BACK ROADS OF IBERIA: SPANISH PARADORES AND PORTUGUESE POUSADAS Rikardo López Elduayen
My wife and I took our 26th OAT trip on March 24th to April 8, 2017 to visit the Back Roads of the Iberian Peninsula. We had two great flights with Lufthansa and as we arrived in Lisbon we were met by our Tour Director (TD) Rikardo. This was not a standard procedure of most tour companies, but was a welcome change. On our way to the hotel Rikardo filled us in on the schedule for the rest of the day.
We had told him in an initial email about our desire for two beds and made sure it was on our OAT profile that is sent to each hotel reservation. When we checked into our first hotel (Lisbon) we saw we had one standard size bed. We returned to the lobby and asked them to change our room. We were told the hotel was full. We called Rikardo and he came down to speak to Reception and to us. After some discussion and a phone call to another single member of our group we were able to switch rooms.
Rikardo told us that our room request would limit the quality of the rooms we would get on the trip. The lack of quality of our rooms was very evident throughout the trip as we checked with other members of the group. This was the first time in the 26 OAT trips and 74 tours that we have faced this situation. He never called or checked with us on our rooms or if we needed anything. We in fact had to call each hotel for an extra chair and even a table for our evening writing of the trip journal that we publish daily.
As we had some time before our first group orientation and welcome meeting he suggested we do a little exploring or the city center on our own. As I also speak Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, it was a nice opportunity for us to meet people and practice the language.
The Welcome Meeting was all about Rikardo with a very short introduction of each traveler; just names and where everyone was from. There was no mention or recognition of our 26 trips with OAT or any acknowledgement of others who had many trips also. We had no identifiers that we could use to relate names and faces. He did mention that he would post photos of the group and landmarks on Google Photos Shared Album and would include everyone but no one joined except one trip member, our son in Austin, TX, my wife and I.
From our first meal together we enjoyed many benefits. We had unlimited wine and beer at all meals. He was accepting of our desire not to eat full meals, instead sharing one dinner offering. Rikardo knew that Gennie did not drink alcohol, but never offered an alternative beverage. As we traveled across Portugal and Spain he bought frequent edible treats for all of us as a Learning and Discovery. These were appreciated and enjoyed by all. At the end of each day Rikardo would summarize our activities, going over what we did and asked if we had any questions.
Once we got on our bus that we would use until the end of our tour in Madrid, we were very lucky to have an excellent and dedicated driver, Luís. The bus was always clean, the windows were washed, we had USB outlets at every seat combination and he made sure those of us who had carry-ons had these available when the day ended. Luís worked very well with Rikardo, waiting until all were on the bus and Rikardo had done his head count. Restroom stops were frequent and well timed. When my wife left her camera on the bus in Ronda, Rikardo called Luís and he returned to give it back to her. We were so lucky we had Luís as our driver for the whole trip.
From Day 3, our first full trip day, our departure was quite late in the morning by OAT standards, 8:30 or 9 am. Arrival at our destination was usually after 6 pm with a get acquainted walk before the 8:30 dinner that did not end until 9:30 or 10 pm. In our other three trips to Spain and Portugal we had much more reasonable times for our meals.
While on the bus we experienced a common occurrence, Rikardo talked way too much about nothing in particular dealing with the trip, instead often reflecting on his parents. When people asked a question, he many times gave flippant answers to simple questions or comments - many people just stopped asking or talking. With others he was sarcastic and sharp, very nice to some and turned a blind eye to others doing or asking the same things.
Several other statements Rikardo made about OAT also puzzled us. These statements were not consistent with our other OAT trip experiences:
OAT did not pay for admission for the Tour Director to museums.
OAT did not allow the guide to sit with the clients at meals - he did sit with us at times.
OAT provided local guides so that he did not need to accompany us all the time.
Unlike our recent trips to South America, Antarctica, Sicily, India and others, Rikardo told us he did not see a benefit to on bus lessons in basic Spanish or Portuguese. We were never encouraged to interact with locals or to bring our discoveries from those meetings to the bus for discussion as we have done in many of the previous OAT trips. In our other OAT trips we were introduced to the real people in their everyday lives of the country we are visiting, but not on this one. We had no authentic local transportation with the exception of the horse carriage and shuttle bus in Segovia.
There were some beautiful and spectacular times throughout the whole trip. The small towns of the pousadas and paradores were special. We took it upon ourselves to interact and speak to the Portuguese and Spaniards. They always smiled, responded with questions, and we could ask them about life in the economic difficulties they faced in the EU.
The lodgings were so different from hotels we were used to in all of our other trips. The food was delicious, especially when we had our own opportunity to order and enjoy. Getting off the main highways we had the chance to see the true countryside with the vineyards, olive tree sea, the cork trees, and the farms and ranches. We also appreciated the group we traveled with. Some travelers had been with OAT many times and we also had couples that were first time travelers who were very agreeable.
As we finished our trip in Madrid, we had our final meeting at the hotel. Rikardo's farewell presentation was 54 minutes long as he reviewed everything we did on each of the trip days. Many people slept through this monolog. Our farewell dinner was at a very good restaurant. Prior to dinner we had an excellent flamenco performance followed by another late dinner.
Our departure the next morning was at 5:15 and another couple was leaving at 4:30. We asked Rikardo if he would see us off in the morning. He told all of us who were not going on the post-trip that OAT did not require him to get up early to see us off. We gave him his tip and returned to our hotel room, disappointed that he did not make the effort to say goodbye as almost everyone of our tour directors had done in the past.
All in all, the destinations were great, the itinerary was varied, but as in most European countries, we saw and spent time in way too many churches. The trip was one of the least active that we have spent with OAT and there was little or no “adventure”. The trip was more like a Trafalgar/Globus/Insight trip except the group was smaller. We felt like tourists instead of travelers.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS:
One of the most heart-warming portions of the trip was the home-hosted dinner. The family we visited in Ronda was new to this OAT portion of the trip and they were not jaded at all with this event. We were their first group and they were so welcoming and gracious. They asked us questions about our trip, we of their life and they were so appreciative of the small gifts we gave to them.
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Just before we were to go on our first journey of 2020, the COVID-19 virus hit and the world shut down for travel and adventure.
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