Well this has been a long time over due, but here goes.
From November 21 - December 6, 2009 we took our Northern Spain odyssey, we very much appreciate all the comments and suggestions that were provided and feel the least we can do in return is to tell you all how it went.
http://www.viamichelin.com/ if you do not have GPS this will map out your routes, including speed traps and tolls.
If you don’t want to read it all, each city is in the headline
The flights were uneventful WAS-NYC-BCN
Cab ride from the airport is a decent length, but we found our cab driver (and his English) to be quite helpful. At the airport they insisted 5 people, need two cabs, however, this is not the case as the Hotel De Arts Barcelona, arranged for a 5 person cab, no questions asked. For those looking for a fabulous hotel with wonderful wonderful staff, this is the place. Our rooms looked over both the Sagrada Familia and the rest of the city with a corner view of the Med Sea. The hotel is a bit out of the city center, however, we were intending to take the Red Bus tour and it stopped right out front. Based on others experience, we bought our tickets right on the bus (no looking for the right station to redeem a voucher) just be aware you need cash for this. The bus tours were nice, but the first night we wanted to get home to our hotel, but he bus still had half its route to take, long long way around. The second night (same situation, you would think we would learn) but instead we got off at the Ramblas transfer point and strolled to the bottom, it was a great way not only to save an hour or so on the cool night bus but also to see this very exciting part of the city. Just imagine dragging two children 4 and 6 down a busy street with birds, turtles, fish, plants, street performers and on and on, they could have stayed all night and wanted to see and touch everything, including cacti. It may not be everyday, but the funniest thing on our entire trip occured near the old town, my husband looked over and had to tell me the kids and my 83 year old mother to look, sure enough a man, naked as the day he was born (well ok he had on shoes), not a hair in sight below his chin, riding his bike through the busy city streets. I am not a prude, but had not anticipated that one, no other trip reports mentioned naked guys on bikes. So keep you eyes open. One other BCN tip, the banks would not change anything larger than a $50 US, $100's are counterfeited often, street change places had no problem changing any amount and ATM's are everywhere. (Second really Big Hint Sagrada Familia has TWO elevators, one in front with over an hour wait, but marked off for several hours, and one in the back, no line of any kind. My husbands take on the cathedral, if you did not go up in the elevator, don’t go in at all, imagine a church with not one single pew, instead all full of construction equipment and dust. We knew it was not “complete” but did not know it was basically a aisle way around the church and out the back door.)
Mont Serrat and Andorra and Lourdes
We took our cab back to the airport (too expensive to rent a car for three days and park it in Barcelona, also it allowed us to never drive in the city). We had arranged for a 7 passenger Citroen Grand Picasso, and before you think, AMERICANS it is really a 5 passenger car with "extra luggage space". The two seats in the back fold flat and you can put 4 yes 4 medium to full suitcases side by side, and have room for two small bags in front of them on the floor. Also there is room to put bags, coats and any number of other items on top of the suitcases. We need 7 seats when we arrived in Asturias, but did not need any luggage at that point in the trip. We saw the standard 5 seater; there was NO room for luggage of any type and certainly not for 5 people. We also pack extremely light, three medium suitcases, two small and a backpack for 15 days. On to the trip, we left the airport, after very very carefully checking our car. it was dinged, scratched and marked on every corner, the back the front, the doors etc. the slip looked as though my 4 year old had drawn a picture of a bunch of grapes more so than a rental car receipt, but the car was great and National had the best price on an automatic by far (I know AMERICANS). drove to the Monastery at Montserratt, rode the cable car to the top, it was wonderful, I would recommend more time than we had to spend there, you could easily spend an entire day and never even know it, we spent several hours, listened to the choir -even my husband enjoyed that, which is saying something. (Note here, we should have bought a roll of euro $1 for all the candles we would light in the next two weeks-don't know if they sell them that way but they should). We had a light lunch at the top and then left for Andorra and Lourdes, a longer then hoped for drive, but nice anyhow. Contrary to all the commenter we had read, we had absolutely NO traffic through Andorra; it was very peaceful drive if a bit commercial. We stopped the car once, to put our feet on the ground and as we say "cross that off the list". The Andorra to Lourdes drive took longer than anticipated, but it was nice and interesting. We violated our own rule, NEVER EAT AMERICAN OUTSIDE OF AMERICA, however, it was late, the kids were hungry and it was unclear how long these Kilo's would tick off on this back road. We stopped at McDonalds; I know I know, in all of France you could find nothing else to eat? What a pleasure that was, we speak 10-20 words of French, the kindly staff spoke much more English, though with a