Photo Of The Day: Alhambra’s Palacio De Carlos V

Capturing a stunning combination of architecture and weather, Flickr user Mike Rowe took this black and white photo at the palace of Charles V, contained within the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain.

Commissioned as a royal residence close to the Alhambra palace, the 16th-century building is a square, two-level structure done in the Renaissance style. It’s also home to two museums: the Museo de la Alhambra and the Museo de Bellas Artes. With this photo perspective, you certainly get a feel for the grandiose scope the building.

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The beauty of Spain

Spain is a traveler’s paradise. Modern pilgrims traverse the Camino de Santiago by foot in the north. In the west, kite boarders and wind surfers harness gusts of the Atlantic off of golden beaches. The east is home to the cosmopolitan Mediterranean ports of Barcelona and Alicante. The South holds the Alhambra, one of the finest fortifications in Europe. In every direction, character and beauty lurks, either just beyond a rolling hill or in the storied hallways of a Moorish castle.

Central Spain also hosts a variety of splendor. This video touches on the regional delights with epic time-lapse shots of various castles, cities, and rolling landscapes. It will have you dreaming of Spain on this Sunday afternoon.

Spain from Ben on Vimeo.

The ten best castles in Europe

Castles originated in Europe over a thousand years ago. These fortresses were one of the original defense systems, and erecting the structures on hills or just beyond moats was a functional choice. Castles were built to house rulers, impose power, and above all, spurn would be attackers. Conforming to these basic principles of utilitarian design, the strongholds now appear solitary, majestic, and frozen in time. The attackers are long gone, and now a steady stream of camera clutching invaders breach the castles daily, ready to inspect the epic grandeur of the past.

While Europe has hundreds of excellent castles, these ten all have design, character, and history that sets them apart. Some occupy the center of bustling cities, while others lurk in forgotten countrysides. Spanning eight countries across Europe, each of these castles has a story to tell.

Prague Castle (above)
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Nearest airport: Prague Airport
Year originally built: 870
Inhabitants: Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of the Czech Republic
Interesting fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague castle is the largest castle complex in the world.

Bran “Dracula’s” Castle
Location: Bran, Romania
Nearest airport: Henri Coandă International Airport in Otopeni, Romania near Bucharest
Year originally built: 1212
Inhabitants: Teutonic Knights, Mircea the Elder, Vlad III, and Romanian royalty
Interesting fact: In 2007, the castle was put up for sale for $78 million. It has since been taken off the market.

Location: Schwangau, Germany
Nearest airport: Munich International Airport
Year originally built: construction began in 1869
Inhabitants: King Ludwig II
Interesting fact: This castle has been visited by over 60 million people and is the template for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.

Leeds Castle
Location: Maidstone, Kent, England
Nearest airport: Kent International Airport
Year originally built: 1119
Inhabitants: King Edward I, Henry VIII, and other notable British royalty
Interesting fact: Leeds Castle hosts a large garden maze and a dog collar museum.

Windsor Castle
Windsor, Berkshire, England
Nearest airport: Heathrow Airport
Year originally built: 11th century
Inhabitants: William the Conqueror, Henry I, Edward III, and many other British rulers
Interesting fact: Windsor Castle is the longest-occupied palace in Europe.

Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Nearest airport: Rennes Britanny Airport
Year originally built: 10th century, though the earliest abbeys in the fort date to the 6th century
Inhabitants: Currently 41 people call the Mont Saint-Michel home, and the structure has been home to monks to over a thousand years.
Interesting fact: The tides around Mont Saint-Michel vary by almost 50 feet, and many people have drowned approaching across the sands.

Château de Chambord
Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France
Nearest airport: Paris Charles de Gaulle
Year originally built: 1526
Inhabitants: King François I, Louis XIV, and the Ducal family
Interesting fact: Though the original designer of the châteaux is widely disputed, some insist it was Leonardo Da Vinci.


