Emma Regis, who works in one of our Norwich travel agents, got the chance to experience a six-night tour of Portugal and Spain. Here is a run-down of all the things she got to see and do during her trip…
Destination: Spain and Portugal
Operator/Host: Insight Vacations
(Hotel names/Ship name): Conde Duque – Madrid, Ayre Seville – Seville, Altis Suites – Lisbon
Airline: Iberia / British Airways
Duration: 6 Nights
The Check-in for the flight ran very smoothly on a flight that had a British Airways flight number but was operated by Iberia. Check-in is done electronically on the touch screens and you just drop off your bag at the desk; making it a very quick and easy process. The flight itself was not the greatest flight I have had. There was not much legroom and the seats did not feel very secure at all; for the duration of the flight, the whole aircraft seemed to rattle.
The cabin crew never came through the cabin to do checks before take-off and landing; you could have been sat with your laptop on, no seat belt fastened and with your table down and they would have been none the wiser. There are no meals provided on the flights, just a very limited in-flight service with very few food options available. After my experience with Iberia, they are not an airline I would rush to use again or recommend to any travellers unless you have no alternative.
Our return flight with British Airways was much better than the outbound. Again check-in was done electronically on the touch screens; making it much quicker. There was much more leg room, the leather seats were much more comfortable, and the cabin crew were very friendly. British Airways provide a meal on board too; we had a BLT wrap which for Airplane food was very nice.
The captains were very good; they kept updating us with everything that was happening and when we were going to be landing. I have heard a lot of complaints about British Airways, but I was very impressed with the service we received on board.
Overall, the hotel was very nice. It was traditionally decorated and very clean which is exactly what you would expect a 4* hotel to be. The rooms themselves were not the biggest but they did have a very big marble bathroom, with a good sized bath and a shower over. The beds were very comfortable; however the view was of a wall, so I found this let the hotel down slightly as it would have been nicer to have a better view.
The cost of food and drinks at the Conde Duque was also very expensive compared to the other hotels we stayed in. I was impressed with the breakfast; there was a large choice of fresh fruits, meats, cheeses and bread, along with hot breakfast too. The location of the hotel wasn’t the most central; there was a supermarket nearby but you would have to walk past a small dog park outside of the hotel which didn’t smell the greatest. Not really the kind of thing you would expect outside a 4* hotel. If you were looking to visit the old town of Madrid, this would be quite a walk from the hotel as it was on the other side of the city. I know Insight have now taken this hotel out of their program for 2014.
I was very impressed with this 4*hotel, which is in a fantastic location. It is very contemporary with a large spacious reception area and bar. We stayed in one of the refurbished rooms which were a very good size, had large beds, lots of wardrobe space and a very good sized bathroom with a large walk-in shower.
Again, there was a very good choice available for breakfast, with either hot or continental breakfast and from 2014 they have added an Asian selection to their breakfast menu too. If you are travelling in the summer months, there is a swimming pool on a large terrace to soak up the rays after a day of shopping and sightseeing.
The Ayre is in a great location close to the old town and the main shopping areas of the city which include the Calle de las Sierpes, one of the main shopping streets for shoes and leather items.
The Altis Suites was my favourite hotel by far. The rooms were more like apartments and there was a good sized bathroom with double sinks, plenty of wardrobe space and each room had it’s own private mini balcony. It was a shame there wasn’t much of a view from these, though. Again, the rooms featured large beds that you could just feel yourself sink into as soon as you laid on them and the TV was set behind a massive mirror which almost took up most of the wall.
The bar and restaurant at the hotel were located on the highest floor and had some fantastic views over the city of Lisbon; the food here was excellent quality along with the service too. The breakfast room was located on one of the lower levels and was a very good size, again with an excellent choice of cooked or continental style breakfast. The hotel is in a fantastic location, just around the corner from the Avenida de Liberdade and the Parque Edward VII, and a short walk to the main shopping area of Lisbon.
I was very impressed with how much the tour included. All evening meals were included in local restaurants and we had two evenings where we experienced local entertainment. Our first day included a sightseeing walking tour of Toledo. We started the day by visiting a local factory where we were shown how they make their burnished steel swords and handcrafted gold jewellery. We were then guided along the cobbled streets of Toledo and the Jewish Quarter, to visit the famous El Greco painting, The Burial of the Count Orgaz in the Church of Santo Tome.
After we returned from Toledo, we then had a tour of Madrid. This was by bus as the weather was too bad to do a walking tour. We visited the main sights of Madrid from a distance such as the Royal Palace, The Gran Via and the Old Town area of the city.
On our second day we travelled from Madrid to Seville; stopping off at Cordoba along the way. Included here was a visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba located within the old city walls and we had a tour of the Mosque and the Christian Church built within it. Once we arrived in Seville, we were taken to a local Flamenco show which included dinner.
The third day was started with a city tour of Seville taking in all of the sights. During this, we stopped at the Seville Palace where we had a group photo taken (we were given a copy of this at the end of our tour). After the Seville Palace, we were then taken on a short walking tour where we made our way to the cathedral along the narrow streets following the old city walls. Insight had arranged for us to be followed by local guitarists who sang and played music to us as we walked along the orange tree lined streets.
We were then taken on a tour of Seville Cathedral, home to the tomb of Christopher Columbus, and were then given the opportunity to climb the old tower to take in some of the best views over Seville. In the evening we had a ‘dine around’ experience. This gave us a chance to travel by the local tram and eat in one of the lesser known hidden local restaurants.
