closed my eyes and put my finger on the map
March 3, 2011 9:01 AM   Subscribe

just another European travel filter: I just spontaneously bought a round-trip flight to Madrid and have 3 weeks to burn. Any ideas for itinerary?

This will be my first trip non-business trip out of US. Yay! I was so excited as I booked my flight that my eyes welled up.

Background: I'm a slightly burned-out, over-worked professional guy in my mid 30s who loves hiking, art, reading, writing, food, wine, history, bright mornings, chilly weather, and good people. I picked Spain as my base, because, well, it was March and last minute. Spain seemed like a safe bet with such little time to prepare.

I have 3 weeks to kill. I have a lot of backpacking gear and plan to stay in hostels and do rail and foot travel a lot. I wouldn't mind using couch surfing services, but doubt I would be able to jump in without an established reputation.

I looked through the past askmes tagged 'travel' and picked up some excellent tips. But, I'm looking for more specific tips for that time of year and that region of the world.

So, the question is: Where should I go and what should I do? I was thinking of Portugal, Spain, and S. France. I'm hoping to pick 3 or 4 must-see cities and spend at least a few days in each. Beyond that I'm open to whatever.

Does this impromptu plan set of any red flags? I ran it by my well-traveled friend, and she said it would probably be easy. But, seriously, I've never done anything like this.
posted by TheOtherSide to Travel & Transportation around Madrid, Spain (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If your timing is right, you can try going to the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, or the La Tomatina (huge tomato fight) in Bunol (both in Spain)
posted by JiffyQ at 9:05 AM on March 3, 2011

Montserrat! Montserrat! Montserrat!
posted by booknerd at 9:08 AM on March 3, 2011

Walk some of the old medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. This has been on my "while my legs still work" bucket list for years.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 9:10 AM on March 3, 2011

Sounds like fun! I was just in Portugal for a week last July and it was great. So can recommend Porto and the surrounding area. but we had a car. it might be more difficult by train.

Oh and yeah i think it will be easy to spend 3 weeks wandering about Portuagal, spain and South France - and you probably won't need to book much in advance. Do you speak any French or Spanish?
posted by mary8nne at 9:13 AM on March 3, 2011

slightly burned-out, over-worked professional

What tapesonthefloor said. There's always the worry that the Camino is becoming a 'should have done it ten years ago' thing (like Burning Man!) but it's pretty resistant to it. You'd be out of the main walking season, so the weather is potentially a concern, but if you take a shorter section of the route and follow the local advice, you should be fine.
posted by holgate at 9:26 AM on March 3, 2011

Yay Spain! Madrid itself isn't that exciting imho but there are a couple cities that are great day trips from there. Toledo was an important city during the Muslim rule in Spain (8th-15th centuries) and has lots of interesting art history - El Greco's (possibly) most famous painting is the Vista de Toledo (View of Toledo). Salamanca is the site of Spain's oldest university (the fourth oldest university in Europe, I believe). It's also notable for the fact that it has 2 cathedrals, a Romanesque one and a Gothic one kind of affixed to it, and the Plaza Mayor is often considered one of the nicest in Spain. Both Toledo and Salamanca are easily accessible by bus from Madrid (but from different bus stations - the station you leave from depends on your destination).

Take a few days and go to Barcelona. Everyone I know who has been to Barcelona loves it, including me (and I often delight in refusing to like cities that everyone else likes, for whatever that's worth). On a nice day nothing's better than going to hang out at Parc Guell.

For train travel, the Renfe Trenhotel routes may be useful - in particular Madrid-Paris and Barcelona-Paris, perhaps. (I love Paris and highly recommend visiting it if you haven't already been there, but advice on Paris is easy to come by so that's all I'll say.)

