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Monday, 30 May 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Barcelona to home

2nd April.
We left Camping Barcelona in Mataro late afternoon (helpfully, checkouts are allowed up to 2000) and made our way to Montserrat via Granollers, Sabadell and Terrassa - all industrial towns, but the C1415 and C155 were scenic in between and a pleasant drive.

Our route from Mataro to Santander

(Microsoft Autoroute 2010, GPS track: Globalsat BT 338X Data logger)

The approach to the Montserrat range on the C55 was impressive in the fading light, the "saw tooth" profile of the mountain standing starkly against the sky.

The mountain road to Montserrat

We drove immediately up the steep, twisting road to the Monastery complex, which nowadays consists of a small town, complete with a rail station, police HQ, two hotels and even a supermarket!
Sue had found out that motorhomes were tolerated overnight in the large pay-parking area, and indeed as we arrived a French couple told us it was possible to stay in the level bus park at the very top, provided we vacated by 0800. There is an overnight security guard and he was quite happy with the arrangement, although officially motorhomes are not allowed to use the Montserrat parking at all!

The views as far as Barcelona are fantastic and a clear night gave us a beautiful image of the city's lights. The road far below us looked like a luminous snake as the evening traffic moved along. We could hear owls calling and the clear sound of a train echoing up to us.

Barcelona lights up as Montserrat is swallowed in the dusk

3rd April
I slipped out of the van early to catch the scene from the vantage point and was rewarded with a view over the clouds.

An unusual sculpture adds interest to the vantage point

A poignant memorial to fighters in the civil war

Our friends did not hang around after we had moved out of the bus park, they reckoned it would get very crowded being a Sunday, and they were not wrong! To make it even more busy there was a broadcast TV crew setting up to film the morning service.

I decided to climb up to see one of several hermitages high above the monastery. For all that sweat inducing effort the end result was a bit disappointing, as when I got to the Ermita de Santa Anna it was long gone, having been destroyed in the Peninsula war in 1812! Still, there was a plaque to tell me about it and some fine views on the way down.

A view of Montserrat from the hermitage trail

The 1100 service had just started as I entered the church and the film crew and dozens of other people were taking pictures, so I didn’t feel guilty about joining in. It was standing room only, the floodlights and packed crowd creating a strange vibe in what was intended to be a hallowed atmosphere.

I paid our 5 euro parking charge at the machine and soon afterwards we departed - before the van became totally blocked in by cars.
Farther down the road the traffic had come to a virtual standstill as the car park was filling up, a lot of disappointed people stuck in their cars in the hot sun, including a Nun in a motorhome!

We hacked our way back to the coast just below Barcelona, but it wasn’t really worth the effort, working through heavy traffic, endless junctions and an industrialised landscape.
By the time we got to Sitges it was time to call it a day and we booked into Camping El Garrofer, a 2-star ACSI site. We seemed to have landed upon mayhem, there were literally children and animals under our wheels. It felt a bit like a refugee camp, but it would have to do for the night.

GPS: 41.2314 N, 01.7799 E

4th April
We awoke to an eerie peace, the campsite was silent except for the birds singing in the trees - all the weekend partygoers had decamped and the place was transformed.
The bikes came off the rack and in a few minutes we were on the Sitges seashore. The first thing that caught my attention was an eye-watering Euro 750 fine for walking on the rather weedy grass alongside the beachfront (or letting your dog poo on it)! When do you ever see that kind of penalty for painting grafitti?

Thats an expensive walk on the grass!

However it is a nice sea front promenade, with no high rise apartments and a few fine houses dotted amongst the more mundane. To our surprise, we came across a Cornishman, an ex-fisherman, building magnificent sandcastles on the beach. He assured us that he was making a viable living from it. A distinct talent, I asked him if he painted as well: “yup, do a bit of that”

Cornish talent on display in Sitges

The heart of the old buildings around the Palau Marcel were (naturally) undergoing a major renovation, but the seafront beyond, towards the marina had been nicely redone with new paving and stainless steel railings along the beachfront.

Sitges (despite the crane) is not a typical Spanish resort

One of the quieter streets in the old town

In the old town, the characterful narrow streets are well supplied with tapas bars and restaurants. Compared with so many Spanish resorts, Sitges is an unspoilt little gem.

5th April
Our departure from Camping El Garrofer was pleasurably delayed by a long chat with a couple of full-timers, Paul and Tracey, living in a Carthago – amazing how the time passes once you start swapping tales of motorhome living!

