I'm pirating this from stuff I originally wrote up for our travel agent, then adding more detail that may be more of interest to friends, especially if you might be visiting some of the same cities...
Edited to Add: Xta added a few good thoughts down in the comments. Also, since I mentioned I was writing this for our agent, I should mention her: Laurie Valdez of Peak Travel was extremely helpful in planning the trip, even working through the last few itinerary details outside regular work hours so Xta and I could sit in our living room and talk things through with her directly rather than going back and forth in email. We found her through the Better World Club. (Which I also recommend in general -- it's like AAA, except not evil. AAA funds lobbying against public transit, cleaner cars, etc. If you join BWC, get our member number, I believe there's a referral credit.)
We've had a busy week since we got home, re-acclimating to work, the 9-hour time shift, etc. You can find a lot of photos and commentary on our Flickr accounts (mostly Christa's -- on mine I've just been doing commentary on the restaurants):
One general warning, if you're trying to think through scheduling for a trip to Spain: a LOT of things either close early, or entirely, on Sunday, Monday, and in some cases Tuesday. We narrowly missed driving out to Cardona only to find everything shut down, because fortunately I checked scheduling / reservation stuff online, and we adjusted our car reservation schedule to make it work. (We also, on our last day in Madrid, ended up not getting to go to a restaurant we'd been interested in -- Arola, in the Reina Sofia Museum -- b/c it was closed Sunday, which is actually a change from the hours reported for them on Google Local and some local newspaper reviews; I guess maybe they reduced hours for the winter. n.b.: Don't try to Google the restaurant; their web registration apparently expired and got hijacked by some annoying domain squatter, who posted rather unpleasant porn. If my Spanish were better, I might've tried to explain that to the woman I got on the phone when I tried to call for a reservation. As it was, just understanding that she was telling me their hours had changed and they were totally closed on Sunday was about my limit. I really wish restaurants would be smarter about their websites.)
Getting from the Madrid airport to Atocha to Barcelona was a bit of a chore, with the bus connection and then the vastness of Atocha station, but the AVE ride itself was really neat. We desperately need intercity high speed rail in the US.
Barcelona: Barcelona House was very pleasant, if a bit spare. Nifty modern decor. The elevator was a bit cramped, but that seems to be the norm throughout Spain. My only complaint would be that we simply could not persuade the damn maids to not to change our towels out every day. Like all hotels these days, they had one of those little signs saying that if you wanted to be water efficient you should hang your towels on the rack, and they wouldn't change them, but the maids paid no attention to that rule. This would be a mild annoyance from an environmental point of view in any case, but for us it's also a functional issue: we both have very long hair, and really NEED an extra towel or two in order to dry off after showering. And every time they'd change the towels, they would not replace the extras. So we'd have to call down for extras every morning, and have one of us wait to shower until they'd been delivered. After the first two days, this got kind of irritating. Only on the very last day of our stay did our extra towels survive the maid visit. :-P
There's a quite nice and affordable restaurant, The Grill Room, right across the street from Barcelona House, and it's also very close to a location of a Spanish chain called Nostrum, which was convenient for breakfast or healthy snacks. We also had awesome meals at two places in the Gothic Quarter recommended to us by Elizabeth Falkner: Espai Sucre (expensive but amazing), and BubóBar (much less expensive, with innovative takes on traditional tapas, and situated right next door to Bubó, a world-renowned sweet shop).
Sagrada Familia was fabulous, and Parc Güell and the Gaudi House. If people are going to stay down near Las Ramblas, they should be prepared to use the Metro to get over there, as it would be a quite long walk. (On the bright side, the Metro is not difficult, and all the routes we used had cars roughly every three minutes. The Madrid Metro is similar, with cars as frequent as every 2 minutes in some parts.) I found Las Ramblas itself mostly kind of depressing -- totally overrun with tourists, students, and slackers. On the bright side, you can walk northeast from there into the Gothic Quarter, which is great (we probably could've spent another whole day checking out the various churches and little museums back there, and every time you'd turn a corner you'd come across some little plaza with a neat sculpture). Also, Plaça de Colom (at the end of Las Ramblas) and the piers were pretty. You can walk from there (or take the Metro from the Lyceum) over to Montjüic, which is gorgeous. We spent basically two whole days wandering around up there, and there were still parts we didn't see. Our first visit, we went past the art museum and through the Olympic campus to the cemetery. Unfortunately, the visit there got cut a bit short because I was coming down with a cold. Fortunately, there is at least a convenient bus that runs from the bottom of the hill back around to the harbor end of Avinguda del Paral·lel, a block from Plaça de Colom. Possibly we should've just taken that around to visit, since it's the lower parts of the cemetery that have most of the older, more elaborate stonework, anyways.
