Travel resources

One of the things I am liking about blogging our upcoming trip is that the posts are being quickly indexed into the main search engines. This is producing an increase in random visits to from people all over the world searching terms related to travel to Spain. Besides the helpful and much appreciated comments from my friends and other known readers of this blog, I’ve also received some random e-mails and comments with suggestions about what to see and what to expect on our upcoming vacation from total strangers who seem eager to share their own experience, strength and hope.

It’s also resulting in people being able to benefit from our experience and efforts which is pretty cool.

After a marathon planning session that lasted from 11:00 am Saturday morning till 5:30 pm that afternoon, we’ve pretty much nailed down our itinerary and are in the process of booking hotels in all the cities we will be staying in.

We have been using a fantastic web site called Trip Advisor. The feature most helpful has been the hotel reviews. Trip Advisor allows visitors to the web site to post their own experience with any given hotel directly to the site along with pictures.

This type of site can be subject to some fraud. I’ve heard of companies sending their employees or appointed P.R. folks to sites like this to write canned positive reviews and I am sure it happens here with some of the bigger hotel chains, but it’s easy to spot. Plus, we’re focusing on smaller hotels that are privately owned and don’t seem to have the where-with-all, much less the budget, for such chicanery.

On the site you have the ability to sort the reviews by best and worst. You filter through about a dozen or so of these and you end up with a good feel for the potential of the establishment.

Even if a hotel has several negative reviews you can often eliminate a good percentage of those when you read things like “hotel staff did not speak English” or “Inadequate parking” or any of a host of other so-called problems that just won’t apply to us or can be overcome with a little common sense.

The site is very user friendly and we have located most of the hotels we are interested in. Now it’s just a matter of getting up early and making some overseas calls. Fortunately Cynthia’s Spanish has gotten so good we should be able to negotiate our reservations without any trouble at all.

We’re going to get up early in the morning and call Hotel Los Tilos in Granada and and the delightful and musically themed Hotel La Musica in Seville for reservations.

We’ve believe we have found a suitable hotel for the Madrid leg and even our one night hit-and-run whirlwind visit to La Linea/Gibraltar. Barcelona is a challenge as it seems to be the most expensive leg of the trip with the most options. We’ll finalize those in the coming weeks along with a few others.

IT (special) Olympics

So my boss came up with the idea of having a team building exercise call The IT Olympics.
Basically we’ve broken into teams and are competing on a Nintendo Wii for bragging rights.

Jeana (my manager and teammate) prepares to knock one out of the virtual park

Home run!

To be honest, I was a bit sceptical of this activity, but I’m actually having a pretty good time.

Break’s over, back to work

As your sitting there lamenting the drudgery of your day job please take a moment to consider the plight of the unfortunate zoo veterinarian who is having a day far worse than just about anything you might imagine.

Crocodile severs zoo worker’s arm

A crocodile at a zoo in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung holds the forearm of a zoo veterinarian in between its teeth, April 11, 2007. The crocodile bit off the arm of the zoo veterinarian treating it, an official reported. Picture taken April 11, 2007. REUTERS/Frank Lin (TAIWAN)

Practical considerations – photography

Obviously one of the key components to the upcoming trip is the photography. It’s my first trip with my new digital SLR and Cynthia will be bringing her new Pentax K10D.

On our previous trip I used the Sony F828 which was a glorified point and shoot camera.
It had the benefit of having a built in but very versatile 28-200mm lens and it did a good job. I can’t complain about the pictures I got in Venice or the glorious time-lapsed picture of the Eiffel Tower.

Now with the Sony Alpha 100 I find myself with 6 lenses, 4 of which I plan to take with me on the trip.

Where the F828 was easy to manage and carry in a small shoulder bag, my current photo equipment needs required the purchase of something a bit larger. I went with a Domke F-3X after seeing how nice Cynthia’s Domke F-5XB bag was.

