Discovering Moorish Spain with G Adventures

All photos courtesy of Florence Wan

All photos courtesy of Florence Wan

What does it take to get a dedicated independent traveler to join an organized group tour? I have avoided organized tours after a mediocre Chinese-speaking tour of the US East Coast that my parents put me and brothers through; that tour was obviously not a good fit for us English-speaking teenagers. While assisting our clients with their travel plans, I have been on the lookout for tours that would be a better fit for my own travel. Could I find a tour company whose philosophy and touring style would entice me reconsider my reluctance of joining a group tour?

With a small window for another getaway in April after the Asia trip, but needing a break from research and logistics, this was the perfect opportunity to try out G Adventures, a company that specializes in small group adventures all over the world. The G Adventures catalog is extensive, offering tours in Asia, the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and even Antarctica. Tour styles range from their Classic standard tours, to budget-minded tours for 18 to 30 year olds, to those with a wellness focus or with more upscale lodging, to expedition-style cruising and trekking. A CEO (Chief Experience Officer), a local employee of G Adventures, leads and accompanies each tour from beginning to end. The company also invests in the destinations that their tours visit, making sure that the benefits from tourism stay in the local communities. I was initially planning to travel solo since G Adventures does not charge single travelers an extra supplement but my sister-in-law was available to tag along as my travel buddy for this journey. The upgraded accommodations and the added cultural activities in the National Geographic Journeys tours fit my comfort level. Hoping to take advantage of mild spring weather, I selected a destination known for blistering summer heat - Spain - specifically southern Spain. A cultural bonus would be visiting over Easter weekend, hoping to witness one or two Holy Week or Semana Santa processions.

“Discover Moorish Spain” is an eight night tour, starting in Madrid, traveling to Toledo, Cordoba, Granada and ending in Seville. This is not a coach tour; the inter-city connections take advantage of Spain’s reliable train and long distance bus systems. Our group of 14 travelers consisted of several recent retirees, a college student on his spring break from Cambridge University, a mother and her two daughters (also on spring break), along with those able to travel during the shoulder season. Lucky for us, all the members of this tour got along which made for happy traveling over our week together. Strangers became friends. Our CEO was gentle, friendly and efficient Mercedes, a native of Cordoba, who set a very high standard for any tour leaders I will travel with in the future. She took care of our metro/bus/train tickets, gave orientation walking tours upon arrival in each destination, solved our hotel issues, and she figured out the amounts each of us owed for our group meals. She provided advice and suggestions for restaurants and activities for our free time, mostly afternoons and evenings, when we had “time off” from the tour. She introduced us to each city’s iconic dishes for a culinary tasting tour. Cordova’s salmorejo, a tomato-based soup; flamenquin, coquettes of breaded pork wrapped around slices of jamon; and tortilla de patatas, a potato omelette. Granada’s pionono, a small and very sweet jellyroll cake topped with toasted cream or fruit; and of course, churros. With many details already arranged and Mercedes as our CEO, all we had to do was show up at the designated time at the designated meeting place to be our way to our next activity.

As with many organized tours, there were exclusions that we had to be aware of. While tours of the city of Toledo and of the Alhambra complex in Granada were included, we had to book our own tour of the Alcazar in Seville. While two nights’ hotel were provided in Madrid, no tours within the capital city were provided since the day in between was spent in Toledo. G Adventures recommends arriving in Madrid early to explore the Spanish capital on your own before the start of the tour. My sister-in-law and I landed in Madrid three nights early, giving ourselves a few days to focus on the city’s largest art museums: the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Prado, and the Reina Sofia. A highlights tour guided us through the “top hits” of the expansive collection at the Prado, and Picasso’s “Guernica” was worth the chilly walk on a windy morning to the Reina Sofia. The weather in late April was definitely not summer-like; we bundled up against clouds, wind and rain. We did find some favorite places to warm up: with churros and hot chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines, tapas at Casa Toni, and a choice of tasty munchies at the Gourmet Experience food court above El Corte Ingles department store.

