Spain 2012

My husband, son and I traveled to Spain on the first day of July and over 10 days’ time we visited Madrid, Toledo, Seville, Majorca and Barcelona, in order listed.

This was first time to Europe for my 16 year old son, who has studied Spanish for a few years. We all expected it to be a bit of a trial for Past experience had suggested that he was not keen for sightseeing of this nature; on the other hand, his curiosity had grown and we were all willing to take a chance. During the trip, conflict of interest did arise at times. He went through things much more speedily and ended up waiting for us a lot. He visited Toledo and Seville Cathedral, considered Saragrada Familia in Barcelona “very cool” but sat out the cathedral in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, for to him, “They are all the same” and he had had enough of cathedrals by then. Unlike us, he did not like too much of the “old things”, old buildings, neighborhood, churches, regardless of its artistic and architectural merits and history. Nor did he like museums of too many old things, especially those that include mostly religiously themed paintings and works, which usually date back to centuries and centuries ago, like Prado in Madrid. At the end though, he gave the experience an above average rating and I gave him a B+ for overall behavior on the trip.

Natural beauty can be found in every country. Through my travel, however, I repeatedly find that, although natural condition does shape its fundamental traits, nature does not alone define a destination. It is the idiosyncrasies of its people, or rather how its people rise from its locale, how they make their living, how they live their lives and how they in turn take care of their surroundings, that gives a place its soul. Indeed, it is the human dimension, or cultural dimension, that sets places apart more than anything else.

For Britain, though much more to offer, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Daphne du Maurier and PBS Masterpiece Theater alone will be enough to recommend it to me; Ireland, unrivaled warmth and jovialness of its people; France, sublime gourmet, civility, openness and English sufficiency of its people. For Italy, which I put in category apart from the others above, the list of appeal is long and yet its image is marred because unfortunately even in places as beautiful as Venice and Lake Como, one can occasionally encounter spots shamefully mucked by dog droppings. On one hand I can totally block out spoils like these, for Italy’s merits way outnumber this flaw, on the other, I cannot deny that it is indicative of a lapse in sense of duty towards a locale and other people around.

What awaited me in Spain then? Although I do love soccer, I don’t get Picasso and bullfighting, as tempting as it is with romanticized scenes like those in Hemingway’s “The sun also rises”, is cruelty disguised under a veil of sportsmanship and pageantry, or rather, “art”, as the Spaniards call it, of taunting and killing bulls for pleasure. Yet, learning about a culture is not to find it in a perfect state but to understand it in its entirety.

To that end, we had a great experience. The journey throughout Spain was one that was filled with extraordinary sights. Among them, Royal Palace in Madrid is grand, opulent, sumptuously and beautifully decorated, although not on the same parity with Versailles but not far apart either. The entire town of Toledo is charming and its cathedral takes your breath away. Seville’s historic center, Santa Cruz neighborhood, is so quaint and beautiful with exotic Arab/Islamic/Moorish flavor, it blows your mind. The west coast of Majorca is a scenic route of many marvelous natural wonders and dotted with multitudes of picturesque villages, one day’s ride revealed only a small number of such to us. In our final leg of journey in Barcelona, Gaudi’s Casa Mila and Cathedral Sagarada Familia are unconventional and refreshing in a futuristic way.

In contrast, while people of Seville and Majorca were warmer in comparison, majority of people we encountered seemed, unfriendly and uninteresting. From taxi drivers to restaurant and hotel staff, to store clerks, or even museum and attraction attendants, few spoke English well; few forwarded a smile or a hello; even fewer were chatty. I don’t think the recent economic trouble can be blamed for such demeanor. It is perhaps part of its cultural temperament. Perhaps it is a matter of humor. Or perhaps the Spaniards are not happy people. Traditional Spanish music is soft, tender, and yet most come through with a plaintive hint. Flamenco dance always conveys an intensity of solemnity and even sense of sorrow and deep furrows are always companions on its dancers’ faces.

Besides the tepid interaction with people, we encountered a few other unpleasant incidents as well but overall I can still say it a great experience.

Read on for more stories of the trip. Photos will be available in following posts, organized by location.

Dining

With nearly perfect dining experience in France last year that is still fresh in mind, it is perhaps hard to set just expectations. But our dining experience in Spain did not exactly get a flying start. Few restaurants offered menus in English and ones that did, only provided a title of the meals and never saw one that included a description. For multiple times, we tried in vain to get help from the waiters about the menus. For dinner one night, I ordered an item titled “Seafood Salad” and was looking forward to, or rather hope to, since our waiter could not explain to me what ingredients were used for it, have some green veggies and mixed seafood items. And I was sorely disappointed when I got a medium plate of cut squids sprinkled with some diced raw white onion. I was hungry and gave it a chance but one third of the dish down, I could not take another bite. So for the first 3 days, meals in Madrid, which was our first leg of the trip, was mediocre overall. It fortunately got better in Seville and for the rest of the trip.

