If there's one form of transport that tends to least delight travellers, it's the coach tour. But as Caroline Gladstone discovers, it's come a long way and not just in accumulated kilometres.
Safety video over, my fellow passengers return to reading emails on their iPads and updating their Facebook pages on iPhones. As we venture forth, the young and young-at-heart are plugged into some sort of electronic device for a good deal of the journey. This is the modern coach tour (airline-style safety video and all). I'm a little amazed and pleasantly surprised by it.
Among diehard travellers, the coach tour gets a bad rap. Too fast, too regimented, too little free time and a bit like one of those old British Butlins on wheels. It brings to mind the oft-misquoted 1969 film, If it's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium. This nine-day Globus "Best of Spain" tour, from Madrid to Barcelona, is my debut on a large coach trip like this one with 37 people on board. I too have my preconceptions and roll my eyes when I learn our first night in Madrid will begin with a 90-minute orientation talk complete with flip chart.
But as we introduce ourselves, I laugh at a few of the quips, especially from the single American woman who laments she couldn't find any friends to accompany her on the trip. True to expectations, the majority are couples over 50 from the US, with a few from Australia and a pair from Thailand. There are two groups of girlfriends travelling together and two single women - also from America.
There were no single men; a Globus staffer confirms they rarely travel on their own. The "youngsters" on board are three 20-something siblings (with their parents), and a 15-year-old who's treated to the birthday trip by her grandmother. Later, at the complimentary dinner, my preconceptions are challenged when I discover the buffet meal is in fact very good and I am lucky to share a table with two great gals - a policewoman and a deputy district attorney. Throughout the trip I'm enthralled as Steph and Beth tell eye-popping stories you'd only hear on an episode of Law and Order.
The coach tour has come a long way since the days when the driver simply stopped in front of a site for the obligatory photo and moved on. Today, passengers have more free time to explore on their own, have the choice to take optional tours, while the actual driving time each day is much shorter. Globus began more than 85 years ago when founder Antonio Mantegazza bought a rowboat to take travellers across Lake Lugano in Switzerland.
Today's tours are more hands-on with a greater emphasis on culture and passenger participation, particularly with food-and-wine themed tours. The latest technology is essential, says Globus marketing manager Australasia Christian Schweitzer.
Not only are passengers equipped with headsets and earpieces, 70 per cent of coaches have Wi-Fi and most hotels used have free Wi-Fi in the rooms and lobbies. And while a few decades ago a coach tour meant seeing 10 countries in a few weeks, there's now a greater choice of regional tours, such as Italy and Spain, with two to three nights in certain cities. And to save time, some tours swap the coach for high-speed rail for part of the itinerary.
Hotel standards are much higher, Schweitzer says, as companies can negotiate better rates, so better hotels are used without having to jack up the price. Coaches are also of a higher standard and equipped with safety devices that won't allow the driver to exceed 100km/h, and which monitor how long the driver is behind the wheel without a break. Not all seats are occupied and several are deliberately left empty to give passengers more room to spread out. And the European touring season has also been extending, now running from March to December.
Back on the road, the routine of up early, bags outside by 7.30am and on the coach and ready to roll by 8.30am is not my favourite part of the tour. But, with everyone considerate and co-operative, I conform. The glue for the trip is Portuguese tour director, Rui, an urbane and knowledgeable man, and natural comedian to boot. He's worked for Globus for 20 years and loves his job.
There's no denying a nine-day trip of a country as big as Spain is going to be brisk but we begin with two nights in Madrid to iron out a bit of jet lag. Day one starts with the city highlights and a visit to the Cervantes' monument with its statues of the novelist's famous protagonist Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.
This brief encounter sets us up for the next day when we travel through the La Mancha region, where the novel is set.
Then we're off to the Prado Museum to view works by Spanish masters Velazquez and Goya, bypassing the long queues. One of the advantages of a coach tour is entering through the groups' fast lane. Apart from the included touring there are optional tours at extra cost. That afternoon is the first - to Toledo - an hour from Madrid. You'd be mad not to buy it as it's only $72 and while you can get there more cheaply by train, you sacrifice the comfort of the coach and the tour guide's commentary. If anyone is wavering, Rui tells us that experts say "if you only see one city in Spain, make it Toledo!".
The capital until 1541, it's a historian's dream with cobblestone streets, ancient bridges, a gallery of El Greco paintings, shops selling swords and weaponry topped off with the Alcazar (palace) on the hill. And there's just enough free time to grab a tapas lunch. What I like about the routine is you get all the information about a city en route and on arrival switch on your "whisper" head set. You can then listen to the commentary from the local guide even if you're straggling behind the group.
Back on the coach you can plug into your own devices using the free Wi-Fi. It worked for about 90 per cent of the trip and most Globus coaches have it. Over the trip there are three free nights to venture out and eat where you like and the single travellers are always included in someone's group, which is, of course, one of the reasons people choose a coach tour.
From Madrid we hit the road in earnest and head to Seville (536 kilometres south) passing through the olive fields and windmill-dotted hills of La Mancha. There's always a mid-morning stop - some at charmingly rustic cafes, others at functional roadhouses - for remarkably good coffee and a snack. We stop at Cordoba, a wonderful walled UNESCO World Heritage city in the Andalusia region.