As usual, we faithfully hugged the coast as much as possible on the way down to La Mora, 7km north of Tarragona. I can tell you now that Vilanova i la Geltru, Torredembarra and everything in between are all terminally compromised by the coastal railway track and are instantly forgettable.

Looking for a campsite with good access to Tarragona, we settled on Camping Torre de la Mora. It has a lot going for it in that it is an ACSI site, is on a bus route into the city, and has direct access to a nice beach.
There, however, the commendations end. Compared with the slick, welcoming and friendly reception we had experienced at the previous three Spanish campsites, the management here were in turn officious, patronising, hostile and indifferent to our pleas.

We were intermittently shown a selection of small pitches with very tight entrances and daft high kerbs by a chap on a scooter, spending 90 minutes or more (well past beer time!) manoeuvring in and out, only to be told each time by scooter-man (after conversing on his walkie-talkie) that they were “no possible”! After the fourth attempt and verging on a sense of humour failure, we refused to move anymore, despite having to sleep on an incline.
It wasn’t just a culture clash either, a Dutch couple in a camper, returning to the site after a few days elsewhere, were gob-smacked to be told haughtily that they couldn’t return to the pitch they had occupied earlier because “it is only for caravans”! Some crossed wires there.

Tight entrances and high kerbs make pitching more difficult

The highly restrictive campsite rules and regulations ran to two pages of tendentious language - the restrictions on dogs alone would really have been better encapsulated as: “No dogs allowed”. I did think they were on to a child-friendly winner though with: "HOURS OF SILENCE…. SIESTA 1 pm – 4 pm"!

GPS: 41.1270 N, 01.3439 E

6th April
The day dawned bright and warm, the bus into Tarragona cost 1.20 euros (running every hour and more frequently at busy times).
We got off on Rambla Vella, a busy street which runs alongside the old city boundary. It’s a short walk up the Via de Limperi Roma, where there is a small tourist office. They gave us a free town map and a useful guide.
All-in tickets for six of the most popular attractions are available for 10 euros at the entrance to the Muralles or Archeological Promenade along the old city walls nearby. Included are the Casa Casttellarnau and Casa Canal, both former residences of Taragona’s rich and famous, and also the Roman Circus and Praetorium, Ampitheatre and Forum.

Colourful streets

We managed to fit them all in except the forum, but included the cathedral (undergoing extensive restoration, of course) and the archaeological museum.

Beautifully kept gardens in the Cathedral cloisters

Finally we had a walk up the boulevard Rambla Nova, just as a chill sea mist rolled in over the city, removing the building tops from view.

The sea mist rolls in over the seafront

7th April
Declining to pay for 50 cent tokens to fill up our water tank from a tiny hose at the campsite car wash (we used a nearby tap instead), we left Camping Torre de la Mora with a happy heart for Salou, a mid sized resort with a long beach extending to the Cap de Salou.

On the way we had hoped to top with autogas at a Repsol depot on the C31b, but came away unreplenished as they had discontinued that service two years ago! (Time to update our Dutch-published “LPG tankstations in Europe” guide - available from Vicarious Books).

Having seen Salou, we considered complete our navigation of the entire Spanish coast that we had started in 2007 – and headed inland. Our ultimate destination was to be Santander, for the ferry home, domestic reasons calling a premature halt to this year’s trip.

We had done our sums to compare the costs of driving back through France to Calais for the cheap cross-channel trip against the Santander-Plymouth route with Brittany Ferries, and excluding motorway tolls and campsite fees (which we would normally avoid) it still came to about GBP 200 cheaper. However, faced with a daunting array of tasks when we got home we decided the speed and comfort of the Santander trip to be worth it.

We had a quick look at Montblanc – a medieval walled town, now in the process of being rebuilt and developed as a major tourist attraction. I was interested to discover that Saint George had slayed his dragon outside the very gates!

The central square of the walled town of Mountblanc

Along one side of the town, houses and shops are being demolished to reveal the ancient wall and restore it to its medieval splendour. Unfortunately, both of the churches recommended in our Green Guide were locked up, but it is a pleasant stroll around the narrow streets and centre market square.
There is a large, free, dirt car park nearby which would do nicely for an overnight.

Car park, Montblanc
GPS: 41.3745 N, 01.1617 E

We moved on to our next ecclesiastical excursion, the Cistercian monastery at Poblet. It was a bit late to do the tour, but there is a vast visitor’s car park, so we tucked ourselves in at the far end for the night, joined later on by a Swiss campervan.