very strong accent, the nice girl, just called over to the boy, he must be responsible for AMERICANS. We laughed all through dinner. Pomme Fritte sauce, no way, it has got to be catsup for us, but you only get a few and a whole pile of Pomme Fritte sauce, the kids wanted nothing to do with that, spiced up mayo. The MD's staff did provide more when asked and contrary to some posts there was no extra charge. We did arrive in Lourdes, but where on earth is our hotel; it is within walking distance of the grotto and right across from the train station (hint: you should know the abbreviation for the train station, if that is to be your guidepost, we did not). after about an hour driving in the city we located our second or third group that could explain where we were to go, and found it. It reminded me of the building from the movie Moulan Rouge, not in a bad way just a bit lit up and what not. In a direct contrast to the bellman and staff at the Hotel De Arts, there was no one out front, inside, at the front desk or anywhere to be seen, and although we did not want to do it, we "rang the little silver bell" and hoped that was not too rude. It wasn't they came along, thanked us for staying and were very friendly. We packed up luggage and headed to our rooms. A brief aside, we have spent over 50 nights in various hotels rooms in Europe and are by no means snobs, but we were not prepared for the size of this room. We still laugh. From the bed, you could reach the entry door and the balcony door, the closet, "dresser" and "desk" and TV. We put the luggage in the closet and just decided to wear what we had on the next day, there was not enough room to open and unpack (we did buy a standard room, others may be larger). We knew you could walk to the Cathedral from our hotel, and small signs right outside our hotel pointed the way (hint: follow the blue line on the ground). So from our balcony we looked out and saw the cathedral all lit up, a castle to the right and the "a little bit odd" cross on the mountain to the left, it was beautiful and we could not have asked for a better view (hint: sometimes a city has two or more churches and even if you take a whole bunch of pictures, it does not mean that it is the church you came to visit, yes we photographed the wrong church, from our room, you can not see the Cathedral, but who knew). The walk takes about 1/2 hour "if" you know where you are going and all parties 4, 6 and 83 year olds wish to get there, they did not. November however is the absolutely perfect time to visit. We had prepared for the ultimate in Tacky experiences, but did promise my mom the next time we get back to Europe, we would take her to Lourdes. However, the shops, in the November off season are closed, at least a lot of them, we left at 10ish in the morning and the streets were calm and peaceful, one shop was open, so we bought the obligatory Mary Jugs (as the kids call them) and some small glass jars for the Lourdes water. The cathedral, though not empty had less than 150 milling around and although it never did happen, my husband took a few pictures of the grotto with only one person in it, even he thought it would be rude to ask them to leave LOL.
Pyrenees, Bielsa, Jaca, San Juan de La Pena, Mt. Perdido and Ordessa NP
We left Lourdes with high hopes of seeing the Cirque de Gavarine (road closed - we asked before we left) so we took the superhighway back to the Bielsa Tunnel, what a grand drive through the country back to Spain (hint Petrol is cheaper by a good bit right after you fill up in France i.e. Spain is about 10 percent less) The climb up the Pyrenees to the Bielsa tunnel was nice, and although the car only said it once Gear Box Failure has got to be bad. I think it just shifted poorly because we drove that same car for the next 12 days without incident. (Hint French insurance, all the websites indicated to take a car from Spain to France you need this "other insurance" and even though I would be in France less than 36 hours I needed to buy it for the entire 12 days. At the National counter, the lady told me it was like AAA help and it was not required). Bielsa Parador was very nice, if a bit empty in November but an absolutely fabulous Web Price (hint Terrifica Unica of 60 Euros). Mountains were gorgeous and the light snow in the valley was heavenly. One thing to note, my husband woke me up at about 2 am, to see the stars, with the limited “light pollution” you could see more stars then ever before, you almost get a sense of why the Mayans and others looked at the heavens so often. Jaca was an interesting town, and we had tapas for dinner right near the cathedral (Happy thanksgiving). The waiter, could not believe how much we ordered and said he would bring some and if we wanted more he would complete our order slowly, very nice, but not necessary we ate it all. San Juan was interesting and again we were the only visitors to the place, until we were ready to leave, then a few bus loads come up with kids. We “illegally parked” in the bus area there were no buses. Ordessa NP, thank god there was no snow, what a nice valley, it is true it is similar to the Grand Canyon, however you enter on the bottom not the top. The kids played in the snow. Jaca, we stayed in a hotel booked at Destina.com Hotel Reina Felicia (nice marked across the street) (hint the Bocadillos should be cooked BEFORE you eat them, tasted fine) The hotel was very nice (no one but us there) but a bit out of town, not walking distance, and the restaurant was empty. The neighborhood was deserted as well, very odd feeling.
