Long-trip logistics plus Spain and Portugal

This item appears on page 12 of the October 2011 issue.

My husband, Jim, and I took a month-long road trip through northern Spain and Portugal, May 24-June 23, 2011. After picking up our car in Biarritz, France, we drove into Spain and visited Bilbao in the Basque country; La Rioja (famous for its red wines); spectacular, Yosemite-like Pico de Europa, and the region of Galicia, with its rugged coastline and the Christian pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela.

In Portugal, Montesinho Natural Park has wonderful views and hiking trails. We also toured the Douro River Valley, explored Coimbra and Porto and stayed in the area of the walled city of Evora.

After adding about 3,000 kilometers to the original 31 on the odometer, we turned in the car at the airport in Lisbon and took a taxi to the rental apartment in the Alfama district that was our home for the last week of our trip.

For a car overseas, we’ve used the services of Kemwel (Portland, ME; 877/820-0668) for many years. This is a buy-back program wherein you lease a brand-new automobile of your choice. This time we ordered a four-cylinder, 90 hp Peugeot 207 manual diesel sedan, which got great gas mileage.

All insurance was included in the price of $1,221 for a three-week lease. The requirements of the lease are that you must keep the car for at least 19 days and you must pick it up in France. If you drop it off outside of France, there’s an extra charge. We dropped the car off in Lisbon and paid a fee of $310.

In Spain and Portugal the auto routes and toll roads are superb and well signed, though in the towns that was not often so. The drivers drive very fast on the auto routes, but, for the most part, they’re good drivers and courteous. The passing lane is only for passing, and they get in and out of it quickly!

I would suggest using a spiral-bound map rather than the foldout kind. We ordered ours, Michelin’s “Spain and Portugal” map, from Amazon.com for $22.

Rather than give chapter and verse on where we stayed and what we ate, I want to describe our approach to lodging and meals.

For lodging on these longer trips, we stay at small inns or large homes with no more than six to eight rooms. Some are newish; some are remodeled older homes. It’s amazing the modern accommodations that can lie behind a former pigsty or horse barn.

Usually, these inns also include breakfast and dinner, called “half pension,” although often you have to give 24 hours’ notice if you want dinner. Some restaurants have a few rooms to rent, but those are always in the countryside ­— and they’ll have ample parking, which is a big consideration when you’re traveling by car.

For this Spain/Portugal trip, we found some of our accommodations through guidebooks and booked them a couple of months ahead, but sometimes we just saw a sign and dropped in, or we reserved a stay a day or two ahead by phone or iPad, using, among others, the websites www.innsofspain.com and www.innsofportugal.com.

Normally, our agenda on this trip was to stay two or three days in one location, from which we’d sightsee, have a fairly large lunch, then head back to base before dark. If the hotel wasn’t serving dinner that evening, we often would bring a picnic back to the room.

There are literally thousands of these accommodations, and often we were the only guests. Obviously, we preferred to have other guests to talk with. This brings up the point that we find very few Americans traveling in this manner, and we hear only a small amount of English being spoken. In Spain, however, a lot of smiling combined with minimal Spanish was sufficient.

We’ve been traveling this way for years. This lodging option is called by different names in different countries: casa rural in Spain, gĂ®te in France, agriturismo in Italy and estancia in Argentina. There will be signs off the back roads, or some now have websites. On this trip we usually paid €60 to €80 ($87-$116) per night, dinner costing extra.

If we’re staying in one location for a week or longer, we use VRBO, or Vacation Rentals By Owner (Austin, TX; 877/228-0710).

In any country, the best deal for the midday meal is what in Spain is called menu del dia. It is usually posted on a blackboard in front of the restaurant and consists of a choice of a starter, a main course, a dessert and either bread, water or wine. Coffee costs extra. Order the menu del dia and you’ll have a hearty meal. You’ll usually be dining with the locals and might receive a few stares.

After reading of the concerns of several ITN readers regarding needing chip-and-PIN cards overseas and thinking we would be in the back country where our magnetic-strip cards might not work, we ordered a chip-and-PIN Cash Passport card from Travelex and loaded it with €1,000.

We found that this was not necessary. All of our refueling was done during the day, when service stations were manned, and ATM machines were available in even the smallest towns. We did try the Cash Passport to see if it worked and it did. Many of the small inns we used accepted cash only, by the way.

The trip was not without some frustrations, but, after all, why do we travel? We felt relatively safe, though I had 20 euros stolen from my purse on the No. 28 street car in Lisbon. (There were warning signs regarding pickpockets on all public transportation.)

From my zippered side purse, the thief removed a zippered leather pouch and took the bill from inside it but left all my cards and driver’s license behind — this guy was good! Then he dropped the pouch to the ground and left. Another passenger saw the whole thing and returned the pouch to me. Next time, I’ll wear a neck pouch inside my clothes.

In addition to the Lonely Planet and Rick Steves guidebooks, we used two from DK Eyewitness Travel: “Back Roads of Spain” and “Northern Spain.”

Rancho Murieta, CA