Tauck Paradors of Northern Spain itinerary map

We took this tour in May of 2012, and had a great experience! We did back-to-back tours, starting with this one, and finishing with "Spain and Portugal". Hopefully this page will be helpful to anyone considering taking these Tauck tours, or for those who are booked and are curious about the details. 

Quick Jump menu:

Our Experience

This was a wonderful vacation, and we would definitely recommend it to others.  You can find less expensive tours in Spain and Portugal, but you will get what you pay for.  I have traveled with other tour companies, and Tauck has set the standard to which I compare the others.  As we expected, Tauck did their usual superb job.

These two tours allowed us to get a good taste of the two countries.  We visited large cities, small towns, saw beautiful countryside, took in many historic areas, ate local cuisine, and saw world-famous art. The two weeks goes by fast, but was a good length of time to discover Spain and Portugal.  We came home with many wonderful memories that will replay in our minds for years to come!

Tauck graphicChoosing Tauck

We chose Tauck for a number of reasons:

  1. We have toured with Tauck before (on the "Classic Italy" tour), and were very impressed by the entire experience.  We have been excitedly waiting for our next opportunity to take another vacation with them. (Update: We have also done Tauck's "Grand European River Cruise", "Best of Ireland" since this one, and have more planned for the future.)
  2. We have taken other tours with Trafalgar, Uniworld, and Insight.  Tauck has been our best experience.
  3. Tauck has a good balance of scheduled activities and free time.
  4. Tauck has a great reputation, and continues to win many awards in the travel industry.
  5. We appreciated the way their literature starts with Day 1 as the actual day the tour starts (many other tour agencies list Day 1 as the day you leave home and start flying).
  6. Tauck tends to use hotels that are better located, making it easier for us to explore on our own during our free time.  The quality of chosen hotels is also better than other tours.
  7. We appreciate how Tauck does not try to upsell extra activities or options during the tour.
  8. They also do not make stops at places that are clearly shopping stops thinly disguised as sightseeing.
  9. The Tauck reputation as a company helps them attract top-notch tour directors.
  10. Tauck is a generous company.  They give back to our world community on local, national, and global levels.  And they promote volunteerism in numerous ways.

Destinations Visited On This Tour

Barcelona, Cardona, La Seu d'Urgell, Pamplona, San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santillana del Mar, Fuente De, Leon, Astorga, Piedrafita del Cebrero, Santiago de Compostela, Porto, Coimbra, Fátima, Lisbon.

Planning Our Trip

According to the World Tourism Organization, Spain is #4 in the world for tourist destinations (behind France, U.S., and China).  We didn't realized it was that popular, but the more we talked to other travelers who have been to this area, the more interested we became.  And everyone who had also been to Portugal said to include it if at all possible.

We compared tours from Tauck, Collette, Insight, Globus, and found the actual Tauck itineraries much more appealing than the others.  We saw that it was very convenient to combine two Tauck tours back-to-back; the "Paradors of Northern Spain" ended in Lisbon, and the "Spain and Portugal" started from Lisbon the next day.  This would give us two 14-day tours that extensively covered both countries.  We chose a May departure because of our schedule.

In early October 2011 I bookmarked Tauck's web page for Spain and Portugal tours, and checked it literally every day, anxiously waiting for the 2012 tours to be posted.  Well, I received their "Yellow Roads of Europe" brochure in the mail on October 24th, which contained the 2012 tour details!  This was two days before it was posted on their web site (2012 itineraries were posted a few weeks earlier for some of the other Tauck tours, but not for these two).  Since I was a previous Tauck customer, the mailing included an offer to past clients of two free hotel nights if booked by the end of the year.

Booking Our Tours

We made our tour reservations through Mindy at Pavlus Travel.  Mindy is very experienced with booking Tauck tours, and has been great to work with.  I would definitely recommend her if you are considering booking a tour with Tauck.

Let me start with a good word about our travel agent Mindy. She gets literally the best prices available, and has booked many tours (and cruises) for us. Mindy is very experienced with booking Tauck tours, and has been great to work with.  Pavlus Travel books more Tauck Tours than any other travel agency. I have no hesitations recommending her if you are considering booking a tour with Tauck. Here's how to reach Mindy.

Here is the information Mindy needed to relay to Tauck order to book our reservations:

I gave her the information, she called Tauck and made the booking, and called me back within the hour with details.  I confirmed pricing details, and provided my credit card information for Tauck's required $600 per person per tour deposit.  She said that Tauck was good about mailing out documents 3 or 4 weeks after final payment is received (which is due no later than sixty days before departure).

By the end of the day, I had received an email from Pavlus Travel with a PDF attachment that contained our tour reservation details, payment information, and the standard fine print disclosures and notices.

About 4 months before the tour, I authorized Mindy to charge the final payment for the tours to my credit card.  By the end of that day, I had an email with a PDF attachment that was a Pavlus Travel statement reflecting the final payment and the zero balance.  In another three days, I received an email with a copy of my receipt from Tauck ("Summary of Purchase"), again showing the final payment and zero balance.  Ten days after this, I received a package from Pavlus via UPS, containing the final Tauck documents (see Pre-Tour Documents section for a list), and other Pavlus promotional items.

Incidentally, Pavlus Travel claims to be "the world's largest single office seller of Tauck World Discovery Tours".  I appreciate working with a travel company that has plenty of experience with the specific travel I am doing.

Cancellation Fees

Taking various factors into account, we are usually comfortable declining travel insurance.  But we always try to familiarize ourselves with policies concerning cancellations.  Tauck's cancellation fees (if you didn't have Guest Protection or Cancellation Fee Waiver) for these tours were:

Pre-Tour Documents From Tauck

Five days after my initial reservation, I received the first Tauck documents (sent to Pavlus Travel and forwarded to us) in the mail.  There were two packets, one for each tour, each containing:

Ten days after making my final payment, I received the final documents (sent to Pavlus Travel and forwarded on to us).  They were very well-organized and inclusive, and left few unanswered questions.  There was a separate set of documents for each of the two tours.  The final documents consisted of:


DAY-BY-DAY — Our Itinerary at a Glance

Tuesday May 8 Travel day

Our first flight departed from U.S. airport at 9:30am.

Wednesday May 9 Travel day; Barcelona

[See photos in Barcelona]
Our flight arrived in Barcelona at 12:10pm. My first experience of Spain was a bit unexpected. We disembarked our plane into the same gate area where people were waiting to board their flights. No passing through immigration whatsoever; nothing at all mentioned by flight crew or ground crew. Everyone simply walked through the terminal, following the signs to baggage claim. Once there, a reader board informed us of the carousel for our flight. Our luggage arrived within 20 minutes. We followed the exit signs, choosing the "Nothing To Declare" area. There were a few customs officials in the area, but we were never given even a glance; we simply walked on through. As is the case in most airports, the people who were waiting to meet incoming passengers were right outside this customs exit door. We easily spotted our Tauck-provided driver in a suit and tie, holding a "Tauck" sign. He had a clipboard, and we spoke our name to him as we pointed to it on his documents, so there was no mistake by either of us. He led us outside to an awaiting Audi sedan. He spoke almost no English, and we were tired, so we just kicked back and enjoyed our first glimpses of a new country. As we got close to the hotel, he did point out a few of the major landmarks for us, which was helpful in getting us oriented.

We arrived at our Le Méridien Barcelona hotel at 1:00. We knew we were early for the 3:00 check-in time, and indeed our room was not ready, so we locked our luggage and checked it with the hotel porter. Out we went for our first exploration, slowly strolling up the pedestrian-only La Rambla to one of Barcelona's busiest squares, Plaça de Catalunya. We went into the Tourist Information there (one of the better TIs in the city) and gathered some interesting brochures, maps, and talked with one of the helpful staffers about our next three days. Then we slowly strolled back down La Rambla, soaking in all the fun sights, sounds, and shops.

By the time we returned to our hotel at 3:30, our room was available. Our room was on the second floor, and we were concerned about street noise, but our concerns turned out to be unjustified. It was on the side street, not La Rambla, and the double windows (plus my usual travel earplugs) did a good job of keeping outside noises to a minimum. We took a needed 2-hour nap which refreshed us for the evening. We decided to lock our passports in the safe (after testing it with nothing inside), having been forewarned about the skilled pickpockets in Barcelona.

We decided that our first dinner would consist of the much-anticipated tapas. Our pre-trip reading had us looking forward to this, as we like to try a variety of local foods, and prefer to eat earlier than most Spain restaurants start serving dinner. We actually had a list of tapas, along with Spanish spelling and pronunciation, that we wanted to try eventually. We chose a place on La Rambla that had a variety of items that appealed to us, called Amatxu. We told the waiter we wanted tapas, and he recommended a mixed tapas plate. We went with his recommendation, and were rewarded with a plate to share consisting of four different tapas. He also brought a plate of bread; some with olive oil and herbs, some with crushed tomatoes. We topped it off with a bottle of water for me, and small bottle of wine for my wife. This was just the type of dinner we were wanting, but we were surprised by how expensive the bill was ($75). Our first night in Spain, and we learned a number of lessons that would be valuable the next four weeks:

  1. Don't assume that items they bring to your table are included. Servers will often bring items such as bread or olives. If you eat any of them, they will show up separately on your bill. We were charged separately for the bread, and it was per each slice! If unsure when the bring something, immediately ask.
  2. Always confirm the price of specials, preferably in writing on a menu. We went with his mixed tapas recommendation and assumed the cost would be less than the individual tapas, but it ended up being substantially more.
  3. Check the price of beverages on the menu; they can be extremely overpriced in some restaurants.
  4. Avoid restaurants right on main streets in touristy areas; they are frequently overpriced and only average quality.
  5. Choose places that have more locals than tourists as patrons.

As we walked back to our hotel at about 9:30, activity on La Rambla was still very busy.

Hotel:  Le Méridien Barcelona (1st of 4 nights; extra pre-tour hotel stay) 

Thursday May 10 Barcelona

[See photos in Barcelona]
Today we had the entire day on our own; it was one of our extra pre-tour days.

Between jet lag and good room darkening blinds, we slept in until 9:00. Once ready for the day, the first journey was to explore La Rambla, walking downhill, in the direction of the water. We brought our maps and our Rick Steves book and hit the road.

Our first stop was in La Boqueria public market to have breakfast. This is a fun market, full of hustle and bustle, locals shopping for their daily ingredients, and tourists taking photographs. We chose the Pinotxo Bar (watch video) for a breakfast of espresso and pastries; we had seen this bar on television, featuring a gregarious Juan serving his customers. It was an excellent choice. We then explored every row of the market, admiring the hanging hams, colorful fruit drinks, uncensored meats, nuts and candy. This was indeed one of the better markets we have ever visited.

Back on La Rambla, we found the mosaic by artist Joan Miro, and interesting architecture on the nearby buildings. We toured the Palau Güell, which is one of Gaudí's earlier buildings. It was a pleasant surprise, especially the roof and its colorful chimneys.

We eventually found ourselves at the waterfront, admiring the Columbus Monument. We had hoped to take the small elevator to the observation area at the top of the monument, but were told at the Tourist Information area inside that the elevator was not working. We walked a ways out to the harbor pier, but found it too touristy, crowded, and full of foreign peddlers. We reversed our course and made our way back up La Rambla. We stopped at an ATM outside a bank and withdrew €300. At lunch time we made our way back to the market and bought a small ham sandwich to share. We ate it picnic-style outside, watching the interesting people walking by.  We wanted to try even more of the famous Spain ham, so we walked further up La Rambla to the recommended Café VienaExternal link for a "flauti de pernil iberic".

Our next stop was the Barcelona Cathedral, located in the nearby Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gotico) area. Once there, we were told that today admission would be free at 5:00pm, so we circled around the outside, looking for the Carrer del Bisbe, a photogenic walkway connecting two buildings, similar to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

When in Europe, it is easy to get overwhelmed and bored with all the cathedrals, so we try to read up on each one ahead of time, and learn what features make each particular church different or unique. With the Barcelona Cathedral, we chose the numerous chapels that line the church. Also, for €2.50 there is an elevator to the rooftop that has nice views and pleasant temperatures.

We wandered the Barrio Gotico area, and happened upon a Salvador Dalí exhibit at the Museo Real Circulo Artistico de BarcelonaExternal link. This was a nice surprise, and the admission price was worth an hour of our time; it contained a fascinating variety of Dalí's pieces in excellent displays.

Next on our list was Granja La Pallaresa, a recommended place to try churros and chocolate. A churro is sort of a Spanish doughnut; a deep-fried dough pastry. They are normally dipped in hot chocolate, and often eaten for breakfast. In Spain we would see many places with many interpretations of churros, but the churros and chocolate this place remained our favorite.  It was full of locals, had a good menu, and table service.

Further on our walk, we found ourselves in the area of the Santa Maria del Pi, and decided it was time for a tapas dinner, as we had done last night.  This time we made better choices, selecting three individual tapas items, which was plenty for our meal.

On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped in a nearby grocery store for some bottled water and snacks. We were in bed by 10:30, which is extremely early by Spain standards, but our bodies work on early-to-bed, early-to-rise time, and this vacation would be no exception.

Hotel:  Le Méridien Barcelona, (2nd of 4 nights; extra pre-tour hotel stay)

Friday May 11 (Day 1) Barcelona

Tauck Paradors of Northern Spain tour begins with Day 1.

Tauck Description: Tauck's most unforgettable of Spain tours begins at 6:00 PM at Le Méridien Barcelona.  A transfer is included from Barcelona Airport to Le Méridien Barcelona.  At a welcome cocktail reception and dinner tonight, we invite you to meet those who will join you to discover the cultural diversity of Spain’s northern regions and Portugal.

[See photos in Barcelona]
Today is the official Day 1 of the Tauck tour. Since the first Tauck event would be the evening Welcome Reception, we had the entire day to explore more on our own.

We started our day with chores; recharged camera batteries; ironed clothes; rearranged suitcases for the next two weeks. We had our breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which was typical of all the breakfasts included on the tour; buffet with a variety of hot and cold dishes, pastries, beverages. On the way through the lobby, I stopped at the reception desk and requested they change a €50 currency note into smaller bills. Throughout the two countries I would find that some of the ATMs dispensed smaller notes, but others only dispensed larger notes; all of the reception desks were accommodating in making smaller change for me, but I think that if I had done more than one €50 note at a time, they might not have been so obliging.

