Of all the ways that I had envisioned my first trip back to Spain since the pandemic would play out, traveling with strangers in a tour group setting, something I have not been a part of since I was in high school, was definitely not on the list.
Bird's eye view of Madrid
And yet, after a day or two of initial awkwardness into Insight Vacation’s 10-day Easy Pace Spain itinerary, the lot of us – more than 30 travellers made up of mostly middle-aged, mostly North American tourists, had already united around a common cause: To faux-protest our tour director Dominic Nemer’s seemingly endless collection of dad jokes as loudly as we could.
(“If you look over to your left, you will see a stork’s nest on top of the church. I guess you could say it’s a bird of pray.”) (cue collective groan-laugh)
(“I went surfing this morning and had my wallet stolen; the local police told me they’d been experiencing a crime wave!”) (“Ugh, Dom!”)
Tour director Dominic Nemer with guests
That was how most mornings would begin on the tour bus, as we clambered on, sometimes still bleary-eyed from the night before. It’s a little routine that we would all come to look forward to, starting with a bad pun and leading to the whistling opener to Bobby Ferrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, a song that Nemer had unilaterally determined to be The Song of the trip. Normally, I would protest the song for exemplifying toxic positivity – but on this trip, I was often too busy still giggling at the pun from a minute ago.
But of course, the tour director is only as good as the itinerary he has to work with. And even with Nemer’s arsenal of very bad (admittedly hilarious) jokes, the thoughtfully planned Easy Pace Spain itinerary, which takes place across 10 days and three major cities (as well as pit stops and day trips in five other neighboring cities), is still the rightful highlight. It comprises just the right amount of comprehensive and relaxed – perfect for both those new to the country and those who are more familiar.
Tourists marvelling at Montserrat
In the Catalan capital of Barcelona, for example, we checked off tourist must-dos in quick succession, visiting the perpetually work-in-progress La Sagrada Familia; marvelling the fantastical and mind-bending structures of Gaudi in Parc Guell; and attending a fiery flamenco performance within a tablao, the traditional setting for the treasured art form.
The Insight Vacations’ influence here on these standard itinerary options is subtle, but important.
An early morning excursion to the stunning mountain range Montserrat was scheduled perfectly, such that our group arrived well ahead of all other tour groups. This gave us ample time, before the place became overrun with tourists, to explore the serene grounds of the Benedictine abbey and enjoy a tasty snack of mel i mato, a Catalan dessert of crumbly, fresh goat’s cheese drenched in golden honey, which we picked up from the local farmers that set up shop outside of the abbey.
On another day, we enjoyed a simple but delicious lunch of traditional Catalan fare at restaurant and social enterprise La Pau in Barcelona, which offers underprivileged youths who are trainees from the local El Llindar School of New Opportunities kitchen or service experience before they graduate. It is part of Insight Vacations’ Make Travel Matter Experiences to highlight experiences, restaurants and hotels that are aligned with sustainable tourism ethos.
Nemer coordinates all these experiences and excursions for the group, and while he clearly knows enough about the places to always be ready with an anecdote or two, he leaves the in-depth introductions to the local guides – area experts who call the cities we visited home and offered deeply personal insights at every stop we made.
Busy as it may seem, the Easy Pace itinerary does factor in sufficient time for exploring on your own – or if you prefer, a siesta. Some of these excursions are also optional, which affords plenty of flexibility to customize your itinerary the way you like it.
Before we went barhopping for pinchos one evening in San Sebastian, I had time for a leisurely afternoon stroll along the beautiful La Concha beach and a quick visit to the charming Miramar Gardens, a small hillock with an unobstructed view of the bay, where local youths laid on its manicured lawns and enjoyed the mild April sun.
In Madrid, a city that I regularly travelled to in the pre-Covid years, I opted out of a day trip to Toledo to take advantage of the glorious spring weather and go for a run in Retiro Park. Later that night, I skipped out on an opera dinner to check out some of the latest cocktail bars and took a trip down memory lane, revisiting an old favorite – a neighborhood tapas bar that I chanced upon in 2014 in the hip immigrant neighbourhood of Lavapies that had thankfully survived the pandemic.
On our last night in Madrid, Insight Vacations organizes a ‘celebration dinner’ for the group, a customary practice to toast to a trip well travelled. During the dinner, the group, now familiar enough with one another, swaps stories about our respective travels and personal lives. By the end of the evening, flushed from wine and good cheer, we exchange Instagram and Facebook contacts, promising to stay in touch halfway across the world.
"The Insight Vacations’ influence here on these standard itinerary options is subtle, but important."
My tablemate, a real estate agent from Palm Beach, Florida, confesses that, like me, she had never thought she’d go on a guided tour (“control issues,” she says, only half-jokingly), but is now open to the idea.
“It’s just nice to have someone else take care of everything for you, and you just enjoy the holiday, you know?
Perhaps the choice of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ as the trip anthem was the right one after all.
The Easy Pace Spain itinerary by Insight Vacations takes place every April, May, August, September, and October and spans cities like Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Madrid. For more information, visit insightvacations.com
Turkish Airlines flies to nine different destinations in Spain, including major cities like Barcelona and Madrid. For more information, visit turkishairlines.com