Spain, different worlds in one country

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Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff

The marketplace in Santiago de Compostela is an ancient gathering place as depicted by this statue of a merchant lady in period dress.

For many years we resisted the impulse to take part in pre-programmed group tours to the foreign destinations we visited.  It seemed too reminiscent of the 1969 Movie: “If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium.”

The comedy focused on a group of travelers participating in a harried European tour as part of a mass movement from one location to another.  Everything they saw seemed to flash before their eyes in a whirlwind of color with little, if anything, penetrating the brain zone that remembers experiences.

That may have been the case in 1969, but it is no longer true; or at least, not true for the most part.  Yes, there are still outfits more interested in taking your money than in providing a quality experience.  But exposure to these shady organizations can be avoided by a little bit of  research before you go.

There are several online sites that give travelers the opportunity to comment on and rate their experiences on travel, accommodations, destinations, sites and companies providing the trips.  The only caveat here is to make sure that the comments are not posted by the companies themselves.

If it appears to be overly gushy in praise, that should be a red flag.  Honest appraisals are generally easy enough to spot and will give you a great insight to the firm you are considering.

We decided last summer to put our prejudices aside and try a package tour.  We signed up for a Uniworld Boutique Cruises Line ( Eastern European cruise on theDanube.  It was all-inclusive-including a wide variety of included tours-and was anything but rushed, giving us a remarkably relaxed trip.

This time around we were headed for Spain.  Although we had been there several times before, it was more years than we’d care to admit since we were last in the landof Don Quixote.  We looked around and decided to go with Insight Vacations ( whose motto is “The art of touring in style.”

It should be noted before we start, that there are other companies that provide similar trips and inclusions and many of them are of high quality.  The limitations of space prevent us from providing a profile of each, so as noted above, check out the listing and reviews and make your own decision as to which one to choose.

As for us, we were pleasantly surprised by the thought and planning that preceded our trip.  Within minutes after landing inMadrid’sBarajasAirportwe were greeted by an Insight representative easily identifiable in the crowded airport.  We headed straightaway to a coach for transfer to our hotel.

Insight’s coach was arguably the most comfortable we have ever traveled in.  It was probably the equivalent of Business Class on a plane.  Leg room was far greater than we’ve ever seen on a tour bus.  The number of seats has been reduced in order to provide this extra comfort.

Hotels along our route were all top-tier and most provide free wifi, according you the opportunity to stay in contact with home (or the office if you are one of those workaholics who can’t let go).

Most meals are included with the exception of many lunches.  That is by design as it gives the traveler an opportunity to sample local cuisine.  We took advantage of that in Madrid, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela and several other locations along our route.

We avoided fancy restaurants and ate where the locals ate.  Tapas (Pinxas in the North and Basque Country) are amazingly good.  You simply sit down, generally at a counter, and point to what you want.  When you are done, the counter person will tally the tab.  The surprise here is how inexpensive your meal was.

Spainhas long since forsaken the Peseta and as a member of the European Union uses the Euro as its standard currency.  Currently the conversion rate to the dollar is somewhere less that $1.50 to the €-Euro.

There is considerable free time built into the itinerary giving the traveler ample time to experience local color and culture ranging from the fabulousGuggenheimMuseuminBilbaoto the colorful marketplace in Santiago de Compostela.

All of Insight’s guides are extensively trained and have a wealth of knowledge of the areas they are servicing.  Beyond that, we found out, they take regular refresher courses and are also familiar with other countries and destinations.

Even though we are familiar with a location, such as London, where we’ve been many times, we often make it a practice to take a guided bus tour on our first day.  This is a good refresher and often points out places we’ve missed in the past.  We take notes on the ride and then return, at leisure, to locations that appeared to be interesting.

Tours such as Spain and the Danube are like those local excursions except that they last a week or more.  It’s a terrific method of seeing as much as possible without “tourist overload.”