Today we headed up La Rambla, past Plaça de Catalunya, and walked up Passeig de Gràcia street towards the Eixample district, in search of the Block of Discord with its three main Gaudí buildings and other Modernista architecture.   Passeig de Gràcia street was lined with fancy shops; areas like this are usually found in every city. We started with a tour of Casa Batlló, then the Casa Milà (La Pedrera).  The privately-funded Casa Batlló had more striking architecture inside. Casa Milà is more museum-like inside.  We were glad we did them both.

Or next late morning stop would be La Sagrada Familia. We knew it was a fair distance to walk, but we enjoy getting around by foot. Even with maps it was a challenge to find, which surprised us.  We thought it would be easy to follow the tall spires, but from the streets, the spires are not frequently visible, and signage was not very good in this area. We stopped in a café along the way for lunch tapas before entering the church. The church itself was amazing. Although a tour of the church is included with Tauck's city tour, we are glad we also did it on our own. This gave us more time to take photographs, wander at a slower pace, and occasionally simply sit down somewhere and gaze upward at the awesome structures. We tried to buy tickets for the elevators, but tickets had a specific admission time, and by the time we inquired there was a 1 1/2-hour wait to go up.

From the church we chose a return path to the hotel that took us to the Arc de Triomf, marking the entrance to Citadel Park (Parc de la Ciutadella). From that landmark, we went to the Catalan Concert Hall (Palau de la Música Catalana). We knew it would be closed, but was worth seeing the exterior. We returned to the hotel with just enough time to freshen up for the Welcome Reception.

There was a strong breeze blowing both yesterday and today. At times this would stir up dust and blow it into people's eyes. We also noticed a lot of people, including us, sneezing from pollen, and could see some fluffy seeds blowing around that looked like cottonwood.

At 6:15pm we went to the hotel lobby, and found Tour Director Matt there, holding his Tauck sign. He gave each person a card printed with a guest list, showing our fellow travelers' names and hometowns. We were directed to the banquet room reserved for us. The room had an open bar, and everyone arrived within fifteen minutes. People mingled and chatted, making introductions and trying to remember new names and faces. We were able to meet about half the other guests before Matt requested our attention at about 7:00. He talked for fifteen minutes, covering many details:

Attire was varied; some men wore jackets and ties; some wore jackets but no ties, some wore only collared shirts. Some women wore dresses; some wore nice slacks.

Matt then led us to dinner, which was in the hotel dining room. We could sit at any of the tables that had bread on them, indicating the ones reserved for our group.  There were some tables for six, and even more for four. We were given a menu specific for Tauck.  We could choose one soup or salad (four choices), one main dish (beef, lamb, salmon, or tortellini), and one dessert (fresh fruit, strawberries and ice cream, or chocolate brownie with caramel ice cream). Red or white wine was included. Coffee was served after dinner. The dinner was very fine, and restaurant staff was excellent.

Most people left the dining room about 9:15, as they were still weary from their travel to Europe.

Included meals:  D
Hotel:  Le Méridien Barcelona (3rd of 4 nights) 

Saturday May 12 (Day 2) Barcelona

Tauck Description: Barcelona, capital of the unique Catalonia region of Spain, beguiles at every turn.  With a local guide, we'll walk to the fascinating Cathedral and Barrio Gotico, the medieval quarter of the city. By motor coach, we'll continue on to architect Antoni Gaudí's extraordinary La Sagrada Familia, his amazing and still unfinished church.  We'll also see Barcelona's 1992 Olympic Stadium set high upon the hilltop of Montjuïc, which offers splendid views of the city below.  The remainder of the day is yours to wander through Barcelona's labyrinth of paths and alleys at leisure.

7:00 breakfast opens; 8:30 departure.

[See photos in Barcelona]
We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. At 8:30, the group met in the hotel bar. Tour Director Matt handed out the Whispers headsets to each person. He, along with the two local guides, had us put them on and test them, providing help or a replacement set to anyone who had problems. He gave us a brief schedule of the morning, and then divided us into two groups. Each group had their own broadcast channel on the Whispers. We headed out, starting the walking tour part of the morning. Our local guide was in the lead of our group, providing us with an ongoing monologue of history, local facts, and pointing out various interests that we passed. At the market, we were given the choice of strolling through with her, or go on our own and meet back with the group after fifteen minutes at a specific spot, pointing to the first stall by the front entrance. After the market, we walked towards the Cathedral. We went inside, did a very slow loop, then exited.

We walked a couple short blocks to our awaiting coach and our driver George. Matt was already there, and had a seating chart posted on the front door. He said the plan is to rotate two seats clockwise every day, and he will post a new seating chart every day. He showed us where the cooler was located (in the dash immediately inside the front door), saying it would be kept stocked with bottled water, and we were welcome to take what we needed.

After getting settled on the coach, we drove to the top of Montjuïc, where the 1992 Summer Olympics were held. We stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the city and harbor, and where restrooms were available. Continuing, we saw the Olympic Stadium, and the swimming/diving pool. We drove down the other side of Montjuïc, heading to La Sagrada Familia. The coach dropped us off very close to an entrance, and we gathered in a shaded area across the street. Here we heard some background and history of the church, and admired the outside architecture. Then we entered (watch video) and did a slow loop around inside, with constant narration audible through our Whispers. It was definitely more crowded than when we visited on our own yesterday, but still magnificent. We exited through a different door and reboarded our awaiting coach right across the street and headed back to the hotel.

We were instructed to keep our Whispers for the entire trip; they would be our responsibility. We arrived back at the hotel before lunch. We asked Matt for lunch advice, explaining we wanted simple Spanish tapas. He directed us to a casual café a block west of the hotel, a direction we had not yet explored. It was a perfect recommendation; we ordered three different tapas to share, sitting at an outside table, watching local people go about their daily routine.

After a quick hotel room stop to freshen up, we headed back out for an afternoon of exploring on our own.  Our first stop would be the Picasso Museum. We stopped at the Church of Santa Maria del Mar on the way. The church was not easy to find, but we eventually circled in on it. Our focus of this church were the columns that were an inspiration for Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia style. We went onward to the Picasso Museum, which was easier to find.  The museum did a wonderful job of arranging his works according to period. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside.

When we walked back to the hotel, the sunlight was just starting to fade. We were passing through some backstreets of the Barri Gòtic district, and started to feel a little less safe and comfortable. Picking up our pace, we suddenly found ourselves back at La Rambla. We enjoyed the café where we had lunch, so we returned there for dinner, ordering three different new tapas. Dessert was refreshing gelato at a stand on La Rambla just up from our hotel.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Le Méridien Barcelona (4th of 4 nights) 

Sunday May 13 (Day 3) Cardona; Castellciutat; La Seu d'Urgell

Tauck Description: Today we'll discover the rural charms of Catalonia soon after we depart the metropolitan area of Barcelona, as we travel along the "Yellow Roads" to the spectacular mountaintop monastery at Montserrat.  Later, we'll continue along through verdant, wooded valleys to Cardona, a village crowned by an ancient castle atop a cone-shaped hill. Here we'll enjoy a taste of Catalan cuisine during lunch in the medieval dining room of a 9th-century castle, the Parador de Cardona.  This afternoon, we continue along the western edge of the Sierra del Cadi to tiny Castellciutat, near historic La Seu d'Urgell in the Pyrenees, where you'll spend the next two nights at an elegant resort.  Arriving at our small, elegant hotel, we'll enjoy the delightful views that surround us.  Dinner this evening will be in our hotel.  Most dinners at the paradors will be full à la carte on this ultimate of northern Spain tours.

7:00 breakfast opens; 7:30 luggage ready inside room; 8:30 departure.

[See photos from today]
Today we noticed that the cost of the buffet breakfast was €23 per person. It's nice to have this included in Tauck's package. We tried the churros and chocolate that were at the breakfast buffet, but they weren't nearly as good as the ones we found in the café two days ago. Small coffee pots were brought to each table; they appeared to each be a small French press. The accompanying milk was warmed and brought in a small pitcher; we would find this throughout our tour.

We were instructed to have our luggage ready for pickup inside our room by 7:30am. As long as it had the Tauck-provided colored tag, the bellmen would pick it up, take it downstairs, and get it onto the coach. Any bags without a tag would be ignored.

Departure time was 8:30. On our way to the coach, we stopped by the reception desk to get smaller bills for a €50. Everyone was on the coach before the 8:30 departure time, so we were able to leave without delay at 8:30, which greatly pleased our tour director. He had a new seating chart posted to help us figure out the rotation. As soon as we pulled out, Matt started his narration. He would be providing us with much history of Spain and Portugal, and today he was starting around 20,000bc. He handed out a nice AAA map of the countries to each couple so we would be able to track our travels. He offered to highlight the route for anyone; many people had him do this later in the journey.

We arrived at the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat at 9:30, and were given until 11:15 to explore on our own. The skies had scattered clouds when we arrived, giving us excellent views. Apparently it is not unusual for Montserrat to have clouds and fog, and many visitors are never able to fully appreciate the view. It was a ten to fifteen-minute walk from the parking lot to the monastery along a gentle-sloping lane, ending in a steep stair climb. Being a Sunday morning, it was crowded with church-goers. It was obvious that there was a large percentage of people using crutches or in wheelchairs, there hoping to be healed. There were also excursion groups from nearby cruise ships, and numerous other tour agencies.  We headed inside to view the distinctive small wood statue of the Black Virgin ("La Moreneta"). Although mass was in progress, there was a line of people winding around the side of the church, through the chapels, up the steps, and behind the alter where the Black Virgin resides. The statue is behind glass, but the orb in her hands is exposed, allowing pilgrims to touch it. On the route leading out we passed by an area filled with votive candles left by pilgrims. Once outside we spent our remaining time walking the footpaths along the adjacent hilltop, with some great overlook views. Walking back to the coach parking lot, the low clouds started to move in, just covering the monastery (watch video). There were restrooms available at the café/gift shop right before the parking lot; this also had a good overlook for viewing the monastery from below, and the valley from above. Temperatures so far today varied from slightly chilly to slightly warm. The group returned in a timely manner, so again the coach was able to leave promptly at the designated 11:15 time.

Matt continued with his history as we traveled the windy mountain roads. We began seeing signs indicating the Way of St. James ("El Camino de Santiago") as we drove through fields and meadows full of red poppies and yellow wildflowers. We arrived at Parador de Cardona at 12:15 for our lunch. This stop required a steep uphill walk, which was a challenge for a couple of travelers; the thick wire handrail helped those with joint problems. We had fifteen minutes to walk around the old castle, and another twenty minutes inside the old church section. Our group was then lead to four tables in the restaurant; we chose our own seats. Lunch consisted of bread, olives, salmon spread and toast, and a choice of one appetizer, main dish, and dessert; each had four to choose from. Many people commented on the large serving sizes, bigger than many dinners we were normally accustomed to. Red wine and bottled water were included. Service was speedy and efficient.

We left the Parador at 2:35 for our 1 1/2-hour drive to La Seu d'Urgell. Matt informed us that the hotel would be gathering our passports and making copies for Matt to keep and show at hotels for the rest of the tour. He said they used to do this ahead of time via email, but no longer do this because of security concerns. He said that these copies are destroyed at the end of the tour. He said that tonight's hotel had free Wi-Fi in the rooms and public areas. He instructed us to stop at the front desk upon our arrival to tell them our dining time preference, with availability at 15 minute intervals to help the kitchen staff. We were also to inform them of our choice of activity for tomorrow: cooking demo, spa, or golf. Dinner attire tonight is "nice casual".

Upon arrival at our hotel El Castell de Ciutat ("Castle of the City"), we waited in the coach while Matt went inside to get our room keys. He returned five minutes later and handed them out. By the time we exited the coach, our luggage had already been unloaded. We all stopped at the front desk and gave them the requested information, and left a passport with them. They only required one passport per room. We easily found our room, which overlooked a beautiful lush valley. There were two glasses of iced tea with lemon slices awaiting us. Our luggage was delivered within ten minutes. I had to return to the front desk to ask how the room safe worked, as it seemed to have its own key. They gave us a separate key for it, and it worked well. Just as we sat down on the veranda to admire the outside scenery, the skies opened up, releasing torrential rain, with thunder and lightning accompaniment. After one-half hour it stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. It was actually quite enjoyable, and gave a nice freshness to the air.

We were treated to an unexpected treat tonight. The hotel was hosting a concert at their hilltop castle by two people, one playing accordion and one playing piano. At 6:30 we took the five-minute walk up to the castle. We were early, so we walked around the beautiful outside grounds for a few minutes. Other guests from our group started arriving; some walked up, others were driven up in a hotel car. We went into the rooftop entrance and made our way into a small stone hall where we were greeted with a glass of wine. The two musicians came in and began their performance (watch video). Their music was varied, but was a combination of Spanish and Gypsy; it was thoroughly enjoyed by all of us. The musicians didn't speak English, but two people in our group helped translate some of the star accordion players' comments. We were given a program which noted the musician's biographies, and they were quite impressive. The concert ended at 7:30, and we walked back down to the hotel, speeding up a little as the skies were turning dark again. At 8:00 we went to the restaurant and found our table mates, who we had talked to at lunch and made this table group. The hotel staff asked us for our preferences for tomorrow's lunch, then we ordered our dinner. We both chose the chef's recommendation menu which was a very good choice. Dinner lasted about 1 1/2-hours, with excellent food and excellent service. When we returned to our room, there had been turn-down service, with chocolates and a newsletter on the bed.  A wonderful end to a wonderful day.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  El Castell de Ciutat (1st of 2 nights) 

Monday May 14 (Day 4) La Seu d'Urgell

Tauck Description: We'll enjoy a brief orientation tour this morning of one of Catalonia's oldest towns, La Seu d'Urgell, and visit the 12th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria d'Urgell, considered to be one of the best examples in the world of early Romanesque architecture.  After lunch at the hotel, you have a choice of activities which include a Catalan cuisine cooking demonstration, a round of golf, or a pampered visit to the hotel spa.  Feast on a seven-course dinner this evening at a medieval castle on the grounds of our hotel.

