- Day 1:
- Barcelona to Vic – 54 min
- Vic to Camping l’Alguer (Ctra Les Encies s/n 17172 Les Planes d’Hostoles) – 42 min
- Total Drive Time: 1hr 36 min
- Day 2:
- Camping l’Aguer to Besalú – 40 min
- Besalú to Figueres – 22 min
- Figueres to Port Lligat – 49 min
- Port Lligat to Cadaqués (Hotel Octavia, Sant Vicençs, s/n 17488 Cadaqués) – 7 min
- Total Drive Time: 1hr 58 min
- Day 3:
- Cadaqués to Pals – 1hr 12 min
- Pals to Begur – 8 min
- Begur to Sa Tuna – 7 min
- Sa Tuna to Barcelona – 1hr 47 min
- Total Drive Time: 3hrs 14 min
“We are going to have to cancel Valentine’s Day this year”. These weren’t quite my words – but they certainly matched my miserable mood.
It was a few days before February 14th and we had had one heck of a month. From my birthday in early January (celebrated by chugging cava for breakfast then galloping around on a horse in Badalona) then it was James’ cake day on the 11th of February, shortly followed by our daughter turning the mature old age of two years a few days later on the 17th. In the middle of it all was Valentine’s Day – which was also our anniversary.
In short, it was a festive few weeks with pretty much our annual family celebrations (plus the sprinkle of commercial cheese on top with Valentine’s Day in the mix) packed into just over a month.
It was also an expensive month. Not helped by coming on the back of Christmas and New Year.
I’ll let you in on a secret however, it was also Marta’s party that weekend. A guaranteed roaring do with cameos from ghosts of Studio life past (we lived together in the warehouse Studio P52. [We also, incidentally, both ended up living about one block from it three years later. We are both confident this is a sign of how cool we have made the neighbourhood and not how attached we are to our scuzzy warehouse life!)].
“So you want me to cancel the whole weekend?” James asked. “I’ve already booked all the accommodation”.
The -25 euros in my bank account, a drinks lined table on a sunny terrace at Marta’s ultra cool flat in El Born, and the Festival de la Llum (an impossible to describe lights festival on in Barcelona that weekend only) flashed into my head simultaneously in a bizarre collage.
“I just can’t afford to go on holiday right now”.
This is getting ridiculous. I merely meant to begin this account with the context of me being a wet blanket and dragging my feet before James’ laboriously planned weekend getaway. He astutely ignored my whining and I reluctantly packed for the weekend.
I had no idea where we were going. This made packing rather hard, but was also unbearably exciting. Marta’s sunny bbq began to lose focus in my imagination and the gin and tonics went flat.
So, in case you skim read (no judgment, it was unnecessarily detailed) any of the above to recap: I went from stingy and party-pooper, to Tigger on happy pills. Bouncing around the flat firing a strange assortment of “necessities” into the bag (five books, a pair of cowboy boots and a pen with a ruler on the side were indispensable to the holiday apparently) while gliding past others (a single jumper and pair of socks would have been useful in February, but hey ho).
James took charge of food and did a much better job than me. He came home laden with bags from the gloriously cheap Lidl supermarket.
We did a mediocre job on the car booking front. Thanks to me dithering my big toe of indecision over the weekend water for so long we left off booking a car until most of the car rental agencies had sold out. I persuaded James to use the app Getaround, one of these peer-to-peer apps where you rent a car from your average Joe down the road. Unfortunately by this stage, it was your average Juan down seventeen roads, but we booked it. On Thursday evening just in time before our early start. “We’ll aim to pick Mary up from her nursery school [on the Rambla del Poblenou] and leave straight away mid morning.”. “Sure.” “Eleven at the absolute latest – yeah? Night!”
14.00: We are standing in an underground carpark. Mary – at the volcanic stage of beyond-naptime, is decorating the walls with cracks thanks to her piercing scream. We are staring bleakly at the car. There is no carseat.
“I am 100 per cent sure I booked it on, I paid extra for it”. With these assurances by James I pursue to have an angry and outraged phone call with the car’s owner. Following a bitter battle of words they grudgingly agree a pickup and I trek over to collect the carseat.
