AN UNSUNG HERO OF EUROPEAN HISTORY AND CULTURE

Situated on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain is a passionate and diverse country with a rich history. While a number of defining 20th century artists and creatives lived and worked there, some would say in many cases it has not received the same recognition as some of its other European counterparts.

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On a trip to northern Spain, I was able to experience the incredible work of visionary architect Antoni Gaudi, explore artworks by Picasso during his formative years, sip sherry in a bar that hasn’t changed much since Hemingway used to go there and pay a visit to the residence where Salvador Dali lived for most of his life.

It is safe to say that Spain is a cultural heavyweight, yet I always seemed to hear more about Paris or Italy as cultural capitals. A civil war in the 30s followed by a dictatorship spanning almost 40 years meant a lot of the country’s cultural diversity was supressed during this time. This is something that continues to have a profound impact on Spain today.  

Discovering this rich yet tumultuous history combined with delicious cuisine and settling into the Spanish way of life made for an unforgettable holiday. While it’s hard to narrow it down, these are some of my top experiences.  

BARCELONA
It is hard to believe that this vibrant city and home of famous architect Antoni Gaudi was not on the map until after they hosted the Olympic Games in 1992. With traditional tapas, the beach, a unique mix of architecture and museums it has it all.

The Barcelonians are experts at combining old and new, with many different styles of architecture from Roman Walls through to Gothic buildings and visionary modern design. Their most iconic monument and Gaudi masterpiece La Sagrada Familia has been under construction for 137 years and is spectacular to visit.

CADAQUÉS
If you need a bit of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona, the coastal town of Cadaqués will provide the perfect antidote. The small town is in the province of Girona and offers a beautiful coastline. Here you can relax and enjoy some of the freshest seafood at little family-owned restaurants (my pick is the ‘menu of the day’ at Casa Nun).

Cadaqués also holds a special place in art history with a number of notable artists and writers spending time in the town. Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali lived and worked in a small village next to the town called Port Lligat for most of his life. You can now visit his home which has been preserved as a museum.

PICASSO MUSEUM
Located in Barcelona’s El Born district, the Picasso Museum is set across five buildings. It offers an exploration of some of famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s lesser known works from his formative years. The collection gives you an insight into the many different styles Picasso mastered, as well as his deep connection with Barcelona.

El Born is also where you’ll find many of the best restaurants and bars, so you can top off your experience with tapas and a glass of cava.

REINA SOFIA
Another standout experience in terms of museums was the Reina Sofia in Madrid. While there are many impressive museums (Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum), the Reina Sofia was of particular interest to me as it focuses on 20thcentury art.

A highlight of the museum is Picasso’s famous Guernica painting. This masterpiece was created in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque country town in northern Spain. It is a defining anti-war painting and reminder of the important role art plays in communicating powerful messages.   

DINING EXPERIENCES
The food really is a highlight in Spain. I highly recommend seeking authentic tapas bars as it’s a great way to eat and very affordable. Lunch and dinner are later on Spanish time, and they really know how to enjoy their food. With people often crowded up around the bar, the atmosphere is buzzing and sometimes a little hectic – but it’s all part of the experience.

Whether it’s sitting up at the bar having a ‘xuixo’ (croissant filled with cream) at the La Boqueria market’s Pinotxo Bar, or a more modern take on tapas with farm to table produce at Madrid’s Celso y Manolo, there’s so much to discover. A list of just some of my favourite haunts –

Bar Del Pla
A fabulous tapas place in Barcelona’s El Born district that feels like home. It has an old-school tapas bar feel with delicious food and friendly staff.
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Bar La Plata
A tiny little tapas bar in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter where they speak very little English and there are only about five things on the menu – all part of the charm. Perfect for a quick lunch between taking in the sights.
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Bar Pinotxo
Located inside Barcelona’s La Boqueria markets (a must visit), Bar Pinotxo is a popular spot serving tapas and fresh daily specials. Sit up at the bar and join the locals for breakfast with a glass of cava on hand to wash everything down.
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Casa Nun
A tiny family-owned restaurant in Cadaqués serving the freshest seafood. Kick back for the afternoon and try the ‘menu of the day’ – for €14.50 you get salad, bread, wine, a main course and desert.
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Celso y Manolo
One of my absolute favourite dining experiences, this is a modern tapas bar in Madrid’s Chueca neighbourhood. They have delicious tomato salads and reworked classics using the freshest produce.
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El Xampanyet
A bustling traditional tapas bar right near the Picasso Museum. Try some of the house cava to accompany the best tortilla (traditional Spanish omelette), local cheeses, padron peppers and other tapas delights. 
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La Venencia
When you hear of a bar that’s one of Hemingway’s old haunts, you tend to think it might be a bit of tourist trap but this wasn’t the case. A delightful old school bar serving sherry and a small selection of shares (either tapas or larger plates). It’s cash only!
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La Viña
This is a must-visit if you’re heading to San Sebastian. It is known for its famous Basque cheesecake (you won’t be able to stop at one slice). You can also enjoy fresh fish with a glass of chacolí (a lightly sparkling wine produced in the Basque region).
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Word: Sarah Langley

Imagery: Sarah Langley