As we publish this, we have added 3800km to our odometer between Montréal – mid October and Austin ,TX – mid November. We had such a great time in Europe we procrastinated in getting our European travels posted….
We bid farewell to our friends with a mixture of sympathy (for their journey back to snow engulfed Calgary on Sept 30) and celebration (for such an amazing shared experience through Cognac, the Basque regions, and, now the outskirts of Barcelona). The route we had taken to get to Barcelona sorely lacked something – A beachside accommodation! We knew something was amiss when we saw some pics from our friends Luba & Bill who took a different route than us for a few days. They had detoured along the way in St. Jean du Luz to take in the amazing coast from the comfort of a great Air B&B. Their pics had us rethinking our next stop. “The hell with staying and hiking in the mountains” (that can still happen) we need some beach time!
Anywhere along the Mediterranean Coast, north and south of Barcelona, there is a multitude of destinations worthy of exploration. Lori and Mike had chosen Casteldelfels as their final accommodation destination (close proximity to Barcelona Airport BCN being a significant motivating factor). After researching the general area for inexpensive properties, we found Vendrell Platja on the Costa Dorada; a campground resort 50 meters from Calafell Beach. Perfect, a small cabin with kitchen, 2 bedrooms, living room, bathroom/ shower and outside deck and chairs for $80.00 CDN. It had a massive pool and playpark, restaurant, grocery store and laundry too.
We checked in and aimlessly wandered the endless paved beach path from quaint beach to quaint beach as the sun set. All this aimlessness can work up an appetite and we soon found ourselves ogling the abundance of menus presented to any hapless, half-starved wanderer within aroma reach of the strategically located restaurants at hand. “You know, we haven’t tried a Paella since we arrived in Spain”? Like magic, as the sunset, the very place presented itself. We kicked back on the beach devising a plan of attack for the local area and Al’s wine culture fascination won out for the next days’ foray of regional, tourist interest.
The Villafranca del Penedes is home to the Taverna de Vinseum and many international Cava producers (Cordoniu, Segura de Viudas) have representation here. Parking seemed as scarce as needles in haystacks and when we did find a spot it was a king’s ransom, so we cashed in an RRSP for ½ hour and set out. Alas, after considering the $20 EU admission and the many wine related attractions we had absorbed along our journey, we passed up this attraction. We trekked through the town taking in the great post-modernist architecture and returned to the sanctuary of Vendrell. The next day, we were going for a mountain hike.
Montserrat is a study in how nature creates and inspires the human manifestation of art and by default religious reverence. It is spell binding as you approach. The distant furtive glimpses leave one slack jawed and groaning woowww! If you have seen the Hoodoos around the south-central interior of BC you have a sense of the shape of the mountain peaks in the overall massif that encompasses this formation. The scale comparison is a completely different subject. Larger, much Larger!
After winding around the precipitous, serpentine road that leads to the tourist access for the attraction, we parked and set off feeling giddy as the full multi peaked spectacle presented itself to us from the diminishing road. We noticed both train and gondola access as we snaked up that skinny road with tour busses and cyclists training for the next Tour. Thank goodness someone had the clear-headed foresight to establish a tourist center at the entrance that offers, among other indulgences, Cava! We imbibed in the spirit of the place and from the vantage point of the terrace took in the scope of what we had found here. Now what? It seemed that many found this to be enough?! We found our way to the funicular and paid the fair for a ride to the top.
The funicular is an attraction on its own. Originally built in 1929 and regularly upgraded, the route climbs 248m to an elevation of 970m, it has a gradient of 62.5% and lasts about 6 min. With the thought of hiking at the top, we set out from the funicular terminus with the intent of hiking back to the tourist interpretive center where we started. The trail-ways were excellent with many steps cut into the stone. We caught glimpses of what looked like vertical climbing routes on adjacent peaks for those so inclined. As we walked we became cognizant of all the other trailways built into the massive. These trails were well beaten paths from all directions as part of The WAY that hikers take on their Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes. The place had an ancient, mythical feeling of the human multitude that preceded us for a glimpse from the top. We continued descending past religious relics that marked significant spiritual events for Christian pilgrimages to these unusual mountainsides through the ages.
