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Off to sunny Spain

(From top) The Columbus monument in Barcelona; The Neptune fountain in Valencia; The harbour at Puerto Banus in Costa del Sol; the Alhambra Palace. Photographs by author

Bullfights, explorers who stretched the world map to its limits, La Tomatina festival, olives, paella, Messi, Ronaldo, Nadal, Picasso, and, more recently, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. These and much more set the pace of excitement as I prepared to visit Spain and Portugal.

My itinerary included a visit to Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Costa del Sol, Seville and Madrid in Spain and Lisbon in Portugal.

My first port of call was Barcelona, a beautiful and vibrant city, Spainís second largest. This city, like every other city of Spain, is clean, green and a blend of the modern and old-world charm. Skyscrapers and shopping malls rub shoulders with beautiful plazas (squares) and fountains, while modern architecture blends with styles developed down the ages. Most cities of Spain we visited had bullrings but chose to use it differently. While Barcelona has banned the sport and turned its Plaza de Toros into a shopping mall, Madrid still revels in this tradition. The Spanish cities also stand out for the striking colours of their buildings ó white, slate, pink with a touch of orange or red.

Yet every city has its unique character.

The highlights of our Barcelona tour were a visit to Montjuich, which gives a panoramic view of the city; the Olympic stadium; the Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy family) whose construction started in 1882 and is expected to be completed by 2026; the Picasso museum and a walk down La Ramla. This popular street, which connects the cityís main square Plaza de Catalunya with Columbus monument and the harbour, is where locals head for in the evening, we were told. Walking down La Ramla, we entered a ďsupermercatĒ where I bought the famous Spanish saffron.

Valencia, the third largest city of Spain, is home to Lladro porcelain figurines, paella (saffron rice) and oranges. That we were approaching Spainís orange county was evident as we drove through acres and acres of orange plantation.

In fact, orange and olive plantations and vineyards marked most of the countryside we covered in Spain. Even in cities orange-laden trees lined the streets. Though a part of Europe, Spainís countryside has a very different landscape and vegetation. While the cities are very European, the rolling grasslands are missing from the countryside. At times the land appears arid and the vegetation stunted. At other times, as the mountains and coastline run parallel, conifers and palms grow side by side.

As we approached Valencia, the hills kept us company on the right and the Mediterranean on the left. We reached Valencia well in time to explore the city a little and since the shops are open till 10pm, after dinner, too, we got time to check out Spainís biggest department store, El Corte Inglťs, which was just opposite our hotel.

As we entered Valencia, a portion appeared extremely green. This, we discovered, was the old riverbed, which had been converted into a 9km green belt. The river Turia, which used to flow through the cityís heart, was prone to floods. After one such devastating bout, Valencia decided to divert the course of the river. The riverbed was shifted and the fertile soil of the old riverbed quickly gave life to a lush garden. The city built a beautiful fountain dedicated to Neptune, the Roman god of water, as a tribute to the river. To me, the highlight of the Valencia tour was the Lladro museum, where we saw figurines, including that of Ganesh, being made.

(From top) Seville; the Belem Tower in Lisbon; the Plaza de Toros in Madrid; and the tomb of Vasco de Gama in Lisbon

Our next destination was Granada, a hill station located at the foot of Sierra Nevada mountains. It had been drizzling on and off since morning and the clouds had descended on the distant hills and snowcapped mountains, lending them a misty beauty. At times the clouds came too close, enveloping us and racing along. If the path was any indication, the hill station held promise of enchanting beauty. Darkness had descended and we travelled in its mysterious peace for quite sometime before the lights of Granada, sparkling like jewels, came into view.

It had started raining again, but we strolled across the street to El Corte Inglťs after a hearty dinner of vegetable paella, which our tour escort Neera had arranged for us, and a treat of desserts.

Itís more difficult to get vegetarian food in Spain than in other European countries but I got my fill with fruits, salads, soups, patatas fritas (fried potatoes), churros, Spanish cheese, peladillas (sugared almonds), turron and, of course, chocolates. Explaining what I wanted was more difficult as most people donít understand English and I played dumb charade throughout.

Next day we went for a drive from Granada to Costa del Sol (literally Coast of the Sun). Itís a two-hour drive over the mountains down to the Mediterranean coastline and the popular tourist towns of Mabella and Puerto Banus. Natural and man-made bounty make the towns picturesque ó whether you are strolling along the coast or enjoying its greenery or sipping a cappuccino while watching the waves play with the sand. The nimbus clouds added beauty to our journey by painting a rainbow across the sky.

On our return to Granada in the evening, we went for a walk along the river Darro. I found the city picture perfect. The yonder hills misty with clouds, the city washed with rain and the river banks lined with maple trees and conifers. This was my first glimpse of European autumn and I was thrilled as an orange-yellow maple leaf floated down from a tree.

Here we visited Alhambra Palace, whose intricate carvings, which illustrates the Islamic influence on Spanish architecture, are often compared to the Taj Mahal, and the Generalife Gardens (palace gardens). The gardens with its pomegranate and orange vines and roses are a sight to behold.

From Alhambra, we left for Seville. Here I watched a flamenco show while sipping the local sangria. Well I would be disappointed if I had Hrithik dancing Senorita in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara on my mind, but the dance, which is very energetic, was quite enjoyable.

The next morning we visited the UN heritage sight of Cordoba, an ancient city which has been a confluence of Roman, Islamic and Catholic influences. We crossed the ancient Roman bridge and visited its beautiful mosque-cathedral, which showcases Renaissance and Moorish architecture and was reshaped at different points of history to serve worshippers of different religions. I wandered about the lanes and bylanes, had hot chocolate, listened to a Spaniard playing a guitar on the streets and bought a pair of earrings hand-crafted in Toledo.

In Seville, we visited, among others places, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, the burial site of Christopher Columbus, and the Santa Cruz Quarters where the myth of Don Juan developed.

Our next destination was Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. We drove over the 2km-long April bridge (one of the longest suspension bridges in the world) to enter Portugal from Spain. Here we visited Belem Tower and the Monument to the Discoveries, said to be Lisbonís most famous sight, and the Jeronimos Monastery, where we saw Vasco Da Gamaís tomb.

We also went to Fatima and its Sanctuary, the site where Our Lady of Fatima appeared in 1917. The huge sanctuary square can accommodate 300,000 visitors and is twice the size of St Peterís Square in the Vatican.

Now our final destination, Madrid, beckoned. It was late evening by the time we arrived in the city. It was Halloween and it seemed as if we had entered a scene from Harry Potter instead of Spainís capital ó in the main square and elsewhere people were in the streets dressed in black cloaks and hats and painted faces. The guide said Spaniards had taken to celebrating Halloween only a few years back but it was certainly an entertaining sight.

In Madrid, a visit to the Royal Palace and the Prado and Reina Sofia museums, which opened a world of paintings by masters like El Greco, Picasso, Goya, Velazquez and Dali, was an absolute delight. I also enjoyed walking down the Gran Via, Madridís busiest street, and visiting Plaza de Espana, which has sculptures of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes as well as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. A view of Real Madrid soccer stadium also generated considerable excitement. This beautiful city is, however, often the venue of protests as unemployment rate is very high in Spain.

Back in India, I am often asked: Is Spain like what is portrayed in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara? Well the excitement isnít comparable as I didnít run with the bulls.