When we were planning a trip to Spain I inquired online about local Spanish tourist agencies and got a tip to try Madrid & Beyond. I’m back to report that they are fabulous and to give some travel tips for folks headed for Spain.
This is a long message, so if you don’t want to be bothered reading the whole thing, just go to http://www.madridandbeyond.com/ and check them out.
We don’t much like group tours, and the U.S. travel agents we’ve tried want to put us in big chain hotels with fancy prices with very limited options. We’ve done many trips on our own, looking up hotels and apartments on the Web, but that can be exhausting, and sometimes disappointing when you discover things aren’t just as advertised.
Here’s what we told Madrid & Beyond we wanted. In and out of Madrid, with time to check out Toledo and Madrid museums, thern off to Andalucia, concentrating on Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada-essentially Moorish Spain. I told them we preferred to stay in historic centers of cities and in small towns, not moving around too much from day to day, but staying in one place to explore out from there. We asked for quiet rooms, sometimes in apartments where we could prepare our own breakfasts (and eat a quick dinner when Spanish restaurants haven’t opened yet, usually at 8:30). Apartments also give you a chance to do your laundry for free, nice on a long trip. We wanted bathrooms in the hotel suites, large beds for two instead of the small twins typical of European hotels. We also wanted some beach and hiking time for relaxation. We are fascinated by music and asked for tickets to a flamenco performance and a zarzuela (Spanish operetta) performance. We wanted personal guided walking tours of major sites because we’ve found them much more satisfying than group tours.
We got just about everything we asked for. This is a custom-travel service which tailors your trip to your precise desires. They arrange bike tours, family tours, even group tours if you want.
Here’s what we got:
Four nights in Madrid at a lovely apartment ten minutes’ walk from the Prado (we arrived on Sunday when the museum is open free). We explored several major museums while there.
When US Air lost our luggage Oscar Soler of M&B spent the next three days tracking it down while we went about our touristy way. He actually showed up at a restaurant where we were eating to tell us he had asked US Air to deliver our luggage there, but since they didn’t show, we finally collected it at their office across from the Cathedral near the Palacio Real (it’s upstairs over a restaurant with only a very small nameplate to identify the location at Bailen 19, should you go looking for it). This feat alone made their service worth its cost, since otherwise we would have been stuck day after day waiting in the apartment for promised deliveries from US Air that failed to transpire.
The first night we attended a Zarzuela performance, which was utterly thrilling. Our Spanish was adequate to get a fair idea of the plot, and the singing and production were stunning. Think of Gilbert & Sullivan crossed with the Gershwins but using operatic voices. Few tourists ever experience this distinctively Spanish musical form, but it’s worth pursuing. M&B had bought the tickets for us and included them in our packet.
I bought some recordings at the video/CD store of El Corte Ingles, which had a good stock. Virgin had a somewhat depleted stock of Zarzuela recordings when we visited.
The next evening we had a guided tapas tour, but since I desperately needed clean clothes, our guide spent an hour with us in El Corte Ingles helping me shop-quite beyond her contracted duties. Then we were taken to small restaurants specializing in specific tapas-a delicious experience. Again, all paid in advance: she just recommended things and we chose what we wanted.
M&B also supplied detailed restaurant recommendations for every location we visited, tailored to our expressed tastes.
The next day we took a bullet train to Toledo on our own hook and explored it (not as thrilling in person as in El Greco’s famous “View”). That night we went to the excellent Flamenco show at the Tablao Flamenco Restaurante and were able to order anything we wanted from the menu. It was one of the best meals we had in Spain, and again, all paid in advance.
I can’t emphasize enough how relaxing it is to know that most costs are already taken care of and you can just relax and enjoy yourself.
What follows is car info. Scroll down past it if you aren’t interested and want to read about the rest of the trip.
The fifth day we walked to the nearby Atocha Railway Station to pick up our rental car from Avis. That too was reserved and paid for in advance, a modest but comfortable BMW. We had to pay for insurance on top of the regular rental because our Visa insurance didn’t cover the required liability insurance.
Avis in the train station in Madrid was hard to find-in the area right by the tracks where trains pull in. The people behind the desk were fine, but the fellow who took us to our car had very limited English and did almost no instruction. I couldn’t get the car started until I summoned him back and he showed me the BMW’s pushbutton starter (trick: step on the brake while pushing the button). The car’s instruction manual was entirely in Spanish, which surprised me in this age of the EU. We had a terrible time trying to figure out the car’s light controls, especially since the system described in the manual was slightly different from the one actually in the car.
On the highway a couple of truck drivers shouted at us to say something was wrong with our car, but we couldn’t figure out what. I thought maybe my lights were on high beam at first. Finally in Granada a young bicyclist gave up trying to make us understand what was wrong with our car at a stoplight and went around to the front of it and slammed the hood shut. I must have accidentally unlatched it when I was trying out various controls. People were just trying to be helpful but we were too dense to get it.