8:00 breakfast opens; 10:00 departure.

[See photos from La Seu d'Urgell]
It was a rare leisurely morning, as we did not leave until 10:00. Breakfast opened at 8:00. It was the usual buffet-style, but was smaller since this hotel was smaller. Hot scrambled eggs and bacon were available, and the rest consisted of cold foods, fruit, cereal, pastries, cheese, cold cuts, juices, fresh espresso coffee made to order. The tables were mostly seating for two, although there were a few for four or six.

This hotel had same-day laundry service available, so we took advantage of it. We prepared a bag of laundry, called the front desk, and it was picked up by a chambermaid within ten minutes. It was a beautiful morning; we opened the French doors so we could smell the fresh air and listen to the doves talking in the valley as we did some hand washing in the bathroom sink. We then sat out on our deck, catching up on some trip notes, and studying up on sites we would be seeing.

At 10:00 we went to our coach, stopping at the front desk to drop off the heavy keychain. The coach left promptly at 10:00 for the city of la Seu d'Urgell which was a short five-minute drive from our hotel. The first stop was the Cathedral of Santa Maria d'Urgell, built in year 1116. We went to the cathedral's picturesque courtyard, where we waited while our director bought our tickets. Once inside, he gave us a ten-minute narrative about the church, and an orientation of the church, museum, and the town. Then we were on our own, and were to meet up again at 12:30 right outside the cathedral entrance. We walked around inside the old cathedral, looking at the unusually thick walls, the wood roof, and the alabaster windows. The cathedral was quite plain, as the frescoes were removed during the Franco years and moved to a museum. We then went back into the courtyard to get to the museum entrance. We spent another twenty minutes in the museum, then exited to walk around the adjacent old town. We were enticed by another ham sandwich at a café. Everyone was prompt in returning to our designated meeting place at 12:30, so we quickly boarded the coach for a five minute drive to the Olympic Park (Parc Olímpic del Segre). This canoeing and kayaking park was built for the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. Here we had twenty-five minutes to stroll around the facility and the park.

When we returned to the hotel at 12:45, we stopped at the front desk for our key, and they returned our passport to us.

Lunch was in the hotel restaurant, which was reached by walking through their wine cellar. Everyone received the same first course, a vegetable terrine. The main course was our choice of paella or Spanish omelet tortilla, which were preselected yesterday. Dessert was refreshing fruit in a heavy syrup, topped with lime sherbet. Espressos were served afterwards. It lasted fifty minutes.

At 3:00 our laundry was returned to our room. We did not expect to get it back so soon, since we had just sent it out today after breakfast. In our spare time, we sat outside on our veranda. It was such a beautiful setting (except for someone smoking outside two rooms down).

We had our choice of afternoon activity (spa, golf, or cooking), which we selected yesterday. Spa times were staggered throughout the afternoon. Cooking demonstration had two groups; one at 4:00, and one at 5:00. We chose the cooking demonstration, which was partly watching and partly participation. The chef, who spoke no English, was accompanied by the hotel proprietor, who gave the dialogue, while some of the guests were called forward to occasionally help with a preparation. And of course we were given samples of the wonderful results.

Dinner tonight was a treat; it was held in the hotel's hilltop castle. At 7:00 guests made their way up the hill, either a five-minute walk or a quick ride by hotel shuttle. We were greeted with a musician duo playing guitar and accordion music. We had twenty minutes of pre-dinner mingling and then the hotel/castle owner gave us a ten-minute history of the castle and all the impressive restorations they have accomplished on their own. We then took any seats at the long rectangular table, which had elegant place settings and individual menus. The seven-course meal included wine, was plentiful, fun, and delicious. For the cheese course, we each selected our own assortment from their cheese trolley while the musicians accompanied us again. Tour Director Matt walked around and visited with each guest. Coffee was served, people talked another fifteen minutes, then most everyone left at the same time, about 9:30. The evening's atmosphere was perfect!

As happened last night, a brief thunder storm passed over, freshening the air. Back in our room we sat out on our veranda, watching the storm disappear over the Pyrenees on its way to Andorra. We packed up our luggage in preparation for the morning departure.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  El Castell de Ciutat (2nd of 2 nights) 

Tuesday May 15 (Day 5) Pamplona; San Sebastián

Tauck Description: We travel today through stunning mountain scenery into the heart of Basque country, where we'll discover the charms of this very diverse region.  Pausing in Pamplona, site of the annual running of the bulls, you'll enjoy free time and lunch on your own.  We stop at Mt. Igueldo this afternoon to enjoy the amazing views overlooking the seaside resort of San Sebastián, where we will spend two nights.  Enjoy dinner this evening in your hotel.

7:00 breakfast opens; 7:00 luggage ready inside room; 8:00 departure.

[See photos from Pamplona and photos from San Sebastian]
At breakfast this morning, each table had their own small coffee pot, not espressos like yesterday morning. I think this was done because yesterday morning the espresso coffee service was slow, and today they had us figured out.

The coach departed promptly at 8:00 for a day of driving. Tour Director Matt informed us that today is the longest driving distance we will do in any one day on this tour; that was nice to know ahead of time, and nice to know how other days would compare. Matt continued with his history of Spain for the next hour, followed by forty-five minutes of quiet time. Then we listened to fifteen minutes of Andrés Segovia music, highlighting his classical guitar skills which introduced the use of both fingernails and fingertips at the same time. He was from the Andalucía region, and he influenced later guitarists worldwide. At 10:00 we had a twenty-five minute rest stop at a roadside rest area and café that is typical of Europe. They are convenient, clean, usually have restaurants, restrooms, gifts, and sundries. Matt touted the chocolate-covered fruit jelly candy made in this area.

Back on the coach he passed around a box of these treats for us to sample. He asked us to think about tonight's dinner, which would be at our next hotel. We were to decide what time we wanted to eat, and make our own small groups; we were to stagger our dinners in fifteen-minute intervals to assist the restaurant kitchen and staff. He would write down our reservations later today. Matt then gave us an insightful talk about bull fighting, particularly as seen from Spaniard perspective, which is very different from the image that most Americans have. This was good timing, as we had just seen one of the Osborne bulls out the window. We passed wind warning signs, and saw many modern windmills. It was indeed a windy day, typical for this region, and we felt it affecting the coach. We saw many stork nests built on power poles and church steeples; quite a site against the cloudless sky. At 12:30 we made another rest stop. I couldn't resist buying a tube of the "jamón" (ham) flavored Pringles. We were back on the road at 1:00 for the one-hour fifteen-minute drive to Pamplona.

Lunch was supposed to be on our own, but Matt decided to treat us today. He called ahead to a Pamplona restaurant, the Café Iruna, and arranged for a lunch to be ready for us. This restaurant was a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway. At 2:20 the coach dropped us off a half block from the main Plaza del Castillo square; we walked to the café, which was at the far end of the square. Our thirty-minute lunch was a pleasant assortment of tapas, including bread, thin slices of Serrano ham, vegetable tortilla, and cheese croquettes. The group was then led to the nearby street where the annual running of the bulls ("encierro") takes place. We walked along this until we came to the arena, which is the endpoint for the running bulls, and marked by a Hemingway statue. We then had fifty minutes of free time, and used it to explore the area, finding a couple of notable sculptures and statues, withdrew cash at an ATM, and frolicked in the pavilion in the middle of the main square. After meeting up again in front of the café (watch video), we walked to the coach drop-off area and reboarded at 4:00. Matt took our hotel dinner reservation time and number of people in our group as we entered the coach.

The last leg of the drive to San Sebastián took one hour fifteen minutes. On the way there, Matt gave us an orientation of San Sebastián. He said it has more Michelin stars per capita of any town. We arrived at the resort town at 5:15; the hotel had a fantastic location, right on the beach (watch video from hotel room), within walking distance of many attractions. Matt went inside our hotel, and was back on the coach in five minutes with our keys. We gathered our hand luggage and went inside. The glass elevator was small, old, and slow, so we opted to walk up to our room on the fifth floor. We actually prefer to take the stairs everywhere we go, so we did this at most of our hotels on the trip; it helped burn off all those extra tapas calories. Luggage delivery was slow tonight; it took well over thirty minutes to arrive in our room, apparently because they had to use that same old slow elevator that guests use.

We took advantage of a few extra minutes before dinner and walked around the Centro part of town close to the hotel, and then enjoyed the boardwalk, until 7:15. Temperatures were a bit cooler here; I was comfortable in my long-sleeved shirt, and my wife was glad she had a light jacket. We returned to our room, freshened up for dinner, and met the rest of our dinner party at the hotel dining room for our 8:00 reservation. There was a separate three-course menu just for Tauck guests. We could select from five starters, five main courses, and four desserts. I chose the ham for my appetizer; it was an entire plateful, more than I needed, but was the best ham I had tasted so far. Dinner lasted almost two hours. After dinner we did some hand laundry and checked email through the free Wi-Fi.

Included meals:  B, D
Hotel:  Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (1st of 2 nights) 

Wednesday May 16 (Day 6) San Sebastián

Tauck Description: A walking tour with a local guide reveals San Sebastián's La Parte Vieja (Old Town).  Known as the "Pearl of the Gulf of Biscayne," San Sebastián is an ideal resort, and its bustling, traffic-free old town has a great atmosphere. Many small restaurants and tapas bars in this section cater to locals and tourists alike.  Spend the remainder of the day exploring the aristocratic summer capital of Spain and popular surfing destination as you wish.

7:30 breakfast opens; 10:00 depart

[See photos from San Sebastian]
Today was another opportunity to sleep in for those who are not early risers. We awoke to find beautiful blue skies, so wasted little time in getting ready and going outdoors. After breakfast at the hotel, we were welcomed outside by surf sounds, dogs frolicking in the sandy beach, and people walking the promenade on their way to work. We sent out a few items for laundry service, as this hotel had same-day service; in by noon, back that evening after 8:00. We also had the front desk cashier change a €50 for smaller bills.

At 10:00 the group gathered in the lobby and divided into two groups with two local guides. The walking tour was a very leisurely pace, taking two hours. We went outside to the promenade, past the harbor, strolled to the Old Part ("Parte Vieja"), through the Santa Maria church, up and down a few streets that are known for their pintxos eateries (tapas are called pintxos here in Basque country), to Constitution Square, into and around the Bretxa Public Market. The walking tour ended here; some people returned to spend more time at the market, some went exploring Old Part, some returned to the hotel.

We stayed to further explore the Old Part, and had lunch at a pintxos bar. Then we climbed the winding path to the top of Monte Urgull, towards the huge statue of Jesus. We found the museum at the top, and we wound our way through the museum to get to the uppermost point of the mountain, with its picturesque vantage overlooking the harbor town (watch video).

After this we made our way back to the hotel to freshen up, then back out to go in the opposite direction along the promenade towards Monte Igueldo. Walking in this direction we simply enjoyed the two-mile-long promenade along La Concha Beach, and watching the local people enjoy their resort atmosphere. The high temperature today was 69 degrees, with a slight breeze the entire day. This was perfect for our long walking day. We were comfortable in long sleeves, but there were many women wearing jackets the entire day. This was an interesting contrast to the sunbathers on the beach, seemingly oblivious to the chill and the breeze; indeed, many women were topless. At the furthest point of the bay we decided to forgo the funicular ride to the top of Monte Igueldo. Instead, we found the large intriguing Wind Comb metal sculptures by Eduardo Chillida, and the man-made blow holes that filter surf-made wind through brickwork to create an eerie whooshing sound. The more daring people would stand over these exhaust areas Marilyn Monroe-style.

We reversed our path and headed back towards the hotel. For dinner tonight, some of our group had plans to go to a few of the restaurants that had good Michelin ratings. Although tempting, we decided to go more local style, and go tapaspintxos-hopping for our dinner. We went back into the Old Part and ate at a number of places, finishing with some artisan ice cream.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (2nd of 2 nights) 

Thursday May 17 (Day 7) Bilbao; Santillana del Mar; Fuente De

Tauck Description: The world-renowned Guggenheim Museum Bilbao awaits us this morning.  The sleek new building houses works by prominent artists of the 20th century, and includes contemporary Basque and Spanish art.  In Santillana del Mar, an exceptionally well-preserved medieval village, we'll enjoy a delicious lunch at Parador Gil Bias.  Following some free time to explore, we'll then embark on a scenic afternoon drive toward the Picos de Europa. This impressive mountain range is yet another one of Spain's many surprises.  Gorges, remote villages and verdant valleys are seen on the way to Fuente De, where the road literally stops at the foot of the Picos.  Enjoy dinner this evening at the Parador de Fuente De, set in the foothills of the Picos mountains.

7:00 breakfast opens; 7:30 luggage ready inside room; 8:30 depart.

[See photos from this day]
As usual, our entire group was on time, so we were on the coach for a prompt 8:30 departure. We first drove up to the top of Monte Igueldo for a five-minute photo stop. Even though it was calm in town, it was very windy at this viewpoint. Being early still, there was a mist over part of the area, so it wasn't as photogenic as it probably would have been yesterday later in the day.

We were back on the road at 8:50. Tour Director Matt gave us a good history of the Guggenheim Foundation, how the museum ended up in Bilbao, and the effect it has had on the area, along the one-hour fifteen-minute drive to Bilbao. We arrived there shortly after 10:00. There is a separate bus drop-off area on a lower level, so we made our way up to the entrance, passing the Puppy Sculpture on the way. We were given our admission tickets, and allowed two hours on our own. Audio guides were provided, and it was recommended that we start on the upper floor and work our way down. Much to our dismay, there was absolutely no photography allowed inside the museum, and they enforced this rule. On our own, we did an abbreviated tour of the museum and its works. By 11:00 it started to get quite crowded. We allowed ourselves time to exit the museum and wander around the exterior, admiring and photographing the unique Frank Gehry architecture, and the iconic Maman sculpture by Bourgeois. Before meeting the group outside the exit, we had a quick espresso in the museum café.

