Tauck Spain and Portugal itinerary map

We took this tour in May of 2012, and had a great experience! We did back-to-back tours, starting with "Paradors of Northern Spain", and finishing with this one. 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. 

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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, and have been very impressed by the entire experience.  We have been excitedly waiting for our next opportunity to take another vacation with them.
  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

Lisbon, Sintra, Cascais, Évora , Mérida, Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Gibraltar, Marbella, Ronda, Granada, Córdoba, Toledo, Madrid.

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.

First a good word for our travel agent Mindy. She gets us the best tour prices available (not only with Tauck, but on our cruises also), and has booked many vacations 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 three or four 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 four 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

Thursday May 24 (Day 14) Lisbon

End our previous Tauck tour, "Paradors of Northern Spain" (See our review and day-to-day schedule for that tour.)
Hotel:  Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (3rd of 5 nights; extra pre-tour hotel stay)

Friday May 25 (Day 1) Lisbon

Tauck Spain and Portugal tour begins with Day 1.

Tauck Description: The afternoon's guided sightseeing tour in Lisbon provides an introduction to this intriguing city and its most famous landmarks. Learn about the "Period of Great Discoveries," when Portuguese explorers ventured into previously unchartered waters and discovered new continents. Visit Mosteiro du Jeronimos and get a close look at the 17th- to 19th-century gilded Baroque coaches showcased in the Coach Museum, see the Discoveries Monument where the caravels (15th-century sailing vessels) departed, and view the Tower of Belem. Meet your traveling companions this evening at a welcome reception and dinner.

6:30am breakfast opens; 1:45 meet for city tour; 6:30pm Welcome Reception.

[See photos from Lisbon]
We had time on our own today, before our 1:45 tour start. After a very nice breakfast in the Ritz dining room we walked to the El Corte Inglés, a very good large department store, and I bought a couple short-sleeved shirts for the warmer weather we were encountering. We strolled through Jardim Amália Rodrigues (Rodrigues Garden) on the way back to the hotel. We had a lovely leisurely lunch at our Ritz hotel, at their Varanda Restaurant.

We gathered in the lobby about ten minutes before our instructed 1:45pm gathering time and found numerous other tour guests already there, making introductions and getting to know fellow travelers. Our Tour Director Joe showed up promptly at 1:45 and immediately ushered us outside to the awaiting coach. As we boarded, he confirmed our names and told us where our seats were for today. The coach was the exact same one that we had been on for the previous two weeks, on our "Paradors of Northern Spain" tour we just finished yesterday.

Once everyone was on the coach, we stayed right there for another twenty minutes. Joe handed out yellow luggage tags to those who forgot to bring the ones mailed by Tauck, or who needed more. He said that this is a nice large coach, so more than one piece of luggage per person would be fine on this trip. He just asked that we inform him of any changes, and make sure we have the yellow tags on bags to be stowed, so he can keep an accurate count. Joe gave us some advice for enjoying this tour: Don't form cliques. He said that he has found that trying to interact with all your fellow travelers rather than forming small groups can greatly add to people's enjoyment of the tours. He mentioned that men will not ever need ties for any of the dinners on this tour; they were strictly optional. He discussed the Whispers listening devices. He gave us a nice big map of Spain and Portugal so we could track our route; if given to him later today he would highlight our route for us. And again he recommended that we all get to know each other.

At 2:10 the coach pulled away from the hotel and Joe introduced the local guide who had joined us. She immediately started her city tour narration. We drove to different sections of Lisbon as an orientation, and then to the National Coach Museum (watch video). For some reason I had only mediocre expectations of this, but it was actually quite interesting, and definitely worth seeing. We then went to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, entering the Church of Santa Anna, which had a very ornate portal. Inside is the tomb of Vasco da Gama. We reboarded the coach for a short drive to the Discoveries Monument for a fifteen minute stop (watch video). While we were outside, Joe walked down the street to one of his old childhood hangouts and bought a "pastel de belem" pastry for each of us. Yum...a tasty treat that we would see at many places the next two weeks. Back on the bus Joe told us he was trying to arrange a special activity on his own for tomorrow night; a Fado night that would last about four hours, and would include dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant run by a couple of guys he knows, with typical Portuguese cuisine including sardines, and Fado singing. Most of the group indicated they were interested, so Joe said he would make the arrangements. We returned to the hotel at 5:15, giving us plenty of time to freshen up for the 6:30 Welcome Reception and Dinner.

At 6:30 we arrived in the hotel lobby. Normally the cocktail reception is in the lobby bar area, but tonight we were directed right into the restaurant because there was a video production being filmed in the lobby bar. In the restaurant there was an open bar set up, and we were given a card printed with guests names and home towns. Guests mingled for about twenty minutes, then Joe asked for our attention. He went through the name list, and had each person or traveling couple raise their hand, then say one or two introductory sentences about themselves. That was a nice way to help us put a face to the names, and remember something about the person. Joe asked a few questions about past Tauck travel; probably 75% of the travelers were repeat Tauck customers; one person was on her 13th Tauck tour.

Next was dinner. We could sit anywhere at the five tables reserved for our group. Tables varied, seating four, six, eight, or ten people. We were given a menu specifically for Tauck, with a choice of fish (grouper) or poultry (chicken), and a fixed appetizer (risotto) and dessert (crème brûlée). Although we didn't mind, we were a little surprised that it was exactly the same menu as two nights ago at our "Paradors of Northern Spain" tour Farewell Dinner. Dinner ended at about 9:15, and guests returned to their rooms, many of them still weary from their flights to Europe.

Most of the men wore a sport coat or jacket; one man with a tie, the rest without. Most women wore nice slacks; three wore dresses.

Included meals: D
Hotel: Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (4th of 5 nights) 

Saturday May 26 (Day 2) Sintra; Cascais; Lisbon

Tauck Description: An excursion from Lisbon today takes you to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a visit to the 14th-century Royal Palace of Sintra, a highlight of every Portugal tour.  Continue to the fishing village of Cascais, its bay dotted with brightly colored boats, before returning to Lisbon to spend the rest of the day and evening as you please.  Enjoy lunch and dinner on your own.

6:30 breakfast opens; 8:30 depart.

[See photos from Sintra and Cascais]
We boarded the coach at 8:30. There was a new seating chart for today posted on the front door, but there was some confusion because a couple of people did not arrive in time yesterday for the orientation/city tour and didn't know where to sit today. Tour Director Joe handed back our road maps from yesterday, with our route highlighted. He passed around a sign-up sheet for tonight's Fado dinner that he is arranging. Yesterday Joe recommended we bring our light rain jackets, as it can rain more in Sintra than in Lisbon. It ended up being very pleasant temperatures in the low 70s and scattered clouds, but no rain.

At 9:15 we arrived at the Sintra Royal Palace (also called the Sintra National Palace, or Town Palace; not to be confused with Pena National Palace in Sintra). Our local guide walked us a few blocks through town from the coach to the palace, arriving right before the 9:30 opening, so that we would be the first ones in, and avoid the anticipated crowds. We spend about fifty minutes touring the palace (watch video), and most everyone used the WCs at the end, before exiting the building. We then had until 11:00 to explore the town on our own, with its quaint cobblestone paths winding up and down the hillside. There was a pastry café that had wonderful queijadas and apple turnovers.

Then it was a one-hour drive to Cascais, a former fishing village turned oceanside resort town. We were able to see Cabo da Roca, which is the westernmost point of Europe. We were dropped off in town by the beach and marina. We strolled along the town for fifteen minutes, and then got back on the coach. Since everyone had the remainder of the day on our own, at this point some of the group departed on their own, choosing to stay in Cascais and take a train back to Lisbon on their own. Those who remained were taken back to Lisbon. In Lisbon the coach made a stop at a shopping mall and four people got off to do some shopping; they would be able to walk back to the hotel. The rest of us returned with the coach to the hotel, arriving at 1:00.

We decided to spend our free afternoon exploring the Alfama district. We took a taxi from the hotel to the Praça do Comércio, which cost 5€ plus tip. We walked to the lower extension of the Alfama area and explored up various alleyways and narrow streets, including one that was supposedly the narrowest street in Portugal. Some streets were being decorated overhead with colorful streamers, and many booths and stands were being assembled by the local folk, apparently in preparation for an upcoming celebration. Fish was being grilled in the streets, men were pounding nails, women were decorating, and kids were playing. After a local lunch we took a taxi back to the hotel.

