Travel to Spain, a country that conjures images of rocky plains and whitewashed villages, rugged castles looming from distant hills, the windmills that taunted Don Quixote, bullrings, the fiery flamenco, and the strum of the guitar. Portugal brings to mind bold explorers, colorful ceramics, and close ties to the sea. You'll find all this and more on this escorted tour of Spain as you sweep from the vibrant modern capital of Madrid through the olive tree-filled hills of Andalucia and on to Portugal's Atlantic coast, following a route traced first by the Romans and Visigoths and, later, by the Moors.
Fly from one of several U.S. gateway cities to Madrid, Spain.
Arrive today in Madrid to begin your escorted tour of Spain. You are met at the airport by a Grand Circle representative and transferred to your hotel. You have the balance of the day to relax after your overseas flight. This evening, join your Program Director and fellow travelers, including those who took our pre-trip extension to Barcelona for a Welcome Briefing and a Welcome Drink.
Dinner is on your own this evening. Your Program Director will be pleased to share dining suggestions with you.
Vibrant Madrid—the highest capital city in Europe—may put you in mind of the paintings of Velazquez, with clear blue arching skies that gave rise to the phrase, "De Madrid al cielo" ("Madrid is the next thing to heaven"). One of the few European capitals not settled by the Romans, it became Spain's capital city in 1561, when Philip II moved his court from Toledo to the city in which he had been born. Located at the geographic center of Iberia, Madrid was a crossroads of the peninsula and remains a thriving cultural and artistic center, with the liveliest nightlife in the country.
Set out this morning to discover its highlights on an included panoramic tour. Among the sights are the exterior of the 18th-century Palacio Real (Royal Palace), an opulent, 2,800-room complex inspired by France's Versailles. You'll also admire the Plaza de Espana, Madrid's main square. After your city tour, you'll have the remainder of the day to do as you please.
Lunch is on your own today, and your choices are endless. Make your own discoveries this afternoon. Perhaps you will visit one of the city's greatest attractions: the Prado Museum. Intended as a natural science museum when it was conceived in 1785, it evolved into the repository of the royal art collection by the time it was completed in 1819, and is now one of the world's most renowned art galleries.
Or, if you prefer, return to the Royal Palace to explore its ornate royal apartment, banquet hall, Royal Armory, and Royal Library with its first edition of Don Quixote. Stroll the austere Plaza Mayor, one of Europe's largest public squares; or simply relax at a cafe and encounter the legendary friendliness of this welcoming city, melting pot for all the varied regions of Spain.
Savor an authentic taste of Spanish cuisine and get acquainted with your traveling companions over a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant this evening.
Make your own discoveries this morning, or join us on an optional tour of the imposing El Escorial, a 16th-century architectural masterpiece completed in 1584 as a residence for the King of Spain and a monastery for the Hieronymite monks. Designed at the height of Spain’s international power, the structure’s floor plan was actually inspired by descriptions of the Temple of Solomon. Set at the foot of Mount Abantos, the enormous gray-granite complex is the resting place of 500 years of Spanish kings.
The afternoon is yours to spend as you wish. Dinner is on your own tonight.
After breakfast this morning, you will begin your transfer to Cordoba. Just an hour along the route, however, lies a stop that is bound to be a highlight of your trip: medieval Toledo—a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and capital of Spain until the 16th century.
Picturesquely set on a hill overlooking the Tagus River, Toledo proudly preserves its 2,000-year history in more than 100 buildings and monuments. At its peak, between the eleventh and 13th centuries, it was known as the "City of Three Cultures" for the harmonious co-existence of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.
Breathe in this remarkable history as you embark on a walking tour along the narrow, cobbled streets of Toledo's center, enjoying the striking blend of Moorish-Mudejar-Jewish, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture. You'll view El Alcazar, the 16th-century Moorish citadel, which stands at a point originally fortified by the ancient Romans and which dominates the city skyline, as well as Toledo Cathedral, which you'll have the opportunity to enter and view the stunning artistry contained within.
Please note: Select departures will view the exterior of the cathedral only if it is closed.
After your tour of Toledo, you'll continue on your way to Cordoba, arriving at your hotel this evening, where dinner is included.
After breakfast, join us on an included panoramic tour of beautiful Cordoba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once capital of the Western world, Cordoba was founded by the ancient Romans at the highest navigable point of the Guadalquivir River, where it was easiest to ship olive oil, wheat, and wine back to Rome. It was after its conquest by the Moors in AD 711, however, that the city grew to become the largest in the world.
Today, Cordoba is best known for its most famous landmark, the Mezquita (Great Mosque)—the third-largest mosque in the world. When the Mezquita was built, during the tenth century, Cordoba was in its glory as the capital of the Moorish kingdom of El-Andalus, one of the wealthiest and most powerful cities in Europe, and an important center for science, education, and the arts.
In AD 929, the Cordoba region broke away from the Islamic center, Baghdad, and formed its own independent kingdom, falling into anarchy shortly afterward. The city was conquered in 1236 by King Ferdinand, a Christian who had the mosque consecrated and constructed a cathedral in the middle of it, while still preserving the remarkable beauty of the original structure.
