Beyond Barcelona

Beyond Barcelona

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 Monserrat is 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.

Monserrat Monastery

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.

Candle lighting 

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.

Monserrat funicular

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.

Sites’ Promenade

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

A Guide to Barcelona – without Blisters

A Guide to Barcelona – without Blisters

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.

Camping Options

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’ )

Catalunya Plaza

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

Park Güel

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.

La Rambla

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.