Just because Spain is one of the world's most popular destinations doesn't mean you have to follow the crowd when you visit. On this week's podcast, Host Kelly Regan is joined by Frommer's Barcelona Day by Day author Neil E. Schlecht. The author talks about some less-trodden alternatives to Spain's most popular sights, including museums and monuments in Extremadura, incredible food and wine in southern Basque Country, and beautiful beaches in Formentera and Minorca. Tune it to get some advice on great wines to try, the best times to go and towns you definitely shouldn't miss.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Trujillo: About 150 miles southwest of Madrid, a little Medieval town. Numerous fortresses, grand Renaissance palaces, has a bit of a scruffy, unpolished feel, which makes it feel all the more real and authentic.
- Caceres: 30 miles from Trujillo, graceful and historical. Remnants of Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance architecture, much more polished looking than Trujillo.
- Merida: Spain's answer to Rome, founded in 25 BC as the Roman capital of Lusitania, has the best preserved Roman ruins in all of Spain.
- Battala del Vino: The Battle of Wine in a town called Haro where people douse each other with thousands of liters of wine.
- Majorca and Menorca: Skip the south coast of Majorca and head to the northwest coast, or just head to Menorca or Formentera instead.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Kelly Regan: Welcome to the Frommers.com podcast. For more information on planning your trip to anyone of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.Frommers.com.
Hi, and welcome to the Frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about All Things Travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.
My guest today is Neil Schlecht. He writes a number of guides for Frommer's, and he's been with us on the podcast before. He writes and co-writes for Frommer's Guides to Peru, Texas, and New York State. He's also the author of "Spain for Dummies", and the forthcoming book, "Barcelona Day By Day", which will be on sell this November.
I asked Neil to come on the show today to talk about undiscovered Spain, and to give us some new ideas about what to do while you're traveling there. So Neil, welcome. Thanks for being here.
Neil Schlecht: Thanks, Kelly. Good to be here.
Kelly: I know you've lived in Spain for many years. You go every year, so you know the country very well. First of all, is there even such a thing as an undiscovered Spain? Or do you feel like much of the country has already been discovered and it's all 'old hat' now?
Neil: Undiscovered, probably not. For most of the past three decades, Spain has been at the forefront of European tourism, and is among the top two or three destinations in the world, in terms of the number of people that visit. There are still a lot of places one can find that are just now emerging as big destinations. These are places where you're unlikely to get run over by tour buses or meet your next door neighbor.
And so, there aren't any places that are totally off the radar. But there are some places where you can still feel pleased with yourself for not following the crowds. I guess when I think of, "less discovered Spain" is the way I would term it, I think of it as alternatives.
Everyone has images of Spain. If you're seeking the classic, memorable Spanish experience - whether that is monumental Spain, historic cities, 'foodie' Spain, or the Spain of sun and sand - there are alternatives to all of those well-trodden places.
Kelly: That's definitely the approach that we're going to take today in our conversation. I want to talk about some of the well-trodden destinations in Spain, and your alternatives to those.
And to take what you said at the beginning, there is that classic, monumental Spain with the Castillan grandeur of castles, cathedrals and big palaces. A lot of people, especially those who visit Madrid, will go to Toledo, Segovia and the areas outside the city for popular day trips.
But as you mentioned, those places really do get overrun with tour groups, and you are likely to run into your next door neighbor. Where else could people go in central Spain to get that kind of experience?
Neil: I understand the appeal of those places. They're within easy reach of Madrid and they're great for what they offer. But if you're going in high season, it can be a real challenge, especially if you're adverse to lots of people in crowds.
But if what you're looking for is 'old school' Spain, the kind that is steeped in history and the ancient architecture of monumental Castillan Spain, I would recommend Extremadura. It's southwest of Madrid, going towards the Portuguese border. It's really a great place to avoid the bus loads of tourists that are in Toledo and Segovia.
Neil: One problem is that you can't do a day trip from Madrid. You would have to stay one to three nights in the region. It's a remote region, but it's got a really neat triangle of historic towns. It's similar to Segovia or Toledo in that a succession of cultures in Spain - the Celtic, Roman, Moorish and Christian - all intersected there and are still very apparent.
Neil: So it's got all of that appeal without lots of crowds.
Kelly: So what are the towns that you recommend?
Neil: I would recommend Trujillo, which is a town that's close to Madrid. It's the birthplace of Francisco Pizaro, and several other of Spain's most notorious and ruthless conquistadors. That legacy becomes very apparent when you see in this barren landscape, these great, noble manor houses. Basically, those were built with riches extracted from the New World.
