April 5th, 2018 by Tom Smith
The Alcazar in Seville, Spain

TS in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville

Travel 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.

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The Roman ruins at Merida

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 at 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 Atrio Hotel in Caceres, with its Michelin starred restaurant.

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!

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!

April 5th, 2018 by Tom Smith

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

Tom at Km O in the very center of Madrid, the very center of Spain!

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 journey 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 directly 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.

TS on the bridge at Girona in Catalonia

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.

The l’Hort de Sant Cebria….a favorite hotel on the Costa Brava

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.



-Tom Smith’s Travels in Spain Part 1.  See Part 2 for  Madrid, Cordoba and Seville.
April 4th, 2018 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 United has a lower fare.  But a travel agent would.

TS and friend at the Parador Ciudad Rodrigo

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