We took a whole day to go out to Girona for El Celler, and it was entirely worthwhile. The city of Girona is not much to look at, though the river park is pleasant. But the restaurant completely deserves its reputation, and for its quality was quite decently priced. (€155 per person for the longer "festival" menu, including VAT, and of course you don't really have to tip in Europe. I was recently reading about a place in SF that has just been awarded two Michelin stars, and looked at their website; their full menu is $250 per person, and I'm assuming that's before tax and tip, so you'd have to call it more like $325 by the time you're done, even if you're going cheap on drinks. The value comparison there tilts heavily in favor of El Celler.)
We also did the day trip to Cardona, which I highly recommend, for both the castle (which isn't huge, but is worth a couple hours of wandering, especially the sanctuary and crypt) and the salt mine (which is completely unlike any other caves I've seen -- though I'd recommend people try to schedule a visit where the tour guide is at least using Castilian, rather than Catalunyan; they'll give you some materials in English, but I suspect I would've gotten more out of the trip if I'd at least been able to pick up a little of the guide's talk). I kind of wish we'd been able to stay in the Parador, inside the castle; it's just gorgeous, and the restaurant looked very nice as well. The central "old town" area was interesting, but small, and the gothic church was closed for renovations, so I can't say much about that. Cardona wasn't really a tourist attraction until just the last 5-6 years or so; it's starting to have good infrastructure for visitors (though still a bit short on English translations), but hasn't become at all crowded yet; even our friends in Guadalajara, who have travelled around the country a lot, hadn't heard of it.
I will digress, here, to mention that National / ATESA "upgraded" us from the compact we'd reserved to a midsize Peugeot (bigger than my Saturn ION at home). It handled like a nauseated cow, gave me terrible visibility to the sides and rear so I was constantly nervous, and had a turning radius that may have been worse than the Astro minivan my mother used to own. I hated that car with fiery intensity of a thousand burning suns. Somebody needs to explain to those morons that given the narrow streets (especially in the old town areas -- it's a miracle I never gashed the side of the car taking some turn in Granada or Cuenca, where our hotels were right smack in the medieval parts of town), and Spanish drivers' tendency to regard things like signs and traffic lights more as suggestions than actual laws, a small nimble car is an absolute necessity, and they clearly ought to be stocking a lot more of them. Oh, and speaking of: Anyone who's going to drive in Spain ought to be warned about just how nuts the drivers are, and the signage. They put all their traffic lights on the side of the intersection that's closer to you, so once you're at the stop line, it's quite difficult to see the light. Most drivers, I suspect, are actually watching the pedestrian walk light, and will start driving again as soon as that turns red (even though that's several seconds before the proper traffic light goes green). Also, you get many situations, especially at the (numerous!) circles, where there are two or three lights stacked up practically on top of each other, and it can be quite difficult to tell which one is intended for you. And then there are the highway signs, that will give you a dozen different things that a given exit is taking you "towards", which makes it tricky to figure out what the exit is actually going onto. Generally the exits before and after the one you actually want will end up sharing several of the labels. It was a good thing we had both an in-car GPS and the iPhone -- each of them had some failings (in particular, the data on the in-car system was about two years out of date relative to major construction that had been happening on the A-4, on our trip from Granada to Cuenca) but between the two we got by mostly OK. The signage around Madrid is particularly egregious -- we managed to miss the same exit on two different days, first when we were returning the rental car, and then again driving the car we borrowed from our friends in Guadalajara (actually Cabanillas del Campo, a little suburb on the edge of Guadalajara, on the Madrid side of town).
