BARCELONA AND NORTHERN EUROPE
Personal Evaluation of The Tour
Before we begin a formal review of this Go Ahead Tour (GAT) we need to explain that we had not heard of nor explored the trips of GAT until Jim Magary (Jim.Magary@goaheadtours.com) contacted us on February 6, 2012 asking us to list GAT on our website GarciaTrips.com. In our back and forth, he promised that a representative from GAT would contact us. On March 5, almost a month later, Ryan Gervais contacted us. We signed up to participate in the above tour.
Just prior to leaving, Sunday, September 23, 2012 we wrote a long email to Kathryn Bucchere (email@example.com) reflecting on the upcoming tour and our website where we would be detailing in journals, photos, videos, GPS, etc. of this Go Ahead Tour. Since signing up for our tour we have not heard from Jim Magary even though we have emailed him and his Boomient Company over 6 times.
We never received an email response from Kathryn. Upon our return we had a message on our phone answering machine two days after we had flown to Barcelona on whether we had any last minute questions on the trip. We finally had a response from the Quality Control Manager on October 19, 2012.
Our Go Ahead Tour was our second formal tour of Spain. We had previously traveled to Spain in 2004 and had a general view of the country. The trip with GAT would show us many of the same sights but we hoped in more depth.
We left Colorado on September 25, 2012 and had a couple of days in Barcelona, Andorra, and France to deal with some private business issues. With the perfect weather through the 28th, we saw and did a lot. The 29th was to be the "Professional Tour of Barcelona." Our local guide Carmen and Laura, our GAT Tour Director (TD), did a good job of trying to keep our spirits high in pouring rain.
We only got off the bus at Güell Park and La Sagrada Familia, which was understandable considering the rain. Some people chose not to get out of the bus and one who did leave long after the group, complained he could not find the rest of us.
Our concern for this portion of the trip is the allotment of 4 hours to a city with its cultural and historic history. Why not Ramblas, Mercat St Josep, Magical Fountain, etc. Maybe a night walk with lights of Barcelona Plaza de España - why not as an optional. We have heard from the office in Luzern that there are plans to change this in 2014.
As we prepared for our first day on the road, we came to realize that the pace of this tour was going to be leisurely. Departing at 8:30 or 9 AM on most days and having long unhurried lunches on our own was not taking advantage of our time in Spain.
The time in Montserrat was as we remember from 2004. Our tour of Zaragoza with Carlos was very good and detailed. Starting at the hotel, we saw much more of the old city and then the basilica before we went to dinner at Las Palomas Buffet and Tapas. This was the best meal provided by GAT during the whole trip. From the published GAT itinerary we did not see the Moorish Aljaferia.
Our two days to and in San Sebastian were quite diverse. Stopping first in Pamplona, Laura gave us a detailed walking tour of the city with a great deal of history but we did not see the Gothic Santa Maria La Real Cathedral.
Driving on to San Sebastian we arrived at our hotel early enough where we could walk and explore. The second day was great with the best city guide of all, Eduardo. What was to be a 2 hour walk up Mount Urgull lasted only 30 minutes and we went only half way up.
After a long lunchtime, we met a private coach to take a side trip to Biarritz, France. This was super, we had a chance to stroll throughout the city and then do the long ocean walk.
When we booked this tour we saw that the published book notation of TRAVEL PACE: 4, challenging. The only possibly challenging aspect was the optional to the Picos de Europa. From our observations we were the only ones to do the long walks such at Biarritz and Lugo.
There was also a notation on the website and in the brochure that members of the tour "travelers" should be in reasonable shape. There were many who were not.
Our day to Santillana del Mar was first-rate. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was a skeleton compared to our previous visit. One of three floors closed, displays were quite poor and lacked the brilliance we had seen previously. But that is not GAT problem. I have dealt with this issue "privately". The brief tour of old Bilbao was good and then lunch.
Our trip continued to the Altamira Museum where we got a perspective of what the caves looked like. Then on to Santillana del Mar and the old world look, in the hotel and town. This was a very nice place to spend the night. We for one, wish we could have stayed there an extra day; not all agreed.
The route to Oviedo was quite diversified in the visit to Comillas where we had a different tour of the area. Then to Tazones for lunch and a couple of hours of free time to see the area and port. When we arrived in Oviedo we had a very detailed tour of the Cathedral of San Salvador and the city.
Just like Santillana del Mar, we had a set menu for dinner this night. As we finished the meal, I looked around and every place had food left over, lots of food left over. It is unfortunately that so much is thrown out; another reason for local food buffets where you can take what you eat and eat what you take.