Car park, Santa Maria de Poblet
GPS: 41.3789 N, 01.0783 E

 The first rays of sun catch the monastery

8th April
The monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet was founded, along with Santa Creus and Santa Maria de Valbona, in the second half of the 12th Century as a means of reorganising and repopulating the lands of New Catalonia that had recently been wrested from the Moors by the Catalano-Aroganese monarchy. In the 14th century, at the height of its influence, its jurisdiction reached over seven baronies.
Sacked and devastated in 1835, and the monks expelled, it has since been reconstructed and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

High vaults in the chapel

Visits are guided tours only, in Catalan or Spanish, but we were given English language leaflets and the guides were able to our answer our questions in good English.

Our gas bottles were now quite low so we hit the N11 for Zarragoza. The sun was out in force and the temperature later hit 35 degrees on this popular route for truckers.

This time our LPG guide came up with the goods and we topped up at the Cooperativa Auto Taxi, a busy petrol station serving, unsurprisngly, mostly taxis. The button on the autogas pump had been dismantled by sombeody, but the girl behind the counter cheerfully left her post and came out to fix it.

GPL Station
GPS: 41.6341 N, 00.9229 W

We had heard from friends of an old monastery that had been converted into a hotel and the surrounding woodland developed into a spectacular park of lakes and waterfalls. Thus we headed south-west again on the A2 - undergoing much work to convert to motorway standards - before turning off at Calatayud for Nuevalos and the Monasterio de Piedra.

The extensive car park is grassed, under trees and terraced, and even has a sign directing caravans to park. We found a level spot away from the entrance and opened a welcome beer after a long, hot day’s driving.

Car park, Monasterio de Piedra
GPS: 41.1945 N, 01.7842 W

Long after dark we heard a vehicle arrive and move very close to us. Half expecting a knock on the door, we turned off the lights and peeked through the blinds - a young Spanish couple in a camper had come to join us.

9th April
The Monasterio de Piedra park is Spain's answer to Croatia's Plitvice falls – it’s not as gobsmacking for sure, but well worth a detour, and with the added attraction of caves and tunnels.

The Saturday crowds were swelling as we bought our Euro 13.50 tickets, but the sun burned down out of an empty sky, highlighting the waterfalls beautifully with dappled light at every turn.

Beautiful scenes abound.....

Behind the largest waterfall is a passageway into a limestone cave, which leaves you standing behind the fall, which was pretty "cool", especially with all the drips. (Grippy soled shoes are recommended for the damp scramble to the back of the cave!) A long tunnel cut out of the rock leads back to the outside world.

Behind the waterfall.....

Deep turquoise water in the cavern

Water dripping from the roof

The monastery is partially ruined, but is included in the park ticket, together with a wine making museum and some old horse carriages. Some interesting stonework remains.

The van was roasting in the noonday sun when we returned, but the good old Fantastic vent fan swiftly cleared the air. After some lunch we departed, leaving half a dozen Spanish vans behind on the grass parking.

The N234 from Calatayud to Soria is a fast straight road with very little traffic, probably as rural a landscape as you will see in this area. In Soria there is a riverside parking area where you could probably spend the night, though it would be brightly lit.

Car park, Soria
GPS: 41.7521 N, 02.4636 W

Out of Soria, we took SO810 to Vinuesa. It is a nice lakeside drive, and with plenty of signs prohibiting wild camping on the laybys, though until Easter there are no campsites open. Coming into Vinuesa, we found a parking space by river, opposite some modern apartments. On the other side of an ancient stone bridge sits the old town. A Spanish couple were parked up in their van and said they had been coming for ten years: “muy bien para la noche”

Parking spot, Vinuesa
GPS: 41.9109 N, 02.7606 W

10th April
It was a cold night, but Storks were up circling around as the air warmed in the sun, quite an impressive sight, watching 8 or 10 of them in the sky at once.

A stork brings nesting material to the treetop

Vinuesa has a nice little old town, narrow sloping streets and a surprisingly ornate church. In the distance I could hear the howling of a pack of hounds as the Sunday hunt commenced.

The age old streets of Vinuesa

The bread shop took some tracking down, eventually the smell gave it away and I found a partially open brown door in a stone wall, the tiny bakery within.
The people I nodded to in the street seem reticent, certainly not welcoming – perhaps not looking forward to another influx of tourists as the season robs them of their solitude.

