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Day by Day Itinerary

Experience the cultural diversity of Spain on a journey through three of this vibrant nation's most fascinating cities. Discover the country's cosmopolitan pulse in the modern capital of Madrid, then travel east to visit Valencia, a seaside city with more than 2,000 years of history, that is quickly establishing itself as one of Spain’s most enticing modern travel destinations. Finish your journey in Barcelona, where the old medieval charm of the city’s Barri Gotic competes with the modernist architectural innovations of Antoni Gaudi for your adoration. With four nights in every city, you'll have ample time to see the sights and immerse yourself in each region’s unique cultural traditions as you tour Spain.

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    Leave the United States today for your overnight flight to Madrid, Spain.

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    Land in Madrid this morning, where a Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport to transfer you to your hotel. This evening, meet up with your Program Director for an orientation briefing, in which you'll get a preview of your upcoming discoveries as you tour Spain, before getting to know your fellow travelers, including those returning from their Bilbao & San Sebastian pre-trip extension, over a Welcome Drink.

    Dinner is on your own tonight—your Program Director will be happy to suggest a local restaurant for you.

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    Spain’s vibrant capital city enjoys a reputation as an extraordinarily welcoming one. Though the metropolis boasts a population of more than three million people, a great many of the city’s residents (called madrilenos) are transplants from other parts of Spain or the world at large, calling Madrid their home by choice rather than by birth. As a city of outsiders, its people know how to welcome visitors, giving rise to the phrase “if you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid.”

    After breakfast this morning, you’ll begin your exploration of the city with a half-day panoramic tour. You’ll drive by important landmarks like the opulent Royal Palace, constructed in the 18th century in the style of Versailles. You’ll continue on to drive past the Almudena Cathedral. The building's construction was completed in 1993, making it one of Europe’s youngest cathedrals, though with its massive size and unique blend of modern and traditional influences, it is still one of Madrid’s most remarkable-looking religious buildings. You’ll also see the Temple of Debod, a 2,000-year-old Egyptian monument that was dismantled and then painstakingly reconstructed in Spain as a result of Nile River flooding caused by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam project.

    After your tour, you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to make your own discoveries. In addition to the sites shown off during your tour, Madrid boasts a number of other important cultural attractions, including the world-renowned Prado Museum, a repository of treasures from Spain’s artistic golden age, including masterpieces from El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, and more.

    Tonight, regroup with your fellow passengers for an included Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant to toast the day’s discoveries along with those that lie ahead.

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    Today is yours to make your own discoveries in Madrid, if you'd like. Or you can join an optional full-day tour to Segovia, which, with its dramatic hilltop location and stunning medieval architecture, might feel like a fairy tale come to life. Your tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site begins with the Roman aqueduct, which was constructed without the use of mortar and is still standing today, due to the passionate efforts of the local community to preserve it. Then stroll through the charming, narrow streets of the old Jewish Quarter before visiting the Plaza Mayor, a picturesque square surrounded by many of Segovia's most important buildings, including its Gothic cathedral, an imposing 16th-century church that was one of the last of its kind built in Spain. The last stop on your tour is the Alcazar, a skyline-dominating castle perched idyllically on the top of a hill, whose romantic gables and turrets inspired Walt Disney's design for the castle of Sleeping Beauty. Later, enjoy lunch at a local restaurant (included with the cost of the optional tour).

    Return to Madrid late this afternoon, where dinner is on your own.

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    Spend another day acquainting yourself with Madrid, or join an optional half-day tour to another one of Spain's historic cities (and another UNESCO World Heritage Site), Toledo. This quintessentially Old-World city boasts a rich multicultural legacy—throughout the centuries, it has been home to Romans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and more, all of whom have left their indelible mark on the city's culture and architecture.

