A gorgeous end to my Iberian Peninsula adventures: Madrid

Though it’s been a long time coming, I’m finally getting around to talking about my last stop in my Iberian Peninsula adventure. I apologize for it’s lateness. I’ve been teaching, preparing for my departure from France in about 5 weeks, and for my next adventure.

Anyways, one must not pass through Spain without passing through it’s capital. Madrid is truly the capital of Spain. You can tell. If I had to describe it, Madrid is like the Spanish New York, business men and women everyone, lots of culture, but also lots, I mean LOTS of tourists. Everywhere we walked it seemed as though we were just a part of the big sea of humans.

Unfortunately the first day full day we were in Madrid, it was cold and rainy. I did not properly prepare for such weather. The struggle was quite real by the end of our two weeks. I was almost ready to skip Madrid altogether, especially when I saw how cold and rainy it was. However, I’m thankful that we didn’t.

Despite the weather, my friend, Sara, and I took a free walking tour. Now, I had never taken a free walking tour before because I usually try to avoid big groups of tourists together at the same time (I don’t really like to stick out). However, as it was something FREE to do and as our wallets were quite thin by the time we got to Madrid, I thought why not?

The fantastic thing about free walking tours is that they are absolutely free. Though tips are generally expected and actually rather polite, you still are not absolutely required to tip. Also, they are a great way to see different parts of the city and to learn about the city. I really enjoyed it not only for all of the history of Spain that I learned about but also because our tour guide was quite hilarious. She loved to tell fun little anecdotes complete with impressions and all.

During our walking tour, we learned about the Royal Palace and all of it’s glory and it’s relationship with the cathedral, which is literally right across from it. Now, a little bit of history. The Royal family and the Royal Palace were so ”glorious” at the time that the palace was built that the Royal family forbid the cathedral from looking more beautiful than the palace, because the King didn’t want the Church competing with the Royal family. How crazy is that? So, as a result, the Catholic Church in the capital city of Spain isn’t as beautiful of some of the others throughout all of Spain. I would say it’s still beautiful, but it doesn’t appear to be the cathedral of the capital city of Spain. However, just because the front of the church doesn’t particularly stand out (for it is the side that faces the Royal Palace), that doesn’t mean that the back half can’t be beautiful in it’s own right. Also, if you are looking for something to do, it is open and FREE to go into the cathedral during open hours.

Left: Front of the cathedral Right: Back of the cathedral

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glimpse of the Royal palace from the gardens

If you are interested in more ridiculous stories about Madrid’s history, I suggest walking on over to Plaza Mayor. Now, I suggest not eating from any of the restaurants in this square. They are all extremely touristic and highly over priced (and apparently not of good quality according to our tour guide). It’s also a hot spot for people to sell you random overpriced tourist junk. Don’t give in to the trap!

This square as it exists now is actually the fourth one to have been built. The original was built in the 16th century during the reign of King Phillip III. After the first square was built, in order to figure out the cause of/prevent the spread of an illness epidemic, a city ordinance was put in place where no one, absolutely no one, not even children, were allowed to drink water. So, the alternative? Wine and lots of it. So, everyone, even children, were bumbling around drunk, and what do you get when you have that mixed with fires in chimneys during the winter time? Fires, that’s what. So, all according to our tour guide, there were not one, not two, but three fires, three winters in a row! That’s some intense stuff. Wow!

So, the square as you can see it today is the fourth square to have been built. I think thankfully by then they got some sense, stopped building the square and its buildings out of wood, and finally the epidemic passed. Crazy times, they were. I can only imagine.

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Plaza Mayor: King Phillip III

While you’re in the area, head on over to Puerta del Sol, Spanish for ”Gate of the Sun,” the busiest square in all of Madrid. This place is crawling with people, making it a fantastic place to grab a cup of coffee under the sun and just people watch. Now, the coffee at these restaurants will be a little pricier than other places because of it’s central location but still a decent price. You can see all types of people here: students, business men and woman, tourists, you name it.

Also, another a piece of advice. Guard your belongings with your life! This place is a tourist hot spot and is known for pickpockets. You can still enjoy your surroundings, just be cautious while doing so.

