Northern Spain, The Rioja Valley and Madrid-just returned, brief report

Sitting here recovering from COVID (more about that later) and thought I’d type up some thoughts. By way of introduction, we are ages 73 and 71. Our first trip to Europe was our honeymoon 49 years ago, when we had no money. Still counts as one of our favorites. We’ve traveled independently throughout Europe and are veterans of 10 Rick Steve’s tours (11 for my wife who did one with our daughter). This was our first Tauck tour.

Arrived in Barcelona a few days early. Our room was not ready so we walked to the restaurant we reserved for a paella Sunday lunch the next day. It was Barceloneta in, of course, Barceloneta. Well, it was a walk for sure and we made many wrong turns as we got down to the yacht basin. We resolved to take a cab the next day. When we returned and checked in we made a brief visit to La Boqueria for a paper cone of jamon and cheese, picked up a bottle of wine and crashed. The concierge got us a table at the Hotel 1849 across the street for tapas and wine later-rooftop, very nice, slightly too loud music. The next day we walked to Casa Mila (La Pedera) a Gaudi building we had not toured before. An easy walk and a fabulous visit. After a brief lunch (L’Antic Forn a few blocks from the hotel, great food and white Sangria) we cabbed to Sant Pau Hospital a great modernisms UNESCO site.This was an active hospital until 2009. Fabulous! Our dinner plans crashed and burned however. This was 9/11 Catalan Independence Day. Throngs in the thousands blocked all approaches, and we were not about to challenge the crowds by walking. We had a passable paella in the hotel.

The next day we visited Park Guell, wandered sections of Barcelona we had not seen and met our group for the welcome dinner. The following day we all boarded the bus for a visit to La Sagrada Familia. It is stunning and they have made really noticeable progress since our last visit in 2018. Only disappointment was we had no time to climb a tower or visit the museum. After the tour, back on the bus! We took a taps tour through The Barcelona Taste-great fun, great food and wine! highly recommended as an alternative to another sit down dinner.

Departed Barcelona on day 3, headed for a stop at Montserrat. Beautiful place with a little known do not miss art museum. You will be closer to some masterpieces than anyplace in the world. Our destination was Parador de La Seu d’Urgell. The trip to Andorra the following day was surprisingly fun as we had read some disparaging comments about it.

We next stayed at the Hotel Marquis de Riscal a stunning Frank Gehry design. Our following day was spent touring the winery and tasting. The crush was active and unlike the US we were right in there, close enough to get splashed! This was the day the guy who had developed a cough you could hear a mile away stayed in his room. He and his wife had joined the tour after a Mediterranean cruise.

Day7 found us traveling to Pamplona. Saw the path of the running of the bulls. We dined in a place on the large boulevard near the famous bull statue. One of our best lunches, seafood surrounded by well dressed families. We ended in San Sebastion at the Hotel Londres right on the bay. We had a 5th floor room overlooking the water. The next day was a walking tour. That night we did a Pintxos tour with Devour Tours. We originally thought a Michelin starred restaurant would be a better idea but it was a Monday and they are all closed. As it turned out we greatly enjoyed this tour!

Day 9 was a too short one night stay in Leon. One of the finest Paradores on the trip and a beautiful town with a cathedral that is magnificent. The cougher filled the bus rides with cacophony-the loudest wettest cough you have ever heard! . The TD did not ask him to mask (I did). TD did not mask, the driver only intermittently despite or documents saying they would. Had they I think an example would have been set.

Day 10 and 11 found us in Santiago de Compestela with thousands of pilgrims ending their Camino and other visitors. Great tour of the town and cathedral as well as the museum. By now half the group had cold symptoms, cough, including my wife.

Day 12 we flew to Madrid. What a great surprise to learn we needed no luggage as that would be transported by our bus. This was seamless and typical of Tauck logistics as we had come to appreciate. We did a coach tour when we arrived followed by a brief tapas tour (Tauck uses Devour as well for this).

Day 13 the group toured the Royal Palace. We had been so instead booked a guide for a visit to The Prado. We’d been there before but can’t get enough of those masterpieces. One of the great art museums of the world. Jackie Metitieri was our guide booked through tours by locals and she was fabulous. By the end of the tour I was feeling weak, had sniffles and a cough. We attended the final dinner which was outdoors but left early.

Day 14-arrived home, COVID tests positive.