There is a monastery honouring the cave where the carving of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were found. The divinely conceived statue is now enshrined in the Basilica at the center of the village on the mountain where the hotels and services can be found. Deb’s skeptical side was sure that the carver was never found when that Santa Maria carving was discovered in that cave. We hoped the route we chose would lead us to the monastery, but our trail of choice took us around the back of the mountain and back to the start of the funicular and the Basilica where this divine effigy presides. The line to see this important icon was intimidating with the solemn tone of the procession. Many in the line were presumably teared up with prayers for the loved and lost. Ones immersion in surrounding religious art began to impress on your own motives (even if you are not a practicing Catholic) for the patience prevailing in the lineup. Plus, the spiritual curiosity of what an (alleged) divinely created carving looks like. We had never seen one. Unless you include the odd cheese toast that might resemble Jesus. After the innocent, unavoidable “moth to a flame” journey in the narrowing halls you get your up close and personal moment with the “La Moreneta”. Part of the lore of the statue is, with the progression of time, the darkening colour of the faces of the two Christian deities has created a unique identity to the carving that only religious devotion can make well… spiritual. Behind the bullet proof glass is the legend and you have a moment to make your introduction, ask for a miracle or two, and bid farewell. It felt anticlimactic and somehow thrilling to have been so close to the myth and legend, the experience lingered for quite a while with the unanswered questions, mostly the why questions.
Our time in Europe was fast approaching the end and so on check out day for Vendrell Platja we headed to BCN to return our car and hit the city. We found the rental car drop off without trouble and began the final stage of our adventure in Spain without wheels. The car rental people were impressed that we had added 3500k to the odometer over the last 4 weeks.
We had booked into a small, inexpensive hotel in the “old city”, Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, called Hotel Barbara. This accommodation is definitely no frills but friendly, secure and location, location, location (at least as far as being at the heart of this historic city). The room we checked into was clean and the shower was quite possibly the best we used while in Europe. The staff were extremely helpful and assisted with any questions in a caring and courteous manner. This general area of the city is older and has a vibrant but edgy multicultural atmosphere. A labyrinth of old narrow streets and market squares seem to never end. We had made plans to meet up with Luba and Bill at the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia which is an amazing church designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.
Awe-inspiring is the best description for this attraction. We stood agape trying to grasp the scope of the work, which by the way, was not completed when Gaudi died (as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a streetcar in 1926) and may never be completed. However, tourism is high, and those tourist funds have grown the cranes that are building the rest of the towers and facades.
Artists and skilled carvers are involved with the project that will take decades to complete. Thousands of people tour this remarkable Basilica every day and by the time we arrived all tickets for that day of touring were sold out. Oh, what to do? We grabbed a street-side table, ordered Cava and waited for our friends to arrive while we sipped and stared up at the surreal structure.
We found our way to a great Tapas restaurant and enjoyed some creative dishes accompanied, of course, by more Cava the whole experience was the best way to celebrate the introduction to Barcelona.
We said buenas noches to our friends and made our way back to Hotel Barbara. But along the way we walked through the legendary evening street festivities of Las Ramblas. After the workday world and the heat of the day start to wane, this street comes alive around 9PM. There are street vendors hawking their trinkets, strategic food kiosks tempting your appetite and an endless progression of lively street restaurants for tapas, beverage, people watching et al. We absorbed the scene with a curious but overwhelmed amusement, content with the evening’s previous indulgence to carry us through.
As we meandered the Ramblas our curiosity guided us to the world of numerous market squares off the beaten track and we soon found ourselves in the familiar surroundings of narrow, old and edgier street passageways resembling those surrounding our hotel. We knew we were close to “home” and as the realization of a conclusion to this adventure filled day became more relevant, we decided a nightcap would be fitting before turning in. But what would be the perfect place – there was every possible choice of purveyor for nightcaps that can be imagined.
