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

"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.

Crossing the Guadalquivir river, we didn't stop for a photo of the 2,000-year-old Roman bridge. I considered this a temporary irritation, but we had a schedule to keep and I understood this as the downside of fast-paced travel.

As our coach flew up the terraced, red clay hills to Granada, our rookie from Oregon told me she was determined to head straight to the Alhambra on her own. Confident of her Spanish, she was going to skip the city tour and escape one of our co-travelers with the bad habit of walking in front of every viewfinder.

Our crew still had not bonded. We had been encouraged to mingle by rotating bus seats each day, but natural reserve continued to separate us into small alliances. Still, when one rebel lamented, "How can anyone expect to see the Alhambra in two hours?" the rest of us grinned at the challenge.

The Alhambra--in English, the red house--is, in spite of its name, not very red. Faded though it may seem, this renowned example of Moorish architecture and extravagance is highlighted by luxuriant gardens that are irrigated with water from the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevadas.

The first building we encountered was a Renaissance palace erected in the 1520s for Charles V. By contrast, the 13th-Century Moorish palaces in the complex appeared fragile as stage sets. Their intricately worked archways, cupolas and lintels suggest filigreed bird cages that thousands of visitors flutter through daily.

Nonstop ornamentation and symmetry glazed our eyes. But relief was granted in the gardens and courtyards, their fountains and reflecting pools splashed with arabesques of sunlight.

Yet the Costa del Sol--Spain's sunny resort-strewn coast--lured us southward with the prospect of a traditional fish dinner on the Mediterranean shore. As we drove through acres of olive groves, Felix unpacked a cassette tape and crooned "Amapola," popular when I was a girl. Tattered Gypsy tents edged the fields.

"I'd rather hear Gypsy music," the rebel protested, but failed to inspire a coup.

We skimmed by the priciest seaside resorts as if leafing through a voguish magazine. Not for us the yachts, golf courses, casinos and stress clinics, where English is spoken willingly, donkeys wear hair ribbons and the air-conditioning is functional.

Torremolinos was our stopover. After a long, late dinner injected with local wines, formerly solemn companions improvised dance steps to a throbbing guitar. Others seized the moment and dashed out for a splash in the surf, carrying white, linen napkins to wipe sand from their feet.

On Day Six we ferried across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier and moved swiftly through customs, thanks to Felix's diplomacy.

Morocco at our pace defied understanding. Our local guide was a Stanford University graduate in a red fez. While we drowsed on the bus, on our way south toward Fez, he droned on about Arab and Berber dynasties, shahs, western VIPs and movie stars, as they related to Morocco. Armed with bottles of mineral water, we paraded outside royal palaces and Sunni mosques.

Instead of desert dunes, our route traversed the cedar-thick middle Atlas Mountains sparkling with ski resorts and whitewashed villas. Sophisticated women dressed in European fashions walked beside daughters in flowing djellabas dyed emerald and sapphire. We slowed for donkeys and camels and stopped to photograph mud huts.

In five days we visited Tangier, Fez, Marrakech, Rabat and Casablanca. Relentlessly we were herded through grand souks (markets). The rules: Stay together, buy nothing, avoid eye contact with persistent hustlers, beggars and grabbing children. We did, of course, pay obligatory visits to recommended rug and leather merchants.

As we made our forays through labyrinths smelling of spices, fish and urine, our video cameramen had an advantage. They shouldered their cams, inconspicuously filming vendors of bracelets and belts, caftans and slippers, drums and knives, toy camels and magical-looking lamps made of copper, brass or sardine cans.

Reactions differed. "I can't take this. I feel like a voyeur," one said. "Oh, I'm sure they all leave their workshops and go back to modern houses at night," rebutted a cynic.

Later we stumbled onto a country market. Motorcycles, bicycles and wagons pack the dirt field. While villagers negotiated for salt, food, housewares and clothing, laughing boys traded high-fives with our laid-back California grandfather.

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By Day 11, we were back among the vineyards of western Spain, following a road leading past green fields and black, broad-chested bulls bred for fighting. "They get their courage from their mothers and their strength from their fathers," Felix said. "You can buy one for 2 million pesetas ($16,000)."

In Seville we fell in love with the city made for walking. And everywhere we walked, we could be characters in a romance, a poem or an opera. The city doesn't need its memorials to El Cid or Carmen or Don Juan. They're in the atmosphere.

We paid homage to Seville's cathedral, the third-largest in the Europe . . . or the world, depending upon which guidebook you're reading. Columbus' tomb (if not his body) rests here, and the city guide referred to Columbus' "encounter" with the New World. Adjacent to the cathedral, the Giralda tower is all that's left of a great mosque in a city that was under Moorish control for 500 years.

The unfamiliar luxury of two nights in Seville allowed us to shop, check out museums, sample savory tapas or just relax in elegant Maria Luisa Park. On the promenade along the Guadalquivir River, the 12-sided Moorish Tower of Gold, which has lost its gold, stands as a city landmark. Across the Guadalquivir river is the Triana quarter where the best flamenco dancers are said to hang out.

The flamenco show we attended was part authentic, part Las Vegas. The watery sangria was free and worth every cent. But here at last were Andalusia's wailing singers and stamping, clapping dancers.

A daylong drive northwest to Lisbon took us to the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula while Felix sang "If I Were a Rich Man."

We could not do the city justice, racing up and down its hills in our bus, pausing at the Monument to Navigators and the Belem tower that marks the site from which Vasco da Gama sailed for, and reached, India.

Except for the most ardent explorers, our companions were searching for hair salons, gift shops and bars. We were booked for an evening of fado (folk music and dance) in an old house in the Bairro Alto section of town.

Dancers and singers plumbed their souls while we devoured caldo verde (soup), fresh fish, chicken in tangy sauce, flan and three wines ending with port. We stopped dreaming of bacon and eggs, Mexican food, Chinese, anything. It was a feast we will long remember.

Our road led back into Spain for an evening in Salamanca, one of Europe's oldest university cities. Finally, we crossed the rugged Sierra de Guadarrama range and returned to Madrid for our farewells.

If not best friends, we had become attuned to each other, accepting of our various foibles. Ms. Oregon even looked forlorn and inspired a kiss on the hand from Felix, who had to rush to the airport to greet a new group.

But that was OK with us. We had seen Spain, Portugal and Morocco and have the pictures to prove it. Would I take another bus tour? Promise me new places, an amiable guide and the company of others who share my wanderlust and love of fun and yes, I would do it all again.

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GUIDEBOOK

Fast-Track Tours

Spain, Morocco, Portugal bus tours: Cosmos, 5301 S. Federal Circle, Littleton, CO 90123; 16 days through Spain, Portugal and Morocco by bus, about $900 in summer, excluding air fare; (800) 999-8800.

Globus, same address and phone number as above, 17 days through Spain, Portugal and Morocco by bus, about $1,500 in summer, excluding air fare.

Trafalgar Tours, Inc., 11 E. 26th St., Suite 1300, New York, NY 110010-1402; (800) 222-7131.

TWA Getaway Vacations, Penn E. Stow Road, Marlton, N.J. 08053; 17 days through Spain, Portugal and Morocco by bus, about $1,800, excluding air fare; (800) 438-2929.

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