Thursday, May 31, 2012

A taste of Barcelona with the Raimondis

In Barcelona's Gothic Quarter
I met Paul and Jane at the dock on Saturday morning for a day-long Barcelona experience. The weather was perfect, and we were off. As we drove into the city, passing by the giatn Columbus statue at the end of Las Ramblas and past the Llotja, where Picasso once studied, you begin to get a feeling for the city. Aside from the collection of magnificent buildings, Barcelona city is a piece of art on display. From  Roy Lichtenstein's "Barcelona Head" and Marichal's "La Gamba" to the people and the winding streets, the city works as a collective to offer inquisitive visitors an insight into the culture and the people.

Our morning visit took us through the old city center, winding the streets as we passed through two thousand years of history, stopping to take in the small shops and detailed facades of the buildings, the medieval arches of the sides streets and, naturally, the magnificent display of gothic architecture that is so characteristic of the city itself. A stop for a quick refreshment was called for with the springtime sun warming the streets before we continued into the heart of the city, viewing Las Ramblas, the Plaza del Rei, the Roman Temple and the Palau of the Generalitat.

Lunch was a thoroughly enjoyable event, as we stopped for tapas at a local restaurant and enjoyed some of the local treats like Spanish tortilla, Gambas al ajillo, xoricets in a wine sauce, and of couse the omnipresent olives and pa amb tomaquet. After lunch we headed over to Sagrada Familia. Bypassing the line and heading straight into the church, which defies the standard categorization of "just another church" so much that even the most hardened travelers cannot help but be moved.

We finished the day heading back down Passeig de Gracia to see Gaudi's other famous houses before saying goodbye at the cruise ship port. In all a lovely day and great people, a truly memorable experience!

For more information on planning your private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tenerife - A Spanish Island in the Sun

Spain is made up of 17 different regions. 15 of them are located on the Iberian Penninsula. But two of them can be found surrounded on all sides by water: The Balearic and the Canary Islands. Today I want to talk about Tenerife, the "Island of Eternal Spring". As its moniker implies, weather is never an issue. The Canary Islands are the southernmost point of Spain, closer to the West African coast than to the mainland. Tenerife is a spectacular place which holds secrets and surprises for everyone!

14th century churches, historical town centers dating back hundreds of years and wonderfully preserved due to the relative isolation of the island, and other relics of Tenerife's colorful past are often overshadowed by the sheer beauty of nature at work. National parks abound, with spectacular cliffs, rugged landscapes and beaches that are famous among surfers. And don't forget about the food (and the local wine!)

For more information on planning a private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Galician Wines on show

More and more people are talking about the fascinating world of Spanish wines. No more is Rioja the only region that people can name from Spain. in fact, there are more than 65 different DOs (denominacion de origen) throughout the country. Even so, Galicia can sometimes be overlooked. Long known to insiders for its mouthwatering seafood and lovely white wines, the Northwestern region of Spain is gaining a well-deserved international reputation for quality.

This Saturday, May 26, more than 70 wineries from 5 of the region's DOs are opening their doors for a free visit and tasting for people who are learning more about the region, the history and the wine. Add to that 31 restaurants that will be offering special menus based around the wines and you've got the recipe for a great way to spend a weekend.

For more information about planning your private tour of Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ordesa National Park - The Lost Mountain in Spain

In the seriously under-appreciated Northern regions of Spain are hidden some of the best National Parks on the Iberian peninsula. One such example is Ordesa National Park and the Lost Mountain (Monte Perdido). A destination unto itself, Ordesa is more or less halfway between the Bilbao and Barcelona, along the Spanish Pyrenees. It's the perfect place to avoid the summer heat, spend a couple of days (or more) enjoying nature, hiking and and discover the history  of the region (the towns and valleys of the region, aside from some spectacular panoramas, played an important role in the reconquest of Spain). And staying in a National Park away from the hurry and heat of the city doesn't mean shying away from pampering yourself. In fact, just the opposite. At the foot of Monte Perdido you can stay in the Parador of Bielsa. So if you are looking for a different kind of summer escape, why not look toward the north and away from the beaches for an experience you'll never forget!
For more information or for a private tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Made in Spain - something for everyone

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is what exactly does Spain produce. Well, the obvious answer is wine, olives, cured hams and assorted other fruits, vegetables and grains. All of which are excellent and any visitor to Spain would do well to try them. And don't forget to try some of the local desserts, wherever you are you are sure to find something wonderful and new!

