thin pancake made from wheat flour dressed up with delicious chocolate.
Near the Louvre museum, we were again approached by a young French girl asking us to sign a petition. After we signed, she started to beg for money. Fortunately she didn’t persist for long after we neglected her and we could continue our walk towards the museum. The Louvre museum was unfortunately closed due to Christmas. But we were able to walk around the spectacular glass pyramids, the location famous for holding the ‘Holy Grail’ in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ novel of Dan Brown. It had been my dream to visit this spot ever since I read the novel.
After the Louvre Museum, it was time for the most awaited location in Paris: the Eiffel Tower. And it was a fabulosupertremendouslymindblowing sight indeed!
We spent about an hour roaming around the Eiffel tower and soaking in its glory. It was hard to leave this place, but we had to catch our flight to Barcelona from Charles de Gaulle airport (situated a bit far away from the city). So making a mental note to come back here again (hopefully with the better half :P), we left this beautiful ‘City of Love’ and boarded the Vueling Flight to Madrid.
I was continuously ringing the bell of ‘that’ door on a deserted street in the outskirts of Madrid. But there was no movement inside! Pradip was frantically trying to call the service centre but nobody was picking it up. It was already 9PM and we were homeless in the city of Madrid. We had arrived in Madrid a couple of hours ago and Soumil had picked us up from the airport in a SEAT Leon car that we had booked for our roadtrip in Spain. We had driven from the airport to the location mentioned in the booking confirmation email but there was no sign of the hostel at that address. The apartment mentioned in the email was locked and there was no light inside. We tried in vain to contact the reception desk number scribbled on the letterbox. After several failed attempts to get any information from the passers-by, who all spoke only Spanish, we decided to give it up and find another accommodation.
Soumil drove the car towards ‘Plaza Mayor’, the city centre, while I and Pradip kept searching online for available budget rooms in the city. Fortunately, Pradip received a positive response from an apartment owner and we immediately confirmed the booking. Feeling relaxed as we had a place to sleep, we decided to have dinner first and then check-in the apartment. Unfortunately, the Plaza Mayor was a very busy area and we couldn’t find any free parking lot. After driving around for half an hour, we finally ended up in a parking lot 10 mins walk from the Plaza Mayor.
The Christmas Market in Plaza Mayor was bustling with people. Some street performers were showcasing their skills at the centre of this stately square and the crowd heavily cheered them.
We walked across the market towards the famous café ‘Chocolatería San Ginés’. This café has been serving the classic Spanish treat chocolate con churros (churros with hot chocolate) since 1894. Churros are pastry type snacks made from fried dough. They were very delicious and filling!
After the dinner, we once again went through the nightmare of finding a parking spot near our apartment. Due to Christmas, it was nearly impossible to find an empty parking lot. By the time we checked-in, it was already past midnight. The apartment was beyond our expectation. It had a full-fledged kitchen, huge bathroom, cosy bedroom and a small hall with TV. Thanking our luck, we settled down, planned our next day and went to sleep.
It was a really sunny day! We started our tour with the famous Royal Palace of Madrid. This palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family but currently it is only used for state ceremonies.
The palace was open to public and we were able to get the tickets quickly as we reached there around 9AM. Near the main palace building, there is a separate building for the Royal Armory which contains the collections of Charles V and Philip II. The weapons and full armour reminded me of the Museum in City Palace of Udaipur containing similar collections of Maharana Pratap. The palace was huge and beautifully decorated with artwork. Particularly, the crown room and throne room were grandiose.
It took us nearly 3 hours to complete the palace tour. When we came outside, the que for the tickets had grown exponentially (Thank god we came early!). The Spanish policemen were having a good time walking around the palace on their horses.
By the time we finished our lunch in the famous ‘Lizarran restaurant’, it was already 2PM. So we skipped other tourist spots in Madrid and left for our next destination Granada.
The journey from Madrid to Granada took about 4hours. Initially the weather was perfect but in the later part of the journey it dramatically changed. We passed through some very dense fog on the way. It was nearly impossible to see anything beyond a few meters. By the time we came out of the fog zone, the sun had started to set.
