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Trip Report Brief Synopsis - Our trip to Spain!

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My wife and I have just returned from our first visit to Spain. I want to say THANKS to the many Fordorites who contributed to making it a wonderful trip by offering advice, information and trip reports. Thanks so much! Our trip was a total success.

Here is a brief summary. In a few weeks or so I'll have photos posted online with more details.

Itinerary

This was our final itinerary, which was tweaked several times during the planning stages:

Madrid - 3 nights
Toledo - 4 nights
Cordoba - 4 nights, rent car
Jaen Parador - 1 night
Ubeda - 2 nights
Cazorla - 3 nights
Granada - return car, 3 nights
Ronda - 2 nights
Malaga - 1 night near airport

Total of 23 nights on the ground, most of October. This was a faster paced trip than our normal travel style. Our main regret is that we didn't plan more time, even without adding additional stops. We could easily have stayed longer in any of those towns.

In particular we weren't ready to leave Ubeda and Cazorla. We predicted we were going to like the smaller towns and this was the case. We barely scratched the surface of what we could have visited, especially since we had a car for touring the surrounding countryside. We enjoyed the quiet pace and sleepy small town atmosphere. Not to everyone's taste for sure, but it definitely suited us for this trip.

We came seriously close to extending the trip by a week when we were in Ronda. I was ready to push the button changing our flights, but a reality check of all the other moving parts involved stopped us. But that just means we want to return!

We went to Cazorla because my ancestors are from there. They departed in 1492 at the invitation of Queen Isabella and moved to what is now Macedonia. When my grandparents arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 they still spoke a version of Spanish called Ladino.

We have no regrets about missing other destinations typically seen on a first visit to Spain.


Food ...

We have been vegetarians for decades and had heard about the difficulty of finding vegetarian food in Spain. The joke that ham and fish are considered vegetarian is no joke. So comments we have about dining in Spain won't apply to most people.

That said, in all cases restaurants and bars worked with us. Grilled veggies, pisto, salmorejo, gazpacho, hummus, brave potatoes and poor potatoes, mixed salad ,veggie paella, Spanish omelet, spinach and garbanzo, lots of options. And once they knew we were weird in this regard then the free tapa came out vegetarian too. On a couple occasions we did eat some fish and chicken, which were excellent.

Some of our most enjoyable meals were in places with a great many dead animal heads on the walls and "slaughter of the day" prominently featured on the menu. And our most disappointing meal was in a purely vegetarian restaurant in Toledo, so go figure.

And there were olives, olives, and more delicious olives! Plus olive oil and more olive oil. Sometimes we had four types of olive oil served at a meal. We learned enough to know that we generally prefer arbequina to picqual, and that our olive oil expenses at home are now going up. Some of the superb oils we tasted are available in the States, for a price.

The single food item we missed the most was whole grain bread. This seemed to be scarce in Spain.

... and drink

We had glasses of house wine with most meals, usually a Rioja. They were quite drinkable, though we often would have preferred something with more body. We were surprised to find red wine served chilled.

I usually had a beer or two during the day, but on occasion missed a good Colorado craft beer. My wife is not a beer drinker so she often just had agua del grifo, which most establishments were happy to serve, though some tried to sell bottled water.

And gin and tonics! These were discussed in maitaitom's enjoyable report and other Fodors threads.
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/maitaitoms-insane-for-spain-2015.cfm

I had my first GT in Maruxiña Lounge in Toledo: Hendrick's Gin, Nordic Blue Tonic, some cucumber slices, a huge glass filled with ice. Pure heaven, I was an instant convert! There were several more before we were done.

In Granada my wife noticed some Havana Club 7 Year Rum on the bar. We ordered a glass of that and some flan. That combination became our standard desert for the last few days of the trip.

I love the Spanish style of serving drinks. They bring the bottle your table, start pouring, and your job is to say "when".


Spending Money

I've seen several discussions on Fodors about American credit cards in Europe. My wife received her chip and signature Capital One card a few days before we left, but I still had my old stripe card. Either card worked without hassle in all cases: every restaurant, hotel or merchant had no problem. They often asked for the PIN but Solo la firma was all it took to clear that up.

We used cash in situations like boarding the Madrid metro, so don't know how things would have gone if we tried a non-PIN card using a machine.

We did get hit with DCC conversion a couple of times in the first week. These were both only $20 transactions so we let it go, but were careful from then on and specified Euros.

We withdrew cash from bank ATMs in 300 Euro chunks on five occasions. We thought that was a good balance between amortizing the ATM fee and not having too much cash at any one time. For three of the five transactions there was a USD $5 fee, but the other two had no fee.


Communication

We each both brought along an iPad. We don't have smart phones, and thought we'd just buy a phone in Spain to use there. But after a couple of days in Madrid we decided we didn't need one. We relied on wi-fi email communication for the entire trip.

In the three weeks there was really only one time a phone would have been useful: a generous man in Martos volunteered to meet us in town and guide us to some 300-500 year old olive trees, out in the middle of the groves. The meeting place was a bit vague - a traffic circle with an olive tree - but it all worked out fine.


