Winter is a season that calls us snow-birds south to the warmer climes of southern Spain, where we can shelter from the harsh realities of England’s unpredictable forecasts. Except the call of Español is far more than just a winter haunt – it’s an destination that us Brits have pretty much fallen in love with, especially so for lovers of life on the road with our trusty steeds.
There are so many routes to take heading south; the quick ones, the mountainous ones, the ferry ones or the meandering ones. Whichever path you may be considering, perhaps driven by budget, speed to destination or time constraints, we would like to offer one of our routes, taken this winter. With time on our side, we decided to follow one a meandering route that has granted us the opportunity to go off the beaten track, breathe in a few new places and plot a path that makes the journey all part of the experience. So we hope that this gives you some options for your next trip to southern shores. Check out our interactive map below by clicking on the dots for more information, camping co-ordinates and pictures of our highlights.
Our starting point – Southern France
We had the advantage of already being in France after our adventures earlier in the year, in Eastern Europe. France is always a lovely place to come ‘home’ to and it truly feels comfortable and known to us. So after two months meandering around the south coast and the Pyrenees for some housesitting, we were ready to hit the road and make our way to Spain, in readiness for a Christmas rendezvous with my mum.
Having crossed the French Border in 2016 via the east coast of Costa Brava, we wanted to try something new and, given our love for the Pyrenees, this seemed like a perfect road-trip for us. We had 10 days to reach Dénia on the south-east edge of Spain, so a bit of wandering pleased our nomadic souls. A number of ports of call found themselves on our very sketchy itinerary and the rest, we knew would be added along the way, based on other people’s recommendations and research that piqued our interest.
So here are the highlights of our Road-Trip south.
Mirepoix – Ariège
Our journey actually started close to Carcassonne and so taking the quiet roads through to the Pyrenees must include Mirepoix. We have been many times before and yet this quaint little village, with its delightful chocolate-box central square of quirky, wonky buildings, never disappoints. This medieval village looks like something out of an Dickensian novel and you will want to stop for a coffee or lunch and just watch the world go by. Caste your eyes upwards as the view is as beautiful as the one at your eye-line, as the detail in the shop signs and the colourful displays of their window sash are just so picturesque.
Lourdes – Hautes-Pyrenees
Taking all the minor roads rather than the speedy autoroutes, we meandered through the French countryside, keeping the snow-capped Pyrenees teasingly to our left. Little French villages in all states of attire imploring us to stay awhile. Although our destination was firmly in our heads; Lourdes in the Hautes-Pyrenees. It was a long hike, especially when SatNav took us on a circuitous route and we had to do a food shop and fill up with diesel. Still we arrived at Camping du Loup, a five minute walk from the famous town, ready for supper and bed.
Now Lourdes really does divide opinion. If you go in the Pilgrimage period, April to October then I sense it takes on a more sombre feel, as the town is filled with people searching for hope and a miracle cure to their ills. We visited at the end of November and loved the vibe and the lack of crowds. Whilst religion is of course Lourdes’ new identity, behind this are intriguing origins of its ancient market-town. The partnership between tourism and religion is a delicate one and as one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, secondly only to Paris, you may have to look beyond the shops selling bottles for the Holy water. After all, every book is more than its cover and we loved what the area had to offer in terms of activities, the possibilities of the funicular, the kayaking, the walking and the history. Whatever your religious beliefs, Lourdes is definitely worth checking out – especially out of season. Here’s our full blog on our visit – Lordy Lourdes
The Pyrenees via the Somport Tunnel into Spain
Post Lourdes, we hot-footed it out of the Pyrenees as there was a threat of a big artic front coming in and the last place you want to be in a camper is in the mountains when the snows hit. Our route took us towards Oloron, just south of Pau, along the valley floor, which was so lovely especially with all the autumn colours. Then a turn left heading south through the Pyrenees and the Somport Tunnel. En route Red Kites flying on the thermals will distract your eye and the ever changing scenery of mountain communities will elicit the odd ‘ah’ from your delighted heart. Little villages clustered along the valley floor in the shadow of their towering protectors, prepare themselves for the harsh winter ahead. Smoke already billowing out from their chimneys, their wood piles strategically stacked in readiness for what will almost inevitably arrive. And the paternal dominance of these snow-peaked pinnacles command respect as the ever-changing weather swirls around their heads. The Somport Tunnel is temporary respite from the overwhelming feast for the eyes as you adjust to the darkness. Opened in 2003, this 8.3km tunnel has almost a magical feel to it, as you enter it in France and you exit it in Spain. One tunnel, two countries and not a Border Patrol crossing to be seen.
Canfranc Estación– The Titanic of the Mountains
Our main purpose for taking this route was to check out the intriguing abandoned train station at Canfranc. Myles had read up on it and its mystery drove us to explore. It’s so easily missed, as no sooner are you out of the tunnel you hit the signs for the station. Blink and you will miss it.