But beyond that there is so much that Spain has to offer. From leatherwork and ceramics (which vary from region to region, what you find in Granada or Cordoba for example, has little to do with the Toledo work which is very distinct from the Catalan works). SEAT is the Spanish car company founded in 1950. 

Spanish Fashion labels and clothing stores (Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Adolfo Dominguez, Zara, etc) are becoming more common sites in the States.  And as anyone who has walked the streets and shops of Madrid or Barcelona can tell you, shoes is big business as well. Brands such as Camper and Victoria have long since established themselves in the market for their quality and style. 

These are just a couple of ideas for things made in Spain, but there is so much more to discover, why not come over and find out for yourself!

For more information or to plan your own private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coming Soon: Full Day Modernisme and Mosaic Barcelona Tour

Mosaic is a style that is intimately linked to Modernisme in Barcelona. The lavish decoration of Park Guell's Drac and the fairytale-inspired guard houses, the Palau Baro de Quadras or the decorative art of the Palau de la Musica Catalana are some of the most prominent examples. The Spanish Touch proposes a new way to get involved in the history and culture of Barcelona: a Modernista/Mosaic Full Day Tour!

Spend the morning discovering the unique architecture and decoration of Catalan Modernisme, then head over to Mataro for an afternoon Mosaic course with Can Manetes.

 The course offers an introduction to the style most-associated with modernisme: Trencadis. Participants have the opportunity to create their own decorative work, which, naturally, they can take with them when they go.

The tour includes:
Transportation to and from hotel/port/airport
Guided tour in Barcelona
A Bilingual Spanish Touch guide
An Introduction-to-Mosaic class with a local bilingual artist
All materials and tools necessary for the class

Optional tapas lunch at a local restaurant

Starting from just $215 per person for the full day tour!

For more information or to start planning your private tour in Barcelona, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Castles among the Vineyards in Spain

Barcelona is known for many things. From its Roman origins to it's wonderfully preserved Gothic Quarter to the lively and colorful Ramblas, the city is a vibrant, living example of people living shoulder to shoulder with their history. And outside of the city there are not fewer options: wine regions, Salvador Dali, the Costa Brava, Montserrat, the Cardona Salt Mines, the list goes on. But today let's focus on some of the lesser-known attractions of the region, the castles. For history and castle buffs, there are some true treasures just waiting to be discovered.

Take, for example, the Castle of Subirats in the Penedes wine region. Imposing along the ridge just off the highway, it dates back to the 10th century and a visit allows for some spectacular views over the Penedes vineyards with Montserrat mountain as a backdrop. 

Another example is the Castle of Burriac, another scenic location overlooking the Maresme coast just north of Barcelona in the Alella wine region. Imagine spending the morning hiking up to the castle, learning the history and legends and then having a picnic with a fresh glass of crisp Alella white wine to savor the moment. 

These are just two of the castles in the region. There are others, for example the Castle of Requesens, close to the French border and the town of Figueres and the Cap de Creus Park. 

These and more are available for the discerning visitor to discover and explore, and all within easy driving distance of Barcelona, making it a great way to spend a day out of the city getting to know the roots of the culture. 

For more information about planning a private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013. 

End of Summer Barcelona and Costa Brava Tour 2012

The Spanish Touch, is offering a fantastic way to finish summer with a flourish and soak in the sun, history and culture of Catalonia along the Costa Brava! 

August 25 - September 1. Barcelona and Costa Brava: Greek, Roman and Catalan history and Castles by the Beach

August 25
Arrival at Barcelona Airport. Transfer to Hotel. Evening a brief Q&A session with your Spanish Touch guide before your welcome dinner. (Dinner)

August 26
Breakfast at hotel. A morning tour of Barcelona, including the impressive Sagrada Familia and the Ramblas district. Lunch at the Maremagnum in the Sports Harbor. In the afternoon walk through the Barri Gotic, Gothic District, the best preserved example of the Gothic period of Spain. Visit the Palau de la Musica Catalana, an amazing modernist concert hall. Enjoy the evening at leisure. (Breakfast)

