Thursday, May 5, 2011

A "Vacation" in Spain

Our eight nights in Spain were a special part of our trip because my mom & step-dad flew over from the U.S. to spend their week of vacation with us. As usual, they totally left the itinerary up to me. I did the majority of the planning and particularly made the reservations at the absolute last minute (less than a week before their arrival) because they were flying standby on Delta and thus we had to wait to see which route(s) were going to offer the best availability for them to travel from the U.S. as well as to return home.

Ronnie, Mom & Greg in Toledo
Mom & Ronnie have traveled with me numerous times in the past, so I generally know their likes & dislikes. They are easygoing and have similar interests to Greg & I, so it is never too hard to find sights & activities that all of us will enjoy. As I have in the past, I put together a rough itinerary outlining possible cities we could visit within their one-week vacation time frame as well as transport & sightseeing options and costs, and emailed that to them a few weeks before their departure. With their feedback, and the limitations imposed by flying standby, I decided to focus on the highlights of Barcelona & Madrid with a small, historic town (Toledo) squeezed in the middle.
Toledo seen from the highway
We decided to rent a two bedroom apartment in Barcelona for three nights (Vivo Barcelona). For $165 per night, we had a great location at the base of Montjuic, walking distance to the historic center and a short bus/subway ride to other famous sites like Parc Guell. In addition, we had a fully equipped kitchen and chose to cook breakfast every morning to give us energy for full days of sightseeing (mostly on foot). We also saved money by only eating one restaurant meal per day, typically a late lunch/early dinner, then would return to the apartment in the early evening to enjoy light snacks & beverages purchased from the nearby grocery store.
taking advantage of our Barcelona apartment's large refrigerator
I couldn't find suitable, reasonably priced apartment-style accommodations in Toledo or Madrid, partly because I was very picky about the location as I wanted to have the option to walk everywhere. Thus we stayed in simple hotels, saving money by sleeping in quad rooms that accommodated all four of us in one room versus in two separate double rooms which cost almost twice as much. I tried to find places that had mini-fridges in the room so we would be able to store food & drinks, but that proved to be quite difficult. As you can see, there are ways to improvise!
a beer bidet
Despite the challenges of preparing a meal in a hotel room, we continued to eat out only once per day. I consider these meals one of the highlights of our week. We discovered that many restaurants offered 10 euro, 3-course meals including bread and a choice of beverage (wine, beer, soda, water). This was not only an excellent value as the food was plentiful & delicious, but it also gave us an opportunity to try many of the local specialties as well as to get off our feet for a couple of hours and enjoy each other's company.
Mom & Ronnie at dinner in Barcelona
Another highlight of any Europe trip is the opportunity to visit all the wonderful museums, palaces, churches and public spaces that make each city unique. However, admission fees can be quite expensive so if you're on a budget it's important to find a balance between big ticket items and free ones. As I briefly mention in my daily log at the end of this post, we saw everything we wanted to see in all the cities we visited, but, for example, instead of paying to go into all (3+) of the great art museums in Madrid, we picked the best (the Prado) and went in the evening when it was free.
Sagrada Familia - not free but worth every penny
While Greg & I are big proponents of public transportation, which is one of the many reasons we love traveling in Europe, we ultimately decided to rent a car to travel from Barcelona to Madrid via Toledo. I'll explain why:

First, we priced flights from Barcelona to Madrid. There are plenty of budget airlines that operate on that route and we easily found a well-timed direct flight for $78 per person. But to fairly compare flying to other modes of transportation, you have to factor in the time & cost of getting to/from the airport(s) as well as check-in requirements. In addition, since we would also be traveling to Toledo, you have to add the cost of the round-trip train tickets at $27 per person. Thus the total cost of flying amounted to $450 for four people, which does seem very reasonable.

Our first choice would have been to take the train. However, the cost of the three-hour train ride from Barcelona to Madrid (on the super-fast AVE) is $170 per person in second class. Add the round trip train to Toledo and the total cost for four people is $790! Note that there are also buses, taking a minimum seven hours to travel from Barcelona to Madrid, but I didn't even bother to price them since we would still have the hassle of connecting to another bus/train to get to Toledo & back.