The meeting time for our Fado dinner was 5:30. All but three people in our group went along. Once on the coach, Tour Director Joe collected 40€ per person since this was not a Tauck-sponsored event. We went to the Alfama area, were dropped off, and had a beautiful walk to a church that Joe hoped to show us. It was closed, but had a nice viewpoint adjacent to it. We then walked quite a few blocks, winding our way downhill through the maze of narrow streets, suddenly coming upon a grill sitting in the middle of the street, with a man who was just starting to cook sardines. It turns out that this was outside our restaurant, the man was our chef, and the sardines were part of our traditional Portuguese dinner.

After posing with the chef for photos, we entered the restaurant. When Joe said hole-in-the-wall, he meant it size-wise. It was long and very narrow, barely fitting our group in a cozy seating arrangement. We were then served wine, beer, soda, two kinds of appetizers, cheese, olives, and bread. Soup was served next. Then the sardines were brought around; two fish per plate, complete with head and tail, skin and bones. These are not small sardines like we find in a can. These are full-sized fish. Joe demonstrated how to eat them, which was with our fingers, sort of like eating corn on the cob, skin and all; it neatly pulled away from the bones this way. Most in our group used a fork and knife, removing the skin first, but my wife and I did it the traditional way; it was a very tasty surprise.

Then out came the Fado entertainment. Two played instruments. One man played a twelve-string guitar, another played a special guitar that I wasn't familiar with, and a large young male sang. They did a few songs, and then the female singer replaced him, doing a few songs on her own (watch video). They were all very entertaining, and although there to have fun with us, were still passionate and serious about their Fado.

After this the dinner main course was served. This surprised a lot of us because the fish were so big that we thought that might have been the main course. But there was chicken with potatoes, veal with potatoes, green beans, French fries, all served family style, and plentiful. This was followed by another round of Fado music. Then dessert was presented, with a choice of four selections. After dessert was one last round of music. To top off the meal, after dinner beverages were served; wine, port, and ginja (a local liqueur).

We left the restaurant at 9:15, retracing our steps uphill to meet the coach. Although some in the group were not thrilled with the sardine tradition, it was obvious that everyone in the group thoroughly enjoyed the evening that Joe put together for us.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (5th of 5 nights) 

Sunday May 27 (Day 3) Évora

Tauck Description: Cross Europe's longest suspension bridge – the Vasco da Gama Bridge over the Tagus River – en route to the medieval, walled city of Évora, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and another highlight of any Portugal tour.  With a local expert, visit the Capela dos Ossos (ossuary) in the 15th-centurychurch of Sao Francisco, and the Cathedral of St. Maria, the largest cathedral in Portugal.  Enjoy lunch at the Pousada de Évora -Loios, a former convent and one of Évora's most precious architectural buildings, before continuing to our hotel.  Dinner and overnight accommodations tonight are at the Convento do Espinheiro, a former 15th-century convent, elegantly renovated into a historic hotel and spa.

6:30 breakfast opens; 7:30 luggage ready inside room; 8:30 departure.

[See photos from Evora]
The group was on the coach promptly at 8:30. There was still a little confusion over seating, but everyone soon realized that there was a new seating chart posted on the front door every day. There was also some confusion about carry-on bags, and that you could have them stowed below in the luggage area and still have access to them if needed during the day.

Tour Director Joe gave us one last narration of the various city sites as we drove out of Lisbon. He explained that wine in Spain and Portugal costs the same or even less than soda; that is why Tauck is able to include it with many meals on these tours, but they can't on other Tauck tours in general.

On our drive to Évora we passed quite a few cork tree groves. Our morning rest stop was shortly after 10:00 at a roadside rest area. Here we were able to get an up close look at a couple of cork trees. We left again at 10:20, and arrived at Évora at 10:35.

We put on our Whispers, and pulled over by a hotel to pick up our local guide. We first drive to the Capela dos Ossos, which is small chapel next to the Church of St. Francis. The chapel is adorned with thousands of human skulls, a hanging skeleton, and other bones (watch video). As you enter into the chapel, you pass under an inscription, "Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos" ("We, the bones that are here, await yours"). The group did not go into the church itself. The local guide told us there was an extra 1€ fee for photographing inside the chapel. We paid it at the entrance and received a receipt ticket, but many in our group did not pay it, took many photos, and were never questioned by church staff. The chapel is worth visiting although it is not quite as diverse as a similar ossuary we had seen in Rome.

After we regrouped outside the church, we slowly walked to the main square of the town, Praça do Giraldo. Because today was Sunday, most shops were closed. From the main square we walked up to the Cathedral of Évora. This street was populated more by tourists, and had a few shops open. Products made from local cork were in abundance. The cathedral has one of the oldest pipe organs still in use in Europe, and displays a statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary.

Outside we continued to the square that contains the Roman Temple of Évora ruins (also called Temple of Diana). Adjacent to the ruins is an overlook with a view of the ancient aqueduct in the distance, which appears to still be in excellent shape. Also next to the ruins is a museum, and the Pousada de Évora-Loios where we would have lunch. This square is the highest point in Évora; Joe told us to go uphill and end up here if we ever got lost. We had about 40 minutes of free time before our 1:00 lunch. Some went to the museum which closed at 12:30, but we chose to walk around and get some good photos behind the church and up a tower (watch video).

1:00 lunch was set up in four corridors surrounding the courtyard of the old convent. We were given a choice of soup, choice of entrée, and dessert; wine was included. Tour Director Joe told us that we were to arrange our own tables for tonight's dinner.

We were back on the bus at 2:50. Our hotel keys were waiting for us on our coach seats. The drive to the hotel took ten minutes. During this time Joe wrote down everyone's dinner time and table guests, trying to stagger the eating times every 15 minutes. There were some tables for six, and some for two. When we arrived at our room our luggage was already there.

After a few minutes the group met back in the lobby and we were given a tour of the convent-converted-to-a-hotel. Our hotel host led us on a tour of the hotel, including the beautifully-restored fifteenth century church (watch video), chapel, and the convent wine cellar that is the current restaurant. Then into the current wine cellar where we were served sparkling wine, complete with an uncorking done by striking the bottle neck with a sword (watch video). We had time before dinner to explore the hotel grounds on our own. We walked through the hotel spa and indoor pool, which were beautiful and enticing.

At 7:00 we went to the restaurant. Our group had three seatings; 7:00, 7:30, and 8:00. There were tables for six, eight and one table for two. We could order à la carte from the diverse menu, with the exception of the lobster, scallops or foie gras. Wine was included. We selected one starter, one entrée, and one dessert. All of the dishes were beautifully presented, and tasted great. Our table finished just after 9:00.

Weather today was pleasant, with a high of 78 degrees. Scattered clouds, slight overcast kept it comfortable.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Convento do Espinheiro (1 night) 

Monday May 28 (Day 4) Mérida; Seville

Tauck Description: As your Portugal tour concludes, your exploration of Spain heats up!  Arrive in Mérida and enjoy a walking tour with our local expert.  We'll see some of the city's many unique bridges (one is over a mile long) and view the remains of the Roman Circus and the Aqueduct.  Our tour also includes the Roman Theatre, built in the 15th-century BC and accommodating up to 5,000 people.  It is still used today for classical performances. Continue to the 8th-century Amphitheatre, where up to 15,000 people witnessed gladiator battles.  Our tour concludes at Templo de Diana.  Spanning 800 square-meters (over 8,500 square-feet) and built from granite, the temple boasts Corinthian-style columns that are remarkably well preserved. After lunch at the Mérida Parador, it's off to Andalucía, Spain's storied southern province of whitewashed villages, elegant resorts, gypsies, flamenco and olive groves.  Arrive in the romantic provincial capital of Seville, a remarkable blend of old-world charm and modern-day elegance.  Seville, Granada and Córdoba were the pinnacles of civilization some 1,000 years ago and have fascinated travelers ever since.  Spend the next two nights in the heart of the city at one of Europe's most luxurious hotels, commissioned by the King of Spain for the famous Exposition of 1929.  Dine à la carte tonight in your hotel.

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

[See photos from Merida]
Breakfast
was in the same dining room where we had dinner last night. The buffet was fairly crowded, especially around the hot food area, but was well-stocked.

After taking a refreshing walk around the outside hotel grounds, we boarded our coach and were on the road at 8:40. After about one hour we left Portugal behind, crossing the border into the Andalusia area of Spain.

We arrived at the Roman ruins in Mérida late morning. Most people used the WC before entering the old forum. Our two local guides divided us into two groups, with different Whispers channels. They led us on a leisurely tour of the Roman Theatre, with detailed narrative and history (watch video). We ended with the amphitheatre. The day was warm, and we took every opportunity to stand in the shade when available. The tour finished about 12:40, and our Tour Director was awaiting us with cool bottled water.

