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Trip Report Trip Report: Santiago de Compostela, Madrid and London (

Trip Review – Santiago de Compostela, Madrid, London

Airlines: Delta and KLM (US to Madrid, Madrid to London via Amsterdam, London to US) and Iberia Express (Madrid to Santiago de Compostela).

Hotels: Jet-lag Night (Madrid): Best Western Villa de Barajas
Santiago de Compostela: Hotel Compostela
Madrid: Hotel Preciados
London: Nadler Hotel (previously Base2Stay) Kensington

Duration: 3 weeks including travel.

Travelers: An American couple in their late 50’s, early 60’s.

We began our trip in Atlanta, Georgia where we took Delta airlines to Madrid. We went economy, but paid extra for economy comfort seats, which we really appreciated. The additional legroom is worth the money. We were glad to see that the pillow and blanket were in a sealed bag which suggested they had been cleaned.

We each carried a small suitcase (below the European carry-on size) and a “personal item.” Mine was my large travel-purse, a “Sportsac” bag that weighs almost nothing and held, in addition to my usual purse paraphernalia , a quilted bag with my “Nook” reader, my TSA approved bag of liquids, my windbreaker and some travel comforts. We each checked a 25 inch suitcase weighing less than 40 pounds. The checked suitcase was included in the plane fare on the Delta/KLM flights. For the Iberia Express flight, we paid extra for checked luggage, but saved by checking in online.

Arriving in Madrid, we were very uncomfortable to have to walk long distances through badly labeled corridors with no escalators and lots of stairs to get from our gate to the main terminal. It was hot and unpleasant especially after the long transatlantic flight. I believe this was only because the airport is being remodeled, so I hope it won’t be like that for future travelers. After a while, I kept my eyes open and found the “ascensor” (lift/elevator) even when it didn’t say that it was the way to baggage claim. The elevators were tiny, but easier than having to negotiate rolling luggage on stairs.

Once at the main terminal, I was amazed at the fact that there was no form to fill out to declare what we were bringing in the country and virtually no immigration check either. We walked out a door that said “nothing to declare” and were in the main terminal. The Best Western Villa de Barajas sends a shuttle to pick you up, but you have to phone them (there is no “phone the hotels” stand at the airport the way most US airports have). We were going to use a public phone but had no Euros because we had followed the advice of most experienced travelers to wait to the airport to get cash at an airport ATM. Unfortunately the ATM didn't work and we didn't want to go on a long walk to the other end of the airport to find one that did, so we called on our cell phone—paying high roaming rates—and the shuttle was there within minutes.

The hotel Villa de Barajas was, as expected, compact in size but clean. The room was the smallest we were in through the whole trip, and there is nothing really to see or do in the Barajas area, but since we just wanted to crash and rest before our Iberia flight to Santiago, the arrangement was perfect. (There was a lovely little balcony, by the way, but it was too hot to enjoy.) We walked around a bit and had a couple of small meals, but mostly we just rested.

The hotel had the best TV lineup of any other hotel we stayed in—channels in various languages including English. In the evening, we had a small disaster—my partner dropped a suitcase on his toe and broke the toe and crushed the nail bed. :( Though I bandaged it and so forth, it was clear in the morning it needed medical attention, and we were worried we would miss our noon flight to Santiago.

The hotel staff was wonderful. They drove us to a nearby clinic as soon as it opened and the driver was willing to come in as an interpreter. (This was not necessary since I am a native speaker of Latin American Spanish.) At the clinic there was some trouble because of course we had no Spanish health cards, but because it was an emergency they saw us “off the books,” treated the damage, patched it up and gave us instructions for care. It was a very positive experience.

We made our plane to Santiago with time to spare even though the set up for checking in was needlessly complicated. Even if you had checked in ahead of time, Iberia had you check in again and reprint your boarding pass. They did not weigh carry on (at least on that day) but they did weigh checked luggage carefully and there were a lot of people who went back from the check-in line to the area reserved for rearranging luggage so that they could stay within the weight limit. Our luggage was well within the limits, but all these others slowed us down. My poor partner was also in great pain :( when he had to stand for long, so (after a gate change and more walking) we were glad to finally get into the plane.

Security at Madrid airport (both this time and when we left for Amsterdam/London) did not require that we take off shoes or belts, but everything else was much the same as in the US.

