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Report 87: Three weeks in Spain

By Doru from Toronto, Spring 2002

Trip Description: Doru and his wife Josette did a 3 week trip to Spain (hotels, no vacation rentals) in April - May 2002.

Destinations: Countries - Spain; Regions/Cities - Andalusia, Barcelona, Madrid

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Art Trip; Day Tours; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People

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Page 1 of 7: Introduction

My wife Josette and I returned recently from a three-week trip to Spain (April 14 - May 5, 2002). We came back overwhelmed by the breadth of impressions collected and with the firm decision to return. It took me sometime to catch up with real life, grandchildren, work, income tax returns, etc., and then to digest the kaleidoscopic swirls of memories and to try to organise them in a more or less rational way. The result of the latter is this rather long "trip report". I wrote it mainly for myself, since time has a habit of rearranging details and rounding up impressions.

Now, to the story. First, the following attenuating/aggravating circumstances may help the reader understand our personal viewpoint throughout the trip:

--I have two artificial hips (yes, one on the right and another on the left; ha, ha, ha!) and so our daily routine and capacity to cover points of interest had to take into account the management of this circumstance. --Our latest meal of the day is usually in the late afternoon and this dictated some choices we made. After that, we may still have coffee, tea, fruits, desserts. When it was late and I was hungry, the bocadillos came to the rescue. There will be no impressions on Spanish-typical 10 p.m. dinners, but we compensated at lunchtime. --Finally, we are Spanish-challenged but our Romanian heritage, the Berlitz dictionary of Spanish phrases and/or the capacity to gesticulate in a meaningful way came to the rescue in just about any situation. While all or some of the above may appear as handicaps, in final analysis they didn’t impede any of our plans; we have reached any point we wished to reach and then some, in our own way, style and fashion.

Our planning of the trip was exclusively home-made, based on information available on Internet, including many of the suggestions provided by the "travelspain" Yahoo group.

The means of travel were somewhat eclectic, much like in that movie "Planes, trains and automobiles". We just substituted automobiles with buses, and (at least for us, and after seeing the hazards of traffic in the core of Spanish cities) this proved to be a wise decision. We used trains (the Talgo from Madrid to Barcelona and the AVE from Sevilla to Madrid), plane (from Barcelona to Granada) and buses (Granada-Cordoba and Cordoba-Sevilla). Of course, we used plenty of taxis, of which there is a multitude everywhere in Spain and whose cost is more than affordable, so one could say we also used automobiles…

The trip was a success and Spain as a country won our admiration for how advanced and modern it is, while maintaining and nurturing its most extraordinary heritage.

As imposed by our condition of travelers, we made the acquaintance of the Spanish people through the local services industry and we found them (with two exceptions, see further on) to be unfailingly polite and helpful. We particularly gained a high appreciation of the Spanish waiters, a breed unique in its ability to anticipate and satisfy one’s requests, with a glance, a flicker of recognition and prompt service, while quite ready ignore and not hassle you so that you can enjoy your meal, coffee, etc. Professional waiters are an almost extinct species in North America but we can compare from experience the Spanish waiters to the French and Italian ones, and Spain carries the day in our minds. This was true whether we happened to have lunch at the elegant Caballo Rojo in Córdoba or a coffee and agua at a crooked table in the midst of pedestrian traffic.

Then the taxi drivers, with two exceptions: one on arrival in Granada, on a Sunday morning, when the Granadine (!) taxi driver had no idea (!!) that the centre town is being closed to traffic on Sunday mornings, and had to back off and drive around until finding the "long way" he should have taken in first place, upon which he proceeded to remonstrate with us; the second in Madrid, where the driver of taxi number 03556 tried to pull an aggressive scam on us as he brought us from the Atocha train station to the hotel. I am a very generous tipper but this chap got nothing.