One of the local guides got on the coach with us and pointed out the local sites and ruins to us during the twenty-minute drive to the Mérida Parador for lunch. The lunch was typical parador style--very tasty, plentiful, nice presentation, and great service. Back on the coach, we left for Seville at 2:50; a 200km drive.

Once on the highway, Tour Director Joe came around with samples of a local drink, Licor de Bellota, which is a unique acorn liquor. Our afternoon rest stop at 4:15 was at Restaurante Aurelio, a restaurant right off the highway. This is where the group got their first view of the hanging hams that are so prevalent in Spain. Twenty minutes later we were back on the road, and Joe gave us a handout with Seville restaurant recommendations on one side and activity recommendations on the other side. He explained that we are at our next hotel for two nights, and we could dine at the highly-rated hotel restaurant one of the two nights, our choice of which night. We just had to call down and make our reservation once at the hotel. Most of the group chose tonight since tomorrow afternoon is free time, and this would allow more flexibility and spontaneity tomorrow.

Joe asked if people were interested in another non-Tauck activity for tomorrow night; a flamenco show. It would be a bigger, longer, more traditional show than the included one in Granada, but would not include dinner. It would last about 1 1/2 hours. He would walk the group there at 6:15 tomorrow evening, and point out various eating options along the way. It would end by 8:30, and everyone would be on their own for dinner afterwards. Show cost would be €35 or €40. Over three-fourths of the group expressed an interest, so Joe said he would arrange it.

We arrived at the Hotel Alfonso XIII at 5:30. It is a beautiful newly-renovated hotel in a great location. Joe went in for the room keys and quickly came back to distribute them to us on the coach. On our way to the room we grabbed a city map at the reception desk.

Although the hotel restaurant was recommended, and dinner included with the tour, we decided to dine out on our own. We have thoroughly enjoyed our independent tapas dinners the past few weeks, and thought tonight in Seville would be another good opportunity to do this again, exploring the side streets, going into local bars and cafés, experiencing the evening as the locals do. We started by walking the picturesque Avenida de la Constitución toward the cathedral. It was a pleasant walk, full of beauty and culture. Just past the cathedral we turned down a side street where Joe recommended a local restaurant. We zigzagged many interesting streets, checking out numerous eateries and menus, eventually finding the recommended one. Although it looked good, we opted for one of the others we had passed; it had a large selection of tapas, and we ordered a variety to sample and share between the two of us. Our tapas dinner sitting outside a fun restaurant on a side street in Seville was perfect; we were glad we chose this over the hotel restaurant.

We made our way back to the Avenida de la Constitución, withdrew cash at an ATM, and had some ice cream. Returning to the hotel, we were able to catch up on our notes. As we usually do, we put the Do Not Disturb sign on our room doorknob before bed. Shortly afterward at about 10:30 we heard hotel housekeeping slip a note under our door. It said they were sorry to have missed us for evening service because of our Do Not Disturb sign. We found that amusing, and typical of the late night schedule that is so typical in Spain...turn-down service at 10:30 at night; past bedtime for us Americans, but is when most Spaniards would normally be in the middle of their dinner!

We found today to be the hottest day yet, with a high of 90 degrees in Seville. This slowed down some of our afternoon activity, but there was plenty of shade to make it tolerable. And later when the sun goes down behind the buildings, the heat quickly becomes unnoticeable.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Hotel Alfonso XIII (1st of 2 nights) 

Tuesday May 29 (Day 5) Seville

Tauck Description: Seville offers many attractions which we will see on our orientation tour with a local guide, including Parque de Maria Luisa, site of the 1929 Spanish-American Exhibition, the Tobacco Factory of "Carmen" fame, Murillo Gardens, and the Macarena district.  A horse-drawn carriage transports you to Seville Cathedral, thought to be the world's largest Gothic cathedral, for a look at its wealth of art, relics, architecture and the sarcophagi of kings and cardinals, including the reputed tomb of Christopher Columbus.  Visit the former Jewish quarter before spending the afternoon and evening as you please.

7:00 breakfast opens; 9:00 tour departs.

[See photos from Seville]
Tour Director Joe told us that our group photo would be taken today, after the coach tour and before the carriage ride.

At 9:00 we boarded the coach, and were joined by two local guides. We were to use the Whispers, keeping the same channels we used yesterday, which put us into the same two groups. Joe reviewed the day's schedule, and informed us that we would need our passports tomorrow when crossing the border into Gibraltar. He recommended we not hesitate to use taxis this afternoon to maximize our time when we are on our own since Seville is such a beautiful town and our time here is limited.

We started the driving part of our city tour, which lasted about forty minutes. It ended at Plaza de América in Maria Luisa Park. We walked to the front of the Museum of Arts and Traditions where the photographer was awaiting us. He and Joe arranged us on the steps and took our group photo. We then got into our nearby horse-drawn carriages, four people to a carriage. Everyone left at about the same time, going one after the other (watch video), with one carriage occasionally passing another, causing good-natured cheers and jeers from those involved. We were supposed to end up at the Seville Cathedral, but the route was blocked by a local protest, and the police would not allow us to pass, so we took an alternate route and went to the hotel.

Joe gave us a couple of minutes to freshen up in our rooms, then we went back down to the lobby again, split into our two groups, and started our walking tour with our Whispers on. We meandered through the Santa Cruz area, which is the old Jewish quarter, ending up at the Seville Cathedral. We went inside with our local guide, and were shown the highlights. The Whispers were convenient here because it was very crowded. The walking tour ended in the courtyard of the church, and the rest of the afternoon was free. I wanted to get some more photos inside the beautiful cathedral, particularly the tomb of Christopher Columbus, so we went back inside. The morning tour crowds were already thinning out, so we were able to see more and get better pictures than we had on our group tour.

For lunch we found an interesting nearby restaurant/bar and had some light tapas. We then headed towards the River Guadalquivir and went to the Torre Del Oro (Gold Tower). This landmark is now a naval museum, but we went there primarily for the climb to the top for the panoramic view of the river and back over the city (watch video). We decided next to go to the Royal Palace, also called the Alcázar of Seville, and by the time we arrived we only had 1 1/2 hours before it closed. We almost decided to forgo it because of this, but now we are sure glad we did! It was probably our highlight in Seville; its beautiful Moorish architecture (watch video) is not to be missed by anyone who enjoys taking pictures. Not only the buildings, but the beautiful grounds also. Plus going in later like this resulted in fewer people. We were able to stay in until 7:30; the 7:00 was just the last admission time.

For dinner tonight we again wanted to do our local tapas routine. We decided to go back to the area we were in last night for dinner because they had lots of interesting places to choose from. But we were disoriented coming out of the palace, and got wonderfully lost trying to find our way around. This led us down streets and alleys where there was not a tourist to be seen. Sometimes our walk was very slow because we got behind one of the strolling residents, and there was not enough room in the alley for us to pass by them. What a splendid way to experience a foreign town! We eventually came out on the now-familiar Avenida de la Constitución, and then made our way to the Jewish quarter, where the most difficult part was narrowing down the choices of tapas bars for our dinner. After our meal we returned to Avenida de la Constitución, which had taken on a different personality now that evening was here. We joined in the activity, strolling, window-shopping, and people-watching. The window display at one bakery enticed us in, and we bought some goodies to take outside for our leisurely stroll back to the hotel.

Today was hot again; high of 92 degrees. For me it was too hot to walk far in the sunshine. The entire afternoon I made sure we were walking on the shady side of the street. It seemed cooler in the narrow alleys and indoors.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Hotel Alfonso XIII (2nd of 2 nights) 

Wednesday May 30 (Day 6) Jerez de la Frontera; Gibraltar; Marbella

Tauck Description: Depart Seville for Jerez de la Frontera, known for its fine horses, flamenco dancers, sweet wines, and sherry (whose name is derived from the towns).  It is called "de la Frontera" because it once stood on the frontier between the Moorish and the Christian realms.  Enjoy a guided visit to the palatial Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Equestre (Royal Andalucían School of Equestrian Art) – where you may watch the famous Andalucían horses that are bred here in a training session – and the renowned Carriage Museum.  Enjoy a true taste of the region during a tapas lunch and wine tasting at the House of Sandeman.  After lunch we journey to Gibraltar, where you'll view the fabled Rock (weather permitting).  Your final destination today is the glamorous coastal resort town of Marbella on the Costa del Sol, for a two-night stay at a beachfront resort and spa.