Canfranc was put on the Spanish map when this out-of-place station with all its ostentatious grandeur was built in 1923, following the construction of the railway line and tunnel between 1912-1915. The station was formally opened in 1928 and it is the second largest in Europe; with its 240m long building, 365 windows, 156 doors and a platform of 200m. It remained open during WW2 as part of the Franco-Spanish International Convention, under which it was built, allowing some refugees to leave France into Spain.
Its life came to an abrupt end in 1970 when there was a derailment on a bridge on the French side and they could not afford to rebuild it. And so today, this glorious building stands in a sorry state, a ghostly station, where the faint echoes of passengers transiting across these mountainous giants can be heard through the wind, as it whistles through broken panes of glass. You can get guided visits into the station during July and August, although even when it is closed, just to stand and reconstruct in your mind how this station buzzed and thrived in its day, is enough of an experience. There are plans to turn it into a hotel and to rebuild the line, with the agreement of the French Government, so new life will be breathed into this town after fifty years. It is definitely worth stopping off at.
Jaca’s Monasteries, Aragon
We love exploring the hidden depths a place has to offer us curious travellers. It is all too easy to travel too fast and miss the secrets that lie just off the highway. So the region of Aragon was our explorative teacher. After a short stopover at Jaca, a ski-resort with its ancient hexagonal fortress, we headed for the hills. Taking our route west, our chariot guided us into the foothills of the Pyrenees towards the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña. En route we were enthralled by Santa Cruz de la Serós, with its honey-coloured stone buildings and two Romanesque churches, one of which was an all-female monastery in its day. Just to wander around this tiny hamlet and through its cobbled streets carved into the hillside, was a delight.
Back on the road, which snakes up through the mountains, gives you an incredible view of the Pyrenees, so stopping for a photoshoot is essential. And then you come to the beautiful old Monastery carved into the rocks with its brand new cousin about 2km up the mountain which will wow you as you take in its size and splendour. It’s like a magical kingdom with its dominant reign over the plateaus and valleys beyond – it is such an interesting destination. There’s plenty of parking up there and a place to stop over night if you want to camp and unless there’s snow coming in, a great place to stop awhile and indulge in some walking.
Laguna Gallocanta, Aragon
If there’s anywhere on the map that looks like a Nature Reserve then that becomes a magnet for us as wildlife lovers. And so when I found Laguna Gallocanta purely by chance, it was our chosen detour. After doing some research I found that it is a winter stop-off point for Cranes and is the most popular destination for these magnificent birds in Europe. So of course if became a beacon for us and in addition it was way off the beaten track, which had even more appeal.
So we headed on south past Zaragoza and turning off the motorway drove through some amazing countryside. At first it looks a bit bland although in fairness the snow did add a little more character. It didn’t take long though for us to take a few left turns and to see the whole landscape change dramatically. Twisting roads around rotund hills and valleys that looked like something out of the Hobbit and with its red soil gave a really atmospheric and beautiful drive. And then you approach Daroca, a fortress encased village, which out of nowhere stakes in claim from the surrounding landscape. We didn’t have the time to stop, as we’d been driving a while, although with its honey coloured buildings and fortress walls is definitely worthy of an explore.
Not far from Daroca, you will enter the tiny hamlet of Gallocanta, which is at the centre for the Nature Reserve and there is an Information Centre from where you can do Guided Tours from November to March and you can also stop over night at in the car park, which has views across the Lagoon. Now I will manage your expectations, as at this point of the year, sadly there was no water in the lagoon, so it looked a little sorry for itself, although the Cranes still came. You can’t get close to them by road or at the Information Centre, although you will see flocks of them coming in to land and with good binoculars will see them on the sandpits. It is a beautiful place to come – peaceful and so incredibly rural. Your exit from this region takes you on a narrow yet characterful road, through small Spanish villages with their ornate churches and cobbled streets that transport you into an authentic Spanish culture beyond the tourist magnetism of the cities and coast.
As short drive away from Gallocanta, is one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. If it had a body like France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages, then Albarracín would most definitely be on it. From the motorway, much like so many places, you can’t imagine what it would be like and you are almost tempted to by-pass it, although the 20 minute deviation is definitely worthy of your turning wheels.
Once off the main plain, you turn into the mountains which are full of character, incredible sandstone eroded cliff faces and a gorge route that will have you enthralled. It is a superb drive. Yet strangely with the weight of expectation on its shoulders, as we approached Albarracín, we found ourselves disappointed. Surely this modern town with its industrial area is not all there is to see? Alas our patience was rewarded as, when we turned the corner, rising in front of our disappointed eyes, is the very reason we travelled here. A church steel adorned with white and green mosaics, an archway where the road travels underneath the village and sandstone buildings that nestled amongst the rocks protected by a fortress that curves around the village. This sight had us feeling instantly humbled and apologetic for ever having doubted it.
