Often called the “Costa Verde” or “green coast,” northern Spain is a land of contrasts, boasting beautiful scenery, dramatic landscapes and snow-covered mountains, all set against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Diverse as it is vast, Spain will envelope your senses, steal your breath. Having spent several weeks in southern Spain a decade ago, I was fascinated to discover its northern-most tip.
Guided tour or fancy free?
Is it better to see Europe on a group tour or go it on your own? I’ve done both and traveling with a company that specializes in European vacations is much preferred. When I had an opportunity to visit northern Spain with Insight Vacations, I was packed and ready to go.
Insight Vacations has been taking guests across Europe for more than 35 years, covering 43 countries, more than any other tour operator. Their theme is the “Art of Touring in Style” and I found their itinerary, choice of upscale hotels and unique experiences brought the magic of Spain to life. Some of these fine extras included wine and cider tastings, meeting locals and dining in contemporary restaurants I wouldn’t have discovered had I been on my own.
“The beauty of an Insight Vacation is balance,” said CEO of Insight Vacations John Boulding. “Our philosophy is to give people a choice and flexibility. Allow them time to do their own thing with options at every stop. Our guests have an opportunity to step in and out of the tour.” Perhaps that’s why 40% of their guests are return visitors.
Boulding continued, “Insight Vacations provides tremendous value. You just can’t do it yourself when you consider the price of a hotel, meals, tours and the little extras we provide.”
Other Insight touches that made the travel experience that much richer were the “whispers” when visiting historic sites. These special audio phones let me hear the guides no matter where I was standing.
What I also enjoyed were their “little flourishes” as Tony, our tour guide, described. He provided surprises in almost very stop, such as candy produced in the area, or a magnet or some special memento that made my trip even more memorable.
Madrid, Barcelona and off the beaten path
Insight’s tour of Northern Spain features cultural treasures, medieval towns and World Heritage Sites. We started in Madrid, with stops in Santiago de Compostela, Barcelona, Pamploma, known for the “running of the bulls,” Bilbao, San Sebastian and other Basque cities. Their well-paced itinerary gave me a chance to explore these fascinating destinations, all from the comfort of a large, motor coach.
In Plaza de Espana. I gazed at the statues of Don Quixote with his sidekick Sancho Panza, still moved by thoughts of “the impossible dream.” Insight also included a visit to the world-famous Prado, with magnificent works from Goya and Velazquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age. I was most impressed with his famous 1656 painting Las Meninas, where he painted himself in the scene.
The Spanish Coastline
Moving north, I found that some Spanish customs were different. Castilian Spanish is spoken with a different accent. Traditional tapas were replaced by “pinchos,” spiked with a toothpick and bread. Toni always pointed out the best places to enjoy them. “It was like having a friend in a foreign land,” he said.
The icon of Bilbao is represented by the Guggenheim Museum, but standing in front of it simply takes your breath away. Designed by Frank Gehry, this titanium-covered building has received accolades throughout the world, and literally, put Bilbao on the map. Walking through the three stories, I discovered works of modern and contemporary art by both Spanish and international artists and exhibits that were truly “experiential.”
The Way of St. James
History tells us the remains of St. James were found here in the Middle Ages and brought to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For thousands of years, this site was a famous pilgrimage route. Today, travelers begin their spiritual journey from their front doorstep on foot, bicycle, even horseback. Many walk the route just for the experience, converging on the city as a celebrated accomplishment. The cathedral is magnificent, an architectural collection of Gothic,
Everywhere we went, we saw pilgrims with backpacks. Some stay for a day or two, others for months. Insight arranged for us to have dinner in the historic parador in the town square, which over time served as a hospital, prison and orphanage. With its many nooks and crannies, you could sense the history that played out here….and dinner was fabulous!
When it was time to return home, I reflected on the total experience
Insight had created. Artistic splendor, coupled with fascinating culture had given me a true sense of Spain’s proud heritage.
“It’s not just about the destinations. It’s about what you learn, what you come away with. It’s how you become immersed in the culture,” said Boulding. “And that stays with you forever.”
For more information, call 1-888-680-1241, www.insightvacations.com