Spain and Portugal Review and Tips.
We took this trip in during the last two weeks of September 2019. Another great Tauck tour, although this one was a bit hectic. They are squeezing a lot into two weeks. In places where we had free time to shop or wander around, it seemed like time was often too short. However, the days aren't as long as one might have expected, even given the Spanish propensity for late dining (more on that in the food section). A welcome break from the pace of this trip is the day spent in Marbella. This day is basically a lazy day on you own with the bus driver taking his required day off and the TD catching up on background work. Go to the beach, shop, wander around or just eat, drink and be merry.
Activity level (strong warning!): The activity level for this trip is level 3. Walking for longer distances on uneven and often hilly terrain is definitely a part of this tour. The sidewalks in Lisbon are paved with uneven marble blocks with 1/2 inch gaps in between. Many of the blocks are missing leaving big potholes. Lisbon hills are comparable to San Francisco. Other cities on this tour have rough streets and sidewalks and many places have narrow streets that cannot accommodate the bus, so walking for some distance over rough terrain is required. If you cannot comfortably walk 2-3 miles over uneven terrain, you should not take this tour. We had several people on our tour that were not able to walk well. It made for a difficult and unrewarding tour for them and slowed the entire group down.
Weather: We went the last two weeks of September and it was warm. High 70s and 80s most places and even a day of two in the low 90s. Beginning or end of season tours are recommended, weatherwise. I would not go in July or August unless there is no other option.
Attire: Didn't take my jacket and didn't miss it. I usually take it in Europe, but other than the welcome and farewell dinners, the atmosphere was pretty casual. A dressy shirt and slacks were adequate for me.
Upcoming changes: On our tour, we drove from Lisbon to Seville with a overnight stay in Evora and a stop in Merida. Evora is the cork capital of Portugal and has a neat chapel lined with human bones (creeped some people out). Merida has a fantastic Roman theater. Next year they're dropping this and substituting a flight from Lisbon to Seville. They are using the time to add Porto to the start of the trip. I think this is a mistake. First of all, you have to fly into Porto (harder to book than flying to Lisbon). Porto is included in many other tours and cruises, so adding it to this tour seems unnecessary. Also, extra time in Lisbon is a good idea (see Lisbon section) and flying into Porto makes doing that harder. Evora and Merida were worth the long bus ride (the long ride is probably why they made the change). If you do the trip in 2020 and think that Porto was a bad idea, be sure to let Tauck know.
Hotels: The hotels for this trip were fantastic. All of them first rate. The Alfonso XIII in Seville is a gem. When Game of Thrones stayed in Seville to film scenes at the Alcazar they took over the hotel. The piano player in the lobby likes to play the GOT theme music.
Food: Food was great and lots of it. Despite the Spanish propensity for late dinners, we never ate too late (8pm or 8:30pm at the latest - just when the Spanish restaurants start to open for dinner). A couple of times we had the option of getting dinner at the hotel or lunch the next day. Since lunch runs to 4pm we chose late lunches and skipped dinner. In the touristy areas many of the restaurants offer food all day (although touristy restaurants can mean higher prices and lower quality). The lunch offerings at the Bardot restaurant by the pool in Marbella were especially good. Try the Black Rice with Calamari in squid ink - it was delicious. At some point you'll want to get paella - just be aware that it is always served for a minimum of two people. Have some Jamon Iberico, Spain's best ham in a country where ham is practically a religion. Also be sure to have churros with chocolate (the chocolate is for dipping, not drinking).
Small Group Tour: The website says 24 people for a small group, we had 26 on our trip. That seemed like a lot for a small group. Not sure why Tauck overbooked by 2. No advantage to the smaller group in terms of itinerary or hotels.
Lisbon: Due to narrow streets the Tauck bus can't go into the older parts of Lisbon. Neighborhoods like the Alfama and Bairro Alto can only be visited on your own. I would recommend a day or two extra in Lisbon, but with the tour starting in Porto next year, this would be hard (maybe a layover in Lisbon on your own and then fly to Porto).
Extending your trip to Barcelona: The big city missing from this intinerary is Barcelona. Tauck includes it in the Northern Spain tour and some cruises. We weren't interested in two Spain tours, so we did Barcelona on our own (as did others on our tour). You can either fly there or take a train. We chose to fly. The big advantage of flying is that you don't have to deal with handling your luggage on the train. Airfare on Iberia is cheap and checked bags are included. The taxi ride in Barcelona was a little over thirty euros (cheaper that the airport shuttles for two people). The advantage of the train is quicker travel time (you don't have to arrive at the station as early as the airport). The trains are high speed ("AVE"). The train station in Madrid is close to the hotel and the station in Barcelona is near the city center. We spent three nights in Barcelona and that was about right. By the way, even if you think you've seen enough churches in Europe, be sure to visit Sagrada Familia (Antonio Gaudi's masterpiece, nearing completion after more than 130 years). It is incredible. Sagrada Familia and Park Guell (also by Gaudi) should be booked in advance (timed entry tickets). I recommend the first tickets of the morning, as both sites will quickly fill with tourists.
Protests in Barcelona: Bacelona is the capital of Catalonia. Catalan independence from Spain is a hot issue. While we were there there were several mass protests (very well mannered and peaceful). Since returning the leaders of the seperatist movement were sentanced to long prison terms resulting in demonstrations becoming violent. They disrupted air and rail travel for a time. Since a solution is not forthcoming, the protests will likely continue for years. I would not let that stop you from going to Barcelona, but be sure to check the State Department Travel Advisories for Spain before going to Barcelona and while there.
Art museums: The Prado in Madrid is jammed with tourists. The tour will take you through some of the highligts and you can stay on if you want more (short walk to the hotel). The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (very close to the hotel in Madrid) is lovely and much less crowded. Our TD provided tickets to go on our own. The Reina Sofia Museum is also close. It has a modern art collection notable only for Picasso's Guernica and a few surrealist works. In Lisbon, the Gulbenkian Museum is worth a visit if you have free time, and is about a 25 minute walk from the hotel (be sure to take a map, Lisbon streets can be confusing).
Historical background: If you want historical background, you might want to brush up on these subjects: The moorish period in Spain and Portugal. Portugese explorers, like Vasco de Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and Prince Henry the Navigator. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (of Columbus fame). The Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco.
Security: You will be warned about pickpockets on the trip. They are apparently more common in Spain than elsewhere in Europe. Barcelona is especially notorious for them. Watch your valuables in crowds. Consider carrying only one credit card and a litlle cash (put the rest in the hotel safe). Ladies should use a zippered crossbody bag and you should carry your backpack in front in crowds.