For the best experience of 11th Century Albarracín, approach the archway and then turn left, climbing up to the far end of the village and then tracking back towards the main centre. There are so many alleyways to explore and vistas that take your eyes over the gorge below, where the winding Guadalavia river of emerald green gives a real sense of this village’s Alcazar and Moorish roots. And one of the best bits about this town, is that is hasn’t lost its soul to the tourists. For sure there are restaurants and a few shops, although its authenticity is clear to feel as you wander around the streets. We almost felt intrusive, as the lives of the locals continue regardless of the milling crowd.
One of the things I loved best about this tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, is how the views changed around every corner. From the view of the arcing fortress defending the village’s honour, to the perspective from the fortress heights; views over the village walls to the gorge below and out through the windows of the castle remains to the land far away. And that’s before you even wander the streets looking at the quirky buildings, the architecture, the roof lines and the cobbled streets that feel like a maze at times. It is an atmospheric experience and you easily need 1/2 day to wander, absorb and climb to see the full picture of this little hideaway.
N330 Teruel to Utiel, Aragon
After our little dalliance with Albarracín, we hot-footed it over to Teruel, which according to the Guide Books can be one of the coldest towns in Spain – hey we’re not scarred of a bit of cold. After all we’d just endured -11. We did have a quick trip into Teruel given we were so close, although we were disappointed. It was one of those towns, where the battle between old and new rages on and somehow the ancient world seems to be loosing out with modern culture consuming its precious history. Whilst there’s no denying that the main Plaza del Tourico is very pretty with its unusual buildings and undercover cafe bars and restaurants, trying to capture Teruel’s Mudéjar monuments, isn’t easy despite not being far apart from each other. You could almost do with having a Drone to rise up above the tightly packed buildings to really get the beauty of the cathedral and other iconic buildings that would have stood proud in their day.
Teruel needs to be visited as we’ve never seen architecture like it, although an hour will do perfectly well and then move on, as the countryside that is about to greet you is far superior, in our humble opinion. The N330 route is your travel guide for this part of the journey. Taking you away from the built up town and into the heart of a natural tapestry of ochre red and yellow rocks, filled with copious amounts minerals from eons beneath the sea. You could almost imagine yourself in a Spaghetti Western with the pillars of rock being akin to their American cousins and John Wayne galloping through the valley on his trusty stallion. Small villages, kilometres apart from each other, survive on the energy of the land and as the road winds around valleys, gorges and hilltops, you feel lost amidst its natural paradise. Your journey becomes timeless and the vistas entice you to travel slowly and mindfully until you reach Utiel for an overnight stop.
N330 South from Requena to Cofrentes, Valencia Community
The final stage of our journey south was the route from Utiel to Requena with a short diversion south on N330 towards Almansa. Here the vineyards create a patchwork across the countryside and then surrender to the pine-clad mountains. The road turns this way, then that, through the ochre walls and all we could see were acres of forest – oh and a couple of power station funnels! As our heart sank feeling that these blots on the landscape would ruin our experience – we held steady!
And patience brought us to the oasis of Cofrentes, which sits at the confluence of the rivers Júcar and Cabriel – hence its name, originating from the Roman name Confluentum. It is here you can try the regional dish of Gazpachos, eaten by many of the mountain workers and Orza which is a cured sausage. Food aside you have guided tours around Cofrentes’ Gothic Castle and El Cerro de Agras – the region’s only volcano, which still shows some activity by way of the Hervidieros Spa, where gas escapes from the chamber to a spring where the water looks like it is boiling. A river boat trip can be taken up the Júcar for 14km of the Júcar Route and if fishing is your thing, the pike and black-bass in the reservoir may appeal. January, May and August are their festival seasons where this tiny population gather as a community to honour their religious icons and celebrate together. For a tiny village in the middle of the mountains, this is where you can begin to experience, not only the mountain way of life, the true sense of inland Spain with its rituals and traditions. Walking, cycling, fishing – there’s plenty to amuse you in this mountain hideaway.
So this brings us to the close of our route from southern France into Spain, via the Aragon region. What a Christmas sack of gifts this was and how thankful we were not to rush through this area. Whilst we have by no means explored all its depths, we have at least a taster of Aragon’s presence and know for sure that we will return to uncover more of its delights. We hope that it might influence you to stop awhile and also unwrap its hidden depths.
Travel off the beaten track, drive slow, see much and learn plenty as you explore the land which has much to offer the curious explorer.
Sitting in Spain at the beginning of the year, we started contemplating the next chapter in our Motoroaming adventures – our Greek Odyssey. How best to get there? Did we go overland and take two weeks to get there with the investment of diesel, wear and tear on the van and campsite fees or use the ferries, via Italy?
A conundrum indeed. Even after a year on the road, we still feel like we’re building our confidence and we have plenty of green tendencies in our nomadic life. So the thought of travelling through Albania and Bosnia didn’t greet us with huge joy, especially given that our insurance wouldn’t cover us in those countries and we would need to reply on buying insurance at the Borders.
