Trip report: mostly Spain, some Portugal

Old Jul 18th, 2008, 07:26 AM
  #1  
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Trip report: mostly Spain, some Portugal

We had an incredible trip. Thanks to all of you who helped by providing insights, tips and suggestions. DH and I spent most of the month of May in Spain and enjoyed the unique culture that is Spain. We also briefly visited one city in Portugal—Lisbon, for four days, and found it so agreeable that we decided that it’s a place to return someday. Actually, for us, there were three cities that fit this “we’ll definitely return someday” category: Lisbon, Barcelona, and Segovia. And to think, we almost didn’t include Barcelona in our itinerary!

This overview style trip report is divided into three main sections. The first section covers several highlights and favorite places, which includes some incredible art and architecture spanning a timeline back to prehistoric, and the second lists our hotels and some food, and the third discusses transportation. Transportation played a major role in our trip since we moved around a lot. I didn’t list our day to day sojourns—it would be way too long of a report. And I believe this is plenty long—maybe even too long. And, it is very tardy—apologies. Our trip was in May and here it is mid-July already. I just wanted to thank everyone for the help, so being late is better than not at all. Please feel free to ask me any questions or to clarify anything in this report. Or, just add your comments to anything I’ve written.

First, the highlights:

These are our top ten significant memories in the order in which we experienced them, but not in order of preference.

-The city of Barcelona
We started our trip in this impressive city. The food was incredible and our most memorable dining experiences took place here. Maybe it was because this was our first destination, maybe because Maribel and others gave us so many good choices as answers to our dining questions, who knows. But, we ate and drank very well in Barcelona. Alone or with our old friends whom we met there, we ate at some great tapas venues (Cal Pep, Taller de Tapas, Boss Born, Pinotxo Bar in the market). The Spanish wines were reasonably priced and we had several from the Ribera del Duero and Rioja regions, as well as the regional cava and champagnes.

We really enjoyed Gaudi’s Parc Guell and the Casa Mila. The Sagrada Familia was okay and impressive, but not in the enjoyable way the other two places were. Gaudi certainly had a unique vision, and that is always refreshing. We’d have loved to have ventured out of the main part of the city to see his other works, but did not have enough time.

We enjoyed strolling down the Ramblas and getting lost in the Barri Gotic network of streets. Around every corner was a little square or church or a fascinating shop of some kind. Our hotel was located in this area so we were in the surrounding streets a lot.

We took a tour of the Palau de la Musica Catalana and would absolutely love to hear some performance there someday. What a magnificent concert hall!

On a very different note we also enjoyed the Magic Fountains light display. What a nice thing for a city to offer its people each evening.

To be continued…

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Old Jul 18th, 2008, 07:28 AM
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Continuing…

-The Prado Museum in Madrid
The Prado is one of the top museums that we’ve ever visited, period. What a collection! And with the Goya exhibit going on at the same time—we visited twice. We spent one complete afternoon viewing the artwork on each floor at the Reina Sofia. And, I know we should have scheduled some time for the Thyssen-Bornemisza, but when we found that we had time for only one more museum visit, we went back to the Prado to see our favorites all over again.

-Attending a Visigoth Mass at the impressive cathedral in Toledo
We arrived in Toledo early and in time for this gem. The priests (several of them) chanted and sang beautifully throughout the entire service. It was a very moving, very special, one-of-a-kind experience.

-The day trip to Segovia from Madrid
We love viewing art and architecture and there was plenty of amazing art and architectural structures everywhere we ventured. Spanish architecture is so rich. For example, we had drinks at a sidewalk café at sunset (incredible light) right beside the Roman aqueduct in Segovia. You could almost reach over and touch the ancient structure from the café seating. We wondered how many others through the years have had the same sense of awe and reverence when viewing this public work. Also in Segovia we wandered through the Contemporary art museum (E. Vicente and many others) to see some contemporary work. We were there on a Thursday, it was free, and it wasn’t crowded. There, as well as in several other contemporary art spaces in different cities, we were pleased (and not at all surprised) to find that the contemporary art scene is very much alive and well. We were in agreement though, that contemporary art seems uniformly similar anywhere one goes in the western world. Somehow, in the distant past, the art of one’s country had a certain style or identity. That is being blurred today, probably by globalization. Thanks everyone for your help in mentioning where to find contemporary art in Spain.

