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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


Biffo Bear said...

Hi Ian and Sue I know this area well and Motorhomes that tour are not welcome but are tolerated in some places out of season. The reason is down to money like most things are. The camp site prices are extortionate out of season if you can find one open and the local police and gaurdia civil, there's a contradiction, will move you on or fine you just for breathing. There is also an aire at Playa D'Aro which has a meter which takes about 10€ a night. I used to spend a great deal of time around palamos but what with fines, breakin's and kids throwing eggs stones and god knows what at the van Iv'e given up on the place. I used to spend a great deal of money there, around 3,500€ in 3 to 4 months in shops, bars and restaurants etc but they don't want it so now I go south. Now they have priced their selfs out of the market they will come to regret how they have treated touring motorhomes

Ian and Sue said...

Hi Biffo, thanks for the information. I totally concur that when the “posh” money arrives any concessions for motorhomes tend to evaporate, seems to apply to anywhere near golf clubs as well! Our perception however is that there are an increasing number of aires being set up in Spain and Portugal which can only be a good thing.

Unfortunately we have been grounded for a year but hope to get away again in the Autumn. All the best.

Rebecca Brainard said...

What a fantastic blog!

Ian and Sue said...

Many thanks Rebecca, glad you enjoyed it!