At this stage on our trip, we decided that going by ferry was the right option for us just now. So we have documented our route, costs, camping spots and experiences so that if you have the same contemplation any day soon, this may help your planning.
Leaving Spain – It’s Grim all the way
Grimaldi Ferry Embarkation
After three months over winter in Spain, we wanted to get to Greece for springtime, given that the summers would most likely be too hot for us (read me – Myles was born in Cyprus so he’s a sun-baby). So leaving end of March or beginning of April gave the weather enough time to warm up and yet not fry us to a crisp.
We decided to go from Barcelona to Italy, then cross the country to Bari, then catch a second sailing to Igoumenitsa, just south of the Albania border. Barcelona offers two ferry operators; Grimaldi Lines who go to Savona and Civitavecchia and GNV to Genoa. Barcelona is such a great option as before you sail, you could fit in a quick city tour, a visit to Monserrat up in the mountains and Sitges to the south has to be on the cards. Here’s our Guide to Barcelona, without Blisters to help make the most of your visit here.
We took the Civitavecchia route so we would arrive on Italy’s west coast – just north of Rome. Genoa or Savona are cheaper, although after nine weeks in Italy in 2016, we decided to short-circuit the Italian leg and save the bone-rattling ride. Such is our eagerness to begin our Greek experience. Sadly Grimaldi lives up to its name and it aptly describes both their ferry and service. We booked through Direct Ferries to get the best price, which was €410, far cheaper than with Grimaldi direct.
It is no cruise liner that’s for sure. Sailings leave Barcelona at 2215, so there’s plenty of time to navigate through the rush-hour traffic, check in and have some supper. Although be warned that as an Italian manned boat, embarkation can be flakey and disorganised at best. That said we did get away on time, although I think we were lucky, having heard other stories. The boat is tired and has no personality, although for 20 hours, if you can get your head down for a good night’s sleep, then a third of your journey will be over by the morning. Our sailing was affected by 500 excitable and un-supervised teenagers running riot until 0100 and not having a working toilet due to a system problem, caused a lot of unnecessary stress. Still a discussion with reception the next morning landed us a free lunch so that was some compensation.
You arrive into Civitavecchia around 1815 and depending on where you are parked, you will be off the boat within 45 minutes. Again a bit of a free-for-all, although with no passport control you are through the port in no time at all. So from here, where to next?
An overnighter outside Rome
If you’ve not visited Rome before, then this is a must. It’s a beautiful city with an abundance of ancestry and religion to whet your whistle. Having already ‘done’ Rome, we decided to get out into the country and I had earmarked Bracciano Lake, just under an hour away, east of the city. There are a lot of camping options along the lake, a number of which are ACSI sites, although we had our eye on Blue Lake Camperstop in Trevignano Romano. ( Co-ordinates N42° 9.522′ E12° 13.441’) This is a super site for €15 per night, out of season with hook up and only has 28 pitches. You are right by the lake if you wanted to stop for some RnR, Trevignano is only a mile along the charming promenade full of restaurants, supermarkets and a dominating castle.
From Coast to Coast
Italy, Coast to Coast in 3.5hrs, click to enlarge
We decided to skedaddle cross-country to explore the east coast, which was new territory for us. Knowing how bad the Italian roads are, we plumbed for the quickest and shortest route possible. Now sadly this meant motorways, one of which was a toll, although as you’ll see from our route, our 150 miles took us through some stunning mountain scenery, only cost us €27.30, which was cheap at half the price. Within three and half hours we were looking at the sparkling Adriatic Sea with the promise of Greek lands just across the horizon. Now we were in touching distance.
Petacciato Marina, Italy
Our overnighter was in Petacciato Marina, south of Pescara. ( Co-ordinates N42° 2.175′ E14° 51.078’ ) It was a dedicated Motorhome Parking area right alongside the beachfront and although there were some suspicious looking car manoeuvres that had me on edge, we actually had an uneventful night. There is a railway not far although there are no trains at night and the views of the beach are to die for. Oh and it was free, out of season. €3 during season when the Office at the end of the road is open. There are no services, although for the night, that is ok.
From here we fancied exploring the peninsular that is home to the Gargano National Park, partly because on the map it is full of green – we like green. It was a bizarre journey because our destination for the night – Vieste was only 88 miles, although with a stop for lunch and a bit of shopping took over four hours. Although you’ll understand why if you do the route. There are more twists and turns in this road than Shirley Temple’s locks. Hugging the coast, then up into the mountains, you weave around the peninsular being treated to some stunning scenery. It is totally worth the trip.
