Monday, February 13, 2012

Spain Trip 2011

Between June 26th and July 12th 2011, I traveled with students as a chaperon on a trip to Spain with EF (Education First) Company. The itinerary was described as the “Grand Tour of Spain”. This trip is my first as an adult. I knew that this trip would be different from how I prefer to travel. I knew this trip would be based in a bus with the tour director dictating how long at each place of interest and when free time would be allowed. I knew this was not how I liked to travel; however for the price, I could not do the trip on my own. Planning your own trip takes a lot of time and scheduling. As with everything in life, this is the trade-off you are willing to take to get to enjoy somewhere new and pay to someone deal with the logistics headaches.

On Sunday, June 26th our group flew from Charlotte Airport to Toronto then after a layover to Madrid. We arrived in the morning to Madrid, Spain. EF sent a bus to pickup our group and dropped us off at our hotel. The hotel was located on a pedestrian road (Arenal ) located in the central of downtown.
On the first day we did a short walking tour of the city with our tour guide. I quickly realized that walking with 41 people makes your group stand out immediately. It also means that you have to follow the guide closely or your will not hear what they have to say. We went to a pleasant restaurant for dinner, came back to the hotel and called it a night. We were trying to not give jet-lag a time to set in.

My good friend.
The next day, Monday June 28th, we were supposed to go on a city tour, but it was changed because some of the places we planned on going were closed on Mondays. Instead some of the groups went on an optional to El Escorial to visit the place where the majority of Spanish Royals are buried. We then went to Segovia on a walking tour with a local guide and were able to view some of the most preserved roman aqueducts in the world. In my class, I had shown the students Engineering Empires, which featured these large aqueducts. It is just incredible to see that these structures in real life.
At the famous viaduct in Segovia.

We traveled back to Madrid and immediately went to tour the Prado. We arrived back in the city at 6.15, so we only 1.45 in the museum. It closed at 8. I had memorized the specific artists I wanted to see and it which galleries they were featured. However, when I arrived in the museum I instantly became confused because the numbers were not the same as the guidebook I was using to plan. The highlights of the Prado include works by Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, Titian,Raphael, Rubens and Bosch. The back of the museum brochure featured the highlights of the museum, so I just hunted each of those down and put a check mark when I found it. I was able to find almost all of the highlights, but I really did not have enough time to analyze each image. At the end of this trip, we will have another day in Madrid however it is a Monday and the Prado is closed on Mondays.

One artist who I found to be particularly fascinating was Hieronymus Bosch. His works of art really made you think about what he was trying to convey to his audience. I could stare at his The Garden of Earthly Delights for hours.

Day 3 – June 29th – Madrid to Burgos
We woke up and met our bus and driver (Jose) who we would have for the next 15 or so days. We headed north from Madrid, we were supposed to visit the Monastery of Santa Domingo de Silos, however it was closed. Instead we visited the small medieval town of Lerma. It was a neat town and it had a market occurring while we visited.

El Cid and I.

The best tour guide of our trip, our man in Burgos!

We got back on the bus and headed up the A1 for Burgos, famous for its Medieval Cathedral. We unloaded at the hotel and had time to "freshen up". We then met our wonderful local guide and went on a walking tour of the city which included a tour of the Cathedral. Burgos was a nice small medieval town and our guide was great.
We came back to the hotel and had dinner. The night of the 29th was a celebration of the patron saint of Burgos and the town was ablaze with festivities. I was tired and retired early.

Day 4- June 30th Bilbao
In Front of the Guggenheim.

Another view.
We got in the bus early and headed for Bilbao, famous for his Guggenheim museum.We went directly the museum and spent 2 hours touring it. It was modern art inside and for me, it was very hard to understand or appreciate. The best thing about this museum is it external architecture,in my opinion, the contents are not worth the price of admission. The group headed to the medieval part of town and I broke off and walked to the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao, it was a beautiful museum and although it did not have the cool external design of the Guggenheim, its contents were much more impressive. It contained art from the time of the Romans to modern day. I was especially impressed with its Spanish Impressionist collection.
I then walked down the Gran Via (each town has its own Gran Via and it is like the "high street" usually containing the high end stores.) I stopped for lunch at a café and ordered myself a bochidello jamon Serrano and café con leche. A nice ham sandwich and coffee and milk. It was a good meal and it was fun to order in Spanish. I am sure to the bartender I looked like a big foreign idiot, but that was ok with me. At least he did not start laughing directly in my face.

