December 29th, 2011 by Tom Smith

Tom’s Travelogue Part 1:  Spain in the off-season

Dear Travelers,
Here is Part 1 of my travelogue from Spain.  I spent the month of December from the North to the South in this amazing country.
This was a very special trip to Spain this December.  I have always liked to travel and explore since I was a kid and so a nice slow trip to a destination just suits me.  I have never been a fan of the packaged, programmed visit to a destination, but rather a slow discovery of the treasures of a foreign land. My jounrey began with flying into Barcelona. This is the city of Gaudi, The Rambla and it is Catalonia!  I stayed at the Hotel Colon, which is driectly across from the main cathedral in the center of the city.  It was a great location, comfortable and cozy room and a wonderful breakfast every morning of fresh squeezed orange juice, baked breads, manchego cheese and great Jamon Iberico (Spanish ham).  The service and graciousness of the staff were wonderful and I would recommend this hotel to any of my clients.  After a full 3 days of sightseeing in Barcelona, my buddy and I rented a car and headed north to Girona (the province between the French border and the Costa Brava).  This is an area of Greek and Roman ruins, small coast towns and mountain villages.  We stayed in Girona, an ancient city of ramparts and walls built by  the Romans.  We stayed at the Hotel Ultonia which was just outside the Medieval walls and very nice and super modern.  A great thing was the convenient parking as it was a difficult city to drive, but a wonderful city to walk.
From Girona we headed to the coast and hung out in the delightful coastal villages of Pals, Empuries, Escala and Cadaques.  We hiked the Cap de Crues (the most eastern point of Spain).  We based outselves in a tiny village of Torrella de Fluvia and stayed and the wonderfil L’Hort de Sant Cebria.  This small hotel run by Juan Carlos and Jorge is a gem, a true find in the region.  It is a perfect place to base yourself for amazing day trips to the region (both coastal and mountains).  Our room overlooked the pool and gardens and the 13th century Roman church on the other side of the garden.  Room was comfy and the bathroom was huge.  The breakfast each day was delightful and plentiful and kept us going until tapas at 4pm!  I would recommend a stay here of at least 3 nights and there is so much to see.  The owners gave us wonderful recommendations of restaurants and places to visit.  We visited a winery run by friends (La Vineyata) and sampled the wine and olive oil they make on the property.  This was such a relaxing place to stay……… and very romantic.
I’ve created a visual itinerary for my favorite hotels in Spain if you’d like to know where they’re located and what they look like.



-Tom Smith’s Travels in Spain Part 1.  See Part 2 for  Madrid, Cordoba and Seville.
January 23rd, 2014 by Tom Smith
Camino de Santiago - Spain

Camino de Santiago – Spain

Spain Medal2

The Way of St. James or “Camino de Santiago” has existed for over a thousand years. Legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. Today thousands of travelers set out each year to make their way to Santiago. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle.

 In addition to people undertaking a religious pilgrimage, the majority are travelers and hikers who walk the route for non-religious reasons: travel, sport. Many consider the experience a spiritual adventure or retreat to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life.

Symbols of the Camino de Santiago

The ScallopThe scallop shell, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. It is found along each route on markers and posts along the way guiding the pilgrim towards Santiago.

“Credencial” or pilgrim’s passport

 Most pilgrims carry a “Credencial”, or pilgrims passport which is stamped at each town where the pilgrim has stayed. It serves as proof that the journey is accomplished according to an official route.The stamped”CredA Compostelaencial” is also necessary if you want to obtain a “Compostela”: a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims on completing the Way. To earn the “Compostela” one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km.

Here follows a selection of packages available if you want to do “The Way”

  1.  CAMBADOS & MARITIME WAY OF SANTIAGO  5 days/4 nights  


 For all walkers, although some prior training is recommended. Only 1 walking stage. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads.