The history in this square is rich. In this square once existed the main gate into the city during Medieval Times, and the gate faced the South, leaving it wide open for constant sun exposure throughout the day, hence it’s name.

This square is also the resting place of the bear and the tree statue, the symbol for the city of Madrid. According to the legend of the city, when it was founded, the area in which it was built was flooded with bears. Thus, from then on it became the emblem of the city. According to our tour guide, the bear is also supposed to be female, just a fun little fact.

It also contains the famous clock known for the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes to ring in the new year. The tradition: the bell rings 12 times in 12 seconds as it strikes midnight. During these rings, everyone eats one grape for each second, the purpose being that if a person is able to eat all twelve grapes then that person will have a really good new year.

As you can see, quirkiness does not lack in the city of Madrid, and it continues. If you head northwest of the Royal Palace, you’ll eventually come across the Egyptian ruins, the Debod Temple, in West Park. These ruins were a gift to Spain for helping Egypt save the temples of Abu Simbel from a threat of destruction while the building of a big dam. The temple was deconstructed and then reconstructed in Madrid to where it is on display for public viewing for FREE.

I used to be obsessed with ancient Egyptian history when I was younger, so it was definitely on my list of sights to see. Though it was quite small, and though there was not much to learn about, it was still quite fascinating to see and to learn about. Who knew that I could take a quick trip to Egypt in the middle of Spain?

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While your there, I suggest not skipping out on going to the Buen Retiro Park. Being quite a massive park, you can spend much time here just roaming around the different parts of it, enjoying the plants, the animals, the sun, and even the man-made pond!

Sara and I walked to this park on our second day, when the weather was absolutely gorgeous, so we spent about a good 45 minutes to an hour just basking in the sunlight while enjoying the view of people paddling boats around in this man-made pond. Renting a boat does indeed cost money, but who needs it when you can just sit, enjoy the sun, and people watch?

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And on your way to the park, why not check out the Palacio de las Comunicaciones, aka Madrid city hall. Though most governmental buildings can be quite boring to tour (unless you are very interested in learning about it), this city hall is FREE to go inside, if for nothing else than for a free toilet (guilty. you know, you have to take advantage of it when you can in Europe.) Plus, the outside is a beautiful display of unique architecture, and while I was there, the message displayed is something I can definitely get behind.

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Unfortunately, due to our lack of funds and our extreme fatigue from having been traveling for two weeks straight, we weren’t as vigilant about seeing as many attractions as in the other cities we had passed through. However, here are some that you might want to consider stopping by:

  • Plaza Espana 
  • Gran Via Avenue – lots of beautiful buildings and many stores if you are looking to do some shopping
  • Royal Theater 
  • Victory Arch
  • etc. etc. Here is a fantastic link that shows you all of the possible things to see and do in Madrid: http://www.madridtourist.info/index.html

While in Spain though, may I suggest just letting yourself roam a bit, get some tapas and some sangria, see what this beautiful country has to offer.

You have to know that we spent our last couple of hours indulging in a nice cup of Spanish coffee and teaching a Spanish man the word ”straw” in English. You never know what you’re going to experience when you start living that traveler’s life. Here’s to more adventures to come, and to this beautiful picture of the Pyrenees as we crossed from Spain over to France on our way home.

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Bisous et à plus mes amis….

Crawling on club floors: my many adventures in Sevilla, Spain!

Sometimes, you find yourself on your hands and knees on the floor of a random club in a city in Southern Spain at 4am trying to look for your friend’s lost phone. Sometimes, in cases such as these, you are given weird looks by the locals and asked different questions in a language you don’t understand, so you have to awkwardly mime while trying to shout the words of what you are doing while music blasts in your ears. Sometimes, you have adventures such as these, and then you wake up at 11:30am later that same morning and all you can say to yourself is  ”Was I really crawling on a club floor?” Why yes, Lindsey, yes you were. Thankfully, I did find my friend’s phone. So, I guess it was worth it…?

Sevilla, Spain took me by surprise. Being a city with such vibrancy, such diversity, it really was unlike any others I had ever seen before, pleasantly so.

We arrived in Sevilla on a Friday afternoon. It wasn’t rainy, but it wasn’t quite sunny either. That’s fine. I’ll take partly cloudy over rain any day.

