Rachel and I spent Aug 5 – 20 traveling around in Spain and Portugal. International travel during Covid times is obviously fraught with uncertainty about unclear and inconsistently applied rules and regulations. We are both fully vaccinated and in pretty good health and thus were not too concerned about catching Covid, however we were concerned about getting infected and being subjected to a lengthy quarantine. Fortunately, none of that happened and we both had a great time in Europe.
At the time of our travel, European countries had different rules about international travel. Some required a proof of negative Covid test, while others didn’t. We flew from JFK to Madrid via Milan. At JFK, we had to fill out a lengthy and poorly implemented web form about our health status, travel plans etc. Filling out the form required some assistance from the staff at the check-in counter. We had both taken a Covid test 24-48 hours before our flight just to be sure, but were only asked for our vaccination cards. I had taken an online proctored antigen test using a nasal swab offered by eMed that is also valid for re-entry to the US. The tests came in a package of 6 and cost $150. Rachel took a Covid test with her healthcare provider. The rules for traveling to Europe are constantly changing in response to the rise and fall in case numbers in different parts of the world. The WSJ reports that many European countries are tightening restrictions on non-essential travel for Americans.
We had spent a lot of time reading up about Covid related rules for traveling within Europe. The US embassy website for Portugal indicated that a negative Covid test was required for entry into restaurants and hotels (including abnbs). In reality, none of the hotels/abnbs and restaurants in Spain asked for a negative Covid test. However all the hotels/abnbs asked for our vaccination certificate/record. The vaccination record card bearing the CDC logo was accepted everywhere. In Portugal, our abnb in Lisbon asked us to take a Covid test when we checked in (in addition to checking our vaccination card) and one of the restaurants in Lisbon checked our vaccination record card before letting us in. All the other hotels/abnbs in Portugal only asked for the vaccination record card and didn’t require a negative Covid test. The nasal swab based antigen Covid tests are readily available at pharmacies in Europe for 9-10 Euros, so even if proof of negative covid test is required, it isn’t a big deal. The tests are easy to administer and results are available in 10-15 minutes after taking the test.
At the tail end of the trip, I flew to Helsinki to spend a few days with my brother. Again, only the vaccination record was required to board the flight from Madrid to Helsinki. At the Helsinki airport, free Covid testing was available so I got tested anyway just to be sure since my brother has a 2 year old daughter who is obviously not vaccinated. One day before my flight back to the US, I took the proctored eMed test. The airline staff asked for the vaccination card and the negative covid test before issuing the boarding pass. Somewhat to my surprise, no Covid related documents were asked upon landing at the Dulles international airport in VA.
How much cash to bring
International credit cards are almost universally accepted in Europe. Few places we needed to use cash were some toll plazas and parking lots that didn’t accept our credit cards. Also, our car got towed (more about that later) twice and we had to pay 174 Euros in cash at one of the municipal police stations to recover the car.
As you can see from the trip itinerary below, we covered several cities in Spain and Portugal on our trip. To make traveling easier, we rented a car in Madrid from Sixt car rental. At the car pickup, we were able to get an upgrade to a BMW for just a few Euros more each day. The car made traveling across cities very easy. Upon arriving at our hotel/abnb, we’d park the car in the closest parking garage. The daily parking charge was around 10-20 Euros per day, around what you pay for parking for 2-3 hours at the Wharf in DC! The parking garages were easy to find in city centers.
Twice, our car got towed. This happened once in Coimbra and once in Porto. In Coimbra, we likely ran afoul of a regulation to move the car in the morning and in Porto, we parked in a handicapped parking spot. The parking regulations are typically only written in the local language and not prominently displayed, so it is best not to risk parking on the street, unless a local tells you that it is ok to do so. After the car got towed in Coimbra, we pledged never to park on the street again. When we arrived in Porto the next day, we parked on the street just to take our luggage to our hotel nearby and check-in. We even got a one hour parking permit from the machine nearby. When we walked back to the car about half an hour later, the car was gone. Rachel was sure that the car was stolen because it was hard to believe that the car could have been towed that quickly, and plus we had paid for parking. In panic, we called the municipal police department but kept getting the runaround and running into language issues. Out of desperation, we called our hotel attendant who advised us that the car probably got towed because we parked in a handicapped spot. When we looked around the place we had parked, we indeed saw a small handicapped parking sign near our spot. That actually came as a relief, because as annoying as it is, having the car towed was infinitely better than it being stolen. The attendant called the police department and texted the make/model of our car to a number and right away received confirmation that our car was indeed towed and where we could go to pick it up. We walked over to the police station, paid the fee and picked up the car. Interestingly, the fee was exactly the same (174 Euros) for Coimbra and Porto. The police station in Coimbra only accepted cash, while we were able to use a credit card in Porto. The police was efficient and polite in both places. They even provided us a breakdown of the 174 Euro fee between the parking infraction, towing charge and other processing fees.