Lumping it back into the garage a sheepish James confesses he checked the app and apparently had not in fact booked the seat.
15.00: We are now in a garage engaged in a furious battle with the carseat. Pouring with sweat I am yanking the same belt in the EXACT same way as the picture only to furiously criss cross it over the carseat which flops forward provokingly. We are, incidentally, right opposite our flat.
We take shifts in seething silence, both wishing to just stay in Barcelona.
Hurrah! It’s in. Secure. I love carseats they are brilliant. So excited about the weekend! God this app is GREAT. Sorry for being such a moody cow let’s GO!
We finally hit the road in a jubilant mood, Mary peacefully sleeping the back and the roads are empty. Bring on the first stop!
Day 1: Barcelona to Vic – 54 min
I should point out here that I still have no idea where we are going. Also, I am driving! James is an inscrutable navigator. He gives me just enough information and last minute directions, and for my own part I do my best to avoid looking at the road sign destinations. #safedriving
I don’t guess until we are nearly there. Vic? Yes!
This sleepy industrial town had hovered in our holiday radar on several occasions. Located right next to the natural parks of Parc Natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt i l’Obac and the Espai Natural de les Guilleries-Savassona, it makes the perfect launchpad for escapes into greenery from Barcelona. It’s also famous for its annual Medieval Fair between the 6th and the 8th of December to which we are both dying to go to. (Especially now we have honed up our axe throwing skills after J’s birthday session).
Disproportionately peaceful given the sprawling size, Vic had a lazy river and the usual “must-see” Cathedral (the rest of the town I have to admit is quite nondescript and industrial). We pulled up right onto the cobblestones in front of the Cathedral (“are you sure I can park here?”) and we only had time for one quick vino before hitting the road. I wandered over to the Chinese bar on the corner of the Cathedral Plaza. To my order of two glasses of wine, I was given the sensible question: “More good or less good wine”? Mm, more good I think.
James’ “more good” red wine turned out to be “most freezing”, just how you like your wine on a cold winter’s day.
We pulled out and hit the road again, driving towards Portugal as far as I knew.
“Garrotxa!” James knows me well. “Yasss”.
Vic to Camping l’Alguer (Ctra Les Encies s/n 17172 Les Planes d’Hostoles) – 42 min
We are pulling into the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. A famous volcanic region of Catalonia that has long gathered dust at the top of my bucket list. A staggeringly beautiful county of Spain that is known for rugged peaks and natural park with over 40 extinct volcanoes. Craggy green mountains and sleepy medieval villages – you would think it would be crawling with happy hikers and herds of umbrella-wielding tourists. Yet La Garrotxa is surprisingly untouristy (most places would seem like this when you live in Barcelona mind you!). In part this may be due to its location and inaccessibility.
We were nearly out of a bed for the night when an accident on the Carretera les Encies forced us to detour. James was on the verge of looking up hostels for the night, as that route was literally the only way to our accommodation, La Garrotxa being served by one main “artery” keeping those sleepy villages drugged up on disconnection to the outside world.
At around 18 pm we pulled in to our first bed for the night. Or was it a bed? “I’ll just go and get the tent set up” James shouted to me, as he followed the woman from the reception of Camping l’Alguer in les Planes d’Hosteles. *Spoilt girlfriend alert*My heart sunk just a tiny bit. I LOVE the idea of camping. Sleeping under the stars, fending for yourself like a caveman, peeing al fresco….but emphasis is on idea – not love. The reality is a guaranteed awful night’s sleep, coupled with trying to put your contacts in using your phone’s selfie camera and the most inelegant pose known to mankind: putting on trousers while lying down in tent.
Anyway, I do love many aspects of camping and these big outdoor campsites are brilliant for kids. Playgrounds, a shop handy for the loo roll you forgot and the biscuits you just want, and the social background din of other campers.
“We’re all ready”. James came back and we headed to the tent. Except in place of a tent our bed was floating in a tiny hut 20 foot high, accessible by a tiny footbridge.