    Your tour of the city starts in its Old Town, where you'll visit the Synagogue of El Transito. The building is unique in that it was built during a time in the 14th century when construction of synagogues was generally forbidden in Spain. In 1492, Toledo's Jewish community was expelled from the city, and the synagogue was converted into a church. Today, it is a museum. You'll also stop at the Church of Santo Tome and the Gothic Toledo Cathedral, an important spiritual center of Catholic Spain since its construction in the 13th century. You'll go inside to see its elaborate decor, including the magnificent altarpiece, a towering depiction of scenes from the life of Christ.

    Return to Madrid this evening, where you'll enjoy an exclusive Discovery Series flamenco experience, followed by dinner. You'll learn about the romantic Spanish dance and even get the chance to try your hand at it yourself to experience the passion of this iconic form of expression.

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    Depart Madrid this morning for Valencia, stopping along the way to explore the breathtaking mountaintop city of Cuenca. The Moors who founded the city chose its hilltop location, straddling a rocky ridge dividing two river gorges, for its strategic defensive benefits. But the area's enchanting aesthetic qualities cannot be denied, as you'll discover for yourself during an included tour of the city's medieval walled Old Town, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

    As the population of Cuenca grew into the 18th century, the city faced a problem: Though beautiful, the local mountain topography provided limited opportunities for physical expansion. The people came up with an ingenious solution, to be mimicked later by the skyscrapers of the industrial era—rather than expand outward, they built upward, building homes alongside the very cliffs of the mountain. These are the casas colgadas, or Hanging Houses, seven- or eight-story homes which hang precariously over the Huecar Gorge. Today, the peculiar houses are home to Cuenca's Museum of Abstract Art, a symbol of the city's flourishing artistic community.

    You'll have a chance to see the Hanging Houses from the outside, then your tour continues with a stop at Cuenca's Old Walls, a relic from the Moors' original fortifications. Then explore the Plaza Mayor, a picturesque square lined with colorful buildings alongside the city's Gothic Cathedral, built in the twelfth century after the Catholic Reconquista of the region.

    Following your city tour, you'll venture off the beaten path to experience what is likely to be another highlight of your trip—a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family. During this exclusive Discovery Series event, you'll have the opportunity to practice your Spanish, and sample authentic, home-cooked cuisine as you learn about local culture during meaningful, up-close and personal interactions with local residents.

    After bidding farewell to your gracious hosts, you'll continue on your way to Valencia, arriving at your hotel this evening. Dinner is on your own tonight.

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    Continue your tour of Spain in Valencia, the country's third-largest city, as well as one of its oldest. It has been many things over the centuries—a Roman settlement, a Moorish stronghold, and even an independent multicultural fiefdom under the short-lived rule of El Cid, the famous Spanish warrior. You'll become acquainted with the city this morning on a half-day panoramic tour, which will take you past a rich blend of Moorish architecture and medieval squares existing alongside contemporary avant-garde buildings.

    Your tour starts with a drive past one of Valencia's most impressive ultra-modern institutions—the City of Arts and Sciences, a massive cultural complex built in the dry riverbed of the Turia River (now converted into a picturesque set of garden walkways), which features an opera house rising like a leviathan out of a massive reflecting pool. You'll then discover the historical side of Valencia, with a visit to the site of the old city walls—the walls are no longer standing, but several impressive medieval gates and fortifications still remain. Then continue to the Mercado de Colon, an upscale marketplace built in 1914 and renovated with a modern flourish in 2003. Conclude your city tour with a stop to view La Lonja de la Seda (The Silk Exchange), a 15th-century Renaissance trading hall recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a unique example of Gothic secular architecture.

    After your tour, you have the afternoon to explore the city on your own, or to simply unwind before rejoining your fellow travelers for an included dinner at a local restaurant.

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    Today is yours to spend in Valencia as you please, with lunch on your own. You might choose to stroll idly along the manicured gardens of the Turia riverbed, or seek out local restaurants to find the perfect paella, chased with a refreshing Agua de Valencia, a local fruity cocktail. Your Program Director can point you toward the treasures of this Mediterranean city. Tonight, enjoy an included dinner with your fellow travelers at a local restaurant.

