We visited exotic Spain as part of a Tauck eight-day tour last September; adding pre and post days in Barcelona and Madrid.
Hubby and I like to travel in September, primarily to avoid the crush of tourist crowds. For most locations, the weather is quite pleasant, rates are a little better, and we also get to celebrate our anniversary in style.
We decided to splurge on a luxury tour, because we liked the itinerary and accommodations. It was especially nice having all the logistical details handled for us in a country where we didn’t speak the language.
Throughout Spain, we stayed in five-star hotels all ideally situated. Each local guide was exceptional, which added enormously to the travel experience. Transportation was seamless and pretty plush, with a bus driver who provided extraordinary service. And, though most of the couples in our group were a generation older, socializing with them enhanced the vacation.
Join me now on an overview of our trip to Spain, with major highlights of each destination.
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What Have I Been Waiting For?
Why haven’t I blogged about the trip sooner? Well, a week after we returned home from Spain, I retired. Only a month later, I went and launched Debbee’s Buzz. By then, it was Halloween and the holiday season was in full swing. That left no time to share our Spain vacation.
In fact, I still haven’t printed our pictures! That’s a parallel project I’m working on as I post about our trip.
A Taste of Spain
A Week in Spain is an eight-day tour which Tauck rates as a 3 pace, 2 activity level on a scale of 1 to 4. Getting up extremely early a few times was the most challenging part of the trip.
“Our one-week Spain vacation reveals the Moorish as well as Jewish and Christian influences on the history and culture of Spain. Discover the country’s rich cultural heritage in Barcelona, Granada, Ronda, Seville and Andalucía, Córdoba, and Madrid. Enjoy a private flamenco performance… a horse-drawn carriage ride through Maria Luisa Park in Seville… a visit to Seville Cathedral… a guided tour of Madrid’s Museo del Prado… an included on-tour flight from Barcelona to Málaga… and much more.”
Note: I have no affiliation with Tauck or any of the hotels, restaurants or attractions in this post.
A Not So Great Start
We elected to go to Spain instead of France, because of terrorist activity in Paris and Nice. Ironically, just prior to our arrival was the tragic assault on the Las Ramblas in Barcelona. And, the U.S. was in the midst of a trio of back-to-back hurricanes. With family in Florida and South Carolina — including elderly parents — it was looking like maybe we needed to stay put.
But, everyone urged us to go, Tauck re-routed our flight out of the path of a storm, and off we went with some apprehension.
Oh, and did I mention that Catalonia Province was in the midst of an independence movement? Yeesh! But, other than lots of Catalonian flags everywhere, Barcelona was a gorgeous, vibrant and happening place.
In order to adjust to jet-lag and the time change, we added an extra day and a half to our stay in Barcelona. It’s also good to consider that the Spanish eat lunch and dinner much later than we are accustomed to.
For the first night, we ate tapas style in the beautiful Plaza Real; an easy walk from our hotel.
Placa Reial is a square in the Barri Gotic lying next to La Ramblas. It is a well-known tourist attraction, especially at night.
We started our first full day early, exploring Gaudi and modernista sites around Barcelona on our own.
Casa Batlló is located in the middle of fashionable Passeig de Gràcia, an avenue where prestigious bourgeois families lived. Gaudi transformed this home into one of his most original works.
Tourist Tip: If you’re going on an organized tour, it’s a good idea to read the detailed itinerary of what you’ll be seeing at each destination. That way, when there is free time, you can plan ahead what to see and do. In Barcelona, we booked timed tickets to a number of popular Gaudi sites online, not covered in the Tauck tour.
Later that evening, we met our Tauck group for a welcome cocktail orientation and dinner back at the hotel. After a buffet breakfast the next morning, we headed out on a guided walking tour of the vibrant Ramblas, and into the atmospheric Barri Gotic.
In the heart of the Barri Gotic was the incredible Cathedral of Barcelona. Astonishing inside and out!
Barcelona Cathedral is a magnificent Gothic church. It is also one of the largest and most impressive religious edifices in Spain.
Later, we visited Sagrada Família, the fanciful, unfinished cathedral designed by Gaudi. Sagrada Familia couldn’t have been more different than the cathedral. Although not to my taste, I found Sagrada Familia fascinating. Especially interesting, was watching it still under construction.
First of the four to built, was the Nativity facade. The Nativity facade gets its name, because it shows the birth, childhood and young manhood of Jesus. And, it’s the only one Gaudi completed in his lifetime.
Making Beautiful Music
We had the rest of the afternoon on our own, and decided to tour Barcelona’s amazing music hall. It was a last minute, impromptu decision that is not-to-be-missed.
Designed in the modernista style, the Palace of Catalan Music, was completed in 1908. Today, the Palau is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yes, that stained glass ceiling actually dips down like a funnel!
We had a very early start the next morning, as we caught a flight to Malaga on Spain’s eastern coast.
Surrounded by river valleys and sitting above a deep ravine, Ronda is a place that literally takes your breath away. A mountaintop city, Ronda Gorge, Moorish Town is set dramatically above a deep ravine.