It’s made of good, solid canvas construction with minimal padding except on the bottom. This makes it much more flexible for storing a variety of lenses and other gear. The strap has a non-slip surface so it doesn’t continuously slide off of my shoulder.

It holds all I need plus some stuff I don’t. The side pockets hold my external flash and the charger quite easily.

I was really happy to get this sorted out but during our research we realized something that has thrown a kink into our planning. We kind of knew this from before, but it’s even more of an issue now and that is the fact that many museums don’t allow camera bags. You have to check them at the front desk. Of course this means you might get your bag back with certain key elements missing, like your camera or lenses.

Most places will let you carry your camera and some allow photography without a flash but the bag-check issue it a real problem. It looks like I will have to purchase a photographers vest. That way I can check an empty bag while carrying my lenses and accessories on my person.

When looking at the camera store the vests run around $100. I just ordered one off of EBay for less that $40.

Monarch Caterpillar

I was over at my friend Jim’s house working on his computer.
He’s finally replacing his old E-Machine running Windows 98 with a newer IBM running XP.
Sadly he’s still using dial up rather than high speed Internet which presents it’s own set of challenges.

We took a break and went out in the yard. Jim has tons of Monarch Caterpillars which have been attracted to the numerous butterfly friendly plants he keeps growing.

Monarch Caterpillar

Monarch Caterpillar

Advance travel planning – Gibraltar

We spent the better part of today hammering out some of the details of our trip. We’re determining how many days we need to each leg and starting to fill in the schedule.

We have discovered that getting in and out of Gibraltar is going to be much more difficult than we had previously imagined.

Apparently the fact that Gibraltar is subject to a disputed irredentist claim by Spain means that practical methods of ingress and egress are not high on the priority list for Spain.

We have determined that we will need to take a 3-4 hour bus ride to La Linea from Seville as there are no trains that travel the route.

From La Linea you can just walk across the border to Gibralter. We ‘re trying to find out if we can manage this as a day trip. From what I can tell there’s not enough to do in Gibraltar to fill two days. If we can get there early enough we can tour The Rock and then go back to Seville that evening.

We have not been able to find too much information on the web, but if we’re lucky, there will be any number of companies marketing trips to Gibraltar from Seville and it will just work itself out once we actually get to Seville. Otherwise we’ll need to stay the night in La Linea and then find our way on out the next day to go back to Seville or just move on to Granada from La Linea via a convoluted combination of bus and train trips.

Even though the Spanish government and the transportation system seems determined to hinder our ability to add Gibraltar to our itinerary, Cynthia is adamant about going to see the monkeys (apes) and Europa Point.

Hangin’ Out

Some people have today off due to Good Friday. I have it off due to my 9/80 schedule which gives me every other Friday off. Since I didn’t have to work and several friends were also at loose ends I decided to go to see Beetle at the Continental Club. As it turns out it was VERY loud indicating that I am, in fact, too old.

Retired to the Big Top to hang out with some friends and indulged in my latest photo interest.
Black and white shots in a room illuminated in dim red light.

I like the results I get. The room is quite dim, but there’s something about how the red lighting affects the subject allowing for some great results when using the the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens even while keeping the ISO down in the 400 range.

Reservations and time off

Cynthia and I put in our time off requests with our respective employers on Monday. Mine was approved that day, Cynthia’s boss made her wait till today.

I’m burning up all my saved vacation plus one personal day. Cynthia is doing more or less the same thing. That’s in excess of 170 hours of vacation each. 4 work weeks and a few work days plus the weekends.

With approval secured we went online to buy the tickets this evening.

Buying this far in advance and not travelling during the peak season means we are saving about $500 each on airfare which is good. Of course the airfare is only a small portion of the overall cost of spending a month overseas but every little bit counts!

Now comes hammering out the exact itinerary in terms of days per location and proceed time for each destination followed by researching hotels and making the reservations.

Our experience on our European vacation in 2005 was that the hotels with the best overall rates were not easily booked online, but usually had a web page with contact information with pictures and descriptions of the facility.