We checked-in our hotel room in Granada at 7PM (no problems this time :) ). After dinner, we took a walk in the central part of the city. The streets were beautifully decorated with Christmas Lights.
As the saying goes ‘Walking around the city of Granada, you are never far away from a fountain or two’, we stumbled across a nice fountain on the way. Apparently, as the Southern Spain has long hot summers, the fountains and water features help to keep the city cooler. It was a welcome sight in winter nevertheless. A huge Christmas tree was erected beside the fountain completing the Christmas ‘feeling’.
Our first spot for today was Alhambra: the most renowned building of the Andalusian Islamic historical legacy and the most popular attraction in Granada. Fortunately we had already booked the tickets online and hence easily entered the complex skipping a long que. At the entrance, we were greeted by a garden full of orange trees! It invoked a nostalgic feeling as I remembered my childhood days in Nagpur (Orange city of India).
Alhambra fortress is a symbol of Moorish culture in Spain and it showcases the skills of Muslim, Jewish and Christian artisans, craftsman and builders of 13th Century. The complex was completed on a scenic site by Yusuf I and Muhammad V, Sultan of Granada towards the end of Muslim rule of Spain. The complex consisted of 4 main structures: Generalife Gardens, Alcazaba (Citadel), Palace of Charles V and Nasrid Palace. But our ticket only covered the first three attractions as the entry to Nasrid palace was limited. We started with the Generalife Gardens, 1100s summer palace with elegant ornamental gardens featuring pools, courtyards and vibrant blooms. The kings must have enjoyed walking in these beautiful gardens with their wives :). What a wonderful way to start the day!
After the Gardens, we visited the Palace of Charles V, a renaissance-style project of the Emperor with a grand courtyard and museums. The construction of palace was started in 1533 but was abandoned years later and the palace remained roofless till late 20th century. The Roman style curved patio surprised us when we entered through the main façades.
Our final location was the oldest structure of Alhambra: Alcazaba or Citadel. It was damaged in 1881 by lightning and at present all that remains are its outer walls, towers and ramparts.
The best part of Alhambra was the spectacular panoramic views of the entire Granada city from the watch tower of Alcazaba.
The two structures that stood out in this panorama were the Cathedral of Granada and the Ice clad mountains of Sierra Nevada.
We stayed on top of the watchtower for half an hour, watching the duet of man-made and natural spectacles. But I would say the natural one was much more delightful. As the hunger rolled in, we left Alhambra to eat some local cuisine. We spent the next hour roaming on the streets of Granada and following directions on google maps in search of a budget friendly-Vegetarian-Spanish restaurant (too many constrains :P). Finally we stumbled across a newly opened small bar-restaurant far away from the main market which met our constraints. It turned out to be a hidden gem as the food was delicious and pretty cheap. We were also served free ‘Tapas’, the exquisite Spanish appetizers. The cook took special efforts to make vegetarian Tapas for me and Pradip.
After lunch, we commenced our journey towards Valencia. The sight of Sierra Nevada Mountains along the way was very refreshing. It took us around 6hrs to reach Valencia, including the gas station halts and dinner break at a Taco Bell on the way.
Our ‘Urban Youth Hostel’ in Valencia turned out to be super awesome. The main lobby was luxurious and our dorm room infy classy. (The ‘cute’ receptionist even gave us detailed information about what to visit in Valencia :) ) After settling in, we took a walk towards the Science Complex and Oceanogràfic aquarium in the southern part of the city. But everything was closed at that time and we had to turn back.
Watching the sun rise over the vast expanse of the ocean is definitely one of the best ways to start a day! Sacrificing our early morning sleep, we walked along the ‘Marina Real Juan Carlos’ in Valencia to see the world awaken around us and embrace the new day. The beach was picturesque and clean. The locals were busy trying to catch some fish with their sophisticated fishing rods. We spent about an hour on the beach and then walked back to the hostel.