The group made our way back to the bus barn area, and we departed at 12:30. At 2:00 we arrived at Santillana del Mar for our lunch at the Parador de Gil Blas. It was open seating at five tables. We had a choice of four starters, four main courses, and four desserts; red and white wine were included. Lunch was over at 3:30, and we were given one-half-hour to explore the town on our own.

Back on the coach, Matt asked us if we were interested in trying something new. He occasionally will try a new activity that is not on the normal itinerary, to see if it is something Tauck might want to include in future tours. The group decided to be adventurous, so Matt had the coach driver take us to the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira, which is a reproduction of the Cave of Altamira. We arrived at 4:10. Matt rushed to get admission tickets, and got two groups of tickets, one for 4:35 admission, and one for 4:40. While waiting, we looked around the interpretive center of the museum. Once our admission time arrived, we were escorted into a small theater where we watched a five-minute video about the cave, and then proceeded to walk through the detailed cave reproduction at our own pace. For most people, fifteen minutes was plenty of time to walk through. The response to Altamira in our group was mixed; there were some who thought the cave experience was wonderful, and others who found it dull.

We met at the coach at 5:15 and left for Fuente De, a 1 1/2-hour drive. We entered the Picos de Europa National Park about 6:00. The mountain road was very windy, usually following a river; the scenery was spectacular. Matt kept us entertained with his stories of interesting things that have happened over his tour director career. He said that dinner at this parador usually opens at 8:30, but they are opening at 8:00 just for us; and attire is casual. We arrived at our Parador de Fuente De at about 7:00. The hotel staff was very speedy with room key handout and luggage delivery. The rooms actually had real keys and locks, which is becoming a rarity. We went to the restaurant right at 8:00, and most of the group was there by 8:15. All the tables were for six people. We had a full menu to choose from, and the dinner was great; we were finished by 9:45.

This parador is not quiet; we could hear noises and conversations from the hallway, and the old wooden floors were squeaky. The beds were on the hard side. Despite this, the hotel had tremendous character, great staff, beautiful setting, and was a wonderful stay.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Parador de Fuente De (1 night) 

Friday May 18 (Day 8) León

Tauck Description: Today we cross the Cantabrian Cordilleras on the way to the high Meseta Plateau of central Spain.  The mountains are now behind, with the endless plains of Castile ahead.  The area is thinly populated and wheat is seemingly grown everywhere.  You'll enjoy lunch in the small town of Riaño.  In the late afternoon we arrive in León, once the capital of the Kingdom of León and an important stop for pilgrims.  We'll enjoy a walking tour of the city center which includes a visit to the cathedral, one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Spain, with a local guide.  Our accommodations tonight are in the Parador de Leon, once the former seat of the Knights of Santiago, it is itself a famous attraction of Leon.  Enjoy dinner this evening in your Parador de León, one of the most luxurious in Spain.

8:00 breakfast opens; 10:00 luggage ready; 11:00 depart.

[See photos from Leon and Astorga]
Our hopes this morning were to take the cable car up to the viewpoint, but we awoke to a thick low cloud cover. After breakfast we walked across the street to the cable car loading station and saw a couple dozen other people in line with hiking attire, backpacks, and walking staffs. They were not deterred by the fog, but they were not going up just for the view. It was chilly; even with her coat and gloves, my wife was cold. There was a restaurant, small gift shop, and an ATM. We optimistically waited, hoping the fog would lift. But when the cable car started at 10:00, it was obvious that there would be no scenic ride for us; the cable car disappeared in the cloud cover soon after it left the station (watch video). Although a few people from our group wandered over, nobody got on the cable car.

At 11:00 we left for León. In about twenty minutes we had broken out of the fog, and saw blue sky. We arrived in Riaño at 1:00 for our lunch. Riaño was chosen primarily because it is conveniently located from a timing standpoint during the drive to León. There is not a lot to see in Riaño itself; the town was built in the 1980s when the old town was covered by water during construction of a dam and reservoir. Walking from the restaurant towards the river gave us some very nice views though. Lunch at the Hotel Presa took about one hour, and we had another twenty minutes to wander outside. We were back on the road for León at 2:25.

We arrived at our parador in León at 4:00. The group immediately gathered in front of the parador for a group photo; Tour Director Matt had arranged a local photographer to be ready for us. We picked up our room key, which was again an actual key. We took advantage of our free minutes and explored the expansive old monastery, church, cloister, chapterhouse, museum, and then went back outside to take a picture of the El Peregrino (pilgrim) monument.

At 5:00 we met in the lobby for our walking tour and Cathedral de León visit. We brought our Whispers, and everyone set them to the same channel. We got on the coach and drove less than ten minutes to Plaza de Santo Domingo, a drop-off point a few blocks from the cathedral, where we got out and met up with our local guide, whose name was Camino. She led us on a slow walk through the Old Town down Calle Ancha to the cathedral, pointing out various sites such as Casa de Botines (a Gaudí building) with his statue out front, the Way of St. James ("El Camino de Santiago") shell plaques on the ground and signage on building walls, the brass footprints pointing the way to historic sites. Outside the cathedral she told us about the detailed features of the façade. Inside, she discussed the extensive stained glass windows, the noteworthy feature of this cathedral. We circled around, passing the pregnant Virgin Mary statue, stopping in the choir. There were "No Photo" signs posted, but photos were being taken by everyone in the cathedral who had cameras. We spent an hour inside the cathedral, which included plenty of time on our own. After this, we had the choice of returning to the parador on our coach, or walking back on our own, which was about a twenty-minute stroll. We thanked our local guide, as she was the most enjoyable one we had so far. We chose to walk back on our own, veering off some side streets along the way. We also easily found an ATM to safely withdraw more Euros. We could pick out a number of people who were making their Way of Saint James journey.

We met in the parador lobby at 8:30 for our dinner, and went into the restaurant, which was opening one-half-hour earlier for us than their usual time. We could chose anything we wanted from their menu; it had some of the same items as the Parador in Fuente De, but also had some new selections. The restaurant was large and soon very busy. After our excellent two-hour meal we went outside to admire the parador after dark. The ornate architecture was beautifully enhanced by the perimeter lighting and the dark skies; an image not to be missed.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Parador de León (1 night) 

Saturday May 19 (Day 9) Astorga; Piedrafita del Cebrero; Santiago de Compostela

Tauck Description: After the discovery of the grave of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in the ninth century, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Europe have walked El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) to the city's cathedral, named in St. James' honor.  Follow in their footsteps today for an understanding of the territory that had to be crossed to complete their strenuous pilgrimage.  Enjoy lunch in the town of Piedrafita del Cebrero, then continue into the region of Galacia.  We arrive late this afternoon in Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrims' final destination, where we'll enjoy a guided walking tour of the historic quarter featuring the extraordinary Cathedral of St. James.  Our hotel this evening is one of Spain's most remarkable hotels; accommodating travelers since the 15th century, it is located on the same beautiful square as the cathedral.  Enjoy dinner this evening in your Parador de Santiago de Compostela, a remarkable parador that began accommodating travelers in the 15th century; set on the same square as the cathedral, it's one of the oldest hotels in the world, and a highlight of your most intriguing of northern Spain tours with Tauck.

7:30 breakfast opens; 8:00 luggage ready inside room; 9:00 depart.

[See photos from Santiago de Compostela]
Breakfast this morning was impressive; it had the largest variety and selection so far. Along with the usual breads and pastries, there was a great assortment of fresh fruits, numerous hot Spanish dishes, various meats and cheeses, Asian foods, and desserts. Coffee pots were brought to each table, and espressos could be ordered.

It was raining this morning. Apparently Santiago de Compostela is one of the rainiest places in Spain, and that is where we were headed next. But the rain stopped by the time we boarded the coach at 9:00, and only scattered clouds remained for our drive. We immediately saw pilgrims walking along the road on their way to the same destination. There were frequent signs pointing the way for them. Tour Director Matt gave us a description and history of the El Camino de Santiago. After about twenty minutes we stopped by an old church right on the road so we could take photos of the storks nesting in the bell tower. We entered the town of Astorga about 10:00. Matt wanted to treat us to a tour of the Episcopal Palace, which is a former palace designed by Antoni Gaudí; it is currently a museum dedicated to the Way of Santiago. He gave us our admission tickets, and we had one hour to explore on our own. It was well worth the stop; unfortunately no photos were allowed inside. The WC in the museum was very small and always seemed to have a line, so a few of us went across the street to the Gaudí café for a quick espresso and restrooms. Some people bought mantecadas, a pastry that is a product of Astorga.

We were back on the coach at 11:00, and Matt shifted his talk to the Spanish Inquisition period. At 12:15 we arrived at Piedrafita del Cebrero for lunch. Matt phoned our selections of veal or trout ahead this morning. Both were served with french fries.

We left at 1:40 for Santiago de Compostela. An hour into the drive we were met by a hard rainstorm with intermittent hail and sun breaks. Some of the pilgrims had taken cover, but there were still quite a few enduring the inclement weather so close to their final destination. We arrived at 3:45. It was a bit strange being on the coach as it drove through town, turned a corner, and all of a sudden we were driving right into Praza do Obradoiro, full of people. We parked right in front of the parador, allowing us to step of the coach and step right into the experience of The Way.

At 4:30 we met outside with our local guides; one with Whispers, one without, our choice. The walking tour lasted about 1 1/2 hours. Starting in the Praza do Obradoiro (watch video), she talked about each of the surrounding buildings. We walked to the center and looked at the scallop shell engraved in the center stone; the site where many pilgrims stop before entering the final steps into the cathedral. We then walked around to the Praza Inmaculada and entered the cathedral from that side entrance as pilgrims did in years past. Inside we slowly circled around, while the guide explained the significance of many areas and structures, such as the pillar of St. James. We exited onto Praza das Praterias, the Silversmiths' Square, for a quick look around, then went back inside. We went to the Holy Door, which is open only during certain years; the door was faced with a sculpture showing periods if St. James' life. We walked by the coffin that holds the remains of St. James. At 5:45 we sat down in the pews to the right of the alter, and she finished her talk. Mass was scheduled at 6:00, and people were starting to fill up the cathedral. Our guide said goodbye to us there, and left us there so we could be a part of Mass if we chose. She told us that tonight was one of the special nights where they would be swinging the botafumeiro, one of the largest in the world. I had hoped to see this on our trip, but really did not expect it since it does not occur at every Mass.

Mass lasted from 6:00 to 6:35, included communion and collection, with the botafumeiro swinging immediately afterwards (watch video), for about ten minutes. It was an amazing, moving experience; one of those sights that will always be ingrained in my memory. The church was packed, mostly with tourists, but also with locals; some people taking in Mass, while others just happened to be touring the church when Mass occurred.

We were given a choice of two venues for dinner: the hotel café, starting at 8:00 with no reservation needed, or the lower level main dining room, starting at 8:30 with reservations. They both have similar menus. We chose the café, which was nicer than we anticipated. Service was slow though; we finished at 9:50, and this was without dessert or coffee.

When we returned to our room we could hear a bagpipe being played somewhere outside on our street. It was nice, but thankfully he stopped playing in time for our typical early bedtime hour.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Parador de Santiago de Compostela (1 night) 

Sunday May 20 (Day 10) Porto

Tauck Description: This morning is at leisure to further enjoy Santiago de Compostela.  After lunch at the Parador, we cross the border into Portugal, bound for the medieval port city of Porto.  Today, Porto is Portugal's second-largest city and offers much to interest visitors.  Remember... Change clocks back one hour to reflect local time in Portugal!  Enjoy dinner this evening in your hotel.

7:00 breakfast opens; 11:00 luggage ready inside room; 1:00 depart.
Set clocks back one hour today when crossing into Portugal.

[See photos from Porto]
Breakfast this morning was another excellent buffet on the second floor. The entire morning was free time, so we started with a walk to Alameda Park, which is on a nearby hill and has a couple of nice viewpoints ("mirador") back towards the cathedral. We took our light jackets because there was a very light mist in the air. Next we walked back to Praza do Obradoiro, window shopping along the way. The square was much less populated with tourists at this hour; those who were there appeared to be pilgrims at the end of their journey. We went back into the cathedral and revisited some of the highlights we saw yesterday, but without the crowds. We were surprised to find a Mass just finishing up, and they were about to swing the botafumeiro again (watch video). We couldn't believe our luck, being able to experience this twice! The church was far less crowded this morning.

We then went to the adjacent Cathedral Museum ("Museo Catedral"); the entrance was on Praza do Obradoiro, to the right of the church entrance. The museum covers four floors, including the cloister. One floor features beautiful old tapestries, some of which were designed by Goya. Other sections have beautiful religious relics, a treasury, and a crypt. Also on the top floor is a long outdoor balcony that overlooks the Praza do Obradoiro and surrounding streets. There is an admission fee for the museum, but it is worth doing, even if just to walk along the balcony and see the view overlooking the square (see video). No photos are allowed inside.

At 12:00 the group met in the parador lobby for lunch. It was at the same place we had dinner last night, and was served family-style. There was a variety of small sandwiches, ham, croquettes, tortillas, dessert. Wine was included.

At 1:00 the light rain stopped just in time for us to board the coach for our 4 1/2-hour drive to Porto. We stopped at a typical highway rest area shortly after 2:00 for a twenty-five minute break. We crossed into Portugal just past Vigo at about 2:50. We all were immediately reminded to set our watches and clocks back one hour to 1:50.

Our next afternoon rest break was in Viana do Castelo at 2:50, about 1 1/2 hours after our last one. We were given forty-five minutes to walk around the main street. Being a Sunday, many shops were closed, but it was a pleasant seaport town. We found our way to the main square (Praça da República), and the 16th-century Renaissance fountain. Many of us found the Zé Natário pastelaria, and snacked on custard tarts, bolo de gema pastries, and espressos. The town was very quiet; very few other tourists were seen.

Back on the coach, Tour Director Matt made his rounds and took our dining reservation time preferences. We were to choose our dining mates, table size, and time, starting at 7:30 and in fifteen-minute increments thereafter. Along the way, Matt talked about Tauck, and the long-time positive experience he has had working with them. He said that they prefer to lease their coaches, and rarely use one for more than four years. He said that every single customer comment card is read by one of the Tauck family, often by Arthur Tauck, Jr. himself. He was proud of the fact that after the September 11th terrorist events, Tauck was the only major tour company to offer cash refunds to affected customers rather than travel vouchers. Tauck is still family-owned, so they can make the right decisions quickly.