– By private car & driver , 4 participants required. Cambados, Padron, Santiago de Compostela  


 2.  RIAS BAIXAS & SANTIAGO – WITH COOKING CLASS 5 days  4 nights   

Private tour with local guide and cooking class

4 participants required  

Pontevedra, Cambados, Fisterra, Santiago de Compostela 4 participants required


  3. LUGO TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA – THE LAST 100 KMS   7 Days – 6 Nights    



 For avid walkers, prior training highly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

Lugo, Ponte Ferreira, Melide, Arzua, Rua, Santiago de Compostela  


 4.  TUI TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA  7 Days – 6 Nights 



 For avid walkers, prior training highly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

Tui, O Porriño, Redondela, Pontevedra, Caldas de Reis, Padron, Santiago de Compostela


 5.  O CEBREIRO TO SANTIAGO – The Best Stages of the Way  7 Days – 6 Nights 

O Cebreiro, Samos, Mouzos, Portomarin, Palas de Rei, Melide, Ribadiso, Rua, Santiago  


 For all walkers, although some prior training is recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads. 

THE FRENCH WAY – Unescorted




For avid walkers, prior training highly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads   

THE FRENCH WAY – Unescorted

Sarria, Portomarin, Lestedo, Melide, Arzua, Rua, Santiago de Compostela  8/7  


 7.  RONCESVALLES TO LOGROÑO  8 days 7 nights   

THE FRENCH WAY – Unescorted


For avid walkers, prior training expressley recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

Roncesvalles, Zubiri, Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Los Arcos, Viana, Logroño  8/7




 For avid bikers, prior training highly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

THE FRENCH WAY – Unescorted

Leon, Astorga, Ponferrada, O Cebreiro, Portomarin, Arzua, Santiago de Compostela  8/7



 9.  SAN SEBASTIAN TO BILBAO 8 days 7 nights  



 For experienced walkers in excellent shape. Prior training expressly recommended. Uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

San Sebastián, Getaria, Deba, Markina, Gernika, Lezama, Bilbao  8/7



THE FRENCH WAY – Unescorted


For avid walkers, prior training expressly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads   

Ponferrada, Camponaraya, Villafranca del Bierzo, Herrerias, O Cebreiro, Triacastela, Sarria, Portomarin, Lestedo, Melide, Arzua, Rua Santiago de Compostela  13/12


 11.  LEON TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA 16 days 15 nights   

THE FRENCH WAY – Unescorted


For avid walkers, prior training expressly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

Leon, Hospital de Orbigo, Santo Toribio, Astorga, Rabanal del Camino, Molinaseca, Ponferrada, Camponaraya, Villafranca del Bierzo, Herrerias, O Cebreiro, Triacastela, Sarria, Triacastela, Sarria, Portomarin, Lestedo, Melide, Arzua, Rua, Santiago de Compostela  16/15


12.   RONCESVALLES TO SANTIAGO  35 days 34 nights   



For avid walkers, prior training expressly recommended. Moderately uneven grade, some dirt and stone roads

Roncesvalles, Zubiri, Pamplona, Puente de la Reina, Estella, Viana, Logono, Najera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Atapuerca, Burgos, Carrion de los Condes, Sahagun, Leon, Astorga, Ponferrada, Villafranca del Bierzo, O Cebreiro, Sarria, Portomarin, Lestedo, Melide, Arzua, Rua, Santiago de Compostela  35/34


Can I get a detailed, day-to-day itinerary?

 Yes, Tom Smith Travel will be happy to send you a detailed itinerary on any of the above  12 itineraries.

What type of accommodations can I expect?

There are two classes of accommodations:  Comfort Class and Superior Class.  You will choose which type is in your budget.  As an example for a 8 day/7night Camino package in June based on two people sharing a room  the total package price using Comfort Class Hotel  is $785.00 and for Superior Hotel Class it is $935.00.  Includes accommodations, breakfast daily, luggage transfer and more.


How do I arrive to the starting point?

Petrabax can help you arrange a transportation from the closest airport to your starting point. We can also arrange train tickets through Renfe (Spanish Railways) from most Spanish cities. Contact Petrabax for additional information about the best way to arrive to your starting point.

What can I expect from this trip?

