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Spain 14 days April 2016 trip review

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.

(part 1)

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.

(cont in 1st reply below)

Posted by
208 posts

(part 2)

Local guides - good to very good although I sometimes had difficulty following them because either the subject was complex and/or their English skills weren't quite up to the task.

Driver - friendly, skillful and hard-working.

More off-tour food I forgot in part 1 - in Toledo, marzipan from Santo Tome and cheese from Casa Cuartero - the latter has many, many cheeses, but I stuck with a (wonderful) herb-encrusted Manchego because I knew it would keep if I carried it around for a couple hours before sharing with buddies. A few words of tourist Spanish and knowledge of Spanish food words helps at Casa Cuartero.

Could front ofc have done anything better?

  • instructions for getting to Barcelona city center presume landing at terminal 2 (from where the train to city center departs). However, we landed at terminal 1. Airport signage doesn't make clear how to get between the two (or even that you need to do so) and the location of the shuttle bus stop isn't well-marked and was hard to find even after asking. If RS doesn't get around to providing that info, you need to ask for the exact location of the T1 shuttle bus stop (directly in front of the Airport Aerobus stop). The green shuttle buses are clearly labeled in English, although the lettering is small.
  • Information about using Travel Guard is incorrect if you are using a mobile with a CelloMobile sim card (often recommended on the RS travel forum). According to CelloMobile, in Europe you should call *-1-715-295-9383-# (if you dialed the number from a US landline, it'd be 1-715-295-9383) - ignore the information about making a collect call to Travel Guard beginning with 00.

More comments?

  • Barcelona subway provides no printed maps. If you want one, you should print one from the internet ahead of time.
  • Definitely not a good tour for vegetarians! The Spanish love their jamon and other meats. Our guide said arranging meals for vegetarian guests is very challenging.
  • Pay attention to prices when purchasing items in big stores. We got overcharged twice because computerized prices didn't match the prices on the shelf tags. A local at one customer service desk was also resolving a price dispute, so I suspect that big stores may have pricing systems issues.
  • The days can be long and there are steps to climb, but the ground and steps are reasonably even. I didn't need a walking stick for my minor orthopedic issues as I did in Greece.
  • Bring layers and sunscreen if traveling early in the season. It can go from chilly to hot enough to cause sunburn
  • Laundry services were available in Madrid (day 4), Granada (day 7) and Sevilla (day 12, 2 days before departure)
  • This was the first RS tour on which our guides warned us frequently about pickpockets and even had a code word we could use in the group if we suspected anything fishy going on.
  • This applies to travel in unfamiliar cities anywhere: at least on an iPhone, Google Maps now allows you to download maps for offline use. When these work (and they almost always did - even in tiny alleys in small towns, although it sometimes took a bit of waiting for the map to locate us), you can often find stores and restaurants by name and see yourself travel in real time on the Google map, even if you are in airplane mode (not roaming, no data plan). The downloads must be done when connected to WiFi (e.g., in a hotel), are big and need to be "updated" daily to prevent expiration, but can be deleted after you complete travel in a particular town. As a backup, we used Ulmon maps (free app for Android and iOS) - not as robust as Google maps, but would often work if Google Maps stalled.
Posted by
8060 posts

What a terrific Trip/Tour Report! Thanks so much for taking the time to do it and I love the way you organized it. I was very interested in your comment about the food and guides having difficulty organizing for vegetarians, so thanks for adding that!

I cracked up when I read your comment about the code word for pickpockets as what instantly came to mind was my nephew's HS basketball team (very, very small school) calling out plays...one of the kids had misunderstood one of the play names and called out White bread, white bread which stuck. I could see one of my RS tour groups doing the head pat and calling White Bread.

Posted by
217 posts

Thank you so much for the tour review! I am taking this tour in about five weeks and really appreciate hearing about your experiences.

As for the separate tapas tour, when did you take it and how did you find it? Was it during the RS tour, or something you did on your own afterwards?

Thanks!
Caroline

Posted by
408 posts

This was a great review. I REALLY miss the old trip reviews. The new ones are not very helpful. We are not going on this trip but your report sure made me want to go. Maybe next year......

Posted by
208 posts

Caroline - I bumbled into the food tour site while doing Spain food research on the internet, but it was highly rated on TripAdvisor and I'm pretty sure it's not the only good company, so you could start your search with TripAdvisor. We did one tour in Barcelona before the official start of the RS tour and then I checked with the RS guide to make sure there had been no changes in the schedule before booking a second tour with the same company, but with a slightly different focus, in Madrid on our free night. If you want to do your own tapas bar hopping, I recommending doing the outside tour early on so you will have the skills for use later in the trip.

Posted by
1909 posts

David & C, thank you so much for posting this personal and most comprehensive trip report. I very much enjoyed reading it and appreciate your taking the time to post such wonderful advice and information. I haven't been on this Spain tour yet, but this certainly makes it rise to the top of my "would like to take" list. I, too, miss the old tour reviews, not really much pertinent information in what's currently published.