I walked to the old town and wondered around the narrow streets. As an American, it is so cool to see streets that were designed and built before the advent of the motorcard. The old town felt a world away from the noise of the Gran Via.
The old section of Bilbao
The group was picked up by the bus, went back to the hotel and had dinner. The hotel was an Ibis, a low-cost european chain owned by Accor. It was a ncie hotel for the money (59 Euros) and the dinner and breakfast were nice. The only frustrating part was that they charged 5 Euros for Wi-Fi for 24 hours. Which was very expensive. I feel that when you are traveling with teenagers, ever hotel should have free Wi-Fi so the students can communicate with home.

Day 5- July 1st Bilbao
We stayed 2 days in Bilbao and as a group we took the bus to San Sebastian for a morning city tour. San Sebastian was beautiful, it had an old seaside resort. It had a bay with a beach and two peaks on each side enclosing the beach. It was made famous when Queen Christina, who suffered with a skin disease moved here to convalesce. Today it is famous for its Film Festival. During WWII, San Sebastian was famous because Nazis came from France (45 minutes away) to gamble. During WWI, the rich of Europe stayed in San Sebastian hiding and gambling away as the war raged on.

Our group in San Sebastian
One of the underground markets in San Sebastian.


EF offered a tour in the afternoon of Saint Jean de Luz, but our group stayed in San Sebastian having the Menu del Dia, (Menu of the Day) a 3-course meal including vino for 12.50. I had fish and it was a nice meal. The grounds of the Queen's Palace are open to the public and made this made a great place to take a siesta (which I did).

We then headed back to the Hotel Ibis for Dinner. This meal was adequate, but not in any way exceptional.

Day 6th- July 2nd Bilbao to Pamplona to Barcelona
Today we got up early, boarded the coach and visited Pamplona. Our tour director, Ruben, gave us a walking tour of the city. The city was preparing for their San Fermin festival, which is famous world-wise for the running of the bulls, which occurs July 7th- 14th. I thought about Richard Hammond from Top Gear when he tested the Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster and ran with the Bulls in the episode.

Many of the students had dressed in white and bought red sashes, looking like the runners themselves. 
The students ready for a run!
The way of the Bulls!

Some examples of Pintxo's: (basically lunch in Pamplona!)

Then we got back on the bus and drove 5 hours to Badalona, a suburb of Barcelona. Our hotel was nice however everyone’s shower leaked onto the floor due to poor design. It was form over function. We took the subway into Barcelona and ate at an American style buffet. It was called FresCo and was not bad, but not good. For many of the students the food reminded them of home, so that was good. But to enjoy real culture, a buffet (isn’t that a French word?) isn’t the right way. For the tour company, it only costs 10 euros per person, so it is an economical idea.

Then we went for walking tour around downtown Barcelona. One of the tour members was unsuccessfully pick pocketed. It did not seem like the place to be at 11.30 on Saturday night, but then we were given 45 minutes to walk La Rambla. This was market during the day and a very shady place after dark. It was very nerve racking to watch the students. I did not want the kids to be walking down this street at this hour, but because we were unsure about how to get back to the hotel, we had to wait until 12.15 for the whole group to leave to head back to the hotel.

On the itinerary that was sent to us, the hotel in Badelona was advertised as being “well communicated by public transport”. It was a 10-minute walk to the Metro, 45-50 minutes on the metro and then another 15-minute walk back to the hotel. Not exactly an easy trip.
I did not get into bed until 1.40 and I knew I would not be feeling my best because we needed to be up at 6.30 for the next days’ activities.