You will live an unforgettable experience, away from the bustle of everyday life. This is a trip that you can do in total liberty, on foot or by bicycle, and at your own pace as this is not a race. Your luggage (maximum 1 piece, 44 lbs) will be carried for you from one destination to the next. We provide you with all the necessary expert advice, information and documentation that you require to complete your journey safely: local maps detailing your route, vouchers for your lodgings, tags for your luggage and a travelers notebook for your trip with descriptions on each daily walking or biking route.

What is the “Compostela”

The “Compostela” is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims that have completed the Camino de Santiago upon presentation of your stamped “Credendial” or Pilgrims Passport. In order to receive the “Compostela” you must complete the last 100 km walking or 200 km cycling. You obtain the “Compostela” at the Office of the Pilgrim located a few meters from the Platerias façade of the Santiago Cathedral.

Where do I obtain a Pilgrims Passport?

The “Credencial” or Pilgrims Passport will be provided to you by Petrabax in Spain at the beginning of your trip. It is part of the travel materials and insurance information provided upon arrival to your starting point.

Where do I receive my trip documentation?

You will receive most of your documentation prior to your departure so that you can review it and prepare for your Camino. Other documentation will be delivered at your first hotel.

When can I take this trip?

You can take this trip starting any day of the year. The Camino offers diverse countryside and conditions depend on the season and time of year. Consult the weather of Galicia before arranging your trip. Rainy season is from November through February. March through June and September through October are optimum months for the Camino. The summer months of July and August can be somewhat more challenging due to the warmer weather.

What is the profile of the traveler on this trip?

This trip is suitable to any person who enjoys a normal physical condition. We do however highly recommend that you do some training, especially those persons who are not accustomed to walking or cycling for longer periods of time.

Can I travel with children?

Yes, older children are welcome on the trip as long as they are energetic and accustomed to walking long distances on successive days.



Do I need physical preparation prior to the trip?

Although this trip is suitable for for any person with normal physical condition, we recommend training for a few weeks prior to your trip, especially for those not accustomed to walking or biking for longer distances. We highly recommend taking very comfortable walking/biking shoes that have been previously broken in, so as to avoid blisters, bruises and discomfort.

What items do I need to complete the Camino?

We recommend a light, comfortable weatherproof backpack which you will carry on every stage and that must contain indispensable items for your walk (water bottle, personal documents, a cell phone, snacks, etc. We recommend broken in walking shoes/boots with which you are used to waking, light comfortable clothing, rain gear, a cap or hat, sun screen and sun glasses. During nighttime, warmer clothing such as a sweater or jacket are necessary. A walking stick can help you walk in a more relaxed manner during the more challenging stages. A photo camera and a notebook are also very recommendable. You should always start you day with a hearty breakfast and always take some snacks with you every day such as fruit, dried fruit, energy bar or chocolate. The most important is a full water bottle.


Where does the Camino take place?

The route will take you through many rural country roads and paths as well as local roads with light traffic. On occasions the camino will take you through roads near larger towns and villages with higher density of traffic.

How is the grade?

There are no major grade changes. The beautiful Galician countryside is filled with mostly mild inclines and declines, valleys and mountains, rivers and streams. It can be said that the Way is relatively easy, it is always very beautiful. The major difficulty could be the total distance covered to complete your route, especially in the colder months (Nov-Feb) or warmer months (Jul-Aug).

Is the Camino dangerous?

Absolutely not. The Camino does not present any danger whatsoever. However, it is recommended that you take the normal safety precautions as you would anywhere else.

Is the Camino well outlined/marked?

You will see many markers along the Camino, they are well positioned and clear throughout the route. Look for the scallop shell which is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. We also provide you with our travelers notebook in case you have any doubts throughout your journey at any given time. It is very rare to get lost. If you do, there are many places to stop and ask other travelers or the locals for directions.

What services are available along the Camino?

You will find many small hamlets, towns and villages along the Way where you will find all sorts of services: pharmacies, medical services, supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and local tourist offices. In some villages, during the summer you can even swim in the local pool or in the nearby river or creek. You can also find massage services after a long days walk.

How are the dinners?

