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A Spanish Sojourn Worth the Wait

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lynne Cantwell of Manassas is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: Andalusia and Madrid in Spain -- specifically, two days in Seville, two in Granada and two in Madrid.

WHO WENT: Just me.

WHY: In 1976, when I was minoring in Spanish in college, one of my professors waxed rhapsodic about the beauty of the Alhambra, the Moors' last stronghold in Spain, and I said to myself, I'd like to go there someday. Fast-forward to 2007: Facing my 50th birthday, I decided it was high time I went.

WHEN: Originally scheduled for December 2007, so that I could spend my birthday in a Moorish bath, sipping mint tea. But I sprained my ankle twice in November and postponed the trip to early March. On the day I was supposed to leave, my mother died. By then, I was pretty sick of planning this trip, but I changed my travel arrangements again. I finally got to go in early April.

COST: About $2,300, including the flight, stays in three hostales (tourist-class hotels), entrance fees to the museums and other attractions, meals and souvenirs.

PLANNING: Hostelworld.com for the hostales, obsessive guidebook reading for the rest. Do double-check all the guidebook information, however; I found much of it to be outdated, even in the most recent editions. For example, every guidebook I read said the Prado was free all day on Sunday and closes at 7 p.m. In fact, it's free Tuesday through Saturday after 6 p.m. and Sunday after 5 p.m. Admission prices also were usually a couple of euros too low.

GETTING AROUND: I flew Iberia nonstop from Dulles to Madrid. Once there, I took the high-speed Ave train from Madrid to Seville, an intercity bus from Seville to Granada, and the not-so-speedy Altaria train from Granada to Madrid.

BIGGEST THRILL: Finally visiting the Alhambra. After waiting 30-plus years, I wondered whether it would live up to its advance billing. It did. For the Nasrid Palaces, I was lucky enough to get the first admission time slot of the day, so it wasn't jammed with other tourists. And the gardens, virtually empty and lit by the morning sun, were so peaceful.

I CAN'T BELIEVE I . . . almost didn't get to see the Alhambra. While waiting at Dulles for my flight, I realized that I'd left at home the credit card I used to purchase my Alhambra ticket. I sweated that blunder all the way across the Atlantic, worried that I'd have to plead my case in Spanish. Turns out, I'm not the only dumb foreigner to forget her credit card. The customer service folks were happy to print out my ticket for me.

QUIRKIEST HOTEL: The Hostal Moni Albayzin, in the Moorish section of Granada, which is complete with crazy-narrow "streets" (some of which are really staircases). If a woman on the bus hadn't walked me to it, I never would have found it -- and once there, I wasn't sure I'd find my way out.

BEST AFTERNOON: Floating in a candlelit pool at Hammam Baños Arabes in Granada. Soft music, three pools of varying temperatures, no crowds, cute male masseurs and Moroccan mint tea (think hot mint-flavored syrup). My only question is: Why don't we have these in the States?

FAVORITE FOODS: The Manchego cheese and sangria served at a flamenco show on my last night in Madrid. Spanish hot chocolate is pretty yummy, too.

MOST DISAPPOINTING ATTRACTION: The Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. I'm not a big fan of avant-garde art (being forced to watch Luis Buñuel's "Un Chien Andalou" several times in college scarred me for life), but I got talked into going, if only to see Picasso's "Guernica." So, I saw it. It's big and impressive and very gray. Done now.

CHEAPEST THRILL: Running across the original Taberna del Alabardero in Madrid on my way to the Palacio Real. I work across the street from their restaurant in D.C. It was way too early in the morning to stop and eat there, but I did take a picture.

VISITORS BEWARE: The gypsy women near the cathedrals who hand you a sprig of rosemary and give you a "blessing," then demand payment. I had heard they were operating near the cathedral in Granada, but didn't realize they were pulling the same scam in Seville. (If you've ever wanted to see a $31 sprig of rosemary, I can set you up.)

DON'T FORGET TO PACK: Quick-drying pants. They would have been useful in Seville, where it rained every day. I had a raincoat, but that didn't help my bottom half.

ADVICE: If you book through Hostelworld.com, shell out the extra dollar per reservation for cancellation insurance. If you have to cancel, and you do it within their window of time, they will give you credit for your room deposit against a future reservation. That really paid off for me.

NEXT UP: The Czech Republic, although I'd like to learn some more Czech first. But this time it won't take me 30 years to get there.

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