Iberia - Portugal and Spain - July 2016
8-10 July 2016, home Boston to London-Heathrow to Faro, Portugal (2 nights in Faro)
We drove a rental car to Reagan-National Airport in Washington D.C. and caught our US Air flight to Boston, and then got on our overnight British Air flight to London-Heathrow. We had the front two seats in first class on a Boeing 747, which are in the very nose of the plane, below and forward of the pilots. We arrived in London before anyone else on that flight. We went through customs, then went to the BA first class lounge in Heathrow for a few hours, then onto our connecting BA flight to Faro, Portugal. We arrived in Faro to find that 2 of our 3 bags had not made it to Portugal with us. Finding someone who represented British Air was a task, as BA does not have baggage personnel at the Faro airport. We waited in line at the airport lost baggage line for over an hour only to find out that the one-stop lost baggage line at Faro airport does not deal with British Air lost baggage. British Air relies on Swiss Air to take care of their customers, but it took us a while to determine that. Once we had them aware of the bag problem, we headed for the rental car company where we had reserved a car. Here we found a huge line and very slow turnaround on each customer. They had several desks open and people continuously helping customers, but going over each rental contract and filling out all the paperwork took 30+ minutes for each customer. There were also people returning cars, which was handled by the same customer service reps; each of those returns was taking 10+ minutes. It was very different from a fast rental car desk in the US where we were used to a picking up a rental car in <5 minutes and returning it in seconds at the drive-up drop-off line. It took almost 1.5 hours of waiting, but they did have our car, and once we had loaded up the only bag to make it to Faro with us, we headed to our hotel a few miles away.
We spent the next morning near the pool, and then we caught the shuttle down to the hotel beach in the afternoon. After spending a couple hours at the beach, we went back for a fantastic dinner at the hotel. Right after we arrived back to the hotel from the beach, two reps from Swiss Air arrived with one of our missing bags that British Air had managed to find and get to us. The last (and biggest) bag was still missing. The Swiss Air folks had great service; they brought the bag to the hotel as soon as it arrived - we just wish that British Air had managed to get the final bag to us as well.
Dinner was a great experience; the food and drink was fantastic, and the staff was very excited. The Portuguese national soccer team was in the finals for the European Cup and the final game was being played while we ate. The maitre-de and waiters were doing their best to keep the dining experience formal and relaxed, but every now and then we would hear a cheer coming from the waiters in the back rooms as the Portuguese team scored. We were eating on the outside patio, and the head waiter came over to apologizer and close the doors so we would not hear the cheers. We and all the other diners at the restaurant said it was fine, and to keep the doors open and the cheers coming. Portugal won, and there was much rejoicing. After dinner, we drank some mixed drinks at the bar, and finally made it to bed.
11 July 2016, Faro to Lisbon (1 night in Lisbon)
We were driving to Lisbon on this day, and had told the Swiss Air reps to have our last bag sent to Lisbon, as the first flight in from British Air on this morning was not going to arrive until after we left Faro. We drove several hours to Lisbon, arriving at our hotel about mid-day. We took a hop-on hop-off bus ride around Lisbon, and then took a taxi in the evening to a small restaurant by the water for dinner. We walked around a bit, finally getting another taxi back to our hotel. We then spent a couple hours on the phone with British Air customer service, trying to find our last bag and get it shipped to us in Lisbon before we flew to Barcelona the next morning. This was a LOT harder than it should have been. We talked to a couple different customer service reps, and they had different answers of where our last bag might be. The first rep thought the bag had been sent to Faro that day, after we had specifically said "Don't send the bag to Faro - we won't be there." Then that rep thought the bag was at the airport in Lisbon. At one or two points, the call was dropped and we had to wait a while for a new rep to get to us from the queue. The next rep thought the bag would arrive in Lisbon after we left for Barcelona, and then told us that the bag would either be delivered to the hotel sometime overnight or would be waiting for us at the airport in Lisbon the next morning. Maybe. This took a few service reps across several calls, with over two hours on the phone. We went to bed with little hope of ever seeing that bag again.