August 27
Breakfast at hotel. A trip down the coast toward the beach town of Sitges for a morning at the beach. Walk along the promenade, do some shopping in one of the many boutiques, or simply take in the sun and culture at one of the beachfront cafés. After lunch, return via the Penedes region, and see why this wine region is gaining international fame. Take an optional winery tour (and tasting) or explore the lively historical center of Vilafranca del Penedes. (Breakfast)

August 28
Breakfast at hotel. A morning tour of Montjuic Mountain, at the heart of Barcelona, including visits to the Museum of Modern Art, the Olympic Stadium, and Montjuic Castle. Enjoy the afternoon at leisure, or take the optional Roman Tour of Barcelona. (Breakfast)

August 29
Breakfast at hotel. Transfer up the Costa Brava, passing through the city of Girona. Take a morning tour of the historical center and explore the ancient streets, walk along the old city wall, and visit the 12th-century Jewish Synagogue, now a museum. After lunch in a traditional Catalan restaurant, continue to the Greco-Roman beach town of Empuries. Founded in the 7th-century BC, Empuries offers a fascinating history of the region, from the Greeks and Iberians through the Romans, Moors and the Catholic Monarchs. Night in Empuries (Breakfast, Lunch)

August 30
Breakfast at hotel. This morning take a trip to Figueres, birthplace of Salvador Dali, and home to his one-of-a-kind Theater-Museum. then head over to the coast to the spectacular town of Cadaques, a shining example of the Costa Brava’s charm. night in Empuries. (Breakfast)

August 31
Breakfast at hotel. Return to Barcelona, stopping along the way at the medieval town of Besalú, a town seemingly forgotten by the march of time. Enter through the gates via the old stone bridge and witness the annual Medieval Fair, and take the chance to step back in time as you walk through the old stone streets and buildings. Upon arrival in Barcelona, enjoy the afternoon at leisure before joining us for the farewell dinner and a last look at your trip. (Breakfast, Dinner)

September 1
Breakfast at hotel. Transfer to Barcelona airport. (Breakfast)

Take advantage of our special offer and join us from just $2865 per person!

The price includes:
A bilingual Spanish Touch tour guide with 24-hour availabilty.
Transfers to and from the airport.
All hotel accommodation as specified in the itinerary.
Transportation as specified.
Meals as specified in the itinerary.
Guided tours as specified.
Entrance fees as specified

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Day 11 - Gaudi and Paella to say farewell - The Bishop/Kalinoski/Olsen Tour

The last full of the tour brought the last of the must-see visits on the trip: Sagrada Familia. If you've been there before, it's always worth going back to discover something new. If you've never been there, it's a church that is sure to impress. A modernista masterpiece, even unfinished you can see Gaudi's unmistakable legacy, from the gargoyles and spires to the arches and alter, everything about this temple says "Gaudi was here". As we began the tour after lunch, we started right into explanations and pictures. It is easier to explain some things from a distance, so as not to crane your neck so much when you get up close. The blend of nature with Catalan identity and Christian faith is at the same time unique and breathtaking. We spent the better part of 2 hours exploring inside and out, allowing time for pictures and explanations, enjoying the detail and artistry of the ceiling, the stained glass, and the columns.

Our next stop tied in nicely with the mosaic class from Tuesday. Park Guell is an urban housing development that is less about the houses (only three were ever built) and much more about the land itself. Based around the idea of an English garden city and taken to new levels by Gaudi's creative genius, it blends trencadis mosaic with rock and gardens to provide a privileged panorama with views of the city. The mosaic work, which Gaudi designed, is awe-inspiring both in its beauty and sheer size. The steps leading up to the main terrace, the roof of the guard houses, the serpentine bench, and naturally, Drac, are all wonderful demonstrations of what mosaic could be used for in the modernista movement.

The last stop of the evening was our farewell meal. A request for paella had already been put in, and we drove down to the Olympic Port (taking the long way) and made our way into the restaurant. A double course of seafood paella and Valencia paella, and a few tapas appetizers, washed down with a little sangria, was  a wonderful way to end our tour experience. A great big thank you to the Bishops, Kalinowskis and the Olsens for making my job so much easier, and for providing so much laughter over the last two weeks. Best of luck and we hope to see you again soon!