My travel companion, Sara, and I decided to stay in a hostel while our other travel companion, Henry, chose to stay in an Airbnb. I think it’s a wise choice to mix it up a bit. Though Airbnbs are quite nice, especially if there are more than two of you traveling together, hostels really are a vibe all their own. So, Sara and I settled in Sevilla Inn Backpackers, (I highly recommend staying here if you are ever in Sevilla.) with it’s extremely perfect location just a two minute walk from the Réal Alcazar and the Cathedral.

Our first day consisted mostly of just exploring the city and enjoying everything that there was to see. Sevilla is beautiful, if not for the colors alone then the monuments, the buildings, the palm trees, and even all the tile work for which it’s known. I found great joy in wandering the streets with Sara, coming upon beautiful street after beautiful street. I highly recommend just letting yourself get lost in this beautiful city.

The downside of Sevilla is that it is a very touristy city. There is a university there, so it has a lot of university students and also attracts a lot of university students from elsewhere for weekend trips. Though this gives the city a really young vibe, it also makes it extremely touristy, which means that basically everything costs money, and the tourist spots are a bit pricey as well. However, if you don’t want to spend too much money, then fear not, there are still a few things you can do to continue exploring. Firstly, the Plaza de Espana is a beautiful representation of the tile for which Sevilla is known. It’s also surrounded by a park that has beautiful tiled fountains as well. It’s FREE to walk around outside of the palace, being a wonderful place to sit, to relax, and to people watch. You can pay money to row a boat in the moat that surrounds the Plaza, but it’s best just to opt of this and just enjoy the view. Also, there’s also a giant fountain in the middle that’s fun to walk by. Warning though, it will drench you. It is huge, the water blasting with full force.

When you are in Sevilla you must also make it a point to go and see some Flamenco dancing, for which Sevilla and, all of Spain really, is known. A great place to see some Flamenco for FREE is a bar called La Carboneria. I had never before seen Flamenco performed. In addition to a type of dance, it’s a style of music as well. The small group started off singing quite slowly and passionately. At first, I was very confused, not understanding why there wasn’t any dancing going on, but then after a few minutes of slow, intense, and passionate music, a man started dancing. When most people think of Flamenco, they think of women dancers, but men do it as well! I can only describe Flamenco as a very passionate, intense, and slightly aggressive dance. It involves many quick and tight movements with the hands and the feet,with some stomping as well. Though I really enjoyed the dancing, what I enjoyed the most was the passion. You could really feel it from this man, putting all his heart and soul into this art form. It was quite the experience, and it really made me appreciate Spanish culture even more. (Also, just a side note, it is considered very rude to take pictures or videos while they are performing. So, just put the camera down for a moment and just enjoy the experience. If you really must have a picture or a video, do it very quickly and on the sly. However, I recommend not doing so, as I did and got many a dirty look.)

We finished off Sevilla the next day by paying a visit to the bullring and the Réal Alcazar. You can’t visit Spain without going to at least one bullring, even if you don’t support bullfighting, at least just to learn the history about all of it.

To be honest, I was very ignorant of much of Spanish culture, bullfighting in particular. I honestly thought that it was one bull with one matador and that they kind of just spent the whole fight kind of dodging the bull. No, I was completely wrong. If you are unaware of this cultural piece of Spain, then here is a brief synopsis. The bullfighting season begins in late April/early May and goes until about the end of October. During a fight there is one matador, but there are other people, the title of whom I forget, that help the matador. Also, there is not one bull, but six! Six for one single bullfight! Also, no, they don’t just dodge the bull, they actually fight the bulls, with no protection no less, striking them until they finally execute them, each and every one of the six bulls. On the plus side, if there could be a plus side, the bull meat actually gets sold in local markets. At least it doesn’t go to waste, right? To be honest, I was shocked, slightly appalled even, but I am thankful that I decided to pay the bullring a visit so that I could learn more about this part of Spanish culture. I’m still deciding how I feel about the whole thing, but I think it’s important in trying to understand a bit more about Spain and its people. Plus, it was only 4€ with a student ID card and only 7€ for an adult entrance, and how many people can say that they’ve been to a bullring?