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

[See photos from Jerez de la Frontera, and Gibraltar]
As soon as we boarded the coach, Joe reminded us again that we needed our passports today for Gibraltar. We then drove about 1 hour 15 minutes to Jerez de la Frontera, passing one of the Osborne Bull signs on the way. We put on our Whispers, everyone setting them to the same channel today. We first went to the Fundación Real Escuela Andaluza el Arte Ecuestre (Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation). The tour started with a tour of the Horse Carriage Museum. I have to admit, this did not sound very exciting to me, but it was more interesting than I anticipated. We then spent some time in the stables with the beautiful and friendly horses, who enjoyed having their heads petted. Then we moved on to the actual training school, and its Picadero ring. It was delightful to watch as students were going through their training sessions inside the ring, and outside on the grounds (watch video). We were then given twenty-five minutes to either stroll the grounds, or take a seat in the Picadero and watch the students ride and train.

At 11:30 we walked across the street to the House of Sandeman. We were given a tour of the winery, which is well known for its port wine. We were seated at tables inside the winery, and served a tapas lunch, complete with samples of three of their sherries. Many in the group commented that it was nice to have a lighter lunch for a change, as we have been spoiled by the plentiful lunches on the tour.

At 1:00 we were back on the coach, headed for Gibraltar. Along the way, Tour Director Joe talked about the Spanish tradition of bullfighting. He said he is trying to get tickets to the bullfight the evening of our Day 12 in Madrid for those who want to go. He then passed out our 8"x10" group photo. He played some Gipsy Kings music to set the mood.

The Rock of Gibraltar first came into view at 2:20; we arrived at the border at 2:40, using the adjacent airport as our drop-off point. We used the restrooms inside the airport terminal, and found that the second level observation deck gave us the best profile view of the Rock that day. Although we weren't using Whispers today, we were dividing into two groups, the same two that we used previously with different Whispers channels. Joe instructed us on the border crossing procedure. We were to all stay together, walk in line as a group through the checkpoint. We were to have our passport open to the front picture page, and hold it up for the guards to see when we walked through. After using the airport WC, we all headed for the crossing. It was extremely busy with pedestrian traffic going across in both directions. Nobody even slowed down as they held up their passport for the first Spanish official to glance at. Then into another building where a Gibraltar official did a similar cursory glance at the passports as people walked by. I don't think any officials looked at the pictures, much less read the information. As long as you held up something that resembled a passport, you were allowed passage.

Once across the border, each of our two groups got into a local tour van reserved for us. We were driven across the Gibraltar Airport runway, through town to a seaside viewpoint. We then up the windy roads towards the top of the mountain. The van driver/guide had interesting commentary about the Gibraltarian people, and their relationship with the British and Spanish countries. We were given tickets for St. Michaels Cave, which we were able to briskly walk through in fifteen minutes, and then we had another fifteen minutes outside to walk around, enjoy the scenic views, and watch the Barbary Apes up close (watch video). It was apparently an exceptionally clear day today, and we were able to see Morocco, and the African continent, across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Temperatures were cooler here, about 72 degrees. There was a little breeze, but with the sunshine it never felt chilly. Some people, however, were glad they brought their light jackets, especially inside the cave.

Our Tour Director warned us about the Barbary Apes. He said they are cute, but keep your distance, and hang on to all of your belongings. We were not to feed them anything. He recommended not having them get on your shoulder for pictures, but some tourists still like to do this, so it is at our own risk, mainly because they have been known to go to the bathroom while they are posing on you. And although they are used to being around humans, they are still wild animals, not domesticated or in a zoo, and have been known to bite people. And they can be very aggressive with stealing purses, packs, hats, and glasses. Once they get something of yours, you probably will not get it back.

Back on the tour van, we made our way down the mountain and were dropped off at the border, where Joe was waiting for us. Once we were all gathered again, we repeated our crossing routine, walking through the building on the Spanish side. This time the official was not even looking at everyone who walked by. We returned to our coach, and headed for the Mediterranean resort town of Marbella on the Costa del Sol.

We arrived at our Marbella hotel at 5:45. Joe made a point of telling us that this hotel is selected more for its good location. It is a four-star hotel, but is not the same caliber as our previous three hotels have been. He said it is the best hotel anywhere close to walking distance to the old town and the beach. He said 80% of his travelers understand this point, but 20% don't.

Our Marbella orientation walk was moved to tonight instead of tomorrow morning. We met in the lobby at 6:15, thirty minutes after we arrived. Our luggage had not yet been delivered to the room when we left for the lobby, but was there when we returned from the walk. Joe led us on a very slow walk along the oceanside promenade, up a street with many sculptures, through old town, and back to the hotel. He pointed out a number of restaurants he preferred; some expensive and fancy, some causal.

As we did last night, we decided to forgo tonight's Tauck-included buffet-style hotel dinner and go out to a local restaurant on our own. We went to Da Fabio, an oceanside Italian restaurant that we passed earlier, one of Joe's recommendations. We broke from our tapas tradition and had a nice pasta dinner. We sat at an outdoor table adjacent to the seaside promenade, so we could watch the passing people transform as the evening progressed, and as we relaxed and dined.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Hotel Fuerte Miramar (1st of 2 nights) 

Thursday May 31 (Day 7) Marbella

Tauck Description: A day of delight by the sea begins with a morning orientation walk with your Tour Director through Marbella, with its Old Town (Casco Antigua) surrounded by shops and cafés, and the imposing 15th-century Iglesia de la Encarnación.  Afterwards, the entire day is yours to enjoy the seaside pleasures of this famed Costa del Sol resort, a year-round favorite of the rich and famous.

7:30 breakfast opens.

[See photos from Marbella]
Since the orientation walk was done last night, the entire day today was free for everyone to spend as they chose.

We took advantage of having a relaxing day, and slept in. We did some hand laundry, hanging it out to dry on the built-in laundry rack on the room veranda. We had a relaxing couple hours sitting on the pleasant veranda, writing notes and reading about upcoming destinations.

We headed out for the day, walking up the promenade to the cross street that had the line of sculptures. This time we saw that they were Salvador Dalí sculptures, which we had suspected at first glance yesterday. We crossed into the old town, and walked all around, taking back streets, alleyways, and unusual turns. We stopped for churros and chocolate; these churros were longer and fatter than previous ones we had seen, shaped like a big curly German sausage.

For lunch we stopped at a restaurant that had an interesting tapas menu. Then we explored the old town even further, finding a church with automated holy water dispenser, new churches build around old churches, and colorful window boxes. Worn out, we finally headed back to the hotel, stopping at a pâtisserie for a late afternoon snack. The beach was busy with the resort town patrons and locals; many of the women were topless, which is typical of so many European countries, but usually causes American tourists to do a double-take.

Everyone was on their own for dinner tonight. We decided to walk even further up the promenade and see what was there. Our Italian pasta dinner last night must have triggered something because we found ourselves walking into another Italian restaurant tonight, La Gioconda. We didn't want a large meal, so we told the waiter we wanted to share a pizza. He told us that they were small. We asked him how small, and he showed us with his hands, about salad plate size. Yes, that did appear too small to share, so we each ordered a whole one. Well, when the pizza arrived at our table, it was much larger than the waiter indicated, almost filling the entire dinner plate; one would have easily been enough to share. They were very good pizzas, but we felt deceived by the waiter, and we let him know why we were unhappy. He didn't seem to care at all; he accomplished what he wanted--a larger order by the two tourists. Although very out of character for us, we didn't leave any tip at all for him.

We joined the crowd strolling along the beachside promenade. It was a good way to people watch; such a variety of characters in resort towns like Marbella.

Today was warm; high of 80 degrees. Slight overcast, but still plenty of sun got through. Walking along the unshaded streets was hot. I was glad to have brought sunscreen today.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Hotel Fuerte Miramar (2nd of 2 nights) 

Friday June 1 (Day 8) Ronda; Granada

Tauck Description: Journey from the coast into the mountains to visit scenic Ronda, perched on a cliff overlooking the spectacular El Tajo gorge.  Ronda is synonymous with the evolution of the art of bullfighting; along with revealing the town's Moorish heritage and remains, a guided walking tour with a local expert includes a visit to one of Spain's oldest bullrings, the Plaza de Toros.  Continue on to Granada, situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The city boasts extraordinary architecture from over 250 years as the capital of a Moorish kingdom; your hotel is steps away from Granada's celebrated Moorish palace, the Alhambra. Enjoy a private flamenco show tonight!

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

[See photos from Ronda]
Although everyone was on the coach promptly at 8:30, we were delayed in our departure due to an illegally parked car blocking our way, which apparently is fairly common in Spain. At 10:00 we arrived at Ronda, and were dropped off at the bullring. We walked a block down to the cliffside Ronda Parador where we divided into two Whisper groups with local guides. Our instructions were to meet right back here at 12:30 for lunch if we separated from our walking tour, or to take a taxi to the bus terminal at 2:15 if we were skipping lunch with the group.