A language/food tip: in the north of Spain don't ask for tapas - they call them pinchos (pintxos) instead. This is not the case everywhere, but in Salamanca at least, if you order a drink at a bar, you get a pincho with it for free - but they won't offer it to you, you just have to know.
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 9:39 AM on March 3, 2011

I think the Reina Sofia alone probably makes Madrid worth the visit, and Guernica alone can make that trip worthwhile.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 9:57 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: re: mary8nne - I have some fundamental understanding of the Spanish language, but haven't used it since college. Right now trying to crash course as much vocab as I can. Hoping for the best, but doubtful.
posted by TheOtherSide at 10:11 AM on March 3, 2011

If you plan on traveling around the United States of Europe, this lot are quite good fun.
posted by dougrayrankin at 10:45 AM on March 3, 2011

A simple approach might be Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris. Sure, most of those are obvious suggestions, but they're obvious for a reason.

Apart from the advice above, you could get an overnight train to Lisbon, and spend some time in that area (Cascais and Sintra are a local train ride away, and well worth a few days of your time). Likewise, Paris gives you Versailles as well as the city itself.

Lisbon, Barca and Paris are all favourites of mine, all easy to navigate on foot or by public transport. Porto is good too if you have a chance.

One tip: don't eat anywhere in the tourist areas (e.g. anywhere near a tourist attraction, especially anywhere with an English language menu prominently displayed outside). It will be expensive, and not as good. If you read a bit of Spanish, you'll be fine (even with my few words I can manage) though note that a lot of menus in Barca are in Catalan - though you should be able to ask for a Spanish one.

I might be able to suggest hostels in Lisbon and Barca if you decide to go there - let me know.
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:00 AM on March 3, 2011

Avoid the Costa del Sol; unless you get a craving for fish & chips.
posted by J-Garr at 11:21 AM on March 3, 2011

Renfe! Their booking site was pretty ornery around this time last year. There are lots of tips in this Tripadvisor article. The main one I can offer is that you should use Internet Explorer (yes, really). Try not to change the language to English if you don't have to, or just wait as long into the process as you can to change to English.

Our itinerary last year was Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Granada and then a drive up to Barcelona. The drive was nice, but if I did it over again I'd add Valencia between Granada and Barcelona and not rent the car, just train it the whole way.
posted by soelo at 12:50 PM on March 3, 2011

From the south of Spain it is easy to take a longish ferry to Tangiers, and Tangiers and Morocco are super cool and very cheap. In Tangiers Spanish is pretty useful.
posted by sepviva at 3:57 PM on March 3, 2011

I just returned on Tuesday from a planned-at-the-last-minute six-day vacation in Madrid.

My Spanish is pretty much limited to food, pleasantries, and sentence fragments by which I can avoid knowing how to conjugate verbs, and I did totally fine. Most people weren't necessarily fluent in English, but would cheerfully help me out when my pidgin Spanish failed me.

I know that the general reaction is "yawn, Madrid," but I loved it. The art is amazing (Prado, Bornemisza, Reina Sofia...we spent at least 4 hours in each, and in the case of the Reina Sofia, we could have easily spent four more.) It's a beautiful city. There are multiple large parks if you'd like some nature. You'll never lack for a place to grab a drink and a bite to eat. The winding streets are interesting to wander and give good people-watching for hours.
posted by desuetude at 8:34 PM on March 3, 2011

If you're into food and wine, Portugal is dramatically different than Spain. And because of the enormous coastline, a lot of great seafood to be had as well. (You can go someplace like Ramiro in Lisbon and eat delicious shellfish and drink beer until you're exhausted.) It has been an independent country/region for a thousand years so it has a distinctive history and culture.

Don't rule out flights as opposed to trains. A quick look at Easyjet shows they have flights from Madrid to Lisbon for as little as $30 USD in late March. After that initial flight, you can gradually move Eastward across the continent. Perhaps:

Madrid->Lisbon (and Sintra!) -> Seville -> Granada -> Valencia -> Barcelona. From there you can take trains to Montpelier, France and from there to Arles and Avignon.

Alternatively, you could spend more time in the beginning of your trip. Visit Toledo near Madrid. Take the train up to Porto, Portugal, which is different from Lisbon, and go on a tour of a Port winery.
posted by vacapinta at 3:37 AM on March 4, 2011

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