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    After breakfast this morning, you'll visit the Lladro Museum, where you'll find a collection of highly valued handcrafted porcelain figurines. Lladro figurines are internationally renowned for their painstaking attention to detail and intricate coloration. You'll see the collection and tour the Lladro factory, to watch the specially trained artisans at work and learn about their creative technique.

    Next, head to scenic Malvarrosa Beach for an included lunch, where you'll have the opportunity to sample authentic Valencian paella, a dish of rice, meat, vegetables, olive oil, and spices. Paella is enjoyed around the world, but was invented in Valencia, whose residents consider it to be an important part of their cultural heritage.

    After lunch, you'll return to Valencia, where the rest of the day is at leisure. Dinner is on your own tonight.

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    Depart Valencia by motorcoach this morning for Barcelona, stopping along the way to stretch your legs in Peniscola, a scenic seaside town. Here, you'll have some time on your own to wander the town's streets and admire its medieval castle, perched on a hill overlooking the sea, before returning to the bus to resume your journey.

    You'll enjoy an included lunch along the way before stopping again at the Catalonian coastal city of Tarragona for an included tour. Tarragona was first founded as a Roman settlement and soon prospered as a vital port city. Much of the original Roman construction still stands today, as you'll discover on a tour of the city's archaeological sites (collectively hailed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site). You'll visit the Praetorium, an imposing ancient tower that in the middle ages was converted into a Royal Palace for the Kings of Aragon, as well as the well-preserved Roman Circus, where horse and chariot races were held. Then explore the amphitheater, which in later centuries became the site of a Christian church.

    After your tour, continue your transfer to Barcelona, where you'll arrive this evening to check into your hotel. Dinner is on your own tonight.

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    Today, begin your exploration of Barcelona, the second-largest city in Spain and the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. Barcelona has been a vital center of trade in the Mediterranean from the Middle Ages up until the present day, which has helped to cement its status as one of the great cities of Europe—an important center of cultural, artistic, and scientific innovation for centuries.

    You'll start your discoveries here with a panoramic tour of the city, beginning with the wooded slopes of Montjuic Hill, which hosts Castell de Montjuic, a 17th-century fortress. Scattered along the hillside are buildings from the 1992 Olympic Games, including Santiago Calatrava's Olympic Needle. Then continue to the city's scenic waterfront, a modernized, trendy district with shops and pedestrian walkways that still retains much of its old medieval charm. Next, you'll drive along the Passeig de Gracia, an upscale boulevard which showcases some prime examples of Barcelona's Catalan modernist architecture, a standing legacy of the late 19th- and early 20th-century cultural movement to assert an independent Catalan national identity. The architectural style, spearheaded by the brilliant architect Antoni Gaudi, is characterized by unconventional, asymmetrical, borderline chaotic, yet visually striking designs. You'll enjoy an included lunch during your exploration.

    After your tour, you have the rest of the afternoon to make your own discoveries. Dinner is on your own tonight.

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    Today you have the opportunity to explore Barcelona on your own. You might choose to wander through the winding alleyways of Barcelona’s old city center, or Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), which offers visitors a glimpse of medieval Barcelona. Some of the structures in this charming section of the city date as far back as the first Roman settlements of Barcelona. Today, centurions and garrisons have been replaced by quaint antique shops, hidden courtyards, and strolling street musicians.

    Or, you can choose to join an optional half-day tour to Montserrat and the Codorniu Winery. Begin your tour in Montserrat, a jagged mountain range outside the city which offers exhilarating hikes past peculiar rock formations and spectacular views of the Catalonian countryside below. The mountain is also home to a Benedictine abbey, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat, a Black Madonna statue which attracts many devout pilgrims.

    You'll then continue on to the Codorniu Winery, a major producer of the local Spanish sparkling wine called cava. You'll learn about the production process and tour the cellars, where you'll have the opportunity to sample some of the finished product. The wine isn't the only thing on display—the building itself is visually impressive, as it is designed in the Catalan Modernist style for which the area is so well known.