Apparently, Spanish people love seafood and seafood is readily available in most places. I love seafood too. I had seafood dishes whenever available, including Paella a couple of times, and many of them great. The funny thing is that the best Paella I’ve had remains the one from Zen Fusion back home, a Spanish restaurant on East Blvd. that offers both Spanish and Asian Menu.

Pastries are good and you can pick up anything and it’d be good. Bread, however, is curiously bad there. We ran into bread almost every day and except once at lunch, most were tasteless and a bit stale to boot.

Tapas was a great experience. It is like Spanish Dim Sum. Small sized dishes come in large variety and you can make any combination out of it to suit whatever you crave.

A few tips. At some places sitting on terrace costs more than inside; Obejtos de Arte Toledoan in Madrid is one for instance. Many people smoke there. While smoking inside is not allowed, it is outside and sometimes I had to relocate to an inside table. When ordering Tapas, sit at the bar or go to the bar, if you prefer to sit at a table, then point and order. If you sit at a table and order Tapas item from menu, it costs more on every item. Some place will bring on bread and olives, usually green and un-pitted, without asking you first and they are not necessarily free, again Obejtos de Arte Toledoan comes to mind as an example. Dinner in Spain is late and usually starts at 8PM, which was not a problem to us because we usually don’t end our activities till it is dark anyway.

Hotel

All five hotels we stayed at had English speaking staff and were accommodating enough. First night at Hotel Regina in Madrid we got a room right by the street and the noise from traffic was not conducive to sleep. Per our request, a different room was given for the next two nights, larger and quieter. Hotel Regina has a great breakfast buffet and is located only steps away from Plaza Puerto del Sol.

Experience with Apartamentos Murillo in Seville was satisfying. We were assigned first a one bedroom apartment that we reserved. As soon as we walked out to start our sightseeing, we were told that we had to move because of problems with the previously assigned unit and that we were to get an upgrade to a 3 bedroom apartment with 2 bathrooms. Hotel was apologetic about the inconvenience and offered a free breakfast for compensation. Our apartment building is located in center of the Santa Cruz and within short walking distance to the cathedral and the Alcazar. And since no car can make it through the narrow streets surrounding the building, we had the benefit of two quiet and restful nights.

Hotel Apartamentos El Encinar in Valdemossa, Majorca is situated on the mountain side by the sea, has stunning ocean views and is one of the main stops on Majorca’s west coast scenic route.

Fashion House, a Bed & Breakfast in Barcelona, is at a convenient location, a few steps to a Metro station, close to Gothic Quarter and one stop to Plaza Catalunya and La Ramblas on the Metro. Our one bedroom unit was decked out in a simplistic but modernly and youthfully chic fashion. It is small but so cleverly laid out and furnished that it is quite sufficient. It is also the greenest hotel we’ve ever used. Hotel policy is stipulated such that towels are changed every 3 days and linens every week. One would have to pay extra to get towels changed if not yet 3 days used, at €1 for hand towel and €2 for bath towel. The water tab in the shower is one that you have to keep pushing to have the water coming. It annoyed my hubby to no end. It did not provide any toiletries either. In addition, it took some burning before we got the hang of its hot and cold switch and then the drain is so slow that we were soaked to ankle height throughout the shower. It was a miracle that it did not overflow and flood the entire place.

Fashion house is not alone in getting put in the category of inconvenient bathrooms. We were prepared for the fact that plumbing in the quaint Old World is just in general not on par with US standards but still the problem seemed escalated on this trip. With the exception of last two nights at Hotel Regina and last night in Spain at Hotel Maydrit, all other baths/showers had issue of one sort or another. And none has ventilation in the bathroom, not even four stared Maydrit.

Maydrit is located in a quiet neighborhood 10 minutes from the airport. Although mostly low rise condo buildings, with multiple playgrounds, there are also several office buildings, other hotels, restaurants, one pharmacy and a few small convenient stores available in the neighborhood. Maydrit is a trendy hotel housed in a modern building. It has a spacious lobby, on site restaurant, outdoor sitting area and offers free shuttle to the airport.

P.S. Rooms/units for triple occupancy are not as readily available as double/single. When I made my booking at 4/5 weeks in advance, most had already been sold out.

Getting to places

We flew direct between Charlotte and Madrid, eight and half hours each way. While in Spain, I did a combination of train ride, flying and driving to make my itinerary work.

Between Madrid and Toledo, Madrid and Seville, Barcelona and Madrid, I used Renfe trains. Between Seville, Majorca and Barcelona I booked flights from Seville to Majorca and then Majorca to Barcelona. Both flights from Seville to Majorca and Majorca to Barcelona were under an hour.

