Sit back, relax and tour Spain

This is from a story I published in Escape. I recommend a guided coach tour, such as this one, as a relaxing, comprehensive and safe way to tour a foreign country … and good value for money 

Spanish architectureTHE Spanish are a hardy lot, moulded by a history of conflict and a harsh environment.

Spain’s capital, Madrid, is 600 metres above sea level, making it Europe’s second highest capital after Bern in Switzerland. It is hot and dry in summer, and cold and windy in winter.

Arriving in Madrid on a 10-day Insight Vacations tour, it is immediately apparent that modern Spain is classy and stylish. The new airport is huge and obviously built in anticipation of a growing tourism industry.

On the streets of Madrid, history mingles with the present; Islam with Christianity.

Dressed fashionably in tight jeans and knee-high leather boots and carrying funky mobile phones, the Spanish head in and out of ornate, centuries-old buildings.

Spain is recognised as the home of today’s popular package tourism and it’s easy to see why. This tour, with about 30 members, starts in Madrid and takes in Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Seville, Toledo and Cordoba.

Walk as much as your legs will allow in Madrid. The underground is also easy to use. Spanish people don’t really stir until noon. By late afternoon, the “older quarter” comes alive as thousands of people emerge from hundreds of budget hostels. Street cafes are full of young couples sipping beer and vino. Good quality leather goods are available for a song.
This a coach tour, so get used to 6.45am starts. We set off across the wide, arid plains of Castille. The terrain is rocky and dusty with only sparse, short, hardy shrubs. Vultures circle overhead.
Mudejar Towers, small stone castles built by the Moors, sit in high strategic positions. El Cid, the Spanish nobleman and national hero, is buried there.

In the distance are the snow-capped Pyrenees forming the border with France and containing the tiny nation of Andorra.

Although Spain and Australia share a dry, hot climate, the Spanish seem to use it to better advantage, with solar panels everywhere. Approaching Zaragoza, there are hectares of towering wind turbines.
Zaragoza is famous for the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, a church built around the remains of a pillar where the Virgin Mary is said to have visited St James the Apostle.
Its river, Rio Ebro, played a significant part in the Spanish Civil War, as both sides fought for control.

A stone bridge is a reminder of Roman occupation.

Touring Barcelona by night, we see a magnificent lightshow at the Royal Palace and the Olympic Village before dinner on the waterfront.

The Gothic quarter has the remains of the first wall built by Romans but Barcelona’s main tourist attraction is Gaudi’s controversial unfinished Sagrada Familia church. Opinions range from architectural marvel to garish nightmare.

The Gaudi-designed Park Guell is a fairtytale concept with structures like gingerbread houses.
It’s a pleasant drive up to Montserrat, a monastery built on jagged peaks by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. It’s now a million-dollar business selling souvenirs, clothing, produce and liqueurs.

Passing through Salvador Dali territory and Terragonis, where Augustus Caesar was once based, olive groves make way for citrus orchards.

Peniscola, a beachfront town overshadowed by a castle built by the Knights Templar to ward off the Moors, is now surrounded by luxury apartments and condominiums.

Valencia was once full of pirates but today it is full of Britons. The countryside is rocky and full of yellow mimosa (acacia) trees.

In Andalusia province, Granada was the Moors’ last stronghold and the Islamic influence is unmistakable.  Backed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, it is the home of bullfighting and flamenco dancing.

Overlooking Granada is the Alhambra fortress. Built by the Moors, it’s a wondrous work of stone lace and arabesque gardens.

With its mix of gothic and baroque buildings, Seville is a haphazard fusion of romantic laneways and small civic squares filled with gypsies.

The Alcazar Palace was built over several centuries and every ruler since has left his mark.

 Explorer Christopher Columbus is buried in the Seville cathedral.
 Seville is also the place to enjoy real flamenco

The World Heritage-listed walled city of Toledo is home to some of the world’s best steel, as well as centuries-old Moorish buildings.

Cordoba and Madrid
The tour then passes through Cordoba, over a 2000-year-old bridge across the plains of La Mancha and ends with a day for sightseeing back in Madrid. This provides the chance to see the Prado museum and its fabulous Goya paintings.


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