Best of Spain and Portugal is a 15 day tour of the Iberian peninsular. I also had an extra day at the start to ease in to Madrid getting over any jetlag, look around and get a feel for the place.


May 4
I arrived in Madrid in a confusing way. We landed in a satellite terminal (T4S) and had to pass through passport control before getting on a train to the main terminal to collect our luggage. That was the first time I've had that before and we didn't know what was going on. Finally I took the metro across three trains (2 transfers) to Puerta Del Sol. At 4.50 Euros this is the cheapest transfer I have ever had and a great way to get acquainted with the metro system.

After checking in to my hotel (great location between Gran via and Puerta del Sol) I went exploring and getting my bearings.
May 5
After breakfast I went for a walk before the tourist arrived, visiting Sol again and on to the Plaza Major and Real Palace. I then checked out and taking the two trains to the Insight hotel. The hotel's location wasn't great but the Madrid metro system is cheap (1.50 per ride) and easy to use. This was day 1 of the Insight tour.

Madrid struck me as very similar to Paris in style. Similar architecture, boulevards, metro system etc. but with warmer weather. There was not much to see around the hotel, so took it easy until the welcome drinks where we met the tour group. Light dinner consisted of finger foods and our first introduction to the local Gazpacho soup drink.
May 6
We started off on our sight seeing tour of Madrid. The Madrid sightseeing was very disappointing! It was a good thing I visited the Puerta Del Sol, Plaza Major, Gran Via and Real Palace on Saturday as we didn't see them on the tour! We saw the Real Palace from a distance, photographing it from a bridge. We also didn't see the Plaza Espana with Cervantes monument as stated in the itinerary. On a positive note, we did visit the Prado museum seeing the paintings from El Greco, Velazquez and Goya. The visit to the Prado was well done.

We proceeded to the region of Castilla y Leon to see the historic town of Segovia, where we visited the Roman Aqueduct, explored the town and visited the Medieval castle (Alcazar). Stunning! Home of the Christian royalty that drove the Moors out of Spain, the Alcazar was also where Queen Isobella and King Ferdinand received Columbus' request to fund his exhibition that discovered the Americas.
May 7
Today we set off for Toledo. Famous for its sword making, gold inlay work and cathedral. We started our visit seeing craftsmen work on the gold inlay. We proceeded in to the town via escalators to the old part of town. The guide was keen to point out the balconies as he had a joke that he felt it got funnier the more times he repeated it :-) and Oh yes and how could we forget "Holy Toledo" because of the number of churches.

We visited the Cathedral which was very big and ornate, with an impressive alter called the "El Transparente" with its ornately decorated opening in the roof to illuminate it. There were many works of art and sculpture there. This was clearly the guides favourite place as he was very thorough on the subject. When finally we were released we had an hour to eat, shop and explore.

Leaving Toledo we drove past Avila for a photo stop before continuing on to the university town of Salamanca. Salamanca was quite a surprise, with excellent photo opportunities and stunning architecture. I felt that discovering Salamanca was the highlight of the day. On the downside the hotel was somewhat run down and had an interesting take on Lasagna involving pureed meat and tomatoes that has revived my interest in petfood.
May 8
We set off leaving Spain for Portugal. We arrived in Porto with its unique boats, cobbled streets and ceramic tiled building facades. On arrival, I was suddenly struck down by jetlag. We visited the Vila Nova de Gala port wine store and had a tasting session before checking into our hotel. My room was massive and luckily I slept off my jetlag. We didn't get to see much of Porto beyond the bridges and buildings we passed driving in.
May 9
Continuing on the tour, we left Porto for Fatima. The good news was that the weather improved as we went south and by the time we got to Fatima, it was warm and sunny. Fatima is a place of religious pilgrimage after the Marian apparitions, recognized by the Catholic Church, that took place there in 1917. The place itself is seriously commercialized with more tacky souvenir shops selling all sorts to the religious pilgrims and tourists alike. Pilgrims advanced on the basilica on their knees. Some burned wax castings of body parts they gave thanks for. These wax castings were on sale from various shops along with religious beads and Virgin Mary snow globes.

We next visited Obidos, a charming town of whitewashed buildings encased in medieval city walls with a castle to boot. The photo opportunities were right up my alley.

Our tour ended the day in Lisbon. Our hotel was not very well situated, but we took a quick sight seeing drive stopping at the Edward VII Park before having dinner in the Bairro Alto area. After dinner we walked towards the water front although it was cordoned off.
May 10
Today we set off to visit the monuments of Lisbon starting with the Monument of Discovery and Belem tower. We pulled up by the monument in front of the map of Portuguese exploration and the tour guide started her explanation. By the time she had finished other groups had arrived and were standing on the map! Annoying case of wasted opportunities, but at least we did get to see the main two monuments. We then visited the Hieronymites Monastery and Santa Maria Church containing the tomb of the explorer Vasco da Gama. Unfortunately we never got to see St Georges Castle as stated in our itinerary, except through my camera's zoom lens.

After that we set off for Cascais, a quiet sea side resort town. We had a photo stop at the most western point of Europe before continuing on into the hills to visit the village of Sintra. The excursion was to also visit Estoril, but we didn't stop there. I now see we drove through it.
May 11
Departing Portugal we headed through the fields of Cork trees back to Spain, our destination being Seville. Over the next few days were were in a heat wave brought up from the Sahara with temperatures in the late 30s to early 40s.