It’s nearly impossible to tear yourself away from the views in Ronda. But, it’s also a marvelous place to wander around, while enjoying all the local, cliff-hanging places to eat and drink. Ronda’s wonderful old town dates back to the Romans!
Additionally, Ronda is home of modern day bullfighting and of a legendary bullring.
The Real Maestranza bullring is one of the oldest and most picturesque in Spain. And, although we did not see a bullfight, the tour of the ring and museum were highlights of Ronda. I only wish we had had more time to explore, and would definitely have loved to overnight there. Time spent on the Tauck tour in Ronda felt rushed.
After flying from Barcelona, traveling to and touring Ronda, and then on the road to Granada, we arrived quite late to our hotel. It was too full of a day, especially with a very early start. Everyone had to rush to their rooms and change for dinner. We were beat!
I tried to rally myself so we could see the Alhambra dramatically lit at night, but was so tired we went straight from dinner to bed.
Thousand and One Nights in a Day
Exploring the Alhambra and Generalife Gardens is a not-to-be-missed, bucket list destination. And, I want to go back! It was our single favorite experience during our vacation in Spain.
We were fortunate to be able to walk through a forest path right from out hotel, to be amongst the first to enter the complex. Tickets to access the Alhambra often sell out. It was wonderful to have time to explore before the hordes arrived.
The Alhambra was the palace and fortress of the Moorish monarchs of Granada. In Arabic the name signifies “the red.” Its derived from the reddish colour of the tapia (rammed earth) outer walls.
Through the Oratory is the Court of the Myrtles, with a large reflecting pond at its center.
I was in awe of our surroundings, the architecture, intricate ornamentation, views of town and mountains, intoxicating scents of flowers and landscaping, and the musical sounds of flowing water. Overall, the Alhambra conjures up Arab fantasies of One Thousand And One Nights.
The Alhambra sits on a plateau overlooking the Albaicín quarter of Granada’s Moorish old city. It’s an area of natural beauty.
There so much to see here! Our guide was wonderful and shared her deep love and passion of the place. I followed her around like a puppy! She also had a great sense of humor, and was delighted to answer questions.
Surrounded by an ornately decorated gallery supported by 124 white marble columns, is the Court of the Lions. A pavilion with filigree walls and a wooden domed ceiling extends into the court at each end.
We spent the bulk of the day touring the Alhambra complex of palaces and Generalife Gardens. But, we had no time at all to visit old Granada. A second night and another half to full day would have allowed time to explore old Granada and see the Alhambra at night.
Are you detecting a theme here on time?
Sevilla (how the locals pronounce it) was our favorite Spanish city on the tour. There’s a lot more covered in Seductive Seville Entices with Arabic Palace, Flamenco Dance.
Arabian Nights the Sequel
Also not-to-be-missed is the Real Alcazar, originally the home of Moorish kings and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Renowned as one of the most beautiful in Spain, the palace is an outstanding examples of Mudejar architecture.
Today, upper levels of the Alcazar are still used by the Spanish royal family. It’s their official Seville residence, and oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.
One of the loveliest spots in the royal palace is the Courtyard of the Maidens.
Lush, green gardens of the Alcazar are extensive. In Arab garden design, water features play an important role, with trickling and gurgling sounds in fountains and ponds, irrigation channels and waterfalls. Flowers and their fragrance surround you. It’s intoxicating.
Real Game of Thrones
My sons immediately recognized photographs of the Alcazar’s gardens and palaces as the setting for the Water Gardens of Dorne — from Game of Thrones.
Actually, many places we visited throughout Spain are used in the filming of the TV series. I confess, that stirred my interest in watching the megahit.
Tourist Tip: Tauck’s itinerary normally does not include the Alcazar. Because it was Sunday morning, the Cathedral was closed for tours. However, Hubby and I attended Mass on our own in the afternoon. That gave us a glimpse of the massive complex and Columbus’ tomb.
I think Tauck normally does the Cathedral because the Alcazar is somewhat like the Alhambra? Believe me, you want to see both — and the Cathedral. I suggest purchasing tickets for the Alcazar online, before you go. Even in September, the lines went round and round the building. It often sells out.
Our first evening in Seville, the group was treated to a private flamenco performance in the Andalusian style. Another highlight of our trip to Spain! Because the dancers were moving so fast, all my pictures are a bit blurry!
Flamenco is a professional artform, and is based on the various folkloric music traditions of Southern Spain. Had there been more time, I would have liked to see another style of flamenco in a theater while in Madrid.
As in many cities on the Tauck tour, there was next to no time to shop. Hubby didn’t mind so much! But, we did spend a couple of hours shopping in Seville. I came home with only one small hand-painted tapas plate and flamenco fan.
Carriage Ride to Espana
Another major highlight of our time in Seville, was a horse-drawn carriage ride that deposited us at the Plaza de Espana. Spain Square (in English) is a stunning plaza in Maria Luisa Park. It was built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.