Leaving Vinuesa, we took the CL177 to rejoin the N234 to Burgos. It’s a very scenic road and we passed several water fountains until we saw one too good to pass up – a plentiful running supply of sweet mountain water. The jerricans filled in seconds and our nearly depleted tank was swiftly full. Just as we were about to leave an elderly group turned up in an old car with a couple of dozen containers, their poor vehicle must have been down on its stops when they were finished.

Mountain water fountain
GPS: 41.9164 N, 02.8448 W

Passing through the Sierra Mountain’s National Reserve, it appeared well developed with mountain bike and walking trails, along with logging and light industry.

The N234 to Burgos is a good fast road through a largely unspoilt landscape.
On arrival at Burgos we found a car/bus/motorhome park that was in our Camperstop guide. About a kilometre walk from the cathedral, it was very nearly packed on a Sunday afternoon. Sue made her pilgrimage to the church whilst I minded the van, watching many motorhomes arrive, hesitate and depart again. Over the two hours I didn’t see any suspicious lingerers – but then I probably wouldn’t know one if I saw one!

Car park, Burgos
GPS: 42.3403 N, 03.69305 W

Burgos Cathedral

Sue came back well impressed with the cathedral, fabulously ornate, with many artworks and fine sculptures.
We had decided on the N623 from Burgos to Torrelavaga as it was the most direct and scenic route. We stopped at the spectacular San Felice where there is a good size car park, together with a small bar and a shop. We considered calling it a day there, but had a cuppa and moved on.

Car park, San Felice
GPS: 42.7523 N, 03.8019 W

Unfortunately, as we climbed and got close to the Embalse del Ebro, a lake where we planned to turn off onto the CA171 and hopefully find a pitch for the night, the weather closed in and we went from warm and sunny to rain and fog in a few minutes. One of those times when you wish you had stopped earlier - looking for an overnight spot in darkening heavy mist and rain is not our idea of fun - but it had to be done and eventually we found a blind turn off to the lake and settled ourselves virtually out of sight of the road. As the traffic diminished it became very quiet and Sue cooked up a fine fish risotto.

Parking spot
GPS: 43.0354 N, 03.9167 W

11th April
The overnight rain had lessened a bit, but back on the main road we were again into thick fog and eased ourselves very gently around the bends as we descended. Suddenly at lower altitude the fog lifted and we were in another country – lush and green and alpine looking, what a world away from two days ago.

At Torrelavaga we found the Carrefour supermarket, but for the life of us couldn’t find a way around the 2.5 metre height barriers – so Mercadonna got our business instead.

Our decision was to stay a little way out from Santander at Ruiloba, a few kilometres west of Santilana. Camping El Helguero is an ACSI site and promised us peace and quiet in a rural setting and a wi-fi point. It had in fact just installed the sensible delfynet system that we had used at Camping Barcelona, which allows more than one laptop to be used on the same code (though not at the same time), and after an early hiccup we enjoyed internet access in the van, surrounded by trees.

The pool was just being prepared for the season

GPS: 43.3828 N, 04.2439 W

12th April
Sue lived to regret siting us too close to the trees, as a gentle rain in the night resulted in a loud and intermittent drip on the bedroom roof – how many times have we done that?! It stayed grey and damp all day and we hardly moved a muscle.

13th April
Time to make a move for the ferry, but not before we had met up with George and Pam who had just returned from Portugal. At their invitation we had lunch at a local, local’s restaurant about a mile from the campsite. What a revelation compared with tourist prices. A huge bowl of pork and bean soup, bread, some superb fried fresh fish and chips, plus a chocolate mouse and a beer each came to 9 euros a head!

Can't remember the name but we recommend the "Menu del dia"

We took the A67 into Santander and checked in with hours to spare until the 2100 sailing.

Amazingly, when we boarded a less than full Pont Aven, the crew placed us on a steep, enclosed central ramp necessitating wheel blocks, and which also forced us to walk down the ramp with one leg either side of 300 mm high ridge - one foot in the gutter, one foot in the road so to speak. Comically, there was a “Don’t walk here” sign right outside our window. We thought this worth a mention to the reception desk on board and happily they seemed pleased to have another report form to fill out. (You have to get your monthly quota of Accident “near miss” forms in or the “management” wonders if you are doing your job properly!)

We had indulged ourselves in the luxury of an outside cabin but to be honest we didn’t spend much time in it apart from trying to sleep – must remember to bring our own pillows!