The guide walked us to a viewpoint outside the parador, overlooking the west side of the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge). We then crossed the bridge over the Guadalevín River, stopping at another viewpoint on the other side that looked back towards our starting point. We then followed the street that parallels the gorge, ending up at a large house that overlooks the valley. At that point the two of us left the group and went ahead to the paths that led down the side of the gorge to fabulous viewpoints of the Puente Nuevo. It was a fifteen-minute walk down the roughly-surfaced path to the first vantage point. Rather, it was more of a wide spot at a switchback along the path. There were no walls, fences, rails, or anything. Just a few feet off this dirt vantage point was the sheer drop-off, hundreds of feet down into the gorge; not the safest place to get a photo, but surely one of the best. The path went down further, but we stopped here. The walk back up the steep path was warm and slow going.

Once back on top, we walked along the streets towards where we thought the local guide had taken our group, and indeed crossed paths with them before long. We rejoined them and made our way back to the Puente Nuevo (watch video). This time we crossed on the east side of the bridge, and could see the Puente Viejo (Old Bridge) further up the gorge. From here we walked to the Plaza de Toros de Ronda, one of the oldest operational bullfighting ring in Spain (watch video). Our guide purchased our admission tickets and led us into the ring. We crossed to the far side so we could be in the shade while he told us about the ring. His talk, and the guided tour, ended right at 12:00. The group had thirty minutes before the lunch back at the Parador. Some of us wandered around the ring, taking photographs, and then went outside to the adjacent park where there was another viewpoint of the valley from a different perspective.

The Parador had six tables reserved in the downstairs restaurant for the Tauck lunch, which started at 12:40. We could choose from four entrées; wine was included. At 1:50 we met upstairs in the lobby for the walk back to the bus terminal. It was a twenty+ minute walk, so Joe arranged taxis for three couples who chose not to make the long hot walk.

By 2:15 we were all back on the coach, ready to go to Granada. Tour Director Joe passed around a sign-up sheet for tomorrow's dinner, as well as a sign-up for the Madrid bullfight he was arranging. For tomorrow's dinner we could choose 7:00, 7:30, or 8:00; we were to choose our own table mates, and size. He also gave us a handout with recommended Granada restaurants and activities. Joe warned us that the rooms in our next hotel are quite small, just so we wouldn't negatively compare it to some of our exceptionally large rooms earlier. Our drive took us through seemingly endless miles of olive tree groves. Our twenty-minute afternoon rest stop was at 4:00 at a roadside rest area.

We arrived at the Hotel Alhambra Palace at 5:00. Our driver Antonio did some skillful maneuvering of the coach to back it into the small spot reserved for him. While Antonio was parking for us, Joe was getting our keys. While passing out our keys on the coach, he gave us general directions for going downhill to the central square via walkway or via jitney. We went to our room, and thirty minutes later the luggage was left outside the door, announced with a knock. We did some hand laundry in the sink, admired our room view (watch video), and prepared for the evening.

At 7:15 we went down to floor -1 for our Flamenco show. It was in a private auditorium-style room with a small stage; the room had numerous tables of four set up. Wine glasses with sangria were brought around, and the forty-five-minute show began. The troupe consisted of one guitarist, one female singer, two female and one male dancers, all a part of a local dance school. They were good; entertaining. The dance style would not be called traditional Flamenco; it was more progressive; a modern interpretive type of dance (watch video).

At 8:15 we went directly upstairs for dinner. We could sit anywhere at the Tauck-assigned tables. There were tables for four, six, and eight people, all with quite a view of the city. The menu had a nice variety of choices. Wine was not included with tonight's dinner. By 9:45, most people were finished.

Today was hot; 91 degrees. However we were on the bus during the hottest time of the day.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Hotel Alhambra Palace (1st of 2 nights) 

Saturday June 2 (Day 9) Granada

Tauck Description: A highlight of your Spain and Portugal tour is today's guided visit to Granada's famed Moorish palace, The Alhambra, constructed to be a "paradise on Earth" by caliphs who ruled here in the 13th century. Tour the palace, considered to be one of the world's most beautiful, and stroll the Generalife, grounds of the summer palace of former sultans.  Enjoy free time to explore on your own and join us for an à la carte dinner at a popular local restaurant.

7:30 Breakfast opens; 10:00 depart.

[See photos from Granada]
We slept in this morning, and arrived for breakfast at 8:30, which seemed to be just ahead of the bulk of the group. At 10:00 we met in the lobby, and were divided into two groups with the awaiting local guides. We put on our Whispers and walked up to the closest entrance to the Alhambra, entering at the Puerta de la Justicia (Gate of Judgment), and headed to the Torre del Vino (Wine Tower). Our guide led us through many rooms with amazing carved wood ceilings, Moorish tiles, arches, fountains and other water features, and courtyards (watch video). We eventually made our way to the Generalife Gardens for a twenty-minute guided walk through them. At about 12:40 the group walked to the coach. We were then given a city tour through town, and up the adjacent hill to a viewpoint on the Albayzín that had a nice view of the Alhambra across the valley.

We returned to the hotel at 2:00. Lunch was on our own today, but the majority of the group went right to the hotel restaurant for a nice one-hour meal on the scenic outdoor terrace. After this the two of us decided to return to the Alhambra for more pictures. Even though we got some nice ones with the group this morning, it wasn't enough time to get all the artistic shots we wanted. We were told earlier that our ticket from this morning would allow us back in, but when we got to the gate, we were told that we would have to pay full admission, and even then would have quite a wait for an admission time. Our morning ticket got us nowhere now that we were past the gate. This was a huge disappointment to us. Had our local guide, or even our tour director, given us more details of our Alhambra sightseeing plan ahead of time, it would have been extremely easy to leave the group once inside the palace, and wander around on our own, taking all the photographs we had hoped for. We are both avid amateur photographers, and for us the Alhambra and its myriad of photographic opportunities was one of the biggest highlights we had been anticipating for months.

Tauck's dinner tonight was at Restaurant Carmen de San Miguel which was a very short walk from our hotel. Yesterday Joe got everyone's preferred seating time (7:00 or 7:30) and table mates. Tonight he met us in the hotel lobby and accompanied us on the five-minute walk to the restaurant. Everyone was seated outside on their terrace, which had a beautiful view. We could choose from a number of appetizers, salads, fish, meats, and desserts. The food was excellent. Some in our group tried the suckling pig, which was met with positive reviews. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try the oxtail stew, and was very pleasantly surprised; it was tender, tasty, superb.

Included meals:  B, D
Hotel:  Hotel Alhambra Palace (2nd of 2 nights) 

Sunday June 3 (Day 10) Córdoba

Tauck Description: Journey to Córdoba today for a guided walking tour through the cobblestone streets of the Judería, Córdoba's old Jewish Quarter; from its alleyways, you can see the walls and decorative details of the candy-striped La Mezquita (Spanish for "mosque.")  Your visit to this masterpiece of architecture and art reveals its nearly 1,200-year history as an early Christian church, a Moorish mosque, and, since the 16th century, a Roman Catholic cathedral.  Dine family-style tonight for a taste of local life.

7:30 breakfast opens; 8:30 luggage ready inside the room; 9:30 departure.

[See photos from Cordoba]
Everyone was on the coach early this morning. Tour Director Joe gave us his handout with a Madrid map, recommended activities, and recommended restaurants. Our rest break at 11:00 was at a roadside store/restaurant. Joe told us this was a good place to buy saffron. They were also handing out samples of almonds and nougat candy. Back on the road twenty minutes later. Joe gave us a paella recipe, and gave everyone a small can of olive oil as a gift. He told us that today we arrive at our Córdoba hotel in the early afternoon, and our hotel rooms might not be ready, but the hotel tried very hard to accommodate us.

When we arrived shortly after 1:00, most of our rooms were ready for us. Lunch today was on our own. Some people went down the street where there were a couple of places to eat, but most of the group chose to stay at the hotel café, which was good, quick, and efficient.

At 3:00 everyone met in the hotel lobby where the local guides joined us. We divided into two groups with Whispers. We boarded the coach for the short ride across the river. We were dropped off near the Jewish Quarter. We walked through the picturesque irregular and narrow streets, stopping at various sites, such as the Synagogue, and Mercado de Artesania. We eventually ended up at the Cathedral/Mosque, notable for its hypostyle hall with hundreds of marble columns, and the candy cane-striped arches (watch video). The guide gave us our admission tickets and led us in a circle inside, pointing out the various features. We then all exited onto a side street where our local tour ended. The rest of the afternoon was on our own.

