Northern Spain the Rioja Valley and Madrid- a brief report

I’m reposting this as my original review has a bug causing it to disappear periodically:

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 and we made many wrong turns as we got 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 modernisma 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. 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. We lunched on our own 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. 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.



  • Thanks for your response. It brought back fond memories of our trip in 2013. At that time that our trip did not go into Andorra. Rather we spent some time in Seu d'Urgell. From a historical perspective... the daughter-in-law (Katia) of the founder of the hotel went with us into town and showed us around. She spoke about the Civil War and life under Franco. The Tapies family had an uncle who was a priest in town. He was one of seven priests who were shot outside the Cathedral for refusing to stop saying Mass. When we returned home we looked up these priests and found that they had been beautified by the Catholic church (step before being declared a saint). It was moving to have a first hand perspective of life under Franco and to understand how a small town and family was so impacted.

  • Thank you for the super helpful review. While you were on the bus and indoors areas, did you and your wife mask? Just trying to get a sense of how much exposure came from the bus vs indoor dining.

  • We masked on the bus. We did not mask indoors. The guy with the cough did not mask and I think our masks (KN95 or N95) just could not overcome that. The bus rides were long and we occasionally took off the mask for water.

  • @Kathy M . It is most likely the priests were killed by Republicans who were the reds, or communists, who saw the church as collaborators with Franco and the fascists.

  • Thank you for your detailed report - we were scheduled to go next year at this time but just cancelled due to work complications. Hoping to go in 2024.

    You didn't mention Bilbao - curious to know what you thought and if you toured the Guggenheim.

  • We did and frankly, we were disappointed. The museum building is the attraction and that was nice as was Pupppy which greets you when you arrive. There is a large Richard Serra installation that takes much of the main floor space. There is a second gallery with very large modern pieces. One is by Yoko Ono entitled Olive Tree. It is….an olive tree. The second floor gallery was closed and the third floor had a very long line. Our TD said to go if you like large blue canvases with a splash of white. We spent the remaining time in the very large gift shop and getting another cortado at the adjacent coffee bar.

  • Thanks for the nice report and the thoughtful formatting.

  • Sorry about the pix, I can’t figure out how to rotate them.

  • edited October 2022

    Sorry about the pix, I can’t figure out how to rotate them.

    The forum does not include a feature that allows you to rotate photos. Always do a "Preview" to check photo orientation. If the photo appears sideways you must "Edit" the post and delete the photo from the forum. Then, rotate the photo and save a copy of it to your device before uploading the copy to the forum. You'll need to use bundled software or an app on your device to rotate the photo.

    Remember, iPhone photos will always appear in the correct orientation on your phone's screen, no matter how they were taken or how you rotate the phone to view it- but EXIF info embedded in the photo may make it appear sideways after it has been uploaded to the forum. Google how to rotate AND save a copy of the photo.

  • Always wanted to visit Bilbao, thanks for your opinion, maybe not worth the trouble to go inside.

  • We visited the Balbao on a Tauck land tour. It was not crowded and all floors were open. I enjoyed the visit and thought it was very worthwhile.

  • In fairness to the Guggenheim we did not see most of it as I noted as one floor was closed and the other floor had too long a line. But the museum building itself and the outdoor sculptures are very worthwhile.

  • If you have time in Bilbao, there's a very famous "bridge" located there. I put "bridge" in parenthesis because this is a VERY unusual bridge.

  • Hi Folsomdoc, thank you so much for this candid report. I'm not sure how much crossover appeal exists between Tauck and Rick Steves Europe, but I am in the planning stage for my first group tour and have been considering both Tauck and Rick Steves. During Covid lockdown I watched a lot of Rick Steves's Youtube travel videos, and had travel not been paused I likely would have put down a deposit on one of his trips; Rick's presentation style is very appealing. However, the main thing that has stopped me from pulling the trigger on a Rick Steves's Europe tour is the - in Rick's words - "quaint... sometimes creaky" hotels used on his trips. After getting myself from the airport to the hotel, and carrying my own bags, do I want to agree to "sleep with street noise and no (or weak) air conditioning?" Not really. Also, as a solo traveler I would be paying a premium to stay in a small, single room. I understand with Tauck that is not the case for solo travelers. So, after much hemming and hawing I called Tauck reservations last week and put my name on a waitlist (or wishlist) for an early 2024 tour. No doubt I would have fun on one of Rick's trips; like Tauck his tours seem to attract well-traveled, interesting people. But I know I will also enjoy reading a Rick Steves's travel guide in the comfort of a climate controlled, king sized room. Thanks again!

