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Destination: Europe & North Africa : If It's Tuesday, This Must Be. . .Spain? Portugal? Morocco? : Once this independent traveler scoffed at breakneckbus tours that took in too many places in too short a time. Now she's a convert

March 26, 1995|JEAN CRAMER | Cramer is a free-lance writer based in Denver. and

MADRID — "We give you only five minutes grace to be at the coach," intoned the dapper tour director. "Less than a Spanish minute."

Our escort presented himself as Felix Aragon del Castillo ("just call me Felix") and when he spoke of our destinations in southern Spain, the names rolled off his tongue like a song: Cordoba, Granada, Seville.

Yet these were but a few of the cities on tap for 47 of us who had assembled in Madrid for a 15-day, bargain-priced but breakneck bus ride that would take us careening through the hills of Spain, with fleeting glances at Morocco and finally what seemed like a 45-second stop in Portugal.

As we gathered at a welcoming cocktail party in Madrid, that summer evening in 1993, our similar goal was to see as much as we could in a limited time with minimum of bother over suitcases, menus and tipping.

We were a mixed group of varying nationalities, ages and degrees of travel experience. We counted off our numbers: Australia, 11; Canada, six; Mexico, one; New Zealand, two; U.S. mainland, 23; Virgin Islands, four. Among us we had a family with teen-agers, anniversary celebrants, pre-retirees, frequent-traveling widows and widowers and a 30-something innocent from Oregon who early on indicated her desire to mingle with the local peoples . . . not with her bus compatriots.

As the mother of two grown children, I have traveled a fair amount in recent years--primarily in Europe and the United States--but never on a bus tour. So when a woman friend mentioned that her next trip would be by bus, I at first wrote the idea off as somehow below my experience level--a trip for beginning or, perhaps, timid travelers who don't enjoy making their own decisions about what to see and do. Then she mentioned the price: just a little more than $1,300 for 15 days and three countries (summer 1995 rates are about $1,400, excluding air fare). I quickly enlisted.

Our first stop was Toledo, less than an hour's drive south of Madrid. Cameras began clicking at the sight of Spain's first capital, which floats like an El Greco vision high on a rocky prominence above the Tagus River gorge.

It was June and the annual Roman Catholic Corpus Christi festival was in full swing, so our wanderings through narrow streets were perfumed by thyme branches, symbols of renewal.

We were drowning in color: tapestries, flowers, tassel-bedecked horse guards, ninas delicate as tiny brides in First Communion dresses, ninos in good-behavior suits. Excited swallows raced in circles above tiled rooftops while equally excited photographers in our group used up half their film on this first day of the tour.

Toledo's beautiful Gothic cathedral was closed in preparation for special festival ceremonies, but most of my co-travelers did not seem disappointed. "What's one more cathedral in Spain?" a frequent traveler whispered as we walked by.

Under a blazing noon sun, our packed bus departed for Cordoba.

The road dipped across the high plain of La Mancha, the region of central Spain celebrated in Miguel de Cervantes' novel "Don Quixote de la Mancha." We passed expanses of wheat and saffron embroidered with scarlet poppies and sunflowers. Windmills lined up on a distant hill. Here, in Quixote country, every village had a claim on the errant knight, including Puerto Lapice, the small gathering of buildings where we stopped for lunch.

We stormed the Inn of Don Quixote to stuff ourselves with jamon (ham) and bread, a ritual we repeated many times. A request from one of our group to "go easy on the mayo" produced blank stares from the locals. Outside, villagers tossed rose petals on the street marking the Corpus Christi celebration. We returned to our air-conditioned bus for the afternoon's drive to Cordoba.

Those who had seen enough cathedrals were in big trouble here. The famous Mezquita (mosque) grew and grew over 300 years until it covered four acres. Then, in the 1500s, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also known as Charles I, king of Spain) constructed a baroque cathedral in its center.

As we followed our leader across bare floors through a wilderness of free-standing pillars, in the dim latticed light of the old mosque, we strained to listen:

"The double arches are painted red for power and white for wisdom. . . . The gold-dusted mosaic mihrab (prayer chamber) faces south to Damascus instead of east to Mecca because of a miscalculation. . . . Cordoba was once the largest city in Europe with a million Moors, Christians and Sephardic Jews living together. . . ." He gave up. Acoustics are so good, his voice was submerged by the distant chanting of priests.

We marched through the old Arab and Jewish quarters, paused before a statue of the 12th-Century philosopher and rabbi Maimonides, located the bullfighters' museum, scurried back to the bus and took off our shoes.

"When can we shop?" The family with teen-agers carried a heavy purse.

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