    The remainder of your afternoon is yours to explore Barcelona as you please, before you rejoin your fellow travelers for an included dinner at a local restaurant.

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    One of Barcelona's most significant contributions to the European cultural scene is its one-of-a-kind architecture, designed in the Catalan Modernist style. The man who spearheaded this architectural movement was the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and today's exclusive Discovery Series Event will take you on a journey through his life, as you survey some of Gaudi's most famous works while discussing his historical legacy with an expert local guide.

    One of the highlights of your tour is sure to be the Sagrada Familia basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While construction of the cathedral began in 1882, the colossal structure isn’t scheduled for completion until 2026. Originally started by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, Gaudí took over in 1883 and then devoted his entire life to its construction. When he died in 1926, after nearly 43 years of work on the cathedral, the project was only 15 percent completed. At first blush, the breathtaking mixture of Gothic and geometric Art Nouveau forms appear to be dripping in melted wax, but closer inspection reveals a meticulous stone tapestry depicting the life and acts of Jesus Christ. Once completed, the church will accommodate some 13,000 worshipers.

    This afternoon is yours to seek out the many treasures of Barcelona. Rejoin your fellow travelers tonight for an included Farewell Dinner.

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    • Meals included:

    Transfer to the airport today for your flight home. Or continue your tour of Spain as you begin your optional post-trip extension to Malaga.

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Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Pacing

  • 3 locations in 13 days

Physical Requirements

  • Walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 2-3 hours of physical activities daily, including stairs
  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them
  • Program Directors reserve the right to modify participation or send travelers home if their limitations impact the group’s experience

Terrain & Transportation

  • Uneven walking surfaces, including ruins and archaeological sites, unpaved paths, hills, stairs, and cobblestones
  • Travel by 45-seat motorcoach

Climate

  • Daytime temperatures range from 51-91°F during touring season
  • June-August are the warmest months
  • February, March, and December weather can be unpredictable and change quickly

Cuisine

  • Meals will be based on the local cuisine

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • Hotel Melia Galgos

    Madrid, Spain | Rating: Superior First Class

    Each room in the Melia Galgos provides air conditioning, wireless Internet access, safe, minibar, and a fully equipped bathroom with hair dryer. The hotel is located in the elegant Salamanca district, providing convenient access to major museums like the renowned Prado. Hotel services include a gym and concierge desk.

  • Hotel Husa Reina Victoria

    Valencia, Spain | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Centrally located in downtown Valencia, the Moderate First-Class Hotel Husa Reina Victoria offers convenient access to many of the city’s historic sights, like the Gothic cathedral and La Lonja de la Seda, the exquisite Renaissance Silk Exchange building. The hotel includes an on-site restaurant and English-style bar, while each room features air-conditioning, wireless Internet access, cable and satellite TV, as well as a private bath with hair dryer.

  • Hotel NH Calderon

    Barcelona, Spain | Rating: Superior First Class

    The Superior First-Class Hotel NH Calderon is conveniently situated in downtown Barcelona near La Rambla, the city’s charming pedestrian thoroughfare. The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, on-site fitness center, restaurant, and bar, and each air-conditioned room includes free wireless Internet access, minibar, TV, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace

    Valencia, Spain | Rating: Superior First Class

    The Superior First-Class Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace is located near the Plaza de España, just minutes away from the historic old city and the scenic gardens of the Turia riverbed. The hotel features free wireless Internet and an on-site restaurant, while each room includes satellite television, free mineral water, safe deposit box, and private bath with hair dryer.

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  • NH Villa Bilbao

    Bilbao, Spain | Rating: First Class

    Only a short walk away from the Guggenheim Museum and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, this First-Class hotel is in an ideal location in Bilbao. Modern artwork adorns the hotel’s rooms, which feature private bathrooms with bathtub/shower, hair dryer, air-conditioning, satellite TV, minibar, electronic safe, and wireless Internet. Guests can also enjoy regional cuisine at the hotel’s restaurant, as well as the host of other amenities on offer: a fitness center, Turkish steam bath, sauna, and Jacuzzi.