For more information about planning your private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 10 - Wine and Cava Tour - A Passion for a good wine - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

An absolutely beautiful day was in the forecast, although when we got started in the morning there was a fog covering that blanketed the city. Not unusual, given the sudden rise in temperatures and the relatively cool temperatures of the Mediterranean, but the meteorologists proved correct as by mid morning the sun had burned its way through and the morning was proving to be the perfect spring morning. The perfect time to visit the wineries of the Penedes region. When we arrived at Rimarts Cava, Ernest was waiting for us, with another small group also there to sample some wines to which Robert Parker recently gave 90+ points. The exploration of hand-crafted cava really demonstrates how passionate the Rimarts brothers are about their trade, and that passion shines through in every bottle they hand degorge. Watching the degorging of a bottle, done by hand the same way it was done by his father and grandfather, is like watching a scene from a different era. And sampling the wines afterwards is an experience that is almost guaranteed to change how most people think of cava. 

After sampling three great and unique cavas (gran reserva, Chardonnay and Uvae), we were off to our next destination, Mas Comtal. Unlike Rimarts, Mas Comtal concentrates more on its wines, although Assun did offer us each a glass of their remarkable sparkling wine to accompany us as we walked through the vineyards. The great advantage of visiting these smaller, high expression wineries is the chance to really understand the wines. Where they come from, why this variety or that, and how the area influences it all. Rambling among the old and new vines, we learned about the science of growing, the obstacles that an organic/ecological winery like Mas Comtal faces, and just how important it is to be on top of everything throughout the whole process. And having the tasting in the shade in the quiet seclusion of the winery (accompanied by Blum, the chocolate Lab who recognized Darlene immediately as a dog lover) just makes the whole experience so much more personal.

We had decided to stop for lunch on the way back, rather than wait until we got to Barcelona, so off we went to a small local restaurant for a "quick" meal. The salads, fresh pasta, cod and potatoes, chicken and rabbit were all excellent, and we finished our day by returning to Barcelona and saying "hasta mañana" at the Rambla del Mar at the foot of Columbus.

For more information on planning a private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Day 9 - Back to Barcelona and a private Mosaic Class - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

We said goodbye to Andalucia bright and early, catching the 9:30 flight up to Barcelona. After transferring back to the hotel, the remainder of the morning was at leisure to relax and unwind a bit after the last few days of travel. At 4:30 we met once more, this time for what had been one of the most anticipated events (at least for Jean) of the entire trip: The Mosaic Course at Can Manetes, in the seaside town of Mataro. The ladies were met at the shop by Elna, who had prepared an afternoon's introduction to mosaic for them. For about three hours they learned about and how to create their own mosaics, which of course they would be keeping upon completion.  For more information and pictures about their experience, check out the Can Manetes Blog.

The gentlemen and I went for on a cultural exploration of the town. Mataro is a city that actually predates Barcelona. It's Roman origins as Iluro can still be seen at the recently recovered Roman Baths, and the destination of the first railway in spain, which went from Barcelona to Mataro in 1848. It was also home to Puig i Cadafalch, one of Modernisme's  most famous architects. Gaudi has a presence here as well, as we saw one of his earlier works which he used as a trial for the development of what would become his signature archway. A walk through the town included the 17th century Saint Mary's Basilica, where you can still see the previous, 11th-century Romanesque church's bell tower behind the "new" facade. After a walk, the guys took advantage of the free time to sample a couple of the best examples from the emerging Catalan microbrew market at The Drunk Monk, as well as to admire the beer list that Sven has compiled.

Upon returning to the rest of the group, we all went out for an enjoyable night of tapas at one of the best local establishments, and even got Steve Kalinowski's birthday cake surprise, complete with a dimming of the lights and a happy birthday song!

