As wonderful as traveling is, the final part of traveling and arriving home and finally sleeping in your own bed, is the perspective you gain on the entire experience. This trip was one of the best we have taken-enjoyed almost every second (we’ll, maybe not the traveling to and from part so much) and most of that was due to a few key pieces of the puzzle—the places we visited, the food we experienced, our fellow travelers, and our guide, probably the best we have had, in our limited experience with guided tours.
Portugal and Spain have such exquisite assortment of foods — all kinds of seafood (Wendy is now a devoted octopus lover), "Jamon", the delicious Iberian ham found everywhere, many other tasty varieties of meats which blanketed our breakfast choices each day, and such wonderful cheeses to choose from. Like other Mediterranean countries, the breads and sweets are such an important part of the culture, we made the easy choice to give up our Paleo/gluten free diet early on for these three weeks. And drinks—ah, so much fun to try as many local wines, mostly more than delicious (although not comparable to Italian or French, IMHO) as well as the interesting variety of local cordials, liquors and aperitifs that Emma was constantly introducing to us. Yes, we gained some weight (even though our 5 or more miles of walking per day helped keep off more), but every ounce was totally enjoyed with (mostly) delicious, and relatively healthy food and drink.
The people of both Spain and Portugal are warm outgoing, and enjoy life. They like to take their time with eating, and drinking. Very Mediterranean in style, outdoor cafes, relaxing while nursing an espresso, beer or wine over conversation is seen everywhere in the country. Wendy’s pet peeve of service people clearing the table early before everyone is finished was not seen anywhere!
They are passionate - outward in their expressions of love, wonderful with children (they bring them everywhere, and it was especially nice to see many, many young fathers openly enjoying being with their children), and have the most beautiful cadence to their language-sing song, and full of passion as well. We were so well-treated at (almost) all of our accommodations and not just because were tourists, but, I hope, because they genuinely care.
We learned, from Emma, how the tradition in Spain (but not as much in Barcelona) of the afternoon siesta affects the lifestyle. Shops and businesses and schools, close right at 2:00, everyone returns home for a long afternoon of eating,napping and other leisure activities, then they go back (yes, even to school) at 5 or 5:30 and work for another three hours. They eat dinner after that, mostly after 9, many times later, and don’t get to bed until very late. (This last part was somewhat difficult for us, eating that late.) It strikes us as a lifestyle that leads to unproductive use of time (just how much gets done in those last three or so hours?), possibly some laziness, and is hard for international businesses, as well as young school children. Until recently, Spain has suffered a pretty high unemployment rate, a lower standard of living (average wage is about $30,000 per year), and a significant poverty level. But although we saw some begging and people lying in the street, it certainly wasn’t as prevalent as even New York City or Boston. Also, being warned ad nauseam from our tour guides and travel books about pickpockets and gypsies, we had no problems. Yes, they were there some gypsies (we didn’t notice any pickpockets), but they are pretty easy to avoid by being careful. Also, being in a group helps.
Being on a tour, we were exposed to so much about the people, history and culture of these countries that it would be difficult to learn on our own, at least without extensive reading. Although we had local guides in many of the cities, I think we were taught the most from Emma, our trip guide who was constantly sharing the nuances of living here. She is a passionate historian, brilliant archeologist and researcher, and shared not only her passion for history and culture, but for all things culinary. We were treated every day to wines, different regional specialties and sweets of the areas we visited. What a treat! (VERY literally). She also went out of her way to lead us to extra experiences during our ( and her) free time. Several of these—the synagogue visit in Ubeda, Flamenco dancing in Madrid, and that great guitar concert in Ronda are examples. Thank you Emma, we look forward to finding another tour that you leading.
Finally, we really enjoyed many things about this tour company, and would recommend them highly. There are a gadzillion choices in travel these days and many options and styles. Odysseys Unlimited seemed to be a good fit for what we look for—small groups (no more than 24 people), a variety of experiences, free time in most of the stops, and long enough tours—this one was 15 days, not including our own extensions. High quality meals and accommodations round out the experience. Our trip mates were a wild and sometimes crazy varied bunch of people who made the trip so much fun with laughs, shared experiences, and lest we forget, liquor to help us keep all these memories. Safe and happy travels to all! Adios!