The two of us explored around the outside of the Cathedral, walking down side streets and alleys. We found the picturesque Calleja de las Flores (Alley of the Flowers). Then we had a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, passing through the Puerta del Puente (Gate of the Bridge), and crossing the Guadalquivir River on the old Roman Bridge.

Tonight's dinner was a casual family-style meal at the Restaurante El Mirador, two blocks from the hotel. At 8:00 Joe led the way. There were three long tables of twelve set up for us, with bread and salads at each seat. Joe told us that the servings were generous, so we should each choose one item from the menu that appealed to us, and when the dishes were brought out they were to be passed around and shared family-style. The menu had a variety of familiar and not-so-familiar selections, so we ended up with a little of everything. It was a fun and different way to try some items we had not yet sampled, and nobody went hungry. The waiters were helpful and energetic. Desserts were ordered individually and not shared. Wine was included tonight. We were finished about 9:45.

The street we were on was parallel to the river, and the sun was setting beautifully on the other side. Many in the group continued to walk the promenade along with the locals, enjoying the scene. The bridge and Cathedral on the other side had striking lighting after dark.

Temperatures hit 90 degrees today. The activities were in many shaded areas, and inside the Cathedral, so it was very tolerable.

Included meals:  B, D
Hotel:  Hesperia Córdoba (1 night) 

Monday June 4 (Day 11) Madrid

Tauck Description: Board the AVE train in Preferente class for a rail journey to Spain's amazing capital city of Madrid.  A local guide awaits your arrival to lead an orientation tour of the capital city, including a walk through Plaza Mayor and the Mercado San Miguel.  We'll break for lunch at a local restaurant before continuing on to our guided visit at the Royal Palace.  Spend the next three nights at The Westin Palace, Madrid – a Belle Époque landmark in the heart of the city, a short walk from the tapas bars that American novelist Ernest Hemingway made famous.

7:30 breakfast opens; 7:30 luggage ready; 8:30 departure.

[See photos from Madrid]
After our breakfast we boarded the coach one last time for our ten-minute drive to the train station. Our driver Antonio dropped us off right by the entrance. This was the last that we would see of Antonio, so we said our goodbyes to him, and thanked him profusely for his wonderful work. Gratuities were given to him at this time; most of them were in envelopes.

Once inside, Tour Director Joe pointed out the departure reader board, and called attention to our train number, platform, and departure time in case anyone got separated while waiting. He then walked us upstairs to the Preferente lounge, but it was closed for renovations for a couple of weeks. We went back downstairs, used the WCs, and milled around for a short while. We then went as a group through security, which involved sending all carried items through a scanner. We never received individual train tickets; Joe stood right at the ticket collection area and pointed out each of our group members as we passed by. We proceeded down the moving walkway to the lower level and found our platform. The loading area for our Preferente car #3 was marked on the platform with green paint, so we all gathered here.

Once the train arrived, we had about ten minutes to board, find our assigned seats (Joe had given us our seat assignments two days ago), and stow our carry-on items, which was plenty of time. He said that once the train left we were free to change seats, but nobody did. Shortly after departure a staff person came through selling newspapers. Then another one came through handing out headphones for the movie; small screens were attached to the ceiling. The headphone jack in the armrest was a standard mini-jack connector. Then a breakfast menu was delivered. Then a warm moist towelette. Then the breakfast cart came around. Then the beverage cart came around. Then we were given a prepackaged towelette. The ride was smooth but still train-like. The air conditioning kept it comfortable, even when direct sunlight was pouring in through the large windows. It was interesting to feel the change in air pressure when the train entered and exited tunnels.

We arrived at the Madrid station at about 11:15. Joe exited first, and we all followed him like school children, down this walkway, up these stairs, around that corner, across this street, down that sidewalk. Joe was actually not happy, because the train station officials would not let him go the route he usually goes to the coach pick-up area, so it made a much longer walk for everyone.

We boarded our new coach, and the local guide joined us. We were given a city orientation tour on the coach, with a couple of photo stops, and ending at the Royal Palace. We were dropped off at the palace's tour bus drop-off on the lower level. After giving us a city map from the hotel, Joe walked us upstairs, across Plaza de Oriente, and to our lunch restaurant, La Botilleria del café de Oriente. Lunch today was a fixed menu, which was the only time on the tour that we could not choose our dish. But it was good, and fast, allowing us to get to our afternoon activities. Lunch menu consisted of a salad, bread, grilled chicken, French fries, chocolate cake and ice cream, coffee, and petit fours. Servings were very generous; not many in the group finished their servings.

Outside the restaurant we were joined by a second local guide. We put on our Whispers and walked to the tour group admissions gate at the Royal Palace. The one-hour tour walked us through a couple dozen rooms. The guides had to keep a very tight schedule from room to room, and knew their pace well. Photographs were not allowed inside the palace. We exited into the Plaza de la Armería square where we were given twenty minutes on our own to see the armory and pharmacy (watch video).

We reboarded our coach for the ten-minute drive to our hotel. Joe was waiting for us in front of the hotel, and handed us our keys as we got off. He instructed us to stop at the reception desk, as this hotel is the only one on the tour that requires a credit card and signature for incidentals. Our luggage was waiting in our room when we entered, which was around 5:00.

Dinner tonight is not included, but our Tour Director Joe arranged a dining option for those who were interested. He reserved tables at the Restaurante Botin, which claims to be the world's oldest restaurant. For those who signed up, Joe met them in the hotel lobby at 7:00 and walked them to the restaurant. It was about a 20-minute walk, in the Plaza Mayor vicinity.

The two of us decided to have dinner in our now-usual manner...explore on our own, going into whichever restaurant, tapas bar, or café seemed just right. We decided to start by walking towards Puerta del Sol. Along the way we saw a Museo de Jamón, which is at the other end of the spectrum from the Restaurante Botin, but it grabbed us. We had seen and read about this chain elsewhere on our tour, and were curious. We had Iberian ham sandwiches on and a beer; very simple, but the ham in Spain is so good!

After our quick but satisfying dinner we continued on to Puerta del Sol. This popular square was full of activity; a good place to relax and people-watch. We found the famous clock, the Bear and the Madroño Tree sculpture, and the kilómetro cero plaque marking the center of Spain. We then made our way back to the hotel to get rested up for another city day tomorrow.

Included meals:  B, L
Hotel:  Westin Palace, Madrid (1st of 4 nights) 

Tuesday June 5 (Day 12) Madrid

Tauck Description: View the art treasures of the Museo del Prado with a local expert.  The rest of the day is free to spend as you please in one of the world's most popular cities.  Tauck has arranged complimentary admission to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum; view works by Titian, Goya and Picasso at your leisure.

7:00 Breakfast opens; 9:45 depart.

[See photos from Madrid]
Although we have had many good breakfast buffets, this morning's breakfast at our Westin Palace hotel was one of the best yet.

The group gathered in the hotel lobby at 9:45. Tour Director Joe led us outside, and we crossed Paseo del Prado, walking two blocks to the Museo del Prado where two local guides were ready for us. We got our Whispers working, and were given our Prado admission tickets. Each person was also given an admission tickets to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza which could be used anytime today until 7:00. At our entry time of 10:00 we proceeded past the general admission lines to the tour group entrance for immediate admission. We were led on a ninety-minute highlights tour around the museum. It was a fast pace, but we covered the most significant pieces; the museum actually requires guides to wear time-stamped stickers to make sure they keep moving along and exit by their assigned time. We finished in the lobby, and were allowed to remain in the museum as long as we desired at this point. We could even get our ticket stamped at the education desk so we could reenter later in the day if we left. A number of us chose to have lunch in the museum café and then return to explore this wonderful museum in more detail. Another 1+ hour did the trick for us. Photographs, even without flash, were not allowed in the Prado, and the staff enforced this rule.

The two of us spend the rest of the day exploring on foot. We first walked to the Plaza de Cibeles (watch video) to see the Fuente de Cibeles (Cibeles Fountain). Next we headed to the Plaza de la Independencia to see the Puerta de Alcalá (Alcalá Gate), which is close to the main entrance to the Jardines del Retiro. The park is big, and we didn't explore all of it, but we had a nice stroll down the main avenue, past the lake, and took the path of statues back towards the hotel area. We went to the Thyssen Museum next, which was also only two blocks away from the hotel, arriving there at 3:30. The main floor exhibits were closed, but we spent 1 1/2 hours on the top two floors. By going later in the afternoon we avoided the larger crowds.