Day 7- July 3rd Barcelona
Today, after a really long day, we went on a tour of the city which was with a local guide who was good. He talked a lot about Gaudi and his architectural contributions to Barcelona. We visited Gaudi’s Parc Guell and the Sagrada Família
Parc Guell

La sagrada familia
Sarah and I.

The tour guide talked about how every morning Gaudi would have omelets with special mushrooms, I finally started to understand how he would design such “interesting” buildings. Personally, I was not very impressed by his work.

In the afternoon, our small group went to the Picasso Museum, which was free on the first Sunday of each month. We had to wait about 45 minutes to get in, but it was waiting in a shaded medieval street, so it was worth it. I asked the students random trivia questions and this helped pass the time. The museum was nice but it focused only on certain years of Picasso, mostly his early years, some of his Blue years, and the collection contained his study of Velasquez’ Las Meninas. The study of Las Meninas, which I was excited to see was a bit of a let down because I liked the original much better.

Part of our group had wanted to go the Barcelona Zoo, so we broke up into two groups, one that stayed longer at the Picasso Museum (mine) and the one that headed for the Zoo. By the time my group arrived at the Zoo it was 6 and the Zoo was only open for 1 more hour. Instead of paying the 17 Euro entrance fee we decided to take a siesta for an hour and wait for the other group.

We had dinner in the Parc Olympic, built for the the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. We were not sure what to expect, the dinner was another buffet. This place just seemed a bit sketchier from the day before. The food quality did not seem very high but we ate and headed back to the hotel via the metro.

Day 8- July 4th Barcelona to Valencia 
We ate breakfast at the hotel then headed south to Valencia. We arrived in Valencia around 3. We walked around the city enjoying Horchata and exploring the medieval town. The Cathedral was famous because they claim to have the Grail, the cup used at the last supper. The Cathedral charged 4.50 Euros to tour, a small price to pay in my opinion to see the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail!

We headed to the hotel and found out that dinner would not be until 8.30. I needed a few items so we took the bus back into the city and visited El Corte Ingles, the most famous department store in Spain. I was able to find compressed air to clean the dust off my camera.
We came back to the hotel just in time to have dinner. It was a really large pan of chicken paella, it was not a bad meal but traditional paella is prepared with seafood.
After dinner we went out with our students on a little walk to explore, we came back and slept well.

Day 9th- July 5th Valencia to Grenada
In the morning we visited to the Valencia Aquarium, the biggest in Spain. It was a very nice museum with many varieties of species including penguins, walruses, beluga whales and sharks to name a few. All the animals in this particular place spoke Spanish.
Modern Valencia, next to the Aquarium.
The Bullring in Valencia.
Valencia seems to be a town that is finally experiencing growth after years of stagnation. The people are friendly and they have spent billions on public projects such as the aquarium and the surrounding buildings. One of the most interesting things about Valencia is that because of terrible flooding in the city they diverted the river creating a large park that flows through the city where the river used to flow. It is called the Turia Gardens, where the Turia River used to flow.
In the afternoon we took the bus to the city of Granada. Our hotel was outside the city in the mountains. It was not within walking distance of the city. With a new friend, we took a taxi into the city and walked around the bustling town late at night.

Day 10 – July 6th Granada to the Sun Coast
We started the day by toured the Alhambra. It was a very impressive set of buildings, many ruins and gardens, but for whatever reason I expected the area with Moorish influences to be larger. At the end of the tour I was left with the impression “That was it?” I think I just had the expectation that it was a very very large building, at least from the exterior, the Alhambra looks especially imposing.

A highly shaded picture

I look ridiculous with those earphones on!

The group outside the Alhambra.

Inside the amazing Alhambra!
After the visit we drove two hours to Torremolinos, a resort town just south of Malaga. When we arrived in Torremolinos, I arranged a taxi to visit a car museum.

My favorite: cafe con leche!
The Richmond!
Where is the historical museum of the Wayne Corporation?
The car museum in Malaga recently opened. The coolest thing I found in the car museum was a car called the “Richmond”, made in Richmond Virginia!

