Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Rain in Spain: Travel Tips Before Visiting Spain!


I recently covered about 2,100 kilometers traveling around northern Spain, discovering six cities over 11 days, and seeing a lot more from my train seat.

I wished I would have had more time (and budget!) to explore Viva España!, but sadly, my vacation days estan limitado

And in case a few of you want to embark on the same trip (and in case I'm revisiting España otra vez!), I am writing everything down for a few tips and website to use.
  (The 'WELCOME' sign at Madrid Airport)

             (Churros con chocolate for 
                 breakfast in Madrid!)

1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
I didn't want to buy any guide book as I knew I could only visit a few cities over 11 days. Guidebooks cover a whole country; I only needed brochures, which, fortunately, I was able to get from the Spanish tourism office in Seoul. Although these brochures were in Korean, the maps inside were useful. And thanks to the Spain tourism office staff, Abel, my questions regarding the jamon serrano I could bring back to Korea were answered! Yes, I was able to bring a few vacuum packs!

And for planning the whole trip, I got a lot of information from this site:

http://www.spain.info/en/

Since I already speak basic Spanish, I just needed to brush up on it using a small Spanish dictionary. I was able to engage locals in conversations in Spanish during my out-of-town trips, where most people may not be conversant in English.

(The statue of Miguel de Cervantes in Plaza de Cervantes in Alcala de Henares)
         (Baked goods at a panaderia 
          in Santiago de Compostela)
             (Praza de Obradoiro in 
          Santiago de Compostela)

2. DECIDE ON YOUR ROUTE
When I finally decided how many days I could spend in Spain based on my vacation leave, I locked on Madrid, Barcelona, and Santiago de Compostela as the cities. I then researched on their neighboring cities that I could visit for a day. 

So, while I was in Madrid, I visited Alcala de Henares, and when I was in Barcelona, I visited the Monserrat Monastery.  And when I was in Santiago de Compostela, I made a day-trip to A Coruña, where my Spanish friend Kiko lives.
        (Torre de Hercules is the oldest 
        working lighthouse in the world!)

  (The charming singers of Tuna Derecho 
          de Santiago de Compostela)

3. DRAW YOUR FLIGHT PLAN
After I decided that I would fly into Madrid and fly out from Barcelona, I visited my travel agent in Seoul and explored the most popular online airfare sites to decide on the airline and the time table. Well, although the Turkish Airlines fare was reasonably the lowest I found with the flight schedule perfect for my visit, I was a bit disappointed with the airline service. Twice I missed my connecting flights because of delays, and both the airline service and their customer service at Istanbul Ataturk Airport were very disappointing. 

I also booked my airport transfer from Madrid airport to the hotel online. That way, I didn't have to worry about transport when I arrived in Madrid tired and sleepy.
           (Santiago de Compostela train 
            station in the early morning)
            (The Spanish countryside 
                 from my train seat)

4. BOOK YOUR ACCOMMODATION
One doesn't need to stay at those expensive hotels. There's airbnb, booking.com and other sites. My criteria for choosing the hotel were the price and location. Since I was already familiar with the geography of a city, deciding on the location of my accommodation was easy.

In Madrid, I stayed at an interesting hotel near the Opera Subway Station, and a few minutes by foot from Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol and the Royal Palace of Madrid.

In Santiago de Compostela, I stayed at a small hotel five minutes from the Santiago train station.

In Barcelona, I stayed at a business hotel five minutes from Las Ramblas and Licieu Subway Station.

Although airbnb.com accommodations could have been cheaper, they didn't have cable TV, wifi, or elevators. Since I was a stranger to the city, paying extra for convenience and safety was a given. I booked my hotels through Booking.com.

              (Barcelona train station)
             (Train bound for Monserrat)
         (The imposing Sagrada Familia 
                       in Barcelona)

5. RENFE, THE TRAIN IN SPAIN
After settling all the flights and hotels, I had to figure out my train rides: from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela, to Barcelona. 

Renfe, Spain's national rail transport, has a website containing all the train schedules, stops and fares. But somehow, before I flew to Spain, I could not book and pay through the site. So, what I did was to write down my train itinerary and desired dates on a paper, thinking that when I visit the Renfe office in Madrid to buy the tickets, there wouldn't be a misunderstanding.

But luckily, when I arrived at the Madrid-Barajas Airport, there was a Renfe booth next to my airport transfer desk! And that piece of paper containing my train travel dates was very helpful! I just gave it to the señor after I asked him, "Buenos tardes, puedo yo comprar los billetes aqui?" I didn't have to visit a Renfe office in the city and fall in line to buy my cross-country train tickets. 

Although there were flights from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela, the airport was way out of town and not practical. For me, the train ride was part of the tour: watching the Spanish countryside, the landscape and the cuidades y pueblos along the way was an experience to be remembered. My train ride from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela took about 6 hours with one transfer at Ourense Station; and from Santiago de Compostela to Barcelona took 12 hours. It was like watching the Spanish National Geographic channel from my seat! 
   (The fascinating Monserrat Monastery!)
         (Jamon at Gadi's supermarket!)
                         (Paella in Barcelona!)

6. BOOKING TOURS and VISITS
Before I left for Spain, I also booked my city tour buses for Madrid and Barcelona, as well as visits for Sagrada Familia and Santiago de Compostela Cathedrals, and Monserrat Monastery. They have their own official websites. Just make sure you bring your printed tickets and receipts with you.

For my visits to the Real Madrid and FCB stadia, I just bought the tickets when I got to the site.

For the train rides during my day-trips, I just bought round-trip tickets at Atocha Station for my ride to Alcala de Henares, and for A Coruña, I bought tickets at Santiago de Compostela. For my trip to Monserrat Monastery, I bought the package tour that included two subway rides to/from Plaza España Station from anywhere in Barcelona, and train ride from Plaza España up to Monistrol Monserrat. Station. 

             (The map of Spain and 
           my actual route highlighted!)

7. KEEPING YOUR CASH SAFE
And as to safety, as long as you carry your bags or valuables safe right in front of you, you'll be fine. Those chest bags should be handy. The pickpockets around Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Las Ramblas in Barcelona are very quick, and they could be anyone. Just don't let your guard down any time like the way I did on my last morning in Madrid. I was almost pickpocketed by two señoritas along Calle Mayor. Luckily, I caught them just in time! I learned my lesson! 

Leave your passports and most of your cash at your hotel room safe. When you walk around the city, just bring with you the cash amount you think you'll need for the day, and also carry a photocopy of your passport and visa. I have a photo of my passport in my iPad, which I needed for identification when I used my credit card at the FCB store in Barcelona.

                        *  *  *  *  *

Just like most tourists, I'd like to visit Spain again someday. And for me to relive the memories, I will be blogging about my trip in the weeks to come.

¡Hasta la vista, España!

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