Crossing the Land of the Bull

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Most high-end tours are not cheap yet they claim they save money and surely give value. The Andersons recently went on one that crossed Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

Photography by the authors

Most high-end tours are not cheap yet they claim they save money and surely give value. In fact when we once asked a guide to state three reasons to travel with his company, he cheerfully responded, “Money, Money, Money!”

We felt comfortable using Insight Vacations because we’d taken many trips with the parent company, the Travel Corporation, where everything was well organized, guest options are clear plus the companies were bonded with a million U.S. dollar policy. We arranged our air to coincide with the free airport and hotel transfers and skipped three of the 10 optional tours so we’d have more free photography time. The optional tours certainly added extra experiences and most guests took them all at an added cost of 404 Euros per person.

We crossed more than Spain with Insight Vacations. The company took us to Morocco and even gave us a glimpse of Portugal — two countries we’d never visited before. We’d rented a car in 2006 to visit the Costa Brava in north east Spain as independents but we didn’t want to drive in Morocco and since we’d had a busy time in Europe a few months previously, we felt, this time, we wanted to travel the easy way.

We’ll have more to say about individual destinations later, but soon after we started exploring what our guide, Toni Aguilar, called the Land of the Bull, he explained the reason behind the black bull billboards that show up along the highways.

The story is mundane rather than romantic. The Osborne sherry company put them up to advertise its famous Spanish drink but when a law banned the billboards, the public protested. A compromise was reached: they could stay once the advertising was removed!

We see a lot of tributes to Spain’s great writer Miguel de Cervantes, “the son of a deaf surgeon.”

The monument to Cervantes in Madrid’s Plaza de Españza was started 1925-1930 and completed by the son of the sculptor in 1956-57.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza show themselves everywhere. Spaniards regard Cervantes as their equivalent to Shakespeare and their story of the man who tilted at windmills seems to have been illustrated non-stop for more than 400 years. Cervantes never met Shakespeare, although they were contemporaries. Both died the same year, the same day — April 23, 1616!

We started our trip in Madrid in this land of 3,000 castles photographing those men who chased windmills. Our trip is ending in La Mancha, a windy hilly place where time and the terrain has not changed in centuries.

Would we have found today’s La Mancha without Toni and Insight? Or the bodega nearby, the roadside inn similar to the trade caravanserais we found once along Marco Polo’s Silk Route in Turkey? Never!

We gazed on less complicated sights. Trees standing like sentries. Lights radiating to feed solar panels. Old farm houses. New homes in the country. Houses built like small castles.

Cities like Toledo sit on hilltops. At an elevation of 3,400 feet Toledo had a Roman circus that seated 15,000 people in the 1st century. There are countless churches and 75,000 people now living here, presumably, all exclaiming when they are surprised, “Holy Toledo!”

Avila with its 88 towers on its 11th century walls is the only completely walled city in Spain. Seville has the second largest bullring in the world and famous for its flamenco shows.

The tempo of the flamenco is determined by the dancers not the musicians; the dancers lead because they get feedback from the audience.

Our Insight Vacations local Seville guide takes us past a grave celebrated by special floor markers in the massive Seville Cathedral. We lift our cameras because we know Christopher Columbus is said to be buried here, despite challenges from the Dominican Republic.

“No,” the guide says, “That’s the grave of his son!” She walks us triumphantly toward the southern door. “Our bones,” she says, “were tested in 2003 through 2006 against the DNA of Diego, Christopher’s brother. He has long been buried in Seville. They match! We believe that ends the argument. Especially since Santo Domingo won’t allow its remains to be tested against DNA.”

We wander past the cathedral into a gorgeous rest home cum hospital maintained for elderly priests.

Seville is more than a center for flamenco and bullfighting; it’s the capital of Andalusia, arguably the most attractive part of Spain.

“Seville,” says our city guide, “has more cobbled, winding streets, more medieval architecture, more orange-perfumed plazas, more elegant people than all the other cities in Andalusia put together!”

Andalusia in the south of Spain is the most populous of all the autonomous communities in Spain and the most feted. When we think we are celebrating Spanish culture we are actually reveling in the extravagance of Andalusia.