Be warned that out of season, i.e. before Easter, not many of the campsites are open and in fact, throughout the whole journey we only saw two with welcome signs outside. And there really are no wild camping opportunities around here. Even the Apps indicate Sostas were open, when in reality they are not. We found our welcome haven just the other side of Vieste – Camping Adriatico( Co-ordins N41° 51.547′ E16° 10.453’ ) and for €16, paid in cash, we stopped a while to rest our travel weary souls.
The rest of the journey around the peninsular is wonderful, if not a bit hairy with full concentration needed. Still it is a stunning part of the country and in fact we would go as far as to say that it is one of the better regions of Italy, especially the southern region. In fact we are really drawn to the south-eastern region and will definitely return.
Alberobello and her Trulli
Our route then took us to Matera and Alberobello. Matera is an iconic cave-dwelling town that has built up around a limestone gorge, carved by the river and perched on the cliff face. This stunning place is full of rock chapels and houses that show you life before cement and timber. An hour away, Alberobello is one of the most unique places that you’ll ever visit, with a whole section of the ‘old’ village still with their Trulli, (small, dry-stone buildings that are made mortar-free, the roofs of which come off to avoid paying tax). Sounds sensible to me. With reluctance, we headed off to Bari for our second ferry within the week, with hopes that this one would be better than the previous week’s debacle.
Ship ahoy! Bari, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece
Our second ferry crossing after six days in Italy, sailed from Bari on the south-east coast of Italy. We sailed with Anek Lines and when we arrived at the port, seeing a burnt out ship didn’t give us great expectations. Although we were pleasantly surprised, in fact highly delighted. This firm is terrific. You can sleep on board your camper, which is a bonus and on board the boat, it is just classy. A whole different world than GRIMaldi Lines. One recommendation we would make is, if you want to fill up your fridge/freezer before hitting Greece, don’t do it in Bari. Trying to find and get to one of the supermarkets and then out again was a nightmare and added unnecessary stress to our journey. So shop the day before en route, would be my suggestion.
Check-In, however is tricky as there’s no clear signs as to where you get your tickets. The Greece embarkation is right at the end of the Bari Terminal and when you see a large blue building on your right, stop there. This is the check-in.
We used a recommended travel specialist from Crete (as we’re moving on to here in May) who co-ordinated our Italy and Greece legs and so we managed to get some great discounts that I was unable to secure through Direct Ferries or the companies themselves. Aria is seriously worth talking to, so very helpful;
The best tip for 2018 is to book before 28 February for an extra big ‘early bird’ discount. I would highly recommend using them to secure every discount you can, given that the prices are quite high. So with our discounts, our trip from Bari to Igoumenitsa cost us €237.50, given our 7.5m van. (They charge by the metre of your vehicle). The sailing is 9 hours, leaving at 1930pm arriving in Greece at 0530 the following morning, which don’t forget is another hour ahead than western Europe.
It was the easiest disembarkation we’ve ever experienced on any ferry and, living on the Isle of Man for 20 years, we did our fair share. You’re off in 15 minutes and out of the port, check-free and ready to hit the road. There are two petrol stations just five minutes out of the port and they are open. They also sell LPG there too. The prices are marginally cheaper than Italy, at €1.32 – April 2017.
Wild camping, Drepano, Greece
So ready to hit the road? Perhaps not, given the time of the morning, so if you want to just place your head down for some extra ZZZs and ground yourself in this beautiful country, then head over to Drepano, which is 15 minutes north of Igoumenitsa. It’s on a road that separates a lagoon from the bay, so you have flamingoes one side, the sea the other and you can camp up right on the beach. Although there are signs saying NO CAMPING, out of season when the ACSI site just on the corner is not open, camping seems to be tolerated. Well at least there were four of us when we arrived first thing in the morning. (Co-ordinates; 39.515513 20.212752) It’s such a beautiful place to start your Greek adventure and it’s great to watch the ferries move in and out.
And so there we have our route to Greece from Spain. Obviously there are other routes such as taking the road, going through eastern Europe and other Italian ferries, although this was how ours panned out. In addition you could check out:
Ancona – Igoumenitsa or Patras
Venice – Igoumenitsa or Patras
Brindisi – Igoumenitsa or Patras
Trieste – Igoumenitsa or Patras
Ravenna – Igoumenitsa or Patras
For a full break down of sailing options and the different ferry companies available, this is a good website, you can then make plans in the best way to suit your budget and your timescales.
As we sit in Italy waiting for our ferry to Greece, we’ve had time to reflect on our Spanish adventures. Here is an infographic summary of our highlights from our four months over the last year. Click the link below to get access.
Now don’t get me wrong, Barcelona is such a vibrant, engaging and enthralling city, that a weekend will more than do its streets and monuments justice. (Here is a Guide to a blister-free Barcelona trip.) Although there is always so much more to a city than just within its walls. Peek outside of her boundaries and you will find many more highlights.
We certainly found this to be true of the Barcelona Province as we stepped out into the further reaches of her kingdom. Two areas in particular made our trip to this region memorable; the Monastery of Monserrat to the west and the quaint seaside village of Sitges to the south. Both so different and yet equally captivating to the curious and eager tourist and travelling explorer.