Neil: Trujillo is this perfect little Medieval town built on a hilltop. It has one of the most glorious town squares in Spain. There are numerous fortresses up on the hill and grand Renaissance palaces. It has a bit of a scruffy, unpolished feel, which makes it feel all the more real and authentic. It's just a great little town where you can walk around and savor the atmosphere.
Neil: And the times I've been there, there have been a handful of Spanish tourists and a few Italians, but not a whole lot more than that.
Neil: So that's a really nice place. It's both quiet at night, and a great place to stay overnight and just wander the backstreets. Trujillo is about 150 miles southwest of Madrid. Then from there, another 30 miles or so, is a town called Caceres.
Kelly: Yes, Caceres.
Neil: You have to say it with the Castillan accent. It's a town that has a reputation, especially among Spaniards, as being one of the most graceful and historic cities in Spain. It was quite a surprise. I had long heard of it, but never visited it until last year.
You enter through this modern town that is not terribly appealing or interesting. But behind the beautifully intact city walls of the old town, there's this perfectly preserved little labyrinth of small lanes, quiet plazas, churches, palaces, and other remnants of Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance architecture.
Neil: It's this really incredibly intact ensemble. It's much more polished looking than Trujillo.
Neil: It looks a little bit like a museum set, but it doesn't feel cheesy at all. It's just pristine and beautiful. And again, like Trujillo, it's a great little place to walk around and have lunch. There's a great parador within the old city walls. It's really just a lovely town.
And from there, I would suggest moving on to a city called Merida and Merida is sort of Spain's answer to Rome. It's a city that was founded in 25 BC as the Roman capital of Lusitania. Today it's a real modern and not terribly appealing town, however, it has the best preserved Roman ruins in all of Spain.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Neil: It's got this incredible Roman theater and amphitheater and they're all in really remarkable condition. And just strewn throughout the town among modern apartment complexes and the like are these incredible Roman ruins that you stumble upon.
The biggest thing besides that is Merida is home to one of my favorite museums, and that is the Roman museum, Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. It's the work of one of Spain's greatest living architects, Rafael Moneo. It's just this really beautifully designed and subtle red brick museum that's really evocative of old Roman Spain.
Kelly: Oh, wow. So you're talking about seeing these three towns in kind of a triangle and at the beginning you were mentioning that Extremadura is kind of remote. I mean, does remote mean that it's harder to get to, or is it still relatively easy to reach from Madrid?
Neil: It's always called remote because once you get into the region, the name kind of connotes this barren, extreme land, Extremadura. Really, the best thing to do - transportation is not that great, there are trains - but I would suggest the best way to see these towns is to rent a vehicle.
Kelly: Rent a car...
Neil: Logically, in Madrid, and then it's really easy. It's a two hour plus, maybe two and a half to Trujillo. Then the other towns are close enough by that where you can really kind of - they're pretty manageable. So as long as you can drive, it's really not as forbidding as maybe the name sounds.
Then I think one of the other things that are a real bonus in the area is that there are some of the most beautiful, sumptuous paradors - which are the state owned lodgings and hotels - in Spain. Occupying 15th and 16th century convents, and even I think there's one that's in a prison. So that's always a treat.
And Caceres has this great Michelin starred Relais & Chteaux restaurant. So it's not the kind of place that you'd; it's not a backpacker's place by any means.
Kelly: No, I mean, that's a good thing to know. I wanted to shift gears a little bit, as I said we've been talking about places that are alternatives to maybe some of the more popular destinations or popular things to do in Spain. Clearly, in the last few years, Spanish food and wine has gotten a lot of attention in the press. People are making pilgrimages to Barcelona, to San Sebastian, and other parts of the Basque country.
What do you think is, I mean especially as it relates to the wine business? Because I think Spain's wines are quite well known, Ribera, Ribera del Duero, and La Rioja, but there are some other really interesting things happening in Spanish wine right now.
Neil: Yeah, no question. I think for my money it's one of the most exciting producers, as a nation, today. The first thing is I'd never discourage anyone from doing just a trip purely to eat in Barcelona or San Sebastian. I mean, those are just cutting edge restaurant destinations, but I think a good way to look at it is sort of what you've proposed, and that is wine country travel.
One of the great things about traveling to wine regions anywhere in the world is generally good restaurants and chefs kind of follow wineries. So not only are they typically kind of beautiful regions, but you're almost guaranteed - well, of course to drink well - but also to eat well.