This was truly a “marmalade moment” (code for awesome time, taken from the Paddington film which opens with a young Paddington bear thundering up the path to his treehouse. Later recreated by James along this very footbridge).
We were going to sleep in a treehouse!
The accommodation was truly out of this world (and off this ground). A tiny cabin, but perfectly equipped with a double bed, sofa bed for Mary, fridge and sink. It even had a tiny toilet – classily disguised in pine wood!
My only worry was that the bridge fence seemed to have toddler sized gaps. So I hastily made a fence using some of the terrace chairs. (Whenever we get to beautiful, tasteful, adult places they are immediately toddler-proofed. Pretty ornaments – out. Lovely Moroccan bowl – get ye out of sight).
We got settled in and then headed back to the car to scout some celebratory grub. James offered to drive, but after a terrifying hurtle around the bend on the wrong side of the road with a cosy conversation with the kerb, we swapped over. Not that I did much better, after pointing out a pretty ivy-strewn hotel (literally right next to the campsite) we thought we’d go a little further and I proceeded to miss exit after exit and sail onto the next town before we could turn around. James then found a highly recommended place on TripAdvisor which we drove back to (sailing past the campsite again) only to find it boarded shut. We ended up back at the hotel.
What a brilliant find it turned out to be! A rather odd beginning. The door was opened by a very serious lady whose expression made me squirm and wonder where I’d left my homework. She told us quite sternly that the hotel catered for “guests only” but on hearing our English accents defrosted slightly.
She then ushered us into an impeccably clean and artfully decorated old hotel. A reformed family home that had belonged to her husband’s family since the early 1900’s and she was now running it. I gathered this and other snippets of information while deftly preventing toddler suicide into fireplaces, down stone steps and James tried to make small talk alongside saving family heirlooms from being smashed into pieces by a now very bored Mary.
It was a strange atmosphere, a rather lugubrious and awkward woman who had come over as a young lass from Harrogate and met a dashing Catalan older man from a wealthy family. Now, she was all alone in the middle of nowhere in a natural park (wom)manning a decrepit hotel while her husband shuffled around silently in the background.
Anyway. We had a great time. Food was fabulous. We ate out in the garden under fairy lights and were entertained by fat furry cats.
A peaceful night’s sleep was had by all, swaying up in the treetops! Mary was absolutely delighted to wake up in a new home and celebrated by diligently emptying out our suitcase and the contents of the mini fridge before we woke up.
Breakfast on the terrace, last play in the campsite’s playground then back on the road!
Day 2: Camping l’Aguer to Besalú – 40 min
Next stop was Besalú. This postcard perfect Medieval town (village?) is best known for its Romanesque bridge. (By the way in case you were wondering what the difference between “Roman” and “Romanesque” was, I have been nerdy enough to add an explanatory footnote!*)
Like many of these perfectly preserved historic towns, Besalú has the well-known parts that feature in Google images and on postcards. The famous bridge that dates from the 11th century (though it was later blown up during the Spanish Civil War and rebuilt) and wonderfully austere churches such as Iglesia Sant Pere and Iglesia Sant Vicenç de Besalú.
Of course, just across the road there was the rest of Besalú, where the residents all actually lived, ate and slept.
We were on a rather tight schedule, just enough time to walk around the old town and do a loop over the bridge and back to the car park where we were completely parked in. I attempted a 27 point turn which took me so long that by the time a bemused onlooker suggested I reverse out, I realized most of the cars in question had already left.
Next stop: Figueres!
Besalú to Figueres – 22 min
Kudos here to James, it had been such an action-packed and loaded itinerary, yet we never really rushed. We sauntered at Mary’s one year old pace through the sights and had time for leisurely meals. Yet we were already nearly in Figueres – I don’t know how he did it.
One hack may have been our parking. Or lack thereof. In Figueres we found a spot free on the street right next to the Dalí Museum (the only reason anyone goes to Figueres. That or the artist’s nearby tomb. Really). It was only when we had unloaded our stuff, unfolded the pushchair and were beaming at the museum in sight that I looked down. Oops. Do those thick white lines mean you can’t park? I don’t see anything about zebra crossings on the meter machines, let’s just say it must be fine.
