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Welcome to MARK-itecture, a collaboration between ICONIC LIFE and Mark Candelaria, founder and principal of Candelaria Design, whose award-winning designs, visionary architecture and international reputation make him an expert voice on architecture, food and travel when you bring them all together. He will share his travels and perspective as a regular contributor right here.
Spain is so many things to me that it is truly hard to describe or explain! From Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque region—and those are only three of the 17 defined regions of Spain. There is such diversity in architecture, food and culture, not to mention the different people and different dialects and languages; it is unimaginably indescribable in its diversity. Hence, why I love traveling to Spain—you experience so much by visiting just one country—one unbelievable country.
My first visit to Spain was some 30 years ago, and I have returned now nearly a dozen times, each trip with a greater appreciation and understanding of the complexity, robustness and frankly the well-deserved Spanish pride.
My first visit to Spain was some 30 years ago, and I have returned now nearly a dozen times, each trip with a greater appreciation and understanding of the complexity, robustness and frankly the well-deserved Spanish pride for what they have and what they so cherish—a unique soul that is España! From the artists like Picasso and Dali, the architecture of Gaudi and the flamenco dancing, to the amazing cuisine of this country, everything is done with such gusto, honesty, passion and soulfulness that awakens all of your senses and makes you want more.
About 20 years ago, my firm started taking clients, now friends to tour Italy. Now as we just concluded our 18th tour overall and third tour of Spain, it is with great pride and admiration that Spain is a mainstay to our Candelaria Design Tour repertoire. Each tour builds upon the previous tour, creating a collage of experiences and memories that now seem to meld into part of my overall psyche and occupies a large portion of my daily subconscious. I love how travel does that, especially the type of travel where you truly immerse yourself, like we do, in the Candelaria Design Tours.
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This year we started in Barcelona, now one of the most-visited cities in the world. We have many clients who go on our annual tours, so we want to start the tour off in style. Where better than the Hotel Arts Barcelona, a Ritz Carlton, to begin our tour with a champagne welcome, a fabulous Michelin Star dining experience and just a short walk from the beach. What an amazing way to establish the tone for the trip to come.
I describe it as looking into a kaleidoscope and then being able to walk inside. It is magical, inspiring and frankly a three-dimensional psychedelic architectural experience.
So, with just three full days in Barcelona, we want to make sure to capture the essence of each stop. When you think of Barcelona, you think of the inexplicable structure that has been under construction now for more than 127 years, Gaudi’s Basilica de La Sagrada Familia. Noted art critic Rainer Zerbst said “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art”, and American architectural critic and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, Paul Golderger, describes it as “the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages. I describe it as looking into a kaleidoscope and then being able to walk inside. It is magical, inspiring and frankly a three-dimensional psychedelic architectural experience. The church was started in 1882, but Gaudi’s life was abruptly ended when he was struck by a street car on June 7, 1926 and died three days later. The church has been under construction ever since, and the goal is to complete the church by 2026 on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. I remember visiting the church in the early 1990’s when there was no roof and ceiling, so to see it now fully enclosed is beyond this world.
Of course, there are other amazing Gaudi creations such as Casa Batlló, Casa Mila and Parc Güell, which we visit with our travelers on every time we’re in Barcelona. They are all simply marvelous, and I am convinced Gaudi was captured by aliens, taken to another world, and he returned to manifest his experiences from beyond.
Photo by Mark Candelaria
When in Barcelona, there is always time for a walk through the Gothic Quarter, the Ramblas and my favorite of all, the market of markets Mercat La Boqueria. This would be my dream if I went to another world—a plethora of over-the-top food vendors ranging from small cafés to vegetable booths, fish mongers, butchers, coffee and birra stops. The market fills your senses with beautiful aromas, the colors of food and flowers, and the hustle of shoppers all maneuvering to find the perfect spot to park and enjoy the flavors. It is definitely one of my favorite spots on earth, and I so wish we had something even remotely close to this in Phoenix where I live. On this trip, my beautiful wife Isabel and I visited it all three days we were there, once to explore, once for breakfast and once for lunch—an amazing mixed-grilled seafood platter finishing with a beyond-tender foie gras, topped beef filet served with roasted potatoes and peppers. Add a cold beer and bumping into a friend I hadn’t seen in 40 years, and you have a truly memorable experience.
