May 8th, 2012
How do you like to arrive in Spain?
In the traditional fashion, by air? Or by sailing to your destination? Or, perhaps, by train?
First impressions are important and I have been very impressed when arriving at certain distinctive locations.
There are some grand railway stations in Spain. Marvellous architectural creations to rival railway stations of the world. I was awestruck by the grandeur of Valencia railway station, Estacion del Norte, when arriving there on a weekend break.
What a beautiful building and, like the city itself, so steeped in history. There is some delightful tiling in the extravagant booking hall. I had the time to study the sheer splendour of it all. A great pity that i was soon prevented from taking photographs of my surroundings.
Why wouldn’t Valencia railway station want to boast about how good it looks? After all, how many railway stations are there which have kept the best of the old while making sure there are modern facilities for holidaymakers and locals alike?
Built between 1906 and 1917, it is awash with ceramic tiles on the walls and some murals on the ceiling. Orange tree and orange blossom emblems leave you in know doubt that you have arrived in the capital of oranges in Spain (though Sevillianos would debate that one).
The station has a very defined art nouveau feel to it. The colourful tiling and decoration combines well with the old world feel of the wood laden ticket office. Whatever you do, allow some time to soak in this beautiful railway station. Don’t be dashing for the train or the metro. Factor in at least fifteen minutes to savour one of the grandest railway stations anywhere in the world.
And be more subtle than i was when it comes to taking photographs.
I was surrounded, of course, by those who arrive here every day. People who are busily on their way to work. They take the surroundings for granted. They have to dash to the office or take a few steps to jump on the excellent Metro service that serves Valencia so very well.
I know of cities in Spain that are spending fortunes on metro services while having no intention of linking that mode of transport with their local airport or railway station. Crazy!
Valencia is enjoyable to get around not least thanks to the easy to use, clean and efficient metro system. I hopped on and off more often than most mating bunny rabbits!
And there is so very much to see in the third biggest city in Spain. Shops galore, and classy ones. Away from the usual suspects of any high street anywhere in Europe, there are some very clever and intriguing individual shops.
I enjoyed the restaurants in the city centre and especially those located at the self proclaimed birthplace of the paella, La Albufera.
I was taken for drinks in the gardens of a splendid hotel on the seafront and i admired the area around the port where they constructed the track for Formula 1 racing a few years ago.
Valencia takes some getting to know and you will not achieve that in just one visit. But the city is so well connected by rail and air that you can pop back there any time the mood takes you.
The metro took me to various parts of Valencia. In any Spanish city i seek out the barrios that can be reached on foot but are not always the famous ones. The parts other visitors do not always reach.
So it was that i walked to and around the atmospheric Barrio Del Carmen. A haven away from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping streets, i found a few bars and restaurants to choose from. Places where i could undertake my favourite hobby in Spain. Sitting back and people watching.
Why wear out your feet walking around a large Spanish city? Find some good places to sit down for a coffee, beer, glass of wine or the traditional local drink of Agua de Valencia. Then soak up the daily life of Valencia.
It’s a relaxed way to experience the place.
Arriving at a Spanish port can be special. I can still recall the excitement when docking for the first time at the port of Bilbao.
True, the view of any port itself is not exactly glamorous. But, as Michael Palin always says, arriving by sea somehow raises the anticipation level. It excites. You can see some of what is ahead of you. You get a more real idea of the area you are arriving in than if you get there by air.
In places such as Santander in the north of Spain you can see much of the city and immediately realise that you will not have to walk far to sample the cafes and restaurants in this location that is so favoured by critics of all thing culinary. Although i loathe sailing, I love arriving in Spain by sea.
In southern Spain there are now sailings between the city of Motril on the Costa Tropical and Melilla, an autonomous city of Spain located on the coast of Morocco in north Africa. Before 1995 Meililla was considered to be part of the province of Malaga. Then it was declared an autonomous city, one of two such territories of Spain that are located in mainland Africa (the other one is Ceuta).
Once you take time to get to know it, Motril is an excellent city. Smaller and, in the main, more modern than neighbouring Granada, it does have ancient backstreets that should be experienced. Motril is a real working city in Spain and has its rough and ready barrios, but it has great shops in the city centre and some splendid bars and restaurants serving freshly caught fish landed a the port a few minutes away.
In summer it gets very hot in Motril but that is when you most appreciate the breezes this city is known for locally. It never ceases to surprise me how many holidaymakers renting locally do not got to Motril. And, so often, those arriving on cruise ships or the ferry from Melilla bypass the city and jump on a coach to see the great city of Granada or the mountain villages of La Alpujarra.
Likewise those arriving in Alicante via the ocean are on a bus or coach the moment they set foot on land. Off they go to see busy Benidorm, or admire Altea. Why don’t they spend some time in Alicante itself? It is an excellent city to experience and has shops, museums and big beaches to offer the visitor. It even has its own castle overlooking the sea, though it is quite a climb up to the castle. But the views from up there are memorable.
Airports can be soulless places. Alicante airport has improved greatly since i first landed there in the nineteen seventies.
But there are not many beautiful airports in the world and I have yet to land at one in Spain that has architecture to take my breath away.
The new look Malaga airport is a light, airy and largely pleasant development. Some Spanish airports are little more than what my mother would have called a nissen hut.
San Javier airport in Murcia is not going to win any architectural awards. It is, to be polite, functional. But, crucially, it is well located and is well served by some low cost airlines.
San Javier airport is where you are most likely to arrive for your holiday on the coastline of Mar Menor or for your golfing break at La Manga.
As is so often the way with air travel, you will likely head straight past San Javier itself. That would be a mistake. I like the coastal town of Santiago de la Ribera and enjoyed eating near the dock at which the local ferry arrives.
A forty minute sailing takes you to La Manga del Mar Menor in the shape of Puerto Tomas Maestre.
Busy in summer, sleepy in winter, the so called Costa Calida has plenty of good quality accommodation to rent for your holiday. The famous lagoons and mud baths attract many a tourist and birdwatchers flock here at certain times of the year. Thankfully, at the same time as the birds.
In my experience airports usually begin small and grow ever bigger. I can remember Heathrow when it was called London airport and had one terminal. When i first went to the tiny airport at Granada in February 2004 tourists were a rare site. Precisely one year later the first low cost airline flights arrived from England. They were still constructing new parts of the airport as the first plane from London landed.
Pretty soon tourists were arriving at Granada in large numbers from the likes of London, Liverpool and Birmingham. Then, suddenly, the low cost airlines stopped coming and an airport that was growing at a fast pace went backwards. You can still arrive at Granada airport from other locations in Spain and the scenery from the air can be breathtaking.
On a clear day when landing at Granada you can see some great views out of the window. The city itself, the Sierra Nevada mountains and – if you know where to look – a superb view of the most visited tourist attraction in all of Spain, the Alhambra Palace. I wonder what the Moorish Kings of Spain would have made had jet planes been flying over their home while they were busy with the harem?
I have flown between superb cities such as Valencia, Seville and Granada. The latter entices you from the air and does not disappoint once you are on terra firma. I love wandering the streets of Granada on a Saturday. Be sure to make the effort of staying there.
Not all of us like flying or sailing. I don’t know of anyone who dreads letting the train take the strain.
But whichever way you choose to surface in Spain, be sure to take some time to experience the place at which you arrive.
It is all part of the enjoyment of spending a holiday in the vast and varied country of Spain.