In deep contrast to the hubbub of Barcelona and with only 40 minutes driving west of the city, you start to feel cleansed. As you navigate the spaghetti motorway links leaving the metropolis behind, the mountains sit on the horizon, beckoning you to their own natural version of a tourist hot-spot. Mother Nature has carved her own architectural monuments that will have you gasping and wondering how on earth such amazing formations have been crafted. Surely geology was not the only artistic hand?
1. The Monastery at Monserratis a must-see diversion from your city tour as it offers such a contrast to the sometimes claustrophobic composition of avenues and four-storey buildings. High in the Monserrat mountains, which is Spain’s first National Park and pride of Catalan, whether you are sporty, love nature or are spiritual, this whole area will certainly appeal. ‘Monserrat’ is translated as ‘the serrated mountain’ and is unique in this area, as it reaches up from the river below with its limestone outcrops and boulders.
The monastery, albeit not in its current form, dates back to 880AD, where children are said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary and after showing their parents what they had seen, the area became a religious sanctuary. Today many people make the pilgrimage to see the Black Madonna, which is the patron saint of Catalan, whilst the rest of us mere mortals explore this area for the beauty of the architecture, to seek sanctuary or just breathe in the peace that this hidden monastery harbours, tucked away in the bosom of its limestone domain.
There are a couple of car parks on the main road at the base of the mountains, that offer you a chance to trek, cable car or take the train to this wonderful spiritual retreat. We chose to take the train and for €9.90 out of season, you meander gracefully up the mountain side to reach the eagle’s nest.
Even if you have seen pictures of the monastery in your Guide Book, nothing will prepare you for the breathtaking vision in front of you. A stunningly restored building that offers peace and tranquility for visitors who wish to soak up the atmosphere, beyond the throng of day-trippers looking to experience the choir at 13hr each day. (Some Guides say the choir begins at 12.00, although when we arrived, the chapel was full for a Mass at 13hr. So you may need to contact the monastery for confirmation if this is something you would like to experience.
In a dedicated ante-room off the Chapel’s courtyard, hundreds of candles burn in memory of loved ones, and for €2 you too can show your respect by lighting your own candle; and whether you are religious or not, this has a deeply profound effect on you. In fact the whole place, despite the crowds, has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it. As a venue, it commands humility and demands you to be still.
After a walk around the monastery and perhaps the artisan market, which seems to only sell bee products and cheese, you may be sorely tempted by the many vistas and pathways perched way above you. These walking routes have been made accessible by either the Sant Joan funicular or the cable car. We chose the vertical funicular that ascends the mountain with dexterity and precision. As you journey upwards, you get a bird’s eye view of the monastery and surrounding area. For €12.50 return, you feel like a child getting into a fun-fare ride, excited and a little scared as you hold onto the railings and feel the lift of the tram as it climbs steadily up the mountain. After 10 minutes of stunning, camera clicking views, you arrive at the top. If you thought you were impressed at the bottom, you wait until you reach this pinnacle of beauty. You really feel like you are on top of the world. Fingers and boulders of limestone rise from the earth like a phoenix from the flames, stretching up to the sky. Chapels and hermitages are sprinkled around every corner and caves are built into the rock face, revealing a history of mountain people dating back hundreds of years. What a contrast to city life.
I defy you not to be moved by the stillness up in the mountains. The crowds have gone, just serious walkers, nature-lovers and rock climbers come here. So there is no sharing to be done – you have your own little slice of heaven. Here it is only the wind that talks, the foliage that moves and the skyline that provides your movie background. If you’re feeling energetic, take the walk back down to the Monastery and be rewarded, beyond sore knees by the ever-changing vistas and casting shadows around each corner. It’s a good 3.5km walk, although worth the stress on the knees to see this Monserrat kingdom in all its glory.
Take a picnic, take your camera and be prepared to be offered a sanctuary that goes beyond just the magnificent monastic architecture. Religion, contemplation and prayer have been blended seamlessly into Mother Nature’s realm to create a spiritual sanctuary that offers everyone, from every belief, a chance to breathe clean air, still their racing heart and, for a short moment, be very present in this magnificent province of Barcelona. You will not be disappointed.
Monserrat Mountain panorama
2. Sitges, via the road-less travelled.Barcelona will impress you with her cultural offerings and diversity although to experience the true essence of Catalonia you must also see the contrast that Sitges offers.
The Catalan coastline is simply stunning. As part of the Costa Brava, this craggy seafront delights with its clifftop views, road hugging highway, harbours and beaches. One of these examples is only 20km south of Barcelona – Sitges. Unlike some other resorts that have high-rise buildings blocking out the sun or wall-to-wall ‘Kiss me Quick’ hats more at home in the southern provinces, Sitges has a classy feel to it.