The next day we made our way from Seville to Lisbon and along the way we had a few hours on the Algarve Coast at the small seaside town of Tavira. After Tavira, we were taken to Lisbon and had a surprise visit to the Statue of Christ which overlooks Lisbon. From here, there are some fantastic views of the 25th April Bridge which is sister to the world famous Golden Gate Bridge, and Lisbon city. You could take a trip to the top of the Statue for around 8 Euros per person. After we crossed the 25th April Bridge, we were then taken to sample one of the local specialities, port wine.
On our final day in Lisbon, we were taken on a sightseeing tour of the city. We stopped off at the Parque Edward VII, Avenida de Liberdade, Belem Tower and Discoveries Monument. Our tour ended with a visit to Jeronimos Monastery, which housed the monks of the Order of Saint Jerome. It is also home to the tombs of some of the great figures of Portuguese History. Our final evening in Lisbon ended with a Fado evening. This included a long meal along with local singing and dancing.
It is hard to mention one favourite part of my trip as there were so many. But there are a few things that really made it extra special. One in particular was while we were walking around Seville, we were walking along the beautiful cobbled streets of Seville looking at the City walls and noticed two men hanging around with a guitar.
We were all a bit wary and watching our handbags in case they were pickpockets, but as we started walking down the street they followed us, and starting playing music and singing to us. As we walked into a beautiful courtyard with the famous Seville orange trees, we then stopped and they carried on singing to us. Insight had arranged for them to follow us and sing to us as we walked through the streets. This was such a lovely experience and so unexpected; it really made a difference and it is something that not one of us will ever forget. It’s the little memories like this that make the trip that bit more special than others.
Another highlight was after a long day of travelling between Seville and Lisbon, we were surprised with a trip to the Statue of Christ. The views over the river to the city were magnificent and we were there as the sun was about to set, which just made it that bit more special. Most companies stick to their tour itinerary but I like the way that Insight add in little unexpected things to make it that much more memorable.
I was impressed with how much the tours of each city covered, however, I didn’t feel we had enough time in some of the destinations. I think that in most cities there is so much to see it is worth having an extra day to give extra time for sightseeing and time at leisure.
We had a great city tour of Madrid by coach, but this was only one afternoon. I feel I missed out on seeing Madrid, as we had no free time to go and visit the sights we had seen in passing. This was the same in both Seville and Lisbon; we did have a free afternoon in both cities but this is not enough time to see everything you wanted to see. I would recommend an extra night’s stay at both the beginning and end of the tours to give you more time, as this is lost on the departure and arrival days.
During the trip, we were taken to local restaurants and I love dining locally while I am abroad and trying the local delicacies. Unfortunately, the standard of food we had was very poor in some places, with the majority of our meals being served cold and in some cases uncooked. It was such a shame on a tour such as this, as the food really let down the experience. I think it would be better is there was more freedom as to where you could go to eat in the evenings; allowing people to make their own choices.
I would definitely recommend this to travellers, however, due to the amount of time spent on a coach it would not be suitable for everyone.
If you want a relaxing trip and want to spend time visiting a lot of destinations in a short amount of time this would be perfect. The city tours are great to give you a good overview of the main sights of each city. In most cases, the trips to the main attractions are included in the tour price. Insight has some of the best local tour guides; they have great knowledge of the area and the history too. They are very friendly and all extremely passionate about the areas they are showing you.
In most cities there would be time to explore on your own and there is plenty of time spent travelling between destinations; giving you the chance to sit back and relax. Unlike most coaches, the seats are very comfortable, with a very good amount of leg room. Insight rotate passengers around the coach so that you sit in a different seat each day and there is no fighting over the front seats.
From 2014 the coaches have been fitted with complimentary WI-FI; giving you a chance to upload your holiday memories as soon as they happen, and to stay in touch with family and friends back home. The tour guides are brilliant; they really do make the tours. There are so many little extras they do; it really does make the holiday that little bit more special.
The tour guide on our trip was fantastic; he was very friendly and had so much knowledge about the places we visited and their history. The guides are given an allowance from Insight to spend how they wish on the guests in their group. As soon as we got back on the coach after every place we visited, he had a surprise for each of us from the allowance.
These included things such as Marzipan from Toledo, a magnet of The Burial of the Count Orgaz from the Church of Santo Tome, a postcard with a stamp to send home from Tavira and a Portuguese custard tart from the Bakery they first originated from. I found all these little things made a difference; we wouldn’t have had time on our tours to go and try these little things for ourselves, so it was nice to have someone give us the opportunity to do this.
One of the ladies on the tour left her glasses at the restaurant we ate at the evening before and as soon as she mentioned this to our guide he contacted the restaurant and had them back to her within an hour.
As we were travelling around the cities by coach, the tour guide would always make sure we stopped in the best places to get some fantastic views and photographs before we visited them. In every place we visited we had a local guide, they were so passionate and explained everything they were showing us down to the last tiny detail. I have done tours in the past but Insight’s guides are so passionate they make you want to listen to them and hear all about the cities they are showing you.
Must see? The Seville Palace and The Statue of Christ in Lisbon
Must do? Flamenco show in Seville
Must try? Portuguese custard tart
If you would like us to help you plan a city break to any of the places Emma visited, or indeed a tour similar to the one that she experience, we will be more than happy to help.
Visit one of our seven travel stores throughout East Anglia or fill out an enquiry form on the website and we will aim to find you the perfect package for your holiday.