During your escorted tour of Spain's historic cultural capital, you'll find that Cordoba is often a study in contrasts: Moorish and Christian, old and new. You'll pass by a reconstruction of the original Roman Bridge and enter the synagogue—the only ancient synagogue still standing in Spain outside Toledo. You'll also stroll through the Juderia (Jewish Quarter), admiring the famous Andalucian patios of pretty ceramics, iron grilles, and plants.
Your tour culminates at the Mezquita. Here you'll stroll through the courtyard filled with orange trees and fountains to the entryway, where you are greeted by 850 stunning colored granite and marble arches, illuminated by sunlight streaming through the cupolas. At the center of the mosque, find the 16th-century Renaissance cathedral with its mahogany pulpits and choir stalls. Surrounding the cathedral, the mosque remains almost untouched since the eleventh century, revealing some of the finest Islamic architecture in Spain.
After your tour, you are free to have lunch on your own and continue making your own discoveries. Your Program Director will give you suggestions on how to spend your free time. Perhaps you'll explore the district's leather and furniture shops or stroll the Botanical Garden. Browse the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, founded by the patrons of Christopher Columbus, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Or simply people-watch at the vibrant Plaza Juda Levi.
The evening is free. Your Program Director can give you suggestions for where to dine among Cordoba's many wonderful restaurants.
Please note: Select departures will view the exterior of the synagogue only if it is closed.
Begin your journey to Granada after breakfast, arriving late in the morning. When the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in AD 711, they claimed a hillside city that had been founded by the Romans and later settled by Visigoths, yet whose history dates to pre-historic times—Granada, which is believed to mean "great castle." The Moors chose Granada as the site to build their own mighty citadel—one of the great architectural wonders of all time: the Alhambra.
Even from a distance, the Alhambra is a breathtaking sight, sprawling over a hilltop overlooking the city. Construction of the Alhambra began during the 13th century and continued over centuries, resulting in a mix of surfaces and styles. Enjoy an included tour of this complex of palaces and courtyards, a deliberate effort to create a paradise on Earth. Pass by patios, graceful arches, cupolas, fountains, and pools, the Royal Palace, the harem, and more.
Enjoy an included lunch at a restaurant near the Alhambra before boarding the coach for your two-hour transfer to Torremolinos, on Spain's Costa del Sol. Your hotel is located in the heart of this popular resort area, a favorite vacation spot among Europeans.
Settle into your hotel room before venturing out for dinner on your own at one of the attractive restaurants that line Torremolinos' seaside promenade.
You have the day free in Torremolinos. Perhaps you'll take a walk to La Carihuela, the original fishing village that was once all there was to Torremolinos. Today, its many cafes and restaurants are still the best places to go for fresh local seafood. Try pez espada (swordfish), pescaito frito (fish fried in olive oil), or the local specialty, pescado a la sal (bream or sea bass baked in a crispy coating of sea salt).
Or you can join an optional tour across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. When you dock in Africa, your Moroccan guide meets you at the port, and you'll enjoy an orientation tour of Tangier, visiting the Kasbah and souk, or marketplace. Next, you'll savor Moroccan cuisine and experience local culture during an included lunch.
In the morning, enjoy a tour to the Old Town of Malaga. Malaga is the main city of coastal Andalucia, and retains a distinctly Spanish flavor, with twisting, narrow streets and a lovely waterfront promenade. Tall palm and plane trees, bougainvillea, aloes, and geraniums make a luxurious tropical paradise alongside the clean, modern port. This is Picasso's birthplace, and was a popular winter holiday site for the 19th-century wealthy. A leisurely walk then takes us past the ruins of an ancient Roman theater, built more than 2,000 years ago.
After your visit to Malaga, you'll journey into the countryside surrounding the Costa del Sol. You'll experience typical Spanish family life as you join a local family in their home in Salinas for an intimate visit and a freshly cooked meal, accompanied by wine.
Together, you'll improvise a way to share conversation and learn more about one another—this usually involves the international language of hand signals and smiles! During this exclusive Discovery Series event, you'll enjoy an authentic and unique interpersonal exchange and come away with a deeper understanding of the local culture.
For dinner on your own tonight, perhaps you'll sample tapas, which are said to have been invented here. These small sampler plates allow you to taste a wide range of Spanish specialties.
Visit Ronda en route to Seville today. One of the oldest cities in Spain, lovely Ronda—nicknamed the "Dream City" by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—enjoys a lofty setting on a promontory overlooking El Tajo, a spectacular 360-foot-deep river gorge. Readers of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls will recognize El Tajo as the place from which Fascists were thrown to their deaths during the Spanish Civil War.
Though its roots are in pre-historic times, Ronda is like many Andalucian cities in that it saw its glory days under Moorish rule. Conquered by the Christians in 1485, Ronda was one of the last strongholds of the Arabs, and Arab architecture dominates the old city, set on one side of the ravine. On the other side of El Tajo stands El Mercadillo (the "new" city), constructed mostly during the 18th century. Connecting the two halves of the city is the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), an amazing architectural feat built between 1755 and 1793 and spanning a dizzying drop over the gorge.