Now, I just have to mention the curious looking carousal and big pink soft sculpture pig in the main square near the aqueduct. They were both packed with kids having a great time. What imaginations those artists had! The riding animals on the carousal were the most unusual we had ever seen. Are these festive items always there?

-The city of Lisbon
Lisbon was such a pleasure to visit. We were told by friends that we’d really enjoy it, and we did. It was historic and modern at the same time: beautiful old structures and a first class art museum (Gulbenkian). We stopped at the Port Wine Institute at the top of the hill where Elevador da Gloria ends, and had a few sample drinks. We also enjoyed stopping by a couple of other establishments for glass of ginginha, a local syrupy cherry brandy liqueur. The Lisbon people were very friendly and remarkably knowledgeable in their English speaking skills (much better than in Spain, I have to say). No matter whom we talked with, young, old, tourist industry related personnel, or just people on the street, they spoke English very well.

We were eating on “restaurant row” and watching an artist paint tiles across the street from our café table. We went over afterwards to buy a tile and in conversation with him mentioned that we’d like to know his recommendation for a place to hear Fado music. He told us how to get to “Jaime,” a local establishment in the Graca section of town and right on the tram 28 route, on Rua da Graca. It was 5PM on a Sunday and he said they’ll be singing until 8PM, most likely. We went, heard a couple of good singers and an excellent guitar player, and had a very personal experience. A couple of them came over to our table after finishing and had a lengthy conversation with us. We took some photos, drank some more wine, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

There was a church just off the restaurant row that was totally mesmerizing—Icreja De Sao Domingos. The interior still revealed a catastrophic fire on its scorched stone walls and pillars. It was a hauntingly beautiful space. The interior colors shifted and changed through the course of the day. We visited several times, and each time the lighting was different.

To be continued…
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Old Jul 18th, 2008, 07:29 AM
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Continuing…

-Attending a Flamenco show in Seville
We chose a small show, Casa de la Memoria, one that was cited by many on this forum and we enjoyed it immensely. Our Hotel (Amadeus) booked the 10:30 show for us upon arrival.

-Touring the Alhambra in Granada
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the Alhambra. It is a must see! The Nasrid palace architecture is unique and so splendid. We arrived early and saw several of the other structures before our allotted Nasrid Palaces entry time. (Our tickets were booked ahead of time, online at ServiCaixa.) We didn’t realize that on the ticket there was another timed entry—for the summer palace at the far end of the Generalife gardens. We had finished seeing almost everything and were strolling slowly through the gardens and happened upon this small palace, only to find we missed our time by five minutes. We were denied entry, so, yes, they are very strict about being on time. We regretted this omission, but couldn’t do anything about it.

-Touring the Pileta cave near Ronda
Ronda was a last minute replacement town in our itinerary. We originally planned go to Tarifa, and then take a ferry over to Tangier, Morocco, for the day. This would have been a two-night stop between Granada and Cadiz. It proved too difficult to obtain lodging and other transportation information, and we couldn’t seem to find a day guide for Tangier. So, on advice from fodorites on this forum we chose Ronda. Thank you all. We loved Ronda. And more notably we were able to see Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings at the Pileta Cave near Ronda. This was an adventure in itself. To get to the cave, we thought we might have to rent a car for the day as there is no local tour going from Ronda to the cave. But after checking the car’s cost (38Euro plus additional taxes, insurance and gas), it appeared to be about the same as hiring a taxi to take us, wait there for 1 ½ hours, then bring us back (55Euro). We went to the Tourist Information office at the square, near the big, impressive, “new” bridge, and asked them to call ahead for information. They were extremely helpful. They called the cave personnel, then called and booked our taxi for 4PM, later that day. It went very smoothly and the cave paintings were incredible. We’d been to other caves, large and small, with the usual stalactites and stalagmites, but never one with prehistoric art. We saw the real art, not a facsimile!