In Lisbon on the other hand, we parked the car right in front of our apartment for three days (on the advice of our abnb host) and nothing happened. My advice still is to always park in a garage and save yourself the risk of getting towed!
We covered 6 cities on our trip – Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto in 15 days, with stop overs in Toledo, Tavira and Albufeira. We also spent a day and half hiking in the Serra da Estrela natural park and half a day wine tasting in the Douro river valley). We spent our time in each city efficiently and visited most of the major landmarks. We also incorporated a mix of urban (visits to several palaces, cathedrals and museums), culinary, cultural (Flamenco and Fado performances), relaxation (spa) and outdoor (kayaking in Seville, lounging at the beach in Albufeira, hiking in Serra da Estrela park and wine tasting in the Douro valley) experiences. I think we did a great job picking our itinerary and I recommend it to anyone interested in experiencing a significant part of Spain and Portugal in a relatively short amount of time. That said, I recognize that while I enjoy this style of whirlwind traveling, it is not everyone’s cup of tea (including Rachel’s). For those interested in a more relaxed trip with more time spent ambling through the streets, ducking in and out of shops and admiring the views at the numerous miradores, I recommend cutting out Cordoba and Coimbra and adding a day in Porto.
Food and drinks
The food and drinks in Spain and Portugal are excellent. The food generally uses fresh, high quality ingredients and the drinks (particularly coffee and wine) is excellent and cheap. We got used to having 3 course dinners for two for ~40-50 Euros and excellent wine for 2-3 Euros a glass! Breakfast/Brunch consisting of great coffee, fresh orange juice, croissants/bagels, eggs/smoked salmon etc was ~20 Euros for two. I don’t quite understand why wine (in restaurants) is so expensive in the US. We have several large wine growing regions and therefore a large domestic supply of good wine and yet a glass of good wine costs 12-15$ in a DC restaurant. Appears to be a market failure!
Spain and Portugal are great destinations for a culinary experience. The food and drinks are generally cheap and excellent. See below for some restaurant recommendations in each city on our trip. Calling and making a reservation in advance is generally a good idea, specially in the busy season.
Sobrino de Botin: Oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world.
Sanissimo: Amazing vegan food. Highly recommend this restaurant!
On the way from Toledo to Cordoba
El Mirador de la Mancha: a rustic resort with cabins and restaurant and lovely views of the surrounding country side. We found the Google maps directions to this place slightly incorrect as following those directions led to a closed gate. I recommend calling the restaurant for the correct directions.
Mirla Blanca: a small restaurant on the non-touristy side of the river. The seafood and service were excellent.
Terra viva: A somewhat upscale restaurant near plaza Nueva. I had Salmorejo soup followed by a dish consisting of goat cheese and sardines. We also shared a paella, which I do not recommend. It was mostly rice and not that much fish. The wine from the Douro river valley was excellent.
Mariatrifulca: great river-side restaurant for dinner/drinks. We had some late night drinks there
O Corrido: This place came highly recommended (on Google reviews) for dinner + Fado (traditional Portuguese music) and was right behind our abnb. The food was good but I found the place to be a bit claustrophobic (Rachel doesn’t agree with that opinion). The seats were also quite stiff and a bit uncomfortable. The Fado performance was nice. There were two guitar players and four singers who sang 3-4 song each. I recommend experiencing the dinner + Fado combo in Lisbon, but you may be able to find better venues, specially with more comfortable seating.
Serra da Estrela park
We spent a day and half in the Serra da Estrela park in central Portugal to do some hiking. We stayed at the Luna hotel Serra da Estrela. The hotel’s restaurant served a buffet style dinner which was excellent.
O Croisant: Excellent breakfast/brunch place in downtown Coimbra. We brunched twice there!
Boutique tapas: small, cozy place with great food and wine and excellent service. Besides the great food and service, the server helped us figure out what to do about the car (which we had just realized was missing).
Casa Beira Douro: Excellent river-side restaurant with gorgeous views of the river. Highly recommended for dinner. Ask to be seated upstairs with a river-view if possible
Madrid: Aug 5 – 9
We stayed in the neighborhood shown below in an Abnb. Both the neighborhood and our Abnb turned out great. We were within walking distance to most of the places we visited.
