Spain is a country of poetry and passion. I've been here many times before and anticipate the swooning saints in gloomy cathedrals, the clip-clop of carriages through whitewashed streets and the evenings spent in tapas bars, crunching deep-fried peppers and fat olives. I expect to be lunchtime-hungry when the Spaniards are barely awake, to admire the marvels of Velasquez and Gaudi, to enjoy sunlit parks and sultry summer evenings in plazas chirpy with cafe conversations.
Spain shovels on the stereotypes in glorious, unabashed dollops, which is what keeps me returning. Somehow though, I've never noticed that the Spanish countryside is so compellingly beautiful. In all my previous visits it seems to have gone unremarked as I focused on history-soaked towns and investigated urban delights. Of course, until now I've always been driving, which doesn't help. I've been so focused on signposts, turn-offs and trucks that I've seldom had time to glance sideways at the unfolding landscape.
But now we've trundled out of Madrid on the first leg of a 15-day Insight Vacations journey around Spain and Portugal and I've been struck by the revelation that there are things you never see properly from a car. On a coach, things are different. You sit high above motorway safety barriers and embankments, and are freed from the shackles of the steering wheel. Now beyond the windows I can admire the stark landscape of Castile, much celebrated in Spanish literature. The fortified city of Avila bulges with towers and turrets like a conjured-up set for Game of Thrones.
The countryside between Avila and Salamanca is softer, cupped between distant mountains dusted with snow. Rapeseed is bright yellow as a trumpet fanfare. Neatly ploughed earth is rich brown, and fields of young barley and wheat are tinged with fresh green. Olive trees crosshatch the hillsides like a pointillist's painting. Villages huddle under terracotta roofs and are anchored by enormous churches in which you imagine - this being Spain - that saints are weeping. As we slide into Salamanca all I have to do is stare out of the window at passing Renaissance facades and schoolkids and fruit shops tumbling with tomatoes. I'm high enough to see onto the cracked faces of gargoyles on churches, and into open windows. You get a bit of voyeuristic titillation on a coach, whose raised outlook makes you feel like a petty Greek god looking down on the antics of humans.
No need to study the GPS, wonder about the speed limit, worry about arcane traffic rules. No nervousness at honking from behind you. No problems finding parking. The coach just draws up outside our hotel and off I hop, baggage following somewhere in my wake.
This journey is one that brings us to the chief sights of Spain and Portugal, providing an effervescence of gothic churches, baroque art and ancient towns. Ironic, then, that I'm finding my in-between time on the coach just as enjoyable. The coach is a fancy Mercedes-Benz affair with business-class legroom in which I can stretch out and turn my face towards the panoramic windows.
As we slide over the border into Portugal, the landscape suddenly gets drier and steeper and is studded with giant boulders. Towards the coast, though, we pass through green country enveloped in morning mists. Small-scale agricultural fields are ragged at the edges, dissolving into scrubland. The flanks of valleys are stitched with rows of vines.
Our travel director Elena provides occasional commentary. She seems to know every passing sight in Spain. This notable town, that castle connected with medieval national hero El Cid, the Portuguese church linked to an improbable apparition.
If there's anything she doesn't know about life here, no guest thinks to ask the question. She's a walking Wikipedia with tangled hair and an ex-smoker's throaty laugh. Her love for bad, increasingly risque jokes and random anecdotes amuses us on the road.
After a couple of days exploring Lisbon, off we go again. As we cross the 12-kilometre Vasco da Gama Bridge, my perch by the coach window has me sitting well above the railings. There are spectacular views of the Portuguese capital and vast Tagus River.
As we near the far bank, I spot locals wading in the shallows, collecting clams. Suddenly and unexpectedly, flamingos appear, pretty pink exclamation marks on a blue background. Then the early morning sun is shining through cork trees. Fields are flushed with yellow wildflowers, and storks strut along the marshy flanks of rivers.
We're on the road a fair bit on this wide-ranging guided holiday across Iberia, and we all rotate through the coach so everyone gets their turn at front and back - and the chance to interact with new neighbours across the aisle. I soon get to know many of my travelling companions, and our conviviality is reinforced during organised meals and over breakfast.
Most of us are Australians, on an escorted journey not because we need mollycoddling but rather for the convenience. We relish our free time, quickly scattering to follow our own interests, but have plenty to talk about when we're reunited.
A few days later the drive out of Granada is stunning. The motorway plunges through rocky defiles with views across the valley to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Whitewashed villages sit on outcrops surrounded by skirts of olive trees and poppy-studded wheat fields. Then we're beyond Andalusia and down into the drier, rockier, less wealthy Murcia region, driving past troglodyte houses and small farms backed by serrated blue hills. There are landscapes to marvel at all the way up the Costa del Sol.
Spain's scenery doesn't falter until we're into the outskirts of Barcelona, and I'm gazing out to a tangle of flyovers and factories. It's the only ugly corner of Spain or Portugal I've seen on this entire Insight Vacations trip.
Yet soon it slides away, and we're travelling down an avenue lined by jacaranda trees and art nouveau buildings. Another lovely outlook unfolding beyond the coach's windows, right at journey's end.