You'll get a sense of both facets of the city during an included tour. Admire the whitewashed houses with charming balconies that line the winding streets of the old town, and view Santa Maria la Mayor, once the city's Great Mosque and later rebuilt as a Gothic Christian church. You'll also see the Palace of Mondragon, where Moorish kings and later King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella took up residence.
After your tour, enjoy time for lunch on your own.
Lovely views of the Spanish countryside do not end in Ronda today. This afternoon, you'll embark on a transfer to Seville along the Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos—the "Route of the Whitewashed Villages." You'll see several of these classic Andalucian villages tucked into hillsides and framed with greenery during your scenic ride.
Arrive in Seville later this afternoon and settle into your room.
Gather with your fellow travelers this evening for an included dinner at your hotel.
Located on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Seville is fabled to have been settled by Hercules, and its wealth of magnificent monuments and buildings attest to its long and storied history. Founded by the Tartessians, the city was later settled by the Romans, and two of Rome's great emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, were born here. Seville was occupied by the Moors from AD 711 until 1248, and many of its most fascinating monuments date to that period. Today, Seville occupies a special place in Spanish culture, with its fiestas, bougainvillea, strolling musicians, and gypsies. The fourth-largest city in Spain, Seville is also renowned as the birthplace of flamenco and Don Juan.
A half-day included tour this morning reveals the city's highlights, including the Barrio de Santa Cruz, a lovely neighborhood known for its maze-like cluster of narrow streets. Your Program Director will help you wind your way amidst the whitewashed homes, impressive mansions, and charming plazas, such as Plaza de Santa Cruz and Plaza de las Cruces. Admire—and smell—the flowering pots adorning the private patios that you pass. You'll also take in the architectural feat that is Seville Cathedral on this tour.
The remainder of the day is yours to explore at leisure. Visit the Alcazar, official Seville residence of Spanish royalty. Explore the exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, whose collections include works by Murillo and El Greco. Browse the shops along the Calle Sierpes, Seville's main shopping venue. Or simply relax at a cafe and enjoy the colorful whirl that is Seville.
Tonight, enjoy an included dinner performance of the flamenco, the intensely emotional dance that was created here.
Today, as you travel to Portugal, you'll ride through the sweeping countryside of the Algarve, Portugal's southernmost region, before heading north to Lisbon. Along the way we'll stop in the region of Alentejo, where you'll visit a working horse farm and enjoy an exclusive opportunity to chat with the owners. You'll learn the wrenching story of how many families here lost their lands to the communists and the difficulties they encountered regaining their holdings. A horse presentation in the arena will give you the opportunity to learn the differences between breeds of horses raised here.
After an included lunch at the farm, transfer to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, where you'll check into your hotel this evening. Dinner is on your own tonight.
After breakfast, discover Lisbon on an included tour. Built on seven hills, Lisbon has been Portugal's capital since the 13th century, and the area around the steepest hill, Sao Jorge, was first settled by Phoenicians in the twelfth century BC. They were followed by Carthaginians, Romans, several Germanic tribes, and Visigoths. In AD 714, the Moors captured Lisbon, and held it for the next 400 years.
Portuguese explorers began colonizing parts of Africa and Asia at the beginning of the 15th century. Vasco da Gama set sail for India from Lisbon in 1497, and the city became a center for successful voyages of discovery throughout the East and the New World for the next 300 years. The immense riches brought back by these explorers and navigators ushered in a period of building and expansion that gave birth to the new Manueline architectural style, with its ornately carved decorative motifs. You'll see the best example of this style of architecture in the historic section of Belem. Here you'll see the 16th-century church of the Jeronimos Monastery, containing Vasco da Gama's tomb, the ornate Belem Tower, and the Monument of the Discoveries.
The rest of the day is yours in Lisbon. Spend some time in the Alfama district, and enjoy the winding alleyways where the city's Moorish heritage thrives. Venture to St. George's Castle, constructed by the Moors on the site of a fifth-century Visigoth fort and once the residence of Portuguese kings. Admire the elegant carpets and crafts at the Musem-School of Decorative Arts. Visit Chiado, a fashionable shopping district. Enjoy lunch on your own at Lisbon's wide array of restaurants and cafes. Dinner tonight is included at a local restaurant.
This morning, embark on an included excursion to Sintra and Cascais. Begin at the Royal Palace in Sintra, dating back to the Middle Ages. During time on your own in Sintra, you’ll see why well-traveled English poet Lord Byron called the town “the most beautiful in the world.” Then continue to Cascais, a one-time humble fishing village that has grown into a lively coastal resort town. Please note: On days when Sintra Palace is closed for holidays or official celebrations, we will visit the Queluz National Palace instead.
Enjoy the afternoon, then gather with your fellow travelers for a Farewell Dinner at your hotel.
Early this morning, transfer to the airport for your flight home. Or begin your post-trip extension to The Island of Madeira.