Tarragona: The AC Hotel was pleasant, though I wish they offered free in-room WiFi. They had free WiFi only in the lobby, and the in-room price was a bit unreasonable. Their hotel restaurant look OK, but overpriced, so we went elsewhere to eat. (We found two really great places near the Plaça de la Font, Crêperie Kenavo and Degvsta. The plaza itself is kind of a tourist trap, but there's great stuff hidden in the blocks just around it.) It was a bit of a walk from the hotel to where most of the interesting sights were; not a huge distance, but at least 20 minutes. Depending on how people feel about walking around an unfamiliar city, that could be an issue for some travelers. (We definitely were referring to my iPhone map a lot.) There's a great walking tour of the ruins that we kind of stumbled our way into, that begins on the Via de l'Imperi Romà. The visitor center, with various pamphlets, and a set of really cool models of the Roman city, is through the door to the right, on Plaza del Pallol; the walking tour of the old walls starts through the door on the left. If you follow the walls all the way around, you can then kind of make a u-turn into the section of the city that has the Cathedral, Seminary, Arquesbisbat (the seat of the local archbishop), and University Rovira (which has some neat architecture from more recent periods -- say, 100 to 200 years old, instead of 500 to 2000 years *g*). From there it's another short walk to the Museo Nacional Arqueológico de Tarragona, which is spectacular -- it includes a visit to a roof deck with a truly amazing view, and the back exit takes you through the ruins of the Roman Circus. When you get to the end of that, you can either turn right and head over to Plaça de la Font for a meal, or make a left and walk two blocks down to the amphitheater. We also took a detour from there down to the beach. We managed to do all of that in one (very busy!) day, including lunch at Degvsta and a very brief visit to the acqueduct on the way out of town... I think we could've easily spent two days there instead of one. I would've liked more time to see more of the sights in the park around the acqueduct. The acqueduct itself is really amazing -- it's incredible to see this structure that's lasted for literally milennia. You're allowed to just walk out across it, all the way to the other end of the valley if you want. (It was already getting towards sunset already when we were there, unfortunately, so we didn't take the time -- needed to get on the road to Valencia.)
Valencia: The Barcelo is nice in some ways -- pleasant staff, decent rooms. A few issues: Their parking is useless for any but the very smallest cars. Fortunately, there's a fair bit of unmetered street parking in the area, but still; I would not even count them as "having parking" unless you're going to be driving a subcompact. (You could get away with something bigger than a Smart ForTwo... but only barely. We certainly could not park the odious Peugeot there.) Their in-house restaurant is kind of terrible, and it's a bit of a walk to get to anyplace good (though I highly recommend going over to Café Infinito, which is maybe a 15-20 minute walk or a very short bus ride). The whole building is black, and not terribly well ventilated, which means that the sunny side gets really warm during the day unless you want to just leave your window open (and with winter weather it can be tricky getting the balance between too warm and too cold). The amount of stuff in the old town of Valencia is almost a bit overwhelming. We definitely could've spent an entire second day there. The tourist card is a great value in here -- makes many things free, and gets discounts on many more. I think the coolest thing we saw in there was the museum of the Almoïna, where you walk down below street level into some preserved excavations, and see how all the layers of history are literally piled up on each other, with pieces of Roman, Visigothic, Cailphate, and Gothic settlements all layerd onto the same site. The anthropological museum was also pretty neat, with artifacts from the pre-Roman Iberians, among other things. We also went up into both of the remaining pairs of gate towers along the old city walls, and in between stopped for an Agua de Valencia cocktail (kind of an alcoholic orange-ade, using the local Valencia oranges, which are superb, some local cava, and possibly some sort of orange liquer -- anyways, it's very tasty, and it's the city's signature drink, so if you tipple, you're sort of required to have one).
We had a quite nice dinner that evening at La Lola, which is apparently known well enough locally that when we mentioned it to our waiter at Infinito the next night he knew it. It's not cheap, but not super-expensive either, and it's nice for a romantic dinner. The chef (at least I think he was the chef) is a young, energetic, long-haired guy, probably around the same age as us, very hands on about greeting and serving customers, and speaks quite good English. When we were leaving lunch (at Creperie Breton Annaick, which was also quite good, and inexpensive) he attempted to invite us in; we demurred for obvious reasons, but ended up coming back later, b/c the place did sound good, and our Valencia card was good for a free drink. :-)
For the City of Arts and Sciences, I think the one day we allotted was probably enough; maybe you could do two days if you wanted to take things slower, and have a half-day to relax after all the walking around. (By the end of our visit there, Christa was starting to get a bit of travel burnout. Also, I kinda wish we'd spent more time either walking the river park, or visiting the art museum, or even just seeing a show at the Hemisferic, instead of visiting the science museum, which was OK, but not that much better than any other science center. A lot of exhibits were copies of San Francisco's Exploratorium, and acknowledged as such in the displays.) The Oceanografic is definitely a must-see, with its various underground chambers. Also, we never walked down to the marina district at all, so there's another day we easily could've spent... (I think maybe there's a maritime museum down there, with stuff about the history of seafaring? Sounded interesting...)
