Going Our Way: The best of Spain in 11 days

By K.C. Summers
Sunday, February 21, 2010;

Who: Linda and Dave Fersch, both 59, of Ashburn

Where: Spain

Why: Spring break

When: 11 days in April

Budget: $6,000

"This is our first trip to Europe and we don't want to do a class trip-type tour. We want to explore on our own and experience the culture."

The Fersches' request sounds innocent enough: Help them figure out how to see the best of Spain in 11 days. They want to stay in historic hotels, paradors (stylish state-run inns) and B&Bs and focus primarily on culture, dining, theater and shopping.

So far so good. But the couple's wish list includes Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Valencia and Toledo, and they also want to squeeze in some beach time and maybe get a teensy glimpse of Morocco, too. Here in the travel-planning biz, we call this the if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium (IITTMBB) syndrome. Unless you want your trip to be one big blur, don't let this happen to you.

So let's start off by paring down. Right off the bat, I'd ditch Morocco (it's a rich, complex destination worthy of a trip in itself) and the beach (that's what Ocean City is for), and drop Valencia (Holy Grail, eh) in favor of the more stirring Cordoba and Segovia.

Here's an itinerary that covers a lot of ground but still allows for some down time, so you can truly savor your time in Spain. But first, a word about getting around. Spain has a highly efficient rail network, so trains are the way to go. While you can purchase tickets en route, it's easier and cheaper to reserve from the United States through Rail Europe (800-622-8600, http://www.raileurope.com). With an itinerary like this one, consider booking a rail pass. A four-day pass, for example, costs $266 per person for second-class travel ($332 for first class). Service charges and fees can add up; to save money, buy your passes online instead of by phone. Note that reservations (required for all high-speed trains) are an additional expense, about $18 a pop.

Days 1-2: Madrid. Spend a couple of days getting to know this walkable, elegant and supremely fun city. Instead of running around with a stopwatch, concentrate on two or three iconic sites, such as the Prado, one of the world's great art museums, followed by its polar opposite, the fabulous modern art museum Thyssen-Bornemisza. Then stroll through beautiful and lively Retiro Park (watch your wallet). Any extra time can be devoted to sampling the city's coffee culture, visiting Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia Museum and prowling tapas bars at night. MadrileƱos love to eat late, so block out time for a siesta during the day.

Book a hotel in the center city so you can walk everywhere. The ME Madrid Reina Victoria (011-34-91-701-60-00, http://www.solmelia.com; rooms from $256 double), with a 19th-century facade and thoroughly modern interior, should satisfy your historic/luxe requirements nicely.

Day 3: Toledo. The ancient walled city is just half an hour from Madrid via high-speed train. (Tip from the Rail Europe folks: Don't use your rail pass for this segment, since it's just $36 one way.) Walk along the ramparts with their Moorish gates, visit the massive cathedral and get your El Greco fix at the artist's eponymous museum. Then zip back to Madrid on the train, or spend the night at the historic Hostal del Cardenal (011-34-92-522-49-00, http://www.hostaldelcardenal.com; doubles from $173), built right into the walls of the Old City.

Day 4: Segovia. Another easy day trip from Madrid (two hours by train), the atmospheric city is known for its alcazar, or castle (think Disneyland), Renaissance cathedral, 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct and scads of churches. But the most fun you'll have here is simply wandering the back streets and alleys, doing the sidewalk cafe and people-watching thing. Save room and $$$ for roast suckling pig, a specialty.

Days 5-6: Cordoba and Seville. Ready for Moor? Take the train to Andalusia and prepare to be dazzled. In Cordoba (1 1/2 hours south), pay homage to its labyrinthine Islamic cathedral and alcazar.

Then continue by train 45 minutes to Seville, which boasts the largest cathedral in Spain, the 14th-century Alcazar and a medieval district dripping with wrought-iron balconies and tiled courtyards. Squeeze in a visit to the Fine Arts museum with its El Grecos and Murillos. And this is where you should take in a flamenco performance, since the art form's roots are here. One well-regarded venue: Los Gallos Sevilla, with performances for about $40 (http://www.tablaolosgallos.com).

A lovely hotel option: the Hotel Alfonso XIII (800-221-2340, http://www.starwoodhotels.com; from $367), with Moorish-style rooms overlooking a Spanish courtyard.

Days 7-8: Granada. The Pomegranate City, three hours southeast, is packed with treasures, first and foremost being the Moorish citadel and palace known as the Alhambra. There are enough ancient churches, palaces and mosques to keep you busy for weeks, but two days will have to do. For a nice small hotel, try the Hotel America (011-34-95-822-74-71, http://www.hotelamericagranada.com; doubles from $111), inside the walls of the Alhambra.

Days 9-10: Barcelona. It's a long haul, about 550 miles up the coast, but you just don't want to miss this vibrant, over-the-top city. To maximize your time, take the overnight train, leaving Granada at about 10 p.m. and arriving in Barca about 9:30 a.m. After you join the throngs on the legendary Las Ramblas, the most famous boulevard in all Spain, wander the Gothic quarter and pay tribute to the fantastical creations of Antoni Gaudi, especially La Sagrada Familia, the architect's still-unfinished cathedral and masterpiece. If you haven't busted your shopping budget yet, stock up on clothes, shoes and leather goods in the Old Quarter, the Passeig de Gracia and the Rambla de Catalunya.

There's a good parador option about an hour and a half up the coast: the Parador Costa Brava (011-34-97-262-21-62, http://www.paradores.es; $185 per night double for bed and breakfast), in Aiguablava. But if you'd rather stay in town, consider the affordable Meson Castilla (011-34-93-318-21-82, http://www.mesoncastilla.com; doubles with balconies from $130).

Day 11: Return to Madrid by train (about three hours) and fly home.

Cost: Airfare will run about $1,800, hotels $2,200 and trains about $700, leaving about $1,300 for meals, admissions, shopping and incidentals. You can do this trip on a $6,000 budget, but scaling back on hotels would help the bottom line.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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