Only about a third of the main building and canal are visible in the picture above. Along with a large central section, there are identical towers on each end. Incredible tilework is everywhere! People rent boats to row in the canal and under the footbridges.
There is another beautiful, but very different Plaza de the Americas. It was located right across the street from our very grand hotel.
Cordoba is also located in Andalusia. Originally a Roman settlement, it was later colonized by Muslim armies. Once the capital of the Islamic Emirate, and then of the Caliphate of Cordoba, it ruled over most of the Iberian Peninsula.
Cordoba consisted of hundreds of workshops that created goods like silk. And, it was a center of culture and learning during the Muslim golden age.
Mezquita, or Great Mosque of Cordoba, was built in the Umayyad style of architecture, with variations inspired by Roman and Christian structures. Later caliphs extended the mosque with more domed bays, arches, intricate mosaics and a minaret — making it one of the four wonders of the medieval Islamic world.
Later, Cordoba was recaptured by Christian forces in 1236. Today, the historic center is another of many UNESCO sites we saw in Spain.
Calling All Faiths
Originally a Muslim minaret, the bell tower dominates Cordoba’s skyline. Today it still performs the same function — calling the faithful to prayer.
After being closed for 24 years, the bell tower recently reopened to the public. Now, visitors can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy wonderful vistas over the Mezquita, Jewish Quarter, and entire city.
I didn’t know that seeing the Mezquita was on my bucket list. But the interior of the Great Mosque the most awe inspiring structure we saw in Spain. Yeah, I know, I keep saying favorite this, favorite that! The scale of the place, the mixture of Islam and Christianity, and it’s great antiquity had our jaws gaping open.
It’s impossible to overemphasize the beauty of the Great Mosque, with its remarkably serene and spacious interior. One of the world’s greatest works of Islamic architecture, the Mezquita also represents a refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side.
Was surprised to see that Spain, home of the Inquisition, had not destroyed the Arabic architecture and art. Instead, Christian royalty incorporated, embraced and adopted it.
After reluctantly leaving the Grand Mosque, now Catholic Cathedral, we enjoyed a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. It’s an atmospheric maze of streets, buildings, gardens and fountains.
After lunch, an airconditioned shuttle, with refreshingly cold bottled water, was waiting to whisk us to the train station. Our regular tour bus and luggage had left that morning for Madrid.
Before boarding the high speed train, we were escorted to a specially designated waiting room. And, our first class train car featured huge windows, exceptionally comfortable, roomy seats, and served a tasty lunch.
Chasing Windmills by Train
Spanish high-speed AVE trains operate on the longest high-speed network in Europe. An extensive network allows for fast connections between cities in Spain. It’s the way to travel! And the scenery made me skip the idea of listening to a podcast or snoozing. We traveled right through Don Quixote country, with fortresses/castles, mountains and olive groves — for as far as the eye could see.
What I wouldn’t give to travel from Pittsburgh to Philly or NYC to see my sons on a high-speed train!
After an evening on our own, the next morning was a guided bus and walking tour of the beautiful city.
One of our first stops was to see the monument commissioned on the 300th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote. Figures of Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza stand on the central pedestal with the author Cervantes above.
Afterwards, we broke up into two groups to explore the Prada Museum. We had another fabulous, local guide. On a highlights tour, we saw great works of art by Goya, El Greco, Rubens, Titian, and Velazquez. I could have spent the entire day following our guide around, listening to her stories, descriptions and great sense of humor.
Again, we needed another half day just in the Prada. And, that doesn’t count the two other major, world-class museums we never set foot in.
Much to See & Do in Madrid
Like Barcelona, we added an extra night and day on our own to explore Madrid. Nearly everyone on our tour did the same. There’s so much to see and do in terms of architecture, museums, neighborhoods, performances, and eating!
One thing we planned to do on our own was tour the Palacio Real (“real” means “royal.”) No longer the King’s family home, the palace continues to be the official residence.
Unfortunately, there was some kind of state affair going on and it was closed to the public. We were treated to seeing dignitaries and royals being shuttled back and forth in horse-drawn carriages. There was lots of pomp and ceremony and a band marching back and forth.
Palacio Real is separated from the Cathedral by a spacious square; the Plaza de la Armería. Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena is actually a modern building, completed in 1993.
So, we climbed to the top of the cathedral for a birds eye view of the goings on. From the roof, we also enjoyed spectacular vistas of Madrid.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
We spent an entire day and a half exploring Madrid on our own, particularly enjoying walking old neighborhoods for food and their unique atmosphere.
During our last afternoon, we walked through the extensive El Retiro Park. Originally, the park was a royal hangout, and setting for garden plays and concerts. Nowadays, visitors rent rowboats by the hour in the man-made pond. It was a fun way to end our Spanish vacation.
A Lifetime of Experiences in 10 Days
I hope to evidently feature each city, providing more photo highlights of each location, with details on where we stayed and ate.
As far as the Tauck tour, I give it an ‘A’ and would definitely recommend it. Have you ever taken a Tauck tour or been to Spain?
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