The optional Picos de Europa tour was great, we finally had the opportunity to walk and exercise. As it was a beautiful sunny day; we really enjoyed the full day excursion, even with more Basilica and Groto of Covadonga. We then went to the Picos, walking up to and altitude of 3773 feet. The scenery was superb.
Seeing the film The Way set us up for our visit to Santiago de Compostela. We stopped at the city of Lugo and saw their San Froilán Fiestas. Walking the Roman Wall we met many people of this city and Americans working in Spain as bilingual teachers. But we did not see the Thermal Springs in Lugo.
Once we arrived in Oviedo we prepared for our optional dinner. This was excellent except for the fact that our order of Sea Bass exceeded the number the restaurant had on hand by 5. The Meson 042 tried their best but were one short so Gennie and I chose to have an extra order of clams instead. Laura went a little further by offering us a Queimada.
Our city guide Maria took us through the city with special long emphasis on the Cathedral. With two hours for lunch, we went on the last optional to the Rías Baixas Cruise. This was the least effective of the “optionals” as we went out on a boat with 20+ GAT members and two busses of Portuguese day trippers.
The initial sight was a shipmate holding a rope for 15 minutes with clams. No explanation could be heard, as the noise on the deck was quite high. The all you can eat mussels meal was OK, the room was packed, the service was done by just dropping the platters on the table, and then we were on our own. The positive aspect of the afternoon was joining the Portuguese in singing and dancing.
Our check-in and flight to Madrid went well and we arrived with most of the day on our own. We took the time to visit sights we had seen several times before and meeting more and more people. The Farewell Dinner at The Galopin Restaurant went well as we had a choice on the entrées.
In conclusion there were many very positive experiences we took advantage on this trip. I have reflected on those in the pages above. On the negative, I would stress the hotel in Oviedo and Santiago de Compostella we not the quality we had expected from GAT.
Then when we got to Madrid they gave us a room that was in a blue haze - cigarette smoke. When our room was changed, the AC did not work. Finally that was repaired and in apology, they brought us a bottle of champagne - I gave it to Laura.
Our evaluation of all hotels was done on two online businesses one being TripAdvisor as suggested by GAT. We also evaluated restaurants that were part of our trip, whether group dinners or our own private excursion.
Another aspect that concerned us was the bus. Javier was a super driver but the bus had probably over 10 seats that would not stay in fully upright position.
The seats themselves were quite narrow (16"/40cm) - several oversized persons claimed two seats every morning while others shared. From the first day we asked that the temperature be set at 70 degrees.
It was a problem, almost every day. One day, for one hour and fifteen minutes, the temperature was 83˚. The GAT brochure states that the bus would have bathrooms; this one did not.
I was looking forward to using the Whisperers for better auditory reception on the city tours. Unfortunately, they were problematic to many; the range was limited, the batteries ran out quickly, and the earphones were less than stellar.
The final day itinerary says "A Go Ahead representative escorts you to the airport for your flight home." Laura put us on the bus and we were on our way. The driver just dropped us off at the door of the terminal.
In all of our travels, we try to mingle, talk to, share a drink, and laugh with the native population. This is true when we were in Russia, China, Kenya, Germany, or where ever we go. We learn some native words that initiate our meeting.
On this trip there was no attempt by everyone except two couples to talk to anyone outside the group. People were being Tourists not Travelers as you refer in your publications.
As I stated above, we spent too much time during this tour on churches, basilicas, and cathedrals and not enough on other aspects that would have made our perceptions of Northern Spain the beautiful area that it is.
Why not do some of these?
Agro-Tourism - Farms -- Wineries -- Cheese factory -- Cooking Class --- the preparation of Iberian Hams and the process for these delectable items.
Or how about visiting other local museums, a school, visiting a Basque Family, or small markets that are locales where we see how the people live, shop, buy, etc. And possibly a lesson of Spanish as we traveled down the road.
Lastly, PLEASE, do not give the GAT evaluation on the last day of the trip. Let your clients have a week or two to gain perspective on the trip. If you were to look at our comments that we wrote down you will see it is significantly more negative than this.
We were so upset with the accommodations we had had on our last three stops that we were not positive at all. What is the possibility of emailing or mailing a hard copy to everyone after the trip? You have everyone's address. If they do not return them, it is their choice. Laura asked that all forms be returned.
I guess we could have just left ours blank but as this was our first Go Ahead Tour, and your company had contacted us, we wanted to be able to evaluate the tour as effectively as possible.