12 July 2016, Lisbon to Barcelona (1 night in Barcelona)
We got up early, and .... SURPRISE ... that last bag had actually been delivered to our hotel overnight! British Air had finally come through ... after we had been in Portugal for 3 days. We like BA very much; their service and flights are great, the first class lounge as London Heathrow is incredible (really !), and their personnel are always very friendly and helpful. It was just in this one case that we had a bad experience. We will still fly BA, but plan on restricting our outbound luggage to one carry-on bag each from now on. That way we will carry less, provide no chance for luggage to get lost on the way to vacation, and have more checked bags to bring back wine.
We drove our rental car to Lisbon airport, dropped it off (which did go quickly in Lisbon), and made it to our Iberian Air flight to Barcelona on time. After getting to Barcelona mid-day, we found that all our bags had made it with us. We took a taxi to our hotel, checked in, and then went back out to take a hop-on hop-off bus ride around Barcelona. We got off at the Basilica of Sagrada Familia, but could not get tickets to go inside. We walked around the outside, taking lots of pictures, and drinking sangria. After catching the bus back to our hotel and resting a while, we went back out and slowly walked down to the main tourist area, looking for a nice place for dinner that had been called out in reviews. That area did not turn out to be as nice as we had hoped, so we caught a taxi to a restaurant near our hotel than ended up being very nice with great food, and great sangria. Noticing any pattern here with our drinks? We stumbled the short distance back to our hotel and bed.
13 July 2016, Barcelona to Pamplona (1 night in Pamplona)
The next morning, we walked to the car rental place just a few blocks from the hotel, and picked up the car we would be driving for the rest of the trip. We drove back to the hotel and loaded up our bags, then headed west out of town towards Pamplona. We arrived in Pamplona in the late afternoon, checked into our room, changed into our red and white clothes, and went back out to join the immense party that was on-going all week with the running of the bulls. We drank A LOT. Very much. Tami says that starting on this day, and going for the next 5 days or so, she never really got fully sober. We walked around, checked out all the sights, had drinks at several bars and outside eateries, danced, and then stopped at a place in the main square late the evening for some tapas for dinner. We did make it back to our hotel somehow. Tami was more drunk than Chris, but she actually managed to navigate us back through the streets.
14-15 July 2016, Pamplona to Laguardia (2 nights in Laguardia)
We got up the next morning, and headed for the running of the bulls. This was the last day of the running. It is a great experience that everyone should do if they can, but be prepared for lots of VERY drunk people, and know that the bulls run past in just a few seconds. There are 6 bulls, and they run through the cordoned-off route, with many people lining the route outside the barriers, with more people inside with the bulls. We took this video of the Running Of The Bulls on 14 July 2016. Once the bulls finish the run to the bull-ring, everything is opened up, so we walked around town some more, and then followed the route from the bull-ring back to the start of the route, buying a few souvenirs on the way. At this point, everything quiets down for several hours while everyone rests until the bull fights later in the day. We tried to get tickets, but they were all sold out for this day, the last day of the festival. We walked back to our hotel, had breakfast, checked out, got our car, and headed towards Laguardia. This was a nice drive through northern Spain. We arrived to find the walled city of Laguardia with our hotel just inside one of the main gates to the city, on the east side. Our room was great, with a view looking out on one of the main squares. We walked around the town, climbing to the top of the watch tower at the north end of the city, and then back down and to the west side and finally to the south end, and back to our hotel for drinks and dinner.
Laguardia sits on top of a hill, and that hill is full of tunnels that have historically been used to store wine, as Laguardia is in the middle of the Rioja wine region. Many of the tunnels are still used for wine storage, and some have been updated and made into tour routes or spas or restaurants. Our hotel had a large section of tunnels renovated, with wine tasting, food, and a spa. Other tunnels in the city are available for tours. We started with wine tasting in the tunnels with a tapas, then then moved to dinner on the patio, and then back inside to the main restaurant when it got a little chilly. The service and food were great.