South of Salzburg, Austria
Nearest airport: Salzburg Airport
Year originally built: 1078
Inhabitants: Salzburg rulers and prisoners
Interesting fact: The misty castle served as a prison for hundreds of years.

Buda Castle
Budapest, Hungary
Nearest airport: Budapest Airport
Year originally built: 1265
Inhabitants: Hungarian Kings
Interesting fact: You can visit a portion of the 6 mile subterranean labyrinth under Buda Castle.

The Alhambra
Granada, Spain
Nearest airport: Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport
Year originally built: 14th century
Inhabitants: Muslim Emirs from the Nasrid Dynasty and Charles V
Interesting fact: It was in the Alhambra’s Hall of Ambassadors that Columbus made his pitch to sail to the orient by heading west from Spain.

Travel diary: How I found acceptance in a Spanish hospital

Avid travelers wear the title of “wanderer” like a badge of honor.

I know I do – I never completely related to my peers in my small Nebraska hometown. My brain was always dreaming, always scheming for ways to create the life I wanted – and that didn’t include Nebraska.

I fell in love with Spain as a teen – the architecture and culture drew me in with its passionate allure and never let go. It seemed only natural that I’d spend a semester studying there.

I sent for my student visa, packed my bags and traveled to the Alhambra-lined horizon of Granada, Spain, in early 2004.

“You’re living with Senora Cordon,” the director told me as we arrived one rainy January night. My host mother — a plump Spanish woman with perfectly-coifed blond hair and dozens of leopard-print scarves – was genuinely interested in my well-being. So far, so good.

My elation soon turned into a routine of class, class and more class. The school, an offshoot of the Universidad de Granada, was filled with American students — not exactly the multicultural experience I envisioned.

[Photo: Flickr/*CezCze* (off-line)]
I started to feel isolated — I wasn’t connecting with fellow students, a problem I chalked up to being shy. Many of my classmates partied nightly; I opted for shopping at El Corte Ingles.

I was unhappy – sad that my experience wasn’t turning into the supreme adventure I envisioned, sad that I was wasting the opportunity.

Sad until I woke up one morning with a decision: I had to make the most of my time in Spain and find a way to connect with the country. I soon happened on a volunteer opportunity with Hospital Materno Infantil Virgen de las Nieves, a dusty and run-down hospital perched high above Granada.

The hospital treated children with cancer and it was our job to entertain them. Each Tuesday I made the 30-minute walk and took the elevator up several floors until I was greeted by young laughter. Language barriers kept us from fluently communicating, but tea sets and toy trucks had a way of bridging the gap.

The young faces were familiar each week – until my final visit. A new boy, tiny and timid, stood out.

I felt an immediate connection to him and we spent much of the hour-long session coloring. Afterward, I walked into the hallway as he followed. His parents were in the hallway and I immediately recognized them as Gitanos, or Gypsies with Romani ancestry. Gitanos are generally not well liked, thanks to their lingering reputation as pickpockets – so that explained some of his playroom apprehension.

He walked over and whispered something to his parents and they looked at me with wide-eyes and shy smiles. I returned the smile and their appreciation.

Walking home that night I realized something: We’re all searching for acceptance, no matter what language we speak or customs we follow. I found acceptance from that small family.

Do I feel completely accepted now?

No, but that’s why I travel: I end up finding a piece of myself in each place I visit.

Costa del Sol – 3 days in Spain

The Costa del Sol lazily stretches out along the southern Mediterranean coast of Spain. Not really committing to the industrious ambitions of Barcelona or Madrid, the coast is a land of perpetual siesta, where work orders are responded to with a simple “manana,” and beaches gradually disappear into salty azure waters. It is the kind of place that convertibles were invented for.