For more information on planning your own private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Day 8 - Onto the Sherry and one last night in Andalusia - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

On our last day in Andalusia, the group crossed through the beautiful Sierra de Grazalema National Park on our way from Seville to Malaga. But first we stopped for a drink. To be more precise, having decided the previous week that a stop in sherry country would be a good idea, we had updated our scheduled route to include a visit to Jerez de la Frontera, home to the world's best sherry producers. Upon successfully navigating the tiny streets and parking the van, we stepped into the Bodegas Tradicion for a cultural-gastronomic experience. The tour guide explained the sherry process, the various types of sherry and the difference between  a VOS (very old sherry) and a VORS (very old and rare sherry). The winery has an added bonus, it´s impressive art collection, including the masters of Spanish art, which gave us a chance to appreciate the culture and heritage of the country, which is linked so closely with this style of wine. The tasting itself allowed them to sample the full range, from dry fino to the rich 40 year old brandy.

From there we headed down the coast to spend our last evening in Malaga. As the drive took us through a lovely natural park, we took the chance and stopped at a local restaurant in the mountains of the Sierra Grazalema for a great locally produced pork loin sandwich before continuing to our final destination in the south. The beautiful sunshine allowed for a perfect afternoon to enjoy the port city. In the evening we went to one of the classic restaurants of the city, El Tintero. Rather than ordering, we simply asked the waiter to bring what was fresh off the grill, and enjoyed a lovely evening of fish, seafood (the favorites being the Rosado and calamari. Then it was off to the hotel and getting ready for our return to Barcelona.

For more information on your private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Patios of Cordoba and a picnic on the patio - Day 7 - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

Sunday morning found the group with some free time in Sevilla. As Concepcion had mentioned a number of things to do in the city, ideas were not hard to come by. The Cathedral was visited, streets were explored, and the time passed quickly. At 12:30 we were off to witness another UNESCO World Heritage site: Cordoba. It's not just the Mezquita/Cathedral of Cordoba that's on the list, it's the whole city center. First was lunch. After seeing the Mother's Day mobs in the restaurant, we decided on an impromptu picnic. Lola, our guide, was a great help, finding us a sandwich bar and helping with the orders. Once everyone had a sandwich - and a couple of local pastries for dessert - we stopped in the patio of the Mezquita, in the shade of the bitter orange trees (which, as Lola later explained are easily discernible from sweet oranges by their leaves) to picnic and prepare ourselves for the afternoon tour.

La Mezquita, the Moorish mosque that has been transformed into a church, is one of the greatest testaments to how important Cordoba was. The mosque had room for 25000 worshippers back in the times when Cordoba was under the caliphs and was one of the biggest cities in the West. Lola took us through section by section, explaining how parts were recycled, why so many columns and much more, always in an engaging and charming demeanor. Steve Kalinowski took up the challenge on getting a good picture in one particularly tricky area with light contrasts and extreme detail in the carving. We sat by the organs and learned the history of the Church before we headed out of the Mezquita to explore the rest of the old city. As it was Mother's Day, and the Patios of Cordoba Festival, and a spectacular Sunday afternoon, there were more than a few people out exploring. But Lola, like Rosa in Granada, seemed to find ways to make our experience that much more intimate.

From the Jewish synagogue to the preeminent eye doctor of the Moorish empire, Lola kept us intrigued and laughing all the while until we parted company. The last stop was the Patios. Cordoba's Patio festival dates back to 1918, and was designed to bring the culture, architecture and patrimony of this national treasure into the limelight. After a couple of queues that were too long, we found a couple of patios from the 50+ that were open to the public. Such colors, such vibrancy, such a unique experience!

Arriving back in Sevilla in time for a small tapas dinner, we stopped at the restaurant next door to the hotel. On this quiet back street of the Santa Cruz quarter, it's almost hard to believe that just a few meters away are the loud, busy and a different kind of fun than we were looking for this evening. A quiet tapas dinner, with a nice sangria, was just was was needed. Oh, and a Vespa with a whitewashed spare tire on it to boot, but maybe that's a different story.

For more information about planning your private guided tour in Spain contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Day 6 - Andalucia in the Rain - Antequera and Seville - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

The one thing about springtime is that you can't do much about the weather. The forecast was for rain, and rain we got. Lucky for us this morning was primarily spent in the car as we left Granada to cross Andalusia to Seville. Along the way we stopped in the town of Antequera. The rain was falling, but not too hard so up we went to discover a different kind of Spain from what we had seen up to this point. Antequera is a smaller town but one that in its day was important, as evidenced by the Arco de Gigantes, a 16th century triumphant arch complete with Roman relics. We toured the 3 meter thick outer walls, and climbed the watch tower and finished the tour in the Colegiada de Santa Maria, which was the church that was a trial run for the Cathedral of Granada.

