Thursday, 26 July 2007

Spain - brickbats and plaudits

Just back from two weeks travelling in Spain, preparing a number of Podtours. After being completely spoilt in Germany, Spain came as a nasty surprise.

First of all in the total lack of information 'on the ground' in many cities. Spain has a prominent advertising campaign to get tourists there - once you're there, the tourist organisations seem to lose interest. Arrive at a train station in the south of the country and you'll find (with the honourable exception of Corduba) that there are no maps, there is no tourist info, there is nothing telling you how to get to the centre of the city. And because the stations are so far away from the centre, the map in your guide book won't show them. So you're stuffed.

Tourist offices have funny hours. Seville for instance closes at three o'clock in the afternoon. And none of them, not a single one, had a list of hotels stuck in the window. It's not rocket science, is it? Contrast Passau, for instance, where the tourist office outside the station leaves maps and hotel lists in a little box outside, so if you arrive when it's closed (which I did) you can still find yourself somewhere to stay. Or Bourges, where a big map lights up the location of hotels when you push the buttons.

Brickbats to RENFE, the state railways operator. My local station here in France has an automatic ticket machine, which works, which is 24/7, and where I can print out internet-ordered tickets or buy a ticket on local or main lines. This is a tiny station, on a branch line. Okay, not as tiny as the halt one stop further on that has no staff, no ticket machine, and not a lot of trains stopping there - but pretty small; one permanent member of staff, that's it.

Now go to a major Spanish station like Madrid Atocha or Seville. Automatic ticket machines are only available for 'Cercanias' destinations at Atocha. There are some machines in the long distance ticket office - five or six, I think -  but I couldn't find one that was actually working. And when the ticket office is closed, the machines are locked up inside it! That reminds me of the early days of the internet, when the Next (UK fashion retailer) website proudly stated its opening hours as 9 am to 5.30 pm....
Now for the plaudits. First place must go to Segovia - which has managed to open many of the lovely romanesque churches in the city, for free, with guided tours all summer. I was amazed by the knowledge of some of the guides and their enthusiasm for their churches. One even took me out of the church to show me the arabic market gardens and falaj system of irrigation - the Arabic heritage of that particular quarter of the town. Segovia also provides access to the tourist office website and other resources in its tourist office.

Second place to Madrid and particularly the young man in the tourist office at Plaza Mayor who showed me - with great enthusiasm, I suspect his waistline will be growing larger - where to get typical Madrid sweeties such as violetas, and local biscuits (ronquillas). I don't imagine that's a usual tourist request but he was well informed and showed me exactly where to go on the map, besides writing down the names of the things I should try. Madrid has tourist offices at each of its main stations as well as in Plaza Mayor - unusual and smart. (But still, alas, no help outside opening hours.)

And a small award to Toledo, which is now promoting 'unknown Toledo' with a set of sights most people don't know about - a Roman baths, a mosque, smaller churches off the beaten track. Unfortunately, the opening hours of these are very sporadic; Segovia, I think, does it better. But it is a good way to start.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more with your assessment of Spain's tourist infrastructure - or lack thereof! It seems maybe 2% of those &*%!! automated ticket machines in Madrid Atocha actually work, and I was surprised there were relatively few Madrid-Toledo trains. And when arriving in Segovia by train, which as you mentioned is way out of the historical centre, we couldn't believe there wasn't a map anywhere to be found, either on a sign or to buy at a kiosk. We ended up guessing, and fortunately chose correctly.

    But I loved Segovia, particularly those Romanesque churches. Unfortunately all but one were closed during my visit, so I'm very jealous of your guided tours! If you're interested, my blog on my day trip to Segovia is here: