I've been there before...
Spain depends on tourism. The authorities know that visitors are looking for a bit extra when they go away on holiday – and that there is plenty to choose from in other countries. So no matter how many times you have been to Spain, you will still find something to excite or entertain you. A good example of this is in the ancient Andalucian city of Cordoba: one corner of the miraculous urban triangle of southern Spain along with Seville and Granada.
Cordoba is a city with a profound Islamic heritage, and which, a millennium ago, was the cultural and academic hub of Europe, thanks to the Omeyas from Damascus in Syria who ran the place for about three centuries. The heart of the city is the Mezquita (00 34 957 470 512; mezquitadecordoba.org ), a mosque that had a 16th-century cathedral created in its midsts after the Christians reconquered Spain. And this is also the location for a new son et lumiere. Details are still being discussed, but it is likely that this will begin in the late spring. Currently, the Mezquita is open 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday, later as summer approaches; 9am-10.15am and 2-7pm on Sundays. Admission is €8. Cordoba is one of the relatively rare great Spanish cities with no direct air links from the UK, and therefore you can choose from a flight to Madrid followed by a high-speed train link, taking about one hour 45 minutes, or a flight to Seville or Málaga and making your way by road or rail from there
An inspirational year?
The Galician cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela will be an attractive destination in 2010. This is a Jacobean, or "holy year" – so designated because St James's Day, 25 July, falls on a Sunday. The beginning of the Holy Year was marked by the opening, on New Year's Eve, of the Puerta del Perdón, a door on the east side of Santiago's cathedral; it will be closed again on 31 December.
For centuries, pilgrims have flocked to the city, often walking hundreds of miles along the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, to get to the place that claims the saint's relics. A larger number of pilgrims than usual are expected to undertake the walk during this year, and better signposting and improved facilities are being provided to accommodate them. For anyone who wants to walk part of the Camino, Discovery Travel (01904 632226; discoverytravel.co.uk ) is offering a one-week, self-guided walking holiday along part of the route from the coastal town of Ribadesella to the cathedral city of Oviedo for £645; a coach transfer to Santiago de Compostela is arranged at the end of the trip.
The "Jacobeo" is also being celebrated through a cultural programme, whose events will take place in a number of Galician cities, including La Coruña, Lugo, Vigo and others. Full details of the programme will be announced in due course (00 34 981 544 806; culturaeturismo.xunta.es ), but it will consist of contemporary and historical exhibitions, musical events and a festival to promote the gastronomy of the region. Among the performers already announced are Cirque du Soleil and Mark Knopfler, formerly of Dire Straits.
Any other spiritual celebrations?
The Holy Year is also being marked at another significant, though lesser-known, site: Caravaca de la Cruz in the region of Murcia. This attractive small town may not be on every traveller's itinerary, but it has an important religious significance. A double-armed cross is believed to have appeared miraculously in the 13th-century, 12 years before the Christian army won the place back from the Moors. Known as the True Cross, it is housed in a sanctuary within the castle, and is on view after Mass and regularly throughout each day.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II decreed that the town could celebrate Holy Year every seven years, 2010 being one of them. As Caravaca is regarded by Catholics as one of the five most important cities in religious terms, many visitors are expected. Holy Year began last Sunday and will continue until the first week of January next year. A particularly good time to go is spring, when, holy year or not, festivities to celebrate the Holy Cross take place annually from 1-5 May. Participation in these festivities will be included in a trip to Caravaca organised by Pax Travel (020-7485 3003; paxtravel.co.uk ), which is offering a five-night visit, departing on 30 April. The trip costs £599 and includes flights, and accommodation with dinner and breakfast.
Expect dazzling exhibitions, especially in the capital. One of Madrid's lesser-known galleries is the Fundació *Mapfre at Paseo de Recoletos 23 (00 34 91 581 6100; mapfre.com/fundacion/es ; free), which until 22 April is showing an exhibition of 90 Impressionist paintings on loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, focusing on the inspiration that the Impressionists took from Spanish art. The exhibition opens 10am-8pm Tuesday to Saturday; from 2pm on Mondays, from noon on Sundays.
At the Prado in Madrid (Calle Ruiz de Alarcó*23; 00 34 91 330 2800; museodelprado.es ), The Art of Power: Arms, Armour and Paintings from the Spanish Court will present objects from the Royal Armoury in Madrid, alongside paintings which illustrate how these were used in Spain from the Renaissance onwards (8 March to 23 May). If you don't make it to London's Tate Modern before the end of this month to see Turner and the Masters, catch that exhibition at the Prado (22 June-19 September). It includes several works that weren't shown in London. The Prado opens 9am-8pm daily except Monday; €8.
Many visitors to Bilbao go to the Guggenheim Museum (10am-8pm daily except Monday, daily in July and August, €11) to look at Frank Gehry's striking building. On display inside it until 14 February is the work of another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Future temporary exhibitions this year will cover the work of Anish Kapoor and Henri Rousseau.
Valencia's space-age City of Arts and Sciences ( cac.es ) has an exhibition (to 24 February - celebrating Galileo's first telescope observations – and the discovery, 400 years ago this month, of Jupiter's satellites.
Out and about?
Keen cyclists can challenge themselves by pedalling around the island of Lanzarote. This recently completed route is a 205km cycle track aimed – given the terrain – at mountain bikers, and is divided into six sections. The longest of these is 46km in length, and the most demanding stretch is between the whitewashed village of Arrieta, around the northern tip of the island to Ye, a sleepy village slightly inland. Most of the route sticks close to the coast, turning inland to negotiate the Timanfaya National Park. Full details of each route are available at lanzaroteapedales.com, including a rather daunting gradient profile V C showing just how steep some of the hills can be. Details of where mountain bikes can be hired will be added to the website soon.
A new foundation, Handisport, has been set up in Majorca to help visitors with disabilities to the island. Sports, including riding, sailing and water skiing, can be arranged; group sizes vary according to sport. Handisport is based on Calle Mino in Magaluf (00 34 971 132 268; handisportmallorca.org ).
If watching is more important than taking part, Valencia is the place to be this year. The America's Cup ( americascup.com/es ) will take place there 8-10 February, continuing until 12 February as the competition demands. And then from 25-27 June, the European Grand Prix will be raced on a 5.5km street circuit around the port area. This is the third time the Grand Prix will be held in the city, and is part of a seven-year deal with Formula One. Tickets will be available from 020-3027 5063; formula1.com. Ryanair has new services from Bournemouth and Bristol to Valencia.
A plane to Spain?
Many airlines have cut back on capacity to Spain, but the range of routes is expanding, particularly to the Canary Islands: easyJet ( easyJet.com ) is now operating flights to Fuerteventura from Stansted and Liverpool, as well as flights from Liverpool to Lanzarote. Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) will be flying to Gran Canaria from Manchester and Newcastle, and to Tenerife from Belfast. Starting in April, Ryanair ( ryanair.com ) will fly to Fuerteventura from Bournemouth, Liverpool and Prestwick. New routes to mainland destinations include Jet2's flights from Manchester to Reus, conveniently placed for the Mediterranean coast and within striking distance of Barcelona. Ryanair will start flying from Bournemouth to Ibiza and from Bristol to Palma this summer.
Anywhere new to stay?
The Casas y Palacios group is a small collection of properties located in historic buildings, and includes the already popular Casas de la Juderia at Callejon Dos Hermanas 7, in Seville. A sister property of the same name opened in Cordoba, at Calle Tomas Conde 10 (00 34 957 202 095; casasypalacios.com ) in December. Rooms are available from €150.
In the province of Cordoba, but west of the city itself in the small town of Hornachuelos, the same company is converting the Palacio de Moratalla, once the residence of the Dukes of Segorbe, into a luxury 19-room hotel which is scheduled to open in the spring. Designed in a more contemporary boutique style is the Grand Hotel Salome ( iberostar.com ), which opened in November. Located on the Costa Adeje in south-west Tenerife, it is a resort aimed at adults; facilities include individual butler service, as well as regular yoga and aqua aerobics classes. Suites are available from €442.90.
In the Valencia region, a scenic area of hills and valleys, inland from the Mediterranean and unspoilt by modern tourism, the regional authorities have produced a new accommodation brochure, Temps, which groups together a selection of rural accommodation, from country cottages to B&Bs and small hotels. It is attractively presented, with photos, an average price guide, and brief details of local amenities. The brochure is available through the regional website, comunitatvalenciana.com.
Málaga A hidden gem?
You might imagine that the Andalucian city of Málaga could never qualify for such a description, since it is the destination for the busiest air route: Gatwick to Málaga. Yet many people bypass it, dismissing this attractive city either as a gateway to the other attractions of Andalucia or as little more than a beach destination.
While it is both of these, it has plenty of attractions of its own – the newest of which, Art Natura (00 34 952 33 77 00; art-natura.es ), will open towards the end of the year. Housed in an old tobacco factory close to the waterfront on Avenida Sor Teresa Prat, the complex will consist of three main areas. The Royal Collections will house the world's largest collection of gemstones, as well as a display of sculptures, tapestries and other works of art studded with gems; among the artists whose work will be on display will be Picasso, Dali and Antoni Gaudí.
The Life Sciences section will explore the origins of life and will include a Garden of Eden exhibit; and in the Earth Sciences area, audio-visual displays will examine the Big Bang. Art Natura is intended as a family-based attraction; admission fees will be announced in due course. Málaga is easily accessible by air from some 18 airports in the UK, and last year, a new high-speed AVE train was introduced, linking Málaga to the Spanish capital in two and a half hours.
Accommodation in the city is plentiful. A shortage of capacity at the upper end of the market will be addressed in April, when the city's first five-star hotel, the Posada del Patio (00 34 914 902 650; vinccihoteles.com ), is set to open. It is in the heart of the city on the Pasillo Santa Isabel, which runs alongside the Guadalmedina river. Rooms will be available from €117.30.
Fine Dining: Restaurants with bite
Spain is an increasingly attractive destination for visitors for whom being able to find a decent meal is all part of the holiday experience. The country now has seven restaurants with three Michelin stars; in the 2010 list, the award was bestowed on El Celler de Can Roca in Girona (Can Sunyer 48; 00 34 972 22 21 57; cellercanroca.com ), pictured, and its chef Joan Roca. Set menus here start at €90. In the same list, Casa Marcial, at La Salgar, in the idyllic countryside at Arriondas (00 34 985 840 991; casamarcial.com ) became the only restaurant in the Asturias region to be given two-star status. Its chef, Nacho Manzano, is renowned for his innovative cooking, which mixes traditional recipes with a more contemporary style. Here, the tasting menu is available for €65.
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