Our tour group comprised 4 Brazilians and 2 Americans. We departed Lisbon on time and drove through a light drizzle to visit first a megalith complex, and then Evora, where we were given a brief orientation of the major landmarks, taken to several of them for visits to interiors, and then turned loose for 2 hours of free exploration/shopping/dining time. We rendezvoused at 3:30 to participate in a wine and cheese tasting, before returning to Lisbon.
Throughout, our guide, Madelaine Sting, was extremely helpful and articulate, switching easily between Portuguese and English, giving individuals in the group her full attention and helping me improve my fitful Portuguese. She is also an attentive and excellent driver. I can't say enough good things about how she reshaped and improved my opinion of Portugal, explaining some aspects of Portuguese life that I hadn't understood in context. She made me want to return for an extended trip next year, which I had NOT planned on doing before excursion.
My only quibble with the trip is I thought the wine-and-cheese-tasting portion was a little thin: I expected more than 1 white and 1 red, and more than a tiny plate of a single cheese.
Due to a variety of travel-related scheduling problems, I had to skip the tour entirely, through no fault of Viatour, and ended up taking a comparable tour with a competitor several days later.
Costa del Sol, Spain
The day trip to Morocco was largely successful, albeit somewhat chaotic at both ends. The Spanish guide who took us to the departure point in Algeciras, and rounded us up for the return from Tangier, was clearly harried, attempting to keep track of several nationalities and their associated paperwork. In fact, paperwork snafus originating in the Julia Travel office delayed our return.
That aside, the English-speaking guide in Morocco, Hassan, was excellent. He was slow, careful, knoledgeable, articulate, and presented a great deal of anecdotal informatiion to enliven the tour. He took us by bus through a number of national residential enclaves, led us through a long walk in the Casbah market district, hosted an authentic Moroccan lunch, and continued with the obligatory extended stop at a rug merchant's, followed by seaside touring, camel rides and a stop at shoreline caves.
A somewhat unexpected downside to the morning portion of the tour was the incessant importuning of indefatigable, obnoxious street peddlers who never took no for an answer and hounded the group without letup. Add to that the number of "helpful bystanders" who seemed ready to lend assistance (for a price) and the morning was spent turning people away, or reluctantly providing a few coins. This type of encounter seriously detracts from the enjoyment of an otherwise unique experience.
The morning trip to El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen was disappointing in several respects.
The tour leader provided a very (linguistically) unbalanced presentation, spending about 3 times as long in Spanish as English, even though the group was fairly evenly split between Spanish and English speakers. Second, the tour was rushed,partly because of sacrificing time at Escorial in favor of more time at Valley of the Fallen. The 'rushing" through Escorial precluded tourists from even having a chance visit the gift shop.
A savvy traveler we spoke to afterwards had planned for this, and broke from the group and sprinted to to the gift shop to purchase a worthwhile book. Upon examining his purchase, I realized what a coup he had scored, and immediately copied the ISBN number to order the same book (used) from Amazon on the bus ride back.
The high point of the tour could and should have been some time spent in front of the highly ornamented Escorial altar, but that was as rushed as the rest of the visit. Unfortunately, total tour time was misused by allocating too much time to the Valley visit, which included a trek to reach the basilica entrace and wander about within it. I think the topic of the Valley could be handled in a much abbreviated manner.
In contrast, the afternoon visit to Toledo was quite well managed. Our guide provided a very evenhanded, thorough discourse in Spanish and English, and was careful to paint a word picture for each of the areas to be visited, and their significance. She was obviously enthusiastic about the historic role of Toledo in Spanish life, and she was gracious and informative throughout, and I would highly recommend her as a guide.
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