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Spain’s allure

One of the more popular destinations in Europe, both Madrid and Barcelona are distinctive in what they have to offer for the roaming tourist. We survey two cities at the heart of Spain’s synergies and contradictions

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Personally, there has always been something a little more extraordinario when it comes to Spain. I can’t get enough of the delicious tapas, the language is beautiful, the music sounds more romantic, the movies more entertaining and of course the men more sexy and good-looking with their Mediterranean features. Needless to say, during my excursion to the country’s more popular destinations – Madrid and Barcelona – it was like paradise come true.

As different as night and day
The must-visit cities of Spain, it is interesting to note that while in the same borders, both Madrid and Barcelona are each a city with different identities. Where one is more colonial and traditional, another is a little on the off-beaten path, with cultures coming together to meet in one place. One gives you the gloomy feel during winter while the other days full of sunshine even though the temperature says otherwise.

Having said this, both cities are still one of the best places to visit if you are looking to immerse yourself into the Spanish culture and the way of living. Take Madrid for example. As the capital and largest city of Spain, Madrid is the most populous city after Paris and London in Europe. It is a city filled with history – old buildings and monuments scatter the city as great landmarks and beautiful landscapes.

More focused on the business and industrial sectors of the country, it is not difficult to mistake Madrid as more stoic and impersonal. As I walked down the central Madrid, I was surrounded by grey dark buildings on one side and cars jammed packed in the streets, horns blaring as the drivers become more impatient.

It gives you the feeling of being rushed, the need to be somewhere important and the emergency to do something useful. Perhaps it was a busy working day when I explored the city but I couldn’t help but feel stressed out like I needed to be walking just as fast to keep up with the pace of the Spaniards who all seemed to be off for important meetings.

When I asked my lunch partner why it was this way in Madrid, her answer was easy. “It’s the capital here,” she says between sips of red wine, which is a staple at all meals here. “Everyone’s got business to run during the day and parties to go to during the night. Madrid is a big playground for us. Just wished it wouldn’t be packed with cars or else it would make the running around so much easier for us.”

And she is definitely not kidding when she talks about bad traffic. Compared to countries like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, gridlock traffic in Madrid brings a complete new meaning of being stuck. I found myself fidgeting and on the brink of an anxiety attack after sitting in the cab for more than an hour moving ever so slowly. Maybe this is the reason why Victoria Beckham wanted to leave Madrid even faster than you can say !date prisa!

Bad traffic aside, Madrid is still an ideal city to visit for your taste of what the Spaniards can offer. As one of the older cities as well, it is filled with beautiful buildings reminiscing of its glory days. Enormous cathedrals and churches are plenty here, with other buildings are detailed with Medieval features. If you are into architecture, then make sure you don’t miss photo opportunities with popular buildings such as Palacio Real, a magnificent palace; Catedral de la Almudena, Palacio de las Telecomunicaciones, one of the world’s most beautiful postal office and more.

As one of the largest cultural and artistic spots in the world, it is no wonder too that Madrid is filled with museums for history and culture buffs. Madrid is home to many beautiful museums such as Museo del Prado with the best collection of classical art in Madrid and Reina Sofia National Museum and Art Centre, containing works by Pablo Picasso.

But if like me, all you want to do is just roam the streets for whatever surprises it may contain, then you are in for a treat at Madrid. Though more of a business capital, it is also shopping haven with popular Spanish brands dotting the streets such as Zara, H&M, Mango and designer wear such as Loewe. If shopping is not on your itinerary, then just roam into the many parks found here such as El Retiro and Paseo del Prado.

Modern in Barcelona
While Madrid is home to some of the largest businesses and industries, Barcelona is where you go to if all you want to do is relax, eat and enjoy yourself. Within a few hours here in Barcelona, I found myself wishing I were living permanently.

As if a country by its own, Barcelona is a breath of fresh air compared to the dreary Madrid. The people here converse more in the Catalan dialect, speaking Spanish only with foreigners (even those from other Spanish cities are considered foreigners!) Pebble-stoned streets paved the way for pedestrians to roam this Catalonian city. While in Madrid everyone hurries from one place to another, in Barcelona taking a slow stroll to enjoy what the city has to offer is a norm, a perfect activity for the lazy traveler like me.

In its many cafes and restaurants, take the time to enjoy the scenery that unfolds you in a typical Barcelona street. As a hub of culture, it is not unusual to see street performers trying to make a living, especially in Las Ramblas, a popular walkway with both the locals and tourists. One of the liveliest part of the city, it is filled with local artists, pavement cafes, street entertainers and one-of-its-kind boutiques bringing you the best that Barcelona has to offer.

If anything, the bright colours and beautiful streetscapes are enough to keep you enthralled in Barcelona. Visit the city during Christmas (like I did) and you will easily fall in love with it. Shops are filled with trinkets and decorative, both for Christmas and the traditional Three Kings Festival. What makes it even more heavenly is the food that I love so much and the ever-flowing consumption of wine that won’t break your budget to have a good time.

And of course, I was completely in awe with the Gaudi architecture that is popular here in Barcelona. A huge influence for many architects around the world, Gaudi’s creations are what bring many tourists to Barcelona aside from its influx of culture and nightlife. Unique and distinctive, you can always point out to a Gaudi creation among others – distinctive use of coloured tiles in mosaic patterns, curved construction stones and twisted iron sculptures. To be able to see it for my own eyes made the long journey to Barcelona worth every mile.

Even if you are not into Gaudi and culture, Barcelona will have something for everyone. A chilled and easy air seems to permeate the city- food’s great, the people friendly, and the city scene absolutely exciting. It is no wonder why a person I met here in Barcelona tells me it is the best city to live in.

As for me, it is the best of two cities – Madrid and Barcelona – that makes Spain the destination of choice.

© Siew Ching Chua / PLANET SYNDICATION

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