We hurriedly packed our moral compass away and rushed off to tbe Dalí Theatre-Museum. Which – if you are ever in Catalonia – is a MUST. Even if you are not a fan of Salvador Dalí or art in general. I am a sworn philistine and I absolutely hate going around museums (after Cuba, thanks mum). I could have spent days here. Dalí had founded the museum in a former theatre. Being from Figueres, he thought it prudent his hometown should have the bulk of his art (although the most Dalí – the melting clocks (Persistence of Memory) or the giant nose (The Great Masturbator) are in the MOMA, New York and Madrid respectively. The theatre design of the building worked so well for Dali. The big interior courtyard was perfect for his weird and whacky sculptures and the corridors were lined with his fantastical etchings and drawings. One highlight is the room where furniture is arranged to look like the face of Mae West. (One lowlight being the herds of tourists who felt the same way).
I also loved any reference to Gala – I find the relationship between the larger than life, attention-seeking, eccentric and technically brilliant artist and his serious, dowdy muse fascinating.
We didn’t dally too long so as to avoid picking the car up from the municipal impound. Soon, we were back in position and on the road again.
Figueres to Port Lligat – 49 min
Our road trip now had a distinct theme, and it was wearing a waxed moustache. An easy 49 minutes later we were in Port Lligat. The drive was stunning and calm with Mary happily ensconced in the back binge-watching “Spot the Doh-Doh”) so her piercing yells didn’t prevent me from curving around terrifying (two way?!) mountain roads in one piece.
Port Lligat is the tiny seaside village next to the better known town of Cadaqués. After Dalí was disowned by his wealthy family (for being quoted in a Barcelona newspaper as saying “Sometimes for fun I spit on my mother’s portrait”) he bought a small fishing house in Port Lligat. Later he bought the adjacent houses and merged them into the state-of-the-art villa you can visit today. Which we visited – this day.
The trip had been so smooth. We hadn’t fallen out of the treehouse, the car wasn’t impounded at the zebra crossing, and I hadn’t needed a single pair of socks (I found tights). Just perfect. We walked up to the ticket desk exuding waves of irritating happiness.
“Dos entradas por fa”.
Ah. It was sold out for the day, and there was nothing until the following evening. Fortunately for us, James is so lucky his veins probably run with jam. An easy twenty minutes later, and we had three tickets following the one cancellation of the day. (We wiled away the time loading up my pockets with interesting rocks and shells from the beach. The beach RIGHT outside Dalí’s house. Going for 50 euros a pop if you’re interested!).
Salvador Dalí. The artist who famously drove around in a car filled with cauliflowers. The man who sold a blade of grass to Yoko Ono for ten thousand dollars. Who drank from a swan cup crawling with live ants.
This man lived in a very normal house! The exterior was surprisingly nondescript. Whitewashed, and unassuming in outside design (although with a location to die for, with the waves of the bay nearly lapping the front doorstep). I was so surprised. I would have expected Dalí to live in a giant teapot. On the back of an elephant. With a slide for a door.
Any disappointment is quickly quashed when the front door opens and you are met by a polar bear holding a rifle and dripping in jewelry. Ah, back to normal.
I won’t list every weird and wonderful decoration within his house, but one interesting thing is that in spite of the colorful and utterly bizarre finishings and furniture, all the walls were plain white. Of course, by this point, Mary had had her fill of slowly ambling around adult places and was hovering on the precipice of one astronomic tantrum. Luckily I had a bag of peanuts in my handbag and stuffed them into Mary’s paw while making murmurs of interest to the tour guide and fixedly staring away from the “NO FOOD” sign.
The house was incredible! If I were to win the lottery tomorrow and buy one place on earth it would have to be here.
We wandered back to the car on a Dalí high. Even with the delay in going around the house, we were still way ahead of schedule – and the next stop was only a 5 minute drive!