Our next journey was to walk to Plaza Mayor, via Puerta del Sol. We could have walked to Plaza Mayor directly from our hotel in twenty minutes or so, but we explored many of the side streets along the way, so our leisurely pace took much longer. Once there we chose one of the numerous restaurants located right on the square for an early dinner.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Westin Palace, Madrid (2nd of 4 nights) 

Wednesday June 6 (Day 13) Toledo; Madrid

Tauck Description: Embark on a full-day excursion to Toledo today.  A guided tour of this monument-filled city includes the Synagogue Santa Maria La Blanca dating from the 12th century, the Church of Santo Tome, and admission to the Cathedral.  Your included lunch follows at a local restaurant. Back in Madrid, a farewell fiesta awaits!

7:00 breakfast opens; 8:30 departure.

[See photos from Toledo]
We had a different coach and different driver for today's Toledo day trip. We were on the road by 8:35. Tour Director Joe informed us that public bathrooms are not easy to find in Toledo, and he would show us where to find some. Just before our arrival in Toledo we stopped at a viewpoint across the river and were given ten minutes off the coach for photos of the town across the river (watch video). We arrived in Toledo at 9:30, and stopped at the tourism office where Joe picked up city maps for us, which were in German, but the building and street names were still in Spanish. Because buses are not allowed all the way into Toledo, we proceeded to the tour bus passenger drop-off area. We got off the coach we walked up a few flights of stairs and long escalators to one of the main squares of Toledo, Plaza de Zocodover (watch video). He said those who wished to go on the guided local tour were to meet here at 11:45, in front of the McDonald's. The tour would go to the Cathedral, then Santo Tomé church, then the Synagogue, then across the bridge, and back to the bus, which would make the short drive to the lunch restaurant. For those who chose to skip the city tour, Joe gave directions for the ten-minute walk to the restaurant, instructing us to meet the group there at 1:15.

Joe walked us to a store, V. Moreno, a block off the plaza, that was friendly with Tauck guests, and who allowed the use of their bathrooms if you told them you were with Tauck. The store sold fine jewelry and quality Lladró porcelain. From here Joe showed us the way to get to the Cathedral and the Synagogue, both easy walks. From here everyone was on their own. The town was very crowded and busy because tomorrow was Corpus Christi here, and everyone was preparing with lots of decorations, celebrating, and drinking.

The two of us first went into Santo Tomé Confiteria, a confectionery on the square that had a large selection of artistic marzipan, or as they called it in Toledo, mazapan, where we bought our first sampling. Then we walked to the Cathedral, which is one of the best Gothic churches in Europe. We found the admission gate around the right side corner from the front plaza, and were given a useful map that noted the location of highlights. Although we went there primarily to see the distinctive El Transparente (watch video), we took our time exploring all the beautiful features inside, including the choir, many chapels, and Sacristy with works by Goya and El Greco. The El Transparente is such a unique feature, the church merits a visit just to see this if for nothing else.

Once out of the Cathedral we did a slow walk back to the square, enjoying the pre-Corpus Christi energy of all the people (watch video). We made stops in two more mazapan shops so we could compare the tasty treats. Back at Plaza de Zocodover we followed Joe's directions downhill for our lunch restaurant, which was a fifteen-minute walk from the plaza. Although about ten of us were there at our designated 1:15 time, the rest of the group did not show up until 1:45. Apparently the local guide was thirty minutes late arriving, putting them behind schedule.

Joe had said that the restaurant at Hotel del Cardenal Toledo was one of the two best in town. It was indeed a good one. We had traditional gazpacho for a starter, and were given a choice of a beef steak or grilled salmon, followed by dessert. Wine was included.

At 3:45 the coach picked us up outside the restaurant. Joe gave us the Tauck evaluation/comment forms; we were to fill them out and return them at tonight's Farewell Dinner. Joe also collected the Whispers. He also gave cash reimbursement for Cathedral admission price for those who went on their own today; he collected our admission stub so he had a receipt record. We arrived back at our Madrid hotel at 5:00, where we had two hours to rest and refresh ourselves before dinner.

At 7:00 we went to the lobby and found the hotel event sign that directed us to one of the banquet rooms reserved for Tauck. When we entered the room we gave Tour Director Joe our evaluation form, and thanked him for the wonderful two weeks he had shown us. We gave him a gratuity in a hotel envelope, with a personalized thank you note. He had people fill out stickers with email addresses or other contact information if they wanted to be on the list he would copy. There were cocktails from an open bar, and hot tapas for thirty minutes, then Joe said a brief thank you to the group, and invited us to sit for dinner.

There were four large round tables set up; we were free to sit wherever we chose. The dinner menu consisted of a goat cheese walnut salad, a choice of chicken breast or beef medallions, and hazelnut parfait for dessert. Red and white wine were included. After orders were taken, salads were served. Just as our entrée was served, the entertainment came into the room. It consisted of four costumed men playing guitars and singing. They were full of spirit, and were quite fun, playing a variety of traditional Spanish music mixed with some American favorites. Their broken English and jokes kept the group smiling (watch video). They even convinced a few of us to accompany them with tambourines and dancing.

After dessert was served, Joe said a few more words, this time in a more sentimental tone. He thanked our coach driver Antonio in his absence, and told us about how the two of them have worked together for many years, and how Joe has watched as this Tauck job has had such a huge positive affect on Antonio's life. Joe also told an amusing anecdote about his fifteen minutes of fame. He then passed out the email/address list, an airport ride pickup schedule, and some miscellaneous journey end reminders. Guests then said their goodbyes to each other via handshakes and hugs before going their own ways just before 10:00.

Included meals:  B, L, D
Hotel:  Westin Palace, Madrid (3rd of 4 nights) 

Thursday June 7 (Day 14) Madrid

Spain and Portugal” tour ends.

7:00 breakfast opens; departure times individualized.

[See photos from Madrid]
We were staying one extra night here in Madrid, but before and after breakfast we had another opportunity to say goodbye again to some of our fellow group members as they departed. Everyone's departure seemed to proceed as planned, with no problems. Tour Director Joe had given everyone a handout noting their individual times for bags ready, times for meeting driver outside lobby for private ride to airport, and more specific information concerning bag pickup and early breakfast.

We spent most of our free day today walking and sightseeing on our own. We began by walking to the Plaza de Cibeles so we could go inside and up to the top of the Cibeles Palace (formerly called the Communications Palace), a beautiful building with striking architecture that used to be the postal service headquarters and now is the Madrid City Hall. We were waiting outside it when it opened at 10:00, and waited inside until the ticket agent window opened at 10:15. At 10:30 we were allowed entrance to the stairs that led to the upper outside viewing deck. This gave us a pleasant panoramic view of the area (watch video). The guard only allowed us to stay for fifteen minutes; after that another small group would be admitted.

Next we walked past the Bank of Spain, and towards the Metropolis Building. All along the street our eyes were constantly drawn upwards at the wonderful old construction that we were passing; this continued all the way to Puerta del Sol (watch video). From here we found a Rick Steves recommended churros and chocolate eatery, the Chocolateria San Ginés, and were rewarded with some of our best churros yet. We then visited the adjacent Church of San Ginés before continuing to Plaza Mayor (watch video). From here we were able to find the Mercado de San Miguel one block away, and had a late lunch of paella.

We then walked back towards the Prado Museum so we could visit the adjacent Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (Royal Botanical Garden). It was a well-kept garden, but we found that we were a little early in the season, and there was not as much growth or color as we had hoped.

Our last stop was at a deli near our hotel where we had a light meal of turkey wraps and smoothies. Then we returned to our room, and spent the rest of the evening updating our notes and packing for tomorrow's return trip home.

Weather today was cooler, with a high of 72 degrees. The morning was overcast, which cleared off by late afternoon. This made for perfect conditions for walking around all day.

Included meals:  B
Hotel:  Westin Palace, Madrid (4th of 4 nights) (extra post-tour hotel stay) 

Friday June 8 Madrid; Travel day

6:30 - 7:00 room service breakfast requested; 7:15 luggage picked up in room; 7:30 airport transportation leaves.

Tauck provided room service breakfast for anyone with pick-up times earlier than 8:00. It was limited to continental breakfast, but was still very good, and was more than we really needed. It was delivered to our room right at 6:30, wheeled in on its own table. There were two pots of coffee and two glasses of orange juice, a basket filled with croissants, donuts, rolls, cold cereal milk, and jams.

The bellhop arrived for our bags right at 7:15 as scheduled. We stopped at the reception desk to check out, confirming that we had no account balance. Our Tauck-arranged driver was already waiting for us with his town car right outside the hotel front door.

