Archives for category: Spain travel


A moment’s research discloses that effective tour guides should possess the following characteristics: patience, courtesy, diplomacy, selflessness, tact, organization, caring and sensitivity.  Indeed, in separate tours to Costa Rica and Panama, we enjoyed Anita and Miguel, respectively, who embodied all of those facets.  Imagine our surprise at the initial group meeting in Madrid, ahead of a three-week tour, when the guide, a short, intense man dressed in jeans and wearing a cap, introduced himself, as follows:

“I am Jiao.  I am to take you through Spain though I was expecting to be in my favorite country, Portugal, this week.  But, well, the company told me I have to be here.  So, well, what can I do?  Here I am.”

A woman raised her hand.

“Not now,” said Jaio, thrusting his chin ahead of his face like a bantam rooster and tugging on his suspenders. “I am speaking.”

The assembled thirty or so travelers looked taken aback.  Most probably concluded, as I initially did, that Jiao was simply nervous and a little overwhelmed by logistical and paperwork concerns, hence his abruptness.  He continued:

“You must be on time to the bus each day, well, in fact, be ten minutes early.  Jiao does not want to wait for you.  And, just so you understand, if you are late, you can take a taxi to the next town, because the bus will be gone.  Simple like that.”

Several of us tittered nervously.

“I am serious,” said Jiao.

“Are you going to hand out name tags?” asked a man in the front row.

“Why should you need name tags?” asked Jiao.

“We usually get them to help know everyone,” responded the man’s wife.

“Let me explain to you,” said Jaio, scanning the entire group.  “This is not going to be like every other tour.  Jiao runs his tour in a, well, special way.  The only name you need to know is Jiao.  But, well, I am sure you will learn each other’s names in good time.  Simple like that.”

With that, Jiao handed a pile of papers to one of the guests and indicated with a waving motion of his hand that they were to be distributed, then strode out of the room.

“On the bus by 7:50 tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder, as he disappeared.

Our group appeared to be stunned into silence by our introduction to Jiao.  Most whispered to their spouses or seatmates.  A few introduced themselves to neighbors, but most attendees, many of whom had arrived from far-off places like Australia and Asia, were beset by jet lag.  Concerned about waking up on time, they dispersed towards their hotel rooms.

“That was interesting,” I said to the couple beside us, the only people under forty in the group.

“Is that normal?” asked the husband, in a lilting accent of India.  “We have never taken a tour before.”

“Not in our experience,” said my wife.  “I hope he will relax.”

Alas, her optimism was not rewarded.  Jiao’s behavior remained churlish.  The following morning, as we were to depart for Valencia, he sat unapproachable in a far corner of the breakfast room.  He did not respond when guests said “Good morning.”  His only value at the hotel appeared to be brusque but efficient-looking management of the group’s luggage.  He flicked ashes from a cigarette as he supervised the bellman and the driver wrestling our bags into the belly of the bus.

“Jaio has never lost a bag,” he boasted to no one in particular.  “This group will not ruin my record.”

As we drove, Jiao occasionally activated the loudspeaker from his position in the front seat.  He read facts and figures, in a monotone, from a large binder.  Some of the information was relevant to the passing scenery, such as a town’s population and history; other information seemed random and improvised.  Often, he would compare something about Spain to his preferred country, as in:  “You see the apartment buildings on the left.  Well, they are not much to look at.  In Portugal, they really know how to design.  Simple like that.”

Jiao generally spoke only with the bus driver, in Spanish.  Occasionally, however, he would favor the travelers in the front of the bus with disjointed bits of personal philosophy and history.  “My third wife is waiting for me now, well, at home.  We have been together eight years, since I left the seminary.”

“You were studying for the priesthood?” asked a surprised guest.

“Why not?” said Jiao, defensive.  “I am a man of spirituality.”

“But priests can’t marry,” said another guest.

“Ah, you think you know so much,” Jiao responded.