Did I tell you we do a lot more than just experience architecture on my tours? Yes, we do eat and drink, and we do it quite well and quite often. How about adding a four-hour walking Devour Tour through each of our three cities, and the Barcelona tour did not disappoint! What I love about the Devour Tours is they get you off the beaten path, and you explore the venues the locals enjoy in each city. Our Barcelona Devour Tour was fabulous, enjoying amazing tapas from a number of cafes, conversations and banter with locals who loved our adoration of their culture, and drinking wine from a porron, which was a huge hit with all of our travelers.
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We concluded our time in Barcelona with a trip about 45 minutes west of Barcelona to the Monserrat Monastery, a Benedictine abbey which hosts the Virgin of Monserrat, one of the black Madonnas of Europe. It is surely a magical and divine place if you could vacate the plethora of tourists that overrun and distract you from the underlying experience that surely is there somewhere. From the abbey we made our way to a fabulous winery not far down the mountains, and we enjoyed a tour of the winery and lunch with, of course, a porron of wine!
From Catalonia we moved across Spain to a completely different setting, climate, architecture and culture—Granada, Andalusia! From the Mediterranean beach vibe of Barcelona, we were headed inland and flying over a more arid landscape with patches of olive orchards making a carpet that rises to the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance—truly majestic.
We made our way from the airport into the heart of Granada, and our hotel the Gar Anat Hotel which was perfectly inviting—a small boutique hotel located right in the heart of Granada. With everyone checked in and full of adrenaline, we were off for a satisfying Middle Eastern lunch along the Calle Calderería Nueva. Instantly we have been transported to another part of the world, another culture, totally different architecture, food and yes, Vermut—the drink our tour adopted as our go-to the rest of the trip. From falafel and hummus to a delicious chicken tagine, we finished our lunch with a soothing, warm, honey tea. Yes, we were in Andalusia the land of the Moors. Actually, Granada is the result of a whole collision of cultures—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—with structures that have all been built, modified and reinvented, all with the fingerprints and inspiration from each culture and period of time and occupation. It is marvelous, the food follows suit and your palette is awakened to so many flavors and experiences.
Hammam Al Andalus
Two standouts of Granada were our visit to the Hammam Al Andalus Granada, a Turkish bath complete with the massage of a lifetime. I know what you are thinking, and no, you do not get completely naked in the Turkish baths, so don’t let that perception discourage you from experiencing this! I mean when you are eating and drinking your way through Spain, you need a tune up and let me tell you this is the way to do it. The perfect way to start your afternoon siesta—yet another amazing aspect of daily Spanish life—a 90-minute escape to the dark, mystical and quiet Hammam, a massage, a steam, a dip in the cold plunge, then back in the steam…..well you get the idea, and I’m not going to rub it in too much! Finish the entire experience with a relaxing tea, and then go back to the hotel and take your siesta. Nothing wrong with that picture.
You awake from your afternoon siesta around 4 pm, and you start your second day in the same day! Yes, the Spaniards have figured out how to live two days to every one of our days here in the States. I mean if you are going to start dinner at 9pm—and that’s early by Spaniard standards—then you better make sure you get a nice one hour, hell, go for a two-hour siesta especially after 90 minutes in the Hammam!
Estrellas de San Nicholas
Our favorite dining spot in Granada—we dined there two nights in a row because the food and view were off the charts—was the Estrellas de San Nicholas. The first night it was just Isabel, me and one couple who have been on a number of our ours. The second night we brought the entire tour and shared our first night experience with the entire group. The night began listening to flamenco guitarists at the Mirador San Nicholas Granada and group pictures with the beautiful view of the Alhambra at sunset with those snow-capped peaks as the backdrop—beautiful. Then dinner inside the restaurant with that same view and our own flamenco guitarist, a glass of Vermut and plates of suckling pig, stewed bull’s tail, and of course, beef filet with foie gras sauce! Like I said, it was such a wonderful experience that we had to subject ourselves to two nights in a row—a good decision!
Then there is the Alhamba, probably one of the most iconic structures in Spain.
Then there is the Alhamba, probably one of the most iconic structures in Spain. Originally constructed in 889 AD (yes, you read that right 889 AD!) on the remains of Roman fortifications, and then later rebuilt in the mid 13th Century by a Moorish sultan into a palace, and then in 1333 Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada pushed the boundaries transforming the structure and gardens into one of the most coveted palaces in the world. Then in 1492, with the tribulations of the Reconquista, the Moors were ousted, and the palace became the Royal Court for Ferdinand and Isabella, and became the site for the endorsement of this Italian guy named Columbus to find a short-cut to India. We all know how that story ended.
