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Trip Report Catalunya, Cathars and Castles (and vino!)

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I just got back yesterday from a great trip to NE Spain & SE France. While still feeling some jet lag and vino withdrawal symptoms, I thought I would at least get a start on a trip report before getting too caught up in work and the daily grind.

Our group of 4 women (50s-60s) spent 2 wonderful weeks happily stumbling along in Catalonia Spain and SE Languedoc France. Our itinerary consisted of:
• 5 nights in Barcelona
• Picked up a rental car and drove to Cadaques, on the Costa Brava coast, just south of the French border. Stayed one night.
• Continued on to Limoux France, which was our base for the next 7 nights in the Aude region of France.
• Drove back to Barcelona for a final night before flying back to Toronto

We spent the days wandering around different areas. Our goal wasn’t to see all the ‘sights’, but rather go with the flow. We strolled through Gotico, El Born, El Ravel, Eixample and Barceloneta. (On our final night, after coming back to Barcelona to fly home, we stayed at a hotel in the Sant Antoni area, so we got to see a bit of that area too.)

Our Airbnb apartment, a couple of blocks north of Placa Universidad in Eixample, was a fabulous find! With 4 separate bedrooms and 2.5 baths it was the perfect setup for 4 friends traveling together. The décor was ‘old Barcelona’, matching the character of the space. And, the best feature of all was a covered patio (blankets and heaters supplied for those chilly nights), where we collapsed each day after miles of walking, for our pre-dinner libation. Our lovely, helpful host was the cherry on top.

The weather was mixed, being generally a bit on the cool side and rainy or spitting on a couple of days -- nothing that prevented us from enjoying the city though. While we did a lot of walking, we also hopped in cabs a few times (reasonable prices; drivers generally seemed more honest than in many other cities I’ve been in) and took the Metro. The subway is clean, fresh, easy and cheap, particularly if you purchase a T-10 ticket.

• Sagrada Familia (no surprise, although one person in our group didn’t like it). We booked a couple of days ahead online and included the audio guide, which was well worth it.
• Our best ‘surprise’ and favourite site (unanimous for the group) was the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista (old hospital). If you like architecture and design or you like the thought that this hospital complex was designed and built in the early 1900’s with the belief that beautiful surroundings are good for the health of patients, then you must check this out. Seeing this complex immediately after Sagrada provided an incredible contrast – from over-the-top gaudy Gaudi, to beautiful, colourful ceilings, rooftops and grounds. It’s an easy 10 minute walk from Sagrada. (Tip: the diagonal pedestrian road between the two sites if chock full of tacky restaurants. There were a couple of good looking café type restaurants right by the hospital though.)
• Stumbling across Mus players in action at a local restaurant. Mus (pronounced “moosh”) is a card game. When we saw several tables playing cards I approached them and asked them what they were playing. One of the players, Anna (who struck me as a stern, but friendly, “Russian” woman), invited me to sit down at the table with them and watch. They were extremely serious in their play and I didn’t have a clue what the rules were or what the strange cards meant. Doesn’t it turn out though that I was sitting at the same table as the World Champion Mus player!! (I know….you’re all incredibly jealous, right?? ;) )
• Chatting with 2 “locals”, on the day of our arrival. The first one was our Airbnb host. She is involved in politics and gave us an overview of the local political scene/background, explained the flags we would see around the city, etc. We then hopped a taxi to Gotico to join a lovely young woman, the daughter of a friend from Toronto, who had lived in Barcelona for the past 7 years. We had a great brunch and got some inside colour on quirky, wonderful Barcelona.
• Our apartment. (as mentioned.)
• Las Ramblas (well, not really. 5 minutes was enough for us to check it out and move on!)

Food & drink:
• The most amazing dark chocolate ice cream! (Xocolat negre). We stumbled across it at a shop in El Gotic and found it later at a second place (sublime, but not quite as good as the first place). We would have eaten it every day if we had seen it.
• “Tomar un Vermut!” - just find a little vermut bar and enjoy this aperitif anytime of day!
• Wine - “yes”. Say no more.
• Tapas – it was fun to check them out at various places. Some were definitely better than others. And, if you are hungry and the proper restaurants aren’t open yet, well, you can always stop in at a tapas bar. Our favourite tapas were at a place called “Tast”, on Para.llel, in the Sant Antoni area. Their Potates Bravas were the best we found by far. We also had a fabulous Tempura cod, balanced on end, in a puddle of rough tomato sauce (with a pleasantly surprising sweet flavour). The “piglets” (in a lush, mild curry sauce) pleased all of us as well. There were a couple of places with a more traditional atmosphere that we enjoyed as well.
• Paella - 3 out of 4 of us had our favourite paella at a restaurant only a block or so from our apartment – Bosque Palermo (on Valencia). Good atmosphere; very reasonable prices and tasty paella – what’s not to like?
• Salads were fabulously fresh everywhere we went, even little hole-in-the-walls.

General observations about Barcelona:
- A clean city, with a fairly safe feel to it. We felt very comfortable walking around and using public transit.
- It was sometimes difficult to get the full impression of a neighbourhood if you were there in the afternoon. The shops pull down their graffiti covered ‘garage doors’, creating a more desolute look. If you walked by in the morning or very late in the afternoon then the area would take on an entirely different, and more lively, feel.
- BCN is very bicycle and dog friendly.

I’m starting to fade, so I’ll continue the next chapter (Cadaques) in my next post.
Thanks to everyone who posted so many wonderful tips, information and opinions on Fodors forums. It was invaluable in our planning!!

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