Trip Report - Spain - November, 2003
We returned to the US this past Thursday after a wonderful 2 week trip to Madrid and Andalucía, and I wanted to thank everyone for their suggestions, which helped make the trip so special. Of course, a particular thank-you to Maribel, who seemed to act as our personal travel agent and generously provided her files and answered many questions.
We arrived in Madrid 11/5 after an easy set of flights from Boston, and through Paris. Air France proved to be a very enjoyable experience. We chose it because it provided very short layover in Paris, with what they said would be pretty hassle-free connections ( less than one hour). Our flight was on Air Bus 340, which was configured with only 2 seats on each side, and we thought we had more leg room than usual. Flights were on time, food was good, and, when we arrived in Paris 10 minutes late, they met us and took us directly by a little van to the Madrid flight gate. Easy and pleasant - I would recommend the flights.
We stayed at the Hostal Marcarena just outside the Plaza Mayor. A colleague of my husband had suggested the hostal, and we found it to be quite pleasant. Our room, though somewhat small, was well equipped with a nice bathroom ( including a hair dryer), air conditioning, TV, and a cute little balcony over a little plaza. The location was excellent - we pretty much walked everywhere, and loved the liveliness of the Plaza Mayor. Even though it was just outside the Plaza, it was a very quiet room, with double windows.
We enjoyed Madrid a great deal - in particular, we thought the Prado and the Thyssen to be extraordinary. Both museums were well organized and the audio guides were wonderful. We spent lots of time wandering Madrid, exploring some of its many neighborhoods.
We had a great deal of trouble with the eating schedule - eating late at night just didn't seem to work for us. We're not night owls, and the late dining made it hard to just return to your hotel room and go to sleep with a huge meal to digest. So we often ate a larger meal at lunch time and had tapas or a light meal about 8 or 8:30. That proved to be difficult at times, since we had trouble finding places that opened early enough, and we often found ourselves wandering about and then eating with other tourists.
One highlight of our time in Madrid was the historical tour and pub crawl with Stephen Drake-Jones of the Wellington society, who offers the "tour" if you join his society. He is as an eccentric British expatriate, and is an historian and lover of Spain. We had a wonderful evening with him. Our group was small - just us and another couple (a young New Orleans couple on their honeymoon) as well as Stephen and his fiancée, Connie. Our 2 hour tour lasted over 4 hours. He introduced us to some history of the city and we went to several tapas bars, and sampled different wines/sherries as well as tapas. It was great fun - the group was a good one, and we all got along well. The charge to join the Society is 25 euros per person, and we split the cost of the drinks and tapas at the end (except for the first place, where Stephen paid). Joining the society is a bit of a gimmick, sure, but it was a wonderful evening, and we felt it was well worth the cost. We saw a part of Madrid night life that we had not seen up till then. In addition, Stephen has a multitude of other trips and tours and is available to members by phone and e-mail to answer questions while you are in Spain. A great night and I'd highly recommend it!
As suggested by Maribel, we got our AVE train tickets at the airport at the RENFE office after we got our luggage and went through customs. It was easy, but because we got the tickets just a few days before we were leaving for Sevilla, we had to get seats in a smoking cars. The train is fast and convenient, but the smoking car proved to be difficult for me because I was coming down with a virus and the smoke really irritated me. We might have been able to travel at a later time and get a non smoking car, but didn't want to sit around with our luggage at Atoche station - though the station is truly gorgeous with its tropical garden! In any case, we arrived uneventfully in Sevilla and quickly got a cab to Las Casas de la Juderia in the Santa Cruz area. The Juderia is a wonderful, attractive, and well run hotel and we loved it and Sevilla. We saw many of the sights, including the Cathedral and the Alcazar - truly beautiful. Unfortunately, I was feeling pretty poorly throughout our stay in Sevilla, and we slowed down quite a bit so I could rest. We ate at the Café Modesto 3 times I think, since it was so close, and had a varied menu. We loved it - ate lunch there as well as tapas. We never did get to the fancier restaurants and flamenco, since I was feeling so lousy, but we really loved Sevilla, and definitely want to return.