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Moorish poets describe the Alhambra as “a pearl set in emeralds,” and it truly is that. We spent a lovely morning touring the ruins, the palaces and of course, the exquisite Moorish gardens, all with spectacular views of Granada beyond imagining what this must have been like in the times of the Moorish sultans. The detail, proportion, sequence of spaces not to mention the plethora of history is impeccable, making the Alhambra and the city of Granada a worthy stop on any trip to Spain.
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We finished our journey with my favorite of all, San Sebastián! Set in the far northeast corner of Spain in the heart of Basque Country, our finale gives our travelers another completely different side, culture and experience of Spain.
Set along the spectacular Playa de la Concha on the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián is one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe and with so much to do and so much to eat! The late Anthony Bourdain on the trailer for his show Parts Unknown 2017 episode showcasing San Sebastián wittingly said “Don’t come here!” I totally understood why he would say that, as my first trip here was in the early 2000s, and it has always been on my Spain itineraries ever since.
Fabulous architecture, people from all over Europe enjoying their vacations, a spectacular and pristine beach, and pintxos—tapas on steroids with restaurants open until all hours of the evening, or should I say morning! Then, if pintxos bars are not enough to satiate your palette, add 15 Michelin-star restaurants. Seriously, this place is a foodie’s heaven, and so I return every year with a goal to dine in every one of those 15 starred restaurants in my lifetime.
Seriously, this place is a foodie’s heaven, and so I return every year with a goal to dine in every one of those 15 starred restaurants in my lifetime.
This year we once again enjoyed the exquisite culinary delights and stellar setting of Akelare. The cuisine of and impeccable service of chef Pedro Subijana and his dedicated staff is perfectly choreographed, and we were surprised and treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen. The restaurant, and now accompanying hotel, is in contemporary style and is a true work of art and architecture combined, set alongside a cliff overlooking the endless setting sun over the Bay of Biscay. Our 13-course meal included everything from Rice with Snails, Periwinkles in Tomato and Basil Film to Gin and Tonic on a Plate—a dessert made from gin and tonic jelly, a juniper sauce and “accessories to turn it into a dessert.” The four-hour meal is served by a staff that is very polished yet personable, which makes for a relaxing and comfortable experience that is usually one of the highlights of the trip for our travelers.
Then the next day, why not do a four-hour gourmet cooking class at the Mimo San Sebastián School of Cooking. We always make this part of our itinerary after dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant as a fun way to get a sense of what goes into making these amazing dishes. This year, as we were a large group, they broke us into four teams, and we had an Iron Chefs type cook-off with the master chefs guiding us along the way and then judging our dishes which we then all had the pleasure to enjoy at the end of our competition. This is always such a fun event and builds a lasting team memory that I find travelers talking about for years, not to mention inspiring our travelers to want to cook at a more sophisticated level.
Finally, to finish our San Sebastián experience and celebrate our departure from Spain, we concluded our tour with a final Devour Tour and with my favorite guide Ania Wielechowskaania. Yes, that is Polish, I mean who could appreciate San Sebastián more than someone from Poland, who fell in love with San Sebastián so much that she decided to stay after visiting—hmmm tempting! She has been our guide two years in a row, and she is amazing. Her passion and understanding of not only the history of San Sebastián but the art of the tapas to the proper way to make your way to the bar, to then how to order the best tapas from each venue, to best enjoying your tapas with a small glass of wine, beer or sidra, a local cider. And of course, you don’t stay long. You eat your tapas, enjoy your small wine, and you move on to the next venue continuing this ritual as long as you can stay vertical. Basically, that’s it, but what an adventure! I have been on plenty of guided walking history tours but combine that with wine and tapas and I’m in! It’s always so fun to finish our time in San Sebastián and Spain with a Devour Tour, but at the same time you realize this is the end to another amazing journey through a truly diverse and beautiful country.
Photo by Mark Candelaria
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Many people are unaware we do these tours because they believe we are simply an architecture firm. Our goal as architect is not to just create a set of plans for your home, but to expand the way you live and experience every aspect of the home we are creating with you. Our trips are not only open to clients however, we have travelers from all walks of life, and we welcome anyone who wants a unique journey off the beaten path and away from all the cliché’ tourist venues. Every trip brings new memories and experiences, and this tour was full of both, but most of all, it’s the connection our travelers establish with each other. When everyone is forced out of their comfort zone, the sense of community and familiarity comes with your fellow travelers. As only they share the experiences and memories that was Spain Candelaria Style.
Mark Candelaria is a regular contributor to ICONIC LIFE. If you’d like to learn more about his firm’s architecture and lifestyle tours, click here.