We started our time in Seville with our photo in front of the bull fighting ring. This was followed by a visit to the cathedral to see the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Then we passed the Alcazar (again itinerary said we would visit it) through the back streets of old town Seville to a series of nice plazas. White washed houses with yellow window frames and pot plants seem to sum up the style of buildings we saw.

That night we had a light snack (Sangria and finger foods) before heading off on an evening of flamenco.
May 12
Another hot day, this time we traveled to Cordoba. Cordoba is a place with a bit of everything, Roman bridge, Moorish fort, a Mosque turned into a cathedral (with a section of Roman floor being found a couple of feet down), a synagogue and gardens. Cordoba was very crowded but we managed to walk the back streets of the old town to get some great photos. Cordoba was definitely worth a visit, very picturesque and enjoyable.

If only we knew where our hotel was in relation to the city we could have used our free time to visit the Alcazar with its gardens. I picked up a map of Seville the day we left and only found where things were after getting home and researching this website.
May 13
Leaving Seville we headed south to Gibraltar to visit St Michael's cave and see the Barbary apes. With a strong history with the British Royal Navy, Gibraltar had many old naval canons and statues celebrating this. The apes operate their own organised crime syndicate, typically involving stealing food from tourists, which they are clearly good at. We were divided into two minibuses where we had a very entertaining tour guide.

From Gibraltar we headed back to Spain to the beach resort town of Torremolinos on the Costa Del Sol. Our hotel was very big and situated across the road from the beach front.
May 14
Today we had an optional excursion to Malaga, where we saw Gibralfaro castle and visited Picasso's birth place, before sampling their sweet wine and passing the city's Roman and Phoenician ruins.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing in Torremolinos, shopping and sampling the various foods.
May 15
We left Torremolinos, heading up the hill to Mijas, a pretty little village of white washed houses and unwashed donkeys.

Continuing on we reached Granada and visited the Alhambra. The story has it that the Moorish king surrended the kingdom of Granada to the Christians to saving the Alhambra from destruction. As he left he looked back and wept. To this his mother said "Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man". Well talk about rubbing salt in the wound! The Alhambra and General Life had to be the highlight of the trip for me, closely contended by Cordoba, Seville and Segovia. The gardens in the General life were awesome and the fortifications and Moorish palace were spectacular.

Later I went exploring Granada on foot and found our hotel was well located close the the centre of town.
May 16
Leaving Granada we drove through the Sierra Nevada mountains on route to Valencia. The mountains had a covering of snow yet it was 34 degrees in Granada!

Arriving in Valencia we took a stop outside the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences building housing the largest aquarium in Europe along with several museums, opera halls, a theatres and planetarium before heading in to the old town to do an orientation drive. We were staying right near the city hall in the centre of the old town. We had time to explore, so I visited the Towers of Serranos (north gates), the Real Colegio del Corpus Christi and Plaza de la Verge with the Turia fountain and Cathedral.
May 17
Heading north we stopped off at Pensicola to see its beach front castle where they filmed a movie called "El Cid", before continuing on we reached our final destination, the capital of the Catalonia region, Barcelona. Interestingly some shops and signage was written in Catalan rather than Spanish!

Our sight seeing orientation was typically disappointing where we passed sights without a chance to photograph or even properly see them. We had a tour of the Sagrada Família and then walked around the Barcelona Cathedral in the gothic quarter. Later that evening we had time on Las Ramblas to find dinner and shop.
May 18
Today we headed off into the hills to visit the monastery of Montserrat to see the Black Madonna before returning to Barcelona to visit Gaudi's Guell Park, with its art nouveau, ceramic clad mosaic architecture including the longest park bench in the world, ceramic ceiling under the courtyard, colonnaded pathway and terrace walls to the gardens, dragon fountain and "gingerbread" buildings at the gates.

All up I don't have a strong feeling for Barcelona as the hotel was not well situated and the sightseeing tour gave us fleeting glimpses of various sights. Our visit to the Gothic quarter consisted of walking around Barcelona cathedral with no time to explore. You can't help but feel disappointed! When we did get free time, it was typically during siesta when the shops were closed. We should have had our sightseeing then. The same could be said for Madrid, Lisbon, Porto and to some extent Seville (although the walking tours of both Seville and Lisbon was very good). We saw some awesome things on this tour, but it wasn't up to Insight's usual standards due to some hotel locations, fleeting sightseeing without photo opportunities and lack of information when we did have free time. What we did do we generally did well, but expectations were set in the itinerary and excursions that were not delivered.

I felt that the region of Andalusia summed up the quintessential Spain for me with the highlights being Granada with the Alhambra, Seville, Cordoba and the Costa del Sol. Other highlights have to include Segovia, Toledo, Salamanca and the little Portuguese towns of Obidos, Cascais and Sintra.
May 19
After breakfast I headed off to the airport to catch my flight to Paris and start my Country roads of France tour. Easyjet was anything but! Located in their own terminal away from even the little used terminal 2, they had just one checkin queue for all flights and were very picky on luggage. I spent 2 hours queuing for my flight!