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Spain and Portugal Trip Report

  • Submitted by: Edward Lunny
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

The following report is a chronological sequence of events of travels taken by a middle aged couple (ok, ok, we are close to 50!) during April and May of 1993. As with our previous journeys we only take a carry on bag for flexibility and generally use the "Let's Go" guides. This year we also used Rick Steeves' "2-22 days in Spain and Portugal" so we could examine the general usefulness of this publication. I also took a 5 night course in survival Spanish which proved useful especially in the rural areas.

For the first time we experimented with using charge cards in the automated tellers instead of our usual total reliance on traveller's cheques. Instead of purchasing all traveller's cheques we put our charge cards in a credit position and then used the automated tellers to withdraw cash in local currency when we needed it. This way we did not incur interest charges (it was after all our money) and received a favourable rate of exchange compared to the change booths in Europe. There are some things you need to do first like get a 4 digit PIN number (redundancy noted) and see in what countries your card works (not all work everywhere). The end result was favourable and we would not hesitate to use both on future trips. Traveller's checks are good where there are no automated tellers and where the automated tellers don't work. In some countries you can use your regular bank account and PIN but we didn't try it this time.

All prices quoted are in local funds. The itinerary was to land in Lisbon and for my wife to fly home from Madrid. I stayed in Europe for awhile that but may be the subject of another report.

Lisbon - We landed and headed straight for the tourist information centre at the airport. They found us a room in the Baixa area (centrally located) for 8000 escudos, including breakfast. We realized that this was a little over budget but knew that we could average out later in the less expensive areas. As well they gave us some useful information on Lisbon and the surrounding area and told us how to take a bus to the hotel rather than take a very expensive cab. Lisbon can be seen in a day or two and has an interesting history and sights. We took the half day Grey line tour which gave us a good orientation to the city and we especially liked the Monastery at Belem and the castle of San Jorge. It helped that we were there over Good Friday since many of the main attractions (Monastery) were having colourful celebrations. Our favourite day trip was a one hour train ride away called Sintra which is the site of a spectacular palace.

I hope American readers note that I am not misspelling colour, or favour, etc. It's just the way we do things up here in the frozen north. After 3 nights we made our way to the Algarve in the south. Train travel is very cheap in Portugal and Spain so we were glad that we had not purchased Eurail passes. Also we would have lost some flexibility as there is bus service to many areas that are not well served by train. The train was late leaving because they couldn't find a locomotive so we missed the connection to Lagos. A few extra hours later than scheduled we arrived. As with many stations there were ladies to meet us and offer various accommodation at approximately 4000 escudos per night. We chose one and got into an old van for the ride to what turned out to be a centrally located and very clean room. The only point I would make is that they said the beach was 5 minutes away. Since we are not really beach types it didn't really matter that only Al or Bobby Unser could get there in 5 minutes (Indy 500 joke).

Lagos is a very tourist-oriented area but we stayed for 2 nights so we could scout out the western area of the Algarve by public transportation for our next move. We then decided to put all the pressure on Rick Steeves ( remember him? the guide book) and go to a small place called Salema. It turned out to be one of the best spots of our whole trip. It's a fishing village which has limited accommodation and restaurants but it's quiet and beautiful. We stayed 4 nights and would have stayed longer except we still had much to see and do. There was excellent hiking in the area. We also started to get addicted to some of the Portuguese food like sardines and sardine pate. We called home a few times while on the road and found that calling from the many government phones avoided hotel charges ( about double). Better still was to call home for 1 minute and give them the number to call you back at your hotel. This is much cheaper. I'm told the best way is to get a calling card before you leave. I will try this next time.

The post office in Salema was interesting. A van rolls up saying "post office " (in Portuguese) and the driver promptly opens the back door , climbs in and transacts the necessary business from a desk in the mobile office. The usual European custom is for your hotel or pension to hold your passport until you pay. This trip I either prepaid or gave an imprint of my credit card rather than give it up. Twice in the past 2 years a hotel owner has had my passport and I can't find him early in the morning when I am scheduled to make a ferry or train etc. Both times they showed up just in time but I have learned my lesson.