After 3 days, we picked up our rental car and headed for Arcos de la Frontiera and our stay in the countryside. Arcos is a attractive hill town, with the whitewashed buildings representative of the area. The setting is quite attractive. We stayed at El Convento - a small hotel on top of the village near the Parador. Nice hotel and we had a stunning view from our terrace. We stayed 2 nights in Arcos. We spent a day meandering to Jerez ( went to a sherry factory) and then south to San Lucar and across to Cadiz. A nice, slow paced day. We then headed to Ronda, and checked into the magnificent Parador - we loved Ronda. Again, the setting is gorgeous, and there seems to be lots to see and do. Unfortunately, we were there for only an afternoon. In retrospect, we think we should have probably stopped at Arcos, but used Ronda instead as a base. The drives through the mountains to Ronda and in the surrounding villages was just breathtaking. We could have used more time there.
I wanted to share one thought I had about the white villages of Andalucía. We have been to both Tuscany and Umbria in Italy and Provence in France - both rich in hilltop towns. Each country has somewhat different architecture and approaches to their construction of these towns, but, in many ways, they are alike. After a while, these towns can all blend in together. What separates them, in some ways, are their settings. The mountains around Ronda and continuing on to Granada are spectacular - I wish I had had time to just enjoy the mountains and later the sea.
Granada is spectacular. The Sierra Nevada snow capped mountains surrounding the city are magnificent. We stayed at the Hotel America, on the grounds of the Al Alhambra and near the Parador. The America was quite pleasant - the rooms are small, but nicely furnished with modern bathrooms. I can understand the debate about where to stay in Granada. Staying up near the Al Alhambra was quiet and special. It was fun walking around at night and seeing everything lit up. Down town seemed noisy and congested, but most of the restaurants were there. The small efficient bus going up and down the hill was great, and we went into town most evenings. Still, it felt like a bit of a shlep. We loved the Alhambra, and spent a pleasant day in the Albaicin district. All very nice.
Leaving Granada, we headed south to the sea. We went to the Nerja Caves (beautiful, but a tour guide would have added to the experience), and then lunched in the lovely town of Nerja, overlooking the Mediterranean . We headed to Málaga, and checked into the Parador. We had planned on dropping off our luggage and heading for town, but decided to have a drink on the gorgeous veranda overlooking the port. We spent 2+ hours in a wonderful conversation with 2 businessmen from town, drinking tea (or at least I was drinking tea) and watching the sun set over the port. It was a wonderful way to end our time in Andalucía, though we never really did investigate Málaga. In fact, we saw little of the Costa del Sol, but much of what we did see from the car looked a bit like Miami Beach or Cancun - rows of hotels and apartment buildings. Too bad what we do to our coastlines!
We particularly loved staying at the 2 Paradores (and we ate at 2 others) , and can now understand travelers going from Parador to Parador - it sounds like it would be great fun!
Heading back to Madrid on the Talgo 200 was restful and pleasant, thought the 4 ? hours seemed long. The seats are not as plush as the AVE, but certainly nice enough and I would recommend the train. Our last day was spent doing some shopping and visiting one last museum. The flight out was uneventful, and we got some more shopping in at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Thanks again for everyone's help. Sorry I have been so wordy . Maribel, your files were so helpful. My husband downloaded them onto his Pocket-PC PDA, and we were able to look things up all the time. From time to time, we'd find a restaurant closed for vacation (we were off-season). In Sevilla, the store Feliciano Foronda at Alvarez Quintero 52 proved to be a demolished hole in the wall, under construction, but then as we walked farther down the street, we found it had simply moved to number 44.
All in all, it was a great trip, though I was sick for several days. I would love to return to visit the northern part of the country.
But, I think our next trip will be back to France. So much to see, but now that my husband's retired, we have more time for travel!
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Trip Report - Spain - November, 2003