Another theme of Jiao’s was the purity of his body.  At rest stops, he ostentatiously retreated away from the crowd to the far end of the parking lot with a yoga mat.  One day, while we re-boarded the bus, I could not resist noting the dichotomy of what he referred to as “refreshing his temple” with the cigarettes he invariably consumed immediately afterwards.

“But I am a European man,” he replied, as though that explained everything.

By the end of the first week almost everyone was imitating Jiao.  “Well” was included in every second sentence and declarative sentences were punctuated with “simple like that.”  As we approached each of the ten cities on the tour, Jiao emphasized that “this is my most favorite city in all of Spain.”  Positive statements from Jiao were welcome after several hours of dour monotone or disinterested silence, but his impossible use of the superlative for every town called into question any hint of sincerity.

Soon enough, my fellow travelers exhibited accent-imitating skills as we referred to each passing church as “my most favorite cathedral in all of Spain” and pointed out the window at “my most favorite olive tree” and “my most favorite stop light.”  Boisterous laughter accompanied Jiao’s explanation of Spinoza’s philosophy as seeking “the porpoise of life.”

“Are we going to an aquarium then, mate?” blurted an Australian.  Alert to any perceived lack of respect, Jiao castigated us like an angry seventh grade homeroom teacher:  “You make fun of me.  Well, that is it.  Today I will not speak.  If you want to switch tour guides, just call the company.  Simple like that.  I will give you the phone number.”

Several of the guests called the number and learned that we would have to wait several days for a replacement tour guide.  Meanwhile, Jiao would act on a lame-duck basis.  Even more awkward, he would continue to travel with the tour for several additional days, until we arrived at a town with a train line back to Madrid.

“Is it worth it?” asked a guest over dinner.

“He’ll be even more miserable for four or five days,” said another traveler.

“We are enjoying the sights in spite of him,” I noted.

“And he is good with the bags – that’s important with so many loadings and un-loadings,” said a woman from Malaysia.

Simultaneously, several of us blurted:  “Well, I have never lost a bag, simple like that.”  We laughed.  Jiao’s defects were helping us come together as a group.  We decided to stick it out with Jiao.

At the mid-way point of the trip, as fate would have it, we arrived with several other guests in the lobby of our small hotel one morning to overhear Jiao shouting maniacally at the staff.  One of our group’s suitcases was apparently loaded by a bell-hop onto a different tour bus already headed north to San Sebastian.  That day, we were headed south to Seville.  Jiao slammed his fist on the front desk.  We admired his passion and truly felt a tug of sympathy for Jiao.  After all, besides his belief that Portugal is a better country to visit than Spain, there was nothing he was so proud of as his perfect luggage record.  We wondered which of the thirty of us was to be without a suitcase.

Still red-faced and muttering, Jiao studied his check-list and approached the knot of us gaping from the other side of the lobby.

“Uh-oh,” I said to my wife.  “He’s looking at us.”

“Mrs. Sanders,” he said.  “I am sorry to say that your bag has been, well, misplaced.”

“Well,” I said, unable to catch myself.  “Can’t we just call the other bus and get it back.”

“It is a different company,” said Jiao, “and I do not have their phone number.”

“Can’t the hotel reach them?” asked my wife.

“That is what I was just asking these, how do you say, idiotes,” said Jiao, indicating the front desk.  “They do not have the information.”

During the ensuing days, we received daily updates from Jiao on what came to be known in the group as “luggage-gate.”  First, he told us it would be delivered in one day, “simple like that.”  Next, he said that would not be possible because that would cost 500 Euros (about $650).  Next, he told us to buy new toothpaste and hairbrushes, etc. since it might take another day.  By the third day, he told my wife to buy herself a new outfit “on him.”

“Jiao,” I said.  “You should not have to pay out of your own pocket,” I said.  “Wasn’t it the hotel’s fault?”

“They deny it,” he said.  “They are not honorable like Jiao.”

“Has the bag definitely been located?”

“Yes, for sure!” he said.  “I think so.”