Renfe trains earned our goodwill. In contrast with most of everything else, Renfe trains were impressively efficient, sharply prompt, orderly, clean, announcements were made in both Spanish and intelligible English, plus a few smiling staff members along the way to boot. On the way from Madrid to Seville, a two and half hour journey, the movie “Midnight in Paris” was played. Free headphones were handed out by uniformed female attendants. From Barcelona to Madrid another Hollywood movie was played but it was voiced in Spanish.

While in Madrid and Barcelona, we used Metro which is well run at frequent internal, trains are clean and AC-ed.   In Toledo, bus is the way. When in Majorca, we rented a car for it is the best way to go through its scenic coastal route and it worked out greatl for us. In all locations, taxis are available and reasonably priced. We used it every time we have to haul our luggage to/from train station and airport, etc.

A remind about attraction opening hours

Check the opening hours for the attractions you want to visit and plan ahead of time, especially those you must see. Many museums etc. close on Monday, some on Tuesday and many have siesta, i.e. close for lunch break 1 or 2PM to 4 or 5PM, etc.

A few spoils

Some businesses are not run at the standards that we are used to in USA, not even to altered expectations.

On second day in Barcelona, a sign for Guinness drew my husband’s attention and we had lunch at Dunne, an Irish Bar and Restaurant near Gothic Quarter. I ordered a set meal that includes salad, entrée and dessert. At time of placing the order, I specified that I would like the included desert and was assured by our waiter that I would get it later. At desert time, our waiter brought a desert menu and I choose one assuming it the included one. Later realizing we were charged extra for desert, I pointed it out to our waiter. He was apologetic and brought the manager, who also admitted it was the fault of the waiter but insisted us on paying for it. $8 for a small slice of apple pie plus a small scoop of ice cream wasn’t outrageously too much but go figure the logic, if any. It is like she was saying “It is our fault but we are not responsible for our action, you are.”

That was quite nothing in comparison to the next. Returning an Avis rental car at Majorca airport, we were told that a scratch/scrape was found. It turned out to be several very mild scratches on an area of 1” x 3” on the lower left corner of the back of right mirror. We had no idea what happened. We did not have any incident, nor did we witness any incident by anyone else. It could have been there when we had picked it up but we could not tell for sure because we did not do our diligence enough to check it before leaving with it. So inconspicuous, it makes you wonder if the scratches had been there from before and we just unluckily became the scapegoats. But at less than an hour before our flight, we had no time to fight this thing and ended up being charged €250 for those tiny scratches. It was a complete rip off, even if it did happen during our watch. A lesson learned is to do your diligence when picking up and report any scratch/scrape, no matter how minor it is.

The last dinner in Barcelona was quite an adventure. Having spotted it the previous night, a very tempting looking Tapas bar at Cerveceria on La Ramblas near Plaza Catalunya, we came back the next night for dinner. We walked in with a mind to sit at the Tapas bar but a guy at the door insisted and ushered us up stair. When I voiced concern over the difficulty of ordering Tapas away from the Tapas bar, he said we will order from a menu, “No problem”. Once up stair however our waiter, a different guy, also Indian looking person, asked us to go down stair to order by pointing at the dishes. My husband, who was quite pissed at this point, demanded a menu. We realized moments after looking at the menu that it costs more to order from menu, or maybe sitting at the table. We moved ourselves down to the Tapas bar, not willing to humor what seemed involving dishonesty. Once sat down at the bar. The scene was a chaotic one. Everyone at the bar and others from the tables, who stood behind those sitting at the bar, vied to get the attentions of two waiters behind the bar, who picked up ordered items, placed them onto plates and heated them up in a microwave looking thing before handing out to customers. When finally got the attention of someone and gave him the order, instead of getting an acknowledgement that order was received by the way of a nod or a terse word, we got no sign from the waiter whatsoever and were left to guess if our order would come or not.  After a few rounds like that, we got the hang of it and started to relax. With some food in stomach and beer and sangria and coke cola, we were able to laugh things off and enjoyed the experience more.

In both Madrid and Barcelona, we passed by multiple times stench smelling spots, more times at Plaza Puerto del Sol than anywhere else. On a narrow street in Santa Cruz neighborhood, while on route to our hotel, with luggage in tow, we had to exert in order to avoid run in with a big pile of dog waste. Similarly disgusting sight unfortunately was spotted again when stopping at a look out just outside of Port de Pollenca in Majorca. It was apparent that people in Spain love dogs and often we saw dogs out with their owners, unleashed.

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4 Responses

  1. this is great reporting Yvonne.. thanks. I am hoping to go next year. I will re-read and consult with you when making plans 🙂
    Cathy

  2. Fantastic pictures, thanks for sharing, enjoyed reading about your travels
    Teresa

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