To tackle it in 3 days would be a shame, but better than having not visited at all. To really cover the ground necessary along the Costa del Sol, an automobile is necessary. Luckily, car rentals in Spain are very affordable, as cheap as 15 Euros per day. Inexpensive flights also abound from all over Europe on Easyjet and Ryanair. It is possible to fly to Malaga for under 20 U.S. dollars from Barcelona round-trip. Once you have arrived along this golden coast of white villages and luxurious beaches, there is much to do and see. Read on…

Day 1 – Check out Malaga

If you are arriving by plane or train, then your adventure will likely begin in Malaga – birthplace of Picasso and one of the oldest cities in Europe. Start with a climb up to the Moorish castle of Castillo de Gibralfaro for a history lesson and a stunning view out across Malaga and the Mediterranean. It is tough to miss the attraction as it looms high over the city. If it is bullfighting season (Spring-Autumn, with August being the busiest month in Malaga), then check out a fight at the nearby Plaza La Malagueta after your climb.

Dropping by Picasso’s childhood home in the Plaza de la Merced is another top attraction and rewards the visitor with childhood paintings by the master himself. A day in Malaga is not complete without feasting upon a table of tapas. The undisputed top spot for tapas in Malaga is Tapeo de Cervantes. Be sure to get there early, and follow it with a Flamenco show if you have the energy at Kelipe Centro de Arte Flamenco. They have shows on Friday and Saturday nights at 9pm, but be sure to reserve in advance by email. If on a serious budget, then check out Melting Pot Hostel for a room. For a proper hotel, I prefer the modern, bright, and charming Petit Palace Plaza, which is also quite a bargain.

Day 2 – The Alhambra and Nerja

For the best Islamic architecture in the world, it is not necessary to travel to the middle east or northern Africa. The Alhambra is an ideal and is located in Granada, Spain. Wake up early and head east from Malaga on Spain’s excellent highway system. The Alhambra rests in the hills overlooking old Granada, and is the type of scene that reminds you why you travel. Take your time with the Alhambra. It is a spellbinding palace awash in the stories of Moorish times. When you are done wandering its storied halls, head down to Nerja, known as the balcony of Europe. Take in the beach, check out the lazy white washed town, or even explore the nearby cave system. Spain is filled with little towns that are extremely difficult to leave. Nerja is such a place. Stay the night at the Puerta del Mar, and feast on fresh seafood at Calabaza.

Day 3 – Gibraltar

It is a long drive to Gibraltar, but if you have the energy, and are not hypnotized into lounging around Nerja for the remainder of your days, then start heading west towards The Rock. Gibraltar has a strange and colorful history as the northern pillar of Hercules. Once thought to be the marker for the end of the western world, it has been a battleground, a British enclave, and even the last refuge for the Neanderthals. To reach Gibraltar, you must drive to La Linea de la Concepcion, park, and walk across the Gibraltar Airport runway. This is an interesting passage as any, especially if you must contend with a commercial plane descending on the narrow strip of cement. The island has a decidedly British feel, and is filled with pubs and schoolchildren in British academy uniforms. While Spain has repeatedly requested the return of Gibraltar from the United Kingdom, the Brits do not intend to part with the territory. It has become a small tropical Britain at the southern tip of Spain.

The real attraction is the Rock of Gibraltar, which has repeatedly served as a natural fortress throughout history. Its storied past of battles is written with holes for cannons and caves that served as barracks. Everyone from the Phoenicians to the Moors to the Brits have used this rock as a strategic stronghold at the end of the world. The Rock is also home to the only wild monkeys in continental Europe – Barnaby Macaques. They occupy the upper rock, and have separated into many rival gangs that compete for resources. They are cheeky creatures, and are well known for snatching ice cream cones from unsuspecting rubes for an easy snack. One can either climb the rock on foot or take a van up to the top. Finish the day with dinner at one of Gibraltar’s excellent restaurants, and stay the night in the ape infested Rock Hotel Gibraltar.

Extra – Tarifa or Morocco
If you find yourself with some extra time, then check out Tarifa, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. With golden beaches and a fast ferry to Morocco, Tarifa is both a lazy place to lounge and a gateway to Africa. Tarifa is one of Europe’s, and the world’s, top beaches.