Finally, on the fourth day without luggage, we arrived at a hotel to find my wife’s bag waiting for us.  Jaio’s persistent hourly calling throughout the previous two days had finally paid off.  He reached into his pocket and promptly reimbursed us 100 Euros we had spent on clothes and toiletries.  We were relieved and appreciative for a moment until Jiao blew the good feeling all at once, announcing to everyone:  “Well, my amazing effort has returned my record to perfection.  I hope you will all remember the struggles I suffered when you think about the gratuity at the end of the trip.  Simple like that.”

The final days of the trip passed quickly.  The group had become more cohesive and enjoyed taking in the sights together.  Jiao was less of a factor, speaking infrequently to avoid derision and staying aloof at all the stops.  He made a final embarrassing appeal as we arrived back at Madrid:  “My friends,” he began.  “This tour had some, well, good things and some bad.  But I hope you enjoyed the beauty of Spain and know that you are the most favorite group I have ever led.  I invite you all to become my Facebook friends so that Jiao and you can continue to travel through life together.”

“If this is his most favorite group,” the man across the aisle said, “his others must have all ended in fist fights.”

Upon arrival at the final hotel, we were handed surveys to complete.  Nearly everyone stated their intention to savage Jiao, to make sure he never led another tour.  We left a generous tip for the driver but almost nothing for Jiao.  I agreed that a self-centered, narcissistic, egotistical, insincere and hypocritical person should not be a tour guide, and my numerical ratings reflected that; however, I could not resist noting truthfully in the “comments” section that Jiao was “unique.”

At breakfast the next morning, before heading to the airport, I was shocked to see Jiao approaching my table.   He appeared distressed, with tears running down his face.  My adrenaline spiked as I feared he would attack and I raised my arms in defense. I imagined that my review had cost him his job.  Instead of hitting me, Jiao grabbed me in a bear hug.

“What’s happening?” I blurted.

“You wrote the nicest thing anyone has ever written about me,” said Jiao.  “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“You read the reviews?” I asked.  “Aren’t they sent confidentially to the company?”

“I always read my reviews,” said Jiao, still regarding me with affection.  “No one ever acknowledged that I am unique.  You are now a friend for life, simple like that.  I will always stay in touch.”

I gradually extracted myself from Jiao’s arms. I did not know what to say, but I was happy to have given him an expired e-mail address.

“Best of luck,” I said.

“You, too, my friend,” said Jiao, worshipful.