If you have booked your itinerary with dinner included, these will take place either at your hotel or in a local restaurant nearby the hotel. All dinners include water and wine. They consist of menus containing three plates (appetizer, main dish and dessert). Coffee and tea is normally not included. In some cases the menu will be a specialty menu with a hearty variety of tapas and local specialties of the region of Galicia.

Is lunch available along the Way?

There are many options available for you to have lunch along the Camino: from sandwiches to drinks to sit-down meals at restaurants or pic-nics on the side of the road, etc. Your travelers notebook contains recommendations for lunch.



What is the starting time for each stage?

We recommend starting early, after enjoying a hearty breakfast, at about 8:30am. The majority of hotels and manor houses offer breakfast service from very early in the morning. In any case you can start your walk according to your wishes. You should normally finalize your stage at or about normal lunch time – this way you can relax and enjoy the rest of the day at your leisure and discover these fantastic towns and villages.

How does the luggage transportation work?

You can only take 1 piece of luggage (max 44 lbs). We will transport your luggage every day from your originating town to the next town while you travel. Your luggage will be waiting for you at your next hotel. You will be provided with special luggage tags for your luggage with your documentation. Please make sure that your luggage is closed and properly locked.

What happens if I’m on the Camino and no longer able to continue?

If you can no longer continue your walk or bicycle, we provide you with support telephone numbers that you may call and we will send a car in a short time to pick you up and take you to the next location.

Can I drink from the water fountains found along the Camino?

Although the water from the fountains along the Camino are usually safe, we do not recommend you drink from them and highly recommend drinking only bottled mineral water.


Pricing and cost.  Each of the different itineraries has a price.  Call Tom Smith Travel for the current rates.


Tom Smith Travel -The Travel Society –  A Virtuoso Member

P.O. Box 28134  Portland OR  97228 USA

Tel. 503 477 5341   Email:   



January 23rd, 2014 by Tom Smith

Here’s a fact seldom discussed when the topic of travel agents arises.  When the airlines began cutting commissions to travel agents in the mid-90?s, the real problem wasn’t commissions. No, the airlines had another reason for wanting travel agents out of the picture. Travel agents told clients how to obtain the lowest fare.  Call American Airlines directly and they don’t tell you Continental has a lower fare.  But a travel agent would.

Know what?  They still do.

Because I’m obsessed with travel research, I believe in the value of a good travel agent.  Well- trained travel specialists offer very valuable services and information almost impossible to uncover by yourself regardless of how diligently you search online. A good travel agent will save you time, save you money and provide insights into the logistics of your trip.  Good travel agents keep their ear to the ground.  They know which tour operators to use and which to avoid. They know the difference between a hotel in city center and a cheaper but far less convenient one on the outskirts of town.

I am an experienced traveler.  Yet, I personally always consult a travel agent. Don’t get me wrong, I also like to research on my own. My travel agent welcomes my research and questions.  I am always glad I asked for her assistance even if what she is doing is no more than agreeing with my choices. After all, she is researching travel every day.  She’s good at what she does and that makes me better at what I want to do.

Let me give you an example of why. Let’s say I want a simple airline ticket and hotel for Bangkok.  The published fare for an economy ticket is $1,534.    I call my travel agent and tell her what I’ve found in my own research and what I’m trying to accomplish.  She says she will call me back.  About an hour later, she calls back with my flight and hotel for $1,460. She’s used a tour operator with bulk pricing to purchase the trip. She also points out that one of the days during my stay is a government holiday.  I didn’t know that and now that I do, I shift my trip by a couple of days. She makes some suggestions for sightseeing and has scored an upgrade on the room from the concierge.

That’s why I use a travel consultant. They are another research tool.  Just like Google, only human and a lot more focused on my needs.

Most people think travel agents sell travel.  The fact is, however, a great travel agent doesn’t sell me anything, but instead helps me buy wisely.  She researches along with me and we discuss the options.  She steers me away from obstacles and looks into nooks and crannies that I might neglect.  She helps to insure the quality of my trip. Time and again, my travel agents have saved me money, made good supplier choices on my behalf and helped me purchase wisely.

How valuable is that?