At Santiago airport we had a bit of a problem when my checked bag seemed to be missing. Then it turned out that they had put it in the “international” baggage claim and I was able to retrieve it. What a relief!!. We took a taxi to our hotel. The weather was beautiful that day and the countryside lovely. The old city, as we drove into it, was amazing. We also kept seeing pilgrims on foot and just looking around was like a tour.

The Hotel Compostela was very nice and we got a room with a great view. (Unfortunately, on the second day of our stay, the room, 313, developed a horrible rotten-egg sewer stench. We were moved to 316, which did not stink and had better closets but no view.) Except for the problem with the stench, we were very satisfied with the hotel—the included buffet breakfast was varied and I loved the limitless cafe con leche--and the folks at the desk were helpful and well-informed. (For those who care, I will warn that the TV was only in Spanish, but who travels abroad to watch TV?) The hotel is in a great location—at the edge of the old city (an easy walk to the Cathedral) but close to the newer area, shopping and museums (such as the Galician People museum).

Because of my companion’s broken toe, we didn’t venture very far that first day, only (slowly) to the Cathedral and back. We had dinner in a lovely courtyard place where the food was a little overpriced (we found during the next few days) but you could see parts of the cathedral in the afternoon sun.

The next day we were fortunate enough to see the Botafumeiro in action during the Pilgrim’s mass. We were early for the mass and had the experience of being rehearsed in the Latin hymns and sung responses by a nun who seemed to be the cantor (cantoress?) or choir mistress. It was very lively, with her encouraging people to raise their voices, etc.

The service itself was multilingual—there were a German and an Italian priest as well as a priest that spoke Castillian Spanish and some Gallego. Much of the service was in Latin, and with the big prayers people were encouraged to say them in their own language, which was a beautiful cacophony. The botafumeiro was indeed impressive. (On a later day, without botafumeiro, we caught most of a mass which also included English. Which languages are included seem to depend on who the pilgrim groups are.)

The rest of the day we did the usual sightseeing including the much maligned little bus/train that goes around the city. It was, for us, a perfect complement to seeing the city from the inside (It also relieved my partner from standing on his sore foot.) We walked slowly and just took in different things as they came up.

We had lovely weather for the first couple of days, but Galicia is known for its rains, so of course it rained the last couple of days. This meant that we missed doing a couple of things, such as going to listen to the tuna from the university (we were advised they might not be there, since it was raining so hard). But we saw a lot in just four days. We met some distant relatives on Saturday and they drove us to La Coruña for lunch, and on Sunday we hired a taxi service who, for a very reasonable price (about what an organized half day tour would cost), took us to the Rias Altas area from which my grandparents came.

All in all, the stay was delightful. Though there are always things you don’t get to do, what we did and saw made us happy. In four and a half days you can only do so much and we did it. :)

The flight to Madrid was easy, and the hotel in Madrid, Hotel Preciado, was in a wonderful central location and excellent in most ways. The only minuses were that the room had no view—it gave to a small, boring courtyard which they could have made more pleasant with flowers or something—and the glass-walled bathroom, though lovely, was a bit impractical. (Who wants to be seen sitting on the pot?)

Then too, the wiring was backwards, so that the button that was supposed to turn off my lamp turned off my partner’s lamp and vice-versa. And the artsy, colored lights that we could adjust over the opposite wall did not have a “natural” light setting, so we could unpack our bags under blue, yellow, green, purple or orange-pink tints. Lovely, but no more practical than the glass-walled bathroom. Still, these were more than made up for by the general comfort and the location. And they are something to joke about.

A big plus was the little fridge which was kept full of complementary drinks. These included water, coke, orange juice, some other juice and beer. We did not drink the beer (I like beer fine, but only with food—my friend was taking antibiotics for his foot and avoiding alcohol) but the water, juice and sodas were welcome. When we asked for more water and regular coke (instead of diet) they refilled the fridge with mostly those from that point on.

We did not try the hotel’s buffet breakfast because it cost too much for the little breakfast that we eat. Instead, we got into the habit of ordering one room service continental breakfast (coffee, toast, juice, toast butter and jam for 9 Euros) and sharing it, augmenting it a little with stuff we bought the night before. The main thing for me was hot café-con-leche and bread. My partner took the fresh orange juice and bread and we usually shared a sweet pastry or some fruit bought the night before to round it out. We could have eaten more cheaply (and sometimes did) at one of the nearby cafés, but I like having coffee before I dress and face the world.