The next day, we drove around the Rioja region, visiting several wineries and buying lots of wine. We toured the Marques de Riscal winery, and had lunch at the Hotel Marques de Riscal, a hotel that was designed by the same architect who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which we visited the following day. We made it back to Laguardia in the late afternoon, and had dinner at the first table at the start of tunnels. After eating, we relaxed in the three story lounge, where the waiter found us and brought more wine.
16-17 July 2016, Laguardia to Bilbao to San Sebastian (2 nights in San Sebastian)
We drove from Laguardia to Bilbao, where we visited the Guggenheim Museum. We usually don't visit many art museums when on vacation, but decided to visit this one because of the museum building itself. The museum building is art by itself, and first and third floors contained fixed exhibits which we enjoyed very much. The second floor has visiting exhibits that change over time, and the art on the second floor when we visited was weird and disturbing. Maybe art is supposed to impact you, but we did not enjoy it.
We then drove on to San Sebastian and checked into our hotel. Chris went out and walked around for a little bit while Tami rested, and then we headed out together for the first night on a tapas crawl. All the bars in San Sebastian have tapas laid out, and the tradition is to go from bar to bar, trying out new foods and drinks at each bar. The old-town streets and bars are packed, and everyone is shoulder to shoulder, dancing, eating, drinking and having fun. We did this for hours, eventually ending up outside a little bar called Atari, on the steps of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, drinking wine and snacking on lots of different foods with hundreds of other people doing the same thing. It was our favorite experience on the whole trip.
We spent the day at the beach on the second day, and then repeated our tapas crawl again the second night. We tried different bars on the second night, but ended up again at Atari at the end of the evening, enjoying it just as much on the second night. The tapas crawl in San Sebastian made us want to go back to Spain more than anything else we did on this vacation.
18-19 July 2016, San Sebastian to Madrid (2 nights in Madrid)
We drove to Madrid and checked into our hotel. Chris went out and walked around the nearby area for a little bit, then we walked towards the old town together, looking for a similar section of Madrid that has a slightly toned-down tapas crawl. We found a couple bars and had a little food and drink, before heading to a flamenco dancing show that was great. We arrived just a few minutes before the show started, got perfect seats, and drank sangria while the dancers strutted for almost two hours.
On day two in Madrid, we walked across the street from our hotel and got on a hop-on hop-off bus tour, spending the day visiting all over the city on both bus tour lines, including getting off and touring the Royal Palace of Madrid. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant.
20-22 July 2016, Madrid to Toledo to Granada (3 nights in Granada)
We drove south out of Madrid, stopping in Toledo. We found a parking garage by the Alcazar, and spent a couple hours walking around the old-town. We then drove along the Carretera Alto, the road that follows the opposite bank of the Rio Tajo, overlooking the city. We drove up to the Parador de Toledo, and then climbed up the hill above it with a fantastic view of the city.
We continued on to Granada, turning west just before reaching the city. Our hotel for the next three nights was an hour west of Granada in the countryside, in a middle of a huge olive plantation. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, and had the hotel make reservations for us for the following day to tour the Alhambra in Granada.
After having breakfast on the outside patio to start the next day, we drove to Granada and stopped at the Alhambra early to pick up our tickets. Once we had our tickets, we drove down through the city, and then back up the hill opposite the Alhambra to the Mirador de San Nicolas, which overlooks the Alhambra. We found a restaurant with fantastic views and had lunch, before driving back and spending several hours touring the palace and fortress complex. We then drove south, reaching the coast near Almunecar, then traveling west along the coast, stopping for a short while at a beach near Torre del Mar. Finally we headed west almost to Malaga and then north back to our hotel.