¡Hola! Going on tour…

Following our pre-tour nights in a hostal, my sister-in-law and I moved into the tour’s hotel to meet Mercedes and our new travel mates. A National Geographic Journeys tour with G Adventures provides upgraded accommodations and extra cultural experiences. The hotels on used by the tour would be rated 4 to 4.5 star quality. Our rooms were all good-sized, comfortable and modern and we enjoyed selections from a breakfast buffet every morning.

Madrid - 2 nights at the Hotel Madfor

While this hotel in Madrid is just outside of the city center, it is located across the street from the transportation hub of Principe Pio.  The former railway terminal serves as a junction for the metro, several rail lines and as a bus interchange so we had easy access to transportation when the group headed out to Toledo and Cordoba.  For free time exploring of the Royal Palace, the Catedral de la Almuden and the other attractions of Centro, we hopped on a metro shuttle line to the Opera stop. Back in the hotel, a spacious lounge area on the mezzanine level was the perfect place for our orientation meeting with sofas, desks and chairs, computers, a library and a self-service tea and coffee bar.  This hotel is designed for social travelers who need access to long distance transportation. From the Madfor, we took the metro to another bus terminal for the 40 minute ride to the hilltop city of Toledo, returning to Madrid in the afternoon. The next morning, we began our travels south, catching the AVE train from the Atocha station for the 1 hour and 45 minute ride to Cordoba.

Cordoba - 1 night at Macia Alfaros

Mercedes rounded up a few taxis to drive the group from the train station to this hotel on a narrow street near City Hall.  The small drop-off area led a large full-service hotel with an expansive lobby and lounge, complete with a small outdoor pool and a few terraces to take in the views.  Feeling slightly outdated, the decor had touches of Andalucia in the tilework, woodwork and ironwork. The Macia Alfaros is a 15 minute walk from the historical areas of Cordoba which the group set off for immediately after leaving our luggage with the bellhop. Mercedes lead us through the modern Plaza de las Tendillas then single-file through the flower-filled (and tourist-filled) alleys and patios of the old Jewish quarter before stopping for lunch right next to the Mezquita. After lunch, we excitedly met our private guide for a 3 hour tour of the Mezquita’s interior, where the geometric beauty of Islamic architecture contrasts with the Renaissance and baroque decorations of the cathedral.

While some returned to the hotel after dinner for an early bedtime, a smaller hardy group followed Mercedes for an evening walk to the river. By then, the Juderia was crowd-free, the lights turned on and the city glowed. She brought us back to the Calleja de las Flores for the spectacular nighttime view of the belltower.

As parents walked their uniformed children to school the next morning, a caravan of taxis drove our group back to the bus terminal to catch the 9:30am bus for the next leg of our journey.  We drove by miles of olive trees and orange orchards with the occasional rocky outcrops rising out of the field of grazing cows. Eventually the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Madre mountain range came into view as the bus neared Granada.

Granada - 2 nights at the Hotel Granada Five Senses Rooms & Suites

The Five Senses was the most centrally located hotel of our tour, sitting on the Gran Via de Colon, a 10 minute walk to the Cathedral, a few blocks to the Albayzin area, and 30 minutes downhill from the Alhambra.  Chic and modern, colorful carpeting contrasting with the mostly white furniture, with each floor themed to one of our five senses. A huge wall photo mural of wine glasses served as the backdrop behind our beds and photos of fruit lined the hallway; my room was on the “taste” floor. Unfortunately, space can be limited in a city center location. Our room at the Five Senses was the smallest compared to the rest we had on the tour. A small spa and bar completed the ground floor while a tiny, tiny pool and sitting area was a rooftop retreat. The breakfast area was basically a hallway on the mezzanine, overlooking the lobby.  While this hotel wasn’t roomy, it’s location was perfect for exploring the city’s historical attractions. My photos of the looming Catedral de Granada and the sprawling Alhambra complex of garderns and patios and palaces do not do justice to the beauty and grandeur of these sites. My tip for checking out these architectural wonders: don’t forget look up to see what is overhead!