  • Maestranza Malaga Hotel

    Malaga, Spain

    The Maestranza enjoys an excellent location only 100 yards from Malagueta Beach and a short walk to the Picasso Museum and many other attractions. En suite rooms feature a stylish decor and a range of amenities, including satellite TV, wireless Internet, minibar and a hair dryer. The rooftop terrace provides panoramic views of the city, and guests can unwind in the hotel spa, which includes a sauna, hot tub, and Turkish bath, as well as massage services.

Flight Information

Customize Your Trip

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to customizing your trip—and creating your own unique travel experience:

Purchase Flights with Grand Circle

  • Choose the departure city and airline that works best for you
  • Depart from one city and return to another
  • Upgrade your air itinerary based on your travel preferences
  • “Break away” before or after your trip to explore independently or re-energize
  • Combine two or more trips to make the most of your value—and avoid another long flight
  • Extend your discoveries with pre- or post-trip extensions

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

What Makes This Trip Unique

Exclusive Discovery Series Events

  • Flamenco dancing experience. Learn about Spain’s most iconic dance, and perhaps try your hand at it yourself.
  • Home-Hosted Lunch. Share local cuisine and hospitality as you gather in the home of a Spanish family in Cuenca.
  • Life of Antoni Gaudi. Take a walk in the shoes of Barcelona’s most influential architect, examining some of his famous designs and learning about the details of his life and death.

Enjoy the opportunity to visit 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct
  • Historic City of Toledo
  • Historic Walled Town of Cuenca
  • La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia
  • Archaeological Sites of Tarragona
  • Works of Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

10 reasons to experience Spain's Cultural Capitals—in the words of our travelers

We often find that the best endorsements of our discovery-rich vacations come directly from our travelers. From world-renowned architectural masterpieces to cultural delights like flamenco, here are some of the memorable experiences our travelers have shared from our Spain tour.

Valencia
"Valencia was a delightful surprise. It is a major Spanish city, but we generally do not hear much about it. The atmosphere was authentic. People lived their normal lives. There was no special catering to tourist interests. There are many sites to visit. La Lonja de la Seda (the old silk exchange) is another World Heritage Site, and we visited it as part of the included city tour. Of course, we also saw the exterior of Valencia's cathedral on the city tour. But you will enjoy spending extra time in the beautiful Plaza de la Virgen. I also recommend that you take the tour of the cathedral that is offered on-site."
An 8-time traveler from Boynton Beach, FL

Local cuisine
"We enjoyed pintxos—pronounced 'pincho,' tasty morsels on toast held together with a toothpick—in the north, paella in Valencia, and tapas in other cities. Small portions allowed for sampling, and visual inspection of prepared food laid out on the counter took out the guess work. We greatly enjoyed dining in Spain."
A 20-time traveler from West Linn, OR

Bilbao & San Sebastian, Spain pre-trip extension
"Bilbao turned out to be just the right way to start the trip. It was a city I knew little of, so our guide’s wonderful tours of it and San Sebastian were opportunities to learn. The Guggenheim Museum was extraordinary."
A 3-time traveler from Chicago, IL

Program Director
"Our Program Director, Valle Lopez and the tour guides we had in the cities we visited were professional and knowledgeable. I already loved Spain but now I feel I know it better because of the information these wonderful representatives of Grand Circle shared with me. I got an education in the history, culture, art and the people of Spain, which was exactly what I wanted."
A 3-time traveler from Manasquan, NJ

Barcelona
"Our three major cities each had spectacular opportunities, although if I could only return to one, it would be Barcelona. I am a well-seasoned traveler but can’t remember ever being so caught up in the amazing architecture, diversity of foods, and congenial atmosphere as I was in that city."
A first-time traveler from Dekalb, IL

