Travel

Explore More With A Cruisetour

The only Toledo I knew about was the one in Ohio.

I had no idea Spain had one, too, until it turned up on my cruise tour itinerary.

That's how I ended up in a European city that dates back to the Bronze Age, sitting in a coffee shop dunking a churro in the thickest, richest hot chocolate I've ever tasted.

"Pure heaven," I told my husband as I finished the last drop.

In a sense, that pretty much sums up the four days I spent on a Royal Caribbean cruise tour of Spain before taking a Mediterranean cruise.

The concept of a cruise tour is fairly simple: A few days before or after a scheduled cruise, guests arrive for a land-based tour that begins or ends in their ship's port city. The cruise line handles the hotel reservations, half-day guided tours, transportation and some meals. Four-day cruise tours start around $1,500 per person.

European cruise tours range in size from 10 to 30 people. A tour director stays with the group for the entire trip, while additional guides join at various destinations.

"On a cruise, you may go to Rome, but we all know Rome wasn't built in a day," said Showeshi Strickland-Boston, manager of cruisetour sales and marketing for Royal Caribbean. "How can we expect to see it in a day? On a cruise tour, you spend two nights there, travel to another city for two nights, then go on the cruise and see even more. You don't feel as rushed around."

Unless you're like me. I always try to cram as much into a trip as possible, which is another reason why the cruise tour suited my style. We spent half of each day in our group of 10, then had enough free time to set our own pace and hit the spots that mattered most to us.

In four days, we saw four cathedrals, three of architect Antoni Gaudi's creations, two bull rings, one palace and more fountains than we could count. We met fellow cruisers who became friends — including a couple from Lafayette. We rode in buses, taxis and a high-speed train.

Most of all, we realized that one cruise tour would never be enough.

Spain won me over the minute I stepped into Madrid's Plaza Mayor.

Bull fights, royal coronations and executions were once held in this square, created in 1617. Today, it is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike, including a group of children who chased bubbles on our visit in May.

We entered through a stone archway to find sidewalk cafes lining the square's interior and artists diligently painting and drawing. Immediately, our eye was drawn to Casa de la Panaderia, a large building covered in exquisite allegoric murals.

Madrid also is home to the Prado Museum, where our guide Mirabel had us fully engaged in the paintings of Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya. Velazquez's "Las Meninas" is considered one of the three most important compositions in the world, but I was more captivated by his other royal paintings. As Mirabel pointed out, Velazquez often painted over parts of his works, which today show through like shadows. Before long, I was playing my own version of "Where's Waldo?" as I tried to find Velazquez's fixes.

On our own for the afternoon, my husband and I strolled around Madrid until we stumbled upon the Royal Palace. Blindly following a line of people, we ended up buying tickets that brought us inside the lavish former palace of the Spanish royal family.

"It makes the White House look like a country farm," my husband said with a laugh.

Twenty-five rooms are open to the public, including one appointed for "conversing" and another made entirely of porcelain. The parade grounds also offer stunning views of the palace gardens and much of Madrid.

The next day we boarded a bus for a side trip to Toledo (pronounced with an 'a' instead of an 'e').

The former Spanish capital sits in the hills behind stone walls, complete with turrets, and surrounded by a river. Cobblestone streets, stone buildings, narrow alleys and black-trimmed lanterns complete the Old-World feel, marred only slightly by the public buses and the golden arches of a McDonald's.

In addition to delicious hot chocolate, Toledo is also home to a Gothic-style cathedral that would rival anything I would see later in Italy. The attention to detail is staggering; even the stone columns are intricately carved from top to bottom.

The high altar is overwhelming in size and scope with wood carvings and gold leaf that took the combined efforts of 20 artists to create. The most stunning addition is the Baroque altar called El Transparente, with a window casting light on the statues, paintings, bronze castings and colored marble designed by Narciso Tome. As we stared up at Tome's work, the sun suddenly shone through the window, casting a brilliance that was literally breathtaking.

We also stopped to see the world's second most important composition, "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz" painting by El Greco.

We returned to Madrid and caught the smooth high-speed train to Barcelona (definitely the best way to travel in Spain).

Our whirlwind tour of Barcelona showed off the 1992 Olympic stadium, an incredible panaromic view of the city, another Gothic-style cathedral, the diverse shopping and eateries on Las Ramblas and all the Gaudi we could handle.

Barcelona has many crown jewels, perhaps most notably Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Looking like a giant sand castle, with Gaudi's trademark whimsical features, the cathedral is still under construction — and probably will be until 2016, our tour guide noted.

Long fascinated by Gaudi's eccentric work, I dragged my husband to Casa Mila, one of two Barcelona apartment buildings created by the artist that are open to the public. We wandered through the rooms of one apartment, marveling at the scrollwork, oddly shaped doorways and excessively curved furniture. Then we hightailed it to the roof before a light rain closed the famous terrace, where Gaudi's strange chimneys look like something best suited for a Dr. Seuss book.

We also strolled along the waterfront, a once dilapidated area built up for the 1992 Olympics and now a thriving area of businesses and tourism in the city.

It was here that we dined on our last night at El Cagrejo Loco (Crazy Crab). We enjoyed tapas, drank wine and shared memories with the other members of our group.

And we had yet to even board the ship for our cruise.

IF YOU GO:

CRUISE TOUR: To learn more about Royal Caribbean"s cruise tours, visit www.royalcaribbean.com or call 866-562-7625.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel Husa Princesa — Princesa, 40, Madrid; 011-34-915-422-100; www.hotelhusaprincesa.com. Spacious rooms and breakfast included. Rates from 112 euros a night.

NH Podium — Bailen, 4-6, Barcelona; 011-34-932-650-202; www.nh-hotels.com. Sunken bedrooms, some rooms with balconies and breakfast included. Rates from 104 euros a night.

WHAT TO DO:

In Madrid:

Prado Museum — 011-34-913-302-800; www.museodelpardo.es. Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Cost 8 euro, children free.

Royal Palace — 011-34-914-548-800; www.patrimonionacional.es. Open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (5 p.m. winter) Mondays-Saturdays and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. Cost 10 euros. In Toledo: El Foro de Toledo — 011-34-925-284-555; www.mazapantoledo.com. Try to hot chocolate and churros.

Cathedral of Toledo — 011-34-925-222-241. Open 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 2-6:30 p.m. Sundays. Cost 6 euros.

In Barcelona:

Sagrada Familia — 011-34-902-101-212; www.sagradafamilia.cat. Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. (6 p.m. winter) daily. Cost 12 euros.

Casa Mila — 011-34-934-845-900; www.lapedrearaeducacio.org. Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. (6:30 p.m. winter) daily. Cost 10 euros.

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