Driving and Navigation

We rented a car twice, once for a day trip to Consuegra from Toledo and then for our week going between Cordoba and Granada. My wife drove and I navigated. This might seem like the perfect recipe for marital discord, but we made it through with no issues.

I used the CoPilot GPS app on the iPad. The entire Iberian peninsula can be downloaded so no connection was needed as we drove. It performed perfectly, with one exception being at road construction near Ubeda. The highway had shifted a few hundred feet in recent months and CoPilot sent us up an old entrance ramp that ended in a pile of dirt. We had to backtrack and visually find the new ramp.

For our week's rental my wife wanted an automatic transmission. We got one, but that came with the expected negative side effect of getting a large car: a brand new, unscratched Audi A4.

It's an understatement to say that driving the narrow central streets of Ubeda and Cazorla was stressful. At a few places we had to fold in the side view mirrors to get through, while never sure if someone was coming from the other direction.

Many of the streets are one-way, but controlled by a traffic light so the direction alternates. However, for side streets coming in it may not always be obvious which way traffic is currently flowing. We saw a few cases where people (presumably tourists) were going the wrong way.

We did get to near our hotels, but then decided to park out near a main road so the stress of getting back through town would be done with. We never used the car while we were in the towns.


Alhambra Visits

I'll mention about our Alhambra visits since there have been several threads regarding this recently.

We did three visits spread out over two days: an afternoon garden visit the day we arrived in Granada, then both a morning palace and night palace visit the next day. This may be overkill to most folks, but we were happy with how it worked out, allowing us time to sit, relax and try to take in the mind-boggling palace.

We are glad we did the night visit last since we already knew the places we wanted to spend the most time. Seeing it at night was especially magical. One minor disappointment: I was under the impression that groups were not allowed in at night, only individuals, but that was not the case. There were a lot more people than we thought there would be, including large tour groups, but it was still worthwhile.

Our Ticketmaster receipt said we could print our tickets at any La Caixa machine in Andalucia. Online information about this statement is contradictory. I decided to try the one in Cazorla, thinking it would save time in Granada. There was an Alhambra option on the ATM menu, but after inserting our credit cards it just didn't work. A bank teller said the one in Ubeda would work. At that point we just went on to Granada and got them at the Alhambra main entrance. At 3:00 PM there was no line, and we had all our tickets in less than 60 seconds, much less time than we spent puzzling over the Cazorla machine.

Flamenco Shows

Flamenco is another subject that pops up regularly on Fodors! We attended three performances, two of which were absolutely riveting and a the third that was better than expected. We also saw a classical flamenco guitar performance.

Our first flamenco show was in Cordoba at Arte y Sabores:
Guitarrista - Jesús Majuelos
Cantor - Paco Borrego
Bailora - Laureana Granados
Bailor - Manuel Jiménez

This is a small venue and we had a table right next to the stage (an advantage of booking early?), and were mesmerized by the show. We weren't the only ones: at the end of the show the audience leapt out of their chairs for a wild standing ovation.

Here is a clip of Manuel Jiménez in action (I started the link partway into the video):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOw9onfla0w&t=2m55s

And here is Laureana Granados:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObRQPT4loUE

In any case, one thing I learned is that no video comes close to the actual experience of being there and feeling the music and dance pulse through your body.

In Granada, on the spur of the moment, we went to a Sacromonte gypsy cave, Venta El Gallo. We had low expectations after reading reviews of bored performers going through the motions for tourists, but we still wanted to go.

But we thought the performers put their heart, soul, and most definitely their sweat into the show. We got there early and had a seat near the front, ahead of the throngs, maybe that helped. Seemed to be a family affair, with three generations on stage. It was fun and we were glad we went.

Our favorite show was in Ronda at El Quinque, where we saw:
Singer - Sara Holgado
Dancer - Melisa Soledad
Guitar - El Chani
Palmas - Antonio Platano

Once again a front row table in a small venue, and once again an absolutely stunning performance that we didn't want to end. The passion flowing off the stage is impossible for me to describe. Instead I'll refer you to a trip report by EWYandBTV, who is a much better writer than me:
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/spain-newbies-cordoba-granada-seville-toledo-madrid.cfm

My wife speaks conversational Spanish and picked up words of some songs, something like:
Listen ...
The church bells no longer sound the same,
My head no longer fits my body ...


Was this about the tortured history of Spain, the human condition, both? Whatever the case, it was emotionally riveting.

As soon as Sara Holgado starting singing we knew we were in for a memorable evening. Here are some clips of her:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PhGm_bToG8
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfOsFN-dMVg

And here is Melisa Soledad:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wflCcml432Y

We wanted to return the following night (the food was great too) but they were closed. Instead we went to a flamenco guitar concert by Celia Morales, who gave a virtuoso performance to a small crowd. She played several flamenco styles including Granaina, Alegrias, and Bulerias, including pieces of her own composition.

Any future visit to Spain will definitely include more flamenco!

I'll go through my photos and will eventually have a gallery posted online with more details about the sites we visited. For now I'll be happy to answer any questions.

Thanks once again to all who help us plan this fantastic trip. There were lots of moving parts: hotels, trains, event and museum tickets, and amazingly everything fell into place without a single problem. Thanks!

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