Comfortable pacing
"We were attracted to this trip by the schedule providing four nights in each of the five cities (we did take both the pre- and post-trip extensions) in a country we knew little about, and we loved being able to experience each city in depth ... Every one of our hotels was located in the city center of the towns being visited and within walking distance of major tourist sights."
A 16-time traveler from Scottsdale, AZ

Malaga, Spain post-trip extension
"Maybe my favorite part of the trip. Beautiful weather, view from hotel, sights to explore, time on own, and a lovely guide. Lunch on the beach with travelers who had been with us since Bilbao. Fun and relaxing. Loved the Moorish Palace and trying to find our way down."
A 7-time traveler from Earlysville, VA

Local People
"We especially enjoyed the 'tapas' atmosphere—just hanging out with Spaniards and getting to know them. And events like the Home-Hosted Visits are the best times for us to meet, share and learn."
An 11-time traveler from Glastonbury, CT

Sagrada Familia Basilica
"The visit to the Sagrada Familia was the highlight and climax of our trip. It is absolutely stunning, an awe-inspiring place."
2-time travelers from Peninsula, OH

Flamenco experience
"The flamenco experience deserves special comment. It provided real insight into a Spanish tradition that is not experienced by many American travelers and was a real treat! An outstanding presentation followed by an excellent dinner! Kudos!"
A 4-time traveler from McLean, VA

For reservations and information about our Spain tour, call us toll-free at 1-800-221-2610

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

Madrid as Muse: The films of Pedro Almodovar

Read about how Spain’s capital influenced its most famous film director.

Read More »

Birthplace of paella

Discover the humble origins of this flavorful Spanish specialty.

Read More »

Discovering Valencia

Learn about the subtle charms of Spain’s less-traveled cultural capital

Read More »

History, Culture & More

Madrid as Muse: The films of Pedro Almodovar

by David Valdes Greenwood, from Insider

When you stroll down a street in Spain’s capital city, you are walking in Pedro Almodovar’s world. With a pair of Academy Awards to match his two trophies from the Cannes Film festival, Almodovar is the best-known living filmmaker from Spain, and is on his way to eclipsing Luis Bunuel as the most acclaimed Spanish director of all time. His films vary as widely as possible in tone—from farcical comedy to chilling horror, with stops in between for melodrama and romance, but all depict his passion for his homeland.

Celebrating Spain’s vivacious spirit

A look at some of Almodovar’s most popular films across the last few years paints a vivid portrait of life in Spain, from hijinks in a hi-rise to family tragedy in the countryside. What unites many of these tales is the endurance of joy in the face of hardship and the capacity for people to reinvent themselves. It’s a legacy that reflects the director’s views of life during and after the brutal Franco regime—the idea that Spain’s darkest days need not define it, but rather it should celebrate its vibrant spirit and culture.

When Almodovar first moved to Madrid from the countryside nearly 50 years ago, he was unimpressed: It smelled like a city, was dirtier than his village, and it didn’t feel as glamorous as movies had led him to expect. But once he adapted to urban life, he couldn’t imagine ever leaving. Over the years, as the true beauty of the city revealed itself to him, he found ways to capture it on film for the world to see.

Finding inspiration from Madrid’s streets

In 1988, Almodovar’s seventh film burst onto the global cinema scene. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was the first of his movies to reach a wide audience in the U.S., with its wacky world of bright-colored apartments and frenetic city life. The action is set along Gran Via, Madrid’s iconic main thoroughfare, known for its array of impressive early 20th-century architecture. Like Broadway in New York, Gran Via seemingly never sleeps—with shopping by day, nightlife into the wee hours, and visitors around the clock. The iconic 14-story Telefonica building, where the young Almodovar got his first full-time job, serves as one of the film’s backdrops.

Gran Via is also home to a legendary bar, Chicote, that appears twelve years later in 2010’s Broken Embraces. When decades-only secrets are spilled in this twisty tale of art, love, and obsession, the characters are gathered around a small table in intimate Chicote, perhaps in seats once occupied by past bar patrons Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, or Almodovar himself.