14th April
Still reluctant to go straight home we stopped off at the Britannia Inn near St Austell for the night. They keenly support Motorhomers overnighting in their car park, serve excellent food and also have free wi-fi in the bar. Listening to some Belgian motorhomers chatting at a table near us in the cocktail bar, we suddenly realised one was talking English in a Yorkshire accent! After an introduction we spent the rest of the evening chatting with Mel and Bill and their Belgian wives Lieve and Martine. How can Motorhomers who were total strangers find so much to talk about – it’s not a bad life!

GPS: 50.3455 N, 04.7392 W

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Collioure to Barcelona

23rd March.
I walked down to the port of Collioure early in the morning and the Marines were at it again - swimming in the sea with guns and drilling on the beach by the old tower. The National Commando Training Centre (CNEC) actually advertises the fact that visitors can watch their training exercises. For some reason trails of smoke were rising from the opposite beach, orange-coated workmen tending to the fires – what was that all about?

Collioure in the morning sun

Small fishing boats were returning with their night’s catch and I watched one young lad proudly tie his fathers launch alongside, jumping up and down with excitement and pleasure at his adventure. Collioure looked even better in the low morning sunlight, the old fort and tower appearing properly medieval. A small street market had been set up by the roadside as the narrow streets began to fill with shoppers.

Small fishing boats returning with their night's catch

Reluctantly, we hit the coast road, working our way south through Port Vendres and Banyuls sur Mer. At Port Vendres there is an aire in an old public garden, though it is a good walk from the town centre around the docks. Banyuls has a nice seafront but restricted parking for motorhomes.

Aire, Port Vendres
GPS: 42.5178 N, 03.1133 E

Next, along the twisting D914 cornice road to Cerbere and a stop for lunch just before the town.

Picnic spot
GPS: 42.4398 N, 03.1711 E

Super views along the D914

Climbing steeply again, we passed a derelict customs post and over the high border crossing of Coll dels Belitres into Spain. Just overlooking the bay of Portbou is a Memorial to the republican refugees of the Spanish Civil War, who suffered as they waited to escape into exile at the end of the war in February 1939.

Memorial to the refugees of the Spanish Civil war

A new country - a new book, and Sue quickly succumbed to a dose of Green Guide fever. Consequently, a few kilometres along the coast I found the van climbing a steep 8km hairpin drive to the Monestir de Sant Pere de Rhodes. “I bet it’s at the top of that mountain” I said, and so it was, spectacularly sited, alone in the lea of the peak.

It's a long and winding road!

And then it's a good walk from the car park

The ruins of this Benedictine monastery have been substantially restored in recent years and are now well presented. The views alone were worth it and the church inside the monastery impressive. There is even a restaurant, and it is a base for many walking trails.

A shaft of sunlight pierces the chapel atmosphere

A seat for contemplation

The late sun swiftly leaves the building

When we arrived we joined a large Mercedes van in the car park, picnic tables and laptops out in the sunshine – it was actually a base vehicle for a walking team testing gortex clothing!
It would have been a wonderful place to stay the night, but looking at the rows of powerful floodlights, and with a dim recollection of warnings of a large fine for overnighting on Parc Natural, we reluctantly decided against it.

Picnic spot
GPS: 42.3238 N, 03.1715 E

Next stop was Cadaques, which used to be a humble fishing village in a small bay enclosed by the Pyrenean foothills. Alas, when contemporary artists such as Picasso and Dali took to going there it morphed into a fashionable resort, complete with seafront casino, now a bar and internet café. The town of course has a museum dedicated to Picasso.

Arriving at dusk, we parked in the central car park - in which overnight parking is tolerated, according to our Camper Stop guide. This is an automated affair, but you pay on exit. After the noise of scooters and barking dogs had died down late in the evening, we were all alone, the only vehicle in the entire park.

24th March
I was up with the first rays of the sun and wandered the hilly streets of the old town before the locals were out and about. Slightly reminiscent of St Ives in Cornwall, the steep uneven lanes and passageways criss-cross haphazardly, as the houses are built on the bedrock, eventually leading down to the water’s edge.
The seafront is having a major makeover (of course) but they are making a nice job of it - the quality of the stone paving far exceeding anything I've seen in the UK.

The Church terrace looks down on houses built on the bedrock

Steep cobbled streets lead the way...

