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Trip Report Trip Report: 17 days in Spain & Portugal

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We returned 4 days ago from a lovely 16-17 day trip of Spain and Portugal. We feel that only the physical bodies have returned, with the souls still wandering the narrow alleys of Seville or the streets of Lisbon ! During this trip we visited:
Madrid - 3 nights, with day trip to Toledo
Granada - 1 night
Malaga - 3 nights, with day trips to Nerja & Ronda
Seville - 4 nights, with day trip to Cordoba
Lisbon - 4 nights, with day trips to Sintra & Cascais
Madrid - 1 night (on the return leg)

Plan to post a comprehensive trip report in 4-5 installments. Here goes the first one..

BACKGROUND:
We are a couple from India. I am 50, and my DW is 47. We have travelled quite a bit, but never to Spain or Portugal. And neither of us knew a word of Spanish. A few months before departure, we bought a pocket-sized "Learn it yourself: Spanish", and during our spare time we would read it selectively. By the time we left, we could count from 1 to 11, and knew certain key words which we thought would be useful at bus stations, train stations, restaurants, shops, or seeking directions on the streets. We ignored the grammar, and felt that as long as we could assemble together relevant words, we would be fine. And you would be surprised as to how well that worked ! (The most important word for a tourist to learn is "Donde"). At no point in our trip did we suffer any frustration for difficulty in communication. The Spanish are friendly and wonderful people, and when you make an effort to speak their language, they go out of their way to understand you and to respond. And although some Spaniards must have had a good laugh at our pidgen Spanish, we could always get our question across.

Another point to note is that we are vegetarians. Although I can eat a chicken or a shrimp if pressed to the wall, for my DW it is a strict no-no. So we did extensive research on vegetarian restaurants in every city we were visiting, and we were pleasantly surprised as to how many existed. So our dining choices listed in the trip report may not be of much interest to most meat loving readers, but I guess will be appreciated by the few vegetarian visitors to this site.

Lastly, this report is meant as much for the Fodors visitors as it is meant for ourselves, for we wanted a permanent record of our entire trip, that we can go back and read and re-live those wonderful days ! So if the narration gets too detailed at times, please bear with us.

RESOURCES:
Our basic preparatory research was from the Lonely Planet guide book on Spain, which we found extremely comprehensive and very useful. This was supplemented with many other travel sites on the net, including the Fodors destination mini-guides, madridman.com, andalucia.com, exploreseville.com, and golisbon.com (the last two being real gems). For listing of vegetarian restaurants, we relied most on happycow.net, and european-vegetarian.org, besides some vegetarian listings available on previously mentioned sites.

For hotel bookings, we relied totally on the user rating (popularity index) of tripadvisor.com, which we found to be bang on target. We discovered that with a little research on this site, you can find hotels in prime locations for around 75 euros, which have much more to offer than many hotels in the 125-150 euro bracket. And once we had booked a hotel, we read all the reviews about that hotel on the tripadvisor site, which yielded nuggets of information about nice dining places near the hotel, which we took note of.

Finally, guide books and travel sites can help only so far. There are many nagging questions (and sometimes silly ones), which can only be answered on the site where this report is being posted. Really, this site is a godsend to travellers. We posted a very large number of queries, which were all responded to quickly and effectively. And we kept reading questions posted by others and their responses, from which we learnt so much. Special thanks to josele, who took great pains to plan the Malaga leg of our journey, and responded to so many private e-mails. Thanks also to Comfyshoes, Nikki, schuler, lincasanova, Graziella5b, bilboburgler, josemacall, lostinplace, MadridMan, Alec, Revulgo, blackduff, Robert2533, and so many others who responded to all our questions on this site. You all were of great great help.

So without any further ado, here goes ...

