The Road to Valencia
By David Cogswell
Every tour has a lifespan, a natural arc through youth, midlife and old age. At some point you realize that you have left behind the first fine careless raptures when the itinerary seemed to stretch out to infinity, passed the half-way point and are into the final stretches. In the case of a tour like Trafalgar’s Spanish Wonder tour, the timeline corresponds to driving route on a map that outlines Spain. The route started with two nights in the centrally located capital city of Madrid, including an outing one morning to Toledo, then headed southwest toward Seville with a stop in Cordoba on the way. After two-night stops in Madrid and Seville, the tour crossed its midpoint and we headed east toward our final destination, Barcelona, with one night each in Granada and Valencia. Our largest chunk of road time was between Granada and Valencia. We spent several hours on the road that day.
There’s no getting around it, escorted tours do spend hours in the coach when they travel from city to city. Unless one travels city to city by airplane, helicopter or rocketpack, the road is about the only way to cover a territory. Tour operators attenuate the driving time in a number of ways: by designing the itinerary with periodic pit stops or sightseeing stops, and pacing the entire itinerary to moderate the time spent on the road per stretch. The tour director will often give informal lectures to help pass the time. Occasionally coach tours even play movies on the coach, although I personally can rarely focus on a small flickering video screen when I have an exotic landscape right out the window in full color 3D. Many tours incorporate multi-night stays to minimize driving time. Some itineraries utilize hub-and-spoke configurations, which incorporate the establishment of a base city from which a number of excursions are taken, then return to the same hotel for overnight, to reduce the number of moves from hotel to hotel.
But while too much time on the road may be tiring, for many people, the open road is one of the pleasures of the experience of traveling. When we speak of getting away, we still say we’re going “on the road” even when we are traveling by plane. The experience of the road is deeply imbedded with the experience of travel itself, and in connection stretches back through history far beyond the invention of the automobile.
When taken in moderation and gently paced, it can certainly be a thrill to drive across a landscape such as that of Spain. It’s a great romantic vision to take off cross country in your grand touring car, or perhaps in this case you may envision yourself as the Man from La Mancha riding Rocinante, but there are also advantages to leaving the driving and navigational logistics to someone else so you can be free to look out the window, or even to catch some sleep if your jet lag or exploration of night life is catching up to you.
There is nothing like the open road. You gain an intimacy with a place when you travel its highways that you cannot get traveling by plane. On this trip we watched the landscapes transform from plains to mountains to Mediterranean coast and really assimilated the geography in a tangible sense, lifting it from the pages of a book and absorbing it into our marrow. The geographic features of Spain stood out to me like never before.
At 194,896 square miles, Spain is larger than California. It comprises 85 percent of the Iberian Peninsula, with Portugal occupying 35,672 square miles of the western part of the peninsula. Iberia is separated from Europe by a narrow isthmus only about 300 miles wide, with a natural boundary defined by the Pyrenees mountains. The mountainous barrier effectively cut Spain off from Europe and contributed to its unique character. After Switzerland it’s the most mountainous, most highly elevated country in Europe. It also can claim to be the southernmost part of Europe and at its southern edge it is separated from Africa only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. Considering the isolation from the north created by the Pyrenees, Spain may well be said to be as closely connected to Africa, Morocco in particular, as it is to Europe.
That fact is expressed vividly in its history and culture, with the influence of the 700-year domination of the Moors, who were Arabs and Berbers from North Africa, still strongly felt in spite of efforts to expunge them in the 15th century. Spain is said to be 97 percent Catholic today, but the cultural influence of the Moors still produces a strong cultural undercurrent in modern Spain.
Our drive to Valencia was a long one, but was also a sightseeing experience as we traveled through olive groves on one side and fields of almonds on the other. We stopped to take a look at what are called Troglodyte cave dwellings of Guadix. The caves retain a steady 65 degree Fahrenheit temperature year round, and people live in modernized versions of the cav e dwellings now with rooms, porches and facades built on at the openings now.
The Spanish Wonder is one of Trafalgar’s most popular tours and after decades of refining and tinkering with the itinerary using thousands of collated customer feedback forms, very little is left to chance. It’s not a coincidence that much of the longest driving day was spent driving along the Mediterranean coast, an experience something like driving California’s Route 1 through Big Sur. Not such a bad way to spend a day, and the coach seats are comfortable with tall backs that recline.
When we arrived in Valencia we took a short ride through the city, in tour jargon a brief “orientation” tour, rather than a more extended “sightseeing” tour. Spain’s third largest city, Valencia makes a powerful architectural impression. We saw a number of the buildings of the radically innovative Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, including the City of Arts and Sciences, which included several eye-popping structures that would have been at home in a sci fi movie scene. We also saw striking architecture by the British architect Norman Foster, and remarkable landscaping of the dry river bed of the Douro River, turning it into parkland.
We had free time to roam around, the weather cooperated perfectly as it had throughout the tour, clearing up to a bright sunny day just in time for us to go walking. We had dinner together, and most called it an early night, looking forward to an early departure the next morning to the much-anticipated Barcelona. -- David Cogswell