As vast as Chicote is cozy, sprawling Plaza Mayor is one of the best-loved locales among Madrileños and visitors alike. Outlined by grand buildings laced with porticos, the Plaza Mayor has been the site of countless protests, rallies, wedding proposals, and first dates. In 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, in which a serious writer masks her identity as the author of romances, the plaza is the setting for a key scene, in which one character wins over another with a surprise dance. It also provides cultural context in other scenes, including images of a real-life protest against the Prime Minister at the time of shooting.

Just blocks away, the monumental Puerte de Alcala gate is used as the framing device of the 1997 film Live Flesh, in which the romantic entanglements of four characters are bookended by births, one at the end of the Franco era and at the other end of the 20th century. The imposing 18th-century gate opens the film as the backdrop for the title sequence, while more intimate views of Alcala Street lit up with Christmas lights signal the film’s end, as the cycle of life begins anew.

Life and death are on full display in Almodovar’s 2006 Volver, which is set both in Madrid and in the surrounding province of La Mancha, where the director was born and raised. In Volver, a woman with a murderous secret shuttles between her life in the city and her family obligations in a small village whose narrow cobbled streets and elegantly weathered buildings are akin to those you can find in the La Mancha town of Toledo.

Volver is one of the few films to lure Almodovar back to the region of his childhood. “I hardly ever go back,” he admitted to a reporter, “because I don’t return there as an acclaimed director … there, I’m still like a little boy.” He prefers life in Madrid, his adopted hometown.

History, Culture & More

The Birthplace of paella

Where a world-famous dish was born

by Amanda Read, from Insider

Paella, the Spanish rice dish known the world over, originated in Valencia. So naturally the best and purest paellas are here. To be exact, Albufera, a large freshwater lagoon just outside of Valencia, is where the tradition began. In the 8th century, the Moors began planting rice in the lagoon. Workers cooked the rice right in the fields, adding delicious local ingredients—and the rest is delicious history.

Today, the two classic dishes are Paella Valenciana and Paella de Marisco. Both dishes use Spanish rice, saffron, some vegetables and olive oil, but the Valenciana uses chicken (and often rabbit!) and the Marisco is a seafood dish. Chefs add calamari, mussels, shrimp, lobster, or clams to the latter, always with their shells still intact. A third type that came about later on is Paella Mixta, which mixes both meat and seafood. Valencians view this dish as inauthentic and inferior, which is why even though it’s popular elsewhere, it’s rather difficult to find in the city. While not classical paella, Valencia offers other delicious rice dishes as well. Arroz Negro is a paella-type dish cooked in squid ink. And Fideua is a dish similar to paella but with noodles in place of the rice.

Paella gets its name from the pan used to serve it, called a paellera. Because this dish is meant to be a social one, shared among at least two people, the pan is very large and can go directly from sitting atop a wood fire directly to the tabletop. For large fiestas or gatherings, Valencians have begun making record-breaking sized portions of paella. Valencian restaurateur Juan Galbis claims to have made the world’s largest paella in 2001, feeding about 110,000 people(!) and was even featured in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Valencians are very proud of their paella history and consider it a symbol of their city. Of course recipes vary, even here. Locals compete for the honor of best paella, which means that it’s the customer who is the true winner.

History, Culture & More

Discovering Valencia

The Mediterranean gem that is Spain’s best-kept secret

by Amanda Read, from Insider

“A piece of heaven fallen to the Earth.”

So goes the old saying about Valencia. It’s hard to believe that Spain’s third-largest city (behind Madrid and Barcelona, respectively) hasn't been on the radar of serious travelers until recently. Situated on the part of the Mediterranean coast known as the Costa Blanca, Valencia doesn't outwardly or immediately reveal its charms. Like a subtly flirtatious señorita, the city beckons but never begs.

But those who seek Valencia out are rewarded with an authentic Spanish city, one free of tourist menus, postcard racks, and souvenir shops. With endlessly sunny days, scores of cultural opportunities, white-sand beaches, gastronomic delights, and architectural wonders, visitors may be surprised by just how much the city has to offer—and those who get to know her are captivated by her charms.