Sandeman’s walking tour
We did these walking tours in Madrid, Lisbon and Porto. I highly recommend them as a quick way to learn some neat facts and figures about a city and get recommendations for restaurants, things to try and places to visit. Here are some stories and pictures from the tour
The tour guide told us the story of the Iberian peninsula, which I’ve already covered in. According to our guide (also corroborated here), the Romans used to buy bottles of Portuguese urine and use that as a rinse. Importing bottled urine became so popular that the emperor Nero taxed the trade. The ammonia in urine was thought to disinfect mouths and whiten teeth.
Museum de Prado
El retiro park
After the museum tour, we walked over to the El Retiro park. There is a small lake in the park with boat rentals nearby. We wanted to go boating in the lake in the park, but the boat rentals were closed
We also wanted to try some outdoor Salsa dancing. To find some good options, Rachel posted on some Madrid-based latin dancing Facebook groups and got a few recommendations. One of the recommendations was actually in El Retiro park, however we failed to find any salsa dancing in the park. From the park, we took a taxi to the other recommended location – Cerro del Tio Pio park, and found the outdoor salsa dancing pretty quickly. We had a great time dancing to a few salsa/bachata songs and also witnessed a beautiful sunset.
Our walking tour guide had told us about an unusual experience in Madrid – buying cookies baked by cloistered nuns who live at a local convent. The cookies themselves were ok, but the whole experience, including finding the door of the convent, going inside the convent and paying for the cookies felt like a secret ancient ritual. I recommend trying it, just for the novelty of it.
After purchasing the cookies, we tried out the Madrid cable car, a good way to get an aerial view of parts of the city. The cable car starts at the Rosales park and ends at the Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid. The cable cars travels at 3.5 metres per second and take 11 minutes to complete the journey between the two stations. Casa de Campo park has several mountain biking trails, and bikes are allowed in the cable cars, so that could be something to consider! I recommend buying a round trip ticket at the Rosales station, because the destination is in the middle of the Casa de Campo park and there is no easy way out of there. You can buy two one way tickets of course, but you’ll end up paying more.
After the cable car excursion, we got some food and parted ways to check out our museums of interest. I’m very interested in history and the Iberian peninsula has quite a story to tell so I walked over to the National Archaeological museum, about a 30 minute walk from the Rosales station. Part of the walk was along Gran Via, one of the famous streets in Madrid, lined with nice looking buildings, fancy shops, hotels etc.
The Archaeological museum houses artifacts and works of art from the civilizations that called Iberia home from prehistory to the 19th century. The exhibits are well organized and annotated. I spent a few hours at the National Archaeological museum and enjoyed the visit.
The first few rooms of the museum housed fascinating objects from the Egyptian civilization. There is an interesting story around how these objects made it to this museum. In 1959, the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan dam, which threatened to damage or destroy the monuments and remains of the ancient Nubian civilization. To preserve these ancient artifacts, archeologists from several nations, including Spain and Portugal participated in an excavation project and were entitled to keep some of the objects unearthed in the excavation. Incidentally, the conception, funding and building of the Aswan dam is an interesting story about cold war power play and diplomacy. Nasser, the Egyptian leader at the time, deftly exploited the cold war rivalry between the US and USSR to secure funding and technical help for the dam.
Later in the day, we saw a Flamenco performance at “Carboneras”.
After the Flamenco performance, the performers talked about how they got into Flamenco, the challenges of performing during the pandemic etc. It was good to get some insight into the lives of the performers as real people.
For dinner, we went to Botin, which founded in 1725, holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s oldest restaurant. Given the restaurant’s fame, we didn’t think we’ll be able to get a reservation, but had no problem getting one when we called in the morning. Traveling during Covid times does have some advantages!
The next day, we packed up and took a taxi to the Chamartin station to pick up our rental car. The process of getting a car was very similar to that in the US. We had obtained an international driving permit (IDP) from a local AAA office in Virginia before departing for Europe, in case an IDP was needed to rent a car, but our passport and US drivers license sufficed. I had reserved a mid-size car, but jumped on the offer to upgrade to a BMW for just a few euros more per day. It turned out to be good decision, because we did a lot of driving on this trip and having a comfortable car helped.
The first stop on our trip was Toledo, an hour away from Madrid. Today, Toledo is a medium size city with a population of ~85K people, but has been an important city in the history of Spain. municipium. Toledo was a Celtic city before the Roman occupation. During the rule of the Flavian dynasty [AD 69 to 96], Toledo became a municipality, with its residents eligible for Roman citizenship and the forms of Roman law and politics increasingly adopted.Around this time, a Roman circus, city walls, public baths, and a municipal water supply and storage system were constructed in Toledo.
From 542 to 725 AD Toledo was the capital of the Visigothic kingdom, which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, and the location of historic events such as the Councils of Toledo.