Neil: So I'm a big proponent of wine country travel. It's something in Spain that is only kind of really beginning to take off. La Rioja, which is the most traditional and best known wine region, is the one that's really kind of pioneered that kind of gastronomic travel, and it's the best developed for that.
Kelly: And that's up near the Pyrenees, yeah?
Neil: Yeah, kind of west, south west of Navarra and south of the Basque country. Northeast of Madrid. There's a part of Rioja, it's its own province, but part of Rioja is actually in the Basque country. That's kind of one of my real favorites. It's called La Rioja a la Lettre, and it's in southern Basque country.
So what's great about it, is you could combine it with a trip to say Bilbao if you're going to see the Guggenheim, or to San Sebastian to eat. Then you can hop in a car and in an hour and a half later, you're down in the wine country. The hub there is a town called Haro, Spain. It's a little, kind of scruffy little town, but it's the kind of place where you're likely at lunch to rub shoulders with any number of wine makers. Everybody kind of congregates there.
And it's where, every June, there's this big festival called the Battala del Vino or the Battle of Wine. Where people pour into the streets and literally douse each other with thousands and thousands of liters of red wine. You might want to choose your clothing carefully for that outing.
Kelly: [laughs] Yeah.
Neil: But that's a lot of fun and it's a nice little town. But I think probably the most tourist friendly town is a little town called Laguardia. It's an ancient, walled, medieval town up on a hill. It's got these great views all around of distant vineyards. And it's just this charming little town with cobblestone streets. Deep beneath all the streets and these noble houses are these deep wine cellars. Wine has been kept since the middle ages.
There's one little winery in town, actually kind of a homespun place, that you can go deep into the cellars. It's really great, beautiful old town. I like that La Rioja is kind of pioneering this wine tourism. They've gotten - not only are there they these old traditional bodegas, or wineries - but a lot of the newer ones have contracted super star architects to build these really gorgeous wineries.
Neil: Like one is Ysios and that's done by Santiago Calatrava, who is probably the architect of the moment. Another one, Marquis de Riscal, got Frank Gehry to come and build a small, really typically futuristic wine spa/hotel on the premises of the winery. So those are really cool options for people that are interested not only wine, but also architecture.
Kelly: Wow. Are there specific wineries or labels that you're really excited about now?
Neil: Oh yeah, way too many for this discussion, I'm afraid.
Kelly: [laughs] I'm going to make you limit it to three.
Neil: [laughs] Yeah. The interesting thing about this part, about Rioja is you have very traditional wineries like Lopez de Heredia that does these wines they don't release - even their Rose, their current release is 10 years old - and there are typically these wines that aren't released for 20 and 30 years. You're expected to drink them 30 or 40 years after they're originally bottled.
But then there are also much more modern, kind of forward looking wines in Rioja. Some of my favorites are Artadi and Contador or Remirez de Ganuza, another favorite and that's a great little winery that you can visit. Some time when I was there, I just happened to stumble upon the proprietor and he gave me a tour. So there's a really nice mix I think of what's new and happening in Spanish wine and the old traditional bodegas.
Kelly: So you're getting kind of a snapshot right there of what's been and what's to come.
Kelly: Yeah. Before we go I wanted to just touch also on yet another juxtaposition between something pretty well known and something not as well known. And that's really, again as you alluded to at the beginning, really the sun and the sand. Spain has really got some pretty popular beaches. I think you said that Spain has almost created the mass form of beach tourism on places like the Costa del Sol, and especially the islands of Ibiza and parts of Majorca.
I think people are pretty familiar with these high-rise complexes along the Costa del Sol, the very, as you said, mass-market kind of tourism, but are there beaches in Spain that aren't overrun with British pubs, package tours, and more people not speaking Spanish than locals?
Neil: Yeah. There are. You really have to know where to look. And I have a hard time going to the Costal del Sol, or the parts of Costa Brava that are closer to Barcelona. I mean they were just overbuilt, and they're still overrun with people, and a little trashy frankly.
Neil: On the Costa Brava you can find these little halas or coves, but you've got to look hard and you've got to almost go in the off-season, you know?
Kelly: Mmm hmm.
Neil: The Balearic Islands, I love going to this part of the Mediterranean. Majorca is a place that has got a ton a trash, and has one of the busiest airports in all of Spain, largest and busiest.