Dear Readers:
     I have spent the last two-and-a-half weeks on a tour of Spain with my wife, Katie.  At times, the trip was exciting and fun and, at other times, somewhat of an ordeal.  The last time a traveler covered this much territory in Spain, Cervantes wrote an 800 page novel about it.  Compared to his efforts, my explanations, experiences and observations are not profound, literary, meaningful or worthy of being translated into 120  languages.  However, they do offer something that he lacks, namely: brevity.
     Much of what appears below was shared with several readers by e-mail.  That content is reprinted here, with some editing and additional content, with permission from the author.  The process of obtaining permission was extremely simple.
PART ONE:  October 31, 2012, “Hello Mutha, Hello Fatha, We Will Eventually, be in Granada”
     Congratulations to those of you on the East Coast of the US for surviving Hurricane Sandy.   We have followed
your travails on BBC World and I have to say that they show an impressive degree of concern for the old colonies.
We are hurtling through Spain at an alarming rate.  Chevy Chase surely did a movie on this experience.  My first observation is that one should buy more stock in Philip Morris.  Doubtless related to the first observation is that cough drops and sinus medicines also sell well over  here.
Our guide is a character.  He uses the word “well” like a teenager uses “like,” as in:  “Well, Barcelona is a city, well, that is what can you say, well, it is well, Barcelona.”  He has also shared with us that Portugal is the longest standing nation in Europe and that Portugal is the greatest exploring nation in the world and Portugal has the best wine and Portugal has the most soulful people, etc.  This may have something to do with, well, he is a proud Portuguese who somehow drew the Spain assignment this fortnight, and he is not that thrilled about it.
     Nonetheless, we have seen a bit of Madrid on our own, and several days worth of Valencia and Barcelona, respectively, with the group.   The group consists of 35 people from seven nations, including:  England, Australia, Austria, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore and the US.  Several who now live in the US are derived from Iraq.  Since these people, collectively and individually, certainly (when the memories have fully sunk in) warrant entire writings dedicated to them, I will focus here on the travelogue.
       As to Valencia, to the extent I ever thought about it, I thought it was in Italy.  But I was happy to find it in Spain with all its great oranges and fish.  And what architecture!     We enjoyed the stunning beauty of Valencia… A very livable sort of place and we enjoyed the hubbub of Barcelona with its Gaudi and parks and walking areas and shopping, etc.   Basically, as one who would rather live in Philadelphia than New York, if I had to choose, it should not surprise that I preferred Valencia.  But, well, this has been too small a sample to well, make a real, well, comparison.  And to the credit of Barcelona, it is likely the only place a hotel could be in the shape of a large mushroom.  Well.  So you see, well, that the guide is very, well, imitatable and I must stop doing so if, well, I wish to remain married, and if I wish any of you to continue reading.
     The highlight, so far, was a sunset boat ride around a fishing and rice-growing village outside Valencia.  We were fed paella accompanied by ample portions of sangria.  Note that wine is less expensive than water at most restaurants.  We travel towards Pamplona tomorrow where I hope the bulls are on siesta.  More reporting from the paella tour in a couple of days.
PART TWO:  November 2, 2012  “Pamplona is a Lot of Bull”
     From Valencia, we traveled first to Zaragosa, with its massive town plaza featuring a double header, both cathedral AND basilica.  Zaragosa also has a central market (as does nearly every town) featuring fresh fruits, pastries, and seemingly hundreds of pig-related foodstuffs.  Our favorite part of Zaragosa features their native son, the Goya Museum (paintings, not beans, for all you Goya fans).  From there, we traveled to Pamplona, which is a three-trick town: bull running street, holy walk destination and Hemingway hangout.  We drank wine where Ernest did (every establishment in town claims him as a customer) and we ate tapas, which is a Basque term that may mean: “strange food served strangely.”   I did enjoy the bread and local olive oil.  Did you know that the world’s leading grower of olives is not Greece or Italy, but Spain?  Apparently, most of the gazillion acres of olive trees in Spain are owned by Italian companies.  They harvest the olives in Spain and transport them to Italy for processing, and then declare them products of Italy.
      We marched gamely around Pamplona  in a chilling rain and made such sage conjectures as this:  no two ways of flushing a toilet in a Spanish town are ever the same.  There are chains, buttons, handles, knobs, wall-based levers, two-sided contraptions to allow for choice of … Well,  enough of that.
