Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Homes away from home in Spain-vacation rentals and rail passes

Folks have been asking us a lot about where we stayed in Spain and how we decided on these places, so I thought I'd post a few links to the apartment services we used.

I can't say enough about the pleasures of renting a vacation apartment for travel. In our case, all of the apartments were less expensive than hotels, conveniently located, and while not posh, were larger than a comparable level hotel room.

But the biggest benefit were the kitchens, since--as one might have surmised by now--we like to cook and wanted to sample as much as we could from local markets.

Now, I don't want to make it sound like we were making fifteen course extravaganzas for dinner every night. In fact in Spain, as in Italy, our favorite meals were often no more than charcuterie or sausage products along with cheese, good bread and wine. But being able to make breakfast in the morning, or a snack in the afternoon without the expense of eating out all the time was actually quite comforting.

I'll add also that at the tail end of our trip, in Barcelona, my Omnivore came down with a stomach bug that seriously slowed us down for our last two days. It was no fun for him, of course, but the one saving grace for me was that since we had an apartment, I had space to let him sleep while I puttered around, played on my computer, made myself lunches and snacks, got him some fizzy water and bread, did some laundry (there was a washing machine in the apartment) and kept occupied while keeping an eye on him. If we'd been in a hotel room it would have been vastly more confining and unpleasant in my humble opinion.


Because we were landing in Madrid first, and likely to be jetlagged, I wanted someplace that was easy to get to and also where there would be someone on site to help us poor lost tourists. So we settled on the Hostal Alaska, a hostal near the Puerta del Sol, just down Calle Espoz y Mina, which also offers a private apartment on the fifth floor (there's an elevator). At 80 Euros per night, it was cheaper than most hotels and a nice, spacious place to land. Juan Carlos Nunez manages the hostel and the lives in the apartment next door, and is also a great resource if you need help with anything. Unfortunately, I somehow failed to take any pictures of more than the front door, but you can see more on the website.


In Sevilla, I had really one main goal, and that was to have an apartment from whose balcony we could watch Holy Week processions. We totally lucked out when we found the site.

The Feria apartments, as the name implies, are on Calle Feria, which happens to be on a street that the procession from the Basilica de la Macarena marches from midnight on Holy Thursday to 2 pm on Good Friday, and is the very one I most wanted to see.

At 120 Euros a night (it was a little pricier because it was Semana Santa and everything is more expensive during Holy Week) we thought it a bargain.

The place is spotlessly clean and very modern, though not enormous. Still we found it very comfortable for two people on vacation, and though it was a fair distance from the city center, it wasn't unpleasant walking to and fro, and the neighborhood--when not filled with processions--was quiet, with a lovely tapas place called Bar Ambigu diagonally across the street.

The kitchen is naturally outfitted with pots and pans-- think IKEA supplies -- inexpensive, but quite serviceable. There's a small two-burner electric cooktop and a sort of odd convection/turbo grill/microwave oven, and conveniently down on the ground level is a washing machine, though as in all our other apartments, there was no dryer.

The bathroom was nice--very clean and modern again -- with a cleverly space-saving glass-enclosed shower stall.

The best part about the place though is the view from the balcony. You throw open the windows and from the narrow balcony, you can look up and down Calle Feria. On the first afternoon we arrived, we fought our way through crowds of people gathered for a procession further down the street. After settling in at last, the procession wound its way up the street toward us and we were delighted to be able to relax, far from the madding you-know-what.

It was during the Madrugada though, that we became officially enamored of the place. In case you've never been to Seville during Holy Week --to sum up-- it's insanity. People, drums, trumpets, crowds, strollers, pointy hoods, candles, crosses...It's charming and exciting of course, and was the whole reason we were even in Seville over Easter, but after a few days of constantly running amok against processions, it got to be so that we would hear the telltale heartbeat of the drums coming from someplace... like the drums of Moria, and we would pause, sniff the air and then swiftly head in the other direction, as though orcs were about to swarm us.

From our lovely little apartment on Calle Feria, though, we could be above the fray. No endless standing on the curb jostling to keep our place or wondering if there might be a bar open where we could duck into a bathroom. Even though it was cold overnight during the Madrugada, we could go inside to warm up whenever we wanted. We could pour ourselves a couple of glasses of wine and watch some of the simulcast on TV, then go outside and film the spectacle passing right under our window. And if we needed a potty break, the bathroom was right there.

Plus, the lovely pastry shop, Pasteleria Alfonso, is right downstairs and open all night long during the Madrugada night. Chocolate triangle pastries--what were they called? Dunno, but we ate them up in a flash.

THIS is the way to take in the Madrugada. Perfect.


In Granada we were looking for a place not far from the center of the action in Plaza Nueva. We settled on the Alcoba Apartments--tidy and comfortable, if smallish rooms in a residence just off Cuesta Gomerez which leads up the hill from the Plaza to the Alhambra.