.....To the the gravel beach

If you stay overnight in the central car park you need to pay a visit to the little office before you exit, or you will be charged continuously for the night - at 2.45 euros an hour!
With a discount for the hours between 2200 and 0800, our charge came to Euro 11.80. Once paid, you have 20 minutes grace to use your card to exit.

Car park
GPS: 42.2891 N, 03.2733 E

Heading out to Cap de Creus for what we thought would be a pleasant scenic interlude, we were soon looking at sign after sign restricting motorhomes from the side roads. As the road narrows towards the Cape there is a definitive sign banning entry to all caravans and motorhomes - you cannot even go for a look! A sign on a rough track off to the side, onto Parc Natural, bluntly reminded us of the 150 euro fine for wayward campers.

Feeling a little unloved we moved on to Roses, where we felt equally unwelcome.

So, onto Castello d'Empuries, where we did find somewhere to park for lunch. We had a look at Empuriabrava, a purpose built resort full of man made canals in which to park your yacht outside your house. Actually, it wasn't a bad place, with a nice waterfront and beach and it didn't seem that motorhome unfriendly.

Empuriabrava - a canal at the end of every garden

The decision was made to hole up for a few days at Sant Pere Pescador, from where we hoped to cycle to the Greek and Roman ruins at Empuries.

Camping Aquarius is a huge ACSI site ten minutes cycle ride from the town centre, in an area awash with campsites, but very efficiently run and one of the best we have visited.
They offer a huge range of amenities, (including massage!) and even an on-site caravan repair man and accessory shop - though curiously he was selling toilet chemical, etc, in direct competition with their own very well stocked supermarket.
The washing facilities are very well appointed and the motorhome service bay spacious and there is also a nice restaurant. Wi-fi is available all over the site on various tariffs. The site was already quite full, including some monster German vans, some Dutch and a sprinkling of Brits.

Camping Aquarius
GPS: 42.1766 N, 03.1066 E

25th - 26th March

We attempted the coastal cycle path to the archaeological site at Empuries, but the trail was deeply flooded after all the rain and we had to abandon it.

27th March
After leaving the campsite, we arrived in the van at the Empuries ruins and found we had free entry - it being the last Sunday in the month!

A vast site by the sea, the ruins comprise the mainly Greek neapolis or “new town” and a more recent Roman town above it - into which the Greek town was later amalgamated.
There is an interesting museum with recovered artefacts, but amongst the Roman ruins I was particularly impressed with the extensive reconstructions of the forum. To see even just a part of such a large edifice, as it would have really looked like in its heyday, brings it all alive. To some this kind of expenditure may seem sacrilege and a waste of money, but for those without the benefit of a classical education, such reconstructions leap across the centuries and bring immediate awe.

Just one part of reconstructions of a Roman forum

Leaving late afternoon, we found a large and very suitable car park in L'Esacala for the night, but with the almost inevitable "No Caravan/Motorhome" sign. It probably would have been Ok this time of year, with most campsites still closed, but we still had time to move on.

On the main road into L'Estartit we found a free bus park, with several 40 tonne trucks overnighting. It would do for us and we tucked ourselves into a corner.

Car park
GPS: 42.0503 N, 03.1864 E

28th March
We enjoyed a quiet night, and a friendly wave from a truck driver who came mid-morning to pick up his trailer.
After a quick drive around the sea front and a visit to Lidls, we headed back to Torroella.

The coast from Cap de Begur to Cap Roig is not prime motorhoming country to be fair, and though it was theoretically possible to follow the coast road (according to our sat-nav), most roads have a 3.5 tonne limit and are very tight. Still, Sue wanted to see what we could and we dipped in and out.
The Botanical gardens at Cap Roig are easily accessible and looked worth a visit.

Back then to Palafrugell and a run through Palamos and Platja d'Aro to Saint Feliu de Guixols.

Saint Feliu de Guixols has a nice waterfront

There is a dedicated motorhome parking area in Saint Feliu a few minutes walk from the seafront, just above the public swimming pool. This didn't appear in any of our printed guides, but was plucked from the Club Motorhome website (www.clubmotorhome.co.uk). It was a bit noisy from traffic until late evening, but fine overnight. A couple of old caravans (one without its wheels) were stationed at the far end and inhabited by some impoverished looking men. I checked at the tourist office and they told me that these guys would be no problem for us.

Aire, Saint Feliu de Guixols
GPS: 41.7801 N, 03.0228 E
29th March
Not the finest of weather for the spectacular and tortuous corniche road to Tossa de Mar, but enjoyable all the same. Actually, this drive is best done in the opposite direction, as most of the cliff-side viewing points have "No Entry" coming from the north.