-Having a demonstration of the Torre Tavira camera obscura in Cadiz
I’m completely absorbed in the world of photography, and one of my quests is to see camera obscuras around the world. (Unusual quest, I know, but there’s really only a handful of vintage cameras obscuras still around to see) I’ve been to and had demonstrations at the ones in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Havana, Cuba. Now, on this trip, I add two more—the one at the Castle of Sao Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Torre Tavira in Cadiz, Spain. The person giving the demonstration at Torre Tavira in Cadiz was particularly knowledgeable and added significant historic information about Cadiz’s past. It was quite interesting to hear. And, again, it was an historical experience of, about, and in Spain.

-Touring the Mesquita in Cordoba
This again is another unique architectural wonder. We arrived early because I wanted to take early morning lighting photographs without crowds of people. The light was simply horrible that early. The day was rainy and the sky was overcast at the time. Later, after 11AM was much better for shooting. I just had to work around the many people who were there by then.

To be continued…
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Old Jul 18th, 2008, 07:30 AM
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Continuing…
Hotels and Food:

Our hotel stays were mostly in the one or two stars category, with one exception, a parador. For such an extensive and lengthy trip, we reluctantly dropped from our usual three star to a one or two star hotel category because of the poor dollar-euro exchange rate. We delightfully found all our hotel choices to be acceptable. All were in central and convenient city locations which was a primary condition for us.

All our hotel selections were fine, some better than others, with our favorites being Hotel Europa in Madrid, Hotel Anacapri in Granada, and Residential Florescente in Lisbon, Portugal. Each of these three hotels seemed to have amenities and good service above and beyond what we thought a typical two star place would have. Each of these three had internet service for guests in the lobby (great for daily email checks, pay or free), CNN channel in English (for catching up on world news), and good breakfast selections (one was pay extra, two were included). The service provided by hotel staff was excellent—courteous, efficient, and in English if you wanted. Having fluent English spoken as we tried to make plans for our daily excursions made things a lot easier. And we came to appreciate it more and more as the trip proceeded.

The Atlantico parador in Cadiz (the exception to our one or two star stays) was very lovely with a strategic location overlooking the bay. Many rooms had balconies overlooking the water (ours did). Our stay included an extensive and elaborate breakfast buffet, the best of the trip. This parador is a rather modern looking building, not an historic castle or unique monument, so I’m not sure if it fits the typical parador “charm” category.

Spain hotels where we stayed and our favorite restaurants:

Barcelona- El Jardi. Ideally located on Placa Sant Josep Oriol square in the Barri Gotic. We loved the location, but weren’t overjoyed with this hotel. Besides the tapas places mentioned above, we had a very nice meal in the Eixample area at Tenorio.

Madrid- Hotel Europa. One of our favorite hotels. Terrific location at Puerta del Sol and across the street from El Corte Ingles store. (Restaurants: Madrid- La Trucha, Segovia- Cuevas-Meson de San Esteban, Toledo- Cason de los Lopez de Toledo)

Seville-Hotel Amadeus. Good location in the heart of Seville.

Granada- Hotel Anacapri. We loved this hotel, its breakfast buffet, the helpful hotel staff, and its central location.

Ronda- Hotel San Francisco. Hotel was satisfactory, easy, walking distance to both the bus and train station and to a small grocery store. (Restaurants: Casa Maria—very memorable with excellent food and service, and Restaurante del Escudero,)

Cadiz- Hotel Atlantico Parador. A grand four star hotel in a beautiful location with all the usual bells and whistles— bell hops, concierge, fantastic breakfast buffet, large rooms, some rooms with balconies, spacious lobby and commons area for guests

Cordoba- Hotel Albucasis. Convenient central location, but didn’t care much for this hotel. (Restaurant: Taberna Casas Salinas, loved the food and ate there twice)

Madrid airport hotel- Tryp Diana. A typical airport hotel—efficient, clean, affordable. Despite mixed reviews, it worked out fine and met our last night requirements. However, we would probably stay in central Madrid if we had it to do over again.

In Portugal:

Lisbon- Residential Florescente. A great find! Thanks to all of you here who mentioned it. The price was incredible and the location was perfect—right in the heart of it all. Restaurants: Bom Jardin Rei Dos Frangos, Adega Santo Anteo, and Estrela da Se)

To be continued…
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Old Jul 18th, 2008, 07:32 AM
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Continuing…
Transportation:

We used public transportation exclusively—busses, metros, trains, etc. In addition to these and to our primary international flight, we took one Iberian flight, a few taxis, and walked, a lot. We walked every day rain or shine, and there was a lot of rain! We were there to explore Spain, so that is what we did.