 

While in Sevilla, Spain you must also pay the Réal Alcazar a visit (aka the Royal Palace). Our hostel was conveniently located about a two minute walk from the palace. This had to be one of my favorite things in all of Sevilla for many reasons. Firstly, it is a beautiful display of Moorish architecture. It is absolutely stunning! There are really just no other words for it. This palace is quite large with displays of differently designed tiles, with blues, greens, yellows, and oranges, with beautiful gardens on the interior, decorated with many an orange tree. Unfortunately, the gardens were closed due to the intense wind that was occurring that day, however, you can still overlook them while enjoying the view of the Mercury fountain. Now, because I’m a huge nerd in general and because I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones, I highly recommend going to see this palace, not only for it’s astonishing beauty, but an episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones was actually filmed here (the water gardens of Dorne in case you are curious)! Needless to say, I was totally fangirling the entire time we were exploring the palace in addition to enjoying the atmosphere. Also, if you have your student ID card on you, it’s extremely worth it, being only 2€. It is kind of pricey if you don’t have your student ID on you, being about 9.50€, but regardless, I still consider it a must if you ever plan to visit Sevilla!

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Mercury Fountain, which is seen in the background of the Game of Thrones episode.

The cathedral is also a point of extreme interest. Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit it, but with a student ID, I believe it only costs about 4€ and 9€ for an adult admission, which seems like a lot for a cathedral. However, it is considered one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe. It also has a garden filled with orange trees, and a tower in which you can climb.

Sevilla is definitely in the top ten list of cities that I’ve visited in Europe thus far. It’s a hub of beautifully rich culture. I learned the most about Spanish culture while visiting this city with the many different historical sites and monuments.  Plus with the young vibe due to the presence of the university, it’s a great place for young people to go and vacation due to its many bars, restaurants, and night clubs.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning much more about Spanish culture and getting the wonderful opportunity of seeing so many important monuments and buildings that played an important part in the history of the city. However, the thing I enjoyed the most about my time in Sevilla was meeting new people.

Our first night in Sevilla is the one from which my small anecdote comes. As I mentioned briefly, I highly recommend staying at Sevilla Inn Backpackers because it has a fantastic atmosphere, welcoming staff, a fantastic location, and is a hub for fun and interesting people to meet along your travels. The hostel offered a few events that we could participate in, one of which was unlimited sangria on the rooftop terrace for only 2€. So, of course we decided to participate, because firstly, who gives up cheap sangria? Secondly, because of this we were able to meet some really fun and outgoing people that we ended up going out with afterwards.

It is thus during our outing that Sara dropped and lost her phone in a club at 4am and thus why I was crawling on a club floor at said time. BUT, I had the time of my life. I felt young, alive, and free. I felt like I was getting to know the world and other global citizens, learning about their lives and enjoying every second of mine. This is traveling to me. Traveling is about getting to know the world, not just seeing amazing things and doing amazing things. It’s about getting to know different cultures and different ways of life. I will probably most likely never see any of those people again (a Brit, an Italian, a Dutch, an Argentinian, and a handful of other Americans), but I’m glad to have met them and to have known them for the length of time that I did. I know a little bit more about the world now.

These are the stories that you look back on, realizing how crazy it all was and laughing about it. I don’t think I’ll tire of telling people about my crazy adventures in Sevilla.

 

Wonderment in Andalusian hills: my brief but well appreciated stop in Granada

After our time in Valencia, my fellow assistants and I made our way down to Granada. First things first though. Despite the long 8 hour bus ride, we were able to enjoy a gorgeous view the entire way down of both the mountains and the Spanish countryside, 8 hours of constant beauty. Though a longer bus ride means less time in the city, I really value the time spent catching a glimpse of what the smaller parts of a country look like.

Granada was simply this: unlike any other city I’ve seen before. To be honest, I did not know much about Spain and its history before embarking on this two-week adventure, but I was eager to learn. In this, Granada was definitely not a disappointment. Tucked away in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this city was nothing but breathtaking. I fell in love immediately, getting lost in the city streets near the Airbnb in which we were staying.

