Expanded version of review submitted to RS - using the "old" review format and minus some fluff that'll probably appear on the RS Spain tour page.
Wow Moment - Meeting local Salinas family for brunch. I had learned a bit of conversational and tourist Spanish before the trip and our hostess knew a bit of English - just enough to make the experience truly delightful; on top of that, the home-cooked meal was delicious.
Hotels - 3 were especially good in at least one way:
- Hotel Picasso (Barcelona) - great combo of location, helpful staff and modern amenities
- Hotel Molino del Arco (Ronda) - charming rural setting
- Hotel Amadeus Sevilla - especially friendly staff
Other hotels were basic, but central locations made up for lack of amenities. The only time I thought that facilities issues were a real problem was at Hotel Anacapri (Granada). We don't mind tiny rooms, but we had a tiny room with two single uncomfortable beds and the bathtub didn't have grab bars. The hotel hands out disposable nonskid bathmats (I'm guessing that's b/c one of their guests ended up in a local ER for stitches, according to our guide).
Most hotels did not provide kleenex and several did not have hot water kettles in the rooms. One buddy was surprised that hair dryers are universal (we never pack a hair dryer for European travel).
Tour meals - especially good in Barcelona and Madrid (excellent local cuisine), Segovia (suckling pig), Salinas (home-cooked brunch) and at the olive oil mill (simple "field hands" lunch). Surprisingly though, to get a truly good feel for how to "hop" from tapas bar to tapas bar, we had to book with a separate tour company specializing in providing a tapas bar experience, which I strongly recommend doing b/c such companies know where the good stuff is and can teach you how to order. And to learn about the different varieties of jamon, you need to do your own experimenting by purchasing small samples of different types. Off-tour food that we can recommend: cloistered nuns' cookies (anywhere you can find a convent), (Syrian) pastries at Pastisseria Principe in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona, candied oranges at La Campana in Sevilla, tapas at Eslava in Sevilla, in Madrid, sweet "Miro" vermouth and jamon at Taberna Real at Plaza Isabel II & churros at Chocolateria San Gines (be sure to go when they're busy - we went twice and once the churros were stale, probably b/c we arrived late at night when there was little turnover. Spanish hot chocolate is nothing to write home about, but good churros are well worth sampling). If you speak Spanish or have a good Spanish-English food dictionary, try the little bar in the back of Casa Moreno in Sevilla - can't promise superb food, but the experience can't be beat.
Experiences - an excellent mix of art, architecture and culture. We like learning about food, so especially appreciated the olive oil and sherry tours and opportunities to sample locally-produced food and purchase saffron. Local guides did an excellent job providing their perspectives about their native culture.
Pace - There was as usual plenty of time for exploration on our own - although sometimes I felt that I could have used more free time in big cities with many different things to see and less in smaller towns where a lot of the sights were "more of the same." In places like that, travel hobbies such as hiking, photography or sketching help.
Guides - Chief guide and assistant excellent in all respects; we really appreciated their experience, organizational skills and attention to the start times and pacing of our days. They were also enormously fun and charming dinner companions. I realize that start times are often a function of distances that must be covered. Nonetheless, start times on this tour were just a bit (maybe 1/2 hour) later after breakfast than on past tours, which made an huge difference in comfort.
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