At 65 Euros a night, it felt like a steal.

We loved staying here, not just for the convenience, but the personable nature of the place. (We had the upstairs apartment, but had access to the lovely little garden downstairs.) One thing to note, though, is that if you have trouble with stairs, this might not be the place for you. Just getting to the apartments means a climb and then it's quite a lot of steps to the upper apartment.
Richard and Esperanza are gracious hosts, and quite helpful. If you need assistance or advice on where to go in Granada, they're terrific resources.

One important tip to remember is to book your Alhambra tickets ahead. You can use the website, or Richard can help you, but it's essential to make your reservation in advance. The Alhambra is one of Europe's most popular sights and tickets are often sold out far in advance , even in off-season. If you do happen to be there without a reservation and are determined to get in, I advise going up to the ticket office before 7 am -- no, I'm not kidding-- and getting in line. A limited number of same-day tickets go on sale first thing every morning and they are quickly sold out too. From the Alcoba Apartments it's a fifteen minute power-walk to the Alhambra if you haven't been cheating on your StairMaster routine. If you haven't kept up on the StarMaster, I advise calling a cab.


In Barcelona, my only criterion was to be close to the Ramblas. I wanted to be within walking distance to the Barri Gotic and the Raval--not out in the far reaches of the Eixample, as pretty a district as that is.
The Ramblas Studio via FeelBarcelona was a pretty sweet find.

Large to the point of luxury, the studio wasn't lavishly furnished or anything--the bed made me seriously miss home-- but the place was comfortable, with a large kitchen, granite countertops, electric cooktop, microwave, washing machine and plenty of room to spread out your stuff.

The bathroom, which could use some work in the ceiling-- water damage was visible in a corner--was nevertheless clean and serviceable, with a closet/storage area between the bath and the main studio.

The apartment, which was about 79 Euros a night, came at a lower price because the entire building, which is located smack dab next to the Palau Guell (I'm not kidding, like literally, next door) is under renovation.

They were installing an elevator (hallelujah) and the corridors weren't too pretty, not to mention the construction racket during the days and climbing over guys installing marble on the staircase. However, given the location, price and the modern spaciousness, we considered it a worthwhile deal.

There is also a washing machine in the apartment, which is highly convenient. I should mention that you should have a Spanish-speaking friend help you translate the instructions and settings on the machine, so you know what they are. Otherwise, you may find yourself sitting in front of it with a lot of dirty laundry, wondering if you really should have put all those colors together, and if cold or hot water will fill the machine.

Ask them also which slot you should put your detergent into....


If you're traveling around by train/car, try looking at We bought a Eurail Spain Pass (2nd class), which allots you 3 days of rail travel (within a 2 month period) for $219 each.
Spain's high speed AVE trains are great. We took the AVE from Madrid Atocha station to Seville and it was ease and comfort all the way. AVE trains run on only the most travelled routes -- Madrid to Barcelona, Madrid to Seville, etc. but if one is available they're worth the extra money for the sheer convenience and comfort, even in 2nd class. Make your seat reservations ahead though.
I don't mind traveling 2nd class, although I will warn you that if you plan to take the overnight Ellipsos TrenHotel and you want a private sleeper compartment, those are first class only -- you won't be able to reserve one if you hold a second class pass.

There were no reclining sleeper chairs on the TrenHotel, so we wound up sitting in the cattle car in 2nd class and it's not an experience I would EVER repeat. I got zero sleep all night. Extra tip -- avoid the 4-seats at the end of the car-- the ones that are pairs of seats facing each other. Avoid like the plague. There is barely enough room for one set of knees much less four pair. You'll be wedged uncomfortably against strangers all night long cursing the idiot who arranged the seating plan.

On Rail Europe, you can also make reservations for various trains, (seat reservations are actually mandatory for trips in Spain). Even for short trips consider making your reservations ahead. The nice folks at Rail Europe can help with that.
We failed to make a reservation for our trip from Seville to Granada-- it was post-Easter, I reasoned, and it's only a couple of hours away on a local train, how booked up could it be?

"No seats on the direct train until tomorrow," we were told after we'd already schlepped everything to Santa Justa station. Fortunately one of the guys in the ticket office took pity on us and revealed that we could go from Seville to Bobadilla and pick up the train to Granada from there.
Of course he failed to tell us just how deserted Bobadilla station (as beautiful as it is) would be.

Also, a not inconsequential tip: Take along a train picnic. It's cheap to make a quick stop at a store/pastry shop before you go and pick up some sandwiches or treats to have along with you. Bust out that leftover bottle of wine and you have yourself a picnic, which can be exceptionally handy when you're in Bobadilla for a couple of hours.

1 comment:

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