My 15-year-old son Charlie and I wanted to experience the real Spain. We had been to the Costas on many occasions and had thoroughly enjoyed it but felt that we were missing out on the genuine Spanish culture.
After watching Michael Portillo's Great European Railway Journeys and also trying to minimise our carbon footprint, we thought it would be a great idea to travel the length of the country by train.
Abbotts Travel have organised our holidays for the last five years so we had no hesitation in asking them to help us again.
We caught the train down to Plymouth and sailed overnight to Santander. We were quite impressed by the standard of Brittany Ferries’ ship. We had booked a cabin which was very pleasant and we both got a good night's sleep. The food onboard was very good and we had the added bonus of seeing a whale, right next to the ferry while in the Bay of Biscay, which was very exciting. We docked at 18.00 and went straight to our hotel.
Santander was a bit disappointing, a typical sea port I suppose.
The next day we took the train five-hours south to Madrid. Spanish trains are brilliant: fast, clean and above all else, cheap (especially compared to trains in Britain). We stayed at the four-star Senator Hotel while in Madrid, which was very modern and pleasant.
The Spanish capital was a nice surprise with lots to see and do. A visit to the Royal Palace is a must as it is absolutely stunning. Charlie is a history fanatic so he was very impressed with the Royal Armoury, which has lots of life-sized models of knights in armour mounted on horseback.
If you are into tapas, I highly recommend the Mercado de San Miguel, an old market that has a wide variety of tapas stalls selling everything you could want, there are also plenty of bars to purchase drinks.
Our next stop was the historic city of Toledo, only a one-hour train ride away. This was our favourite destination.
Toledo is a medieval city and is full of things to experience. It is surrounded on three sides by a deep gorge with a wide river at the bottom. The city is a melting pot of history, home to both The Templar House (once owned by the Knights Templar) and the Museum of Siege Catapults.
The cathedral is very beautiful and the surrounding streets are narrow and winding, providing a good relief from the Spanish sun. Very good restaurants can be found here, with both traditional and modern cuisine. A good tip I received was to always ask your hotel reception for recommendations.
We spent the next three days in Seville. Yet another Spanish city full of culture and history, our hotel was the Hotel San Gil. It didn’t look like much from the outside, being in an unremarkable street and away from the city centre, but once through the door we were more than impressed.
The hotel is very cool, very chic and a great mix of traditional and modern Spanish style. There is a beautiful courtyard where you can dine or enjoy a drink. It also has the added bonus of a swimming pool on the roof, which was a godsend after sightseeing all day in the sun. The city centre was a 10-minute bus ride away and all of the drivers were very helpful and friendly.
Seville stands on the river Guadalquivir and has a long history dating back centuries. The centre is a bustling place with lots of shops, cafes and bars intermingled with historic buildings.
A visit to the cathedral is essential and make sure you climb to the top of the tower where there are fantastic views across the city. There are no steps, only 36 ramps, which is a bit of an effort but worth it.
A short walk away is the Parque de Maria Luisa and El Prado, a truly beautiful square with fountains and a canal running around it - you can hire a boat if you wish. The park is a nice relief from the heat of the afternoon and we hired a four-wheeled bicycle with a canopy to explore the park.
We usually walked back to the hotel which took about 30 minutes and enabled us to explore the many winding streets and pick out our restaurant for the evening. One fantastic place we found was Alameda de Hércules, which is a square surrounded by incredible tapas bars and an arch at each end. This place is a favourite with the locals. There is lots of nightlife but as I travelled with my son I had to be content with a couple of beers at dinner.
Seville is a lovely city but it was time to catch an early morning train to Cordoba. We only stayed one night, reflecting on it, I wish we had stayed one less night in Seville and an extra one in Cordoba.
The journey was only 45 minutes and we took a taxi straight to our hotel. It was a good job we did as Cordoba is very steep and the roads are extremely narrow - it would have been a struggle with our suitcases.
We stayed at the Hotel Macia Alfaros, a small privately run hotel in the heart of the city. It was a traditional style hotel, well-furnished, very clean and extremely comfortable. The staff were friendly and helpful, as we found all the hotel staff in Spain to be.
The centre of the city is dominated by the cathedral. It dates right back to the earliest days of Christianity with the church of St Paul - the archeological site of the church is on display inside the cathedral. The grand mosque of The Moors is built over the top of it and when Spain was reconquered by the Christians it was converted into a cathedral. This was one of the best places we visited, absolutely fantastic. It feels like it has hundreds of pillars and arches and is beautifully maintained. If you see nothing else in Spain, see this.
There is a Roman bridge across the river leading to a tower, which is a museum that we enjoyed immensely. The city has lots of shops and a wide variety of restaurants, we found one on a street running down to the river and had an excellent seafood paella.
Cordoba is a beautiful city and I wish we could have stayed longer.
After eleven days of train hopping and trekking the streets of the towns and cities that we visited, we were in real need of two days laying on the beach and getting our strength back.
We had never been to Malaga before but had heard about it being a party town.
I must say we found it to be a very pleasant, family-orientated resort, with a nice beach and lots of bars and restaurants to choose from. We especially liked the restaurants on the beach and we highly recommend the barbecued fish, which they cook in an upturned boat on the beach next to the restaurant, it was a bit pricey but we decided that we had earned it.
Before we knew it, our last day in Spain had arrived. We caught the bus to the airport, which runs every 30 minutes and costs €3.00 each, before catching our Ryanair flight back to Stansted.
Ryanair is what it is: a cheap, no frills, people carrier. We have flown with them many times before so we were prepared for the chaos that is air travel, but compared to our experience travelling by train, it really could be nicer.
We will remember our Spanish odyssey with very fond memories, it exceeded all of our expectations and we would recommend this type of holiday to anyone.
We found the Spanish people to be friendly and helpful, all the staff in the railway station went out of their way to help us and even the bus drivers were helpful and friendly. If you live in London, like we do, you will understand what a delight this was.
The railway system in Spain is brilliant and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Most of the trains had monitors which showed movies and the staff gave out free earphones. Toledo and Córdoba were our favourite places, both beautiful and interesting.
All we can say is Viva Espana, adios til’ next time.