We joined a free walking tour of Valencia to explore the central region of the city. The tour began with the Plaza de la Virgen, a beautiful square in the centre of the old quarter of Valencia. We spent some time learning about the roman origins of Valentia and exploring the monuments in this square such as the Water court (oldest justice court in Europe) and Turia Fountain (most iconic fountain in the city). Then we visited the central market (the jewel of Valencian modernism and temple of gastronomy) and saw the Government palace (impressive gothic style palace and headquarter to valencian political power) and Cathedral of Valencia.
Our guide, Helena (the one in Orange tee), was very energetic and passionate. She explained to us in detail about the history and culture of Valencia. Though it was hard to keep track of everything that she said :), we got to know some interesting things such as the ‘Falles’ festival celebrated in Valencia by burning the monuments (while explaining about it she chuckled and said, “I’m sure this time they’ll burn Trump’s statue”) and Valencià language which the locals speak proudly (she said in a low voice, “There’s very little difference between Catalan and Valencià actually, but don’t say this to any Valencian person”).
And we also saw the 2nd narrowest house of Europe in the heart of Valencia (The narrowest house is in Amsterdam). Long time ago, a family of 4 people used to live in this house. Imagine the space crunch!
After completing this walking tour of approx. 3hrs, we went to the most awaited spot in Valenica: Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. This state-of-the art science complex is situated within a landscaped park with a huge aquarium and hemispheric IMAX screen. And it was simply out of this world! The complex looked like an extra-terrestrial structure straight out of a Hollywood sci-fi movie.
After spending an hour around the gigantic structures, we left for our final destination in Spain: Barcelona. It was a very scenic route along the Mediterranean coast. On the way we took a short break in a small Spanish town called Peniscola and explored the beautiful castle there.
I had never imagined that the 25th year of my life will begin in such a wonderful way! After missing several roundabouts along the way, (Soumil still needs to work on this :P ) we had finally reached Barcelona just in time to catch the Flamenco dance show at ‘Tarantos’: one of the oldest tablao in Barcelona. Flamenco is a Spanish art form native to the regions of Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia (remember the Señorita song from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara movie!). We sat there speechless and watched the Spanish dancers and musicians literally put the stage on fire with their tremendous energy. The ‘tap-taps’ and ‘roar-roars’ of the performance still echo in my head.
‘Avís de denúncia’ was the title of the paper pasted on the windshield of our car. The entire content was in Spanish but thanks to ‘Google Translate’ we were able to figure out that it was a parking ticket. Last night we had parked in a zone which was available only till 9AM and by the time we checked-out of our hostel and went to the car it was already 10AM. The Spanish police seemed to be really efficient and had put the parking ticket on time. First parking ticket of my life that too in this far-away country on my 24th Birthday! Thankfully the car had not been towed and we were able to drive to the starting location of free city walking tour on time. The tour covered the gothic quarter (centre of the old city of Barcelona), Barcelona Cathedral, Plaza del Rey (medieval building hosting the city’s history museum and archaeological finds), Picasso Museum (the painting in the 3rd pic is actually made by Picasso and not by a child) and the Jewish quarter. It was an interesting tour except the part when the tour guide made us visit a German bakery and halted for half an hour.
The tour finished at a spot called ‘El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria’ and then we drove through the beautiful streets of Barcelona towards the beach.
The beach was really ‘sexy’! Clear blue water, clean yellow sand and perfect sunshine. We had our picnic lunch on the beach while enjoying the view. Some artists had made interesting sand sculptures on the beach (no bikini-girls btw due to cold weather:( ).
After the beach, we straightway went to the most awaited location in Barcelona: Camp nou! It had been my dream to visit this home-ground of FC Barcelona and the mecca of Football. We bought the tickets of Camp nou experience tour and walked through the most emblematic parts of the stadium including the player’s tunnel, pressroom, dressing rooms, playing field, the commentary boxes and the museum showcasing the trophies won by FCB till date. There was a separate section dedicated to the Argentinian superstar and my favourite football player Lionel Messi, showcasing his 5 Ballons d’Or and 3 golden boots.
With the loudest ‘GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL’ screams of the Spanish commentators ringing in our heads, this amazing Spain trip came to an end. But as they say ‘All good things must come to an end for something better to begin’ this was the beginning of an Icelandic extravaganza