A quick lunch stop and off we went to Sevilla. Our hotel being in the heart of the Santa Cruz district, our guide met us there to begin the tour at 4:30. Thankfully the rain, which during the drive had been a constant companion, seemed to have been waiting for us to arrive in Sevilla to call it a day, stopped. And blue skies were visible for the first time all day. First stop: the massive Cathedral. The third largest Cathedral in Europe, and the largest purely Gothic, it houses paintings by Murillo, amazing vaults and the tomb of one Hernando Columbus. As well as his father, Christopher. The well traveled and often disputed explorer's bones, which in 2006 were definitively proven to be his thanks to the presence of his son's tomb, are held aloft by the four kingdoms that made up the newly formed Spain.
The tour continued through the Alcazares Reales where Concepcion explained to us the difference between Moorish and Mudejar architecture, then showed us several key differences as we explored the different palaces of how we could easily tell that, unlike the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, this was a Mudejar building. The gardens of the Alcazar are a combination of French, Italian and English styles, and a pleasure to walk through on a springtime evening. As we made our way back to the hotel through the winding streets of the Jewish Quarter and the Barrio of Santa Cruz, Concepcion explained the history and cultural expressions of the city and the neighborhood, bringing the streets and plazas into a different light which made it much easier to connect with.

After a nonstop tapas tour of Andalucia, the group decided it was time to sit down and have a proper meal. So we walked over to the Bullring, stopping along the way at the Guadalquivir River. We also passed what looked to be a wedding in the Bullring (hmm, high heels on the sand of the ring, can't imagine that would be too comfortable) before hitting the restaurant for oxtail, shrimp croquettes and other savory dishes.

For more information on how to plan your own private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Day 5 - The magnificence of the Alhambra and eating our way through Granada - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

 The Alhambra is always a highlight. It's just difficult to put into words exactly what it is to someone who has never seen it before.  It is, as several people throughout the day mentioned, the kind of place you could easily spend several days in, and never take the same picture twice. We met Rosa at the entrance to the Alhambra, and started into the fortress grounds right away. The group being gardeners, we decided to hold off on the Generalife gardens until after visiting the palaces, so that we could have more time. So we began our visit with the Alcazaba fortress and the old city, first crossing over the original aqueduct that brought water from 6km up the mountain directly into the palaces. The Alhambra is a site in constant renovation, and Rosa explained as we saw the archaeological dig the problems they have had in balancing everything. We stopped in a small shop to get a first hand explication about how the Moors made their intricate inlaid wooden objects from a local craftsman before heading through the Portal de Vino into the most visible part (from the exterior), the towers and the fortress. From up top on the towers you have a panoramic view over the city of Granada, tucked in beneath the Alhambra and rising up the Albaicin on the other side. But the true treasure of the Alhambra awaited us in the Nazrine Palaces.

Rosa led us through the Nasrid Palaces expertly, and not just because of her obvious knowledge and passion for what she does. The Alhambra receives over 8000 visitors a day, and the palaces are not usually a sea of tranquility for people. But as we walked through the various rooms, she kept up away from the large groups and made the whole experience much more intimate than otherwise would have been possible. There is little one can say to explain the beauty of the palaces, even having been there before. It is truly one of those magical places.

After a quick return to the woodworker's store and a stop for coffee, we entered into the Generalife gardens.  The gardens, which used to be used primarily for food, are beautifully maintained. And it's easy to imagine life in the summer palace, with it's spectacular central garden and fountains.

After saying goodbye to Rosa and heading back into town, we stopped again for a quick spot of tapas and then to freshen up a bit at the hotel. We met again at 4 to go over to the Cathedral and Royal Chapel, burial site of the Catholic Monarchs and their children. A visit to the Renaissance Cathedral and a stop by the spice shops followed before another stop for churros con chocolate. As all of us wanted churros, the waiter brought us a "half a wheel" of churros along with the chocolate. It took a surprisingly short period of time to polish it off (admission: I am fairly certain I ate most of the wheel) and once more we returned to the hotel to rest up for dinner. Tonight was the ir de tapas night, bouncing from one tapas bar to another to sample a selection of plates. As we began early by Granada standards for a Friday night (we met at 8:15 to get started), there wasn't much problem in finding places. Three hours, 5 restaurants and an evening full of laughter later, we called it a night.