On the next day, we were headed west in the general direction of Ronda, which we planned to visit along with a few other towns, possibly going to Gibraltar. On the way to Ronda, we passed near El Chorro, with the walkway Caminito del Rey. We had read about this hike, and decided to see what it was like. We drove around to the bottom end of the route, left our car there, and caught a bus back up to the start of the path. Normally, you park at the start, hike the pathway, and then take the bus back to your car. We stumbled upon the end of the route by accident because we were exploring the gorge in our car, but it worked out well as it was nice to have our car waiting for us after the hike. We spent several hours walking the path along the cliffs in the gorge, recording this video of the Caminito del Rey with a head-mounted GoPro. The last section of the video shows the drive out of the gorge with the GoPro mounted on the windshield of the car. He is an alternate version of the Caminito del Rey video, with the car section running at 5 times normal speed.
We then drove on to Ronda, walking along the cliffs and across the famous Puente Nuevo bridge. We headed back to our hotel and had dinner at the hotel restaurant.
23-25 July 2016, Granada to Seville (3 nights in Seville)
We had not really spent any time other than breakfast and dinner at our hotel. The hotel and spa are very nice, and the spa with a special sauna and hot-tub soak was included with our room price, so we spent several hours at the pool and spa before we left and drove to Seville. We arrived in Seville in the early afternoon, and checked into our hotel for the last three nights in Spain. We walked around the old-town city and found an area with a tapas crawl to enjoy.
We drove to Jerez the next day, touring the Gonzales Byass Tio Pepe bodega, and buying lots of wine and sherry. We then headed south out of Jerez, spending a few hours at the beach at Cape Trafalgar, watching the windsurfers. We made it back to Seville for dinner at a restaurant near our hotel.
The next day, we planned to tour the Alcazar and to prepare for our trip home. That meant getting boxes to carry our wine, dropping off our rental car, and packing for the bus ride back to Faro and the flights home. After driving all over Seville, we finally managed to get wine shipping boxes for all the wine we had bought on this trip. We then drove to the rental car facility downtown to return the car (which again, took a very long time with the same rental car company we had used in Portugal), and then caught a taxi back to our hotel. The Alcazar was right across the street from our hotel, and we toured it for a couple hours before going back to the hotel pool. Finally, we went back out for our final tapas crawl in Spain for this trip, and then packed for the trip home.
26-27 July 2016, Sevilla to Faro to London-Gatwick to London-Heathrow to Boston to home (1 night in Boston)
We had all our wine boxes packed (4 boxes at 40 pounds each with 12 bottles in each box), and all our luggage ready go. We took a taxi to the bus station, and after a lot of carrying boxes, managed to load everything onto the bus bound for the Faro, Portugal airport. It was a couple hour bus ride, then we got on our flight to London. Unfortunately, the flights home were a bit more indirect than coming to Portugal. Our flight back from Faro went to London-Gatwick, but our flight to the US left from London-Heathrow. After clearing customs at Gatwick, we took a car service to Heathrow, and checked in all our luggage before heading to the first class lounge. Then it was onto our Atlantic flight, arriving very late in Boston. We spent the night at a hotel at the airport, with a morning flight back to Washington D.C.
We had flown first class across the Atlantic, so we had three bags each for luggage allowance, but the short flight from Boston to Washington did not have any first class seats available when we booked, so we were flying coach for that one leg. Normally, partner airlines line American and Bristish Air work together to allow the luggage allowance to continue on a set of flights, so all our luggage and wine would be covered by our first class trans-Atlantic baggage allowance. They had done this connection on our flights to Europe for this trip, but when we checked into our flight the next morning, we found that both British Air and American had failed to connect the flights for our return back to the US. The ticket agent and her supervisor were both unable to make that baggage connection, which meant we were going to pay the baggage premiums for our luggage; it would have worked out to $300 for our bags. Instead, we rented a car for $75 and drove home from Boston.
Since we had all day, we drove along the coast going south, driving through Newport, Rhode Island and then we got on a car ferry in New London, Connecticut. The ferry took us to Orient Point, Long Island, where we continued on south, having a late lunch at the Lobster Roll, eventually reaching Montauk Point. We drove back west on Long Island, passing across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Staten Island, and then south to home.