Saturday, December 8, 2012

Boarding the Bus

When we left off exactly one month ago (and where has the time gone?), I had shown some highlights of my 2+ days in Barcelona. I told you that I was embarking on an intensive bus tour across Northern Spain and down Western Portugal with the international tour company, Tauck. My only previous experience with their trips was a week in the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park, Montana. That glorious tour had been enough to convince my husband and me that putting the time and money into vacations with them was pretty much assurance of a grand and memorable occasion.

Knowing almost nothing about Spain, I had chosen this tour, "The Paradors of Northern Spain", pretty much based on the dramatic photos of some of the destinations, including the subject of today's post, Montserrat, plus some Internet research on the hotels involved, which promised much luxury. My Tauck experience (and the recommendations of others I know who have traveled with them) has shown that you not only get what you pay for, but often you get more. They have the advantage of booking blocks of rooms or even entire inns on a regular basis and receive preferential room locations and service. If there is a best hotel or inn in the area you will be in it, and if there is a room with a best view of the attraction that drew you there, you will probably have it. At this point in life, pampering is near the top of our list for vacation criteria. We have yet to be disappointed.

If you've never been on such a trip, you may wonder: what is so special about spending that much time on a bus, especially to travel for 1540 miles? Well, for one, if you want to cover that much ground in a short time in a foreign country, wouldn't you rather leave the driving in some really competent hands? Our driver, Felipe, home town, Lisbon, was a sweet, quiet young man who could turn that thing around in a two-point-turn on a narrow, crowded city street or smoothly navigate the hairpin turns that were our frequent routes on the first few days through the mountains. Not that you wanted to look over the edge at some of those moments, but you never doubted that he had nerves of steel and experience to match. The bus was spacious with comfortable seats, the seating chart rotated daily so that you have new views and new neighbors throughout the travel time. Your bus picks you up and drops you off exactly where you need to be, and you never have to worry about parking. Oh, and your luggage: it is picked up from your room and delivered to your next one. Just carry a back pack or tote for day necessities.

Our coach awaits. (This photo was actually in the town of Leon, but it is the only full shot I had.)
When you take a bus tour with a quality company, your guide becomes your parent, your teacher, your comfort, in a place where you may not know the language or how to be a good guest, and they truly "guide" you through the experience. This allows you to expend your energy in learning about and living the culture, not the inevitable difficulties of travel. Our fun and lovely host, Carmen, a native Spaniard married to an American (who also guides for Tauck,) regaled us with stories and information about all the aspects of history and culture, made sure we were comfortable in all our accommodations, showed trip related movies, bought us local pastries, let us close our eyes on long stretches, and overall, filled all the gaps. She made reservations in restaurants for us, sometimes days in advance when they were hard to procure, handed us our entry tickets to the sights, told us what we'd not want to miss, and sometimes even joined us at the table as a friend.

So off we go! After a final view of Barcelona we head out to Montserrat. Just a short trip Northwest of the city, but another world when you finally arrive up top, these "serrated" or jagged peaks are the home to a Benedictine Abbey.

An early view of the peaks as we begin the ascent. They were laid down by sedimentary rock when this part of the continent was under the sea.

On our tour of the basilica, there were many and varied breathtaking works of art on all the surfaces, such as the gold leaf and mosaic tile work of this dome ceiling.

This refreshingly simple geometric stained glass design caught my interest.

I loved the warm colors and sweeping curves of this ornamentation. We were on our way to visit the room with the famous Black Madonna.

A perfect day in a glorious setting. The mountain above me...

and the road far below! 
After our wonderful but brief visit (as most were on this jam packed itinerary,) we headed off to lunch at our first parador, in Cardona, a ninth century castle with a second century tower, in an area famous for salt quarrying. Since I didn't explain earlier, let me just briefly define "parador". From the official website
"The Paradores are heritage monuments now converted to accommodations owned by the 
Spanish Government to use quality tourism to act as guardian of the national and artistic 
heritage of Spain and to assist regions with fewer economic resources. The Paradors are 
located on some of the most beautiful natural settings and surrounded by unique historic 
and artistic ensemble of monuments. They provide  luxury accommodation in Castles,
Palaces, Fortresses, Convents, Monasteries and other historic buildings and in some cases 
modern buildings overlooking the historic areas of the city."

Upon arrival, looking out from the castle walls over the town of Cardona and the rock salt deposits, which have been worked like a mine since Roman times.

In the entry hall to the parador, this "sculpture" is a large chunk of salt.

Restoration work was an ongoing project everywhere we traveled.
After lunch we continued North to the Pyrenees and the town of Le Seu D'Urgell, located just a few kilometres south of the border of the oldest independent nation in Europe, the Principality of Andorra, with an unusual co-monarchy by the Bishop of Urgell (Catalonia, Spain) and the President of France. Our destination was the 9th century castle, El Castell de Cuitat. The original castle, in the midst of a very slow process of restoration, served as entertainment and banquet facility, but our actual parador was the more newly built resort adjacent to it.

Dave and I visit the castle courtyard before the first evening's musical program. Those of you who might follow my interest in all things Alabama Chanin will recognize the hand-sewn garments I made last summer.

Most all the restorations we saw throughout the trip were not an attempt to reproduce the original decayed parts, many lost to time, or impractical for today's use, but a modern interpretation with modern materials and techniques that blended so beautifully with the ancient stone structures. I loved all the graceful arches throughout the building, from the iron gate above to the lovely wood and glass doors that let so much light into what would be a stereotypically dark castle structure.

This is the restaurant terrace at the resort building, scene of our first night's cocktail party.

After a good night's sleep in a room with a key that could serve as a paper weight, we took off to the historic town for a walking tour of the streets, Romanesque church, museum and park.
Cheese plays a very constant role in the cuisines we experienced throughout the trip, and milk production was the subject of this display in the local museum. The following evening we sampled a number of local cheeses at our banquet. Fresh cheeses were always available on breakfast buffets and they are one of the items I miss the most. 

Everyday street scenes mesmerize with their pastel colors, white hot sun and cool shadows, and little glimpses into the lives within.

Parc Olimpic del Segre was built for flat and whitewater paddling events during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and is still used for training and recreation.

You will recall I mentioned the views: this is taken from our bedroom window at El Castell de Cuitat resort.

On the second evening of our stay at the castle, we had the grand pleasure of dining like royalty. (The entrance hall.)

And the view through to the courtyard.

This is our group of 34 sitting down to a six course feast with such delicacies as shrimp salad with peas and mango, sea bass with courgette gratin and tomato comfit sauce, beef wellington with port wine sauce, cheese trolley, vanilla and red berry pannacotta with sangria ice, petit fours, and a different wine for each course. 

And somehow I got to be the Queen, served first at each course!

Sunrise over breakfast as we prepare to head for our next adventure.

Because we spent two nights here and I had a bit of relax time at the outdoor pool, I found the opportunity to practice my very nascent painting skills in my travel journal.

Please return for the next installment when we head north to the coastal resort of San Sebastian with a lunch stop in Pamplona.


  1. Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing a mini-tour... now I want to book the same trip (another item for the "someday" list).

  2. Thanks. Loved reading this. Is the next installment ready yet? Huh? Is it?

    1. Breath, Pat. You may have noticed that I've only managed to write about the first four days of a two week trip that I returned from in mid September. I will try to speed it up, though! It's starting to give me angst.

  3. You look awesome in your Alabama Chanin. Thank you for the inspiration. I'm fixated on it myself. xo