Europe: Spain | Cathedrals, Museums & Cobblestone City Squares
Spain is often overlooked by honeymooners traveling the London-Paris-Rome circuit -- but it shouldn't be! It has amazing, scenic countrysides, gorgeous natural land dotted with castles in various stages of ruin. The people are friendly and generous, the roads are excellent, and the weather is great most of the year.
Most of all, there is an incredible sense of history in Spain. At one time it was occupied by both Moors and Jews, now long since departed. But both left an indelible mark on the architecture, culture, and landscape. There's also an overwhelming Catholic influence (hence the seemingly countless cathedrals). If you two are history buffs, this is the honeymoon destination for you!
This cultural honeymoon tour concentrates on the south of Spain. Make it a romantic road trip for two: The freedom that a car allows is amazing, and it's the perfect way to wander among the little whitewashed towns you'll find off the roads between major cities. Using Madrid as a starting point, here are some highlights of the region:
A stop in Spain's capital is a must, even if your only goal is to see the renowned Museo del Prado. Commissioned in 1785 by King Carlos III, it houses the works of the nation's three great masters: Fransisco Goya, Diego Velazquez, and El Greco -- not to mention a couple of famous and frightening works by Hieronymous Bosch. Next door to the Prado is the Jardin Botanico, a beautiful garden in the center of the bustling city. Spend an afternoon in the shade of this centuries-old garden that holds plants, trees, flowers, and cacti from around the world .
Although Madrid is not necessarily the most glamorous city you'll visit, it has tons of charm. Spaniards of all ages congregate in the town squares for delicious coffee and churros (the Spanish version of a donut) in the morning, sangria and tapas in the late afternoon. One of the most popular places to people-watch is the Plaza Mayor, which has seen everything from bullfights to royal marriages, and public executions in its centuries-long existence (that's quite a combo!).
Entering Toledo is like stepping straight back into the Middle Ages. Because it was built on a huge rock, Toledo can't expand beyond the point it reached several hundred years ago, and that has kept it a city of amazingly narrow, windy, hilly streets. When the Moors arrived in the 8th century, they made it a center of learning, and it also became a very tolerant place where a large population of Jews, Moors, and Christians lived together until the 15th century. The city still holds a couple of synagogues, notably the Synagoga del Transito, which was built in the 14th century.
The best thing about Toledo is the incredible atmosphere. If you're historical romantics, this is the place for you. After you are done seeing all the sights (such as the Alcazar, an old military headquarters that houses roomfuls of swords and guns, plus dark cellars where Spanish armies lived), get lost wandering the quiet, ancient, cobbled streets, and soak it all in.
Cordoba is home to one of the earliest and most breathtaking examples of Spanish Muslim architecture: the Mezquita, a huge mosque built between the 8th and 10th centuries and turned into a cathedral in 1236. It was one of the major destinations of Muslim pilgrimages, and it is huge -- it can easily hold thousands of people. Standing inside, you're overwhelmed by its sheer size and the more than 800 red-and-white striped arches (a common Muslim design). The mosque was a source of embarrassment for the original builders, however, because Muslim law decrees that worshipers face east, toward Mecca, while in prayer -- but because of an error in calculation, Mezquita's sacred prayer area faces south. (Oops.)
A bit off the beaten path, don't miss the Almodovar del Rio, a beautiful restored castle set on the top of a hill and surrounded by a tiny whitewashed village on the outskirts of the city. The kindly caretaker will personally show you around (for a modest tip), and even let you lock and unlock the main gate with the ancient 10-inch-long key.
Seville is the most charming of Spain's southern cities, a romantic place with an equal number of curvy little streets and huge grand squares (the perfect place to finish your Spanish honeymoon!). While you're there, go to Los Gallos, a tiny club where you can see some of the most authentic Flamenco dancing in the region. Seville is also home to the biggest bullfights -- make sure you're there on a Sunday, when the fights take place.
A walk through the twisting streets, cobbled squares, and whitewashed houses of the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the old Jewish Quarter, is also a must. While walking through this (now) very exclusive neighborhood, peek in at the private residences. Spanish homes are built around an open courtyard, so even though they look very closed off from the outside, the heart of each house is a sun-drenched area often filled with potted plants and flowers. On warm days, Spaniards throw their doors open (their wrought-iron gates stay locked), affording passers-by a perfect courtyard view (and a chance to dream about living in such a house!).
Seville's greatest monument is its cathedral, which was originally built as a mosque. The third largest church in the world, it is the largest Gothic structure on earth, as well as the final resting place of Christopher Columbus. As if all that isn't enough, it also houses a huge treasure house (most of it brought from the New World). If you're up for it, climb the Giralda, a 322-foot-high tower originally built as a minaret to summon faithful Muslims to prayer. Instead of stairs, there are sloping ramps -- so King Ferdinand III could ride his horse to the top to admire the city he conquered. Unfortunately, you've gotta walk!
More info: Tourist Office of Spain
Photo: Turisme de Barcelona