Your Sitges experience begins well before entering the town’s boundaries. Leaving Barcelona, it would be tempting to blast down the motorway, reaching your destination in super quick time. Although we recommend you avoid this traditional, ‘let’s get there fast’ mindset of the modern world. Instead take the Road Less Travelled, which you can find just outside Castelldefels – C-31. This coastal road will weave you up, down and around the craggy coastline, giving you beautiful glimpses of the Parc del Garraf on your right and the sparkling Mediterranean sea on your left. Little harbours and marinas dot the route, which is only 13km long, although so worth the rollercoaster ride. It will impress and prepares you for this intriguing seaside town. With the marina one end and the golf course the other, in a very short time you will sense Sitges’ unique persona. Quaint, charming and appealing in so many ways. The promenade takes you past the Parròquia de Sant Bartomeu church with its sandy coloured walls and imposing tower, along the seafront of classic looking buildings, restaurants one side and windsurfers looking to master the waves on the other. Sadly the tacky-tacky men make their appearance, although we are still in tourist heaven for them, so it just goes with the territory. At least they don’t hassle you for a sale.
Sitges’ Church, Spain
Deviating from the salty seafront, you will be intrigued by the network of alleyways that ooze gorgeousness, presenting classy boutiques, many of them focused on the male population, interestingly and somewhat disappointingly for the female shopper. Although do not despair there are a couple of lovely shops that you just don’t expect in Spanish towns where you can purchase unique items for your awaiting family back home. Now these alleyways aren’t just full of shops; look skywards and you will see the pretty style fishing cottages, decorated in white and blue, with balconies full of plants and flowers. It just creates a really warm feeling inside.
Sitges deserves your adoration and your time. Have coffee, a beer or a frozen yoghurt whilst you watch the world sail or walk by, soaking up the atmosphere and character that this sultry corner of Catalan offers you. Wander around the shops, walk the Promenade and take time to look up and see the detail of the arty buildings that make this place their home. You will be charmed by the inner-sanctum of Sitges and the personality that oozes from every street.
So Barcelona and her Province are well worth the time to explore. Put it on your list, make the time to indulge yourself in the treats that she offers and you will leave the area feeling like you’ve done more than just a city-break – you will have experienced just a little bit of authentic Catalan countryside. Adiós. Kx
Having been to Barcelona before, I was interested to see how I would feel coming back into the city for a third visit. We had a friend to stay, so it offered a great chance to explore and see things with fresh eyes perhaps. What I learnt is that there is always something new to see, especially when you are prepared to reach out beyond the city walls.
There are of course plenty of Guide Books that offer the detail for your city tour and we would certainly recommend doing your homework beforehand. This blog is more a reflection on our day’s experience, our insights and how to get a flavour of the place, without getting grumpy and blistered feet, both of which can be side-effects of a city’s potion.
Barcelona stands proudly amongst her Spanish rivals, offering the visitor a journey through time, culture and art. Although the one thing that stands out most is her fierce Catalan heritage. The locals do not consider themselves Spanish, they are Catalan and the draped flags from every balcony serve as a reminder of their nationality.
There are plenty of accommodation opportunities in Barcelona and for this trip, with our motorhome, we stayed at Camping Tres Estrellas on the C31, just south of the airport. ( Co-ordinates N41° 16.343′ E2° 2.582’ )
On first sight, this campsite doesn’t seem to be a very salubrious option, being just off the main road and on the flight path, although it is surprisingly suitable for the city, being only 40 minutes away by bus. You’re right on a gorgeous sandy beach, the planes stop after 23hr and, if you stay close to the beach you don’t hear the road at all. Running twice an hour, the L94/L95 bus is only ten minutes walk outside of the campsite and for €2.15 takes you right into the centre of Barcelona – Catalunya Plaza. From here you can then explore La Rambla by foot or pick up one of the many Tour Buses for a ‘Hop on – Hop off’ experience, which we would recommend.
Touring the City
Once in the city, getting around really needs a mixture of Buses, Metro and walking. Armed with flat shoes and bare minimum possessions, to protect you from the pickpockets, you are ready for a tour extraordinaire as you glide from one Gaudi architectural extravaganza to another. You will experience ports and parkland, shopping and Olympic Stadiums with the odd Cathedral and Football arena thrown in for good measure.
There are two main Tour Buses, which offer essentially the same style of trip with two or three routes that you can inter-change throughout the day. It’s a perfect way to get to see the whole city and which highlight favourite spots to return to.
In March 2017, both Tour Buses were €29 per adult for a one-day ticket or €39 for a two-day ticket, which is pretty good value. There are plenty of stopping points where you can hop off and explore a little, before then hitching a ride with the next bus, which never leaves you waiting for long. It’s a good idea, before you go, to do a bit of research about what you want to see and explore some more. That way you can choose the right coloured route and work out how to get to see everything in the time you have available. This way you don’t miss anything.