For more information or for help planning your private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Day 4 - Welcome to Andalucia and the gardens of Granada - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

An early pick up at the hotel for a morning flight to Malaga was on the menu for this morning. The hour-long flight to the capital of the Costa del Sol was enjoyable, and the pilot pointed out Sierra Nevada as we flew over  the highest mountain in southern Europe. After arriving in Malaga and picking up our rental car, we started our inland drive to Granada. One of the things that often surprises people is just how mountainous Spain is. the drive from Malaga to Granada is rarely a flat one, as we drove past countless olive groves and smaller towns. We reached Granada and our hotel, a converted 16th century palace, with enough time to relax a bit and grab a bite to eat before Rosa met us at the hotel to show us around the city. The hotel's location made it easy to find a restaurant, and we took a seat outside for lunch at a nearby place that looked inviting.

One of the the things I love most about Granada is their penchant for including a tapa with every drink you order. Our first tapa was migas con chistorra, fried bread crumbs with sausage, and our table was soon filled with a several more plates. Mealtime in southern Spain is really an experience in itself. There is no concept of hurry at all. And the fact that today coincided with the Fiesta de las Cruces meant that there were a number of people in traditional dress, from little girls dressed in flamenco dresses to men riding their horses in full regale.

Rosa met us at the hotel at 4:00 and we began our adventure through Granada. The vibrancy of the city throughout the day was tangible, and Rosa guided us expertly through the winding streets of the old city, directing us to some of the most beautiful cruces in the city. As we walked she explained the long, often complicated history of the people of Granada (converting to Christianity, then to Islam, then back to Christianity, etc.) and showed us some of the many carmens (gardens) of the city. As we walked up the old Albaicin quarter, we encountered a full fledged celebration in one of the upper plazas. After maneuvering through the crowds and up to Saint Nicholas lookout for a beautiful view of the Alhambra, we walked down the more direct route and passed through the calle de te, filled with tea shops and nifty little shops. Rosa left us for the day at the bottom of the street, and we headed back to the hotel.

Dinner was a sit down affair, the restaurant was reasonably empty given the early hour (it was, after all, only 8:30), and we all enjoyed some splendid local cuisine. Highlights included Susan's fish, Darlene's venison and the bottle of red wine.

For more information or to plan your own private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Markets, Picnics and Marches - Day 3 - Montserrat with the Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

Wednesday we got an early start so as to make an unscheduled visit to the Boqueria market first thing in the morning. Meeting the group at the hotel, we headed down cto Las Ramblas again, this time with the singular intention of visiting the largest covered market in Europe before embarking on our scheduled trip to Montserrat. La Boqueria first thing in the morning is really the best time to visit, before the crowds descend upon it and you can really explore the stalls. And explore them we did, starting with the colorful fruits and delicious candies that greet you just past the modernista entrance sign. We took in the sights, sounds and smells of the early morning market, from the massive tuna head to the fruit juice stands and dried fruit stops, it was a great start to what promised to be another fun adventure.

The drive up Montserrat, aside from providing spectacular views of the mountain and the surrounding terrain, provides the opportunity to explain the history and some of the legends surrounding what for many people represents the true heart of Catalunya, both spiritually and culturally, which are often intermingled freely here. Examples of this mixing of religion and culture abounded along our "march" down to the Sagrada Cova, site of the original angelic visions over 1100 years ago. The sculptures and statues that line the path were built around the turn of the 20th century, and represent the modernista movement's reverence for religion, nature and Catalunya all in one. As representations of the mysteries of the rosary, their religious implications are clear. The repeated images of dragons and roses (Saint George is here again) and flowers, culminating in Puig i Cadafalch's amazing cross and Gaudi's resurrection scene. Having survived the march (which is in fact just about a mile down and back up), we head into the monastery, arriving with about 15 minutes to spare to hear the Escolania boys choir. The church filled to hear Europe's oldest boys choir, and then emptied to allow us the chance to explore the mostly 19th century reconstructed church.