The drive to Madrid-Barajas Airport took less than thirty minutes, as traffic was still very light this early in the morning. At the airport we checked in at the KLM desk, passed through security, bought a bottle of water, boarded our flight, and departed right on schedule at 10:30am. Our flights back to the Pacific Northwest via Amsterdam were uneventful. Our plane had not even landed before I started thinking about our next trip. Talking with fellow Tauck travelers these past four weeks had given us many ideas. Hmmm...perhaps a Tauck River Cruise?


Connecting With The Tour Group

A welcome letter from our Tour Director (Joe Pereira) was waiting for us at our Lisbon hotel. The eight pages of the packet were:

The letter informed us that the first group meeting would be in the hotel lobby at 1:45 on Friday for our 2:00 city tour. It also contained the 6:30 time for our Day 1 Welcome Reception and Dinner at our hotel.

We went to the lobby about ten minutes early for our 1:45 meeting time, and found many other tour guests were also already there, and making initial introductions. Joe arrived promptly at 1:45 and ushered the group outside to our awaiting coach. As we boarded, Joe confirmed our names and told us which seats were ours for today.  The tour had officially began, as Joe grabbed the microphone and started his introductory speech!

Day 1 Orientation

After meeting in the lobby at 1:45, our Tour Director arrived and ushered us outside to our coach. Everyone was on board, but we stayed right there another twenty minutes while Joe gave us some introductory information.

Our local guide had joined us by now.  At 2:10 the coach left the hotel, and the city tour began.

The welcome letter given to us at hotel check-in contained other helpful orientation information:

Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner

We went to the lobby right at 6:30 and were met by a hotel staff person who directed us right to the hotel restaurant for cocktails.  Normally the cocktail reception would be held in lobby bar, but this night it was being used for a video session. The restaurant was open early for our group only, and they had an open bar set up.  Cards were handed out with names and hometowns of each person in the group.  Everyone mingled for about twenty minutes, making more introductions.  Since the group had already had a city tour earlier in the day, many guests had already met one another.

After twenty minutes, our tour director Joe took the floor.  He went down the list of names, had each person or couple raise their hand and say one or two sentences about themselves.  This was a fun way to break the ice, and help put a name to the face.  When Joe asked how many repeat Tauck customers were here, over 75% of the group raised their hands.  One guest was on her 13th Tauck tour.  Joe said this is not unusual for people who travel with Tauck.

We were then lead to the dining room tables reserved for our group; one table for ten, one for eight, two for six, and one for four.  We could sit anywhere we wanted at these tables.  We were given a menu made specifically for our Tauck group. It was a little more of a set menu than we were to have on other meals, but was very good.  We had a choice of chicken or fish (grouper) for our main course, had risotto for the starter, and crème brûlée for dessert.

Dinner ended about 9:15, and guests returned to their rooms, many of them quite tired from their journey to Europe.

Almost all the men wore sports jackets; two wore ties.  Most women wore nice slacks; three wore dresses.

Farewell Reception and Dinner

The Farewell Reception and Dinner was scheduled for 7:00pm on our last evening, Day 13, at our Westin Palace Madrid hotel. At the scheduled time, people went to the lobby and found the hotel event sign that directed them to one of the banquet rooms reserved for Tauck. As people entered the room, most gave Tour Director Joe the Tauck evaluation form, and expressed their thank yous. This was also when most people gave him a gratuity. He had people fill out stickers with email addresses or other contact information if they wanted to be on the list he would copy. There were cocktails from an open bar, and hot tapas for thirty minutes, then Joe said a brief thank you to the group, and invited us to sit for dinner.

There were four large round tables set up; we were free to sit wherever we chose. One group arranged their own table mates during the cocktail period. The dinner menu consisted of a goat cheese walnut salad, a choice of chicken breast or beef medallions, and hazelnut parfait for dessert. Red and white wine were included. After orders were taken, salads were served. Just as our entrée was served, the entertainment came into the room. It consisted of four costumed men playing guitars and singing. They were full of spirit, and were quite fun, playing a variety of traditional Spanish music mixed with some American favorites. Their broken English and jokes kept the group smiling. They even convinced a few of us to accompany them with tambourines and dancing.

After dessert was served, Joe said a few more words, this time in a more sentimental tone. He thanked our coach driver Antonio in his absence, and told us about how the two of them have worked together for many years, and how Joe has watched as this Tauck job has had such a huge positive affect on Antonio's life. Joe also told an amusing anecdote about his 15 minutes of fame. He then passed out the email/address list, an airport ride pickup schedule, and some miscellaneous journey end reminders. Guests then said their goodbyes to each other via handshakes and hugs before going their own ways just before 10:00.

Tour Director; Coach Driver; Local Guides

Tour Director: Joe Pereira
Coach Driver: Antonio

Photos of Tour Director Joe

Joe was actually born in Portugal, and lived there as a child. He moved to the U.S. He currently resides in Massachusetts. He has been a tour guide with different tour companies, and has been with Tauck for a long time. He used to guide Tauck tours in Florida.

Joe is quite a character. He added a very special charm that made this tour memorable. His dialogue and humor seemed to have influences from Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, and a Catholic school teacher; a fun combination. Others in our group said they saw in Joe a little bit of Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, and Buddy Hackett. He was organized, and kept us organized, but treated us like responsible adults, and expected us to return the favor. His knowledge of Spain and Portugal was deep, and his admiration of the culture was apparent. Joe is casual, laid back, unassuming; natural.

Joe has worked with the coach driver Antonio for many years. They got along very well, and made a perfect team. Some of Joe's most heartfelt words were towards the end of the tour when he was telling us about his years with Antonio. Joe was obviously very proud of Antonio, and how he has grown, matured, and raised his family through their years together.

Joe admits that he is not one of Tauck's highest producing tour directors. As with any tour company, Tauck likes their tour directors to promote other Tauck products. Tauck also encourages their tour directors to try to get 100% of the guests to fill out the comment forms and return them. Joe says he is probably towards the bottom of the rankings because he simply doesn't like pressuring his guests, or pushing sales on them. I really appreciated this quality even though I can understand how it might not make for a happy boss.

Some of Joe's words of wisdom:

Audio clip #1; Audio clip #2

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

The demographics of the group was quite varied, as we have found with most group tours.

On this tour there were thirty-five guests. There were four from Australia, two from Vancouver Canada, and the rest from the United States (California, Nevada, Washington State, New York, Virginia, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, and Georgia).

There was one single traveler; the rest were traveling as couples or pairs.

Ages ranged from late forties to early eighties. Some were retired; many were still working.

Almost everyone traveled every year. Many had quite extensive travel histories.

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 Joe 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 Lisbon, Seville, Marbella, Granada, Toledo, and Madrid.

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 twenty-four-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.

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 Joe and driver Antonio 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.

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. Our tour director did arrange three functions on his own that we could participate in if we chose.  These functions were a Fado dinner, a bullfight, and a dinner at a famous restaurant in Madrid. Our director took down names for these, paid for them himself, and we paid him directly to reimburse him.

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 breakfasts at the Four Seasons Ritz Lisbon and the Westin Palace Madrid were exceptional.

6 lunches were included:

8 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 Sebastian, 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

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 Antonio 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.

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.

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 ear piece has a cord that plugs in to the unit, with the other end held in the ear by a C-shaped clip. The ear piece cord uses a standard mini-jack 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.

In our Welcome packet of papers, one page had a list of when we would be using our Whispers. It also noted that there is a 50€ replacement fee if the device is not returned at the end of the tour.

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 on Day 5 in Seville. Joe had already arranged for a professional photographer to be at the Plaza de America in Maria Luisa Park when we arrived at the end of the coach portion of the city tour. Joe 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) on the coach on Day 6 on our way to Gibraltar.

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 end of May and early June. We encountered pleasant weather the entire two weeks, ranging from almost chilly to very hot. The coolest temperatures were in Sintra and Gibraltar, but it was still in the low seventies in those locations. Temperatures were in the very low nineties in Seville, Córdoba, and Ronda.

We did not have any rain the entire two weeks. There were slightly overcast skies a few days, but never a threat of rain. We were warned, however, that it can rain more in Sintra than in Lisbon, and it is wise to bring light rain jackets on this day even though it might appear nice when leaving Lisbon on Day 2.

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, 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 (on the Tauck tour we took right before this one), 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

Tour Directors have commented about keeping talk to a minimum while he/she or local guides are speaking on coach; even though you might not be interested in what is being said, others around you might want to hear.

Tour Directors also like us to know 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 Spain and Portugal Tour.  We saw so many fabulous sites, learned more about the history and culture of Spain and Portugal, and came home with many wonderful memories that will last a lifetime!

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 on the "Spain and Portugal" Tour:

Videos taken on the tour:

Current Time in Spain:

 

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