Blending the old and the new

Founded by the Romans, the city developed into one of Europe’s leading ports and trade centers in the Middle Ages, reaching its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, when precious silk was sent from here to places around the world. Merchants flocked from throughout Europe, creating a foundation for the city’s unprecedented prosperity. Many of the city’s remaining landmarks bear witness to this glorious past.

Valencia’s stunning Gothic cathedral, built in the 13th century directly on the site of what was once a large Arabian mosque, is a perfect symbol for the long struggle between Christianity and Islam. For almost 500 years, between the eighth and 13th centuries, Valencia was one of the Muslim empire’s most thriving Spanish cities—until the Reconquista finally managed to recapture the city for good in 1238.

Within the cathedral today lies one of the most important symbols of Christianity: a chalice that many—even some Christian scholars—believe is the true Holy Grail, the vessel Christ used during the Last Supper. And outside the church, visitors can witness a centuries-old tradition called “The Water Tribunal” that still takes place every Thursday. This gathering of elected officials is one of the oldest democratic institutions in Europe and was introduced by Moorish farmers to settle irrigation disputes.

A short walk from the cathedral stands the medieval silk exchange (La Lonja de la Seda). This building, equally as impressive and imposing as the cathedral, was once the center point for Valencia’s silk trade. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its high-rising columns and beautiful interior vaulted ceilings served as the perfect scene for trading and bargaining.

Many more hidden attractions and sights await as one strolls the city’s narrow lanes and back streets. These include the old fisherman’s quarter, the Cabanyal, which has a flair all its own. It features elegant yet decaying Art Nouveau townhouses and colorfully tiled murals depicting maritime life.

Besides the old quarters, Valencia is home to some of Europe’s most fascinating modern architecture. A must for everyone is the futuristic museum and cultural complex called the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by Valencia’s Santiago Calatrava. The complex is a testament to New Age design, with buildings depicting a whale’s skeleton, and even a giant eyelid with its mirror image projected into a giant pool below, creating the impression of an entire eye.

Throughout the city there are also plenty of new offerings to be found: upscale restaurants, bars, boutiques, and cozy cafes. Valencia blends the excitement of a trendy Spanish city while preserving its rich and storied heritage. It’s truly one of the few Mediterranean locales to retain its regional character and pride even as it plans for the future.

Fiestas and siestas

Valencians are known for having a strong sense of national identity. And they know how to throw a party, as evidenced by their outrageous and spectacular fiestas. The city is famous for Las Fallas, a five-day festival held in March and said to be one of the best in Europe. Locals prepare for it throughout the rest of the year, creating paper and cardboard “statues,” only to set them ablaze on the final festival night. Firecrackers and window-rattling explosions blast through the night, showcasing Valencians’ fun-loving, rambunctious nature.

With all of this nightlife, it’s no wonder locals still take their siestas every day after lunchtime. Siestas began when workers in the fields would take shelter from the sun during the hottest part of the day, usually mid-afternoon. But nowadays, Valencians (like other Spaniards) enjoy this daytime nap in order to recover from either a hearty Spanish lunch or from a late night the night before. Therefore, a mid-day hush falls over the city, as most stores are temporarily closed.

Tapas bars are usually always open, though, and are the perfect place to get the true taste of Spain. Mini bites of different Spanish delicacies, tapas are generally not eaten as a whole meal. Some classics: a dish of olives, some anchovies or pinchos, bread with different toppings like garlic mayonnaise, or pa amb oli, bread covered with oil and then topped with sliced ham or Manchego cheese. Paired with a Spanish wine or perhaps an agua de Valencia, (not water, as the name suggests, but a mix of orange juice and cava, the local sparkling wine), it’s a perfect mid-day (or anytime) snack.

Living well is truly an art in Valencia. And in a city with so much to offer, it isn't difficult. Like the old saying goes, Valencia truly is a bit of heaven on Earth. It’s no wonder travelers are finally recognizing her charms.

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