I pay a fee, gladly, for that bit of insight and assurance. I value my time,  especially my travel time.  I want my travel to be logistically smooth as possible.  My agent helps me accomplish all of that and still leaves room for the spontaneous, the pleasantly unexpected and unscheduled.

How do you find a good travel agent?

The best possible way is by word of mouth.  A referral to a really good agent is invaluable.  Ask around.  Ask your best traveled associates who they use.  There are also nationally recognized experts for various destinations and activities you can access via popular consumer travel magazines.  There are also matching services like Tripology that put travelers together with travel agent specialists.

Interview prospective travel agents.  Ask about their specialties.  Ask about their fees.   Does their support network, consortia or franchise have relationships with the hotel, cruise line or resort I want to use?     A key attribute of a great agent is their ability to empathize, to understand exactly what you want to achieve from your travels. Look for intelligence, for the ability to think beyond your own immediate needs and for a sense of organization.

Finally, it is important to LIKE your travel agent. Find one with whom you resonate and can have a solid professional relationship.

If you find all of that in one package, hang onto them. And tell your friends.  They will thank you for it.

How about you? Do you use travel agents?  Why or why not?  Ask Tom Smith Travel

January 24th, 2013 by Tom Smith

AlcazarTravel in Spain is first of all, easy!  The train can take you to most places in the country easily and fast.  However there are special places where you just need a car.  Extremadura is one of those places.  This would be a place you could visit on your way to Cordoba/Seville/Granada.   Extremadura is a state that lies southwest of Madrid along the border with Portugal.  It is ideal for nature lovers and those who want to get off the beaten track  and discover old Spain.  It offers beautiful drives, ancient sites from Roman times (and before!), wonderful nature preserves, the Templar towns in the Sierra Morena and the wonderful Mideval towns of Caceres, Trujillo, Merida and Guadalupe.  You will need a minimum of 4 to 5 days to do this special part of Spain justice.  I suggest starting out from Madrid (it is only about 2.5 hours of easy driving on one of the main highways (the A-5) get off the freeway and drive south towards Guadalupe but make a stop a Bohonal de Ibor and see the magnificent Roman Ruins that stand above the lake.  In Guadalupe you will find the huge Monastary founded in the 14th century. In 1496 the monastary was the site of the baptism of some of the first native Caribbeans brought to Europe by Columbus.    The Hospederia Monasterio is now a wonderful and comfortable hotel and rivals the Paradore so there are two great places to stay and explore this town.

Visit my Blogs for Spain:

Merida, Spain
The Roman ruins

Moving on westward you will find the town of Merida, just 127 km away.  This was one of the most important towns of Roman Spain.  Founded in 25 BC by Augustus, Merida was the cultural and economic capital of Rome’s most western province.  There are many things to see in this town among them are:  the Roman theatre, one of the best preserved in Europe, the amphitheatre and gardens, the incredible Roman bridge across the Rio Guadiana along with the aqueducts and my favorite is the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. This museum is built within ruins and is of a modern design.  It displays the rich archaelogical treasures of the area.  Sculpture, mosaic, and excavations.  There is a wonderful Paradore to stay that was an 18th century convent.

The Medieval Parador
Caceres, Spain

Moving on to Caceres, just 66km you find a wonderful town of towers, palaces and stately homes.  This Renaissance town dates from the 15th and 16th centuries.  Caceres has been untouched by war so you will find a preserved city.  Easy to walk in and enjoy the sites.  There are several grand museums and ancient churches. The town is a delight to just get lost in.  The Paradore is located just down from the San Mateo Church and is in a 14th centgury palace, but the inside is totally modern.  Very comfortable and a great location.

The ultra modern & chic
Atrio in Caceres, Spain

Next door is the famed restaurant (2 Michelin Stars**) and hotel Atrio.  This restaurant is a desintation in itself for many “foodies” from around the world.  The creators of this place Tono and Jose are the real deal.  They have created a wonderful hotel and restaurant.  It is upscale and expensive and worth every Euro!  The wine cellar is said to be the best in all of Spain.  I was a guest for lunch that lasted from 3pm to 6pm.  It was truly an experience of a lifetime.