Heading south from Valencia, we went through the Parque de la Albufera, which was neat. We also drove by some cities that have amazing landscapes. Calp, in particular, has this amazing rock over it that reminded me a bit of pictures you see of Rio de Janeiro. I could've seen spending half a day in the park, and half getting up to the top of the rock in Calp and then staying overnight there, if we'd had infinite time...
Granada: I think the 2 to 2.5 days we were here was about right. The Reina Cristina was OK, but a bit antiquated. You had to call down to the desk to get your heat turned on. Also, the in-house café didn't look very good, and the actual restaurant looked so expensive we didn't try it. On the bright side, they did have cheap network access. The parking lot is a two block walk away, and requires staff to help you access it. Also, it's another place where things get very narrow and windy; parking the Peugeot was harrowing, though we ultimately did manage.
The night we got to town we finally did appropriate research and realized that we should buy tix in advance for Alhambra, so we got them for the latter day we were there. You can buy online then get the tix from any La Caixa ATM. The first day we walked up the mountain past the Alhambra, to go see a cemetery that's grand enough to be on an official EU registry / tour of scenic and historic cemeteries. There's also a lot of open parkland up there, and seemingly-abandoned olive groves. Very pretty. We also walked by some of the historic buildings in the old town, and had a nice meal at Cafe Botánico, near University Plaza. (There was also a little creperie right on that plaza, that we kind of stumbled into our first night after the first place we tried to go was overcrowded and the second was closed). The Alhambra itself was gorgeous, and soaked up the morning and early afternoon -- we made sure to get there on the early side of our window, since you have to pick only a half-day, for your ticket... We had lunch at an awesome little taginery where the owner, a former history student, spent a year re-creating the look and feel of an Andalucían palace. After that we visited the Royal Crypt and Cathedral (both spectacular, though they have stupid no-photo rules, which most people actually ignore, and I wish we'd started ignoring sooner, since we missed getting shots of the crypt), and walked up the hill to San Nicolas.
Cuenca: On the drive up, there was the minor adventure of the GPS becoming very confused because the road we were on had not existed when its data was loaded. Also, we saw ALL THE OLIVES IN SPAIN. I jest, but really, you'd come to the top of some ridgeline, and look around and see olives out to the horizon in every direction. There must have been millions of trees, maybe tens of millions.
Finally we got to Cuenca itself, which was gorgeous, if a bit small. I think our one day visit to the city was mostly sufficient. We saw the cathedral and the modern art museum in the hanging house, walked down through the ravine over to the Convent of Saint Paul and then back across the bridge, and then out to the highest point. I do wish we'd been there on a day when the restaurant in the other hanging house was open. If we'd stayed a second day, we could've hiked down the north side of the mountain, to the scenic path along the Júcar. The Posada San Jose was beautiful -- in some ways the most luxurious of the hotels we stayed in, certainly in terms of how spacious the room was and the quality of the view out the window. On the downside, there was no network, and although breakfast was nice, their restaurant wasn't even open for the winter. We ate dinner both nights at El Aljibe, the restaurant attached to the Hotel Convento del Giraldo, because they had free wi-fi for patrons, and the food was tasty and reasonably priced. (Though ordering there was a little tricky -- the local accent is kind of hard to understand.)