     From Pamplona, we traveled further north to San Sebastián, a snazzy place nestled in the Pyrenees.  Yes, it was nice to see a prosperous -looking town, as the so called “economical crisis” has not hit there.   The Basques, like the Catalans in Barcelona, speak their own dialect and wish to secede from Spain entirely, so that they can be free of what they consider an unfair tax burden.  Basques also have, we are told, a very Germanic, NON-Spanish sort of efficiency.  The city, on the coast of the Bay of Biscayne, is clean and bustling and in close proximity to the French ski resort of Biarritz.   We visited two or three more cathedrals there and in a town called Burgos over the course of several days, and saw a tower for the Knights Templar (powerful back in 1207, or so) in a town unfortunately named Peniscola.   I dovened  appropriately in each chapel with whatever I could remember from my long ago bar mitzvah.
Onward then to Bilbao where we visited the Guggenheim and admired Frank Gehry’s architecture.   Tourism in Bilbao has increased several thousand-fold since the mid-1990’s construction of the museum and it, too, is a prosperous place.   We noted windmills and solar panels all along the highways; nearly all of  northern Spain is powered by wind and solar and it was stunning to see.   It is amazing/sad to see how much farther along this relatively impoverished country is than we are… But I am trying hard to avoid political issues these days.
PART THREE:  November 2, 2012.  “The Rain in Spain Falls, Basically, Everywhere”
    We managed to solve the drought in Spain.  This is not the same magnitude of accomplishment as bringing a week of rain to Phoenix or sleet to San Francisco, as we achieved on previous vacations, but it is still worthy of a simple basilica or two in our honor.  Nonetheless, we continued the transition from palaces and cathedrals to palaces, cathedrals, basilicas and castles.
     From Bilbao, we moved south to Salamanca, a university town.  There we saw the “new” cathedral (16th century) and the old original (11th century).  I imagine the building fund is about to rev up again.  All lit up, the town was magical to see.  However, if one did look up, the discharge from a gargoyle might drown one, since it was raining gatos and perros.  We also saw the walled city of Avila (El Cid, a/k/a/ Charlton Heston) played a large role in killing Muslims there.
     Each town has a Jewish Quarter, which the tour guide makes an astonishingly big deal about, considering that there have been no Jews practicing openly in Spain since about 1492.   He is under the impression that everyone got along swimmingly back in 1320 or so, but I remain skeptical.   No one ever loved the tax collector and that was often the only job made available by the local royalty.  In any event, the Jewish quarter now implies tiny shops in tiny streets with many souvenirs.
        Last evening, we alighted upon Seville, a major metropolis.  Dinner on our own was  successful at a seafood restaurant.  Ham is otherwise a constant at every meal.  Katie’s suitcase is taking its own vacation, having been loaded onto the wrong bus at Salamanca, so we also had some shopping to do.  We are told it will catch up to us later today or tomorrow.  So far, she is coping admirably (and buying necessities on the tour company’s Euro) but if it does not show up by tomorrow, the sleepy province of Andalucia may see her inner-New Jersey.
        We visited a major-league cathedral this morning, biggest in the world, and a palace constructed in commemoration of the Seville exposition of 1929.  Tile was in style, at least for a while.   The Jewish quarter is a massive shopping area where, potentially, I should open up a stand and sign autographs.   We are happy to be missing the final throes of the US election.  The 2016 race will not begin until about February, I imagine, during which time we may be writing from our new home in Panama.
     PART FOUR:  November 9, 2012
Perhaps some of our prayers in all these cathedrals were answered.  America may yet go off the “fiscal cliff,” but at least it is not yet ready to go off the intolerance cliff.   For what it is worth, (and it may not be worth one iota) nearly every  non-American was delighted with the election result.  It is nice not to  feel a need to answer “Canada” as our home country, as we occasionally did when we traveled back in the Bush years.
      Since the last installment, we have finished our stay in Seville and visited Granada and Cordoba, as well as various truck stops along the way that do not make the guide books. We have seen several towns where the Man of La Mancha failed to actually exist.  We have also gotten lost in more Jewish quarters than they have in Israel.   “A business with no street signs,” to quote what my father would surely have said.   In the south of Spain, one adds mosques to the triumvirate of cathedrals, castles, palaces and gift shops.   (I realize that is a quartet; just making sure you are reading carefully).
     Our tour guide created some unusual expectations on our ride to Grenada when he assured us over and over that, well,  we would discover there “the porpoise of life.”   This made me wonder if there was an aquarium.   By this stage of the trip, some of our fellow-travelers were audibly mocking him when he spoke.  We actually cringed  when we heard him activate the microphone.  But, well, I digress…