DAY 1 (Aug 31,Friday): MADRID
Our Alitalia flight from Mumbai to Madrid was uneventful, with a 3 hour aircraft changeover at Milan. We reached at 11:30 am at Barajas T-1, and waited patiently by the luggage belt, to discover that both our suitcases were missing. On going to the Alitalia help desk, where many more irate passengers were waiting with a similar predicament, we were told that our suitcases had been left behind at Milan, and would come by the next flight at 5 pm. On expressing shock that this could have happened despite a comfortable 3 hour changeover time, they simply shrugged their shoulders and smilingly said: "It is Italy you know; anything can happen there". We took it that the intelligence quotient of Italians is not held in very high regard in Spain, so we quickly filled up the forms, and noted their airport numbers to call back at 5 pm.

We remembered to stop by at the Renfe counter on T-1, to purchase our Toledo tickets for the next day. No lines, quick and easy. Good advice from Fodorites !

We had planned on taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, but with no luggage, it seemed like such a waste. Accordingly, we boarded the metro below T-2, and with two line changes, we reached our Gran Via stop in 35 minutes. We were really impressed with the metro efficiency of Madrid, and the frequency of trains. Very good signages everywhere. Treat to use.

Our hotel was a two minute walk from the Gran Via stop, at Plaza del Carmen. Actually, it was what is called a "hostal", by the name Hostal Acapulco. It had received rave reviews on the tripadvisor site, and we were not disappointed. Very well located, within a two-minute walk of either Puerto del Sol or the Gran Via metro. Very clean, sheets changed everyday, nice sized toilet, good air-conditioning, free internet, nice cosy family run place with very helpful staff. Rooms were a little small, but quiet. Not bad at all for 58 euros/night (incl. tax). Would highly recommend this to anyone wanting a great clean location at low cost.

Had to shower and change back into the same set of clothes, as we were carrying absolutely no hand luggage ! It was time for lunch and we ate at an excellent vegetarian restaurant which was just acroos the hotel, called "Artemisa". It was a very popular place, with long waiting lines. We opted for their menu del dia, comprising of Gazpacho soup/Mixed salad, Assorted platter/Pita with fillings, Apple pie/yogurt, with a beer. The gazpacho and the assorted platter were excellent.

We left the restaurant and walked to Puerto del Sol, and after some photo-clicking, kept walking towards the Palacio Real. We toured the Royal palace, assisted with an audio guide, and found it fascinating. The embroidery on the fabrics on the wall, with matching embroidery on the upholstery was superb. We specially liked the Throne Room, the Dining Hall and the various Study Rooms. On the way out, the visit to the Royal Armoury and the Pharmacy (with odd-shaped glassware and drawers for herbs/poisons) were most unusual and interesting.

We strolled outside at the Plaza de Oriente, which was a bit of a let down, and then headed for Plaza Mayor. It was only 5:30 pm, and it was too early for Plaza Mayor to come to life. After admiring the buildings around the plaza for some time, we headed back to our hotel, to enquire about our missing luggage.

Numerous attempts to contact the Alitalia desk over phone were in vain, so we decided to take the metro to the airport. On reaching there, we discovered that one of our bags had arrived, and the other one was expected on the next flight at 11 pm ! Bad start to a trip. The lady at the help desk this time was nice and efficient, and assured us that we would not be disappointed at 11 pm. So there was nothing much to do but to take the metro back, with one suitcase (by now we were quite familiar with the route). We sensibly purchased the 10-ride ticket for 6.40 euros, as we realized that there would be a lot of metro travel in Madrid.

By the time we got back to the hotel, fatigue of the journey was beginning to set in. We were not very hungry, after a late and heavy lunch. So we dined near the hotel at a Tapa bar called "Taberna Gallache" on C. Carmen. Some Patata bravas with Rose wine. Average stuff. DW was very tired, so she returned to the hotel, and I offered to go alone to the airport once again to retrieve the missing suitcase.

Reached the airport again at about 11pm, and the lady at the help desk was a chatterbox. She just couldn't stop talking to the people waiting before me, and what could have been done in 5 minutes took 25 minutes. After a very patient wait, I finally got my suitcase. She wanted to chat a lot with me too, but I cut her short and hurriedly took a taxi and left. Night time taxi charges are steep in Madrid, and the ride to the hotel cost about 38 euros. Reached back at 12:30 pm and crashed into bed. Relieved that the luggage ordeal was over.

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