A replica of the Beatles famous Rolls-Royce
The beautiful Citroen DS Decapotable
After the museum we explored Malaga. It was a very expensive resort town. We tried to visit the Cathedral but it was already closed for the day. We headed back to Torremolinos for sleep.

Day 11- July 7th - Morocco
Today we woke up at 5.30 for our "cultural" trip to Morocco. We were very excited to be able to go because we thought we were not going to be able to go because none of the other groups wanted to go. Fortunately, we were able to organize a tour with the same tour provider.
This day was interesting; we got on a bus at 6.20am. For the next few hours we picked up other guests all the way down the coast, until we reacted the port of Tarifa where we caught the ferry at 10. It was a long bus ride. The ferry ride was a little rough due to the seas. Two students became sick during the ferry ride.
On the ferry ride over to Morocco.
On arrival to Tangiers we were quickly sent through security and got on a coach. Our guide was “Mohammad”; he seemed to be wearing traditional clothing, which at first I thought was how he usually dressed. After a very fast bus ride giving a few sites in the city we stopped at a preselected area where camels and their owners were waiting for us. It was 1 euro to get on a camel and take a picture. The whole stop seemed very touristy and ridiculous but we had been promised to get to visit a good quality bizarre so we were wiling to wait it out. Plus the stop was only about 10 minutes.
Camel rides? 1 euro!
Next we were dropped off on a side street to start our walking tour. We saw a nice view then we walking down the street and their just happened to be a man dressed in all black with a wooden box in front of him, someone said, “There are snakes in there!” The next thing I knew there was a black cobra being irritated by the man in the black costume. The cobra seemed unhappy and was showing its “hood”. The man in black seemed less to be charming the cobra then to just be letting it roam a short distance form him. 
What does the nice man have in his little box?
A snake! Not any snake, a COBRA!

At one point during this “show” the snake got away from the man and came very close to the crowd. Fortunately it was on the other side from our group but I was not amused. Next he put the cobra away and got out some type of white snake, which you could wrap around your neck and have your picture taken, for a fee, of course. By this point I was pretty far away from the map because it just seemed the right place to be.
Is the snake getting away from the nice man part of the show?

Mohammad( in white on right) watches, no pictures with the Cobra, but pictures (1Euro) with the white snake!
Next at rapid pace we walked around the street vendors and we had a mob of me carrying various items pushing them in your face or trying to put them in your hand. Next we went to a beautiful restaurant and had a great lunch of soup, lamb skewers, couscous with chicken and vegetables, great bread, hot mint tea and a cookie. I would later realize that this would be the highlight of the day. Next we were taken to a rug showing, which none of us had known about. One of the rugs we were shown was 5,000 Euros, I declined. After the showing I expected to g outside but when we got to the bottom of the stairs we were somewhere different from the entrance. It was an overpriced touristy shop. I was unhappy about this turn of events because I expected to see a real bazaar. I asked some of the other people in our group whether this was in fact the bazaar and we concluded this was the high quality bazaar we had previously been told about. That was disappointing. It was especially funny because the storeowners had closed the exterior doors so in essence we were locked into this store. I thought that maybe one of us had to buy something before the door would be unlocked. It was bizarre, not the bazaar we had been hoping for.
The group in Morocco.
The next stop was a pharmacy where again we were given a sales pitch of the items for sale. Their big sell was saffron, which they said was a great deal. They sold a packet for 10 Euros they said would cost 18 Euros in Europe. As I sat it there I thought that much of the stuff may or may not be what you are told it was so I did not purchase anything. We walked a little bit more and then we were quickly herded onto the bus and taken on the short ride back to the port to catch the 3.00pm ferry. After the 1-hour ferry we again loaded the same coach for a ride that finally dropped us off at the hotel at 8.15pm. It was a long day and was not the most productive. When we got back I did find a British ex-pat restaurant called the Tudor Rose and it was nice to have onion rings and brew brought by a genuine English waiter in the south of Spain. The food was so good we promised ourselves that we would come back for a typical English breakfast the following morning when they opened.