The quarter we stayed in is known as Albayzin, and it is the epitome of a picturesque Spanish village. Of course, it’s not a village. It’s just a neighborhood in the city, but it has the feel and the look of a village. The winding, cobblestone streets joined along with the beautifully colored and quaint homes allowed me a small taste of what southern Spanish culture looks like. Another plus of this neighborhood is its location. It rests on a hill that is not only beautiful in and of itself but has the most well known and most gorgeous view of La Alhambra, a beautiful piece of Moorish architecture that is the gem of the city.

Granada has a very rich Moorish history, and you can definitely see the influence it had on the culture. Firstly, La Alhambra is a prime example of its influence. This fortress and palace is a beautiful display of the warm and bright colors, arches, and tiles that exist in many southern Spanish architecture. Though it was later renovated, in some parts, after the Christian conquest, many of the previous features still exist.

The park surrounding La Alhambra is also a great place to see all of the beautiful plants and fountains that exist on the grounds. Unfortunately, this breathtaking palace is not free to go into, being around 14€, and with tickets being booked solid three months ahead of time, we, unfortunately, were not able to go into it. However, it is FREE to walk around parts of it and the park that surrounds it. Here, you can still catch a glimpse of the gardens, the fountains, the beautiful architecture, the tiles, and the cobblestone designs that exist around and on the outside of the palace. I’m sure that it is definitely worth the 14€ to go inside, but if you are thinking of putting this on your list, don’t forget to book your tickets well ahead of time. Also, don’t forget to check out the view from Albayzin either. From there you can get a complete panoramic view of the entire palace, which is definitely worth the long climb up into the hilly quarter, especially at night, when the palace is completely lit up.

If you are already walking around the La Alhambra, I would greatly advise you to continue walking up the mount so that you can see more and more of the city as you get higher and higher as well as provide you the opportunity to stumble upon a trail that will take you into the Sierra Nevada mountains themselves. If you love outdoor activities, I would highly recommend that you go hiking on this trail. I love mountains, and I love hiking. And I especially loved hiking through these mountains. Unfortunately, it was rainy and foggy the one day that we were actually in Granada, but we still decided to enjoy the nature that was so close to where we were staying. What I loved the most about these mountains, in addition to the amazing view of course, was the color of the mud and the rocks. Everything was various shades of reds and oranges, even the rocks themselves. It was beautiful. Maybe to some people this seems like a lame thing to appreciate, but when you aren’t used to seeing so many bold colors just within something as simple as mud, then you tend to really enjoy the view. Plus, hiking in these mountains was great exercise and a FREE activity to fill up our time. Plus, the fog gave the mountains a type of peaceful stillness that I greatly enjoyed.

We also made it a point to venture on the other hill across from La Alhambra, into the gypsy quarter that is on the outskirts of the city, Sacromonte. Even though it was a bit of a hike up the mount to this part of the city, it was well worth the view. This quarter consisted mostly of completely white homes surrounded by windy, tiny cobblestone streets, and tiled mosaics all over. One house that we stumbled upon even had tiled plates displayed on the outside. I’m sure this neighborhood is quite lively at night, for we saw a handful of bars and restaurants throughout. We even ventured into what appeared to be an abandoned convent at the very top of the hill on the edge of even Sacromonte itself, which lent itself to a complete over view of the city down below.

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Lastly, we spent the rest of our time just exploring the city, its tiny streets up high and down below, admiring the quaint beauty, and the many various colors and types of architecture. This is what I loved most about the city. The buildings and the streets themselves tell the history of the city, the many different cultural influences it’s had along the way. The city itself tells its own story, and even though we only spent one full day here and even though it rained the entire time, it was still one of my favorite cities that we traveled through during our trip. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Plus, if all of those beautiful views weren’t enough to convince you, ending the day sipping on a drink overlooking the view of La Alhambra at night while a street performer plays traditional Spanish music should definitely give you that final push. That was the perfect way to end such a great day of discovery.

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Pitt Stop in Valencia

Continuing to tell the story of my Spanish adventure was put on hold for a couple of weeks due to being sick and getting back into the swing of things. So, I apologize for the delay. BUT, for those whom are still interested, the next stop in my little Spanish adventure was Valencia, Spain. Now, most people don’t really put this city on their list because not many super touristy things actually exist there, or at least, not at first glance. However, I’m definitely glad that we put it on our list. Even though I would not say that it was my favorite city in Spain that we went to, I would definitely say that it is still worth the visit.