We decided to go to Seville in one day from Salema. It requires a train to the Spanish border, a ferry across a river to Spain, and a bus ride to Seville. Accommodation was 5300 pesetas for 2 not including breakfast. If you are checking prices we are now finished with escudos and are now in pesetas. Seville was a very good place to visit. It has excellent attractions ( the Alcazar and cathedral in particular) and a vibrant nature. We never could get used to eating dinner at 10 :00 pm like the Spanish so we quickly devised our own eating patterns. We had a late breakfast, big lunch at 2 pm and then tapas at about 8:30. Tapas are little tasty snacks that you can get in many of the bars in Spain (about 200-250 pesetas each). We found these could be an easy substitute for the late dinner. The streets become alive at night with people socializing so there is much to see while sitting in one of the outdoor cafes. I would now like to share my thoughts on restaurant selection while travelling. In order to be considered, a restaurant must meet 3 of the 4 following criteria. It must be off the main tourist streets, it must have locals predominantly as customers, interesting but sometimes not readily identifiable food on the plates, and last there can be no menu in English. It seems to work for me but one place made it simply because I saw they served the glasses of wine in a tumbler. Because of my limited Spanish we ended up eating things that we cannot identify to this day.

We then headed to the south coast since we both wanted to take a day trip to Tangier, Morocco. We arrived in Tarifa, the jumping off point which is a quaint little town which we enjoyed and is much nicer than the other main Morocco jump off called Algeciras. The cost of a day trip was about 13,000 pesetas (lunch included) for both of us to take a ferry across and have a guide meet us on the other side. It turned out that the tour bus was overbooked so 4 of us (a couple from the States as well) had our own taxi for the day. This was a real highlight since the driver spoke a little English and kept showing us some of the attractions that the bus probably would not. He introduced one place as the free hotel in town. There was a fair amount of activity outside the main gates which I took to be people waiting to get in. The driver laughed when he explained that this was the main prison for drug offenses. We all walked single file through the main market of Tangier, and ended up at a Moroccan restaurant for lunch. After, we had to listen to a rug salesman for awhile and then the most disconcerting part of the trip began. We had to get back to our taxi and tour bus by means of a single file line through town. All the local people take this as the last chance to sell you something. Therefore there are 5-6 people at once putting things in your face all the way back. There is another group waiting at the boat to get you one last time. The sights and sounds and smells of Tangier are hard to describe. It's a different type of experience but generally we put it in the category of " well, we can say we have been to Africa now". The next day we headed to Gibraltar. We only stayed one night as it is heavily touristed, overpriced, and polluted. This area should be visited by day trip from one of the resorts on the Costa Del Sol. On the bright side we got some comfort food like fish and chips and ribs. I never realized until I got there that Gibraltar is actually part of Iberia. I always pictured it out in the middle of the sea somewhere like the Prudential commercials.

We were ready to take a vacation from our travels. We usually do this every 7-10 days just to rest and unpack our bags, do laundry, cook ourselves etc. We found a spot on the Costa Del Sol called Fuengirola where we got a one bedroom apartment on the water for 28,000 pesetas for a week. It is a tourist area (the whole Costa Del Sol is a tourist area) so it had all the amenities and we enjoyed it a lot. You can also save a lot of cash by cooking a little yourself. After resting up we were ready to embark on the final leg including Granada and Madrid.

Granada was very pleasant since they have the Alhambra, one of the best preserved Moorish pieces of architecture anywhere. On the same site are wonderful gardens, and an excellent lookout over the city which would have looked better if there wasn't a hail storm at the time. I was standing in the rain on a corner in Granada when a man came up and asked if I wanted to buy a umbrella. I said maybe, so he opened his bag and demonstrated a few of the popular models. I bought one for 600 pesetas and was on my way. The free market economy is alive and well there. Since it was raining we stayed in one night and watched Spanish T.V. There was basketball everywhere including Bulls games on a 3 day delayed basis. Madrid is a 6 hour train ride from Granada (6800 pesetas first class) so we were up early and ready to go. We were only in Madrid about 20 minutes when we got hit by pickpockets on the subway. They were very smooth. I knew I was being jostled for a reason, but also knew that my passport, money, credit cards, etc. were safely in the money belt. It didn't stop them from opening my day pack (in about 3-4 seconds I may add) and taking out prescription sunglasses and a pair of reading glasses. We didn't even notice until we checked into the hotel. It's a funny feeling nevertheless. We needed some comfort food to help us get over the ordeal so we went to McDonald's for the taste of home. There were armed guards at the door and it cost 500 pesetas for the full meal in case anyone is interested. Other than that we found Madrid and surrounding areas a treat. Because of the pollution in large cities we generally stay in the city a day and then visit the sights out of the city on alternate days. Madrid is perfect for this. There are at least 5 excellent day trips from there and we choose Toledo, El Escoril and the Valley of the Fallen for our side trips. In Madrid we especially enjoyed the Royal Palace and the Prado art museum. It's a terrific walking city with good transportation throughout if necessary. We had a good hotel (5300 pesetas including breakfast) on the Grand Via. At this point my good wife left for Vancouver and I was off on another adventure. We gave both guide books excellent reviews.