Seville - 2 nights at the NH Sevilla Plaza de Armas

After two nights in Granada, our final long distance bus ride brought us to Seville where our tour would end.  We were finally able to shed our jackets and sweaters to enjoy the Spanish sunshine. After an easy five minute walk we arrived at the NH Sevilla Plaza de Armas, our home for two nights. This hotel was by far the largest used by the tour and the most deluxe, with a lobby surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and filled with seating for lounging or working. Several of us paused to gape at the sample cheese platter as we passed by the hotel bar on our way out to enjoy lunch alfresco at a local restaurant.  The lap pool, sundeck and outdoor lounge stretched across the hotel’s rooftop with a view of the Rio Guadalquivir and beyond. The NH breakfast buffet was extensive: a variety of pastries, juices, fruits, desserts, hot items, breads with cheeses and cold cuts, including jamon and pate. We gave ourselves a little more time to enjoy breakfast here. Yes for a super-sweet local start to my morning, I picked up a few servings of dessert, tiny glasses of pudding, to accompany my hard-boiled egg, toast and fruit.

Cultural Inclusions

There are two cultural inclusions for this tour: a guided tour through Toledo with a local historian and a private flamenco dance lesson for the group.  Collectively, we were disappointed with our Toledo walking tour. After spending 3 hours meandering around the zigzagging alleys of the hilltop city, our guide announces that her work is done when we arrive at the plaza outside the Cathedral. We did not enter the Cathedral nor visit museums to view any paintings by El Greco in his adopted hometown. Thankfully the second activity was more successful and more fun as we stomped and clapped and giggled through our lesson with a professional dancer in a flamenco cave in Granada’s hillside Albayzin district.

At our first group meeting on the first evening of the tour, Mercedes offered two optional activities for only 10 euros each: a guided tour of the Mezquita in Cordoba (vs wandering on our own after entry), and seats for a flamenco performance in Seville. Two members of our group were disappointed to learn of these since they had already booked a private Mezquita tour, and a flamenco dinner/ show on their own as suggested by the G Adventures pre-tour documents. The rest of us gladly signed up for the low cost extras which saved us the stress of making those plans while on the road and added more color to our itinerary.

A game of foosball in the spacious lobby of the NH.

A game of foosball in the spacious lobby of the NH.

And the tour ends. ¡Adiós!

Saturday in Seville was the free day of the tour, with no group activities planned for the day. As suggested by G Adventures we booked tour of the Real Alcazar’s palaces and gardens to skip-the-line and ensure entry into Seville’s most popular attraction. We paid a few more euros for the Games of Thrones tour extension; fans of the show will know that scenes depicting the Water Palace of Dorne were shot in the Alcazar. We gathered back together that evening to attend the flamenco performance at the intimate Casa de la Guitarra, followed by our last dinner as Mercedes’ first group of the 2019 season.

For this hesitant tour traveler, this tour in Spain was an amazing experience.  Spain is mixture of Roman, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Spanish cultures, with a history of coexistence and cooperation.  The sites, the food, the architecture and art are truly remarkable. Even after visiting her major museums, there’s so much more to be enjoyed in Madrid.  My favorite destination was Granada, with her narrow winding hillside alleys of the Albayzin district and the inspiring palace-fortress complex of the Alhambra.  Nearly everyone on the tour agreed that the uniquely beautiful Mezquita of Cordoba is one of the most amazing buildings in the world, a Renaissance cathedral built into the center of a grand mosque. I would return to Southern Spain in a heartbeat!  

Would I travel on another organized tour? 

The excited anticipation of traveling to a new destination can be dulled by the effort and time required to research to make the plans. The alternative to do-it-yourself planning is going on an organized tour. Depending on what is included on the tour, some or all of the arrangements of accommodations, transportation, touring and meals are already made, and a tour leader accompanies the group as a guide, advocate and resource on the trip. On this tour with G Adventures, I didn’t have to know where and how to buy train, bus or attraction tickets, remember dinner reservations, make hotel bookings at three different cities, worry about getting lost in the labyrinth of alleys. Leaving these details to G Adventures and Mercedes, I was able to relax and take in the amazing sites, enjoy the company of my fellow travelers and relish learning about and visiting the highlights of Andulacia. Not a bad way to travel. You can bet I will page through the G Adventures National Geographic Journeys catalog when I’m ready for my next adventure.

El Oso y el Madroño, the Bear and the Strawberry Tree. Rubbing the bear’s heel for good luck!

El Oso y el Madroño, the Bear and the Strawberry Tree. Rubbing the bear’s heel for good luck!