At this point in my career, some 29 years on the road, there are very few places I’ve not been. Though in all honesty, sometimes my having checked a state or country off the list amounted to little more than crossing the boarder, shouting “I’m here!” then leaving as quickly as I arrived. Such was nearly the case with Spain. About 15 years ago, I escorted two separate Mediterranean cruises with ports of call in Spain. On one, I purchased an optional shore excursion bound for Granada’s famous Alhambra Palace. On the other, I simply walked around the port city of Cadiz. The better part of two days. To me, that was Spain. Clearly, this was a county that deserved more of my time and attention.
I use the past tense because I just returned from ten glorious days in Spain. As many of you are aware, Mark, my partner, and I are actively involved in the National Tour Association. Last week, NTA presented their first-ever off-the-continent gathering called MoNTAge. (Did you notice how NTA was cleverly included in the name?) It was my great pleasure to represent Sports Leisure Vacations and all of you by attending!
I have so many positive impressions of my adventure, far too many to recount here. (You can expect multiple blogs on the subject!) The first lesson I learned, however, is neither positive nor negative. It simply is. It’s a truth I think any traveler to Spain must acknowledge and appreciate, especially if coming from the States: Spain is not Mexico, nor is it any place you’ve ever visited in Latin America. Certainly there are similarities in culture and language, though as I quickly learned, Castilian Spanish is a far cry from Latin American Spanish. I often had to ask people to repeat even simple words like “gracias” because it sounded so different than what I was used to hearing and saying.
I know some of my friends and customers hold certain prejudices towards Mexico and Mexicans. This is their right, I suppose. But if such prejudices are keeping you from visiting Spain, then I humbly ask you to reconsider, for you are indeed missing one of Europe’s great destinations.
My adventure began in the Capital City of Madrid. In short, the city is amazing. I expected a dressed-up version of Mexico City. What I got instead was closer to Paris. Madrid is absolutely beautiful. The architecture is obviously French-inspired, and my tour guide was quick to point this out. But where Madrid really trumps Paris is in the landscaping. Broad boulevards. Magnificent parks. Stunning water features in each traffic circle. Every streetscape, in full spring blossom, was absolutely breathtaking.
Then there are the people of Madrid. So elegant and well-mannered. Being there over the weekend, and indeed the first nice weekend of the year in which spring was springing out all over, brought the people out in droves. Kids were quiet and stayed close to their guardians. Dogs, whether on a leash or not, were equally well-behaved. And forgive me for getting graphic, but I saw not one speck of poo on a street, sidewalk or gutter. Either dogs over there don’t poo in public, or owners are quick to clean it up. I never had a fear of being mugged (though I was warned about the “gypsies,” whom I’ve been acquainted with in Italy with most unpleasant results). I never had a fear of being run down by people on roller blades or skateboards. Basically, everyone acted totally civilized. It was quite refreshing.
Madrid has incredible museums, especially in the field of art. The Prado is amazing. I would say it’s on par with Chicago’s Art Institute, which is high praise from me, indeed. And I visited the Reina Sofia, the national contemporary art museum, to see a huge collection of works by Picasso and Dali. My guide was excellent, and truly made the abstract and sometimes troubling features of the art come to life. Suddenly, Picasso makes sense!
Shopping is great there, especially along the Grand Via—think Broadway, both in terms of retail outlets and theatre—which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
The city was amazingly quiet, especially considering the population of 5.5 million. Kids didn’t yell. Dogs didn’t bark. Police cars didn’t turn on their sirens. Drivers didn’t blow their horns. I didn’t even hear church bells ringing on Sunday morning.
Smoking is a European reality, but of all the destinations I would visit on this trip, I saw the least of it here. My local guide said the habit is falling in favor, and more and more restaurants are banning it—even some bars. If Ireland can outlaw smoking in pubs, why not Spain!
To have only a day and a half in such a grand city was a crime. I’m already planning my return. In my upcoming blogs, read about my visits to Cordoba, Baena, Carmona, Sevilla and my triumphal return to Granada.