Cash-you need very little. Make sure your credit card chip works before you leave and you can tap away in Spain.
Dress- I went back and forth over this as Tauck sent us the wrong final docs which took me a while to realize and it said a required sport jacket. There were many Tauck veterans on our tour. They were clear that while some tours had dinner where dressing up was the norm this was not one of them. Pretty much a matter of what not to wear-sneakers, shorts, T-shirts, jeans. Clearly dress up is tour specific.
Food-stop eating now if you are going on this tour! I did not even skim the surface in this report. We had one great meal after another including, on many days, a huge lunch and equally sumptuous dinner. It will take me months to work this off!
Tips-originally I was going to get Euros at an ATM but at the last minute I packed US dollars. There were far fewer ATM’s than I remembered so I’d do this again.
Language-as long as you are in the Tauck “bubble” your English will do just fine. But on your own in off the beaten track places best to have some minimal Spanish skills.
COVID- Tauck did very little to mitigate risks. There was only voluntary masking and few did. Even the obviously ill were not asked to mask, sit apart or test. It was sort of don’t ask don’t tell. When I told the TD I thought some should be tested she told me she cannot mandate it, seemed disinterested.

Tauck overall and vs Rick Steves-Rick Steves has a philosophy of travel which greatly impacts the tour design. They emphasize traveling like a local: staying at small hotels, packing light, managing your own bags, learning how to use public transportation, understanding the culture and history, learning the do’s and dont’s, the helpful words and phrases. With Tauck we felt we were in a bubble, not necessarily in a bad way. We stayed in great hotels, ate and drank copious amounts, saw key sites with very good guides. But, had we not traveled in Spain before, read quite a bit, spent time visiting with locals, we’d have left this Tauck tour with very superficial understanding of the history and even less about the Spanish civil war, a key event in modern Spanish history that remains an open sore in some areas. We greatly enjoyed this tour and, at our age, did not miss having to drag our bags around, worry about airport transfers, having set menus for group meals (which on RS tours are often less than great), staying in small hotels that often don’t have an elevator but we did miss the cultural immersion that RS tours emphasize. As for COVID-RS tests everyone before the tour begins (day 1) and mandates masks on the bus. They have about a 2% COVID rate and publish updated statistics every Friday. Is this the right approach? I’m not certain. But it’s a lot more than what I saw on this Tauck tour where COVID was never mentioned after we signed the useless pledges.

Would we do another Tauck tour? Yes. But I’d want to see a more rigorous approach to COVID mitigation, not just pretending it didn’t exist

Feel free to PM me with questions.


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    Great review!! I have now caught covid twice on Tauck tours - the small ship up and around Scotland, summer, 2022 (caught it an hour before the land-based farewell dinner) and Savoring France (as we started the riverboat portion) I totally agree about the worthless pledges, and I love Tauck! In France this past October, the TD and 3 of the staff members managed to ask me, “why did you report it?? It’s just the flu!” I’ve talked to people at Tauck in the US and they profess surprise at that. So thanks for the warning - I’ll be up to date and mask on the buses at least. I am SO excited about this trip! Also - I had been thinking of a Michelin star for dinner in San Sebastián (my second trip there) but the tapas tour could be great (we used a company like that on our own a decade ago)

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    Thanks for your comments. Our trip was over a year ago and some things have changed. COVID is still out there (as you well know!) but we, like you, are going to travel, do what we can to improve our odds. We stay up with the vaccines, mask when we can (although honestly we are not as religious with that as we were). Rick Steves no longer tracks COVID on his tours. His policy has changed and this is It:

    If you're exhibiting symptoms commonly associated with a contagious illness (such as a cold, flu, Covid, etc.) while on tour, you will be required to wear a mask on the bus and in other settings when with your group. Please be prepared by packing along your own N95/KN95 masks.
    While we will not ask any tour member showing symptoms to test for covid, if you're sick and decide to leave your tour, you may be entitled to a refund or credit for missed tour days, but you cannot rejoin the tour. RSE will provide a $200 per day refund for you (and your travel partner) if you provide a positive covid test or obtain a doctor’s note.

    So, if you are sick you need to mask. But what happens at group meals? I’ve been on several tours with his company where a group of 24 is shoehorned into a tiny trattoria, so how will that work? I think the guide will set the tone.

    Aside from COVID we liked, did not love the N. Spain tour. We felt too much time was spent on long and lavish meals when seeing and experiencing more of Spain would have been appreciated (and we do like to eat!). Nonetheless, given the popularity of Tauck, the reputation, the great reviews here we are giving it another go. In May we tour New Mexico the southwestern state we’ve spent the least time. In the fall it’s Bellisima N. Italy. Hope we all stay well! Enjoy your trip!

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