Neil: So you know it's not undiscovered by any means. But it's a playground for wealthy Northern Europeans and celebrities like Michael Douglas and Claudia Schiffer, and it gets a huge amount of package tours along the beaches in the south.
Neil: However, the northwest coast, which is probably not the place to go if you're just strictly looking for beaches, but is this unbelievably picturesque coastline that is like these tall cliffs that just crash into the Mediterannean.
Neil: And it's absolutely gorgeous. And little medieval villages on hill-tops, like Daya or Fornalutx, and there are a few beaches here and there, you drive down to, and shaded coves. But it's not the kind of place that you're going strictly for beaches, but if you are going for warm Mediterannean weather and great food and these medieval villages, I highly recommend the northwest coast of Majorca.
Neil: Skipping the south altogether.
Neil: But better for beaches really would be Majorca's smaller cousin, Menorca.
Neil: And it gets a lot of especially English tourism, but it also has plenty of these tiny protected little cove beaches. A number of them are reachable only by foot, predominantly on the west coast, which is near Ciutadella, a nice, really kind of pleasing, easy-going town. But I think if you're looking for some of the amenities of night life in a town as well as some great beaches, Menorca is a really good option.
Neil: But if you're really looking for something that's undiscovered and untrampled, the Formentara, which is the smallest of the four Balearic Islands...
Neil: I think it's 12 miles long, and it has no airport. The only way you can reach it is by boat from Ibiza. Very few paved roads, few cars, no stop lights. I mean it's the perfect kind of place if you're just really looking to get away from it all.
Kelly: To get away.
Neil: And it has some of the most pristine beaches anywhere in Europe.
Kelly: Now what are the accommodations like? I mean are there a significant number of hotels on the island?
Neil: Well, let's see, small kind of hostels and inns. In recent years it's developed a real kind of bohemian, hippie vibe, dating back to the '60's when I think Mick Jagger was out there...
Neil: And I think Gilton was there as well. But the great thing about it is it hasn't really been overdeveloped. There are very few inns or hostels even on the beaches.
Neil: There are a couple, but they're real kind of small, inexpensive, low-key places. There's a kind of boho chic vibe, you know? I mean in the recent years a few people have been coming over from Ibiza, the party-goers and some celebs like Kate Moss. I think she hangs out at this little hotel.
Neil: And there's some British designer I think that started it. But it still is the kind of place if you're looking for a really relaxed place with not tons of amenities or anything, it's a great place to get away.
Kelly: Right. So if people are thinking about a place like Formentara which is a little bit less infra-structurally developed, I mean, does that mean...
Neil: Mmm hmm.
Kelly: If people are going not in the high season, not during the summer-time, that it might be a little harder to get there? I mean do the transportation options kind of drop off sharply and the ferries don't run as often once summer ends?
Neil: Yeah, definitely it's the kind of place that I think you'd want to go, starting in, I don't know, like early April and through, say, October.
Neil: It's definitely spring, summer and fall, and the spring and fall would be great times to go there. Principally I think the bigger concern, more so than getting there, I mean it's only two miles away from Ibiza, so you could always hop a private yacht.
Kelly: So you could kind of swim there even. [laughs]
Neil: Yeah, almost, but a bigger concern I think is these small inns, that they're not open year-round, most of them.
Kelly: Oh, right. OK. OK. Yeah. No, that makes sense.
Neil: And one other thing to note about Formentara is that the place is probably not for the prude because it's very popular for nude bathers.
Kelly: Oh, OK. Yep.
Neil: Even though you don't have that kind of late-night partying and everything else that you get on Ibiza and Majorca, you might have something else to contend with.
Kelly: [laughs] Right. Right. Right. The sights and attractions might be a little more extensive than you had anticipated.
Neil: If Kate Moss is there, it might be worthwhile.
Kelly: Yeah, of course. Of course. There were other places that we wanted to talk about, certainly, but we're out of time, unfortunately. So...
Neil: We'll save that for another...
Kelly: So we'll save that for another conversation. So I've been talking with Neil Schlecht. He writes a number of guides for Frommer's, including our Frommer's Guides to Peru, and he co-writes the Frommer's Texas and Frommer's New York State. He's also the author of "Spain for Dummies, " and our forthcoming color book, "Barcelona Day by Day, " which will be on sale starting in November. He's been talking about undiscovered Spain. We've had some great ideas from him, so, Neil, thanks for coming. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.
Neil: Good to speak with you Kelly.
Kelly: Yeah, great. So join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I am Kelly Regan and we will talk again soon.
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