We have only two hours to walk the narrow streets and visit the piece de resistance, the Mezquita, the mosque-cathedral with 850 pillars. And this is the downside of a coach tour - just not enough time. We press on to Seville for a two-night stay. This is our longest day on the coach, and while many take the opportunity to nap, I'm riveted by Rui's insights and observations.
He knows the Iberian Peninsula well - the politics, the current affairs, the traditions, the goss. Over the days he manages to turn Spain's long and layered history, with its invading Moors, conquering Christian kings and nasty inquisitors into an intriguing thriller, far more interesting than any Facebook page. While we take a short cruise along the Guadalquivir River to see the exhibits built for Expo 1992, our driver delivers our bags to our hotel rooms, which is all part of the seamless service.
Our Seville accommodation is more modern than our Madrid digs, but it's still too far out of town for an easy stroll into the centre; instead I take a taxi back the next day. Mind you, taxis are cheap in Spain. Our full day in Seville is hectic cramming in the ornate Alcazar and weaving through the old town to visit the mushroom-shaped Mirador, a super modern wooden structure built over Roman ruins. Not wanting to miss anything I take the optional tour of Seville Cathedral to see the tomb allegedly containing the remains of Christopher Columbus.
I love a good mystery and the commentary outlining the dispute between the authorities of Dominican Republic, who believe they have the famous explorer's bones, and the Seville officials who claim DNA has authenticated their relics, is fascinating. I also sign up for the flamenco show and dinner at the El Palacio theatre. The menu is very un-Spanish, (I go for a salad followed by pork) but it turns out to be the best meal I have eaten since arriving in Spain. And the show, while in a touristy venue for groups (is there any other type?) is dramatic, with the angst and passion you want.
Rui is candid about the optional tours; he tell us what not to miss and what's not worth doing. He's spot-on with Toledo and later recommends the half-day tour of the mountain abbey of Montserrat, which you'd kick yourself if you missed. From Seville it's an easy drive to Granada and a morning spent at Spain's most visited site, the Alhambra, or palace of the sultans. With temperatures rising to 38C in mid-June and many stairs, this included excursion would not suit anyone who's not able to walk for several hours.
The trip rounds off with a night in Valencia and two in Barcelona, where mediaeval history and visits to Gaudi's works of genius fill our days.
The last hotel is in Plaza de Espana, across from Barcelona's former bull ring, where I have a drink in a funky rooftop bar. However it's a party-central hotel with lots of fun-loving guests up to high jinks throughout the night.
But everything's a compromise, just like the coach trip. I get to see a lot of Spain in too-fleeting periods but I do so in comfort with new friends more than happy to come along for the ride.
The writer travelled as a guest of Globus.
ON THE BUSES
SIX TIPS FOR A FOOLPROOF TOUR
Arrive a few days before the tour begins to get over jet lag and explore the departure city at your own pace. Eat out to get a feel for prices and local food.
The same applies for the end of the trip. Book a hotel and stay a few nights at the end, or book a cruise leaving from Barcelona.
Stock up on enough euros, city maps and a good guidebook before you go. Rarely is there time to visit ATMs, tourist offices or bookshops once you're well and truly "on the road".
BEFORE YOU GO
Purchase optional tours before you leave Australia; the tours to Toledo, Montserrat and the flamenco night are well worth the extra cost. Others may also appeal.
DRESS FOR LESS
Don't pack too much for the coach ride - comfortable clothes and walking shoes, a scarf (to ward off any aircon chill) and a travel pillow are necessities. For evenings out, two or three stylish outfits will suffice. No one will notice you're wearing the same thing twice!
With many coaches now Wi-Fi equipped, turn the data roaming off on mobile devices to save high mobile phone bills. It's a good idea to pre-purchase an international SIM card for your phone, from Australia Post, before leaving Australia.
Emirates flies daily between Sydney, Melbourne and Madrid (via Dubai). See emirates.com Passengers are advised to arrive in Madrid a few days before the tour starts in order to experience the city and adjust to the time-zone and climate.
Globus' nine-day "Best of Spain" tour departs from March until December, leaving from Madrid and ending in Barcelona. Prices for 2014 range from $1869 a person. Single traveller supplement is $465. Gratuities for the tour director and the driver are approximately $84 a passenger. The 14-day Spanish Fiesta tour, also departing year-round from Spain, starts from $2629 a person twin share, plus gratuities (single supplement $753).
Globus uses Hotel Agumar, 500 metres from the Atocha Railway and Metro station (for trains to the city centre and suburban/regional areas) and a 15-minute walk from the Prado Museum. The airport city shuttle stops at Atocha Railway. Rooms are quite small. From about $77 a night when booked online. Paseo de la Reina Cristina, 7, Madrid. See hotelmadridagumar.com.
ABOUT THE WRITER
When not cruising on ocean and river ships, Caroline Gladstone loves exploring the historic quarters and cobblestone streets of Europe's great cities. She was captivated by Spain's heady mix of the Moorish and the mediaeval.