Puente la Reina de Jaca
Why does this little road stand get its own heading. Ok driving from Jaca to Hondarribia is this small sleepy town. Right off to the right is a brown building/hotel and restaurant. So we stop. The place is fairly empty a few locals at the bar. It is meal time. We use the rest room, come out a few minutes later, the place is absolutely packed, we get the last table that will seat 5, a minute ago we could have choice of 10-15 tables. We look at our menus and order, do not come here without an empty stomach. I ordered garbanzo bean soup, Pollo with potatoes and desert (menu del dia), the soup bowl (or should I say trough) is huge and they bring the pot from the kitchen and ladle into it until the broth is ready to pour off the sides. The chicken is more than enough for two and desert was great. Everyone in the place has ordered similar (various soups all the same portions, chicken, beef or fish and desert) the same bottle of red wine is on every table, and is quite good. Don’t take this the wrong way we have eaten many a menu del dia, but the atmosphere and food and local workers packed into this place is what traveling is all about. If someone can explain to me, the little books, many of the workers had a book with “vouchers for lunch” it seems to me, they opened up the booklet, tear out a page an that paid for lunch, I assume the government or a large corporation issues them?
Hondarribia, Cueva Nueva de Altimira and Asturias
The Parador de Hondarribia was nice but not quite what was expected, but walking around the town was very nice. The town is well marked and even indicates, go up this one way street if you are staying at the parador (hint you drive the wrong way) the parking lot is “below” the hotel and there are about 25 or so steps up to get to the lobby, there is a way to get your car up top, but we did not look for it. The hotel being an old castle, was cool, and the kids loved the Crowns over top of the beds holding up drapes, they felt like prince and princesses. Downtown was very lively and we again found a pub for tapas. My husband decided he had driven all day and I had done “nothing” so it was my job to order. I speak spanglish at best and thank god the bar tenders spoke English. We met several men from the town and struck up a conversation. By the end of the night half the bar knew me by name and some even sent “unusual tapas” for us to try, odd, we still had to pay for them? Not a big deal as they sent some of the best things we tried. Now to be fair, we have wanted to see the Altimira caves for a long time, but they are closed to public, and instead they built a cave for us to see that was identical. Well I am sure the real thing is better, but the cave was worth the trip (hint and how could you know all this - on Saturday, right when we arrived, they are free to see) We spent several of the next few days in Asturias with relatives and visited the Shrine at Covadonga, for those who want to see a place where the Virgin Mary Appeared to someone and not encounter all of the Lourdes crowds, this is a very nice mountain town with a cathedral etc. and only a few well placed shops. Museo Jurasica de Asturias – interesting but don’t go too far out of your way.
Cuenca, Ciudad Encantada, Consuegra and Home
The town of Cuenca is not very attractive, the old town and the parador are very nice. You can walk across the bridge (not for those with a fear of heights), see the cathedral, and tour the town (I would plan an entire day next time). They were just lighting up the town for Christmas and some musical street performance occurred, no idea what that was, but the news cameras were out in force. Ciudad Encantada, was a bit out of town but a very nice place with some crazy rock formations and a very nice and easy to follow trail. The kids loved this and made for a light morning walk. The restaurant/pub across the way provided a nice light lunch. Consuegra the wind mills were nice and basically (cross that off the list). I am glad we did it but it was a long drive to see a windmill or 10. castle on the same hill only gives tours in Spanish so we skipped that. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES OPEN YOUR CAR WINDOW AT THE CUTE LITTLE SIGN OF DON QUIOTE AND SANCHO PANCHO OUTSIDE OF TOWN, I don’t know nor care what died there, but the smell could wake the dead, might be cows, might be humans, don’t care trust me. The Hilton Airport in Madrid, lets call it modern, almost could not find our door when we came back from dinner (they are very flush to the wall and don’t really have much to identify it as a door. The bathrooms, perfect for newlyweds, not so much for a family. The front two walls protrude into the room and are all glass, the shower, glass, the sink glass, it is beautiful but with all that glass and mirror, you should have a great body self image or be prepared to see yourself often. As odd as this sounds, you brush your teeth in front of the sink, but are afraid to spit out the toothpaste because you can not see the sink, you just see the floor or towels underneath, odd to get used to.
Last hint the paradors are not the cheapest places to stay but they are nice. Join the Amigos club for free, you get free parking, points credited for future items, and free drinks-for us that was 5 free drinks everyplace we stayed and free parking (17 euros in cuenca, 15 in hondarribia) and in November most have a discounted rate (not for us we hit most of them on a weekend) and you could get a room in them.
The flights were uneventful MAD-NYC-WAS
(Hint and we should know better by now, when you pack a snow globe, Spanish authorities might not care, but NYC TSA will throw it away. Also and again we should know better, all the duty free liquor, must be put into checked baggage when you clear customs in the US, boy does that stink)
Best of luck on your travels and feel free to ask any questions.
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Well this has been a long time over due, but here goes.