Vern Walker sees some of the best of Spain and Portugal on a guided coach tour
We walked and walked, over tens of thousands of cobblestones. And because ancient castles were built long before Otis and Schindler made life easier for us, we climbed, turned and tottered into medieval history.
For most tourists to Spain and Portugal, many preconceptions will be realised: cavernous cathedrals, captivating Moorish tile-work, white-washed villages and plenty of wineries. This is a peninsula that comes alive after the sun goes down. Midday siestas fuel the late evenings. And both countries are great at honouring saints, sinners and soldiers in the form of monuments - bearded giants aloft well-muscled steeds, often waving a sword at the swirling roundabout traffic circling far below them.
We were a diverse group of 46 curious tourists, including a golf fanatic from Florida, an escapee from communist Romania, and a very fit farmer from Northland.
With 2600km ahead of us, our coach departed Madrid for Toledo and Granada, through a dun-coloured landscape, where wheat fields had been shaved down to a "number one" cut. We traversed a vast landscape of grey-green olive groves planted in military fashion and marching forever up and down the rolling countryside.
What to do in Granada
Granada's Alhambra demands the tourist to pop in and see what it is all about. It has layers upon layers of history, a hilltop of popular real estate scrambled over by thousands of tourists every day. The sprawling fortress encompasses royal palaces, Moorish architecture, water features and gardens built on the remains of a Roman fort dating back to 889AD. The view from its dominant position is a hilly sea of orange terracotta rooftops punctuated by dark green pointy poplars. All this surrounded by a wall 1790m long.
In Seville, I was rather ambivalent about going to an evening flamenco show; all that stomping of feet. However, I was soon enthralled as the castanets were clicked and wrists and fingers twirled. The women with their coal-black hair pulled back into a bun, transmitting their haughty passion to the audience. The arrogant jutting of the jawline, demanding our attention, all to the background of guitar music. And if the ladies were beautiful so were their flamboyant and full multi-layered skirts. Tremulous music, where the performer is definitely the queen.
Later in our journey I was almost as excited as I spotted rugby goal posts in Seville and Madrid - in a country where Cristiano Ronaldo and soccer is definitely the king.
As our coach smoothly conveyed us through semi-desert from Seville to Lisbon, we saw cork trees everywhere, then a more interesting green and hilly landscape as we approached the capital.
The history of Lisbon
The enormously wide Tagus River flushes past Portugal's capital and into the nearby Atlantic. There is a statue on its banks commemorating the Great Age of Discovery, when Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and a coterie of Portuguese sailors ventured into the New World, always at the vagaries of tide and wind, and sailing in tiny crucibles of creaking wood and stretched canvas.
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In 1497 da Gama sailed along the Tagus and discovered a sea route to India; the modern Vasco da Gama bridge over the river perpetuates his name and is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
Further along is a more recent commemoration of Portuguese discovery, a steel replica of a tiny aircraft in which two Portuguese pilots opened up a new route from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1922. The sailors of old and the more modern pilots remembered in two entirely memorials, just a few steps apart.
Tasting wine in Oporto
Oporto is on the wide Douro river, just before it spills into the Atlantic. Maybe I loved Oporto because there were pohutukawa trees growing along the waterfront. Or just maybe I loved the place because we were offered complimentary rich and mellow port in a major winery - fed by the grapes from the terraced vineyards of the Douro hinterland.
In the wine cellar our guide declared - and no one could argue with the statement: "There are more miracles in a barrel of wine than in a church full of saints."
One evening our group descended down sloping, narrow alleyways to the riverfront. Alleyways where the footprints of centuries have smoothed the cobblestones. Where one would not be surprised if some larrikin of old suddenly appeared in his cape, ruffled collar and pantaloons, waving a sharpsword.
We took a one-hour cruise on the Douro before flopping into a restaurant fronting all this maritime and touristic activity. A restaurant where everyone - fuelled by wine - talked at once. And no one could make much sense of what was being said, until a lovely meal arrived - and suddenly there was silence!
From there, it was a 430km haul from Oporto to Spain's university city of Salamanca. At first, we saw lush countryside with vineyards, fruit trees, sunflowers, and the blades of many wind turbines lazily turning away, then up, up, up on to a rocky plateau and into Salamanca. Here we strolled into one of the country's great plazas, once a venue of bullfights of yesteryear.
Taking the bus into Spain
With our arrival in Madrid we completed our huge square of travel along great highways funded by the European Union. And so we came to our final night.
Our guide called it our last supper and it was held in Plaza Mayor, a vast showcase of 17th century Spain, measuring 128 by 94 metres. At one time this was a medieval marketplace but today the vast square is enclosed by three storeys of apartments, balconies and steepled towers.
With the moon in full display, it was a bustling and romantic setting. It was crowded with young women with flowing black hair, and an eager entourage of young men attempting to seek their attention - and many tourists.
We had come, of course, to seek pleasure, but past history almost dictated otherwise: the square was once the place of grisly beheadings.
Restaurants were at full pace, serving our tables located outside under canopies. The wine was flowing, and we were served tapas - tasty portions of sliced sausage, potato and egg omelet, salad, seafood, and meat-filled pastries.
Our tour director, Julian Hidalgo, a local, ran the tour like a well-oiled Mazda. And could he sing. On the final night he sang La Paloma and Granada from the front seat of our Mercedes Benz, with the interior lights of the bus flashing on and off to the rhythm of the music. It was a memorable way to wind up 13 days of marvellous and diverse travel experiences.
Tips if you're considering a coach tour
• A small notebook is useful to record the time for your suitcase to be placed outside your room, time for breakfast and times of departure, and to hastily record historical data from the lips of your tour manager.
• Keep with the tour director at all times, despite the temptation to tarry and take more photos.
• Fitness is important. Consider a programme of daily walking long before your departure date.
• Many coach tours have a good number of one-night stopovers. A more leisurely tour with several two-night stops may suit better.
• Research the distances of travel between cities before reserving on a tour.
• When advising of pre-existing health problems with your travel insurance broker or travel agent, ensure you list all ailments. Then confirm the discussion by email.
Make sure you know the name and address of the hotel you are staying at. In Madrid there are three Novotels, all with slightly different names. A member of our group had forgotten which Novotel he was staying at. Three expensive taxi rides later he finally made it to ours.
Cosmos Tours' 13-day Best of Portugal and Spain tour from $2564