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