We arrived at our Sheraton Hotel at 4:45. Luggage delivery was prompt. We did some hand laundry before dinner. It was convenient here, as the bathroom had separate shower and tub stalls; a laundry line could be spread over the tub and not interfere with showering.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant; it was three-course à la carte, and included wine. We were both tired, so we chose to dine alone tonight, reserving a table for two. Another couple in our group also chose to dine alone, and had the table for two next to us. We ended up chatting with them throughout dinner, and it basically turned into a pleasant table for four. Matt recommended the salted cod, which we had seen in some of the markets earlier in the trip, and it was surprisingly good. Dinner lasted until 9:15.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa (1st of 2 nights) 

Monday May 21 (Day 11) Porto

Tauck Description: Giving its name to port wine, its well-known export, the city of Porto has a rich and colorful history.  Sightseeing with a local guide here today includes visits to the colorful market of Bolhao and Livraria Lello, one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.  We'll also explore the Gothic Church of Sao Francisco before enjoying a cruise on the Douro River aboard a traditional Rabelo boat - these boats have been used to transport barrels of port wine along the river for over 200 years.  Tonight, you'll be able to sample the locally produced port when you visit Taylor's winery for a tour that's followed by a wine tasting and dinner in the elegant Restaurante Barao de Fladgate.

7:00 breakfast opens; 9:30 depart.

[See photos from Porto]
The breakfast buffet was another one with a large selection. The brewed coffee was better than the paradors, and espressos could still be ordered as an alternative.

At 9:30 we boarded the coach for the city tour with local guide Suzanna. We headed towards the Douro River, and got out for a five-minute photo stop at the embankment. Next we went to the Livraria Lello bookstore, using our Whispers. It is indeed one of the most beautiful bookstore I have ever seen. Unfortunately no photos allowed inside, and they watched camera-holders very closely. Tour Director Matt bought bookmarks for everyone so that the owners would not mind us walking through. We then walked to the São Bento Train Station, known for its scenic tile panels from the early 1900s. We walked a short distance to our coach, passing the Clérigos Church and Tower, and drove towards the Ribeira neighborhood on the waterfront, to the Gothic Church of St. Francis. The distinctive feature of this church is its ornate gold leaf-covered carvings. We had a quick tour inside, but no photos were allowed.

From the church we walked a few feet around the corner and found the river boat waiting to give us a cruise on the Douro River. The weather was turning very gray, but it never rained. Most in our group wore jackets today, as did the locals. The boat had bench seating outside and inside under cover. It was chilly and breezy on the water, and most people were glad they had their jackets. We first headed upriver along the colorful bank, under new and old bridges, then turned around retracing our path downriver. We went past our embarking area and continued downriver, getting views of many well-known port wine lodges on the other side of the river (the Vila Nova de Gaia area), including Sandeman, Warre's, Barros, and Fonseca. We eventually turned around again and returning to the dock. At this point we had a choice of either returning to the hotel with the coach, or explore on our own, making our own way back to the hotel. The group was split about equally between the two options. We returned to the hotel because we wanted to take photographs of Portuguese tiles, and knew there was a neighborhood close to the hotel that would be good for this.

Back at the hotel we had lunch in their restaurant. They have a wood pizza oven, and make very good thin crust pizza; they are big enough to share between two people. We headed out the hotel, down Avenue da Boavista, towards Rotunda da Boavista. By this time the weather had warmed up enough for me to leave my jacket behind. Along the way we stopped in a local café for an espresso. At €0.90, it was the least expensive one we found on our trip. We also withdrew Euros at a bank-associated ATM that we passed. We found that there is a €200 limit to cash withdrawals at ATMs in Portugal. We wandered up and down the streets, accomplishing our goal of photographing the colorful tiles. At the end of one of the southeast side streets, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Cemitério de Agramonte, a huge municipal cemetery. We have found some photographic gems in cemeteries, and this one would be no exception. This was one of the spookiest ones though, due to the multitude of feral cats that lived there. They seemed to pop out of nowhere, watching your every move, until you turned around...then they would quickly disappear...until you turned forward again. Creepy. We finished our exploration and were back at the hotel by 5:00.

At 6:30 the group boarded the coach for a fifteen-minute drive across the river to Taylor's Winery for dinner. Our visit started with a forty-five-minute guided tour of the winery, followed by twenty minutes of socializing, appetizers, and wine on their scenic outdoor porch. We were then seated inside for dinner; four tables with eight people at each. Along with dinner we were served Fonseca white or red wine, and dinner was followed by a sweet Fonseca port. Dinner finished at about 9:30 and we were back at the hotel well before 10:00.

Included meals:  B, D
Hotel:  Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa (2nd of 2 nights) 

Tuesday May 22 (Day 12) Coimbra; Fátima; Lisbon

Tauck Description: Delve into Portugal's history today as you visit Coimbra, liberated from Moorish occupation in 1064 and the site of the oldest seat of higher learning in Portugal.  After lunch at a local restaurant we journey to Fátima, home to the famous pilgrimage shrine commemorating the reputed appearances of the Virgin Mary to three children here in 1917.  We arrive in Lisbon in the early evening, where dinner tonight is at your leisure.

7:00 breakfast opens; 7:00 luggage ready inside room; 8:15 depart.

[See photos from Coimbra and Fatima]
The coach left at 8:15 for today's first stop, Coimbra. Once on the road, Tour Director Matt came around and confirmed each person's flight times or post-tour details. He said that transportation to the airport usually leaves three hours before the flight, and it takes thirty to forty-five minutes to get to the airport from the Lisbon Ritz hotel. He confirmed that extra hotel nights booked through Tauck always include breakfast. He noticed that we would be starting our next Tauck tour in a couple of days, and mentioned that our next Tour Director Joe is excellent, and has worked with Tauck for many years. Matt said that our group photo will be handed out tomorrow, and an email address exchange will be passed around for those who choose to participate. He informed us that tomorrow's city tour will be on a different coach, so make sure we take all of our belongings off today. Tomorrow's city tour will be the last time we will see our driver, and the Farewell Dinner will be the last time we see the Tour Director.

Our first rest stop was at 9:25 for 25 minutes. We arrived in Coimbra at 10:05, where a local guide joined us on the coach. We donned our Whispers and drove to the University of Coimbra, which is the oldest school in Portugal and one of the oldest in Europe. We walked to the main square of the campus, and had a short wait before our scheduled admittance time into the Joanina Library. This library is spectacular with its two storied shelves, decorated arches, gilded wood, and painted ceilings. Photographs were prohibited inside, and this rule was enforced. One of the interesting facts the guide told us was that there were some resident bats living behind some of the books. They are welcome here because they come out at night and eat the insects that would otherwise be damaging to the rare books. Because of this, the staff has to cover the tabletops every night to protect them from the bat droppings.

The next stop on our campus walk was St. Michael's Chapel ("São Miguel Chapel"), located close to the library, on the main courtyard. It is small but ornate; the pipe organ features unusual horizontal pipes. We gathered again in the main square and continued with the history of the University. Returning to the coach at 11:10, we continued the city tour for another twenty minutes. We dropped the local guide off at the Hotel Astoria, and left town for Fátima, a forty-five-minute drive from Coimbra.

At 12:05 we arrived at our lunch stop, which was a restaurant, Manjar do Marques, located just off the main road. Matt had already asked for our preference (fish and chips, steak, or veal) and called it in ahead of time. It was convenient and satisfying; wine was included. We were back on the road at 1:20.

We arrived in Fátima around 2:00, and were given one hour on our own. There is an information booth that had a good map, and a helpful staffer who gave a good brief history and other tidbits. The weather was beautiful, and the crowds were thin. We first went to the place where people purchase candles of various shapes and sizes, including replicas of body parts to be healed, and place them in the fireplace for burning. It was a strange sight to see wax heads, legs, arms, breasts, intestines, and infants being melted into twisted distortions, dripping down into a hidden vat to be recycled and resold.

We then walked down the large Esplanade to the Chapel of Apparitions where a service was in progress, and past the fountain to the prominent Basilica which was at the far end of the Esplanade (watch video). There were a few people making their pilgrimage down the Esplanade, a few making the journey on their hands and knees (watch video). Next we took a look at the Berlin Wall. It was a section of the wall, approximately three-foot by twelve-foot in size. From there we crossed the Esplanade and went past the information area, up the stairs, to the stalls that sell trinkets, rosaries, and wax candles.

We reboarded the coach at 3:00 and headed for Lisbon. Matt handed out our group photo, a Lisbon map, and a handout with his restaurant suggestions. We arrived at our hotel at 4:50, immediately got off the coach, and picked up our awaiting keys at the concierge desk. The hotel had our stay dates for two nights, but with our back-to-back tours we were here for five nights. I explained this to her, she checked her records, and made new keys for us, assuring us that we are indeed good for five nights now. Luggage delivery was slow; ours did not arrive in the room until 5:50.

Dinner tonight was on our own. Matt had some suggestions on his handout, and we went to one that he called casual. We were earlier than most restaurants open, but luckily this one was available, and took care of our pasta craving. We were probably asleep tonight before most of Lisbon had their dinner.

Included meals:  B, L
Hotel:  Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (1st of 5 nights) 

Wednesday May 23 (Day 13) Lisbon

Tauck Description: Today we embark on a guided sightseeing tour of Portugal's capital. We'll learn about the "Period of Great Discoveries," when Portuguese explorers ventured into previously unchartered waters and discovered new continents.  Our day also includes a visit to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Museu Nacional dos Coaches (National Coach Museum) which exhibits an exceptional collection of ceremonial vehicles used by European courts from the 17th to the late 19th century.  We'll also see the Tower of Belem and the Discoveries Monument, where the caravels (15th-century sailing vessels) departed.  This evening, we invite you to join us for a farewell reception and dinner in your hotel.

7:00 breakfast opens; 9:00 depart.

[See photos from Lisbon]
Needless to say, breakfast this morning in the Four Seasons Ritz dining room was fabulous; top-notch food, attentive service.

Although expensive, we sent a couple items of clothing out for cleaning. If sent out by 9:00 it would be returned by 7:00 that evening. We called before breakfast, and the laundry bag had been picked up by the time we returned after breakfast. When we returned later in the day at 4:30, the cleaned items were there, hanging in the closet.

The coach left at 9:00 for the city tour. The local guide joined us at the hotel. We first drove to different sections of town to get oriented, and then to the National Coach Museum which was better than I expected. Our next stop was very close, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. We entered the Church of Santa Anna, which had an ornate portal. Inside is the tomb of Vasco da Gama. It was extremely crowded, and I think we were running behind schedule, so we were rushed through. We reboarded the coach for a short drive to the Discoveries Monument for a fifteen-minute stop at 11:25. While we were outside, Tour Director Matt placed Tauck guest questionnaires on our seats, asking us to complete them and return it at tonight's Farewell Dinner. Also on our seat was a paper listing our names, flight departure times, and airport transportation pickup times.

The city tour ended at about 12:00. We were given a choice of staying on the coach and returning to the hotel, or getting off at Rossio Square (also called "Praça de Pedro IV"). About half the group chose to return to the hotel, the other half staying to explore on their own. We said goodbye to our driver George, and handed him our gratuity in a Ritz Hotel envelope.

We walked down the popular pedestrian street Rua Augusta and had lunch at Pastelaria Casa Brasileira. It was crowded with locals, but had swift service, helpful staff, and a large selection of sweets, savories, sandwiches, snacks. Their Pastel de Nata (egg tart) is a treat. We stood at the counter and ate ours, but it could have easily been taken to go. It also had a restroom for customers on their lower level.

We then returned to Rossio Square, and went further, to a good Tourist Information building near the train station. We picked up a good map, and asked about transportation, receiving information about the 24-hour Viva Viagem metro passes. We went outside, down the metro station stairway, and bought our 24-hour passes at a ticketing window. This cardboard pass has an embedded chip in it, and is used by swiping it near the sensor when passing through metro turnstiles, or boarding one of the funiculars or elevators.

The Elevador da Glória was our next stop; it is a classic yellow funicular that took us from its Avenue Liberdade station in the Baixa area up to a nice park and viewpoint (Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara) in the Bairro Alto area. Our metro pass was used to pay the fare. When we got off we turned right and walked uphill a block to the park. From here we somewhat followed a Rick Steves walking tour. The São Roque Church ("Igreja de São Roque") was a couple blocks away; its distinctive feature is the opulence of the side chapels. Onward to Carmo Convent ("Convento do Carmo") where picturesque ruins of an old Gothic church still stand; small admission charged; has restrooms. Uphill to the recommended Café A Brasileira, where we had beverages and a good pastel de nata, the winning tart so far.

It was time to return to the hotel, so we went into the nearby metro entrance, and rode down a long escalator. We surveyed the metro map, got on one that went towards our hotel, and got off four stops later. It ended up being even with our hotel, but on the opposite side of the huge Eduardo VII Park. It was a long but nice walk through and around the park to get to the hotel; it would have been quicker to get off the metro one stop sooner, at Marquis of Pombal Square and walk up the fairly steep Rua Joaquim Antonio de Agular street where the Ritz was located.

The high temperature today was 82 degrees. This was tolerable when in the shade, but was quite hot during the long walks, especially going up hills.

We rested and cleaned up for the Farewell Dinner, completed the Tauck questionnaire, wrote a thank-you note for our Tour Director, putting it in an envelope along with our gratuity.

At 6:30 we went to the lounge area of the hotel for our Farewell Reception. Attire for this dinner was mixed. Two men wore ties, half wore coats only, and the rest wore only dress shirts. A few women wore dresses, but the majority wore nice slacks. There was a small open bar set up. Matt was there handing out the email contact sheets, and collecting questionnaires. This is when most people gave Matt the gratuities and said thank-yous. People also mingled, reminiscing about the past two weeks together. At 7:00 we were directed into the dining room, choosing our own seating at any of the tables. There were a few tables for six or eight, and one for ten. We were given a menu specifically for Tauck, with a choice of fish or poultry, and a fixed appetizer and dessert. At 9:00 we were excused to the lounge area again, where they had coffee service set up. Guests chatted for another fifteen or twenty minutes, said their farewells, and went to their rooms to prepare for the following day's departures.