  • edited October 2022

    '. . . . Also, as a solo traveler I would be paying a premium to stay in a small, single room. I understand with Tauck that is not the case for solo travelers. . . ."

    With rare exception (e.g. Cat 1 cabins on select river cruises), solo travelers pay a not-so-insignificant single supplement. If you look at the website you can see how much extra it will cost. e.g 10 May 2023 Northern Spain, The Rioja Valley and Madrid: $8990 p/p dual occupancy vs $11,034 solo. As to size of room, no guarantee, but it will likely be than same as couples get.

    There are some former (current?) Rick Steves travelers on this fourum, but in general, those in the Tauck age demographic are ready for a bit more personal service (airport transfers, baggage handling at each hotel, etc. and more upscale accommodations than you get on a Rick Steves tour.

  • edited October 2022

    Rick Steves wrote an article which is on his website where he compares his tours to others including Tauck. He considers his tours to be mid-range and Tauck is included in what he calls big name high-end expensive.

    A link to the article if you are interested is here.

    Rick Steves Article

  • edited October 2022

    As a solo traveler and "older" person :D I thoroughly enjoy the pluses that Tauck offers and never had a room inferior to one given to a couple.

  • @gladysorlando984 - I think the place where a solo gets an lesser room is on a cruise. Normally, the lowest level cabins are used for solo travelers. Of course, that's not all bad because the room was originally intended for two people, but the location is often not a prime location.

  • Thanks AlanS. What I meant to say was that I understand Tauck does not give solo travelers a small, single room at hotels on land tours, like RSE, but rather a double room for themselves. I expect to pay a single supplement at either company (which I don’t mind, as long as I know I won’t get a twin-sized bed in an attic!) Thanks for the info!

  • Mike, everyone chooses the exact cabin they want whether single or double

  • edited October 2022

    TravelNurseNY, singles do occasionally get a slightly smaller room. On the Normandy tour we had one single who was in the room next door to us. She came over to share a bottle of wine with us one night and noted our room was bigger. I've also known a single whose room in the Savoy had the biggest bathroom of our group (3 couples and 1 single) and the only one with dual sinks. Go figure.

    Mike, a single can have just as big a room as a couple on a river cruise, but they have to pay a premium. It's a perk on Tauck that singles can have the Cat 1 cabin without the single supplement.

    I just wished I'd known about Rick Steves tours when I was a young singleton who could sleep anywhere and schlep my own bags.

  • That’s good to know in advance, Claudia. Thank you. I’m mostly concerned about having a comfortable room, whatever the size. I don’t know how the RSE travelers can tolerate a hotel room with no air conditioning, especially in the warmer months. I would die!

  • Mike, everyone chooses the exact cabin they want whether single or double.

    On cruises that I've been on with a solo friend, the situation was that they got the lowest rated cabin for the single supplement - perhaps 50% to 75%. If they wanted a better cabin, the single supplement was 100%.

  • It's not inexpensive, but my single supplement has never been equal to what it would cost for 2 people -- on land journeys or river cruises.

  • Mike, no they got the least expensive cabin for the same per person price as double occupancy. The single supplement is the amount above that for there only being 1 person in the room and yes it does depend on cabin category but I've never seen one as high as 100%. Generally for Cat 2-7 cabins you pay about 70-85% of what Tauck would have gotten for 2 people total in that cabin. It also varies depending on date. Just like land tours, they have certain dates with additional single savings.

    I pulled this text from one of the other river cruises that do have variability in dates:

    "Special Solo Traveler Savings – No Single Supplement in Category 1: On all departures, the single price in Category 1 is the same as the double price – no single supplement, which means savings of up to 50% for solo travelers!

    Solo Travelers also enjoy Savings of $1000 per cabin in Categories 4, 5 and 6 on the April 1, August 2 and October 18 departures. Certain restrictions apply; ask at time of booking."

    Not sure how Small Ship cruises are handled.

  • edited October 2022

    Here's an article on Forbes that's about Regent discounting the single supplement. It says that the standard single supplement was 100% and Regent is giving a discount from that, for certain cruises.

    Additionally, I recently traveled with a solo friend. She paid a 75% single supplement and got the bottom level cabin. She told me that if she had booked a higher level cabin, the single supplement was 100%. This was not a Tauck cruise. Tauck is much better on single supplements.

    For a highly desirable (fully booked) cruise, there's little incentive for the cruise line to sell a cabin for less than the full (double occupancy) price. This is especially true for a desirable (higher level) cabin.

  • Tauck is different, you can’t compare it with a cruise company, thank goodness.

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