Sights not to miss
Barcelona is home to Antoni Gaudi, who is held in deep respect. You will be astounded by examples of his work, integrated into the fabric of so many buildings. Park Güell, west of the city, is definitely a place to explore to really experience Gaudi’s brilliance. There is a public park you can visit free and the Gaudi exhibition, which costs €8 per person. If, like us, you can’t get in to see Gaudi’s work because of crowds, the public park surrounding it, has such a lovely vibe and is worth a wonder. When we visited in spring, the wisteria blossom clung to the walls protectively, providing a stunning flash of purple against the orange brickwork. Buskers strike up a tune and the tacky-tacky men entice you to by their wares.
A word of caution for Park Güel. The bus drops you off a good mile from the entrance and the walk is up hill. And we were really disappointed to find, that on arrival at mid-day, we couldn’t get into the main exhibition area until 1900hr. So booking ahead may be appropriate, or be prepared to visit early or late.
La Sagrada Familía
Back on the bus, you are treated to plenty of highlights en route; Gaudi’s House of Bones, Casa Milà,La Sagrada Familla where the traffic lights allows you time for a few photographs, if you don’t fancy mixing with the crowds. Even from the bus’s roof-top, you will be in awe of its detail and evolving artwork. As Gaudi said at the beginning of its construction,”My client has no expectation of completion, as He has all the time in the world.” If you enjoy Cathedrals, then this is definitely worth a hop-off.
Whether you like football or not, the Nou Camp stadium offers a different perspective of the city’s more recent legacy. Imagine the echoes of fans’ cheers for their sporting heroes, as you walk outside of the stadium’s walls and, if you dare, enter the shop for a highly-priced replica of this season’s shirts. You can tour the stadium’s inner sanctum for €26, depending on whether this is ‘your thing’. It wasn’t really ours, so after an obligatory selfie and a beer we moved on.
View from Art Museum
At the back end of the day, we changed our Bus route to explore the south of the city, with the plan of stopping off at La Rambla for an evening vibe. We were treated to Montjuïc, the majestic hilltop that houses a stunning parkland, museums, magic fountains and olympiad centrepieces. In readiness for the 1992 Olympics, this area got a complete face-lift and now you can wander by foot, bus or chairlift. The most grand of spectacles here though is the blend of architectural brilliance in the National Art Museum and her fountains and waterfalls, which tumble down to the avenue below. The road ends regally in the Font Màgica which from 1900-2100 every Friday and Saturday in October to April and 2130 to 2300 Thursday to Sunday from May to September, light up in a magical display of watery orchestral symphony. Sadly we missed this spectacle as we visited the city on a Thursday and going back into town on the Friday night was just too exhausting a proposition. In hindsight, we should have chosen our day more carefully and stayed in town for longer, tying it into our city tour. If you’re staying in the city itself, then this would become less of an issue than for us being 40 minutes outside the city’s perimeter. Shame, although you can’t do it all.
Our finale was to hop back on the Bus to Colon, down on the waterfront. This allowed us to take in the smells, sights and intensity of the infamous La Rambla. Blessed with stunning buildings that close in above you like an umbrella, intricate squares opening up behind the main street and a maze of alleyways that hide a secret beauty that most tourists miss, La Rambla just has to be experienced. Outdoor restaurants invite you to taste their humungous jugs of Sangria and street entertainers appeal to your playful side as you watch their antics to earn a crust. Yet it’s strange how La Rambla doesn’t really encourage you to browse. It’s a bit like a raging river, you get carried away with the tide of people surging through, and to turn off to explore is futile. Although it is worth experiencing, if nothing more than for the buzz that people gathering together creates.
At the end of La Rambla, you find yourself back at Catalunya Plaza, where you began all those hours ago and despite the Bus tour, you will still have walked a fair few miles and been treated to a magical mix of modern, historical and architectural brilliance that will stay in your memory forever.
Barcelona has so much to offer and does not disappoint in her diversity. Whether you chose cablecar, Metro, bus, walking or a mixture of them all, make a plan and have a little bit of a strategy to see all that appeals to you. One day will certainly give you a good flavour of the city; two will enable you to really feel it. We’re not great with cities, so the one day option, was just perfect for us, as there is so much more to see beyond the city walls, which you can read about in the follow up blogs on Monserrat Monastery and Sitges – Road Less Travelled, coming soon.
Well, as we depart Spain after 3 months touring around (and loving every bit of it) our final stop, and where we get the ferry to Italy from, was Barcelona. A ‘Gaudi’ filled open top tour had us captivated for the whole day followed by a stroll down ‘La Rambla’ for an evening drink in lovely spring sunshine. Here’s the footage….
Hi, Karen & Myles, The Motoroamers here. We are a fun-loving couple travelling full-time around Europe in Scoobie our trusty camper. We're driven to deliver seriously entertaining travel through our blogs, photography and humorous videos. We hope to inspire you too to travel.