Included meals:  B, D
Hotel:  Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (2nd of 5 nights) 

Thursday May 24 (Day 14) Lisbon

Paradors of Northern Spain” tour ends.

7:00 breakfast opens; departure times vary for each person.

[See photos from Lisbon]
Today is the last official day of the Tauck tour. We were starting our next Tauck tour tomorrow, so we weren't leaving yet, and had the entire day for ourselves. People who were leaving today had their luggage ready for pickup in their rooms at the designated time, and went to the lobby to meet their driver at the designated time. From what we could tell, everyone's departures happened as planned, with no glitches.

We decided to explore the Alfama area. We took a taxi for about €5 from our hotel to the Castle of St. George (Castelo de São Jorge). We arrived at the ticket office right at 9:00 when they opened, which helped beat the crowds. The best features of the castle were the good views over the city (watch video). Otherwise was not a very exciting stop; one hour was more than enough time here.

From the castle we walked down to Largo de Santa Luzia, a square with a terrace that has another good view. This is where we got on trolley 12E; the fare was part of our Viva Viagem metro pass. We stayed on for the entire twenty-minute loop, which gave us a good orientation of the neighborhood (watch video).

Next we went to Praça da Figueira (Fig Tree Square), the large square in the Rossio area. We then window shopped along the three main streets (Prata, Aurea, and Augusta) on the way towards Praça do Comércio (watch video), with its Arch of Triumph and King Jose I statue. Across the street is the Tagus River.

Walking back towards Rossio, we stopped in a café for a sandwich pastry, and found another ATM. We made our way to the distinctive Santa Justa Lift, which takes people from the lower streets of Baixa to the higher Carmo Square. The designer was an apprentice of Eiffel, which explains the distinctive metal beam and wrought iron construction. The fare was also included on our Viva Viagem pass; we rode up to the observation deck, and ate our takeaway lunch there.

We slowly made our way back to the hotel, and stopped at the desk to pick up our Tauck messages for tomorrow's new tour. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading up on our next destinations, writing notes, doing hand laundry, and relaxing our feet.

This evening we decided to dine at an Italian restaurant we had seen last night, Caruso Pizzeria. It was quick, casual, the food was good, and satisfied our pizza craving. Since we were very early by Portugal standards (7:00), we had the place to ourselves. By the time we left at 8:00, a number of locals were starting to filter in. We returned to the hotel for an early lights-out, so we would be fully rested for the next half of our wonderful journey.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (3rd of 5 nights) (extra pre-tour hotel stay)

Friday May 25 (Day 1) Lisbon

Start our next Tauck tour, “Spain and Portugal” tour begins with Day 1.


Connecting With The Tour Group

A welcome letter from our tour director (Matt Curran) was given to us at the reception desk when we first checked in to the hotel in Barcelona. The letter informed us that the first group meeting would be for our welcome reception and dinner, Friday evening at 6:15pm on the lobby level of the hotel.  When we went to the lobby at 6:15, the tour director was standing by the concierge desk holding a Tauck sign.  He gave us a card listing fellow guest names and hometowns, and directed us down the hall to the room set up for our group's reception.  We joined the other guests in the room, and our tour officially began!

Day 1 Orientation

The welcome letter given to us at our Barcelona check-in contained helpful information on:

Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner

As directed in our welcome letter, we went to the lobby right at 6:15pm, and saw our tour director Matt standing by the concierge desk holding a Tauck sign. After giving us a card with fellow guest names and hometowns, and directed us to the banquet room for our group's reception.  There was an open bar with wine, spirits, beer, and soft drinks.  About half the guests were already there.  We walked around and met other travelers.  We had hoped to introduce ourselves to more people, but only made it to perhaps one-third of them; it was easy to get into interesting conversations with the new friends.

After about forty-five minutes, Matt asked for the group's attention, and talked for about fifteen minutes.

Matt then led us to dinner, which was in the hotel dining room. We could sit at any of the tables that had bread on them, indicating the ones reserved for our group.  There were some tables for six, and even more for four. We were given a menu specific for Tauck.  We could choose one soup or salad (four choices), one main dish (beef, lamb, salmon, or tortellini), and one dessert (fresh fruit, strawberries and ice cream, or chocolate brownie with caramel ice cream). Red or white wine was included. Coffee was served after dinner. The dinner was very fine, and restaurant staff was excellent.

Most people left the dining room about 9:15, as they were still weary from their travel to Europe.

Attire for this dinner was varied.  Some men wore sport coat or jacket and ties, some wore only jackets, some wore slacks and dress shirts.  Some of the women wore dresses, some wore slacks.

Farewell Reception and Dinner

The Farewell Reception and Dinner was on the last evening, Day 13. At 6:30 we went to the lounge area of the hotel for the Farewell Reception. There was a small open bar set up. Matt was there handing out copies of the email contact sheets, which guests had completed earlier. Matt was also collecting the Tauck questionnaires. This is when most people gave Matt the gratuities and said their thank you. People mingled around, reminiscing about the past two weeks together, and the wonderful things we experienced.

At 7:00 we were directed into the hotel main dining room, choosing our own seating at any of the tables. There were a few tables for six or eight, and one for ten. We were given a menu specifically prepared for Tauck, with a fixed appetizer, a choice of fish or poultry, and dessert. Dinner was fairly subdued, with guests chatting among themselves at each table. At 9:00 we were excused to the lobby lounge area again, where there was coffee service set up. Guests chatted for another fifteen or twenty minutes, said their goodbyes with handshakes and hugs, and went to their rooms to prepare for the following day's departures.

Attire for this gathering was mixed. Two men wore ties, half wore coats only, and the rest wore only dress shirts. A few women wore dresses, but the majority wore nice slacks.

Tour Director; Coach Driver; Local Guides

Tour Director: Matt Curran.

Great guy, great Tour Director. He also is a Tour Director for Tauck in the Middle East. He lived in Spain for a few years, and is very familiar with the language, culture, and history. He does his homework, and every day he is ready to teach us about many different aspects of Spain and Portugal. He had plenty of narration on the coach, but also knew when to balance it with quiet time.

It is clear that Matt loves his work, and loves life. He is a natural teacher and is full of energy. I can't count how many times in two weeks he announced "Life is good". He would also announce...almost daily...that "Today is my favorite day of the tour". It became a fun running joke, but for him there was underlying truth to it.

When informing us about important details we needed to remember, he had a way of saying it more than once in different ways in order for us to remember it better. But it never felt like he was repeating it.

He likes being asked questions. He is a wealth of knowledge, and if he didn't know an answer, he would "consult the oracle" (Google it on his phone). He is full of funny stories and anecdotes.

At every stop, Matt would chat with the local staff. Clearly he knew some of them. With others he was being genuinely friendly. Polite. At every hotel he would stay with the luggage in the lobby or by the coach until the last one had been delivered to the guest room. He has fun posting to his Facebook account; we frequently saw him with his phone, taking self-portraits, videos, and typing in messages. He has many past guests as Facebook friends.

He is very prompt, and stuck to all of our meeting and departure times. He was very pleased that our entire group was also prompt, and nobody was chronically late.

Matt shared his age as fifty years old. We tried to guess his nationality; he proudly said Irish, which was not one of the top ten we would have guessed.

Photos of Tour Director Matt

Audio clip #1

Update: Matt Curran passed away August 5, 2014. A Tauck coworker posted a nice tribute.

Coach Driver: Jorge; he went by George.

George was from Portugal, and spoke only a little basic English. He was modest and quiet, but an extremely hard worker. And an excellent coach driver. On many occasions he finessed the coach into places we thought would be impossible or impassable. He was always there to help passengers on and off the coach, and assist with their carried bags. He kept the cooler stocked with bottled water, kept the garbage bins tidy, and kept the windows clean. He and Matt had a fine-tuned working relationship.

Local guides: In many destinations, we were joined by a local guide or two. These local guides would give us tours of the town, sites, museums, etc. Sometimes this was on the coach, sometimes off the coach by foot, and sometimes both. The local guides are usually very knowledgeable in their local area, and are a wealth of information. On the coach they would use the microphone. When on foot, they would usually use the Whispers system, but not always. At times our main Tour Director would remain with us, and other times he would turn us over to the local guide, meeting back up with us at the end of our local tour. Gratuities for the local guides are always included with the Tauck tour, but the guides always appreciate acknowledgment and a verbal thank-you. See some photos of our local guides.

Fellow Travelers

There were 32 people on this tour. The demographics of the group was quite varied, as we have found with most group tours.

There were two people from Australia, with the rest from the United States (Florida, California, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, and Illinois).

Four people were single travelers. There was one mother-daughter team, and one family of three with their 20-year-old son.

Ages ranged from twenty to early eighties. Some retired, many still working.

Almost everyone traveled every year. Many had quite extensive travel histories. When counting the number of countries she has visited, one energetic person found it easier to count the number of countries she has not been to.

Matt asked about previous travel with Tauck. There were five first-timers in the group, one woman who had over ten Tauck trips, and everything in between.

The Coach

It was obvious that our coach was quite new. It was in excellent condition and very clean. There were two doors; one in front and one halfway back.  The steps are steep, but this caused difficulty for only one person on the group who had some mobility problems. A built-in cooler next to the front steps was always kept filled with complementary bottled water. There was a small garbage container by each door so we could get rid of our garbage anytime we exited the coach.  These were emptied frequently, and only filled up on very hot days with empty water bottles. The main aisle had Astroturf-like material on the floor; this helped keep tracked-in dirt and debris from getting to the seating areas.

See photos of the coach.

A new seating assignment chart was posted on the front door every day. We just had to note whether we were on the driver's side or door side, and then remember our row number.  Usually the rotation was done by moving two rows clockwise. By having people move every day, it allowed everyone to eventually sit in the front seats. It also resulted in someone new sitting across the aisle from you, creating another opportunity to get to know fellow travelers. Each row of seats had a sticker over it, identifying it by number.

Leg room was plentiful, even for a few of the taller passengers. Since the second exit door and bathroom took up some space, the seats on the left side of the bus had even more leg room. Each seat had a fold-down foot rest, but they actually were not used much because the large legroom space made it a stretch to get your feet onto the footrest. There was also an armrest on each side which could be pushed out of the way if desired. A small carry-on bag easily went on the floor along with your legs. Space under the seat in front of you was less than on an airplane, but items could still be placed there, but there was no guard or divider to keep the items from sliding too far forward into the feet of the next person. As with most coaches, overhead space was smaller than on airplanes, but had a bit more room than many other coaches I have been on. Plenty big for a small carry-on, jackets, or the day's shopping purchases.

The seats reclined a small distance, similar to an airline seat, but most people never used this feature. Since spacing between seats was generous, reclining a seat does not interfere with the person sitting behind you.

The seat back in front of each seat had a fishnet-type pocket for storing small items like maps, papers, or a water bottle. There was a hook on the seat back in front of you, but it was too small to be of much use.

There was a bathroom available by the back door. It was extremely small, typical of bathrooms on most coaches.  It was not used very much on the tour, and was looked upon more as an emergency bathroom. This was fine, as the tour schedule is good at taking bathroom stops into consideration everywhere we go.

I was concerned at first because there were no individual vents for the air conditioner, but it did not become an issue.  The driver kept the air conditioner and fan circulation volume at comfortable levels. There was one time when a couple people asked that the temperature be raised because it was too cool for them, but a few others immediately said that they thought it was fine as is. The director said this was common anytime you get a group of people anywhere...some are too cold, some are too hot, some are just right.

Each seat had a seatbelt with a shoulder belt.  A few people buckled up routinely every time they sat down, but most of the group never used the safety belts.

The row at the very back of the bus had five seats.  It was never assigned, but was left available to anyone who might not be feeling well, or wanted to take a little nap, or wanted to stretch out, or wanted to get away from their traveling mate. Only a few people utilized this back row during the tour.

The side windows were large, with no significant obstructions in any row.  There were curtains that could be drawn, but this was rarely done, even in full sun. The driver kept the side and front windows clean, and the garbage cans (one by each door) were emptied frequently.

We were able to safely leave belongings on the coach any time we left for a tour or rest stop. Often the driver was physically with the coach even when we were gone. If not, it was always locked up and parked in a secure area.

Wi-Fi internet access was not available on this coach.  I never considered Wi-Fi as an option, but a fellow traveler mentioned that some tour coaches are indeed now equipped with Wi-Fi for passengers.

The outer side of this coach was covered by a huge custom graphic which was...well...not subtle.  It was a colorful collage of different icons of Spain, with the Tauck compass icon, name, and web address. It indeed accomplished what Tauck probably intended; it attracted attention everywhere we went. People would stare at it as pulled into an attraction, arrived at a hotel, or even simply driving down the street.  There were even a couple of occasions when we saw people from other tour groups stand next to our coach just to have their photo taken with this graphic in their background (watch the video of this).  I got the impression from fellow travelers that it went overboard. It made us feel like we were the traveling circus pulling into town. The type of people who travel with Tauck prefer not to have this kind of attention. As one person said, "We like Gaudí, but this is gaudy!"

The term "coach" seems to be preferred, and is more accurate.  "Bus" is a general term for many different kinds of vehicles that carry passengers, whereas "coach" refers to a type of bus that carries passengers on longer road journeys.  Coaches usually have separate luggage hold areas, and sometimes a toilet, where regular buses do not. Coach drivers are proud of their job driving a quality Tauck coach, and appreciate it when travelers refer to their coach rather than their bus.

In Spain and Portugal, there are strong union-inspired laws regulating the coaches and their driving schedules. After a certain length of driving time (two hours?) they are required to take a rest break (twenty or thirty minutes long). This worked out well with the tour group travel, as it made bathroom stops convenient. And it allowed smokers ample opportunity for their smoking. Apparently the coach drivers have cards they have to insert into the monitoring device on the coach. They monitor driving times, routes, and speed. Fines are very high for infractions of the laws, and can involve losing the license.

