Kylie Davis discovers that group tours are not just for the insecure or incompetent.
"What are we doing today?"
"Dunno. Read the itinerary."
After three days, my husband Mark and I have developed a repartee that started off as a genuine inquiry, but has now become a gently teasing holiday routine.
It has been a long time since we've been "gently teasing" with each other while travelling - a hectic, snapped to-do list is more our style. But that's possibly because it's been more than five years since we've been anywhere exotic, or had a holiday together without kids. And we've never "toured".
In Spain on a Peregrine Adventures tour however, our normal lives melt in the heat of Seville, on the first day, and no-one is more surprised than the two of us.
"Why did you book a tour? I don't do tours," he argues. "You can't make me be nice to people you know. Oh God, what if we have to wait for everyone all the time?"
We arrive in Seville hot, fractious and exhausted after two days of six-hour- plus driving - the result of overly ambitious planning based on his childhood memories of Spain.
Mark has been travelling independently since the age of 18 when he strapped on a rucksack, left his native UK, never to return (except for the odd significant family occasion), and did the circuit of Australia.
Touring is, to his mind, for pensioners, yobbos, school tours, the insecure and the incompetent. But his decision to accompany me on this trip was made at the last minute and, expecting to be in Spain on my own, I'd already booked.
"This is where I'll be next month," I emailed, attaching a copy of the lusciously written planner.
"It sounds fabulous. Maybe I will be able to get the time off." It is concession enough. I put in a grovelling call to my parents for extended babysitting and the deal is done.
"What if we don't like what everyone is doing?" he asks on arrival.
"Then we go off and do our own thing. It's a tour to help us enjoy the places we're visiting, not a straight jacket."
The concept that the touring industry has changed dramatically over the past 20 years has not occurred to him. But I will not fight. I am on holiday. We are in Spain.
Finding our hotel is an adventure. Peregrine choose smart and authentic two- or three-star hotels located in prime positions. The Hotel Murillo cannot be accessed by taxi. We are dropped at the end of a cobbled lane and told to walk up an ancient shady passage only two people wide. It seems, impossibly, romantically, Spanish.
Our first evening in Seville is spent meeting the group over drinks in the square. There is a group of six doctors in their 50s and long time friends from Melbourne, a Canadian couple and three single ladies from Perth, Sydney and NSW south coast respectively.
We dine that evening as a group and get to know each other. Our company is intelligent, well-travelled, friendly and good at conversation, with a wicked dash of humour too.
Our guide is an English expat, Deb Wilson who has lived in Spain nearly all her adult life, a self-proclaimed refugee from the buttoned-down expectations of Britain. She is perky, enthusiastic, extraordinarily helpful and kind. Married to an Argentinian underwater videographer, it is clear that Spanish has supplanted her first language - she frequently forgets English words, requires prompting, and ums and ah's in the Spanish way that quickly has the doctors ribbing her.
The doctors all travel regularly together. They are so capable and experienced, why choose a tour?
"Oh, that's easy," explains Caroline. "It means we all know exactly how much we're spending and what we're doing - and no one has the worry of organising it. And if we don't enjoy it, no-one in the friendship group gets the blame!"
Our tour quickly falls into a comfortable routine. Over the 10 days, we stay in each destination for three nights on average. Our first morning in a new town is spent on a walking "reccie" of a couple of hours, taking in key sights and getting our bearings. We're given maps with our hotel marked clearly on it, and an advised sightseeing list (including things to avoid). Deb is also generous with tips as we walk, pointing out good local places to eat, authentic experiences and shopping hot spots. She refuses to carry a flag or anything that identifies her as a tour guide, and is easily mistaken for a university student. You could almost believe we are a large family party wandering the streets. There's a cup of coffee midway for the flagging and usually an "official" spot of sightseeing.
In Seville, our morning tour takes in the Parque de Maria Luisa, the beautiful gardens designed around water features created from land donated by the Spanish royal in the 1920s. It sits just next to the Plaza de Espana built for the 1929 exposition to show the craftsmanship of Spain and is an indulgent mix of Art Deco and mock Mudejar by the architect, Anibal Gonzalez.
As the heat begins to become oppressive, we escape into the relative coolness of the Seville Cathedral.
"I'll be interested to hear what you think," says Deb quizzically, who leaves us at the door to explore at our own pace.
The cathedral is a gobsmacking display of wealth and power, the frescos and gilting of nearly every square inch - much of it in real gold - defying description and possibly taste.
The verdict comes back that while it is astonishing, it seems to be a shrine to man's ambition - it's a hard place to find God in.
Deb laughs in agreement. She has us pegged.
In the early afternoon, Mark and I escape on our own to visit the Seville Bullring museum, enjoy some light shopping, coffee, icecream and a siesta. After dinner, we meet up with the group at the Flamenco show. Over jugs of Aqua de Sevilla made with champagne, an undisclosed spirit, pineapple juice and cream, Mark and I pull out a late one with the doctors - against Deb's advice. The eight of us stagger home noisily after midnight.
Our next days are spent in the mountain villages of Andalucia. There is a morning in Zahara, a white village from Moorish times, clinging to a mountain, and walk an exhausting slope to the lookout tower before heading by mini-bus to Grazalema. There we stay at the quaintly named Hotel Turismo - a destination that would have, by dent of its name alone - been on our "avoid at all costs" list had we been travelling independently. But the hotel is a revelation. Our bedroom opens out onto a grassed terrace and the pool, which in itself looks over the valley to the village and granite mountains. It is take-your-breath-away beautiful.
We spend a full day in Ronda and return to Grazalema by the local bus service that afternoon, ready for a mountain hike the next day, and heading on to finish the trip in Granada.
By this stage, everyone is friendly and groups form and re-form according to who is doing whatever seems fun at the time. I even do some shopping with the girls and have some personal 'me time'.
Not being responsible for travel, for co-ordination, for hotels, for the obligation of everyone having fun, or of worrying about what happens next, has certainly agreed with me. It feels like twice the holiday of one of our normal odessys and I feel relaxed and light hearted. The 'cost' of having to wait occasionally, and the odd meal as a group have been enjoyable - hardly a burden. Mark confesses that he's actually enjoying "touring".
"You know, I wouldn't have thought to go to half these places - we've seen some great stuff we would have missed on our own."
Over coffee one day, Patricia from Sydney quizzes us about home. "So when did you and Mark marry?" she asks.
"Oh, um April 1998."
"Oh crikey, I thought you were newlyweds and this was your honeymoon!" We laugh.
"Oh no, we're just enjoying each other's company," says Mark and even gives my hand a squeeze.
"So what are we doing tomorrow, love?"
"Dunno. Granada I think. Read the itinerary."
The writer was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.
The 8-day Trails of Andalucia tour is run by Peregrine Adventures and graded as an easy walk, cultural tour. It departs from Seville and finishes in Granada. Cost is $2690 per person which includes seven nights accommodation, seven breakfasts and four dinners, plus transfers, tickets to key attractions and guided city tours. Each day includes an average of 4 hours of walking, and a half day at least of free time. Group size is limited to See www.peregrineadventures.com