The process was for us to find the one’s we were interested in and then e-mail them to check on availability. They would respond the next day and then we would make a final decision and arrange to fax or phone in credit card information to secure the rooms. This worked really well from Amsterdam all the way down to Rome.

We’ll also need to sort out which rail pass will be the most efficient.

It’s hard work nailing down all the particulars, but it’s all part of the experience for us. We don’t want to be tied down to a tour group or a scheduled dictated by a third party. We want the freedom of exploring on our terms based on well thought out decisions that we have made.

We’re using a lot of what we learned on our last two trips to ensure the success of this one. The most practical and useful decision we came up with last time was to travel using only what we could carry in a back pack and a camera bag. The back pack measures 9″ x 21″ x 14″ and I had it down to 20lbs last time. Not having any checked luggage and being able to “wear” what you’re bringing with you does wonders for your mental state.

On the European trip we brought older underwear and socks and just disposed of it as we travelled. That was good plan! Our load lightened as we travelled! Plus you’re not stinking up your clean laundry with dirty socks.

Midway through the trip we did have to make a laundry stop in Paris.

Going to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent in a foreign land and a foreign language adds a whole new dimension to any trip. You would think picking a laundry detergent would be simple, but I was never absolutely certain that I wasn’t marching off to the laundromat with a box of dishwashing detergent, all the while being snickered at by an amused clerk who had done their level best to convince me that they spoke no English.

Then there was what could have been an international incident as I crossed the border from Rome into Vatican City to dispose of the last of our dirty undergarments. I could just imagine hearing something like “Arrestar, arrestar! Siete sotto l’arresto per terrorismo biologico!”

Fortunately I was able to utilize the cover of darkness and slipped stealthily to the dumpsters and returned without incident.

We’re starting to feel the excitement!

Trip to Spain

Armed only with some guide books, two laptops, high speed Internet access, our previous experience planning and executing our trips to the UK and to Europe and an over abundance of gumption we are started out plotting our next vacation.

Jay and Cynthia are going to Spain!

Our plan is to fly in to Madrid where we plan to see:

  • The Palacio Real
  • Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat)
  • Museo del Prado
  • Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Guernica by Pablo Picasso!)
  • Plaza Mayor
  • Almudena Cathedral
  • While in Madrid we have mapped out several day trips.

  • El Escorial and Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) to verify that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.
  • (Holy) Toledo – Toledo Cathedral
  • Segovia – Roman aqueducts
  • Cuenca – Hanging Houses
  • From Madrid we catch the high speed train (Ave) to Seville to see the barber of as well as the Seville Cathedral and climb the Giralda Bell Tower. Well also see the Basilica De La (hey!) Macarena and the Tomb of Columbus.

    From there it’s on to Cordoba to see The Mezquita and then by bus to La Linea where we walk to Gibraltar to see:

  • The Rock Of
  • Europa Point
  • Gibraltar Barbary Macaques (the Barbary Apes)
  • Then it’s back to La Linea (by Bus), to Algeciras and from Algeciras (by train) to Granada.

    In Granada we plan to see:

  • The Alhambra
  • The Generalife Gardens
  • The Granada Cathedral and the Tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella
  • From Granada we will catch a short flight to Barcelona (The land of outrageous Gaudi architecture!) where we will see:

  • La Rambla or Les Rambles (Catalan) / Las Ramblas (Spanish)
  • Christopher Columbus Monument
  • Sagrada Familia Basilica
  • Casa Mila
  • Casa Batlló
  • Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music)
  • Park Güell
  • Montjuic
  • The Magic Fountains
  • Plaça d’Espanya
  • While in Barcelona we have one day trip planned and that’s to Figueres to see the Salvador Dali Theater and Museum.

    And then it’s back to Madrid to catch a flight back home.

    All mapped out the trip looks like a crooked coat hanger.

    All in all it looks like we’ll be gone for about a month. We’ve put our vacation requests in to our bosses and once approved we’ll secure the air fair and nail down the particulars in terms of hotel reservations, rail passes and so forth.