The weather was superb throughout the trip. We were forewarned that April and May are quite unpredictable anywhere in Spain and we covered quite a bit of ground. Still, the weather cooperated. In three weeks we had exactly (my word!) one and a half minutes of rain in Madrid and also a single day with single digit temperature, that same day, in Madrid. And, again the same day, there were dramatic reports on the Spanish TV about snow "just" north of Madrid and 0C temperatures in Ávila and Segovia, places in which we enjoyed sun and heat only two weeks earlier. Maybe it was rookies luck, but we enjoyed great temperatures (and then some in Córdoba and in particular in Sevilla) and sunny skies everywhere. (Later note: the first few days after we left, it rained cats and dogs everywhere in Spain, except in Sevilla…)

Euro Long live the Euro. How much simpler life can be! As a former foreign exchange trader, I can attest to this with some competence. Spain adapted to this change seemingly with ease, the one exception being the waiter at a café near the Chamartin train station, who gave me 55 Euro change to my 50 Euro bill after a consumption of coffees and churros. While I appreciated the noble gesture, I made sure he got the right change back.

Internet cafés Everywhere, inexpensive, full of kids, and some more mature specimens. The cheapest was 50 Eurocents for ½ hour in Sevilla and the most expensive (?) Euro 1.20 on Gran Via in Madrid for 40 minutes. Everybody was helpful, particularly in helping me identify the right combination of keys and strokes to obtain the character @. And it varies from keyboard to keyboard, so better ask. All "kids" in these cafes speak at least some English, which makes it easier.

Seniors privileges The vast majority of museums and other visitable sites offer pensionista discounts, from half cost to "gratis". All one needs is the photocopy of the passport showing the date of birth. However, in some places, such as the Sagrada Familia, the ticket cost represents a donation for the upkeep/construction and one thinks twice whether it is right to take advantage of the pensionista privilege or not.

Hotels We ran the gamut, from 4-star hotels in Madrid and Sevilla, to 1-star and 2-star hotels in Granada and Cordoba. In all cases we looked both at the location and the cost factors. Within financial reason, the location and/or previous recommendations guided the choice. In some cases we probably paid too much but you win some and you loose some and in final analysis we came right on budget. In some cases, such as Madrid and Granada, we stayed at two different hotels, in the first case because of circumstances, in the second by design. I will mention the hotels as I go along. With one exception, we were happy with the choices. Even with respect to the one exception (Hotel Albucasis in Cordoba), one could hardly beat the location.

Airport arrival and departure In both cases we booked with Aerocity, for arrival via Internet and for departure through the hotel front desk. In both cases the total cost for two persons, including luggage, was E14, and on weekends there is small E2 extra. They were right on time and provided good no hassle service at reasonable cost. What we could not predict was that our plane will arrive 40 minutes (!) early, so we waited.

At departure we were very impressed with the efficiency of IVA refund: it took only a couple of minutes, and the customs and the refund office were placed thoughtfully just across from each other.

Coffee, chocolate, churros There are some debates group about the quality of coffee in Spain. The general tone ran from uncomplimentary to indifferent. We think we know coffee (great tradition of Turkish coffee, espresso, etc…) and café con leche is not exactly our first choice. We tried café sólo and in most cases were happy with the results, quite comparable with the level of satisfaction met in France when ordering "un café, s.v.p.".or an Italian espresso.

A few especially good coffees stick in mind. The best at a café in the Chamartin train station in Madrid (more on this below…) and at a small café-bar in Granada (two tables, 4 chairs, 10 ft. of counter), on a little alley between the Cathedral and Pl. Pescadores, just on the left side of the alley, sorry I don’t have the exact address. Another in Córdoba at the café-bar Júda Lévi, in the plaza with the same name. The third, also in Córdoba, at the Caballo Rojo after lunch but then, maybe the wine included in the Menú del Día may have made me somewhat easier to satisfy… We have also waited breathlessly for the thick, heavy chocolate promised by many. Well, we tried a couple of times and decided there was too much jellyness (?) in the choco and went back to sólo coffees. The churros were great just about everywhere we happened to have them.

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