During Islamic rule [from beginning of the 8th century until 1492] in Iberia, Toledo was an important city state in regular warfare with other administrative centers (specially Cordoba) of the region. On our way out of the city, we saw an excavation of public baths dating to the Islamic period.
In May 1085, Alfonso VI of Castile took Toledo and ended Islamic rule. I refer you to the wikipedia article about Toledo for the remainder of Toledo’s history.
Finding parking was thankfully very easy. There was a parking garage right next to the Military museum, one of the top tourist attractions and easy walk to the other attractions.
Things to do/see in Toledo
Cathedral of St. Mary
The cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo is one of the three 13th-century High Gothic cathedrals in Spain and the best example of the Gothic style in Spain. The constructed started in 1226 shortly after the reconquest of Toledo from Muslim rule and lasted nearly 350 years until 1493. Like similar cathedrals in Cordoba and Seville, the cathedral is built on the site of a mosque.
The cathedral is a visually stunning building with a rich history. We got an audio guide, which had information about different parts of the cathedral. Most of the information was related to Christian or Church related structures, paintings and events which were of little relevance to me. I wish the audio guide talked more about how such a massive and beautiful building was constructed using the technology of the 15th century, who were the engineers, architects, designers and workers, how were they trained, where did the construction material come from, how did they hoist massive sections of the building so high up above the ground..
Views from the top of Iglesia de los Jesuitas (San Ildefonso)
We took the stairs up to the top of the Iglesia de los Jesuitas. This is a 18th-century baroque church not as monumental as the Cathedral of St. Mary, but worth a visit for the gorgeous, panoramic views of the city.
After rooftop visit, we walked around the narrow winding alleys to get a feel of the city. The alleys are so narrow that the major landmarks of the city are often not visible, making it difficult to find your bearings. We made out way towards the San Martin bridge over the Tagus river, which flows around the city of Toledo. A company called FlyToledo was offering zipline tours over the river. I’ve done zip lining before and didn’t find it too exciting so decided to pass.
On the way out of the Toledo, we stopped at Mirador Toledo, a great lookout point for sweeping views of the main attractions of Toledo and the Tagus river as it makes a U turn around the city.
From Toledo, we drove to Cordoba, a 3.5 hr drive. Along the way, we stopped at Restaurante Abrasador El Mirador de la Mancha, located within the El Mirador de La Mancha resort. The restaurant is a bit out of the way, but offers stunning views over the vast plains of La Mancha. We arrived about an hour before dinner, but didn’t mind sipping our wine and enjoying the lovely views of the countryside.
In Cordoba, we stayed at the Las Casas de la Judería de Córdoba, a guest house style hotel. The hotel is ok, but is located in the heart of Cordoba’s old town, and a very short walk from a parking garage.
In the morning we walked to the Puerto Romano (the Roman bridge) originally built by the Romans in the early 1st century BC across the Guadalquivir river. The bridge has been reconstructed several times since then and most of the present day structure is from the reconstruction during Islamic rule in the 8th century
From the bridge, we walked over to the Cordoba Cathedral (the main attraction in Cordoba), and got tickets for an afternoon tour. We had a few hours to kill, so we ambled through the streets of Cordoba and stumbled upon the remains of a Roman temple, serving as reminder of the city’s multi-layered history.
We got lunch at Casa Mazal, a Jewish/Moroccan restaurant. The food was excellent, but the service was iffy. There was a mix-up with our order and the waiter insisted that he brought what we had ordered. We still had some time, so we went back to the hotel and hung out at the hotel pool for a bit, which was very relaxing. We had already checked out, so it was quite nice of the hotel to still let us use the pool.
We walked over to the Cathedral of Cordoba around 3. The Cathedral’s story is similar to the cathedral in Toledo. A Visigothic church originally stood on the site of the current Mosque-Cathedral. After the Muslim invasion in 711 AD, a mosque was constructed on the orders of Abd ar-Rahman I in 785 CE, when Córdoba was the capital of the Muslim-controlled region of Al-Andalus. The mosque was expanded multiple times afterwards up to the late 10th century. The mosque was converted to a cathedral in 1236 when Córdoba was captured by the Christian forces of Castile during the Reconquista. The structure itself underwent only minor modifications until a major building project in the 16th century inserted a new Renaissance cathedral nave and transept into the center of the building.
The Cathedral is a stunning building with a rich history. A person with some knowledge of architecture in the middle ages can happily spend hours there. Unfortunately the audio guide and map were poorly organized. We had a difficult time figuring out where we were located in the building. The information in the audio guide was mostly about Christian saints, symbols and events. As with the Cathedral in Toledo, I would have preferred information about the historical context of the building, how a building of this scale was constructed etc.