The first half of our first day was spent in the train, but it wasn’t all terrible because we got an amazingly gorgeous view of the Mediterranean sea on one side and the mountains on the other side the entire way down! If you choose to go to Valencia from Barcelona there are regional trains through Renfe that are around ~15€. As a budget traveler, you know how much I like a decent deal like that. Now, because it is a regional train, it did take about 3 and a half hours, but again, the gorgeous view makes up for it!

I really enjoyed Valencia because it seemed to have a much more beachy town feel to it than Barcelona, with more of a local vibe as well. Though Barcelona is a beautiful city with much to offer, Valencia is a great stop if you want to get away from all the tourists!

Also, Valencia, of course, has a beach! Again, like I said in my Barcelona post, February is not always the best time to hang out on the beach, but the beach is FREE! So, if you are a budget traveler like I am, this is a great spot to relax a bit. Plus, since there are less tourists, it’s quieter, making it a lot more enjoyable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the sand here too! It was so soft!

After the beach, you can head on over to the old historic quarter of the city. Again, at first glance, it does not appear that Valencia has much to offer, but just start walking around, allow yourself to roam a bit. You’ll see some beautiful things. I promise.

  1. Torres de Serranos: These towers were once a part of the medieval city walls. The architecture is beautiful, if you are a fan of Gothic architecture, and it’s only 2€ to go up into them and explore or 1€ if you are a student. I must admit that there isn’t much to see inside the towers, except using your imagination to imagine what it would’ve been like to be a medieval soldier. However, being up in the towers does give you an amazing view of the city.

     

    2. Cathedral of the Holy Chalice, aka the Valencia Cathedral: Though we did not go into the cathedral because it costs 5€ and because we were on our way to exploring elsewhere, we did walk around it, admiring the beautiful architecture. I really enjoyed viewing this cathedral because it seemed to have many different sides, none of which were the same.

    3. Also, don’t forget to take a few minutes and enjoy the comforting sounds of the beautiful fountain across from the Cathedral. 12661752_10207448294859500_8026658754100041570_n

    4. If you continue exploring, you’ll see that there is also a lot of art to enjoy along the way. Something that I really appreciated about Valencia was the amount of street art present. It really tells you want kind of city it is, and what kind of feel the city has. Plus, I always find street art intriguing because it seems to always not follow any particular ”rules.” It seems to be much more abstract and to be very attention-grabbing.

     

5. Also make sure to stop by the City of Arts and Sciences: a park in the old river bed that is gorgeous to behold, with plenty of options for things to do, such as a planetarium, an interactive science museum, an open-air oceanographic park, and an opera house. Of course, all of these things cost money, but it is FREE to walk around in this beautiful park and to see the beautiful architecture. I particularly enjoyed this experience because our couch surfing host, Nacho, was kind enough to show us around and tell us a bit about it, especially some of the history of its development. Not only was Nacho a fantastic host because he was very kind, welcoming, and fun to be around, but he really loved sharing his culture with us. He loved telling us about Valencia and about some of its history. His English wasn’t the greatest, but I’d like to think hosting us was a great time for him to practice his English. So shout out to him for being a fantastic host! Also, I highly recommend walking around this park. It’s beautiful!

6. The City of Arts and Sciences is actually just a portion of a very large park called Jardi del Turia. This park was developed in an old river bed, where the Rive Turia once was, and there are many different parts to the park that you could probably enjoy for at least an hour or two.

7. Also, don’t forget to just walk around the Old Historic part of the city. There’s nothing like strolling through old European streets and just soaking in the culture of the city. Plus, there are adorable little shops and restaurants all throughout the city center where you can do some shopping or enjoy some tapas!

8. Lastly, enjoy some local eats at the Mercado Central. It’s a great place to see some locals in action in their everyday lives and to grab some local grub!

Though Valencia was not the highlight of my Spanish adventure, it was definitely worth the stop, if not for anything else but the beach. Plus, staying with a local definitely maximized the experience!

Hopefully I won’t wait so long to post about the next city in my adventure in the Iberian Peninsula, but until then…

A plus mes amis!