Magically and just before we gave up trying, a perfect venue presented itself. Licoreria Lateria is a place you read quick notes about in a tourist info “Must See Places” while you fly out of the given airport. This time we found it before the publication found us! Do you want our sommelier to recommend a flight of wine in a range of criteria? Do you want us to recommend wine by the glass? How about a bottle of just the right this or that from here or there in this colour or that colour with bubbles or no bubbles or little bubbles in the price range that suits your budget? Oh, and how about a comfy chair after walking all over finding us? Yes, we found the treasure at the end of the rainbow of a day! We chose a bottle of a most delicious Rioja, luxuriated in the cozy atmosphere and consumed the proffered spirit with appropriate hedonistic indulgence. After, within close proximity, we found our accommodation and were quickly asleep.
Our next and final day in Barcelona was spent on and off those double-decker sightseeing buses that are in every tourist town. They are a great way to get acquainted with the various locales that interest you and we have indulged in them more than twice. In addition, they often offer great vantage points for snapping relevant picture of worthy attractions. We toured around the city passing by four of the seven Gaudi UNESCO World Heritage sites in Barcelona (Sagrada Famillia, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Casa Vincens) the hospital Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site, the hillside church and ended our tour on top of Montjuic the hill that overlooks the city from the Palau Nacional / Nacional d’ Art d’ Catalunya.
At the Palau we marvelled at the ornate art painted on the cupola, the exhibitions on display and the vast Great Hall that is used for concerts and other performances. We meandered to a quiet tree covered concession that sold an icy cold beverage, sat and enjoyed the view and slowly walked down and into the city to find some dinner. Favouring the out of the way restaurants we found a promising purveyor of all things tapas and enjoyed a reasonably priced meal with little pretense. With the final day concluded in this historic city, we felt we had seen and experienced many aspects that others would turn their backs on but the edgy features enhanced our experience, enriching it with more visceral moments (especially the evening forays into sections that didn’t feel like the path most commonly chosen). We were never in any tense situations and the atmosphere was more festive than sinister but…
We hopped a train out of “Barcelona” for Sitges the next morning. Sitges is south down the coast about 40 Km. It is a pleasant artsy town with a penchant for zombies. In fact, they host a long running Zombie Walk with over 1000 participants, that is attended by at least two generations of zombies. The horror film festival is the main attraction here, is into its 52nd year and draws thousands to its movie presentations and related festivities. The zombie walk was being held on the first night of our stay and we found ourselves right in the middle of it all while meeting our friends Luba and Bill for dinner. The costumes and makeup were impressive, with professional makeup stations set up around the city throughout the day and the polished art of zombie walk was, well positively ghoulish! We had a great dinner while taking in the finale of the parade and went back to our accommodation. We had a rooftop apartment for four nights, a block from the beach that had a great location but also was central to some raucous parties that, no doubt, were celebrating the famous film fest.
Our stay in Sitges was great. We visited at Luba and Bill’s seaside accommodation on a couple of occasions. They were a ½ hour walk down the beach from us with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. The town of Sitges was very picturesque and walking the streets was always fascinating. We managed to hit the beach twice to soak up the sun for what would be the last of some suntanning in quite some time. The novelty of swimming in the warm Mediterranean in October was a great motivator too.
During our time here the fine art of denial was creeping into our consciousness – our inevitable departure and conclusion to this epic adventure was fast approaching. We checked off the days until our final evening and dinner with Luba and Bill. We chose the same tasty restaurant that we viewed the Zombie Walk from on our second night here. They had one more night to take it all in, but we were flying out around 11 AM the next day and had a bus to catch, early. During dinner we remarked about what an amazing journey this had been, how we had all (the four couples) carried through on the planning and varied stages of getting here. The idea was theirs, and I think they were at least (or even more) surprised that we had pulled it off! We said our last salutations, bid our friends goodnight and continued safe travels. “See you in the spring!!” As we would be heading back to eastern Canada to pick up our trip from there.
We made our plane (those of you closest to us know we have had our share of angry looks from seated, belted co-passengers as we usually run for our seats with the cabin door clamping shut behind us) and watched, through clear skies, the city of Barcelona disappear beneath us. Our continued travels through New York, Jersey City, Montreal were ahead. Getting reacquainted with our “Escape Pod” was something we both looked forward to. Was it still there, unscathed in the storage facility? Was it out of battery power? Flat tires? Rotten odours? Stale and rancid water in the lines?…
Stay tuned we have another 4,000 miles of adventures awaiting you!! Or more…