1 hour later we pull out of the car park. The previous hour had been spent in me emptying my handbag, the baby bag and my coat pockets (with half the beach within) over and over again trying to find the car keys. After reporting the loss to the police, we would have to get a taxi to the hotel. Buy some nappies in the Spar? But what about if someone found the keys and stole the car…would we have to take shifts on a 24 hour guard of the car?
Just as James was on his third trip around the Dali house with a sympathetic security guard I found them. In the lining of my coat.
Port Lligat to Cadaqués (Hotel Octavia, Sant Vicençs, s/n 17488 Cadaqués) – 7 min
Luckily Cadaqués was indeed around the corner (in fact, James and Felicia walked there from Port Lligat on his last trip). The rest of the evening was truly mishap free (and cava full). Our hotel was right in the centre. We checked in and then wandered down to the harbour for tapas and wine. Mary played with a delicious Labrador puppy while we ate in peace. Then we all had a fairly early night!
Day 3: Cadaqués to Pals – 1hr 12 min
Time to get back to Barcelona. Or so I thought? We had two stops on the way. The first was in Pals. I must confess, I had never heard of Pals but I am very glad James persuaded me to make the detour. It is a small but picturesque village in the Costa Brava. Apparently it dates from the 9th century! Once surrounded by ponds and marshes (hence the name from the Latin Palus for `marshy ground` I totally knew that). We let Mary have a scamper in the playground by the car park (an official one this time!) then we all walked up to the famous Torre de las Hores (Tower of the Hours) the highest point in the village. This Gothic bell-tower is the last remaining chunk of the castle which was built between the 11th and 13th century. The conical shape of this exquisitely preserved historic village means after the winding climb up the cobbled streets you are rewarded with panoramic views around the Costa Brava.
There are many more attractions to Pals I’m sure. The whole village is a walking museum, the ruins and old buildings have been so well preserved it feels like a Catalan Pompeii, frozen in lava and resurrected for the viewing.
No time for us however, it was off to our last stop!
Pals to Begur – 8 min then Begur to Sa Tuna – 7 min
We had about 131 km to go – enough for one last pitstop. This time we drove through the town of Begur, the imposing capital of the Empordà district situated atop a hill. It is also known for its series of beaches and coves along the Costa Brava. We chose one at random – Platja Sa Tuna – and pulled over for a loo and snack break to soak up the views one last time.
I cannot describe in enough detail (and seven pages later I am sure you are relieved to read that!) the breathtaking beauty of Sa Tuna. This tiny cove has just one restaurant and some colorful apartment buildings built into the sandy cliffs. The turquoise Mediterranean was iridescent (and I believe I have used that word correctly for the very first time). A lazy breeze ruffled the glassy water and broke it into a range of vivid shades. White lips of distant breakers could be seen beyond the cove but here it was monastic silence and peace.
Sa Tuna to Barcelona – 1hr 47 min
The best trips begin as they ended, in a perfect synchronistic circle. I was as gloomy at the end as I was at the beginning, predicting dire Sunday traffic and painting a dark picture of how we would be inching into the suburbs of Barcelona city at midnight.
Of course, the drive was a complete breeze. Road trips in Spain generally are. The roads are in excellent condition, there are garages galore and you would be very unlucky to be driving in the rain.
We even managed the car journey all parents dream of – a sleeping baby the whole way!
If you’ve made it this far – congratulations, you’ve just read a whole book! But in all seriousness it was just the most wonderful weekend I wanted to share it. Also, James really nailed the itinerary, we went from lush green dinosaur land in the Volcanic Garrotxa, through sleepy medieval villages, mind boggling Surrealist art museums and ended in an unsung gem of the Costa Brava.
If you need any details of the itinerary or accommodation, just give me a shout! But be warned, I may join you 🙂
*’Romanesque‘ architecture is a descendant of later Roman architecture. Most of the Greek ornamentation is lost, and there’s a stronger emphasis on arched vaults and more solid forms. … TLDR: “Roman” is classical; “Romanesque” is medieval, but without the pointy arches and frilly bits of high Gothic.