Ancient bell towers
Trujillo, Spain

Paradores in Spain are historic buildings and settings with a modern luxury hotel inside!

Special for Paradores of Spain:  For 2013 when you book a standard room category at any Parador you will receive a Superior Room! This applies to standard rates and Senior Citizen rates!OK so from Caceres head north and east to Trujillo, 40 km away.  This is the town of the Conquistadores.  Orellana, Paredes and most famous Pizarro. The town is built on a hillside with a big castle on top.  The main plaza, the Plaza Mayor is one of the most beautiful in Spain.  It is huge with a big statue of Pizarro on is horse in the middle. There are lots of things to explore here including a small museum that was Pizarro’s home and of course the Castillo bilt in the 9th century by the Moors.  Trujillo is a great place to explore Extremadura.  The Paradore in Trujillo is a former 16th century convent with two cloisters.  The dining room specializes in the wonderful ham that comes from those pigs who only eat acrons their entire lives!  It is 43 km to Monfrague Natural Park which is a wildlife preserve and the best place to see the famous Griffen Vultures.  along the way se rolling hills of ancient oak trees with pigs eatin the acorns that fall down for them to feast on.  From Trujillo you can head south to Cordoba or head back to Madrid.  Or you can continue west to Portufal  The pace is slow here in this section of Spain.  This is relaxed Spain at its best.  The people are friendly, it is not overly touristy and the countryside is delightful.  Viva Espana!

October 17th, 2012 by Tom Smith

A typical dinner served at your room in Koyasan

The enchanting little train from Osaka to Mt. Koya

A special  journey to Japan.  A customized trip to Japan taking advantage of the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of this island nation. An idea for a great 2 or 3 day side trip from the hustle of Kyoto or Osaka would be a visit to Mt. Koya and the village of Koyasan. Explore Mt. Koya,  Japan’s best-known Buddhist Mountain Retreat and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its eight-forested peaks reach eight hundred meters into the clouds, surrounding the high plateau with a sense of serenity. Boasting over one hundred temple complexes, Koyasan offers a wonderful respite in the mountains of Wakayama.  Relax in a fabulous shukubo or temple lodging which is one of the best ways to experience Buddhist life in Japan, rising with the birds for morning prayers with the monks. An absolutely gorgeous and spiritual setting.  With the help of the experts at JapanQuest Journeys we can put together a customized and wonderful journey to any part of Japan you want to visit.  Tom has been traveling to Japan for almost 40 years and knows the country intimately.  Give us a call or email at Tom Smith Travel for help with your journey to Japan!  We can help you with accommodations, Japan Rail Pass and special tours to the enchanting places of Japan.  There are many places that are perfect for 2 to 4 days to retreat from the cities in Japan.

A typical room during the day. At night the futons appear for a restful sleep.

Tom is a Japan Specialist with the Japan National Tourist Office.  He has the connections to make a wonderful journey happen for you in Japan.  Either independently or small group tours or a cruise!  Let Tom be your guide in Japan!   He has been traveling to Japan since 1973!

March 21st, 2012 by Tom Smith

PrintTS small LOGOvirt_mem_275 MarchselloHere continues the story of a wonderful trip to Spain this winter.  From Barcelona I flew to Madrid.  A word about the airports here.  Barcelona’s airport is wonderful.  New, clean, slick and easy.  You can take the train into town or the bus.  And it is very close to the center of Barcelona.  I also drove into the airport and that is a snap as well.  Madrid’s Barajas Airport is modern clean and easy as well.  The train to and from the center of Madrid is fast and reliable.


Atocha Station in Madrid




Atocha Station in Madrid is the main train station.  It is connected to the subway and the AVE trains (high speed) to just about everywhere in the country.




