SPAIN / ANDALUSIA – CATALONIA – MADRID & CENTRAL SPAIN
With an undeniably rich history and expansive cultural legacy, Spain unsurprisingly holds more UNESCO World Heritage designations than almost any other nation on Earth. A Mediterranean crossroads between Africa and Europe, the diverse influences within Spain span the millennia and tell an integral story of humanity. The country’s UNESCO World Heritage designations offer an essential roundup of the most important natural, historical and cultural sites in Spain, the explorations of which could last a lifetime, while the memories of even brief encounters surely will.
From prehistoric cave art and indigenous civilizations to Roman remains, through time across Moorish, Christian and Jewish legacies and on to modernist architectural wonders, Spain’s World Heritage sites comprise a collective treasure of humankind. A self-guided experiential travel itinerary hoping to even scratch the surface would be daunting at best and quite likely a missed opportunity. The well-connected, expert travel planners at Caramel Trail ensure that all travellers get the most out of these rich cultural explorations. The opportunities for transformational travel are many.
GAUDÍ AND THE INCOMPARABLE ARCHITECTURE OF BARCELONA
Such is the impact of the works of Antoni Gaudí that his architectural imprint has garnered no fewer than seven distinct World Heritage designations, some private, like Casa Milà, some public like Park Güell, but all iconic and unique. Each is unmistakably the creation of the same master. The crypt of the church at the Colonia Güell was something of an experiment in social engineering as a precursor to Gaudí’s most famous work, the church of La Sagrada Familia. Though only the crypt and the “façade of the nativity” there are UNESCO recognized, this is no small feat considering that construction on the church is still not complete. Gaudí died in 1926 with only 25% of the structure built; however, his inspired and innovative approach all but assured the inclusion of his most ambitious work into the cannon of architectural wonders. It is a phenomenon that must be witnessed in person before a final opinion can be formed, though none can deny the genius behind the work.
While the works of Gaudí remain one of the primary attractions in Barcelona, he is not the only architect with UNESCO designations in the city. His contemporary, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, also was recognized for two masterful works of a similar Art Nouveau style, making Barcelona a truly essential destination for any aficionado of architecture and the modernist movement.
In this historic and culturally rich country, it’s natural to expect World Heritage sites within the capital region, the community of Madrid, and so it is. Yet the true treasure in the central plateau lies in the former capital of Spain, the city of Toledo.
The entirety of Toledo earned World Heritage status for its cultural and historical importance, as evidenced in the innumerable monuments throughout the city. Historical references date back at least to the second century BC, and a walk through this beguiling city feels like nothing short of a stroll through the centuries in an open-air museum. The remnants of Roman founders and later rulers are all visible in the structures, monuments and streets of Toledo, with a seemingly palpable historic import.
At the same time that King Phillip II moved the capital away from Toledo, less than a century after the Christian Kings established supremacy in Spain, work began on San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Within 50km of Madrid, it began as a monastery and developed into a sprawling complex to also act as royal palace and residence of the King of Spain. Developed with the Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo, who had worked on no less an ambitious project than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it was built as a monument to Spanish significance within the Christian world. It’s not hard to imagine the opulence and imposing religious architecture contained within, but must be seen.
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
While the entire Iberian Peninsula is peppered with some of the most intriguing cultural and historical sites found anywhere, the true UNESCO gems lie in Spain’s sunny, southernmost region. The lavish history of Andalusia reflects the history of its three most influential cultures and defining religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This vast region has some of the oldest cities in Europe, established in excess of 3,000 years ago. Fortunately, Andalusia’s three cultures and many of the essential World Heritage sites can best be explored in and around just three of its capital cities: Granada, Cordoba and Seville.
The Islamic Moors ruled the region of Al-Andaluz from around the 8th century BC, while most of the European continent languished in the dark ages. Their rule endured the medieval period and the capitals in Cordoba and Granada represented the height of civilization, as the Three Cultures lived in relative harmony. Though many cultural sites were lost during the disunity of the long wars of the Christian conquest, the enduring legacies of all three cultures remain and can be explored with even a brief tour of Andalusia.
In Seville, the 15th century cathedral is one of the most impressive in all of Spain and the largest Gothic church in the world, third largest by any measure, built to demonstrate the city’s wealth and grandeur. The cathedral claims the final resting place of both Ferdinand III and Christopher Columbus. The adjacent royal palace, the Alcazar, has an even more illustrious history having been developed earlier by the Moorish caliphs and renowned as one of the most beautiful palaces in Spain. It is today the oldest royal palace in Europe still in official use by a ruling monarchy. A third UNESCO listed site within this central complex is the Archivo de Indias, housing the greatest collection of documents relating to the discovery of the New World and subsequent relations, a testament to the city’s virtual monopoly on trade there for some 200 years.
The most famous site in Cordoba is the Mezquita, the so called Mosque-Cathedral for obvious reasons once you’ve seen it. The sheer size of the original mosque was audacious, but the most unique and incongruent feature of the modern structure arises from changes made by the Christian rulers later. They preserved the mosque with its forest of columns and arches supporting a roof of unimaginable height for the time, yet the conquerors then built a Christian cathedral within. The World Heritage designation for the Mezquita has been expanded to include the entire old center of Cordoba with, most notably, the famous Jewish Quarter and its numerous historic synagogues.
For historical purists, the Medina Azahara, on the city’s outskirts, presents an even more interesting visit. Built in the 10th century as a city settlement and residence of the first Cordoban caliph, the complex housed the civil and military administration of the state. It included a palace designed to glorify the caliph, who declared himself Mohammed’s successor and supreme Islamic leader. What makes the site most impressive today is that neither its structure nor decoration has been altered with later modifications. It stands as an archeological site allowing pure, accurate historical inspection.
The Alhambra palace and Generalife Gardens in Granada comprise one of the most popular and well known UNESCO sites in all of Spain, indeed, one of the most visited tourist sites in the world and oft considered the finest jewel in the crown of the early Moorish civilization. Reconstructed on the ruins of an even earlier fortress, the Alhambra complex served as the residence of the Moorish emirs and an international center of learning upon completion in the mid-thirteenth century. It stands today as one of the best preserved examples of ancient Arabic architecture. The adjacent old Arabic neighborhood, the Albaycin, is a walk back in time with meandering, mazelike cobbled streets, teahouses and artisanal shops.
As in Cordoba after the defeat of the Islamic Moors, the Christian rulers instituted some structural changes in a Renaissance style, and the Alhambra became the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella, but the Alhambra remains undeniably Moorish. The Generalife Gardens within the Alhambra complex highlight the ingenious methods of irrigation, sanitation and geometric architectural design that marked the height of civilization in that era. The beauty of the gardens and surrounding architecture are today a challenging reminder of the advance of civilization when unhindered by war and cultural strife.
Beyond these unparalleled historical sites, Spain holds many “intangible cultural heritage” designations from UNESCO, such as for the Flamenco art form and the Mediterranean diet. Whatever the interest, Caramel Trail can explore, experience and share the deepest and most intriguing aspects of Spanish history and culture with every enthusiast.