Handouts

Tour Director Matt provided us with various handouts and maps. I have put some of these on a separate Handouts Page for viewing.

Money

The official currency in Spain and Portugal is the Euro, which is the € symbol.

We used cash for almost all our purchases the entire tour, using ATMs to get our money. We only used machines that were outside an actual bank. Our ATM card uses a four-digit PIN, and was accepted in all the machines we found. On most transactions, the selection for English instructions was obvious.  Only one time was this not clear, so we stopped the transaction and found an ATM at a different location.

We had no problem finding ATMs to withdraw Euros. They were easy to find in Barcelona, Pamplona, San Sebastián, Leon, Santiago de Compostela, and Lisbon. We did not see any in our brief stroll in la Seu d'Urgell.

We always kept safety in mind. We were very selective in which machines we used. We would prefer ones that had plenty of people around, but nobody standing right there at the machine. If we found one, but had any uneasy feeling about the area or the machine, we would move on.  Once we chose one, we would both stand very close to the machine, shielding my actions with our bodies, my wife constantly looking around while I got out my wallet, ATM card, made the transaction, put the cash and card back into my wallet, and secured my money belt. I would not turn around until this entire process was done.

Some machines dispense large currency; others dispense in smaller denominations. A few days I would later ask the hotel front desk if they would change a 50€ bill into smaller bills, and they were always accommodating. I always tried to carry small denominations so I usually could pay with almost exact amount.

We chose to use cash for these reasons:

  1. Lower cost. Our bank adds 3% international transaction fee to any charge. When we withdraw cash, our bank adds 1% fee plus a flat $5 fee.  The bank uses the same exchange rate in each case. By withdrawing as much cash as we can each time (set at $400 on our account), we do not incur many flat ATM fees, so using ATM cash costs us less than using credit cards.
  2. Safety. Sometimes credit card transactions get "accidentally" charged twice, or overcharged. Or the credit card number is copied and passed on to a dishonest person. The less you use your credit card, the less likely it is that you will have any surprises.
  3. How much we spend. We probably spend less out-of-pocket than the average person on these tours; not because we are cheap, but only because of our personal preferences.  We are not souvenir shoppers. We prefer a take-out picnic lunch in a park or picturesque square instead of a larger sit-down lunch. We would rather dine with average locals in a small local restaurant instead of a three-star Michelin restaurant. We drink almost no alcohol, so don't have extra wine or cocktail costs. We prefer water instead of soda.

Be familiar with the maximum limits on your account, and know approximately how may Euros this converts to.  Most banks have a limit in U.S. dollars on how much you can withdraw in a 24-hour period, and how many times a day you can do a withdrawal. Some banks now let you set your own maximum for your account.

In Portugal, there is a 200€ maximum limit on ATM withdrawals. If many ATM withdrawals are needed, the fees might offset any benefit of using cash over a credit card. But, knowing this ahead of time, one could get enough Euros in Spain before the Portugal portion of the tour.

I always take home at least 150€.  I save this for our next trip so we will have money for incidentals at airports, taxi to first hotel, and a meal.  That way we do not have to quickly find an ATM, or resort to getting a poor exchange rate at a money exchange place or hotel cashier. One less detail to have to worry about at the start of a vacation.

Some people assume that their U.S. dollars will be welcomed in Spain or Portugal.  This is generally not the case, and should not be expected.

Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted at hotels, most restaurants, and stores.  Discover and American Express are not nearly accepted. Be sure to call your credit card issuer and inform them of your travel dates and locations, or your account might be flagged and frozen as suspicious activity. Taking two different credit cards (different accounts) is a good idea in case there is any trouble with one of them. Do not take cash withdrawals with your credit card unless it is a real emergency.  Credit card advances are very very expensive.

We always take some Euros home with us to use on our next trip.  It is always nice to arrive at a new Europe destination with enough Euros to guarantee a meal and transportation to the hotel from the airport.  Just one less detail to have to worry about.

Tips, Gratuities

Tauck and our tour director covered all these gratuities:

Gratuities we were responsible for:

We tend to be generous tippers for exceptional service, and we have seen this in other Tauck travelers as well.  We tipped more than the recommended amounts because we felt both tour director Matt and driver George were exceptionally hard workers, which contributed greatly to the success of the tour. Most people used Euros for tipping, which is preferred because it is easier to deposit, and they do not lose anything in exchange or transaction fees when they get local currency. But they would graciously accept any currency a guest preferred to use.

These tips were most often placed in separate envelopes, usually from one of the hotels.  We like to include a hand-written note with some personal sentiments.

A 10 - 15% gratuity was recommended by our Tour Director for restaurants and taxis.

Extra Expenses

Not included in the tour price:

There are no optional excursions offered, which is a refreshing contrast to the other non-Tauck Tours I have experienced. 

Shopping

An obvious difference with Tauck Tours is that they don't make specific shopping stops as a group at any tourist traps.  This is a big advantage over other tours!  Those shopping stops can be quite a waste of time, overpriced, and boring. The tour director mentioned this point of distinction, because so many other tour agencies include shopping stops since the tour directors get a split of the commissions.

There was usually some independent time that could be used for shopping in most places we visited. Depending on the schedule and the location, this could be anywhere from twenty minutes to the entire day.

If the tour director gave us printed handouts for a destination, he usually included shopping tips and recommendations. He would tell us if an area is known for a particular item, along with recommendations on where to go for good prices and quality. Many of the local guides would also give shopping advice when asked.

Many shops in Spain and Portugal still close for three hours during the afternoon.  Hours vary, but they were frequently close at 1:00 or 2:00, and reopen at 4:00 or 5:00. In areas with heavy tourist traffic, it is more common now to find stores staying open all afternoon.

Locals frequently say "hello" when they enter a shop, and "goodbye" or "thank you" when they leave.  When we tried to do this in Spanish or Portuguese, even as obvious tourists, we could tell that they appreciated it.

Water

Water is safe to drink in hotels and restaurants in Spain and Portugal. Many tourists fill their own water bottles from hotel sinks or from the many drinking fountains found around the cities. Bottled water is easy to find.  We would frequently buy a couple of two-liter bottles of water when we were out walking on our own and passed a grocery store.

Chilled twelve-ounce bottles were always available on the coach.  This was very nice on the hot days.

If you order water in restaurants, you can ask for sparkling or regular.

Food

In general, the food in Spain and Portugal is good, plentiful, and fun!

Breakfasts were all provided at the hotels, and served buffet-style. The selections were usually similar from hotel to hotel; juices, breads and pastries, fresh fruit, cereals, yogurt, eggs, bacon, potatoes, cheeses. A couple had attended omelet stations. We could go to breakfast at any time after the announced opening. We just told the maître d' our room number, or that we were with Tauck. We could usually sit anywhere we chose, although on some mornings they asked us to sit together at a few of the larger tables. Coffee and tea were usually served to each table, and often we could order espresso or cappuccino. The buffet breakfast at the Four Seasons Ritz Lisbon was exceptional.

7 lunches were included:

10 dinners were included:

When lunch or dinner was not included, the Tour Director usually gave us recommendations. If asked, he was also good about giving us additional recommendations, specific to exactly what we were looking for. Recommendations were also included in some of the handouts.

We were glad that not all meals are provided on the tour. When lunch or dinner was not included as a group, we were in locations where it was easy to find a place to eat that fit what we wanted. We appreciated the flexibility on these days to choose where to eat, eating earlier or later, casual or fancy, close to hotel or far away, alone or with other guests.

Keep in mind that just because a meal is included in the cost of the tour package, it doesn't mean you have to do it. On other tours, we have actually skipped a group meal or two, preferring to adventure out on our own, and are frequently rewarded with a memorable and rewarding experience. Of course we have to pay for the meal on our own, but sometimes it is more about the experience than the couple of dollars. On this tour, the schedule and locations would have allowed guests to have gone out on our own for Day 5 dinner in San Sebastián, and Day 10 dinner in Porto. I could have included a couple other nights, but didn't because I would not have wanted to miss these wonderful dinners.

Some areas that are visited might be known for a particular food, pastry, candy, or beverage. We have learned that if you see something interesting you might like to try, then get it right there where you see it. Don't wait, assuming you will see it again later in the trip...often you won't. That applies to items you see on the restaurant menu, or goodies you see in a market or store window to take with you.

When eating on your own, remember that you almost always have to ask for the bill when you are done. To them this is a matter of etiquette, not poor service. It might involve lots of arm waving, or actually getting up and going to find your server, but that's okay; that's how they do it.

Tapas bars are not to be missed! Stand back for a minute, and watch how the locals do it. If you find a server who might speak a little English, let him/her know you are new at tapas, and don't know how to do it. They are usually very helpful to tourists.

Public Restrooms

On some tours, the group continually is informed of where public restrooms will be available, how many coins it might cost, how clean or not-so-clean they might be, etc. But on Tauck's tours in Spain and Portugal, we simply found this not to be an issue whatsoever. Tauck has done an excellent job with their daily schedule, being mindful of bathroom needs of guests. For the days with longer hours on the road, a mid-morning stop and mid-afternoon stop is always planned at a location that has restrooms, and usually snacks. Lunches are also at nicer places, and restrooms are always available. WCs are available in museums and churches. Even during free time on our own, it was always easy to find a café that had WCs, and we would usually purchase a beverage or snack if we used it. Only on a few occasions did our Tour Director or the local guide warn us that a particular stop didn't have many toilets, or the lines are usually long. Even then, we were warned ahead of time, not right at the last minute. I don't remember ever having to use coins for a pay toilet, although in a couple places we tipped the attendant.

Luggage, Suitcases, Purses

Tauck literature says they restrict suitcases to one per individual. This is primarily due to space limitations on many coaches, as luggage is stowed in the lower level luggage compartment. Our coach was fairly new, and had a little more space than some, so our Tour Director said it would be fine if we had more. He just asked that we put a blue-colored Tauck luggage tag on each piece that we want taken from our rooms to the coach, and that we inform him if we ever add another suitcase. He keeps a precise count of how many pieces of luggage should be gathered from the rooms on departure mornings, and counts them before they go on the coach. He also counts them when they are removed from the coach.

We saw luggage of various sizes, shapes, designs. But none were huge; all were manageable by the hotel bellhops and coach driver.

Even though the luggage was quite safe during its journey from inside the room to the coach luggage compartment, we still locked it every day. It was easy to do, and was one more layer of protection. Matt did assure us that luggage problems of any kind on his tours were extremely unusual.

In addition to the main tagged suitcase, many people would also have a small carry-on bag. These could stay in the room during breakfast even though the tagged bags would be picked up. Guests would carry them down to the coach when they checked out, and driver George would stow it underneath in a special section of the luggage compartment. Occasionally someone would need into their stowed carry-on bag, and George would gladly open the luggage compartment. Small carry-ons and large purses could be brought onto the coach and put either overhead or under the seat in front of you.

I frequently have a small soft lightweight backpack that I use during the day. For this trip I tried something new. I used a Pacsafe Metrosafe 300 Gii bag. It is a shoulder bag; a "man bag". It worked great, and I will for sure be using it on future trips. It is lightweight, comfortable, has many security features, and can hold plenty. Although I didn't take all of this every day, on a couple of days I put in our full-size Nikon D200 camera with zoom lens, book, notes, water, snack, iPhone, iPad, passport, and umbrella. By using this, and always being very alert to my surroundings, I felt safe carrying it everywhere, even walking around Barcelona which is notorious for brazen pickpockets and purse snatchers.

We have gone through our share of luggage through the years. Our favorite one now is Boyt® brand, as it has lasted through more trips than other brands we have used. It is high quality and well built, and has done a good job of withstanding the airline gorillas baggage handlers. It has a number of small features that make travel more convenient. It is not a designer brand, or top of the line, so price is still reasonable.

Some museums, galleries, churches, and other attractions limit the size of bags and purses people can take inside. They are primarily concerned with the purse, backpack, camera bag, or man bag damaging things. I never had problems with my Pacsafe bag being questioned. To be safe, however, I would always enter with it shifted to the front of my body, and my arm over it, rather than dangling at my side or behind me. This is exactly what they often instruct people to do who have smaller backpacks or large shoulderbags. If it is too large, it will need to be left in a locker (if one is available) or on the coach. At La Sagrada Família every bag was checked with a hand wand scanner; they were looking for knives of any type or size.

Packing

Even though we have traveled extensively, we still use a packing checklist every time to make sure we don't forget needed items.  We like to use this travel packing list.

Some general travel packing tips we follow:

The rest of the tour we never completely unpack the suitcases. When we arrive at a new hotel we usually get out the next day's clothing so the wrinkles would be minimal. If we were staying more than one night, we hang a few items up. We try to keep the suitcase organized at all times rather than throwing things in, or having to paw through it to find something. Having a few extra plastic bags is useful for dirty clothes or laundered items that might not be completely dry yet.

Laundry and Ironing

We washed a lot of our undergarments by hand in hotel bathroom sinks. We routinely bring two elastic laundry cords, a small bottle of liquid laundry soap, and a sink stopper. We try to bring underwear and socks that dry quickly. Thick cotton socks do not dry very fast. Wickable t-shirts dry very fast. ExofficioExternal link is one brand of underclothing we have had good luck with. We could string up our laundry line at all the hotels, although it was more challenging in a few hotels than at others.

We sent out some laundry.

We did some ironing.

Clothing

I tried some new ExOfficio undergarments this trip, and was very pleased with how they worked out. They were the ExO Dri product, which is a wicking material, but still felt like normal clothing, unlike other wicking items. I could launder them in the hotel sink in the evening, hang them on our laundry line, and by the next evening they would be completely dry. I always wore the short-sleeve tee as an undershirt, but at home I often wear it by itself.

We always try to limit how much clothing we bring. We remind ourselves that nobody except our fellow tour travelers will ever know that we only have a few outfits. And our fellow travelers don't care; they are usually following the same rule.