There are the Top Ten things to do and see in Madrid and here is my hit on them:  #1 Palacio Real.  The Royal Palace.  Really magnificent.  Great place to take pictures.  Go early in the day as it gets crowded.  They have a great changing of the guard at noon. #2 The Prado.  My feeling is that it is the greatest museum in Europe.  Some will argue with me, but I feel it has something for everyone and is organized so well.  You can buy a Art Walk ticket that gets you admission into the Prado and other museums.  This is a good deal.  Purchase at the tourist office. The museum has the greatest treasures of Spanish painters and others as well.  You will be blown away with Velazquez, Goya and the Flemish and Dutch painters.  For me this museum is such a great place.  And the cafe/restaurant has outstanding food! #3 The Plaza Mayor.  A grand place.  It is huge and in the center of Madrid.  My place to meet friends is under the statue of Felipe III.  So if you ever want to meet me in Madrid that is where I will be!  The cafes and bars are really fun here and it is a great place to people watch. #4 El Rastro.  This is the best open air market in Spain.  It only happens on Sunday.  It is crowded and fun.  You can find just about anything here.  #5 Reina Sofia Museum.  Think d’Orsay Musee in Paris.  All the great contemporary art is here.  Picasso, Barcelo, Dali, Gris.  The most famous painting here is Picasso’s Guernica painted during the Spanish Civil War.  Spend some time with this painting and read everything you can about the Civil War before you visit.  #6 Retiro Park.  The big breath of fresh air in the center of Madrid, next to the Prado.  Sculptures, lakes, gardens and beautiful trees….a great place to relax.  #7 Museum of America.  This is the museum that tells the story of conquest and settling of the new world.  There is a fantastic collection of gold here.  #8  Puerta del Sol.  This is the place of Kilometer “0”.  Distances to anywhere in Spain are measured from this square.  It is a fun and beautiful plaza.  Great 18th century buildings and good cafes and bars.  There is a statue here of the bear of Madrid (the symbol of the city).#9 La Latina.  A great part of Madrid for good bars and restaurants.  #10  Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza.  What the Prado doesn’t have this museum does.  Important paintings from all eras.  A great museum to spend some time.

Columbus buried at Seville Cathedral

From Madrid it is an easy train ride on the AVE to Cordoba.  This is such an intersting city. This city was Roman(572 AD), Arab((756 AD) and Catholic(from the 12th c).  The big thing here is the Mezquita (Mosque).  This was the largest mosque in the world and then the Catholics took over and built their cathedral right in the middle of it!  The mixture of Islamic art and the art of the Catholic kings is an amazing blend of great styles.  The Jewish quarter next to the Mezquita is a maze of narrow streets and white-washed buildings.  Great restaurants and bars here.  Be sure to walk across the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir River and take in the view.

Outside the great Mezquita of Cordoba

It is a short train trip (1 hour) to Seville. This is a big town that feels cozy.  This is the town that Columbus set sail for the new world! This is the town that Spain brought back the treasure of the new world for King Ferdinand.  It is rich.  The cathedral is the one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world.  There is the great La Giralda, or Bell tower.  You can climb up inside of it (actually a very easy walk) and get a great view of the city.  Be sure to take time in the cathedral.  Columbus is buried here.  The cool part of town is Santa Cruz.  Narrow streets, the best bars and restaurants.  And treat yourself to a visit to the Alcazar.  The royal palace.  The story that the palace shows in Islamic and Catholic art is amazing.  The gardens are breathtaking.

The gardens of the Alcazar in Seville



September 10th, 2011 by Tom Smith

Beautiful Milford Sound

First about the air.  The flight is so easy.  You leave in the evening from LAX and arrive into Fiji (or New Zealand) in the early morning.  Yes, it is a long night on the airplane, but there is really no jet lag..if you fly “in the front of the airplane”.  Premier Business Class on Air New Zealand or International Business Class on Qantas or even Tabua Class on Air Pacific make the going great.   However, here is the “Private Journal” scoop on these three business classes:  Air New Zealand’s Business Premier offers seperate check-in at LAX and Auckland (much nicer in Auckland of course) , use of the Koru Club Lounge (although the club in Auckland needs some refurbishing),  I love the club at LAX (great food and better wine selection than in Auckland!).   They do share the club with Air France so be prepared for some Francaise stuff and attitude. On board Air New Zealand’s “fully flat bed” is very comfortable, meals are created by the likes of Rex Morgan (Huka Lodge). (more…)