We spent six nights at the Preciados and really loved being able to walk to different places or to the metro. And the choice of nearby restaurants was good. We found that the “menu” (set menu) of the day was a good deal both in Santiago and Madrid, since it included two courses, dessert and drink. The trick was to get places where the drink didn’t have to be wine because my companion wasn’t drinking. In some cases, we just paid extra for a soft drink and I had two glasses of wine. ;) One evening we had dinner at the gourmet food court at the top of El Corte Ingles (the big department store) which gave a beautiful view of the city from above.

We did the usual sightseeing, including the Prado, the different puertas and monuments, the temple of Debod, etc. We particularly enjoyed the tour of the Reales Descalzas (which was right around the corner from the hotel) and the cathedral. In El Prado, we saw a few “must sees” and then spent time enjoying two rooms (Goya and Velazquez) in detail. (That’s my way of doing museums when there is limited time. See the highlights and then focus on one or two rooms.) In addition to seeing Madrid, we also took a half-day tour to El Escorial and the Valle de los Caidos, and a longer tour of Avila and Segovia.

We had meant to go to Toledo on our own, but we lost one day when I managed to trip on an uneven bit of pavement. I injured a knee (two weeks later, it is still swollen) and scraped the opposite forearm and both hands. So we had to cancel our plans to go watch flamenco that night and to go to Toledo the next day. :( I rested during the morning and in the afternoon we took the hop-on-hop off bus of Madrid. This was fairly easy on my knee and gave us a different view of the city.

In spite of my partner's toe and my knee, we managed to have a good time. A highlight of our stay in Madrid was being able to have hot chocolate and churros several evenings before walking back to the hotel. Another highlight was the live musicians that walked around the restaurants near the hotel.

After 6 nights we left for London via Amsterdam. We took a taxi to the airport. The taxi took credit cards so we did not have to go back to the ATM (cajera automatic) for cash to pay him, which was great. ATMs in Spain were charging € 3.50 per transaction, so we didn’t want to go back to the ATM for an extra € 40 or so.

KLM weighed our carry-ons but not our "personal objects". In Amsterdam, they made us go through security again before getting to our gate even though we had just gotten off a plane. What was annoying was that on the other side of security there weren’t as many interesting shops and places to eat as there had been before security. We had to take off belts but not shoes this time.

London had a slow immigration line compared to Madrid, but Heathrow was well-organized and everything was clearly labeled, which was good. We had a bit of a problem in that we could not see any ATMs after we left immigration and we needed pounds to pay our car service. (Clearly, ATMs and airports and I are not a good match. Besides the problem in Madrid, I had a previous problem with an ATM at Heathrow which wouldn't take my debit card, only my credit card, 8 years ago.)

Anyway, when the car service guy met us right outside customs, we asked if we could take a moment to run to the ATM to get cash. He said he would take us to an ATM on the way to the city. But when the time came, he seemed unable to find an ATM and was very aggrieved. He wanted us to go to a Bureau de Change (where we’d get a bad rate and also have to pay a hefty fee for the exchange) but I refused and suggested that he find a bank and there would be an ATM nearby. Indeed there was, and I got the money to pay him. We were not impressed with that car service. The man barely spoke English and did not seem to know the city at all.

Our hotel, the Nadler Kensington (which we had reserved as “Base2Stay” –the name change was made a few weeks before we arrived) was hard to recognize as a hotel from the street, so our driver missed it. Luckily, we did not, so we got him to drive back to it. The location was a scant 5 minutes from the Earl’s Court Underground station and a slightly longer walk to the Gloucester Road station. It was conveniently close to a Sainsbury (grocery store) and a laundromat plus lots of cafes, restaurants and pubs. I liked the location better than the Lancaster Gate/ Kensington Park area I’d stayed at eight years ago, though both involve long tube rides to all the “attractions” except the Kensington area museums.

The room was small but there was space to walk around if we kept our luggage either under the bed (when it fit) or upright against the wall when we were not using it. I have most of my stuff in travel pouches so I just moved those to the shelves in the closet and closed the suitcase and did fine.