Here, for example, with her younger third husband, struts the 87-year-old Duchess of Alba, the richest woman in Spain with 44 titles — more than Queen Elizabeth II. It takes two days to drive her estates. Half of all the land in Andalusia lies in the hands of eight families.

The Picasso Museum is a quick visit, but the record of his christening is surely of interest.

Picasso lived in Malaga and a museum acknowledges his life there, but he lived in France during the Spanish Civil War, joined the French Communist Party in 1944 and received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962. His antiwar painting Guernica showing the destruction of that Spanish small town provoked a challenge from the Gestapo in Paris.

“Did you do that?” he was asked.

“No,” he replied. “You did!”

Granada founded by the Moors in the year AD 711 sits at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada at the confluence of three rivers.

The Catholic Monarchs of Spain recaptured Granada in 1492. The Alhambra “palace city” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Mijas is a whitewashed hill-top village, a one-time isolated Roman enclave and former vineyard, a mere 1,500 feet above sea level. We were all captivated by this little village. It’s the kind of place one would hope to return to for a special visit.

With its delightful microclimate Mijas has become a popular retreat where donkeys have replaced taxicabs for the contented tourists and stress has been exchanged for the simple life.

The bottom line:

Some of our friends were less interested in the “Splendors of Spain” and more interested in a “Nuts and Bolts” discussion on what we thought of Insight Vacations and did it give a satisfactory tour?

Our summary was this: Insight calls itself upscale and it is. The hotels, for example, were a lot nicer than where we usually stay in Europe; they were all beautifully designed and laid out, although on one occasion we did ask for a different room with more efficient air conditioning. That had nothing to do with Insight. It’s just you can’t expect to find many German engineers in Southern European or North African hotels.

We didn’t wear Group badges after the first day. Toni felt badges would lose us our personal identity and perhaps mark us as a vulnerable tourist to thieves. He felt with badges that we might be shuttled to the back rooms of restaurants and neither he “nor Insight would want that.”

All the hotels had free Wi-Fi. All the hotel staff was pleasant and attentive — much more so than we tend to find in United States hotels. One hotel employee in Marrakech, for example, cheerfully walked us a couple of hundred yards to a local pharmacy when we had a respiratory infection.

Meals were assorted and well prepared in restaurants that were usually elegant or clearly special, many in the hotels themselves. None of the tour group became ill with turistsa in Morocco, but Toni, our tour director, was obsessive with his advice (no ice, no tap water; bottled water only for toothbrush; don’t open your mouth in the shower; no salads nor food not cooked or peeled — and so on).

Lunch was usually a personal choice; the idea was if you want to eat light why should you pay a share of a group expense of an expensive meal — which probably makes sense also to explain why there were so many cost-extra optional excursions. We selectively skipped three and saved a total of $158 each.

The dinners often came with extra gestures. In Morocco a belly dancer, a small local band, even a conjurer!

Those extra gestures, Insight Vacations calls “flourishes.” They go over well: getting popcorn when Toni showed us a movie on the coach, sharing a large box of local chocolates after we’d walked past a local homemade chocolatier shop, pretzel tasting and wine tasting, handing out stamped destination postcards and mailing one for each guest. Although the most appreciated flourish is showing guests things and places they would never have noticed on their own.

The coach was a Mercedes-Benz, really well driven and beautifully maintained. It had room for 53 but, by choice, traveled with 36. Our tour director was, as they all tend to be in the best tour companies, a “mother hen”: endlessly patient with an anxious and, to our eyes, difficult lady; warning us about pickpockets when we were in a vulnerable area; and even suggesting “good Kodak spots” where he knew the camera viewpoint was extraordinary.

When we were eating lunch on our own dime he knew the best buy restaurants. He had advice for money changing and was emphatic that Insight staff does not seek or get “kickbacks” from local merchants where coach guests buy items, although “it used to be common in the early days of touring with most companies in Europe after World War II.”

Destination surprises?

That so small a country as Portugal, one-fifth the size of Spain could have dominated the seas in the 16th century. That Lisbon could be so exciting. That Morocco despite its donkeys and wheelbarrows is so “industrialized.” That the countryside of Spain is so varied; how different the culture is in south Spain from the more northern European attitudes in north Spain.

And that we could see so much in so short a time.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.