The latter day we were there, when we were planning to end the day in Guadalajara, we drove through El Parque Natural Serranía de Cuenca. I simply cannot emphasize enough that this is a place more people should see. The landscape is as unique as any of the great parks in the US, like the Grand Canyon, or Arches in Utah. Driving through, almost every curve brings you to some insanely beautiful vista point. You see vast cliffs in which the striations of the different layers of rock are distinctly visible, with stripes of all kinds of colors -- beige, and gold, but also the occasional greenish streak, and reds, some of which are so dark they're shading into purple. The river is gorgeous, and the lake / reservoir that's just east of Uña. We stopped for lunch at a place in Tragacete called El Gamo, where we had an absolutely superb meal. The owner spoke very little English, but was extremely friendly. We talked a bit about how difficult business is currently (especially with winter being bad for tourism, even though the park is still absolutely gorgeous then, and we were getting by fine with our US-east-coast-appropriate layers). I told him that I would mention his place to our friends, so here's the contact info from his card:
We didn't stay in a room there, but the restaurant part was very comfortable. We got a table right by the fire, which was nice, since it was a cold enough day that by the time we left the park in the evening it was snowing. If you're going through the area and you're remotely into hiking and nature, I highly recommend staying a day or two, to get a full visit to some of the various sights. We went through Ciudad Encantada and did the shortest part of the Nacimiento del Río Cuervo hike, just up to the Cascadas hillside, which with the cold weather was an amazing curtain of icicles. We didn't go the full 40-minute hike up to the springs. There also was apparently a nifty hike to the springs for the Júcar, with some cool waterfalls; I really wish we'd had an extra day, to see more of that stuff, as well as going back over to the area around Uña.
When we finally got to the Madrid area, the weather had turned so cold and snowy that we ended up giving up entirely on going out to Toledo and Segovia. (Segovia, in particular, was suffering a blizzard.) We spent one day just relaxing at our friends' house, and the rest of the days we went into Madrid, and saw various things -- the Royal Palace and Cathedral, various plazas, El Prado, the Royal Gardens and Parque del Retiro... We also visited the Cemetery of the Almudena, which was amazing. We also went up to the fashion district around Chueca, partly just to visit the New Rock Store -- we both have boots from them, and they're a Spanish brand. We also got Christa some new leather gloves b/c her old ones tore, and went to a goth club in that neighborhood, Club 666 at La Sala Wind on Plaza del Carmen, which was amusing; goth clubs in Spain turn out to be pretty similar to those in the US, including where we originally met. *g*
We didn't end up going to any really fancy meals in Madrid, though we did really enjoy Pui's Thai Tapas, which is in the same neighborhood as the Reina Sofia. They had a couple dishes I've never seen in the US. The Pad Bameen was particularly good. It's almost like a Thai version of Spaghetti Carbonara (which I'd seen in several tapas bars, and enjoyed thoroughly at Grill Room; apparently large swathes of Europe have adopted that dish with enthusiasm). The Bameen has some ground pork and vegetables with a bit of yellow curry, tossed over stir-fried noodles with a whole fried egg on top) -- and some really good cocktails. We also had some more traditional tapas at a place simply called La Tapería, on the Plaza Platería de Martínez, just off the Paseo del Prado, across the street from the Royal Gardens.
For getting into Madrid after we'd returned the rental car, one day we just went with our friends from Guadalajara (who were wonderful hosts in general -- their house is gorgeous, and they fed us very well the whole time we were there, and refused to let me pick up the tab for the meals we had when they came into town with us), and the other couple times we drove a borrowed car that was, shall we say, interesting. Since it was stick, Xta had to drive, and finally gained an appreciation for the difficulties I'd been having tracking everything going on around me when I was driving, for earlier parts of the trip. :-P
We ended up using three of our four rail pass days -- Madrid to Barcelona, Barcelona to Girona, and then we used them a final time going from Guadalajara to the airport. Oh well. I think we still got either most or all of the value on that, because just that first AVE trip, by itself, was a huge chunk of the value.
I think that about covers everything. :-)
Next time (probably at least ten years out, sigh), we want to get back to see the progress on Sagrada Familia, then visit the Euskal Herria, and San Sebastian and Bilbao -- there are no less than four of the World 50 up that way -- Mugaritz, Arzak, Martín Berasategui, and Asador Etxebarri -- as well as of course the Guggenheim Bilbao. Then maybe we could go back south and actually see Segovia and Toledo (and I could also add that I'm interested in getting to Salamanca and Zaragoza), then go down south for Seville, Cordova, Málaga, and Cadiz... And of course we still wouldn't have gotten to the northwesternmost area, with places like Gijón, and all of Galicia, which has its own dialect and culture (Gallego) like Catalunya... It turns out that Spain is kinda big.