Tossa de Mar looks good from a distance

Luckily, we found a parking place by the roadside in town, and Sue went walking on a trip down memory lane from her holidays 30 years ago. Whilst deep in my book, a uniformed policeman knocked loudly on the door and very firmly reminded me that I should have parked with the flow of traffic! A useful reminder as had I left the van as well, we would no doubt have got a ticket!

30th March
Barcelona was now on the horizon. Our Swiss friends, Brigitte and Peter, had tipped us off about Camping Barcelona, an ACSI site in Mataro, about 45 minutes drive out of the city centre. A slightly cramped but well organised and efficiently run site, their key selling point is a free shuttle bus (outside of the months of July and August) to the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona. Situated near the other side of the main road and railway line from the beach, they also have free shuttles to the beach and Mataro.
The pitches are fully serviced and Wi-fi is available all over the site on many different tariffs. For the kids there is a large netted football and basketball pitch and even a small animal farm with sheep, goats, rabbits and hens.

Some Gaudi inspired mozaic at Camping Barcelona

GPS: 41.5521 N,02.8941 E

We elected to buy some Tourist Bus tickets from reception for our visit to Barcelona. A single day costs 23 euros, but a second day cost only 7 euros more, and with so much to see, the 2 day, 30 euro option seemed a no-brainer. The ticket includes as many earpiece headsets as you need and also a useful free guide book and booklet of discount vouchers (up to 20%) for all the major attractions - but you have to ask for them as you get on board!

Yes I know,  its a tourist bus!

The advantage of such a “high profile” tourist activity is that you can cover a lot of ground relatively cheaply and, if you can bag a seat on the top deck, see some of what is passing by in the process.

The disadvantage - as we found out - is that you can spend an inordinate amount of time at traffic lights and bus stops without seeing anything of what you came to see. The same can be said of ordinary buses and taxis of course, but regular buses don't wait as long at each stop as the tourist bus, and taxis tend to use the rat-runs to speed up the journey.
The muzak in between the pieces of commentary can also drive you nuts!

The trick is to do your homework, select 3 or 4 destinations on a route (there are two main ones) and stick to them in strict order. The snag is that early in the day the buses are crowded and having fought for your seat on the top open deck you can be reluctant to give it up! A complete round trip of each route however can take over two hours.

One Gaudi house....

....and another

On our first run round the iconic symbol of Barcelona - the Sagrada Famillia  temple - had queues of people waiting all around it, so we stayed on the bus for a glimpse of the rest of the sights, but it was a long haul, and then we were faced with doing it all again later. Sounds daft I know, but the temptation to stay on and admire the view on a sunny day is strong - but time wasting.

The Sagrada Famillia - Gaudi's masterpiece, and still a work in progress

Christ in ascension, on the bridge

The Sagrada Famillia (Church of the Holy Family), was the unfulfilled dream and lifelong passion of the architect Antonio Gaudi.
It is, at present, a building site, and only "fifty percent" complete, but nonetheless a mesmerising melange of innovative and unique architectural design and style. It is tempting to call it Disney-esque, but its eye-poppingly gigantic scale would leave any Walt Disney confection in the dust.
The hoped for completion date is 2026, 143 years after Gaudi, the man whose vision it became, was appointed to take over from the original architect, de Paula Villar.

Gaudi knew that he would never live to see the completion of his temple, but he laid plans for others to follow, with drawings, models, lectures and written papers. He was fatally injured under a tram at the age of 74.
Apparently, when asked if he was concerned about how long his passion would take to build, he replied, in a display of unbounded faith and prescience: "my client has all the time in the world".

His concept, his design and philosophy, is now being realised with the help of advanced computer programs and innovative construction techniques. Unfortunately, a large number of his architectural models were damaged and his drawings destroyed in a fire caused by militants at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, but the continuing construction of the church is being developed by and copied from reconstructions of his original plaster models and other contemporary drawings.
His unique architectural demands - geometrically complex, but inspired by trees and elements of the natural world, has required new building methods to be evolved to cope with each challenge that he laid down.

The interior of the church was only completed in 2010, and shortly after the temple was consecrated by the Pope as a basilica. We lingered long inside, just marvelling at the intricacies, the projected colours and ever changing patterns of light from the windows. It is just entrancing, unlike anything we have seen before - something from the imagination of Tolkien, a mystical cavern.

