The Irish are renowned for travelling the world. However, the one country they keep going back to is Spain. Here are a few suggestions to ponder ahead of your next trip to the Iberian Peninsula.
The Camino of Santiago de Compostela
For an unusual and unforgettable way to travel through Spain, discover the famous pilgrimage trail across north-western Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route, dating back to the ninth century, and every year thousands of pilgrims set out on foot, by bike, or even on horseback, to live this experience that combines adventure and spirituality. The goal is to arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago, one of the sacred cities of Christendom. There are many trails leading to Santiago de Compostela and all levels of walker are catered for with Easy, Moderate and Challenging routes allowing you to plot your way across the country. The recent Martin Sheen-starring movie The Way was set along the Camino route.
While the Canary Islands prove the ideal winter break, the Balearic Islands, located off the east coast of Spain in the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, remain very popular from May to September. Majorca, Ibiza and Minorca cover every possible holiday option including activity-based family holidays, cultural and culinary escapes, wellness breaks and wild non-stop partying adventures. Majorca, the biggest of the islands, offers great family friendly resorts in Santa Ponsa and Magaluf. Minorca, home to some amazing tranquil beaches, proves popular for couples' breaks, while Ibiza is the party capital of Europe every summer, where the world's best DJs entertain in the Super Clubs throughout the island. Ibiza also remains a very spiritual destination, with yoga retreats and wellness breaks offering a welcome alternative. Ibiza Town dates back to the seventh century and boasts a picture postcard old town centre, while the harbour is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A very worthy alternative city break destination to traditional Spanish heavyweights Barcelona and Madrid, Valencia has emerged as a firm favourite for tourists visiting Spain - and with good reason. The centre and harbour experienced a renaissance with the arrival of the Americas Cup yachting race a few years back and Valencia has maintained its reputation as a thriving, lively city with history, culture, gastronomy and nightlife to match any major European destination. The walk out of the city centre along the old riverbed is particularly enjoyable and takes you past the visually spectacular . Valencia is also home of the spectacular Fallas bonfire festival and the Tomatina tomato battle is located just outside the city in Buñol.
Arriving at the historic Andalucian town of El Rocío is like travelling to the American Wild West as the tarmac highway fades to sand and old wooden hitching rails take the place of car parks in this most unusual and unique part of Spain. El Rocío is primarily uninhabited throughout the year, except for Whitsunday weekend when over one million pilgrims flock to the town to gather around the Queen of the Marshes. The El Rocío Pilgrimage (May 27-28) combines religion and fiesta, as hundreds of thousands of people descend on the old town to the Blanca Paloma Shrine. The most traditional way to do the pilgrimage is on horseback, by carriage or on foot, dressed in flamenco clothing. By day, the brotherhoods advance in festive spirits, singing flamenco, while by night they camp out and organise parties around the bonfire with singing, dancing, food and drink into the early hours.
Add an extra day or two onto your next trip to Barcelona and take a short train journey to the old Roman town of Tarragona. The town's archaeological remains form a world heritage site, while the well-preserved Cistercian monastery of Poblet has also been recognised by UNESCO. Tarragona was capital of Hispania Citerior during the Roman Empire and many buildings remain from the period. The walls surrounding the historic centre were built in the third century and the terraces of the Roman amphitheatre, dating back to the second century, had capacity for more than 12,000 people. The province's extensive vineyards will also make for a very enjoyable excursion or two.
Also known as Donostia, the Basque city of San Sebastián lies along a white sandy bay between the Urgull and Igueldo hills. The town centre looks out over La Concha Bay, while great panoramic views of the city can be enjoyed from the adjacent Monte Igueldo. Visitors to San Sebastián can enjoy a great city break combined with the bonus of enjoying the nearby beaches. The city is the ideal place to familiarise yourself with world renowned Basque cooking as some of the best restaurants in Spain are in San Sebastián. In the oldest part of San Sebastián, the churches of San Vicente and Santa María del Coro are worth visiting - the former Gothic and the latter Renaissance-Baroque - while four lamps by the sculptor Mariano Benlliure light the way to the railway station, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).
Spectacular buildings, with avant-garde aesthetics and functional design are the latest addition to the Spanish wine industry. Leading the way is the stunning Marques de Riscal winery, located in the Rioja region, where Bilbao Guggenheim designer Frank O Gehry has created a visual masterpiece that will bring wine lovers and architecture enthusiasts to visit in equal numbers. In the nearby village of Laguardia, the Ysios Winery, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and the Vina Real Winery, work of Frenchman Philippe Mazières are also worth visiting. Rafael Moneo's design at the Julián Chivite winery in Estella, Navarre Region is a spectacular building integrated into the surrounding forests, vineyards and landscapes. You should even get to taste some top quality wines whilst admiring the architects' works.
When people ask for recommendations for visiting Spain, the one destination that is always offered is the UNESCO World Heritage city of Toledo, located 70km south of Madrid. This remarkable city is steeped in a rich history, which saw leadership change hands between the Romans, Visigoths and Moors. When under the rule of the Caliphate of Córdoba, Toledo became a cosmopolitan city where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony. The city was Romanesque with straight roads arranged in a grid, but the Islamic influences changed it for the benefit of protecting the city. A river walk along the banks of the Tagus River, which loops around the ancient city walls, will get you out of the town centre, and the bridge-to-bridge ramble incorporates some fantastic vistas, while the panoramic views of the old town from across the river are truly spectacular. The Cathedral of Toledo is the second largest gothic cathedral in the world, while the Iglesia Santo Tomé houses one of El Greco's most famous paintings, the Burial of Count Orgaz.
Located in southern Spain at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, between the rivers Darro and Genil, Granada is one of the most culturally significant and interesting cities in Andalucía. The city was the last kingdom to be re-conquered by the Catholic monarchs and boasts an amazing historic and artistic heritage. UNESCO World Heritage sites are dotted throughout this Moorish city, including the palace and gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife, together with the Albaicín neighbourhood. Wander the Gran Vía de Colón and the Avenida de los Reyes Católicos to explore Granada's most important districts and monuments built during Renaissance times, including the Arab baths (El Bañuelo), the Mudéjar decoration of the Santa Isabel la Real Convent, the Renaissance floor plan of the Córdova palace and of the Santa Catalina de Siena Convent.
Costa de la Luz
Looking for an alternative to the madness of the Costa del Sol at high season? Then move further west along the coast of Andalucía to enjoy the beautiful unspoilt beaches of the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light). La Luz boasts over 25 picturesque, golden sand beaches, some as long as 20 kilometres and as Huelva sits on the Atlantic ocean, the sea is much more dramatic than the often uninteresting, flat Mediterranean waters. As a result, Huelva's coastline proves very popular with all types of watersport enthusiasts. The coast is located a short drive from Seville or alternatively fly into Faro, just across the Portuguese border and every motorway exit will lead you down to the welcoming waters of the Huelva coast.
For more information on Spain, visit: www.spain.info.
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