Bring comfortable shoes. There is a lot of walking. If they are new, make sure you thoroughly break them in before the trip. Bring Band-Aid in case you get blisters. Pick shoes for comfort rather than style, but avoid the clunky white athletic shoes (that will mark you as an obvious tourist). There are many cobblestone streets, and some are quite uneven. Shoes with narrow or tall heals do not work. Shoes with thin soles might pack well and look good, but will allow every cobblestone and crack to be felt all day.

A lightweight rain-resistant coat is useful, especially for the time of year that we went (May). One with a hood is practical. A very thin disposable poncho might be worth bringing since they take up almost no space.

The most formal dress evenings were the Welcome Reception and the Farewell Dinner. A sports coat or jacket would be appropriate, but definitely not required. There were plenty of men who simply wore dress shirts. Dresses (but not typical cruise-ship-fancy dresses) for women would be fashionable, but many wore nice slacks and blouses.

Dress during the day consisted of a little of everything.  Women wore mostly slacks; a few wore comfortable dresses.  Men also wore mostly slacks, although jeans and shorts were also occasionally worn.  T-shirts were worn by a few. Shorts are fine as long as you aren't entering the churches, but you will stand out as a tourist (in general, locals in Spain and Portugal don't wear shorts very often).  Same with t-shirts, baseball caps, clunky white athletic shoes, and waist packs.

At the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon, one of the nicer hotels, there were a couple people who went to breakfast in the hotel dining room dressed in their shorts, as they would be wearing during the day. I noticed this caught the attention of several other non-tourists in the busy dining room, and one table in particular were whispering and glancing, obviously somewhat appalled by seeing someone wear shorts in that atmosphere.

Although churches and cathedrals still have dress codes, they do not seem to be followed, or enforced, as strictly as in other European destinations. It is still wise to assume you will need to have covered shoulders and knees, no exposed bellies. No tank tops, and sometimes no shorts. Dress modestly; respect the fact that you are in an active functioning place of worship.

I tried to study how the local people dressed in places where we were. They do not dress nearly as casual as we do in the United States. Colors are subdued, and overwhelmingly black. Long pants were worn regardless of temperatures. Jeans were seen, but were dark, fitted, and stylish. Shoes are important, and were usually black and fashionable. Trendy sunglasses were also a common accessory.

Web site with good common-sense dress tips:  Barcelona Clothes and Dress Code

Passports, Visas

United States citizens must have a passport valid for at least ninety days beyond completion date of the tour (six months is highly recommended).  A visa is not required if your stay will be less than ninety days.  If you have overseas connecting flights, that country may require a separate transit visa.

As a general rule, make two photocopies of your passport photo/information page.  Also make a copy of other critical travel documents.  Leave one copy at home with someone you could contact if your documents are lost or stolen.  Bring the other copy with you, and keep it in your hotel safe while traveling.  Remember to take it out again before you check out of your room!  Some people upload a scan of their passport and other important documents for storage on a cloud website such as DropBox.com.

We were required to give our passports to the Tour Director in La Seu d'Urgell so he could collect the information for later hotels. After this, we didn't need the passport until our departure. We also needed to show our passport when we first arrived at our hotel in Barcelona.

Whispers

Whisper® is the name of a radio headphone system used by Tauck tour guides on this tour (Whispers photos). People love them, or people hate them. In either case, one was handed out to each guest at the beginning of the tour, and collected at the end of the tour. The Tour Director let us know ahead of time when Whispers would be used, but it was the responsibility of the guest to bring it that day. The unit is attached to a lanyard that hangs on the neck. A disposable earpiece has a cord that plugs in to the unit, with the other end held in the ear by a C-shaped clip. The earpiece cord uses a standard minijack connector. I was able to use my iPad earbuds, which were more comfortable, but tended to be too loud even when the Whisper was turned down to the lowest volume level.

The Whisper system has a lot of benefits. It allows guides to narrate in a normal voice volume, and not disturb others. It helped us to hear the guide more clearly, especially in crowded locations. It allows us to wander a little further and still be able to hear the guide's narration or instructions. If powered off in between uses, one charged battery can last the entire two-week tour. Multiple channels are available, so the tour group can be divided into smaller groups with separate channels and separate guides.

The system can have some drawbacks. It is an electronic device, and sometimes is finicky. It depends on a rechargeable battery, which can lose power at inopportune times. If not powered off in between uses, the battery will quickly drain, and will not last the entire tour. It is not always easy to get the right channel selected. A 25 can be confused for a 52. Sometimes the transmission can be dotted with static, especially if the guide does not have their microphone adjusted properly.

Whispers were quite helpful, but not required. Those people who had trouble with theirs, or simply couldn't adapt to it, stayed close to the guide and heard everything just fine.

Phone, iPad

We brought our phones primarily for emergency use. In case we got separated from the group, we could call our Tour Director.  Or if we got separated from each other, we could call each other.  We usually keep the ringers silenced, however, so it would not disturb the others in our group, or in a church or museum.

We have iPhones with AT&T Wireless service. According to AT&T's web site, there is coverage in both Spain and Portugal for voice, data, Edge, and text messaging. We have international roaming activated on our account all the time.  We signed up for an international data package before leaving home, and canceled it when we returned. Our phone reception was good in almost all areas we were in. Data service was usually available, but not as predictable; it was usually 3G, but sometimes was Edge. Sometimes I had to power down my phone and turn it on again in order to connect to the data network.

If your phone connects to the internet, be careful.  Data costs are extremely high once you are away from home ($0.0195/kb with AT&T in 2011).  It is easy to run up hundreds of dollars on your phone bill with minimal web and email use.  With my iPhone, I turned off Data Roaming except for a minute here and there to check emails.  I also turned off the email's AutoCheck feature. International text messages are fairly expensive also ($0.50 per message with AT&T; $1.30 with picture or video).  Here's a document from AT&T with tips on how to keep your international charges predictable.

We also brought our iPad. It was used mostly to take notes during our trip. I had an international data plan for the iPad also, but I connected mostly through free hotel Wi-Fi when available. My main purpose for connecting was to keep my Pages documents synced between my iPad and iPhone, since this is the app I used to write my notes. We also use the Kindle app on the iPad, and had a number of travel books on it that we referenced throughout our trip. One person in our group used her iPad to take her photos and movies, and it worked out well.

Cameras

You will take more pictures than you think; there are lots of beautiful things to photograph. Bring more memory cards than you think you will need. On every tour we go on, there are people who need to buy additional memory cards, or find out that their battery isn't very good any more.

Buy a new battery so it will hold a good long charge (old rechargeable batteries tend to run out faster). Having two batteries adds convenience, takes away the worry of running out of power, and might eliminate to recharge every evening.

People on the tour had all varieties of cameras. Phone cameras, iPads, compact point-and-shoots, film cameras, consumer SLRs, professional digital SLRs. Bring the one that you are likely to use the most. If you are not completely familiar with it, it is helpful to bring the manual also; if not for yourself, then for someone else to read about how to solve a problem you might be having.

When we fill up a photo memory card, it becomes very valuable to us. We either lock it in the hotel safe, or keep it in my wife's purse. We know of one person whose memory card was packed in her suitcase, and it didn't make it home; all of her cherished photos were lost.

Photos Not Allowed

Group Contact List

Tauck Tour Directors are not allowed to make and distribute a list with guest contact information due to privacy concerns. But they can make a sign-up sheet available for guests to voluntarily write down their preferred contact information (name; address and/or email address and/or phone number), and then make copies for those choosing to participate. On this tour copies of the list were given to us at the Farewell Reception.

Group Photo

We had a group photo taken when we arrived in León. Matt had already arranged for a professional photographer to be in front of the parador when we arrived. Matt and the photographer efficiently arranged us and took a couple pictures. He had informed us of picture day ahead of time so we could dress for it, but most people wore what they would have worn on any other day.

An 8"x10" photograph was given to each couple (or individual traveler) as we reboarded the coach in Fátima for our Day 12 afternoon stop.

Electricity

Electrical current in Spain and Portugal is 230 volts, 50 Hz, AC. Check the label on anything that you bring that will be plugged in to see if it operates on only 110v or if it is safe for higher 220v also.  If 110 only, you might need a converter in addition to the plug adapter.

Bring plug adapters.  Most outlets in Spain and Portugal won't accept U.S.-type plugs.  We actually bring two or three adapters, so we can be recharging cameras, phones, and iPad at the same time.

All of our hotels had at least one available plug. Some had only one; others had an abundance of them.

Physical Activity; Health

No vaccines are currently required for U.S. residents.

This is not a tour for people who aren't in decent physical condition. There is a lot of walking with some climbing up steps and steep hills or inclines. People who get winded easily or need to take frequent rest stops when walking moderate distances or climbing inclines would have difficulty with a few of the excursions. You don't need to be in the condition of a mountain climber or cyclist, but be realistic with any limitations you personally might have.

People with arthritis, joint problems, are overweight, or have other conditions need to be realistic about their condition. If you find that your condition limits you at home, then it will probably limit you on this tour, perhaps even more so.

The Tour Director and driver on this tour were very helpful to those who needed a little more assistance. Indeed, I have found every Tauck Tour Director to be accommodating. But they are limited in how much they can accommodate. They cannot put so much effort into accommodating individual needs that it disrupts the well-planned schedule, or slows down the rest of the group.

As in many European countries, Spain and Portugal do not have the ADA (Americans with Disabilities act) access standards that we have grown accustomed to in the U.S. Don't expect curb cuts (or even sidewalks), ramps, hand rails. People depending on wheelchairs, scooters, or walkers would not be able to participate in the majority of the activities.

Although there was a lot of activity that required a certain level of fitness, we noted that this tour was not quite as challenging as the Classic Italy tour (not to say that one was too challenging; I'm just trying to give a comparison). And definitely not as challenging as a China tour we did with another company.

Hotels

Read more details on the separate Hotels and Overnight Accommodations page.

Weather

Weather Underground forecasts for Spain and Portugal.

We were on this tour in the last half of May. We encountered pleasant temperatures the entire time, ranging from just on the chilly side, to just on the warm side. The coolest temperatures were mid-tour, in the northwest; Leon and Santiago de Compostela. San Sebastián was also on the cool side, so most wore coats during the mornings and evenings there. Temperatures were comfortably warm when we started in Barcelona, and getting very warm at the end, in Lisbon.

We encountered some rain showers in Leon and Santiago de Compostela, which apparently is quite typical. There were also a couple of very brief late afternoon cloudbursts in La Seu d'Urgell.

My wife, who tends to run on the cold side, was glad she had layers, a sweater, and a jacket. She also brought a pair of knit gloves which took up little space, but were used on a couple of chilly mornings. I tend to run on the warm side, and only used my jacket a few times, particularly for the rain or mist. Most of the time I was comfortable in my long pants, undershirt, and short- or long-sleeved shirt.

Room Safes

There were safes available in the rooms at all of the hotels where we stayed. We kept our passports locked in the safe any time we were out of the room, including going to hotel restaurant for meals. This minimized the concern about pickpockets, purse snatchers, and hotel staff.

We tend to be overly cautious. We also used the safe to secure other items we didn't want to lose. Our cameras; camera memory cards (specifically the ones with photos already taken); iPhones and iPad (contained private names/addresses and personal information); cash (our U.S. currency, and Euros we were saving for gratuities); occasionally our wallet.

The exceptions were the safes in the paradors in Fuente De and Leon. These safes required a swipe of a credit card. Although it was probably fine, we choose to avoid using our credit cards where possible, and we simply didn't feel comfortable using it in this situation. So we just carried our passports in our money belts.

Personal Safety

Overall, Spain and Portugal are safe countries. The main concern for a Tauck tour guest would be pickpockets or purse snatchers. But with a little knowledge and common sense precautions, even these should not be an issue.

Before our trip we read quite a bit about pickpockets and scams, so felt well-versed and fairly confident. Barcelona was our first destination, and seemed to have the worst reputation for pickpocketers, so we felt less safe here than anywhere else on our tour. Although nobody in our tour group had any issues, we did see tourists on the streets who had just been ripped off, and heard warnings from a local shop owner and a passing policeman to be on guard. I was also uneasy in Porto because of the pervasive graffiti, which most people associate with higher crime areas.

Here are some of the precautions we took:

Scams, Pickpockets, and Thieves — The following links are not intended to scare you; my intention is to make you less vulnerable by increasing your awareness of how these thieves work. 
Bottom line: Be skeptical; be aware of your surroundings at every moment, everywhere you are.

Those of you who travel frequently know that it is easy to forget the name of the hotel you are staying in on any particular day.  When you get to your hotel room, look for something with your hotel name and address on it.  Put this into your wallet or purse.  If you ever get lost, you can show this to a taxi driver, another hotel concierge, or a tour guide, and they will help you get back.

Flexibility (and other wisdom)

I have heard different Tour Directors give advice that is worth repeating.

Courtesy

On the first day, Tour Director Matt commented about keeping talk to a minimum while he or local guides were speaking on coach; even though you might not be interested in what is being said, others around you might want to hear.

He also mentioned how it improves the tour when people are prompt and on time. Not only is this a courtesy so that other people aren't kept waiting by a tardy guest; it also allows the tour director more schedule flexibility, and sometimes he can add in extras.

Cell phones are commonplace nowadays, but can be an annoyance to those around you. Phone conversations should take place when you are not with the group, especially not on the coach.

Smokers should be considerate of non-smokers; smokers frequently do not realize how much their smoke bothers non-smokers. Standing downwind rather than upwind of the group will avoid offending them. This can apply to any place the tour group assembles, such as outside the coach, outside the hotel, outside a restaurant, at a rest stop, or at a viewpoint.

Books, Movies

Web Sites

In Summary

We would definitely recommend this Tauck Paradors of Northern Spain Tour.  The sites we saw on this tour were incredible! We learned much more about the different cultures of Spain and Portugal than we thought we would. The food, the people, the land, the big cities and small towns...all so memorable.

If you are comparing between Tauck and other escorted tour groups, chose Tauck; you won't be disappointed!  They run a first-class tour, taking every little detail into consideration.  It costs a little more than some other tours, but is absolutely worth it.  In our opinion, Tauck sets the standard for group tours.

Photographs taken while on the "Paradors of Northern Spain" Tour:

Videos taken on the tour:

Current Time in Spain:

 

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