Day 12- July 8th The Sun Coast to Seville
We had time to sleep into today and after a great traditional English breakfast (ham, fried egg, sausage, toast and Heinz baked beans) at the Tudor Rose we met in the lobby at 10.45 and headed for Sevilla. (Seville) Upon arriving to Seville we had free time to shop (El Corte Ingles) and explore the city. It is a beautiful old city, however the temperature was very high (around 100). We met at 6.45 for a Flamenco Show. It was impressive and neat to watch but definitely by this day I was tired from lack of sleep and the high temperature. We came back and had dinner at the hotel.

The Flamenco Show
Day 13- July 9th Seville
The Giradal
Today we had the full day in Seville; in the morning we had a city tour with at local guide. It was good. We visited the bullring that included a small museum, then the Cathedral. We climbed the all the way to the top of the Giradal.
The group inside the Seville bullring.
Out front of the Seville bullring
The 1929 Pan American Exposition had been held in Seville and the most amazing building was the Plaza de Espana. It was a beautiful half-circle building.
The Plaza de Espana
We then went and walked around the city having a nice lunch at a chain called “Coffee and Tea”. We then walked and visited the Archivos General de Indios, which contains all of the Spanish records relating their conquest of the Americas. There was not a lot to see but the building was beautiful. After the archives we visited the Cathedral because I thought the tour guide had said that they had a really neat crypt. Unfortunately I heard wrong but it was nice to explore the cathedral in the silence of the late afternoon. After some more shopping (always towards the end of the trips is when I think about what I can get for my family…) I went to the Fine Arts Museum of Seville, which is housed inside a beautiful old convent. The admission was free and it was nice to spend time inside an air-conditioned building with beautiful art.
I came back to the hotel, had dinner and went to lay down and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
With James May's favorite: the Dacia Sandero!
The Torre del Oro. At one time this had gold on all sides!
Day 14- July 10 Seville to Madrid
This was the last day on the road as we headed back to Madrid to catch our flight early Tuesday. We set off from the hotel Monte Carlo at 10.15; on our way we stopped in Cordoba to visit its famous Cathedral/Mosque
The view on the way to the Cordoba Cathedral.
This was the most bizarre of buildings; it started as a mosque, but then was later transformed into a Cathedral. So it included elements of both styles of architecture, which are vastly different. It just seemed so odd that they would not have simply destroyed the remnants of the previous mosque, but instead they just integrated the church into the mosque. One of the most fascinating parts is that the mosque is a rectangle shape, yet the church is its typical cross shape, so they just changed the center of the mosque into a cathedral and made chapels around the interior perimeter

We then got back on the bus; it was very hot (104) and drove back the 270 miles to Madrid and our hotel.

Day 15- July 11th Madrid- side trip to Toledo.
The most beautiful view of Toledo!
This morning, I took an optional excursion to the ancient city of Toledo. The first stop on the tour was a tourist trap where we could buy swords. Then we walked into the old city and visited the Gothic Cathedral, dating from the thirteenth century. Inside there is an art museum with many famous works, especially El Greco. Then we took a coffee break and went to the tiny Church of Santo Tomé which houses El Greco’s second most famous work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
Traveling is tiring for some....

The final stop before getting back on the bus was to see the Santa María la Blanca, the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing, oddly, now owned by the Catholic Church. The Toledo trip was a half-day trip. We arrived back in Madrid by 2pm, met up with the rest of the group and took a guided tour of the Royal Palace of Madrid. Then we took a short-guided bus tour of the city
A procession out front of the Royal Palace
Inside the courtyard of the Royal Palace
The final stop of the day was the option to go to the Museo Reina Sofía and view Picasso’s famous anti-war Guernica. This museum was incredible but I was tired from the long days of travel so we explored around the museum for about an hour and called it a day.

Day 16 July 12 – Homeward Bound
Time for some flights!
Today, we woke up at 2.30am and took flights from Madrid to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Dulles, then Dulles to Charlotte.

More Pictures: 
Spain 2011 Part 1

Spain 2011 Part 2

Each of the locations we visited:

View Spain 2011 in a larger map

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