The Best Of Spain With Globus

3 March 2015

A headless woman wearing red strolls aimlessly among the tourists. Nearby a matador discusses his art with an elderly man in a beige cardigan. A solidly silver angel props improbably – miraculously even – in mid-air beside a pole.

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor is alive with buskers and visitors, heads turning and cameras clicking.

It’s my first visit to southern Spain and I’ve arrived early, the better to deal with jetlag before joining a Globus tour that will take me to the “Best of Spain” in just over a week. A week! Yes, it’s not enough…but the beauty of the coach tour is that we spin from city to city with all the driving taken care of.

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Spain's Famous Fictional Son

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Between destinations, all I have to do is gaze out the window and daydream. As my coach tour rolls through the countryside, I eschew the free onboard wi-fi so popular with the teens on board and try not to let the rhythm of the coach lull me into sleep as it does to some of my fellow passengers. I’m keen to see everything.

After two days in Madrid, I meet one of Spain’s most famous fictional sons. The bronze statue of Don Quixote “tilting at windmills” along with his sidekick Sancho Panza stands in the Plaza de Espana in front of a monument to their creator, Miguel de Cervantes.

 Madrid's Mercado de San Miguel

Along with bullfighting and flamenco, I find that Don Quixote is an enduring symbol of Spain – or the south, at least – and a motif that I will see again and again, particularly in the arid landscapes of La Mancha.

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Holy Toledo High Above The River

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Madrid provides many highlights, including a visit to the Prado Museum. For fans of European art, the Prado’s permanent collection includes some of the best: Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and El Greco among them.

There are other delights too: the bustling undercover markets of Mercado de San Miguel, small shops hung with delectable hams and redolent with the aroma of pungent cheeses, laughter spilling from the doorways of cool, dim tavernas, frescos on the walls of shuttered apartment buildings, paella cooking in open kitchens.

 World Heritage-listed Toledo

“Holy Toledo” takes on a literal meaning on an optional day tour to this World Heritage listed city, just 45 minutes drive south of Madrid. Dressed in sepia tones, Toledo sits high above the River Tagus, and is dominated by the 16th century Alcazar fortress.

The city’s historic attractions include the 13th century Gothic cathedral, and in the Jewish Quarter, Spain’s oldest synagogue, dating back to the 12th century, now owned by the Catholic Church.

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Remember Your Walking Shoes

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Spain is constitutionally a secular society, but more than 70 per cent of the population is Catholic. As our tour guide explains, there has been a strong Muslim, Jewish and Moorish influence on Spain over its long and diverse history, and many religious buildings have changed hands (or denominations) over the centuries. Toledo is a prime example of this.

Pack your walking shoes; it’s the best way of exploring the cobblestone alleys and back streets of Toledo’s Old Town and throughout the tour there are many chances to stretch your legs.

From Madrid, we drive south through the arid landscapes of Don Quixote's La Mancha, past fields of solar panels and wind turbines that stand testament to Spain’s investment in renewable energy, which currently provides more than one third of the country’s electricity supply.

 Cordoba's Mosque of the Caliphs

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We stop for morning tea in the village of Puerto Lapice – in the heart of La Mancha – and gaze up at three old-fashioned windmills on the hillside above, another reminder of Don Quixote. Once used to grind grain, windmills are now obsolete but in Spain are protected by law in order to save the few still left standing.

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Marvels Of The Mosque

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A brief stop in Cordoba reveals the marvels of the eighth-century Mosque of the Caliphs, with its 850 pillars of marble, jasper and porphyry, before we head to Andalusia.

In Seville, highlights include the Alcazar, founded in the 11th century as a Moorish fortress, and a walk through the narrow lanes of the Santa Cruz Quarter.

The day ends with jugs of sangria and a Flamenco show; it may be touristy, but the fabulous flamboyance of those swirling skirts is worthwhile seeing.

 The magnificent Alhambra

Just outside Granada, the mighty Alhambra complex, with its Arabesque gardens, fountains and intricate red stonework, fascinates me. I could spend a whole day here, if time allowed.

The 13th-Century citadel, meticulously planned by the Moorish ruler Al Ahamar, is set high above the river Darro with views across the city.

Barcelona provides our tour’s grand finale. This is Antoni Gaudi’s city; the Spanish architect’s two masterpieces stand out in an itinerary of “bests”. First, we head to Guell Park, to join the throngs admiring Gaudi’s “organic” creations and colourful mosaics.

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The Country's Most Visited Building

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In the city heart, his unfinished cathedral, Sagrada Família, is like something from a fairytale.  This is the most visited building in Spain, and visitors book months ahead and then queue for hours to see inside. We have to be content with the extraordinary exterior, and for many, that’s almost enough.

 Guell Park in Barcelona

Barcelona has other attractions: long stretches of sandy beach, the crush of shoppers and sightseers along the boulevard La Rambla (watch your wallets, we’re warned), the cool narrow lanes of the Ciutat Vella (Old City) and the pretty little plazas of the Gothic Quarter.

On a day tour to Montserrat from Barcelona the coach toils up the twisting mountain road to the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat, founded in 1025. The double drawcards here are the sweeping views and the statue of the Black Madonna, patron saint of Catalonia, still said to perform miracles.

The week flashes by; seven cities in seven days (not counting arrival and departure days).

It’s been many years since I took a coach tour like this but I can see the advantages. We’ve seen a lot, in the easiest and least-stressful way, and if there are places I’d like to have lingered in longer (yes, most of them) … then I know now where I want to come back to!

The writer travelled as a guest of Globus.

Lee Mylne

Born in New Zealand, travel writer Lee Mylne has lived in England, Canada and the Middle East but has called Australia home for many years. Widely published in print and online, she is also the author of a dozen travel guides and anthologies.