The mosques initially left us underwhelmed.   Even the Alhambra, an official wonder of the world, was a little dour.   Pouring rain did not help, along with loud, polyglot crowds.   Also, Grenada was somewhat grimy, its walls defaced with nasty-looking graffiti.  There were clusters of swarthy young men in leather jackets hanging around the street corners, indicative of the sour state of the economy in southern Spain.  Fortunately, lest my slightly skeptical view of Arab culture be confirmed, we ended our main travels at the Mezquite Cathedral in Cordoba.  Along with the fact that the town of Cordoba is prettier and cleaner than Grenada,  and the obligatory Jewish quarter is well-marked and interesting, the combo mosque/cathedral is stunning!  Really, the architectural highlight of the trip.  It seems that the Christians let the Muslims do much of the heavy lifting  (literally) back in the eleventh century and then took over in the thirteenth century to complete an amazing cathedral over the top of a flamboyantly elaborate mosque foundation.   While we saw some SERIOUSLY impressive edifices on this trip,  this one topped them all.   A tour has advantages and disadvantages, but I must admit that if we were not part of a tour, by this stage of the trip, I might not have visited “one more cathedral.”  And that would have been unfortunate.
     We broke up the so-so tour group meals in Cordoba by going out for Chinese food.  The whole kitchen staff came out to stare at Katie, a Mandarin-speaking gringo.   Random observation:   Spain utilizes the same wealth redistribution strategy as most American states– from the lower class back to the government– via the lottery.  There are kiosks on every other street that are humming with business from a deluded  population, no matter how downcast the other businesses  appear to be.
PART FIVE:  November 11.  The End of the Road
After two weeks of plying the highways and byways of Spain, it was nice to see our old, original hotel, however humble, back in Madrid.  The tour ended today and some brain cells are coming available again as I delete the precariously remembered names (though not the peculiarities) of my fellow-travelers.  Observation, after two weeks of travel:  You know you have relied too much on BBC World when you know the daily average temperature in Rangoon and the name of the opposition party in Upper Mongolia.
     We had two more days in Madrid, on our own.  The  highlight of the first day was the Thyssen Museum.  We chose it over the Prado for its emphasis on modern art instead of the old religious stuff.  Very nice museum.
     The next day, our last, we walked the most, from the Plaza Mayor, to downtown, to the Prado where we listened to a wonderful classical guitar performer, to the huge Retiro Gardens, and back to the Plaza again from whence we returned to the hotel.  The highlights were several serendipitous occurrences in the Gardens, which are like Central Park.  There was an a capella choir practicing, a huge outdoor photography exhibit on wildlife with English explanations (not always present in museums/cites outside major cities).  We saw the “silver palace,” a destination in the middle of the park, that is neither a palace nor silver.  It is best-described as a huge glass greenhouse decorated with tiles around its foundation.  Anyway, it has particularly beautiful flowers around it and a duck pond that is a favorite photograph destination for brides and tourists.  Perhaps, park strollers are a self-selected healthier population, but it struck us that 90% of the Spanish population was NOT smoking there, a much better ratio than usual.
     On the way back to our hotel, we had an experience that certainly will not happen in Chapel Hill, NC.  We found ourselves overtaken by a demonstration in favor of independence for Western Sahara.  It seems that Spain held it as a colony and then abandoned it in the 1990’s in the face of terrorist bombings.  Instead of setting up an independent nation, Spain simply walked out, allowing neighboring Morocco to annex it.  So… to make a VERY  long story short, the Western  Saharan emigrants (I’d like to have the deodorant concession)  and friends of the cause are demonstrating for independence from Morocco in Spain, since, presumably, the Spanish government is less likely to shoot and imprison them.  Got it?  The 1,000 or so demonstrators were dressed in outfits typical of the Western Sahara,  I presume.  It was more a party atmosphere than an angry one, with drums and horns and ululating women (that has nothing to do with sex, I think).  It was not scary, but it was chaotic and memorable; our faces are now probably somewhere in a security database in Casablanca.  We’re the ones without facial hair (that goes for male and female participants).
       What else can I say?   We had one more so-so meal in what we began to think of as “our neighborhood,” and went back to our room to pack.  We are ready for our comparatively dull existences again.  We never thought we would CRAVE oatmeal, or ANY meal without twelve varieties of sausage, but we do.
Hasta la vista, Your Correspondent