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After visiting Edinburgh I headed south. I’ve always enjoyed visiting London and the United Kingdom, but I looked forward to exploring a non-English speaking territory blessed by warm weather and outstanding gastronomy. Thus, I headed to Spain with no solid plan. I’m generally a 50% plan/50% discovery style of traveler. I only knew that I had to see Madrid, the capital of Spain and Barcelona. I allotted myself three weeks in August. Most people, at least in the United States of America rave about Barcelona as the “must-see” city of Spain. I ended up charting a course that commenced in Madrid, continued to Barcelona, onward to Valencia and back to Madrid.  The three biggest markets or cities in Spain also happen to be Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

I believe Spain has a complex past and in academia I’ve always thought that the study of its history has often been dismissed in favor of more popular Western European countries such as France, Germany and of course England. Perhaps there is an academic elitism and snobbery that persists today. After all, who hasn’t heard of Spain’s economic troubles, bailouts and the acronym of PIGS (Portugal Italy Greece Spain) widely used in Eurozone discourse? Nonetheless, I think Spain is a special place with plenty to offer and after visiting the “Big Three” cities I can understand how this country’s history has evolved to be quite complex. As an outsider and a first time visitor, I did feel strong regional identities and differences. Similar to the United States of America where most moderately educated folks probably wouldn’t describe a Californian, a Texan and a New Yorker as “all the same” you probably would not follow suit with a Madrileño, a Barcelonés or a Valencian, either.

I did choose to return to Madrid during my entire visit to Spain since this city resonated with me the most; the feel was elegant, classic and traditional. For global appeal, Madrid is probably most famous for its world-class art collections at the El Prado Museum (or the Museo Nacional del Prado), the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (or the El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza ) and the Reina Sofia Museum (or the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía). These three world-class art museums are collectively known as the Golden Triangle of Art located on the Paseo del Arte. I had a fantastic experience visiting all three of these venues.

I also thought Madrid was quite cosmopolitan although some may argue that Barcelona offers that appeal. I can understand why Barcelona is more commonly favored – it has the beaches and the Mediterranean flavor plus the Gaudi-esque flamboyance. But at the end of the day it comes to personal choice, right? And for me, coastal proximity isn’t important since laying out on the beach as a lifestyle doesn’t sound like a terribly exciting incentive for me. The extraordinary art collections, the sophisticated classicism and the sensual elegance of Madrid moved me. Don’t get me wrong as I do enjoy the occasional beach holiday and appreciate Mr. Gaudi, but I prefer elegant and vibrant City life. Plus, Madrid is a terrific strategic hub for travel within and outside the country with high-speed options per the AVE network.

I start my pictorial review with Madrid. Three highly recommended places to experience: the El Prado Museum or the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Royal Palace or the Palacio Real de Madrid (I was blown away by the opulence of the royal dog armor! Seriously.) and Retiro Park or Parque del Retiro.

MADRID: Outside the El Prado museum. I spent the whole day there and that was not enough! Here I am channeling one of the great Spanish Masters, Diego Velázquez. His work “Las Meninas” is widely accclaimed and not to be missed at the El Prado.

MADRID: Cibeles Plaza or Plaza de Cibeles near Retiro Park.

MADRID: Fronting the main entrance to Retiro Park.

MADRID: Floating on the water at Retiro Park.

MADRID: Part of the Endless Water Feature Tour (in Retiro Park).

MADRID: Grounds at the Royal Palace of Madrid.

MADRID: Just another fine summer day walking the pooches outside the Royal Palace.

MADRID: Inside the Royal Palace grounds. Cultural enrichment day for the kids.

MADRID: The Royal Palace (complete with Water Feature). No photos inside. My impression in words: THE SUPERLATIVE of Opulence, Elegance and Power. The refined artistry of the decor, appointments and detail was unbelievable. I have also seen “royal armor” of former world powers in other European countries but none compare to the elegance of protective gear of the Spanish Royal Collection. No fine detail was spared even with horse and dog armor either. Seriously.

MADRID: In addition to the amazing gastronomy, the nightlife isn’t bad either in Spain’s capital. Madrid has many eclectic and interesting neighborhoods to explore day or night. The barrio La Latina is just one example. Cava Baja is only one street with many cool restaurants and bars in La Latina.

MADRID: The elegance of the Spanish people, both men and women was especially felt in Madrid. This is a display at a boutique on the Gran Vía which caught my eye. Spanish women are heavily adorned with accessories! I liked the fact that the people were casually chic in the summer – dressed nicely without being stuffy or overly concerned. Casual chic and not casual sloppy!

MADRID: Blend of art and architecture.

MADRID: I appreciated how these shopping streets/arteries emptied into an attractive plaza area for possible people watching.

In summary, I adore Madrid because of the aesthetics and the cultural offerings. The architecture, the museums, the beautiful fountains, the vibrant nature of the tapas culture and the elegantly stylish people are just some of the elements that contribute to the attractive features of this cosmopolitan European capital.

Next pictorial stop: Barcelona and Valencia. Barcelona felt flamboyant and very Mediterranean to me. Valencia felt quieter than Madrid and Barcelona. Valencia is a quaint city which is famous for its paella and its City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y Las Ciencias or Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències). Valencia is also known as the destination for most Madrileños when they want a beach holiday.

BARCELONA: Barceloneta, the city beach.

BARCELONA: La Sagrada Familia, a Gaudi masterpiece.

BARCELONA: The Endless Water Feature tour continues in Spain.

BARCELONA: Park Güell and decorative benches. Another Gaudi masterpiece.

BARCELONA: A view of the city, the sea and La Sagrada Familia (with the cranes) from  Park Güell.

On to deliciousness in Valencia – my first meal there!

VALENCIA: Outstanding paella. If you’re in Valencia this is THE destination for an authentic version of this fancy rice dish.

VALENCIA: More beautiful displays of water.

VALENCIA: Jamon! Jamon! Jamon!

VALENCIA: The City of Arts and Sciences.

VALENCIA: Shallow and Wide Water Feature at the City of Arts and Sciences.

VALENCIA: Bull Ring on left, a train station to the right.

Barcelona and Valencia have their own flavor. In addition to Madrid, I think all three cities in Spain should be experienced but depending on your interests, your personality, the chapter in your life….you will be drawn to either or, accordingly. Of course, this incredible country is not limited to the Big Three. Next on my short list include Granada/Sevilla for the amazing Alhambra and San Sebastian/Bilbao up North. And of course there are many, many more cites and small towns to visit in this planetary wonder!