I had thought I’d gotten through all those narrow streets unscathed, but when we returned the car in Granada I noticed a small paint scratch on the front bumper, probably from a wall brushed by somewhere. We had declined the no-deductible insurance, and the damage was less than the deductible, so we got charged. However, it looks as if my Visa insurance will reimburse me, though the paperwork hasn’t come through yet. Visa said normally they would cover damage only if I declined all coverage from the rental company, but seemed to accept my explanation that we were required to take out liability insurance that Visa didn’t offer, and it was inseparable from collision insurance.
M&B gave us detailed driving instructions from the Michelin site, rather like Google maps, plus maps marked with our route in highliner. This worked pretty well, though we still managed to go astray (rule: if there’s an important turn to make inside a city if it’s marked on your driving directions there will be no street sign at the intersection itself and if you see a street sign you won’t be able to find it on your map-only partly kidding). But with our various navigational aids we were able to find our way back on route most of the time. A couple of times our rudimentary Spanish was invaluable when we had to stop and ask for directions.
It took us quite a while to figure out the Spanish method for validating a parking slip in a parking garage (by paying at a machine and inserting the time-stamped slip into it to be validated before driving toward an exit to insert it again in a different machine). This is so foreign to American practices that it was difficult to absorb.
By the way, a couple of times we forgot that the bottom floor of a building is the zero floor in Europe, and what Americans call the second floor is the first in Europe.
Generally we found driving much easier than in Italy. On two-lane highways I had to get used to the fact that there seemed to be only two driving speeds: slower than the limit for trucks, and much faster than the limit for cars. Determined not to get a ticket, I tried to observe the limits, but that meant dodging back and forth between the too-slow and too-fast lanes a lot. The only other pattern I wasn’t used to was that people emerging onto a freeway from an onramp do not expect you to slow down and allow them to proceed as would happen in the U.S. They stop and wait for an opening in the traffic. Trying to let drivers come on ahead of me just seemed to confuse and alarm them.
OK, enough about driving. Now back to the trip.
We drove through broad plains and steep mountain passes to the lovely little town of Carmona. It’s notable for not being given over entirely to tourists. A minimum of touristy shops, with lots of local people gathering in the square in the evening, good restaurants, beautiful architecture. M&B had chosen it as strategically located between Cordoba and Sevilla. I had our best-tasting jamon iberico (the famous local ham) in the Ferrara Restaurant attached to our hotel, the lovely Alcazar de la Reina. The hotel has a stunning swimming pool and grand views from the edge of this hill town.
The next day’s drive to Cordoba took much longer than we had expected: the city sprawls hugely, and penetrating to the train station where we were told to park the car was much more difficult than we expected. We should have allowed 2 hours. We were late to our rendezvous with our guide as a result (we would rent a local cell phone if we did this again-it would have come in handy several times). Our guide there was very expert and spent about 3 hours showing us around the Mezquita and the Cathedral as well giving us a glimpse of many delightful private courtyards which were open for the annual patio contest. Because we arrived too late to eat on our own she also showed us where to get a quick breakfast of pastry and tea, introducing us to a local citron pie which was delicious. This is one of the chief advantages of having a personal guide: you can have a bite or a bathroom break when you need one and get tips about shopping and restaurants from a local expert.
We took a wrong turn out of Cordoba and came upon the very much restored but delightful castle at Almodovar del Rio. It would be a great place to take kids. A little kitschy, but it gives an excellent idea of what a Medieval castle would have been like in its heyday.
The next day our drive to Sevilla went much more smoothly. It was a short drive, and we had no trouble locating and parking at the train station (I felt safe parking right in front of the entrance near the taxi stand). We then took a cab to meet in the lobby of the lavish Hotel Alfonso XIII (much too expensive for our budget, but worth exploring). They had genuine anquities for sale in display cases at 5-figure prices. We were early, so we indulged ourselves in the lavish brunch buffet (caviar, anyone?).
Our guide took us through the lovely Alcazar Palace and the Cathedral, then we set out on our own to the archeological museum. If you have any interest in antiquity, this is not to be missed, with wonderful Roman mosaics and sculptures and earlier Phoencian remains. The nearby folk museum was not so interesting, but the imposing Plaza de Espana (built for the 1919 world’s fair) and the lovely adjacent Maria Luisa Park were very nice. An overly friendly cab driver tried to sell us $50 US bills in exchange for Euros at par, but I assumed they were counterfeit and declined.
We explored Carmona a bit more before leaving, then were off the next day for Vejer La Frontera. Oscar had explained that the ritzy Costa del Sol on the Mediteranean was very touristy, very over-developed, very crowded; so for our beach break he sent us west to the Costa de la Luz, on the Atlantic Coast. The contrast with the famous Marbella region we later drove through was stunning. Vejer was another adorable white town, with more tourists than Carmona, but still feeling like a real town. There we had a comfortable rented apartment for five days and used it as a base to explore Cadiz, the “white towns” of Ubrique and Ronda in the lovely national park surrounding them (including an enchanting cork forest) on a very, very long day trip, and the fabulous beaches of nearby Conill-one developed for families with restaurants and facilities, the one to the south across the bridge almost deserted for miles. These are golden beaches of very fine sand decoratively strewn with lovely unbroken shells and very little litter. Very gradual drop-off so you hike across very wide beaches and then into surf that doesn’t come up to your waist until you go far out. Because the beach has a shallow slope, the water gets relatively warm-a perfect place to play in the water. My wife is a real beach connoisseur, and she pronounced this the best ever (we’ve been to Kauai and Tobago).