I think I can use the word breathtaking here..


Light from the magnificent glass reflected on the organ pipes

It’s easy to forget that this is a place of worship, the natural light show combining with clever artificial lighting to show off the awe inspiring architecture to it’s very best, but it really is the real life creation of the devoted dream of a deeply religious man, blessed not only with an early talent for mathematics, but a lifelong love of the beauty of nature.

We took the “Passion Lift” (yes really) up one of the oval bell towers to see construction work and admire the view. Eventually there will be no less than eighteen towers and in them tubular bells will be hung.

From the "Passion" tower - Barcelona's answer to London's Gherkin

In the crypt there is more to see – many old drawings, photos, plaster models and a fascinating 15 minute video (in alternating languages).

Soon the day was almost gone, and by the time the tourist bus had got back to Placa de Catalunya there was only time for a quick pizza before the 20.00 shuttle bus back to the campsite.

On day two, we took the “red” bus route, which takes in the Olympic stadium, Mount Montjuic and the castle and the regenerated waterfront. Unfortunately, the Maritime Museum that we were keen to see was undergoing a major building renovation and there was only a light, temporary exhibition available. There is however a catering school incorporated in the building and for only 10 euros you can get a three course meal cooked by the students. We only stopped for a coffee but the food on offer looked excellent, must be the best value in town!

Walking past the impressive monument to Christopher Colombus, we became aware of a police chase developing – a black African, clutching his pack of sunglasses (presumably an illegal immigrant), was playing a cat and mouse game with a Guardia Urbana officer on a motor scooter. Every time the cop caught him up and stopped his scooter to talk, the African would dart away, over the pavement, around the monument, up and down the steps - until suddenly he made a dash across the road. A tourist type in shorts and tee shirt tried to grab him, but he swung a wild hook at the bystander (or aggrieved customer), making a hard contact, audible over the traffic noise. The T-shirted guy bravely hung on and instantly there were scooters, sun glasses and uniforms all over the road as four cops dragged the seller, with difficulty, to the ground.

The Guardia close in on a sunglass salesman

The traffic had by now been blocked off by a taxi driver and two cop cars arrived. The African had put up a terrific fight and you almost felt sorry for him - hard and tough, the expression on his face still said “Ok, you’ve got me, now what you gonna do?”

After all that excitement we got back on the bus, completing the trip around the waterfront area rejuvenated by the Olympics and then back to Placa Catalunya, swapping buses again to see the Parc Güell.

The Parc Güell was initially planned as a residential garden village by Gaudi, but only one showhouse was ever built, in which Gaudi lived, before donating the park to the municipal council in 1923. It is now a colourful place to hang out, sell your tourist wares and get your photo taken by one of Gaudi’s characteristic tiled structures, this time a dragon on the stairs. It was still heaving with sightseers late in the afternoon and I heard one say that Gaudi’s buildings at the entrance to the park looked like “gingerbread houses”, and I had, somewhat disrespectfully, to agree.

The entrance to Gaudi's Parc Güell

The police put in an appearance again in a patrol car, which sent most of the traders scattering into the bushes - an endless game of seek and hide it would seem.

Rather than pick up the tourist bus yet again we got a taxi back to Catalunya Square, which despite the driver’s predictions of 10 euros, only came to 7.50 on the meter. He nonchalantly and cheerfully handed back just two euro coins – my second experience of a Barcelona trader allocating his own tip before passing the change. Still, it saves you guessing what they expect!

We still had time to promenade down La Rambla, the pedestrian boulevard all the way from Placa Catalunya to the seafront. It’s colourful alright, with overloaded flower stalls, stooges and entertainers – and a couple of armed Guardia Urbana, strolling every hundred yards or so. At one point I could see six sets of yellow tunics, but it’s reassuring that they are keeping a careful lid on any criminal activity.
A great buzz, all in all, and we selected the Sukaldari restaurant for a quick meal. Sue had a large lamb leg stewed in a pot with potatoes and vegetables and I opted for good old steak and chips. Both were excellent, with two pint sized glasses of beer, the bill came to 58 euros.

Roast lamb - Sukaldari style

There is so much to see in Barcelona - we reluctantly left both the science and the Egyptology  museum for another time and look forward to returning to view construction progress on the Sagrada Familia. With a backwards look we would do more homework and planning, but you never know what is going to enthral you and mess up your plans – the Sagrada Familia certainly did that.

Next: Montserrat, Sitges and Tarragona