We booked some trains and the Madrid-Lisbon Easy Jet flight, before we arrived. To take advantage of the great web fares, we booked the following trips ahead of time through the Renfe website: 1) AVE- Barcelona to Madrid, 2) AVANT- Madrid-Toledo-Madrid, 3) AVANT- Madrid-Segovia-Madrid, and 4) ALTARIA- Cordoba to Madrid.

We had issues with the remaining transportation trips that we had to book once we got to Spain. On arrival, we booked two bus trips through the travel agency at El Corte Ingles in Barcelona; 1) (Alsa) Lisbon, Portugal to Seville, and 2) (Movelia) Seville to Granada. In Madrid, again at the travel agency at El Corte Ingles, we booked two additional train trips; 1) (Andalucia Reg. Nat. Express) Granada to Ronda, and 2) (ALTARIA) Cadiz to Cordoba. In hindsight, I really wish I would have asked transportation related questions on this board, since I’m sure I would have had good responses and we wouldn’t have been so frustrated. It was my error for not doing so. So in lieu of this, I would highly recommend booking all possible transportation before arriving and asking plenty of transportation questions on this forum.

We had a tough time explaining what, when, and where we wanted to travel. It took a very, very long time with the travel agents. And, even though we brought printed out pages from computer searches that described which train or bus, from where to where, we still had trouble. We had some specific questions and concerns about these particular trips so we had wanted to wait to book and to have a discussion to clarify some items. But we actually got so frustrated in Barcelona we quit booking, which is why we continued the bookings with different agents in Madrid.

We never did get the bus booking from Ronda to Cadiz, although we tried in a few more cities. We had to wait until we arrived in Ronda. This last bus trip was on a limited service and regional bus (Transportes General Comes), apparently only possible to book from the originating city. Even in Ronda, the originating city, we had a difficult time with the finicky bus station agent. Nevertheless, we enjoyed all our train and bus trips and would not have changed any of them or taken different routes.

Actually, the regional bus from Ronda to Cadiz passed through several small, charming hill towns and picked up and dropped off people all along the way. It was delightful and enriching in that it was authentic and very simple. We were clearly the on-board tourists, since we were probably the only nonregional people on the bus.

Overall May was a very good month spent in very good places!
In a few years, we intend to return to the Iberian peninsula. We’ll wait until the dollar-euro exchange rate is better. At that time we’d like to explore Portugal, go north, then cross to the green Spain region, detour into the Rioja and perhaps the Ribera del Duero wine regions and end where we started this trip—in Barcelona. And, we’ll be asking tons of questions at that time.

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Old Jul 18th, 2008, 03:30 PM
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Thanks for posting! Very informative. We're wondering whether to move Portugal "up" on "the list". We just might have to!
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Old Jul 18th, 2008, 03:59 PM
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wow, kathleen, what a great report of a great trip.

I wonder if the time slot for the summer palace at the alhambra is new? when we went about 2 years ago, i don't remember any restrictions in the generalife at all.

your tip about using a taxi rather than hiring a car is a good one.

regards, ann
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Old Jul 19th, 2008, 04:26 AM
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dcd- Because of our very pleasant stay in Lisbon, we, too, have moved Portugal (the rest of Portugal) up on our list.

annhig- Before our trip, I tried to read each and every report on places in Spain. And since we were going to the Alhambra, I paid particular attention to those reports. I may have missed it, but I don't remember anyone saying anything about a second timed entry. Was the summer palace a gem like the others?

The taxi in Ronda (to get to the cave) was the best solution for us, since we really wanted to see the cave paintings, and didn't want to drive. I'm not sure we'd have found it on our own. The last, minor dirt road up the side of the hill was remote.

Thanks both, for your kind remarks on my report.
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Old Jul 19th, 2008, 12:47 PM
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hi kathleen,

I don't remember the summer palace specifically; by the time we got to the buildings of Generalife we'd been there for about 4 hours already.

there were some lovely buildings with courtyards and flowers around pools and fountains, which I assume was the summer palace.

I don't remember anyone mentioning any timed entry in the Generalife, which is what makes me think that it's very new. sorry you didn't know about it.

regards, ann
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