At the beach at Zahara las Atunes we ran into what is evidently not an uncommon scam in Spain: a vagrant with an impressive vest and a walkie-talkie ushered us ceremoniously into a parking spot in what was obviously a free lot and wanted us to pay him for the service. We encountered this scam again in Malaga. If the “attendant” has been truly helpful you might give him half a euro, but he’ll try to get much more; but don’t assume by paying these scruffy guys that you’ve actually paid for your parking spot, or you may wind up getting a ticket.
Vejer was another very picturesque town. I stumbled on a stone and ripped off a toenail which got infected, but it was treated for free by a very kindly and skilful doctor at a local clinic we happened on by chance. We ate twice at the Moroccan restaurant in the Hotel Califa-yum.
The next stint of driving took us to Malaga, where we were put up in the lovely Hotel Ataraznas, opened just two years previously, so it wouldn’t have been in a typical guidebook or shown up on the screens of most travel agents. If you stay there, however, ask for a room on the side or back rather than on the street side, since the merchants at the nearby market start noisily unloading their goods at about 5 in the morning. The Mozarabic-style market is fascinating (we bought great fresh strawberries). We explored the Alcazaba palace and my wife had a massage and steam bath and the hamam while I explored the Picasso museum (the entrance is hard to find, even following the signs-look for a concentration of souvenir shops selling Picasso-related materials). We were delighted with the small but very interesting Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares near our hotel.
We got lost going both in and out of Malaga.
We then took a very long and slow road winding through mountains to Capileira in Las Alpujarras, beneath the snow-capped Sierra Madres. People come here from all over the world to hike and do mountain-biking. The trails are exceedingly vaguely marked, though, and we got thoroughly lost on the one hike we tried. The Hotel Finca Los Llanos was very pleasant. My eKit phone card wouldn’t work with their phone system but on the other hand they didn’t charge us for breakfast (why, we’re not sure, since it was advertised a paid buffet-but we weren’t complaining). Throughout the trip the countryside was green and lush with flowers, alive with singing birds. May is the perfect time of year to explore Andalucia. Capileira was a wonderful respite from the big cities we were often threading our way through, even though we didn’t get in much hiking. The hotel had a very nice pool.
About phones: Spanish 800 numbers work much like American ones. I’d need to drop a euro coin in the slot to initiate the call, but then I’d dial the local Spanish access 800 number of eKit and talk as long as I wanted, with the coin being returned when I hung up. Tip: some phones require you to wait for the tone, then insert the coin, then push a plunger sideways to make the coin descend into the machine, then wait again for the tone before dialing.
After Capileira we moved on to nearby Granada, where we stayed at the four-star Hotel Hesperia, our most luxurious hotel, very near the Cathedral where we heard the organ playing and enjoyed the excellent gift shop and the adjoining Capilla Real where Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. We had a very interesting guided tour of the Albayzin and a late afternoon guided tour of the Generalife and Alhambra. Our guide cannily took us in with the last scheduled group of the day, and by loitering behind the other tourists we had an essentially private view of this stunning palace and its gardens. We had decided to try the famed restaurant La Mimbre near the entrance, and she guided us to it before leaving. The food was fabulous and the service great, but we wished we’d dressed more warmly for our outdoor dining experience. A shuttle bus takes people cheaply down the hill from the Alhambra from just beside La Mimbre every ten minutes or so, back downtown.
Another delightful discovery in Granada was a terrific record shop with an excellent selection of recordings of flamenco, Spanish classical and popular music, and zarzuela. It had DVD’s compatible with American equipment which we had not found in Madrid’s Virgin Megastore or El Corte Ingles. It is very close to the Plaza Bib-Rambla, on a small street between Calle Reyes Catolicos and the plaza. I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in Spanish music. The owner was happy to make suggestions and even open CDs and play samples for us. But remember that PAL DVDs will not play on American DVD players-though they will play on some computers.
The next day we took an early train for Madrid, and departed in the middle of the night for the airport to fly back to the U.S. via Milan.
The total charge by Madrid and Beyond came to just under $6,000 for a custom-tailored 20-day vacation for two (the air travel to and from Spain was separate of course; they handle travel only within Spain). Our only additional expenses: gas, food, souvenirs, admissions to sites where we didn’t have prepaid tours. Tipping is not generally expected in Spain.
You can decide whether you think this sounds like something you’d like to try, but they will gladly draw up an itinerary and give you a price for any tour of Spain you might care to design. If you accept their proposal, you pay deposit in advance, then the rest shortly before departing, using your charge card.
We had some initial problems getting through to M&B using e-mail (they said they’d had server problems). If you don’t hear back from them within a few days of contacting them it’s worth phoning (34) 91 758-0063.