The splendour of Toledo, once the capital of Spain.
The splendour of Toledo, once the capital of Spain. Photos Yvonne Gardiner

The thing about Spain that made me go back again

I WAS so impressed by the history, culture and art of Spain during a hectic but thoroughly enjoyable two-week coach tour that I decided to make another, longer visit less than two years later.

This second trip over 18 days was to be more leisurely, allowing extra time in each city or town and travelling independently by public rail and bus.

At our first accommodation stop in the old-style Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, the male receptionist modelled a rasta hairstyle and behind him on the wall was a life-size poster of Jimi Hendrix. Memories of England in the 1960s came flashing up.

Once on the streets at night, though, there was no doubt my travelling mate and I had landed in a Spanish city - sangria to swig, goat's cheese with eggplant to savour, and tasty tapas on the dinner menu followed by a flamenco guitar concert in the charming Basilica del Pi.

The next morning, more cultural splendour was offered as we toured the incomparable Sagrada Familia, a still unfinished contemporary church of immense proportions which stands as a sensational tribute to the work of exuberant architect Antoni Gaudi.

Gaudi worked for 43 years on this "temple" of extravagance before his death in 1926.

And it's still under construction - completion date has been re-estimated many times and now stands between 2026 and 2028.

The queues are usually around the block so booking online could save a very long wait to enter this miracle of modern architecture. Its jaw-dropping magnificence is a must-see when Barcelona is on the travel itinerary.

In Madrid, the feast of great European art continues with paintings by famed artists like Goya and Rubens shown with magnificent effect at the world-renowned Prado museum.

If anyone doubts that Spain was once a power to be reckoned with, then the Royal Palace - dripping with sumptuous chandeliers, tapestries and priceless furnishings - will dispel them. Best to allow a few hours to check out the 2800 rooms.

A short train trip from Madrid took us to the old capital of Spain, Toledo, renowned for the medieval Arab, Jewish and Christian monuments in its walled historic city, and as the former home of the artist El Greco.

Toledo's 13th century cathedral reflects the city's historical significance as the heart of Catholic Spain and it's one of the most extravagant cathedrals in the country.

Filled with glittering works of art, the cathedral is a treasure-trove. One centrepiece is the Custodia de Arfe, a 16th-century creation made up of 18kg of pure gold, 183kg of silver and 260 statuettes. Its big day out is the Feast of Corpus Christi, when it is paraded around Toledo's streets.

Step into the sacristy of the cathedral after that and be dazzled by a gallery of paintings by masters such as El Greco, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Velázquez.

Spaniards are blessed with an over-abundance of priceless art, stunning architecture, extraordinary landscapes, an easygoing lifestyle and ... lots of olives and oranges.

The distant past was a touch more turbulent.

In southern Spain, at Cordoba and Granada, the might and ingenuity of the North African Moorish invaders are revealed in colossal buildings like the Mezquita mosque, which was long ago transformed into a Catholic cathedral, and the unforgettable Alhambra palace. Watching the sun set on this magnificent complex is a sight long remembered.

La siesta

Perhaps one of Spain's best-known cultural facets is la siesta.

This daily ritual allows Spaniards time to relax and go for a long lunch. Originally started as a practical means of avoiding the blazing midday heat in summer, la siesta has remained a popular tradition.

These days, however, you won't find many business owners closing their doors for siesta in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, especially in areas attracting tourists.

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