We were glad to have a king-sized bed (without a “gap” between the twins—they filled it with something) unlike all our previous hotels. It included a kitchenette (microwave, fridge, sink and several kettles and coffee makers) which I found convenient for breakfast and bedtime snacks. The bathroom was small, but it had a broad ledge for us to put all our toiletries. It was definitely not as fancy or well-located as the Preciados had been, but it was very nice. The only thing really wrong with the Nadler was that the water fluctuated in temperature while you were showering. In a hotel in that price range, this is not something to shrug off.

We spent eight nights in London and took two organized day trips: Bath and Stonehenge (Premier Tours) which we liked very much and Stratford and Oxford (Golden Tours) which we did not like so much. We also did our own day trip to Greenwich which was lovely. For Greenwich we took the tube to Westminster Pier and then took the boat to Greenwich where we enjoyed the Cutty Sark the Maritime Museum the prime meridian, etc. before returning to Westminster Pier via boat also.

Besides Greenwich, highlights of the trip included a play at the new Globe, evensong at Westminster, the Churchill War Rooms and Sunday afternoon communion service at St Paul’s. We spent some time in the National Portrait Gallery and the Victorian and Albert, but most of our museum time was at the British Museum and the Science Museum. The Science Museum, though it is marketed like a kids’ museum (and was full of school groups) is really an excellent science and technology museum for adults.

At the advice of folks at this forum, we got the London Travel Card from the railway system and this provided us with transportation as well as 2-for-1 discount at the Tower, the River Cruises, the Churchill War Rooms etc. It would have been a better deal if I hadn’t forgotten my passport picture and had to pay £ 5 for new passport pictures at a machine in Sainsbury. (Note: these picture machines are all over the place, including the railway stations.) But it still saved us some money. Besides the underground, we rode on the regular buses to see the city a little. If it hadn’t been that we were both limping (broken toe, sprained knee, general out-of-shape-ness) we would have done more, but we enjoyed what we did.

We did not have the energy to go to any fancy places to eat, so we mostly lunched at cafes or Pret a Manger and had supper at pubs near the hotel or brought food home to eat. The hotel did not have table napkins or paper towels, so it was important to remember to pick those up when we got take out.

The hotel provides breakfasts in your room (for a charge) from a nearby café for those who want it, but we did fine fixing our own. I had brought instant Starbucks coffee, but the hotel also provided a variety of instant coffees, teas and also the “pods” for a pod-coffee maker. (For my needs, there were too many kettles and coffee-makers on the counter. But it meant that other guests would have what they wanted.)

We took a car service recommended by the hotel back to the airport. The hassle here was that the hotel told us the service would take credit cards but did not tell us that this meant we had to have the driver phone in the card number and that the cost would be £4 more than the regular rate for the “service.” We would happily have taken out the money from the ATM the previous evening if we had known. (Note that the ATMS in London did NOT have a transaction fee for taking money out.) Otherwise the car service was prompt and the car (unlike the one that picked us up) was spacious and comfortable.

The only thing of note at Heathrow was that before entering security they required that lipstick and such should be included in the liquids bag, which is not the way it was in Spain, the Netherlands or the US. But luckily I could locate my make up bag easily and there was room in the liquids bag because I had the shampoo in the checked luggage. At Heathrow (unlike Spain and the Netherlands) we had to take off our shoes for security just as we do in the States.

I found the security at Heathrow very orderly and I liked the bigger bins and clearer labels that they had. In general, exiting the UK was not stressful and the trip back to the US uneventful.

All in all the trip was great. There were some things I would do differently (and next time I'll be sure to remember my passport photo) but mostly I think the planning paid off. For those who are interested in the laundry and clothes issue, I brought enough clothes for 14 or 15 days and my companion brought clothes for 12. We did hand laundry in Madrid (undergarments and a couple of polo-shirts) and again in London, where we also did a load at the laundromat. I may put a more detailed report of "practical things" like packing and laundry in the "tips" section if I have time later.

Anyway, I hope this report helps some people. I have purposely focused on the experience of 'traveling" more than on what we saw and so forth because I figure you can always get that from a tour book, but only another traveler will tell you whether you needed to take off your shoes for security or not. :) Feel free to ask me questions.

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