A two-day rental of a four-door manual transmission Peugot 207 (gas engine) from Sixt Rent A Car, with unlimited kilometers and no fee for one way drop off, cost $82. I waived any insurance premiums as my credit card offers full coverage on car rentals. We drove a total of 826km, paid $54 in tolls, $105 for fuel, and $38 for parking. Plus, instead of all four of us hauling our luggage to the car rental location in Barcelona, I simply took the subway to get the car (with my mom, so she could help me navigate), then drove to the apartment to pick up everyone. We did the reverse in Madrid. The total cost of the car rental for four people was only $285.
our rental car
As I didn't have time to do much writing while we were in Spain (I was too busy planning our sightseeing itinerary and sorting out how to get from point A to B), I will include this daily log that at least documents what we did/saw on this part of our trip:

4/8 Early morning flight from Oporto to Barcelona, met Mom & Ronnie at the airport and took a taxi to our apartment, everyone took a 2 hour nap, ate lunch/dinner in our neighborhood (stewed tripe & fish for me), strolled the Ramblas, explored the Mercat de la Boqueria, bought groceries and returned to the apartment (drank some cheap boxed sangria, beer, etc.)

4/9 Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, Turkish lunch, fantastic Modernist buildings of the Eixample & Passeig de Gracia

4/10 Santa Maria del Mar, got interviewed by local TV station about Catalan separation, Cathedral of Barcelona + cloisters, City Hall, wander the Barri Gotic, funicular to Montjuic - 1992 Olympic Stadium, walked back to our neighborhood, dinner in the square (complimentary tortillas appetizer; bacon/chorizo/egg/fries dish for me)

4/11 Long drive from Barcelona to Toledo; perplexed by unmarked black bull billboards - the only billboards along the highway - later discovered they were an old advertising campaign for that was designated a cultural landmark; Mom resewed my Nokia backpack strap; snacked along way but ate dinner near our hotel in Toledo (pizza for me)

4/12 Had a great day exploring Toledo on foot. Beautiful weather (25C temp & clear skies). Tuesday market, escalator back uphill, bought Pulsera Turistica pass (8 euros each) for entry into Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Iglesia de Santo Tome, Iglesia del Salvador, Holy Church Cathedral (separate 7 euro entrance fee), Iglesia de los Jesuitas, Mezquita Cristo de la Luz; ate lunch/dinner outside (we all ordered 10EUR meal of day: bread & olives, steak/fries/salad + wine & dessert - flan or rice pudding)

4/13 Had to "fight" the traffic into Madrid this morning; 7-lane roundabouts aren't the easiest to navigate! Settled into our hostal, ate a yummy 10EUR/3-course lunch with wine (paella & pork ribs & natillas for me), strolled Retiro Park, viewed the masterpieces at the Prado Museum for free (from 6-8pm most days)

4/14 Another great day of sightseeing on foot in Madrid: toured the Royal Palace, good 3-course lunch (peas w/ham, stuffed peppers, natillas for me), visited multiple churches: San Francisco (but didn't pay extra to go in)/San Miguel/San Pedro/San Nicolas, explored Plaza Mayor to Puerta del Sol, saw a political protest march. Sadly Mom & Ronnie are heading home tomorrow morning for the best odds at flying standby

4/15 Campbell's left the hostal at 7am this morning; we stayed in to rest (both suffering from allergies) and edit photos/blog, etc.; walked to the Madrid Tower to pick up our pre-purchased SNCF train tickets from the Rail Europe office; ate a 3-course lunch (gazpacho, roasted lamb, natillas)

4/16 Had to check out of our room by 11am; stayed in the common area of our hostal for a few hours then had lunch nearby (appetizer, croquettes, natillas); took metro to Chamartin station to catch the overnight Ellipsos hotel train to Paris

Links to my Spain photos:

No comments:

Post a Comment