As we walked back to the car, we stopped to buy a loaf of bread and some locally produced cheese. Upon arriving at the car, we sat down, enjoyed the views over the valley, and enjoyed a picnic lunch with bread, cheese, some dried fruit picked up at La Boqueria earlier and some cupcakes that Elna had made for George's birthday. A lovely lunch and a great way to end our day in Montserrat. Up next, Andalusia here we come!

For more information or to plan your own private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.

Day 2 - or adventures in a Mediterranean city - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Tour

Tuesday morning the group met, refreshed and rested, ready to hit the town. Today is Barcelona day. A chance to see the city up close and personal. Our visit to the city center coincided with Spanish Labor Day, so many shops were closed, but it also meant that we had more free reign in the sometimes tight lanes of the Gothic Quarter. As one of the group is the organist for her church, this morning we took the liberty of stopping in at Santa Maria del Pi, an unexpected stop but one where the organ was playing on through partially refurbished pipes. The church itself, with it's massive rose window and unique Catalan Gothic architecture, is a great place to visit. As the least visited of the three main churches in the old city, it retains a certain small town charm. That charm was quickly fused with the vibrant reality of the city from the moment we stepped from the stone lit interior into the bright sunlit plaza on the other side of the door. The local products market in the Plaza del Pi provided samples of cheeses and other delicacies before winding our way over to Las Ramblas.

Our morning visit of the old city having left us ready for a refill, we headed over to the Born district for some tapas. On the way we passed street stalls and vendors who were selling hand crafted products, then walked past Santa Maria del Mar church before alighting for lunch. We came, we saw, we ate. Then we proceeded to go across the city and up to Montjuic for a panoramic view of Barcelona. Well, that was the plan. It was interrupted along the way, however, by hundreds of spectators and lots of police who were trying to get some stranded tourists down from the Statue of Columbus at the foot of Las Ramblas. It appears that somehow 6 tourists had been stuck up there for hours, and the resulting convergence of traffic meant that everyone got a great view of the statue from a variety of slightly different angles.

We finally made it up to Montjuic, and a chance to see the city we had just spent the morning exploring from above. We also stopped into the Olympic Stadium, site of Carl Lewis' dominance and over to the Palau Sant Jordi structure, site of the original Dream Team. At the end of the day we headed back into the city with a dinner reservation (with a surprise) awaiting and Montserrat calling for the following morning.

For more information or to plan your own private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-80-0013.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Immersion in Medieval Culture - The Bishop/Kalinowski/Olsen Day 1

Sometimes a trip comes together at the last minute. Sometimes it comes after months of planning. Such was the case with the Bishop/Kalinowsky/Olsen group who arrived on Monday. The process began back in December, and after numerous emails, phone calls and months of planning arrival day came. Meeting at the airport, we headed directly into the heart of Catalunya's history: Montblanc's Setmana Medieval.  Think of it as a giant Renaissance fair, in a walled city. Everyone in the town gets involved, from the costumes and banners throughout to the the children parading, and even the local supermarkets hung burlaps signs befitting the era.

As we walked through the Bove gate, we walked into a different place. Welcome to your vacation. Stopping at the various stalls, with the pastries being of particular interest, we made our way winding through the streets lined with centuries-old buildings to the Gate of Sant Jordi. Sant Jordi, or St George, is the patron saint and according to Catalan tradition, it is in front of the walls of Montblanc where he slayed the dragon.

A trip to the Santa Maria Cathedral, home to the Catalan Courts in the 14th century,  and a walk along the upper levels provided spectacular views over the city. As the rain was holding out, we were able to get a clear view of the activities and parades, as well as see the walls that once demarcated one of the region's most important cities. One of the interesting things to note were the numerous balconies throughout the old city, and how they were decorated and used. After a brief pit stop for a coffee, we headed up to the Pla de Santa Barbera, where the Castle of Montblanc once stood.

Lunch was a tapas affair. Iberian ham, sausages, peppers and sangria were shared. But dessert was to be eaten on the street. At one of the stalls we had passed earlier, which was selling all manner of Coques, a local pastry. Chocolate and Cabello de Angel pastries were bought, and shared among the group. A spot more of sightseeing and back to the car to get back to Barcelona, tired but satistied.

For more information or for help planning your private guided tour in Spain, contact The Spanish Touch at 888-480-0013.